Landscape, Authority and Power

The Heidelberger Thingstätte, Germany, one of 40 thing sites constructed during the period of National Socialism.

 

Landscape, Authority and Power: past and current understandings of assembly places and structures in Britain and Europe investigated past and current scholarship, emphasising divergences in assembly practices and structures as well as shared traditions and themes at a European level, AD 400-1300. The work was carried out by Sarah Semple and Tudor Skinner.

Sarah Semple and Tudor Skinner: Research Summary
Research to date by and Sarah Semple and Tudor Skinner – holder of the IP2 PhD studentship – has focussed on five key themes. These have been developed across the three years and are feeding into sections of the TAP synthesis as well several additional publications.

Establishing the current ‘state of the art’ on assembly archaeology in Britain and Europe was perceived as an essential backdrop to the work of the project in terms of identifying good practice and approaches and bringing together a sense of the current thinking on assembly at a European level. Diverse types of assembly places and practices evident in the first millennium AD have been identified and mapped, and the early ‘collective nature’ of assembly explored (Semple and Sanmark 2013).

Spell Howe

Spell Howe

Another emerging theme has been the contrasting ways in which different researchers have been ‘modelling’ power in medieval Europe. TAP has for example revised the general view of top-down power and placed a new emphasis on the organic development of sites and systems (Norway), collective power (England, Iceland and Northern Isles) and strong elite involvement in some phases of later re-organisation (Iceland, Norway, England) (Semple in Iversen, Mehler, Sanmark and Semple in prep.).

At the same time a focus on establish past and current approaches and methods, has proved invaluable to our development of a state of the art approach to assembly studies. Much previous work has been historically driven. This theme of work has provided a critique of past methods, showing up for example major flaws in place-name and written source driven approaches.

St Agathas Gilling

St Agathas Gilling

As a result our project has aimed to create a more critical, interdisciplinary approach that places archaeological evidence at the fore by means of extensive fieldwork, developing and honing current understanding of the archaeology of assembly sites and networks (Semple in Iversen, Mehler, Sanmark and Semple in prep.; Skinner and Semple subm.).

 

Nordheim

Fabricated traditions are a powerful element in the material rhetoric of emergent authorities, and can also  offer ways of signalling dissent or challenging authority or articulating more local senses of place and  identity (Semple in prep.; Semple in Iversen, Mehler, Sanmark and Semple in prep.).

Research has revealed that assembly sites and practices were frequently revived in the recent eras as  ways of legitimating political or pseudo-religious constructs. Field visits in Ireland, Norway, Germany and Poland, were used to explore connections between assembly and the assertion of contrasting, independent and powerful, and sometimes subversive political discourses.

This has proved a powerful critique for how we understand ancient and early medieval places of assembly – it challenges (although does not dismiss) long held ideas that places of assembly with ancient monumental settings are long-lived ‘cultic’ sites of assembly, showing us that human populations can be especially inventive, and if needed fabricate a ‘sense of past’ in order to legitimate activity in the present (Semple in prep.; Semple in Iversen, Mehler, Sanmark and Semple in prep.).

 

Tudor Skinner: Impact and Change: Assembly Practices in the Northern Danelaw

My thesis, submitted in January 2014, sought to characterise the nature and development of assembly practices in the Northern Danelaw, a region of Scandinavian colonisation in the closing centuries of the first millennium. In particular, the study focused upon the three Ridings of Yorkshire, a core region within this zone. The Danelaw covered much of the territory of the older Anglo-Saxon domain of Northumbria and was latterly subsumed within the developing kingdom of England (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – The Danelaw and the three Ridings of Yorkshire

Figure 1 – The Danelaw and the three Ridings of Yorkshire

While there is intermittent early medieval historical evidence for assemblies, the sub-shire assembly districts of hundreds and wapentakes comprised the main focus of study. In particular it interrogated the extent to which Scandinavian conciliar norms were imposed upon this region and the extent to which continuity of Anglo-Saxon assembly practices could still be identified. To answer these questions it was essential that the forms of both assemblies and associated assembly territories were scrutinised, through the evidence from historic and place-name sources, and the associated topographic and archaeological aspects of assembly sites and their wider surrounds.

Fresh consideration of the material from Anglo-Saxon law-codes and related historical sources urges caution over the frequent equation of the hundred with the wapentake. While broadly interchangeable at state-level, at a more local scale these units clearly reflected conspicuous differences in legal custom in differing parts of England. As such they comprised a manifestation of the interplay between local norms and wider processes of state formation in the tenth century.

The assessment of documented and place-name attested assembly names reveals stronger Old English than Old Norse influence (Figure 2).

