Early Medieval


Compiled by Rachel Newman


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.


A review of palaeoenvironmental evidence in 2007 (Hall and Huntley 2007) noted the dearth of known early medieval evidence in the North West, and this has subsequently been reiterated in reviews of charcoal (Huntley 2010) and invertebrates (Kenward 2009). Palynological research has, however, highlighted the variety of scale and date if vegetation change in early medieval Cumbria, demonstrating no consistent trend (Forster 2010), although the lack of widespread regeneration would suggest that upland grazing continued to be an important management practice throughout the period. This situation has not changed radically in the intervening years, although examination of samples from excavated sites is now much more routine than in the past, and, indeed, provides one important source of material for radiocarbon dating, which in turn has produced evidence of early medieval activity.

Settlement and Land-use

Relatively little progress has been made in terms of enhancing an understanding of continued activity within Roman towns in the last ten years, although the publication of the post-Roman levels in the northern Lanes in Carlisle is now moving forward (Zant and Howard-Davis in prep). Work at the amphitheatre at Chester seems to support the contention that, as in London, the pre-burh (established 907; Lewis and Thacker 2003) activity was outside the Roman fortress, as radiocarbon dating has provided dates of c cal AD 720-950 for carbonised grain from features forming multiple phases of activity in the centre of the arena, in contrast to the walled area, where little activity from the ‘middle Saxon’ period has been recorded to date (Wilmott and Garner forthcoming). There continues to be an impression of continuing activity in Carlisle, although this is not often supported by scientific dating, being reliant on sequences of activity that clearly post-date clear Roman occupation, as at Scotch Street (Newman 2011). There, two phases of activity were clearly later than a structure dated to the mid- to late fourth century (NPA 2004), and these notably were of very different construction. The later Roman structures appeared to have been constructed using sleeper beams laid directly on the levelled ground, but these were overlain firstly by a building, presumably with a timber superstructure, laid on shallow cobble foundations, set into a slot, the alignment of which also differed markedly from the Roman buildings. This was subsequently replaced by a structure, presumably cruck-framed, set on large post pads, and measuring at least 10 x 14m (ibid). Scientific dating in the last ten years has, if anything, complicated the picture, as radiocarbon dating of material from the ‘dark earth’ on the northern Lanes site, in the Roman town, has suggested that there were areas of dereliction and abandonment, with the commensurate formation of such soils, long before the formal ending of Roman governance (Zant and Howard-Davis in press).

4.2 Late buildings Scotch Street, Carlisle (permission needed from Wardell Armstrong)

Similarly, there has been remarkably little work in association with Roman forts in the region. At Ribchester, ongoing excavations within the fort are producing evidence suggestive of very late Roman, or sub-Roman, activity (D Sayers pers comm), and a new site in Lancashire may contain spreads of stone overlying Roman deposits (R Philpott pers comm) reminiscent of late phases of activity at Stanwix, on Hadrian’s Wall (McCarthy 2002, 136). In Cumbria, excavations outside the forts at Maryport and Papcastle have also produced hints of early medieval activity. At Maryport, a large, seemingly aisled, timber building, apparently multiphase, was excavated on the highest land to the north-east of the Roman fort, immediately beyond the core of the civil settlement (Haynes and Wilmott 2016). This was clearly later than the construction of a circular ditch that contained Crambeck ware, and may have been associated with late Roman/early post-Roman graves in the vicinity. Nearby, on the River Derwent’s floodplain, below the fort at Papcastle, geophysical survey indicated the presence of large timber buildings. Initial evaluation has produced an early medieval radiocarbon date (cal AD 780-970) from a posthole, which suggests that at least one of the buildings may be of this period (Wardell Armstrong Archaeology 2015).

