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Dark Age British Earthworks - An Interview with Dr. Ken Dark
by Robert M. Vermaat


After taking his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Ken Dark has taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Reading Universities, and currently holds a lectureship at the University of Reading. He is Chair of the Late Antiquity Research Group, holds honorary professorships from European and American universities, and is the author of numerous publications, including Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, Civitas to Kingdom, Theoretical Archaeology and The Landscape of Roman Britain. He has directed archaeological excavations and surveys in Britain, and is currently director of the Istanbul Archaeological Rescue Project.

Vortigern Studies (VS): Many would regard you as one of the foremost scholars in the field of sub-Roman Britain archaeology. Could you tell us how an archaeologist approaches the period of sub-Roman Britain differently from a historian?

Dr. Ken Dark (KD): The key difference between archaeology and history is that an archaeologist attempts to reconstruct the past using its material remains, whereas a historian uses texts for this purpose. This being said, most archaeologists examining the Roman or later periods in Britain, or elsewhere in Europe, make use of historical studies and some, such as myself, have been formally trained in both archaeology and history.

VS: The topic of this interview is Dark Age British Earthworks. As I understand, the dating of an earthwork is no simple matter. Could you tell us how this is generally done?

KD: You are right, dating an earthwork is not an easy matter and, obviously, it depends upon exactly what sort of earthwork is being examined. If it is, for example, a simple single-phase earthen bank, the most reliable means of dating would be the discovery of datable elements within the original structure of the bank - such as waterlogged or burnt 'timber-lacing', yielding a dendrochronological or radiocarbon date. But datable structural elements within earthworks are rare and usually the best that is possible is the discovery of datable material (a coin, pottery etc.) in a soil layer underneath the bank. If this is a 'sealed' find (i.e. it cannot have got into the layer of soil in which it was found later than the deposition of that layer) it affords a 'terminus post quem' date to that layer of soil, and so to the bank. This means that the bank must be the same date or later than the earliest possible date of the latest sealed find in that layer. For example, if this find is a coin of AD 410, then the bank must be dated to 410 or later.

VS: In your book "Civitas to Kingdom", you have expressed the opinion that Wansdyke can be dated to the 5th century, in support of N.J. Higham.[1] In the light of our first question, do you consider Gildas trustworthy source on this issue?

KD: I still think that Wansdyke is most likely to date from the 5th or 6th century, but my reason for believing this has never had anything at all to do with Gildas or Higham. Rather it is because Wansdyke overlies sealed Romano-British material giving it a terminus post quem but has a pagan place-name rendering a date after the seventh century extremely unlikely. Even if there were 'Anglo-Saxon' pagans in Somerset after the seventh century, they are unlikely to have been in a position to name major landscape features in such a way as would come down to us today. That is, Wansdyke probably dates between the fifth to seventh centuries. It is unlikely to be an 'Anglo-Saxon' construction, because, as Ian Burrow showed in his exemplary fieldwork, Wansdyke incorporates hill-forts. So far as we know the 'Anglo-Saxons' of the fifth-seventh centuries neither built nor modified hill-fort earthworks. Moreover, Wansdyke separates British sites(such as Cadcong [the hillfort of Cadbury-Congresbury, red.]) to its South which have imported Mediterranean pottery from those to the North (such as Crickley Hill) which lack this pottery. If this is a meaningful distribution (and not the product of modern discovery-patterns) then the boundary - if not the dyke itself - must have been in place by the sixth century at latest. So, on balance, I think Wansdyke is a fifth or sixth century British linear boundary, facing North and incorporating hill-forts in its line.

VS: Since the exhaustive article by Fox & Fox[2] it has become custom to discuss East and West Wansdyke as if they were two non-related earthworks. You do seem to look at them as belonging to one single scheme. Could you tell us what your reason are for this choice?

