Project Overview

VASLE is a three-year project examining society and economy in England and Wales between the early eighth and mid-eleventh centuries. It encompasses both the Wessex-dominated south of England and the northern Viking (or Anglo-Scandinavian) region known as the Danelaw, utilising data produced through a range of activities including metal-detecting, archaeological excavations and field surveys. The project has four inter-related aims, each of which builds on the previous by continually focusing in more depth on questions relating to the interpretation of metal-detected artefacts. These are:

  1. To map national distributions of metalwork types c.AD700-1100 and to compare these with distributions of early medieval coinage, landscape factors and potential constraints on data recovery. This helps us to understand the visibility, recovery and archaeological distribution of early medieval 'productive sites' and bring new insights to questions surrounding the use of (and access to) metals and to the role of coinage in early medieval society.
  2. To characterise the finds assemblages of individual 'productive sites', graphing percentages of coins and other object types in order to examine change through time and across the country; and to place these sites within the context of local settlement history and landscape. Together this helps us to define the evolution of settlement hierarchy and to assess the function of metalwork- and coin-rich sites in eighth- to eleventh-century England and Wales.
  3. To use targeted and controlled metal detecting and field survey of specific sites in the north of England to study their development and morphology from finds distributions.
  4. To synthesise the results and interpretations from Aims 1-3 to write a new economic and landscape history of England c.AD700-1000.

Background and previous research

The period c.AD650-1100 is of great interest and importance to social and economic historians, archaeologists and numismatists. From 650-850, the revival of international trade networks, the development of urban sites involved in trade and large-scale production, and the re-emergence of coinage was witnessed. However, it has also become clear that these urban centres, often termed 'emporia' or 'wics' by archaeologists, were not the only sites acting as markets. An increasing body of archaeological and numismatic evidence from rural and coastal locations, much derived from metal-detecting, has begun to reveal the presence of smaller, less well-documented sites which were of economic importance to the development of medieval England. Some of these have been described as 'productive sites' owing to the large numbers of finds which have been made on them (Pestell and Ulmschneider 2003).

tenth-century copper-alloy bell found at Cottam, East Yorkshire

Tenth-century copper-alloy bell found at Cottam, East Yorkshire

From c.850-1000 England was subject to invasion and settlement by peoples from Scandinavia. Again evidence from metal-detectorists has revealed a greater density of settlement than hitherto supposed. The material also reflects major changes in artefact types and the creation of new cultural identities reflected in coins and small items of copper alloy jewellery (Hadley and Richards 2000). One major problem of interpretation that still exists relates to the years c.850-900, the time when Vikings are traditionally thought to have taken over and settled in northern England. During this period there is a change in settlement patterns and a change in much material culture, but the mechanisms and chronology for this change are poorly understood.

ninth-century styca of Eanred found at Cottam, East Yorkshire

Ninth-century styca of Eanred, King of Northumbria 810-841, found at Cottam, East Yorkshire

Research involving 'productive sites' has been evolving for some time. Numismatists were the first to make use of metal-detected finds, and to realise their potential importance to our understanding of the past. Their work consisted of both 'pure' numismatics, i.e. discussion of the coins themselves, their classification, chronology etc, and monetary history, examining the place of coinage within the society and economy of the period. Their work has proved to be of significance, providing better understanding of Anglo-Saxon coinage and a regional component to early medieval economic research which has been dominated by theories focused towards urbanism and long-distance trade. Much of the more recent research which has examined rural society and economy has utilised the finds from the metal-detected 'productive sites', and these have begun to form the core of interpretations of the period. Many researchers believe that 'productive sites' represent economically important points in the landscape and were probably the estate centres which exploited their natural resources to produce surplus materials which could be used for trade or the payment of tax. The large numbers of finds of coins and metalwork on these sites are interpreted as showing both that 'productive sites' were places with high status occupants, and that they were more than likely to have had seasonal markets attached to them. From such interpretations, it has been suggested that the most likely type of settlement to be represented by a 'productive site' is the Minster or monastery (e.g. Ulmschneider 2000). These were settlements which were often endowed with lands, had become rich and required contact with the wider world to procure certain goods and materials, such as wine and incense, as well as to keep in contact with the central administration of the Church. As religious institutions, they would have been important places in the countryside, attracting a wide range of people during festivals during which time markets could have taken place.

The distribution of artefacts found through metal-detection plotted over the crop-marks at Cottam, East Yorkshire

The distribution of artefacts found through metal-detection plotted over the crop-marks at Cottam, East Yorkshire

However, others have urged caution. 'Productive sites' are notoriously difficult to interpret satisfactorily given their general lack of finds other than coins and metalwork (made from either copper-alloy or precious metals), and treating them as a homogeneous group may be unwise. Adherence to the ecclesiastical model has been challenged by a number of researchers, including Loveluck (1998), Richards (1999a) and (Naylor (2004). Excavations directed by Dr. Julian D. Richards (VASLE's principal investigator) at Cottam in East Yorkshire have shown that once excavated a seemingly artefact-rich, high status 'productive site' can appear no different to an ordinary domestic settlement (Richards 1999b). His excavations produced evidence of non-contemporaneous occupation on two separate but closely spaced sites dating to the eighth/ninth centuries and tenth/eleventh centuries, but little evidence of widespread contacts were found. Such evidence led him to argue that the settlements excavated were of lowly status, and probably represent simple farmsteads administered through an estate centre elsewhere. He has also compared the metal-detected assemblages from East Yorkshire to those produced through excavation in the region, such as the important sites at Wharram Percy, Flixborough and Fishergate (York). This revealed that the density of artefact retrieval, i.e. the number of finds found per square metre examined, was statistically no higher, and often lower on 'productive sites' than on many excavated sites, leading him to state that 'there is nothing special about 'productive sites', other than the way in which they have been discovered'.

Excavations at Cottam produced evidence of Middle to Late Saxon settlement

Excavations at Cottam, East Yorkshire

Other work, including that by VASLE's research assistant Dr. John Naylor, also highlights the likely very varied nature of 'productive sites' (Naylor (2004). John's work has involved in-depth analysis of coinage and other artefacts types including metalwork, pottery and stone objects. Although many finds-rich metal-detected sites have produced a high number of coins he has argued that only a proportion were actually directly involved in economic activity. He has demonstrated the difficulties of integrating metal-detected and archaeologically-derived datasets showing the restricted range of artefacts and materials collected by metal-detectorist (no matter how systematic) compared to archaeologists. An important recent book (Pestell and Ulmschneider 2003) provides a range of papers by scholars working on this subject around Northern Europe, and highlights the wide variety of sites found by detectorists and the range of techniques involved in their interpretation.

As a result, archaeologists, numismatists and historians continue to debate the different natures and functions of 'productive sites'. With the large-scale reporting of finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme since 1997, and also to the Early Medieval Corpus of coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) it has become clear that it is now possible to research these sites further than has previously been undertaken. VASLE is utilising all of this data in order that a more complete picture can be built up of what the patterns of settlement were; what different types of site can be identified; and what the nature of cultural identity may have been in the period, especially across the Danelaw area of the country.


This page was last updated by John Naylor on 19/12/2006

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VASLE is funded by

The Arts and Humanities Research Council