Last evening, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking via Zoom to the Gibson Library Society on the topic of ‘The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology and Richard Cornwallis Neville’.
I used the opportunity to present my research on Richard Cornwallis Neville’s family and military background, landscape and regional context, and archaeological pursuits, in order to contextualise the manner and motivations of his explorations of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ antiquities. Neville is better known for his exploration of Roman sites and artefacts, yet through finds in Berkshire and Essex, and most notably two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries which remain important sites to this day at Little Wilbraham and Linton Heath, Neville also can be accurately regarded as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Anglo-Saxon archaeology.
I then explained how Neville’s work was widely used by contemporaries, and how his generation of early archaeologists reporting on grave-finds across southern and eastern Britain had an enduring legacy on the study and interpretation of early medieval societies. I concluded by reflecting on the widespread appropriations, often-simplifications and frequent confusions, in present-day understandings of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ through archaeological evidence. Yet I also noted the many positive ways in which archaeologists and heritage practitioners are revealing new insights and offering fresh perspectives on the early Anglo-Saxon period that tackle the legacy of racial Anglo-Saxonism in archaeological research developed and disseminated by Neville and his generation of investigators. One specific point I wish to hammer home: Neville’s martial conception of the Saxons/Anglo-Saxons as a branch of Teutonic barbarians preceded the regular study and publications of human remains in racial terms which was taken up in the immediate years after his publications, and yet still his descriptions and illustrations were an explicit materialisation of an early Victorian racial Anglo-Saxonism. For this, the contrast with Neville’s own British and Roman finds, as part of a succession of English history materialised in his local landscapes of NW Essex and SE Cambridgeshire was essential for his narrative.
I’d like to say this was the opportunity to rehearse a presentation I’ve given many times, but it the stark fact that this was the first and only time I’ve been invited to speak about the history of Anglo-Saxon archaeology since my last publication on the subject, which was actually right at the very start of me writing this blog in 2013! Hence, you might appreciate my frustration that it takes 8 years for an open-access publication to prompt any interest in the origins of Anglo-Saxon archaeology to the extent as to inspire an invitation to speak. Now it has happened, I think it is notable that it is a local scholarly society and an informed audience interested in Neville and his links with Audley End outside Saffron Walden, and not specifically medieval scholars. I would perhaps contend that this is revealing of a widespread and long-standing inertia and disengagement from critical evaluations of the history of archaeology including 19th-century Anglo-Saxon archaeology. For many, this has been clearly dismissed as navel-gazing, subsidiary or superfluous scholarship, worthy of only a paragraph at best in an introductory book chapter. I would contend that this is a situation which must change if we are to have a healthy and informed debate regarding the legacies of past work and the future of the discipline.
Equally notable and inspiring mixed feelings is that my research interests in the history of Anglo-Saxon archaeology and its implications for our scholarship and public engagement today have been ignored by many of those reflecting on the potential uses and misuses of the terms ‘Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in archaeological writings and heritage environments (whether to counter, critique or simply acknowledge their existence). This is again revealing about the low quality of the debate thus far. Likewise, despite having co-edited and produced the first-ever book dedicated to the public archaeology of the early medieval period – Digging into the Dark Ages – I notice it is not being discussed by those who purport to be engaged and interested in dialogue regarding the best ways to combat the popular and political appropriations of the early medieval past. Perhaps medievalists are content of a superficial caricature of the birth of archaeology in the 19th century over complex and fascinating stories linking imperial and colonial historical processes, the English countryside, and a variegated set of personalities and societies participating in the burgeoning archaeological and historical societies at a local, regional and national level in Britain.
Still, for those interested, my published article about Neville is open access, and you can read a quick survey with links to the full list of my publications addressing this theme. Also, readers should now look at Dr Donna Beth Ellard’s lengthy book Anglo-Saxon(ist) Past and Post-Saxon Futures for a distinctive perspective on early archaeological work.
Further research on the origins and development of Anglo-Saxon archaeology is urgently required (and I’m aware of some key studies forthcoming on aspects of this). The commentaries published to date remain the tip of the iceberg of potential enquiry. Indeed, before we reflect further on the best terminology to use in our own scholarship and public outreach, much more remains to be done to contend with our disciplinary roots and tenacious terminology and concepts. Specifically, misconceptions within academia need to be countered regarding the origins of the archaeological investigation of the ‘earliest English’ in order for us to effectively audit and evaluate the discipline and combat those who would appropriate Anglo-Saxon archaeology today.