KD: Later features seriously disrupt the line of Wansdyke and large tracts have most likely been obscured or destroyed. Fieldwork over the last few decades on Offa's Dyke, directed by David Hill, has shown that apparent gaps (to which Fox himself attached great importance) are usually nothing more than zones of destruction or degradation which have rendered the features unrecognizable prior to excavation. There has not even been much recent survey, let alone excavation, along the line of Wansdyke, so we should attach no significance at all to any apparent breaks. Consequently, the most parsimonious hypothesis is to assume that it is all one linear earthwork until someone proves otherwise.

VS: Do you feel that building large earthen fortifications (such as Wansdyke, Wat's Dyke, Bokerley Dyke, South Cadbury, Dinas Emrys or High Peak) was more of a sub-Roman British, rather than an Anglo-Saxon characteristic?

KD: Assuming the dating of Wat's Dyke is approximately correct (allowing for the breadth of calibrated radiocarbon dates at 2 sigma deviation), which seems to be the case at present, I can see no reason to argue that any of the sites you list was 'Anglo-Saxon'. As I have said, there is no reason to believe that the fifth- or sixth-century 'Anglo-Saxons' built hill-forts, and the only linear earthworks even arguably convincingly dated to this period in the 'Anglo-Saxon' areas of the east are the East Anglian dykes. If these are 'Anglo-Saxon', not British, and date from the relevant period, presumably they show the local adoption of a British tradition of earthwork construction.

VS: Recently, Wat's Dyke has been re-dated to a period of construction roughly around 460 AD. This would bring it close to a proposed date of construction for Wansdyke. Would you consider Wat's Dyke a northern frontier for the sub-Roman kingdom of Powys?

KD: Wat's Dyke seems to be fifth century and it faces West. If so, it was presumably designed to define a British territory immediately to the East, and that really has to be Powys.

VS: Do you think that your identification of Wansdyke as the southern border of the emerging Dobunnic (sub-) kingdom still valid? Or could it be that the Dobunnic civitas was only a part of a larger kingdom, which emerged from the Roman province of Britannia Prima?

KD: In fact, in 'Civitas to Kingdom' I argued that Wansdyke was the northern boundary of the Durotriges, but that its line defines the southern border of the Dobunni to the North. I think this is the most likely interpretation, and Wansdyke cannot be the southern border of a political unit to its North, because its ditch is to the North and the hill-forts it encompasses are to the South. So it faces North and defines the northern boundary of a southern (probably Durotrigan) territory in which other hill-forts were refurbished at this date. This absolutely precludes the possibility that it can be associated with Wat's Dyke as two borders of the same political unit, which is perhaps what you have in mind.

VS: You have recently published "Britain and the End of the Roman Empire", while your next book, "Byzantine Pottery", will be published by the end of this year. Could you tell us something about these projects, and are you working on any projects now that we can look forward to?

