8.1 Introduction

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this chapter is to set out a research strategy to guide future research into early medieval archaeology within the SESARF region.

The general objectives of the chapter are:

  • to identify the known baseline of archaeological data for the early medieval period within the study area;
  • to integrate the historical and archaeological records where possible;
  • to infer where data gaps are present in chronological, spatial and thematic terms through a research agenda;
  • to propose a research strategy for removing these data gaps;

Further period specific objectives are:

  • to investigate how the archaeological record is shaped by the various groups of people who inhabited this area;
  • to trace the economic transformations from a Roman frontier zone to a tributary society based around hillforts and halls, to the development of a manorial system and the earliest burghs;
  • to investigate the social and physical changes that occurred within the region through the integration of Christianity, from early burials and feasting halls to Scotto-Norman shires, from pioneer monasteries to the development of the parish system.

The interactive map below shows some of the key sites mentioned in this chapter.

Chronology and terminology

This chapter covers the period AD 400–1100, relating to the earlier part of the Medieval panel report set out in the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF).

The original ScARF period range, defined on a national scale, included the last 500 years of the ‘Long Iron Age’, based on the Scandinavian system. There is clear evidence that this approach works best for much of north and west Scotland, but in the SESARF area, the sequence is more like that used in England which sees clear and easily definable breaks between the Iron Age, Roman and early medieval periods.

However, the SESARF region is also one of the most diverse parts of northern Britain, where various groups vied for control over these dramatic centuries. Within the SESARF region we need to define a more regionally specific chronology using consistent terminology. Throughout the early medieval period, the kingdoms and communities in question spanned across the modern border and indeed across southern Scotland, so linking to the North East Research Framework (NERF) and the developing Clyde Valley Archaeological Research Framework (CVARF) will be essential.

There has been considerable debate in recent years over the political ramifications of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ for the early medieval period, which extends to the term ‘Anglian’ and reflects the difficulties with applying any ethnic labels to archaeological remains. Best practice may be to refer to the terms for political entities and language groups which we know were used at the time, allowing us to be specific in our terminology while not imposing cultural affiliations onto a period where we know identities were very much in flux.

In the 5th century, the SESARF region was controlled by people referred to as Britons, whose interactions with the Roman Empire whose interactions with the Roman Empire resulted in some inhabitants learning Latin alongside the Brittonic language. Later sources refer to a kingdom of the Gododdin, presumed to be centred around Edinburgh in the Lothians, but this is bound to have been just one of several British-speaking communities in the SESARF area (eg Fraser 2009; Driscoll 2015). It may also be that the Roman term Picti, or painted people, could have referred generically to any warbands north of the frontier, and not just the area north of the Forth now most strongly associated with the Pictish kingdoms (Halsall 2012).

From the 6th century, a group often called ‘Anglians’, or Anglo-Saxons, appeared in the north. They are characterised by new settlement types and artefactual evidence, along with placenames in the Old English language. However, as with the Gododdin, we only have later sources to tell us how these people referred to themselves. For instance, the historian Bede, writing in the early 8th century, records that this northern realm was known as Bernicia, which notably derives from a British rather than an English root word, though the extent of that kingdom remains up for debate (Charles-Edwards 2010, 383–4; Blackwell 2018, 39–45). Much more widely attested is the term Northumbria, referring generally to English-speaking realms north of the Humber, and it may be best to use this territorial term to discuss areas under Anglo-Saxon control. The emergence of Northumbria as a powerful player north of the modern border can be detected by at least the 7th century, with administrative structures reaching as far as Abercorn on the Forth by 681 (J Fraser 2008).

The latter part of the period (800–1100) is often referred to as the Viking Age in Scotland, or the Late Saxon period in England, but neither term captures the diversity of the SESARF region in these years. By c 900, the Kingdom of Northumbria had been divided in two, with a Danish-controlled territory centred on York, and Northumbrian dynasty clinging on in Bamburgh with notional control over Lothian and the Borders (McGuigan 2015; 2022). In the aftermath of Scandinavian raids and settlements, the SESARF area now sat between several new political entities. To the north was the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba, which would soon come to be known as Scotland. To the west, the British kingdom of Cumbria (also called Strathclyde) took shape after the siege of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) in 870, and by c. 900 was expanding into Northumbrian territories. Further south, the kingdom of England began coalescing in Wessex and Mercia, gradually expanding its influence into the Danelaw and Northumbria. Therefore, by the early 10th century, what is now south east Scotland was heavily contested by all these neighbouring kingdoms (Woolf 2007), and we must proceed with care when applying ethnic labels to people, places and things in this region.

Matters came to a head at the Battle of Carham on the Tweed in 1018, where the king of Alba was victorious. This is traditionally perceived as the moment in which a border between the English and Scottish kingdoms was first established, but it is more accurately seen as a regional rather than a national drama. It represented the last gasp of the Northumbrian dynasty based at Bamburgh, and it is one of the last times we hear of a king of the Cumbrians (McGuigan & Woolf 2018). While the study area was thereafter under the effective control of the kings of Scots, parts of the SESARF area were still referred to as ‘Lothian’ and ‘England’ rather than ‘Scotland’ into the 13th century (Broun 2015, 109–11).

By the end of the 11th century, the kingdom of England was controlled by an Anglo-Norman elite which had established rulership through earldoms as far north as Cumberland and Northumberland. The kingdom of Alba managed to remain independent of English control, but at the cost of paying homage to the Anglo-Norman court. Subsequent kings of Scots, especially David I, expended much effort building up power centres, monasteries and burghs in Lothian and the Borders, but the region would be fought over for centuries thereafter.