A new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggests a more peaceful process, according to Dr Andrew Millard, from Durham University, one of the paper’s lead authors.
‘The main controversy over the years has centred on how many Anglo-Saxons came across the North Sea,‘ he says, ‘Was it a mass invasion, where the existing population was wiped out completely or forced back into Wales, or was it a small band of elites whose ways were then adopted very quickly?’ The evidence the researchers have gathered favours the second option.
Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery
Much of the evidence comes from the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Wally Corner, Berinsfield in the Upper Thames Valley, Oxfordshire. The site was first identified from cropmarks on aerial photographs taken by Major Allen in June 1934, although its true nature was unknown.
In 1960, Oxford University Archaeological Society carried out an excavation in the area and discovered Romano-British ditches dating from the first to fourth centuries. In 1974 and 1975, Oxford Archaeological Unit (now Oxford Archaeology) excavated the Wally Corner gravel pit at Berinsfield prior to gravel extraction and uncovered the Anglo-Saxon cemetery.
Most of the burials contained grave-goods including weapons, knives, jewellery, spindlewhorls, buckets and pottery which suggested the cemetery was in use for about 150 years from the early/mid 5th century to the early 7th century. This was exactly the right period to examine the the population origin of the interned individuals.
Locals or immigrants?
Were they local people who had adopted Saxon lifestyles and culture or were they immigrants from the continent?
From the skeletal remains, 30 male and 32 female adults were identified. The burials contained about 70 adults, 9 adolescents and 25 children, with most adults ranging between the ages of 20-45. Some of the graves were arranged in groups, suggesting families or households.
According to this newly evaluated evidence, rather than replacement of the local population, either a much smaller group of Germanic immigrants settled in England as part of the social, religious, and political turmoil happening in western Europe at this time; or a rapid acculturation took place in the vacuum of Roman abandonment, with little genetic contribution from Germanic immigrants.
As the number of Anglo-Saxon immigrants arriving in Britain is one of the focal issues of this debate, strontium and oxygen isotopic ratios, with their ability to identify immigrants in a burial population, offered a technique to test competing hypotheses. The researchers examined these ratios in the tooth enamel of 19 individuals from the cemetery at Berinsfield.
Background values from local fauna material and soil samples allowed the scientists to characterize the regional fingerprint for the oxygen and strontium isotopes. In addition, the diet of the burial community as a whole was analysed and cross related against the sex, age and grave goods of the individuals.
The balance of particular chemicals in our teeth can give clues about where most of our food and drink has come from. Scientists can then use this information to work out where people were born, and where they lived in childhood. Had there been a mass invasion, the graves would be expected to contain at least 20 per cent immigrant remains. But only five per cent of the buried individuals seem to have come from out-with the local area.
‘Oxfordshire is quite some distance from the landing point of any invasion, but it seems that there was not a mass invasion everywhere,’ says Millard.
It is true to say that the broader question is still open to debate, and evidence is being gathered, but at the moment it favours a scenario where there was no wholesale replacement of the population, but a strong cultural shift.
While dietary variability was found in all the sub-groups tested, it was still able to identify an apparent distinction between the average diets of individuals classified as “wealthy” and “intermediately wealthy” and those classified as “poor”.
A notable absence of a ‘dietary difference’ between males and females at Berinsfield, indicated that sex-based societal division did not significantly influence access to the various food sources. These additional conclusions drawn from isotopic data are of use in adding to the picture of daily life and social structure in early Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Of course there is still much more study required to investigate if this was an isolated case or a more general picture of cultural change as opposed to population replacement, but this research forms the basis for these further investigations.
Past Horizons. 2014. “Anglo-Saxon cemetery results question violent invasion theory”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2014/anglo-saxon-cemetery-results-question-violent-invasion-theory