4.3 Late levels Ribchester – from Duncan Sayer

4.4 Maryport plan – though would need an ‘improved version from Newcastle University

Whilst the number of confirmed early medieval rural settlement sites is still very small, despite the English Heritage survey of upland landscapes in Cumbria and Lancashire (Oakey et al 2015), there have been significant advances in knowledge in the last ten years as a result of excavation, particularly in Cumbria. There, two sites have been dated scientifically to the early medieval period, in Nether Wasdale, and just to the north-west of Carlisle, near the present village of Stainton. In both cases, timber-built rectangular or rectilinear structures were revealed by excavation, constructed using a post in posthole technique, but associated with no obviously datable material culture. Radiocarbon dating, however, provided modelled dates of cal AD 650-850 to cal AD 730-910 for the early medieval occupation of Nether Wasdale (Brown and Evans in prep) and cal AD 710-880 to cal AD 780-950 for the site on the Carlisle Northern Development Route (Gregory in prep). The site at Nether Wasdale was associated with metalworking, but also provided a small number of medieval dates (fourteenth to sixteenth century), although it is unclear how the features these came from related to the postholes providing early medieval dates. A tantalising early medieval date (cal AD 676-876; 1248±30 BP; SUERC-69186) has also been obtained from material below a medieval stone-founded building in the Duddon Valley (OA North 2016), only a short distance to the south of Nether Wasdale.

4.5 Nether Wasdale plan

The buildings at Stainton seem to have belonged to a small nucleated settlement, consisting of five structures, perhaps representing two properties, as there was a suggestion of compounds divided by fencelines. Three of the buildings were on a north-west/south-east alignment, and were very similar in size and construction (6-7m long by c 3m wide), whilst the other two were larger (8-9m long by c 4m wide), and set at right-angles, to the north of the smaller structures. It has been suggested (Gregory in prep) that the larger buildings may have been domestic, with the smaller buildings being ancillary, and it is possible that one of these had been replaced by another.

4.6 Stainton plan

Although technically in Yorkshire, the western part of Craven is on the western side of the watershed, and there, a series of small-scale excavations of stone-footed structures has been undertaken by the Ingleborough Archaeology Group. Material from these has been routinely subjected to radiocarbon dating, and with almost no exception, these structures have proved to be of early medieval date, with a remarkably close date range of c AD 700-1000 (F Brown pers comm; Johnson 2012; 2013; 2015a; 2015b). This work would suggest that early medieval structures tended to use the materials to hand, with timber preferred in the lowlands and stone-footed structures perhaps more favoured in the uplands.

4.7 David Johnson plan – would need permission

In the south of the region, the multi-period site at Irby, in the Wirral, has been published (Philpott and Adams 2010), where a sequence of activity post-dating Roman occupation followed a period of abandonment. This centred on three elliptical or bow-sided buildings, which were superseded by another building, with a rock-cut foundation slot with clay packing at its base, which contained a Saxo-Norman spike lamp (ibid). More recently, work in advance of improvements to the A556 between Knutsford and Bowdon in Cheshire has produced possible evidence of early medieval settlement in the form of pits containing charred cereal remains. These have produced radiocarbon dates of cal AD 550-670 (1430±41 BP; UBA-30659; Wessex Archaeology 2016) and cal AD 540-660 (1467±35 BP; UBA-30658). Whilst just outside the region, a pipeline near Rhuddlan, immediately over the border in Wales, has produced hints of early medieval land divisions in the form of ditches, the fills of which have produced early medieval dates (Gregory et al in prep). This type of land division is just as likely to exist in Mercia and Northumbria in the period, and there are possible hints of one such system on the A556 in Cheshire (Wessex Archaeology 2016).

