Early Medieval


Compiled by Rachel Newman


Each chapter presents a summary of the archaeological and historic environment research undertaken in North West England since 2006 for the particular period or subject. The chapters are arranged using the same structure as the original resource assessment subject chapter for the first North West Archaeology Research Framework published in 2006 (Brennand et al 2006). The update is not a replacement of that work, but rather an addition and enhancement. The 2006 resource assessment text remains a key foundation document for regional research studies in North West England. Nor are the chapters merely a list of all work undertaken since 2006. Instead, they highlight key new data, emerging subject areas, and fresh synthesis in the decade or more since the original regional Research Framework was published.

The chapters have been compiled by an author with special knowledge of the period/subject area and use material provided by a variety of researchers who are also credited. The project included consultation and workshops designed to highlight any omissions in recent significant work. The chapters provide the framework for revised questions and supporting statements/strategies. Being available on this wiki platform allows historic environment practitioners to update and refresh these chapters as new research findings come to light or gaps in data/coverage are identified. It was agreed that these chapters should be published as a point-in-time monograph in 2020 through the CBA North West to complement the original volume of 2006.

Each resource assessment highlights important sites relating to that period in the North West. Each particular region is abbreviated with a letter in brackets as follows:

C = Cumbria

L = Lancashire

M = Merseyside

Ch = Cheshire

GM = Greater Manchester

WY = West Yorkshire


In comparison to some other periods within the resource assessment, the early medieval period has been under-studied in the North West. In the last ten years, however, this situation has been redressed to a considerable degree, both in terms of a study of the historical sources and the growing number of archaeological sites that can be demonstrated to have an early medieval presence. Several important sites have also been published in the last ten years, such as the Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton (Paterson et al 2014), the cemetery west of Carlisle Cathedral (McCarthy 2014) and the multi-period site at Irby, in the Wirral (Philpott and Adams 2010), and several others, long in abeyance, are now moving forward to publication (such as St Michael’s Church, Workington; Zant et al in prep; and Dacre; Newman and Leech in prep). The region has been increasingly studied from an historical perspective, notably by David Griffiths (eg 2004; 2010; Griffiths et al 2007), Claire Downham (2007), and Fiona Edmonds (2013; 2015), providing a fuller framework, particularly for the ninth to eleventh centuries, into which archaeological material can be fitted. In addition, the impact of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) cannot be under-estimated, as it has recorded an immense number of finds located by metal detectorists, hinting at sites that could not have been imagined without this work. Where there has been an opportunity to test such sites, the results have been startling (such as the Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria; Paterson et al 2014; or the Huxley Hoard; Graham-Campbell and Philpott 2011), which is in accord with the evidence that most of the early medieval finds recorded by the PAS have been high quality (V Oakden pers comm).

The impact of the introduction of Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) techniques and the routine scientific dating using these on ‘late Roman’ levels was noted in 2006 (Newman 2006, 93) as a reason why the number of early medieval sites had increased from almost none in the 1980s to a significant corpus in the twenty-first century, and the need to continue to use this practice was noted as an important item on the early medieval agenda (Newman and Brennand 2007, 76, Initiative 4.3). This has indeed proved to be the case, with radiocarbon dating providing some of the most important information over the last ten years. Conversely, the number of sites listed in the county Historic Environment Records as of unknown date, as they have not been tested by modern excavation techniques, remains large, and thus the number of early medieval sites is still likely to be massively under-represented. These are being added to by continuing landscape surveys in the uplands, such as the English Heritage survey of Scordale, in eastern Cumbria (Ainsworth and Hunt 2010), where possible early medieval settlements were recorded. New techniques that are becoming more commonly used, such as photogrammetric recording of landscapes using drones to produce three-dimensional surveys (eg Quartermaine et al 2014), and the analysis of Lidar images produced by the Environment Agency, are also revealing many new sites that now need to be subjected to detailed survey. In particular, this latter technique is being used by local groups to investigate their environments to understand the development of the landscape.

The careful recovery of material from excavation, which allows it to be subjected to scientific techniques, is also producing amazing results. At Cumwhitton, for example, the block-lifting of fragile finds, using x-radiography to establish relationships within the block prior to excavation, and careful conservation of the material, has allowed the species of wood to be revealed from corrosion products, as well as the types of leather and textile that metalwork was adjacent to in the graves (Paterson et al 2014). The testing for DNA and stable isotopes has also put a different perspective on some of the sites. At St Michael’s church, Workington, for example, radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis has produced remarkable results (Zant et al in prep).

Early Medieval Roman sites mentioned in text (created by Rachael Reader)

Key overview comments to address for the Early Medieval period

A number of overarching comments came out of the workshops discussions for the framework that should be taken into consideration for the early medieval period:

  • How did people think about the transition from Roman to early medieval?
  • The early medieval period starts from the lowest base with most of the material culture lost and a pseudo-chronology. New science techniques are helping us to get at previously ‘invisible’ sites and most of these occur by chance through other period studies. This is a regional distinctiveness.
  • Have we got enough archaeological evidence yet to support PhDs/research?
  • Early kingdom boundaries are important: they extended into Scotland, Northumbria was north of the Mersey and Mercia was south of the Mersey, so we need inter-regional/cross-country research.
  • The PAS evidence is vital. How can we tell early medieval ceramics from Bronze Age and re-use of late Roman? A study is needed and training.
  • One early hoard from outside the area could radically change our view/understanding.
  • A lot of the issues highlighted in the previous research framework are still relevant.

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