Monday, November 06, 2006

Britain AD

I've just read Britain AD by Francis Pryor, he reviews the archaeological evidence for what happened in Britain in the first 500 years AD and points out that it doesn't tally with the traditionally accepted history.

43 AD. The Romans invade Celtic Britain and build lots of roads, towns and Hadrian's Wall.
410 AD. Barbarians are pressing in on the borders of the Roman Empire; the Romans try to play different groups of barbarians off against each other. Ultimately, the Roman army is withdrawn from Britain. Britain descends into chaos, towns are abandoned, fields revert to forest and Anglo-Saxon invaders raid the coast.
450 AD. Anglo-Saxons warriors, invited in to help defend the country, decide they would like to stay and eventually conquered the whole of what is now England pushing the Romano-British Celtic people into Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

Britain retained a prosperous rural economy after the Romans left. There's no evidence for massive population decline - except in urban areas where the disappearance of a central tax collecting authority had removed the logic behind having towns in an overwhelmingly rural country. There's no evidence for a whole new population coming in with a different set of traditions, but there is evidence of individual families gradually adopting what we think of as 'early Saxon' culture over several generations. Above all, there's no evidence of large scale displacement of the existing population - either people moving en masse or genocide.

It's all a bit puzzling that the traditional story (admittedly from a very narrow base of biased written sources from post-Antiquity) should look so flimsy when compared to the archaeology.

Invasion Theories
It does appear that invasion theories have largely dropped out of fashion. They used to think that different groups of people invaded Britain in successive waves throughout pre-history and that any change in archaeology, e.g. different types of pottery or different ways of disposing of the dead, signified a new population coming in and taking over. Such events would lead to sudden changes in the archaeological record, as each new population came in and did things according to their own traditions. Since the 1960s, archaeologists have pooh-poohed this idea as more and more evidence for incremental cultural changes has been uncovered.

Nowadays, more emphasis is placed on the idea that indigenous populations remain largely in place but there is much more travel (rather than invasion), communication and trade. It's recognised that communities can adopt new practices (particularly if they are beneficial) such as different types of pottery or styles of dress without having had to be invaded - much as renaissance ideas spread to England without the need for any invasion by Italian city states.

A question that jumped into my head was 'how come we speak English?' One would have expected the existing (presumably Celtic language) to have survived rather than be replaced by a language related to dialects spoken around the various continental and Scandinavian coasts of the North Sea. Unfortunately, Mr Pryor doesn't analyse this point too deeply as it isn't his area of expertise; although he does make the point that Eastern and Southern Britain were much more closely involved with the continent than had previously been thought.

It is true that language does change and is heavily influenced by the language of those at the top of the social pile; so by the time English displaced French as the language of government in England (200-300 years after the Norman Invasion), it was very different from Old English and massively influenced by French. Perhaps something similar happened in the 200-300 years from the end of Roman rule.

Where does that leave us then?
The image we're left with is of the Romano-British population of post-Roman Britain as living fairly comfortably in a prosperous rural economy, in touch with, and open to, cultural influences from other areas around the North Sea; gradually they became Anglo-Saxonised. It doesn't mean there were no battles; petty kings would have been quite happily slaughtering each other (and, of course, their own close relations); but that's just stuff that happens rather than the mechanism by which the culture changed.

Something similar happened before the Roman invasion, when the rulers of areas in close contact with the Roman world chose to adopt Roman culture. Of course, it's also happening today in countries such as China, where people at all levels of society are adopting and adapting Western culture.

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