4.8 Irby pic – from Rob Philpott

As on the A556 improvement, cereal remains, particularly oats, are being recognised on increasing numbers of sites, as palaeoenvironmental studies become more routine, and these are increasingly being subject to scientific dating. While it would be a truism to suggest that the presence of oats necessarily suggests an early medieval site, the routine dating of oat grains has contributed quite a number of early medieval dates, and has led to the recognition of early medieval activity on sites where it could otherwise not be proven. This occurred, for instance, at Irton, Cumbria, where small-scale work in advance of a churchyard extension produced features, at first thought to be prehistoric in date, but radiocarbon dating of two oat grains, a flax seed and a hazelnut shell all produced early medieval dates (cal AD 621-770 (1349±33 BP); cal AD 661-773 (1301±29 BP); cal AD 688-879 (1234±29 BP); cal AD 777-968 (1162±29 BP); L Watson pers comm). These dates are perhaps hardly surprising, given the presence of a very fine ninth-century cross in the adjacent churchyard (Bailey and Cramp 1988), but are welcome additions to the corpus nevertheless. The general acidity of the soils of the North West makes the survival of animal bone from the period very rare, and there have been few advances in an understanding of animal husbandry in the last ten years.

Ritual, Religion and Ceremony

Aspects of religion and ritual are still the most visible expressions of early medieval activity in the North West, in the form of stone sculpture associated with places of Christian worship. The corpus of material in Cheshire and Lancashire was published in 2010 (Bailey 2010), so that the whole of the region is now consolidated and recorded to the same high standard. New material continues to be found, however, which will need to be incorporated into any revisions of the corpus (for instance, at Beckermet, in Cumbria (D Ellsworth pers comm). Other notable steps forward in the last ten years are the publication of the Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton (Paterson et al 2014) and the burials to the west of Carlisle Cathedral (McCarthy 2014), and the movement towards publication of the report on graves associated with St Michael’s Church, Workington (Zant et al in prep) and the early Christian site at Dacre (Newman and Leech in prep).

Perhaps the most bizarre evidence relates to some burnt mounds, excavated in Wasdale (C). These features, normally dated to the late Neolithic period and most commonly to the Bronze Age (Buckley 1990; Hodgson 2007), which, indeed, was the period of original use of these features (as they provided radiocarbon dates in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries cal BC), also provided early medieval radiocarbon dates, suggesting reuse at that time, since they, and associated pits, provided dates ranging from the late ninth to late twelfth centuries cal AD (Evans in prep; cal AD 892-1025 (1065±39 BP; SUERC-56255); cal AD 944-1050 (1024±39 BP; SUERC-56254); cal AD 1018-1183 (942±39 BP; SUERC-56258; 843±39 BP; SUERC-56256); cal AD 1021-1186 (935±39 BP; SUERC-56253)). Whilst highly unusual, a few other sites have also produced early medieval dates (for instance, from North Wales; Cuttler et al 2012).

A small group of seven graves was found in close proximity to the large timber building(s) at Maryport (above), and may be associated (Haynes and Wilmott 2016). At least one seems to have been a long cist, and some of the others seemed to have had stone linings. They followed two broad alignments, seemingly the earlier south-south-west/north-north-east, the other broadly west-north-west/east-south-east, although some were more nearly aligned north-west/south-east. Bones preservation was very poor, as in almost all parts of Cumbria, but one contained a fragment of textile that has been radiocarbon dated to cal AD 240-340 (SUERC 44284). Late fourth-century pottery was also recovered from two of the fills, suggesting that the burials continued to the end of the Roman period, if not beyond.

The eastern entrance to the amphitheatre at Chester (Ch) had been heavily modified, and contains massive masonry, which, it has been suggested, may be post-Roman, as it certainly post-dates the third-century refurbishment (Matthews nd). It has been suggested that this could have been part of an early church, particularly since the important early medieval church of St John’s, traditionally founded in AD 689, is adjacent to the amphitheatre (Wilmott and Garner forthcoming).

4.9 Pic of Chester features – from Dan Garner/Tony Wilmott

Several elongated oval pits were excavated in advance of the A556 improvements in Cheshire that could have been graves, although no bone was found in association; bone survival was generally very poor, however (M Leah pers comm). These features seemed to have been focused on a Bronze Age barrow, and it is possible that they could represent later burials referencing a prehistoric burial monument, as has been identified elsewhere in the region, as at Winwick, also in Cheshire (Freke and Thacker 1987; Williams 1997).

