The history of the Adventus Saxonum is a fascinating one. The stories that were told in the Middle Ages about ‘the Arrival of the Saxons’ on the island of Britain, and the influence of those stories on later audiences, reveal a lot about notions of collective identity. This is true both at the times these texts were written down, and in later ages when these stories were reread and reused by audiences who turned to them, wishing to discover their own histories, often in search of origins, explanations, or justifications for contemporary views on nation, race, or religion.
The key word here is ‘story’. All of our early sources about this period of transition were retrospective views. Early medieval authors explained the circumstances of their own day by laying down a plausible historical pathway to their own time which was meaningful to their immediate audiences.
Writing in the mid-6th century, Gildas railed against the leaders of his own people, the Britons, blaming their impious actions for the arrival of the Saxons. He is our first major ‘witness’ to the impact of the Saxons on Britain and its inhabitants. But his work contains no direct date: Anno Domini dates were not yet in widespread use, and he used none of the other commonplace dating systems employed elsewhere in Europe at the time. His only clear chronological reference, to a battle at Mount Badon about 44 years earlier, seems (via a circuitous route) to suggest a date of writing around 540. He alluded to the sinfulness of the Britons using the metaphor of a dense black cloud afflicting the whole island. This may imply a date of writing around 536, when – as scientists studying ice cores from Swiss glaciers have convincingly shown – massive volcanic eruptions precipitated a climate crisis that dimmed the power of the sun for months or years, and probably precipitated the widespread plague that followed as people (and rats) moved to mitigate the famine and economic crisis that ensued. For Gildas, the newcomers served a clear function in his narrative. Under such calamitous circumstances, the victories of hostile, pagan foreigners might quite reasonably be used as ‘proof’ that God was angry with the Britons and their rulers.
Bede’s account of this period drew heavily on Gildas, showing that the Briton’s text had been thought worthy of recopying, and was available in Northumbria some 200 years after it had been composed. But Bede’s famous description of the arrival and settlement of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, is distinct from this, and reads like an interpolation inserted into the invasion narrative that he had gleaned from Gildas. Importantly, here, Bede laid out the settlement of ‘people from three very powerful tribes of Germania’ largely, though not entirely, in terms of the nomenclature of the kingdoms of his own day. Explicable in retrospect, the political geography of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 731 not only aligns with the origin stories of 8th-century conditions familiar to Bede and his readers, but might even account for them.
Both of these stories – one centred on invasion and crisis, the other on migration and settlement – reflect the context in which they were written and the expectations and knowledge of the contemporary audience. To later readers, from the 10th century (when Bede’s History was redacted and translated into Old English) through to our own times, such accounts may suggest binary opposites. But, as we know from our own newspapers, one person’s asylum seeker can be another’s illegal immigrant. The characterisation of such people as one or the other is often in the eye of the beholder (or the pen of the politician) rather than in the voice of the people making those journeys themselves. And when travel across water is involved, the journey from ‘there’ to ‘here’ crosses boundaries that can be more clearly defined than when a journey is made overland.
Collective memories and contested narratives
The stories that are told of the past are often, thus, a combination of events remembered (with varying degrees of accuracy), group memories that speak to a common experience, collective forgetting, and sometimes also an element of creative writing. The Old English epic poem, Beowulf, is a case in point: set ‘long ago’ and ‘over there’, the pagan, Danish setting of its action heroes and monsters could be safely enjoyed by the English-speaking, broadly Christian audience of the unique manuscript that was copied in southern England c.AD 1000. But the poem also spoke to a ‘remembered past’ of origins within Europe that was simultaneously familiar and foreign. While making no claim to ‘factual history’, Beowulf nevertheless sits easily within an established historical narrative, in which connectivity with southern Scandinavia and the near Continent was a commonplace in the stories told of the distant past and in the contemporary world of the manuscript’s scribes and readers, during the reigns of the West Saxon king Æthelred the Unready (980-1014) and his Danish successor Cnut the Great (1016-1035).
The long shadow cast by these familiar, interlocking, and contested narratives throws into sharp relief the importance of the archaeological evidence for the 5th and 6th centuries, demanding but also highlighting the difficulty of stepping beyond the interpretative parameters defined by those early medieval commentators, who stood considerably closer to the events that they describe than we do now. This new research, and its important results, offers a substantial step in that direction, leapfrogging over the centuries to read the aDNA of a few of the people who were alive at the time, whose ways of living reveal change but whose voices remain unheard in all but the most ephemeral of written records.
But archaeogeneticists tread on eggshells. The micro-narratives contained in the stuttering, repetitive code of human DNA can also tell powerful stories, of heritage and identity, of individuals and populations. As ever, these data need careful interpreters, to avoid binary conclusions and the assertions of certainty that can be attributed to scientific data by those who seek irrefutable evidence in support of one argument over another.