KD: They are quite different projects with very different aims, although both are research-based books that could also be used as textbooks. 'Britain and the End of the Roman Empire' reinterprets all the archaeological and textual evidence for the whole of Britain relating to the fifth through to seventh centuries, seeing this as largely in the mainstream terms of the Europe-wide 'Romano-Christian' culture usually termed 'Late Antiquity'. This reinterpretation involves quite a lot that is wholly new and requires rethinking almost all our usual preconceptions about the period - for example, it challenges the view that 'Anglo-Saxon' inhumation cemeteries are intrinsically comprised of pagan burials. There are several reasons for this, but to give just a taste of the argument, the most similar burial rites in Continental Europe to those employed in 'pagan Anglo-Saxon' inhumations are those of Frankish 'row-graves'. But 'row-grave' burial rites were only adopted by the Franks after their Conversion to Christianity and were even employed in the 'founder burials' beneath Frankish churches! There is a lot more - about the Britons (for example, a challenge to the view that all Britons were ruled by kings after c.400), the Picts (for example, no Pictish kingship or hill-forts before the late sixth century) and about the Irish areas of western Britain (no fifth-century Irish migrations - just our misunderstanding of where the linguistic and cultural border between the Britons and Irish was located before c.500). So all in all, lots that is new and also by far and away the most complete and up-to-date account of the archaeological and textual evidence for Britain c.400-c.600 currently available.
Byzantine Pottery is another matter in one important respect - there have been lots of books on Britain in the fifth-seventh centuries but this is the first book ever on Byzantine pottery as a whole, from the fifth to fifteenth century. The book comprises a substantial analytical text, describing and discussing Byzantine pottery, and a guide to identifying the main classes of this pottery for fieldworkers, museum workers, and students. Much of this relates to matters a long way from the Britain but, as you know, Byzantine pottery of the fifth-sixth centuries was imported into the British Isles. Tintagel has more imported Byzantine pottery than any site outside the Mediterranean. However, this is also part of a broader story about the development of ceramics and their role in society in the 'other' sub-Roman area of Europe - the Byzantine (that is to say, Eastern Roman) Empire. Just as we debate how 'Roman' fifth-seventh century Britain really was, so in Byzantine archaeology there are similar debates. Pottery studies contribute to these debates as well as to understanding trade, everyday life and other aspects of the Byzantine world.

VS: One of the perennial debates about sub-Roman Britain is whether and to what degree the Britons maintained Roman culture. What are your thoughts on this question?

KD: As anyone who has read either 'Civitas to Kingdom' or 'Britain and the End of the Roman Empire' will be aware, I think that much of the Roman-period past survived in the West and North of Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. In these areas there is absolutely no reason to assume that major cultural disruption occurred due to political strife or warfare in the fifth century, and all the archaeological and textual indications suggest widespread cultural continuity from the fourth to sixth centuries. This could have been portrayed as an extreme view in 1994 when 'Civitas' was published but it is increasingly being supported by the work of other scholars - such as Hilary Cool's seminal study of the latest dated Romano-British artefacts - and shown at other sites. When I wrote 'Civitas' too, there were only a few places where we could see superficially late Roman pottery in use into the fifth or sixth centuries. But an increasing number of sites, most recently the new excavations at Bantham, have been showing this to be the case. My guess is that - in terms of everyday artefacts for most of the western British population - the fifth and sixth centuries looked very much like the fourth, and that is what we seem to see at Wroxeter now that the classic excavations by the late Phillip Barker have been published in full. Nor is it only Barker's excavation that supports this view at Wroxeter, the adjacent site dug by Webster has just been published and there, too, 'sub-Roman' activity continues 'Late Roman' patterns - even commercial activity at the centre of the former civitas capital seems to be evidenced. So, yes, I think much of the Late Roman past survived in fifth- and sixth-century western and northern Britain, although doubtless much too had changed - it was a 'sub-Roman' or more correctly 'Late Antique', society (ie. one in the mainstream of Late Antiquity), not simply a 'Late Roman' one.

VS: One of your approaches to sub-Roman British continuity was a new interpretation of 'Dark Earth'. While previous interpretations saw this layer as a sign of dereliction, you have explained it as a sign of continuous occupation. Have any recent developments, in your opinion, strengthened or weakened your cause?

KD: I still think that the 'Dark Earth' probably represents occupation (and associated activities) and recent work has strengthened this viewpoint. One of the most interesting recent developments regarding the 'Dark Earth' is its discovery on a site inside the 'Saxon Shore fort' at Pevensey where, it is hardly likely to be 'imported garden soil' nor, clearly, is it 'disuse'. It seems to represent the latest 'Romano-British' occupation of the site.

VS: You were the first to associate the so-called "Vergilius Romanus" with Britain, which at the time was quite controversial. Do you still hold to that opinion?