The early cemetery on the site of Carlisle Cathedral, excavated in the 1980s, consisted of some 41 burials which have been tentatively ascribed an early medieval date, radiocarbon dating of some returning date ranges in the ninth to eleventh centuries. These cut what was interpreted as a ‘dark earth’ overlying a Roman road, and though heavily disturbed by later burial activity, leading to a process of soil recycling, at least some were overlain by the medieval church floor (McCarthy 2014). Many of the graves were poorly defined, but most seemed roughly rectangular and there were rare occurrences of what seemed to be stone linings, with one example of stones placed on either side of the head. A few contained iron nails, perhaps indicative of coffins, and there were some hinge straps, a hasp, and corner brackets similar to those found at Dacre (Ottaway in prep), and elsewhere in Northumbria (Ottaway 2014). The activity was associated with early medieval finds, almost all of a personal nature, most of which can be dated to the ninth to eleventh centuries, which suggest that the bodies were clothed when buried. A gold toggle and a silver-mounted whetstone indicate the wealth of at least some of the individuals buried. Eighteen early medieval coins were also recovered, of which only one was dated to before the ninth century, fifteen were of ninth-century date and two were minted in the tenth century, one in the reign of Aethelstan (924-39), and the other by Aethelred II (c 980). These also attest to considerable activity in the area of the present cathedral, although the majority were unstratified, so their precise significance remains uncertain.

4.10 Early med finds from Carlisle Cathedral – would need permission from Cathedral

The analysis of the material from St Michael’s church, Workington, is now largely complete, and has revealed important new information (Zant et al in prep). An extensive programme of radiocarbon dating has identified two distinct phases of burial, one in the seventh to ninth centuries, and the other, when modelled, with a tight date range in the first half of the eleventh century. The earlier graves were associated with a ditch that seems to have cut off the end of the promontory on which the present church stands, above the River Derwent. This ditch remains undated, and may have had a prehistoric origin, but it was certainly referenced by the graves, almost all of which were either cut into its backfill or were to the east, and some contained ironwork suggesting that these were coffined. A small assemblage of finds was associated, all but one of which were personal objects, again suggesting that some were buried clothed. The only object that does not fit this hypothesis is a sickle blade, but its provenance remains uncertain.

The eleventh-century graves were different, both in alignment and structure. The earlier graves were aligned slightly off east-west, although there is no reason to think that they were not Christian. The later graves were more accurately oriented, and were built as cists. They also clustered close to the south wall of the medieval parish church, although they clearly pre-dated this. These graves were not associated with any artefacts, and thus the implication is that the bodies were shrouded when placed in the graves (ibid). They matched the alignment of the medieval church completely, and it is likely that this was built on the footprint of an earlier church, with which the cist burials were associated. That such a church existed is demonstrated by the amount of early medieval stone sculpture from the site, one of the largest assemblages from the county (ibid), much of which was recovered from the foundations of the medieval church, as part of the excavations following the fire in 1998. The bulk of this dates from the tenth century, with strong Anglo-Scandinavian motifs, although a few pieces are clearly earlier. Interestingly, stable isotope analysis indicates that the populations buried in both these phases of graves were local in origin, although, of course, this indicates no more than where the individual grew up, and says nothing about the origins of the family they belonged to.

7th-9th century and early 11th century graves juxtaposed, St Michael’s Church, Workington, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

The recovery of skeletons from Carlisle Cathedral and St Michael’s church, Workington, has demonstrated how important such remains are to an understanding of the period. These sites are, however, the exceptions to the general rule that skeletal material does not normally survive in the north of the region. This has placed limitations on what can be interpreted from sites such as Dacre (C) (Newman and Leech in prep), although the publication of such sites is crucial to understanding the variety of burial practices in contemporary societies in Cumbria. The growing corpus of sites in Cumbria is now beginning to allow comparisons of burial practices, and is highlighting differences that can only be seen as driven by different religious beliefs. It is therefore crucial that all such sites should be published, and the fact that the material from Dacre is also in the process of publication is to be welcomed.