Figure 2 – Distribution of Old Norse and Old English assembly names in Yorkshire. Old Norse (green); Old English (yellow); Unclear (purple); Brittonic (light blue)

Figure 2 – Distribution of Old Norse and Old English assembly names in Yorkshire. Old Norse (green); Old English (yellow); Unclear (purple); Brittonic (light blue)

However the predominance of Old English in assembly-related settlement names, combined with the increasing prevalence of settlements as venues for hundred and wapentake assemblies in the later medieval period, means that these proportions may reflect a later pattern. Certainly Old Norse and Old English are relatively evenly represented in assembly names that reference monumental foci.

Separate consideration of these foci as toponyms and as identified sites reveals a conspicuous pattern of mounds as assembly foci, a noted feature throughout the British Isles and Scandinavia. However the strongest pattern is of variety in the foci referenced in the hundred and wapentake names, notably including crosses and trees. The unifying feature of these varied foci appears to be their long-term cultic aspects, most obviously manifest in the associations of sanctuary possessed by a number of cross sites.

There is limited evidence for early medieval material culture in association with the assembly sites. While it is apparent that monumental foci were occasional venues of much earlier, often mortuary, activity in the early medieval period, there is little if any evidence for large, populous outdoor gatherings at these places in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. The few exceptions to these comprise seeming Anglo-Scandinavian bullion deposits at two earlier cemeteries in immediate proximity to assembly sites at North Cave and Rudston, as well as an unusual collection of eighth- to ninth-century pins associated with the mound-site at Tingley (Figure 3). These results require follow-up comparison on a nationwide scale before further inferences can be drawn.

Eighth- to ninth-century pins recovered from the mound site at Tingley

Eighth- to ninth-century pins recovered from the mound site at Tingley

The only compelling link between assembly sites and the Roman road network can be identified at fording points, specifically on the border of large sokelands of pre-Conquest estates. Otherwise the identified assembly sites in the study area are very clearly positioned instead in relation to local lines of communication.

There is a clear division within the study area between wapentake territories based around river valleys to the west of the Vale of York and those, predominantly to the east, more artificial in appearance and more strictly delineated by riverine courses, monumental foci and, occasionally, by Roman roads. Across this division there is a strong tendency to encompass areas of both upland and lowland. This indicates that the hundred and wapentake territories of Yorkshire were influenced by long-term patterns of settlement and transhumance. While it is apparent that no Domesday hundred or wapentake directly coincides with an identifiable estate, they can nonetheless be shown in numerous instances to act as significant structuring devices within the wider morphology of the wapentakes (Figure 4). The impression given is of the wapentake as an administrative division a level above the individual estate.

Figure 4 – Distribution of sokeland of Dic wapentake in Domesday Book. The Manor of Pickering (green); The Manor of Falsgrave (yellow)

Figure 4 – Distribution of sokeland of Dic wapentake in Domesday Book. The Manor of Pickering (green); The Manor of Falsgrave (yellow)

The most striking observation from the thesis is the near ubiquitous pattern of ancillary assembly. Almost all of the identified assemblies are recorded a short distance (between 0.5 to 2.5 kilometres) outside of settlements and estate centres recorded in Domesday Book. In the East Riding of Yorkshire a number of these sites can be identified on highly visible ridgelines above and away from the settlement with which they are sometimes explicitly linked, as in Driffield and Spellow Clump, connected by the old road known as Spellowgate (Figure 5). It is a performance as much as a practice of separation, emphasising the link between the settlement/estate centre and assembly site as it also abjures it. The presence of a number of assembly sites on estate borders likewise reinforces this paradoxical connection. This almost certainly parallels the awkward relationship between landed tenure and the hundreds and wapentakes witnessed in their territorial relationships. The assemblies were nodes of local governance connected to state functions quite apart from the business of the estate and as such were situated at an appropriate remove from the relevant estate centre.

Figure 5 – Spellow Clump (green) in relation to Driffield on the first edition Ordnance Survey. The road that almost connects them was and is known as Spellowgate

Figure 5 – Spellow Clump (green) in relation to Driffield on the first edition Ordnance Survey. The road that almost connects them was and is known as Spellowgate

The available evidence does not permit a detailed chronology of assembly across the early medieval period. However, in the varying close ties that assembly sites and territories evidently enjoyed with local governance, settlement and agricultural rhythms, it is clear that these assembly practices were entwined in long-term processes. While the hundred and the wapentake only emerged in the lawcodes of the tenth century it is entirely plausible that they made use of existing sites of assembly as they also consolidated articles of earlier law. The number and distribution of assembly-attesting place-names may in turn attest to less-favoured earlier venues. Finally, despite differences between the hundred and wapentake, their parallel emergence in England and the links between them, in contrast to Scandinavia, would favour the wapentake as an administrative construct imposed within an Anglo-Scandinavian milieu rather than a distinctly Scandinavian administrative feature.