KD: I was not in fact the first to associate it with Britain. Martin Henig, the leading expert on Romano-British art - had already noticed that the art was 'Romano-British' and more specifically Durotrigan, but believed it to be fourth century. I was the first to point out that (although it was probably British and shared these artistic affinities) it had - on palaeographical and other grounds - to be fifth or sixth century in date rather than earlier. I still believe the 'Vergilius Romanus' to be a western British product of the fifth or early sixth century and think there may be further evidence to support this in the detail of the illuminations. I discuss this new material briefly in 'Britain and the End of the Roman Empire', but hope to return to the subject at a later date.

VS: A subject that has been heavily discussed among the readers of 'The Saxon Shore' was the transition from Roman Britain to Independent Britain at the start of the 5th century. You have advocated a 'social revolution' of a militant Christian lower class against a pagan elite. One of the points raised in the discussion was the seeming impossibility with which a 'revolutionary' movement would be able to defeat an apparent serious raid by Anglo-Saxons, as described by Zosimus. What are your thoughts on this?

KD: As you can see, I really have not changed any of my views on the key aspects of the thesis presented in 'Civitas to Kingdom', although you will find these greatly developed in 'Britain and the End of the Roman Empire' - not least because much subsequent evidence has tended to offer them yet more support. In this context, I still think that the most likely explanation for the apparently sudden early fifth-century transition from the pagan villa-dwelling aristocracy of Roman Britain to the Christian society depicted by Patrick and Gildas is a social revolution, led by militant Christians. This explains both the sudden end of that aristocratic rule and the complete disuse of the associated pagan temples within the first decade of the fifth century. This is one of the few fifth-century changes genuinely unique to Britain and so requires a particular, specifically British, explanation.
As for the other part of the question, it seems rather strange to suggest that low-status rebels could not have fought off 'barbarian' raiders, because plainly these same people would have had to comprise the armies of any aristocrats leading resistance after the departure of the imperial forces. To claim that 'peasants' could not fight equally well under their own leadership flies in the face of many peasant uprisings and revolutions in history, let alone the experience of the bacaudae in western Gaul. I hope that those advocating this as some sort of problem in the interpretation are not suggesting that low-status groups can only act effectively under high-status leadership?

VS: Thank you very much for your time and coopration.

REFERENCES

[1]Higham, Nicholas J. (1991): Gildas, Roman Walls and British Dykes, in: Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 22, pp. 1-14.

[2] Fox, Cyril and A. Fox (1960): Wansdyke reconsidered, in: Archaeological Journal 115, pp. 1-48.

Book Reviews

Theoretical Archaeology
by K. R. Dark (Paperback - August 1995)

Paperback - 246 pages (August 1995)
Cornell Univ Pr; ISBN: 0801482526 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.59 x 9.15 x 6.08

Paperback - 256 pages (31 May, 1995)
Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd; ISBN: 0715626701

Hardcover (August 1995)
Cornell Univ Pr; ISBN: 0801431255

Hardcover - 256 pages (31 May, 1995)
Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd; ISBN: 0715626345

Format: Paperback, 246pp.
ISBN: 0801482526
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Pub. Date: March  1995

Synopsis
Archaeology is not a straightforward science; it is mainly based on interpretation. Archaeology uses material data to study the past, but material remains are unable to speak for themselves. They need to be interpreted. All archaeology depends upon the logical framework used to understand data: the theory, which underlies interpretation. Yet archaeological theory often seems inaccessible or even irrelevant, wrapped up in jargon and filled with obscure allusions. Before one can work in the field a knowledge of why they are doing so must first be examined, and the differing views that exist are unbiased exposed to the reader.

Book Description

This book is an excellent overview of archaeological theory, created for the archaeology student or person with astute interest in the subject. In this well-illustrated book, Ken Dark provides a clear, non-jargon introduction to the central concepts of archaeological theory. Written especially for those with no previous knowledge of theory, this book aims to introduce the subject in a way which is both readable and which shows its relevance, and without a specific theoretical stance. Explaining some 400 specialised terms will take the reader into the hart of the profession. In a sublime outline of the range of approaches, the author leads us to the fundamental problems such as the purpose of archaeology. A guideline of how thought processes have evolved over the years and where the discipline of archaeology sits today. The range of theoretical views on some of the themes and problems most often encountered in archaeology is outlined, introducing a wide variety of concepts and approaches equally relevant to the professional or amateur archaeologist, student, or non-specialist reader of archaeological work.