The last ten years have seen the analysis and publication of a very different cemetery, found at Cumwhitton, just to the south-east of Carlisle (Paterson et al 2014). This was the first occasion when furnished graves with strong Scandinavian affiliations had been excavated using modern techniques, the information on such graves up until then being entirely dependent on antiquarian reports (as at Aspatria (Rooke 1792), Hesket-in-the-Forest (Hodgson 1832), or Claughton in Lancashire (Edwards 1992)). Whilst the lack of bone survival precluded either scientific dating or isotope analysis, the three-dimensional recording of all finds permitted the layout of each grave to be established with certainty, and the block-lifting of artefacts, allowing in situ x-rays to be taken, and excavation of material under laboratory conditions meant that huge amounts of evidence not available from earlier work could inform the interpretation of the site. The cemetery had been found by metal detectorists, and the combination of further metal detecting, with every find from the ploughsoil again being recorded three-dimensionally, accompanied by scientific excavation, firstly produced the evidence to suggest a cemetery on the site, and then permitted artefacts from the ploughsoil to be speculatively assigned to a grave, since the plough had scored the surface of the subsoil, indicating the direction in which finds would have been dragged.

Plan of graves in the cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

Careful laboratory excavation untangled multiple objects that had been placed in the graves, such as the pile of sickle, shears and comb at the head of the second woman. Cleaning and analytical conservation also revealed traces of textiles, leather, and wood and bone in the corrosion products on the metalwork finds, permitting the reconstruction of a work-box that had been placed at the foot of the first grave to be found, to the level of identifying the wood as maple. Similarly, the x-rays of this object revealed items within the box that did not survive as anything more than corrosion products. Different textiles were revealed, which could be demonstrated as being inside and outside the box, and the preservation of textile loops on the inner side of the oval brooches in this grave clearly demonstrated that the body had been clothed when buried. In a similar fashion, two different types of leather were revealed at the feet of one of the men, where spurs had been found, suggesting both the boots to which the spurs had been attached and the straps by which they were fastened. Wood on the blade of an axe indicated that it had been driven into a plank, suggesting that the base of the grave had been lined, whilst both wood and bone handles were found in association with knives. Perhaps most surprisingly, the corrosion products on a buckle set in the grave of the second woman indicated that either the associated belt, or perhaps even an item of the clothes she wore, was made of sealskin. Insect pupae had also been preserved in the corrosion products, suggesting that some time had elapsed between death and burial at least for the woman in the first grave.

Sickle, shears and a comb from Cumwhitton; in the ground and after conservation, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

Typological analysis indicated that all the artefacts could have been in use in the first quarter of the tenth century, suggesting a timeframe for the cemetery. It was also clear that the artefacts were drawn from a wide range of places, including Ireland, Scandinavia, Carolingian Europe, and other parts of what is now England, as well as locally made objects. Whilst it is likely that this was a family group, probably comprising only one or two generations, the similarities, but also the variations, between the graves, both in terms of layout and the artefacts contained, provided a vivid picture of the cultural milieu in which these people lived, and their desires, together with those of the descendants who buried them, in terms of what the afterlife should hold.

Technology and Production

Advances in an understanding of early medieval technology and production in the region are limited to two strands in the last decade, relating to iron-working and the drying of corn. Several sites have produced evidence of iron-working, one, at Burns Wood in Lancashire, excavated in the early years of the twenty-first century, but not identified as of early medieval date until a programme of radiocarbon dating had been carried out. There, two possible buildings were associated with metal-working residues, including smithing-hearth bottoms and tap/run slags (OA North 2006), and the site produced four radiocarbon dates, from both oak and alder/hazel, as well as an oat grain and a hazelnut shell, ranging from the later seventh to the beginning of the tenth century (cal AD 680-900 (1215±35 BP; SUERC-33852); cal AD 680-900 (1210±35 BP; SUERC-33856); cal AD 650-780 (1295±35 BP; SUERC-33857); cal AD 660-870 (1270±35 BP; SUERC-33858)). The recovery of handmade pottery, apparently of Bronze Age date, raises the possibility that such vessels may actually belong to an early medieval tradition, as was proven to be the case at Fremington, Cumbria (Oliver et al 1996).