This is especially important when data derived from living people are compared or combined with patterns in the ancient evidence. Drawing too straight a line from modern to ancient ‘populations’ risks others drawing too simple a conclusion about ‘our ancestors’ and their origins in a particular place at a particular time. The risks of such over-identification are clear to any student of nationalist and authoritarian regimes which seek ‘proofs’ in selective scientific ‘facts’. Part of the value and importance of this new study is that the key conclusions about past demographic change in Britain are drawn principally from analysis of aDNA, and data from modern populations is used only to explore and elucidate details of that early, contemporary evidence.
Similarly, great care should be taken in the labels applied to patterns and groups identified in the ancient record, avoiding whenever possible terminology that matches modern groups. In this study, the newly coined terms CNE (Continental Northern Europe) and WBI (Western Britain and Ireland) go a long way to minimise the risk of associating ‘them’ directly with ‘us’. The interpretation is also careful to point out that the data are not homogenous, and that additional elements are found alongside the markers of CNE and WBI ancestry.
As such, the presence of a distinctive so-called ‘French-Iron Age’ marker will come as no surprise to any student of the late European Bronze or Iron Age, nor indeed of the Roman period and early Middle Ages. Cross-Channel mobility was a common occurrence, not least because of the tidal flows that make it considerably easier to travel by water from, say, Canterbury to Quentavic (Boulogne) than from Canterbury to Lundenwic (London). The suggestion here that there is an increase in the presence of this marker in Britain in the early Middle Ages certainly merits further investigation alongside much more research on the peopling of Britain in the Roman and pre-Roman Iron Age.
Ancestry and identity
One of the challenges of reading the bioarchaeological record is establishing which individuals might have been first-generation migrants, travelling long distances in life before finding death and burial in Britain. An individual with 100% CNE ancestry (as at West Heslerton, Grave 122, for example), might have been a migrant from afar or, alternatively, they could have been the child of parents whose own ancestry was traceable to those distant lands. Ancient DNA alone cannot provide the answer, and it is here that the analysis of stable isotopes comes into its own as a means of evidencing mobility across a lifetime (see p.44). Setting aDNA evidence alongside stable isotope analysis derived from the same individuals should be a research imperative for future studies, in seeking to elucidate population stability as well as mobility, the ordinary as well as the unusual, the local dweller as well as the travelling incomer.
Another key point, often forgotten because it is so obvious, is that DNA is invisible. The genetic markers that signify ancestry are rarely phenotypical – that is, they are not externally visible. A man will carry a particular haplogroup on his Y-chromosome which steps back through time down the male line, generation by generation. But such genetic markers generally offer little by way of external expression, even though such haplogroups are broadly geographically structured. Phenotypical features (often those attributed to ‘race’, such as skin tone or hair colour or texture) are generally found on the autosomal (non-sex) chromosomes, and, although they may be heritable, it is by no means certain that those elements of the genome will be visible indicators of ancestry beyond a couple of generations. Take, for example, the young girl with West African ancestry whose remains were excavated at Updown.
Important too is the absence of a reliable genetic clock. Except in rare cases of high-resolution, multi-generational family groups, it is not normally possible to tell how far back in time a particular marker was introduced to an individual’s genome. As such, the genetic markers that reveal to us a particular ancestral heritage might have been completely irrelevant to the person involved whose life was lived by other markers of identity. Contemporary, early medieval notions of heritability and familial ‘blood lines’ that were important both for the elites and for the unfree, though also ostensibly biological, need not have aligned with the genetic ‘facts’ of ancestry that are revealed by analysis of surviving aDNA.
This genetic cloak of invisibility is especially important when overlaying observations derived from aDNA on to the archaeological evidence from cemeteries. Examples reported in this study suggest that CNE ancestry in the east, or WBI ancestry in the west, was not invariably a ticket to high social status in death. And while there are some examples where this is the case, there are numerous examples of graves with or without grave goods, or of burial in prominent positions, of people with an admixed ancestry. This is a timely reminder that cultural markers of belonging – be it language, dialect, weaponry, clothing, housing, burying, or a myriad of other ‘ways of doing’ that leave traces in the material record – could have been more important tokens of identity in life and in death than the biological markers that have remained invisible until now.
Tales of transition
Perhaps the most-striking observation from this important study is the evidence for change over the longue durée, and the disjunction between the aDNA data deriving from Bronze Age inhabitants of Britain, and that from later cemeteries. Numerous studies have now shown that late Bronze Age Britain witnessed large-scale population movement and substantial population replacement. The evidence amassed here points towards another significant population shift some centuries later. The data targeted by this project are concentrated on cemeteries datable archaeologically to the period AD 400-800, which naturally assigns and concentrates that genetic change into these centuries. The alignment of this observed genetic shift with textual and linguistic evidence combines to tell a powerful story of the reality of migration in the ‘Adventus Saxonum’ and the transition from Roman to early medieval Britain. But – as ever, and with all stories – we need to keep thinking hard about context and remain finely attuned to the potency of the past in the choppy waters of the identity politics of today.]