For those interested in the question of how those archaeologists come up with the story behind broken pots, bleached bones and long-gone walls, this is the very book.

After taking his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Ken Dark has taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Reading Universities, and currently holds a lectureship at the University of Reading. He is Chair of the Late Antiquity Research Group, holds honorary professorships from European and American universities, and is the author of numerous publications, including Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, Civitas to Kingdom, The Landscape of Roman Britain and External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain (Studies in Celtic History, 16). He has directed archaeological excavations and surveys in Britain, and is currently director of the Istanbul Archaeological Rescue Project.

External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain (Studies in Celtic History, 16)
by K. R. Dark (Editor) (Hardcover - December 1996)

Hardcover (December 1996)
Boydell & Brewer; ISBN: 085115655X

Format: Hardcover, 192pp.
ISBN: 085115655X
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer, Inc.
Pub. Date: July  1996

Synopsis
Bringing together archaeological, historical and palaeological approaches to Britain's transition from the Romano-British to the Celtic economy between the 4th and 9th centuries AD, this work re-examines well-known sources of evidence and introduces new material.

Book Description

The emphasis is on the Celtic-speaking areas of Britain after AD 400, but the geographical and chronological scope of the contributions is wide-ranging. The book includes a reassessment of the end of the Romano-British economy, suggesting that the conventional interpretation (a sudden collapse in production in the early-5th century) is incorrect, and presenting a catalogue and discussion of relevant pollen sequences in support of this argument. Imported pottery and glass and inscribed stone monuments are investigated with a view to clarifying an understanding of these problematical sources, while the nature of the contacts which brought imports into Britain and Ireland is re-evaluated to provide indications that Byzantine contacts with Britain are unlikely to have been on entirely commercial grounds.

After taking his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Ken Dark has taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Reading Universities, and currently holds a lectureship at the University of Reading. He is Chair of the Late Antiquity Research Group, holds honorary professorships from European and American universities, and is the author of numerous publications, including Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, Civitas to Kingdom, Theoretical Archaeology and The Landscape of Roman Britain. He has directed archaeological excavations and surveys in Britain, and is currently director of the Istanbul Archaeological Rescue Project.

The Landscape of Roman Britain
by Petra Dark (Contributor), K. R. Dark (Hardcover - December 1997)

Paperback - 192 pages (September 1998)
Sutton Publishing; ISBN: 0750918748 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.55 x 9.61 x 6.78

Hardcover - 192 pages (December 1997)
Sutton Publishing; ISBN: 0750909641 ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.74 x 9.90 x 7.05

Hardcover - 192 pages (September 1997)
Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd.; ISBN: 0750909641

Synopsis
A look at the society, politics, economics and natural environment of the Romano-British countryside, in which the authors investigate how different parts of the landscape may have related to each other. Includes a discussion of Romano-British agricultural systems.

Book Description
The Landscape of Roman Britain is the first book to combine the latest advances in the archaeology of the period with new scientific approaches to environmental reconstruction. I believe it will be essential reading for both amateur and professional archaeologists of Roman and medieval Britain, and for students of British archaeology and landscape history.

This is a groundbreaking book, offering new analyses and interpretations, and is the first to combine the latest advances in the archaeology of Roman Britain with new scientific approaches to environmental reconstruction. The authors cover the methods used, the Iron Age background, the natural and physical environment with regard to human activity, and the effects of this activity on the landscape. Romano-British agricultural systems, the impact of Roman towns, industrial activities including pottery and iron working are examined. Finally, the end of the Romano-British landscape and the post-Roman legacy is discussed.