4.14 Plans Burns Wood and Nether Wasdale

At Nether Wasdale, in the western Lake District, a very similar site was excavated, which also produced evidence of iron-working, associated with two or three structures, including what has been identified as the base of a simple pit furnace (T Young pers comm), indicating smelting on the site as well as evidence for secondary smithing (Brown and Evans in prep). The charcoal from the site may have been the product of coppiced woodland. In addition, a large pit some 30m to the east of this site contained a substantial basal fill of charcoal and burnt material, and was interpreted as a kiln, although its precise function remains uncertain. This provided a radiocarbon date of cal AD 385-554 (1599±39 BP; SUERC-56267), suggesting that industrial activity in the area may have started in the late Roman period, continuing beyond the end of Roman governance.

Analysis of the metalwork from Cumwhitton, and comparison with material from other sites in northern Cumbria, has produced evidence of a possible craft workshop in the area (Paterson et al 2014). The very distinctive use of the ring-and-dot motif, combined with boss-capped rivets, on buckle sets from Cumwhitton and other objects from northern Cumbria is so similar that it surely must come from a single operation, presumably in the vicinity.

Ring-and-dot motif buckles from northern Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)

In the south of the region, some apparent evidence for iron-smithing came from a pit on the A556, Knutsford to Bowdon Improvement (Wessex Archaeology 2016), although charred plant remains, including possible fragments of naked wheat grain and rye, also came from the feature. It is possible, however, that these were incidental inclusions, entering the pit with the fuel, as large quantities of charcoal were also recovered. An excavation at Gristlehurst Hall at Heywood, Rochdale, revealed a clay-lined pit with a stone foundation, originally capped with flat stones (BAG 2014).  On its western side it opened onto an area defined by boulder alignments, and a soot- and charcoal-filled hollow. The charcoal provided a radiocarbon date of cal AD 987-1045 (934±29 BP). At present, the function of this feature remains uncertain.

11th century kiln at Gristlehurst Hall, Heywood, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Bury Archaeology Group)

Similarly, a small-scale excavation at Farbrow Road, on the outskirts of Carlisle, identified two pits which had the appearance of small kilns (Greenlane Archaeology Ltd 2015). These simple forms would comprise a fire pit with a shallow flue, and an organic superstructure. Large amounts of charcoal were recovered from both, and a date of cal AD 536-654 (1469±36 BP; SUERC-61978) was produced. However, the features were not directly connected with any slag, nor were any quantities of cereal grains recovered, so their function must again remain uncertain.

Evidence for the drying of corn has come from Hilary Breck, in Wallasey in the Wirral, where a large pit produced a rich assemblage of charred plant remains, including large numbers of cereal grains, primarily barley, many retaining their hulls, but also including oats and wheat (OA North 2014). Four cereal grains returned dates in the fourth to sixth centuries AD (cal AD 430-580 (1550±30 BP; Beta-315035); cal AD 420-560 (1570±30 BP; Beta-315036); cal AD 390-540 (1610±30 BP; Beta-315037); and cal AD 430-580 (1550±30 BP; Beta-315038)). The feature has been interpreted as a corn-drier of ‘classic key-hole construction’ (Adams 2012).

Trade, Exchange and Interaction

A significant advance in the last ten years has been the publication of the material from Meols, on the Wirral (Griffiths et al 2007). This reinforces the view that this long-lived site, with activity stretching from the Bronze Age through to the medieval period, acted as a beach market. It is particularly rich in early medieval metalwork and coins, implying regular and productive long-distance contacts in England and around the Irish Sea. This is perhaps reinforced by the finding of a Byzantine coin of Justinian, minted in Antioch in AD 547-8, also in the Wirral (PAS 2017a, LVPL-874C64). There is also growing evidence for quite large numbers of early medieval coins, particularly stycas, on Roman sites (for instance, west of Carlisle Cathedral; McCarthy 2014), which may point to areas of trading activity, perhaps linked to religious centres.

