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Trading Places

Richard Hodges says the rubbish tips of Anglo-Saxon London and Southampton contain intriguing evidence of England’s first businessmen.

Professor Middleton, the principal character of Angus Wilson’s novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), disarmingly states: ‘I know nothing whatsoever about Dark Age Trade, or at any rate no more than befits a gentleman.’

Half a century ago, the economy of the Anglo-Saxons was simply not a subject for consideration: emphasis, instead, was placed on their art and culture. But in the year that Wilson’s fictional account of an Anglo-Saxon excavation ap­peared, the archaeologist G. C. Dunning published an essay that changed our perception of Dark Age commerce. Entitled ‘Trade Relations between England and the Continent in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period’, it was a revolutionary step towards recognizing the economy of England after the so-called pagan period (the fifth to late seventh century).

Dunning, the first serious student of Anglo-Saxon and medieval pottery, had identified the continental origins of a miscellany of imported potsherds found on small-scale digs in Hamwic, Anglo-Saxon Southampton, and from building sites in London, and used them as indices of commerce to reconstruct the earliest English long-­distance trade with the Frankish kingdoms bet­ween the Rhine and Seine. This was the first building block towards discovering the origins of England’s towns and charting England’s embryonic mercantile history from the seventh century to the Viking era in the ninth century.

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