Settlement evidence is addressed in a unique overview, which ranges from villas to native farmsteads, along with religious sites, burials, forts, roads, bridges and artificial watercourses. It brings together information from excavated sites and archaeological survey data with that provided by the study of ancient plant and animal remains in order to produce a fuller picture of the society, economy and natural environment of the Romano-British countryside than has, until recently, been possible. Throughout, recent discoveries and established interpretations are discussed, and new analyses and reinterpretations are outlined, making this a fascinating and timely book.

As it is written in an accessible style and clearly explaining each stage of the arguments employed, I can recommend it to anyone with a deeper interest in the material, but also to the enthusiastic amateur.

After taking his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Ken Dark has taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Reading Universities, and currently holds a lectureship at the University of Reading. He is Chair of the Late Antiquity Research Group, holds honorary professorships from European and American universities, and is the author of numerous publications, including Britain and the End of the Roman Empire, Civitas to Kingdom, Theoretical Archaeology and External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain (Studies in Celtic History, 16). He has directed archaeological excavations and surveys in Britain, and is currently director of the Istanbul Archaeological Rescue Project.

Petra Dark holds degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge University and has published and lectured on the role of human activity in long-term environmental change and on environmental archaeology. She now holds a fellowship at the University of Reading

Britain and the End of the Roman Empire
by Ken Dark (Hardcover)

Hardcover - 176 pages (July 1, 2000)
Tempus Pub Ltd; ISBN: 0752414518

Hardcover - 176 pages (9 December, 2000)
Tempus Publishing; ISBN: 0752414518

Synopsis
A look at the transition from Roman Britain to the medieval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with special focus on Christianity, economy and the re-interpretation of archaeological data.

Book Description
The end of the Roman period and the early development of the post-Roman kingdoms are the two most important - and probably most debated as well - subjects for archaeologists and historians of the late Roman and early medieval periods in Britain. This book, which can very well be used as a follow-up and complementary to the earlier Civitas to Kingdom, questions many assumptions that have been made in this debate. However, even more than this earlier study, it offers a radical re-interpretation of Britain in the period 400-600 AD. Dark draws attention to far greater similarities between immediately post-Roman Britain and the rest of Europe than previously though possible, and highlights the importance of 5th- and 6th-century Britain regarding the end of the Western Roman Empire as a whole.

Rather than focusing on either the Celtic fringe or the Anglo-Saxon archaeology alone, as most other studies do, Ken Dark looks at a wide range of written as well as archaeological evidence. Burials, settlements, religious centres and survival of Christianity are discussed, alongside new material and more obscure data, while the author does not shy away from making assumptions based on comparisons with continental developments. The final occupation of Roman towns, forts and villas, as well as post-Roman hillforts are evaluated, while Anglo-Saxon and early Christian cemeteries, as well as evidence for the earliest British monasteries are shown to be very important for a complete view of this period.

This most excellent book offers not only a new interpretation of that crucial period of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, but may well be regarded as the most comprehensive study of the archaeological and written evidence so far. I regard it as indispensable for both amateur and professional student, whether historian or archaeologist. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

After taking his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Ken Dark has taught at Cambridge, Oxford and Reading Universities, and currently holds a lectureship at the University of Reading. He is Chair of the Late Antiquity Research Group, holds honorary professorships from European and American universities, and is the author of numerous publications, including Civitas to Kingdom, Theoretical Archaeology, The Landscape of Roman Britain and External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman and Post-Roman Britain (Studies in Celtic History, 16). He has directed archaeological excavations and surveys in Britain, and is currently director of the Istanbul Archaeological Rescue Project.

Dark Age British Earthworks - An Interview with Dr. Ken Dark
Copyright 2001 Robert M. Vermaat and Dr. Ken Dark.

Comments to: Robert Vermaat or Dr. Kenneth R. Dark


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