4.17 Aerial photograph Meols – from 2006 assessment or from Rob?

The material from Cumwhitton also suggested that the people buried there had contacts, either direct or indirect, with the west coast of Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland, as well as other parts of England, particularly Yorkshire and East Anglia, Scandinavia and the Carolingian empire (Paterson et al 2014). For instance, one of the strap ends, which bears great similarity to another from Aspatria, is similar to material identified by the Portable Antiquities Scheme from other parts of northern Cumbria, but also from Yorkshire. Indeed, patterns identified through material registered by the Scheme can start to identify possible trading networks in the region.

The most obvious evidence, at least perhaps of forcible exchange, and certainly reflecting political insecurity, is of hoards. Several more have been found in the last ten years, to add to the already substantial corpus from the region, of which the most spectacular is the Cuerdale Hoard. This has also been the subject of renewed research (Graham-Campbell 2011), and the Huxley Hoard, found in 2004 in Cheshire, has been published (Graham-Campbell and Philpott 2011). The new hoards are concentrated in the north of the region, with finds of hack silver and ingots similar to those in the Cuerdale Hoard being identified by metal detectorists near Silverdale in north Lancashire and close to the Sellafield Nuclear Power Station in Cumbria (PAS 2017b, LANCUM-65C1B4; PAS 2107c, LANCUM-FA14C8). Both would appear to date to the earlier tenth century. A somewhat later hoard, containing coins from c 950 onwards, was found on the Furness Peninsula, also by a metal detectorist (PAS 2017d, LANCUM-80A304).

4.18 A hoard – Silverdale or Furness? – from PAS )B

Defence, Warfare and Military Activity

Little in the way of evidence for defensive sites has been found in the last decade, although further work has been undertaken on the potential military encampment at Heronbridge, near Chester (Ch) (D Mason pers comm)). The project examining hillforts in Cheshire has also confirmed the long-held supposition that at least some were reoccupied in the early medieval period, and not just in connection with the creation of burhs by Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in the early tenth century (particularly Eddisbury (Ch), Kelsborrow (Ch) and Helsby (M); Garner 2016). One very interesting find, however, has been a skeleton from St Michael’s Church, Workington, of a 25-30-year-old man, buried in the early eleventh century, who may have shared genetic traits with others in the group (Zant et al in prep). He seemed to have suffered numerous fractures of the left forearm and elbow, of a type that could conceivably have been caused by parrying blows, and at least one seems to have been an open wound, which had become infected. These were not the cause of his death, however, as by that time, the fractures had healed, but the infection had not been completely eradicated. His actual cause of death was also violent, in that he had suffered at least four blows to the upper chest from a bladed instrument, which had apparently penetrated the chest cavity, at least one resulting in damage to the vertebrae in his upper back.

Skeleton 300 at St Michael’s Church, Workington, Cumbria (courtesy of Oxford Archaeology Ltd)


In 2006, it was noted that the previous 30 years had produced a considerable amount of new information about the early medieval period, in comparison with the century before (Newman 2006). The importance of radiocarbon dating was stressed as the prime reason for this increase of information, and this has remained so in the last decade, as most of the sites identified have been either recognised or confirmed by scientific dating. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has also produced a huge amount of data, which is now in need of analysis to tease out patterns of settlement. Whilst place-name evidence is still the most prevalent evidence for the period, the steadily growing number of dated sites is reassuring. In addition, types of structures are now beginning to be recognisable, both in the lowland areas and the uplands, and the number of production sites, particularly of iron-working, is growing. The publication of a considerable number of sites is very welcome, as is movement on others. Whilst there is still a long way to go before the corpus of material can rival that of southern and eastern counties, or of at least some other periods in the North West, things are most definitely going in the right direction!