Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Local Historians: 11 Milton Keynes Archaeological Unit

It is not an exaggeration to say that modern archaeology has transformed our understanding of history. Historians tended to rely upon documentary sources and used these as their principal source of evidence and the discovery of a few artefacts to reinforce their theories. Archaeologists in the 18th and 19th centuries (and indeed into the 20th century) were enthusiastic amateurs who often, during the course of rescuing artefacts, destroyed the context. After universities created departments of archaeology in the 20th century the discipline has become more scientific and professional.

When I was at school I was taught that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded the shores of these islands and conquered the native Celtic people who were driven westward to Wales and Cornwall. This theory was supported by the writing of Bede (673-735) whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People said as much, and by the linguistic evidence of place names, which are almost entirely English in the major part of the country. Only rare Celtic words survive, such as Avon (which is the Celtic word for river) in two rivers in this country. Largely on this basis, historians accepted the theory that there had been an invasion, which conjures up pictures of invading hordes. The archaeological work of the last few decades (supported now by DNA evidence) creates a very different picture.

The archaeologists have studied burial patterns, which change as cultures change, and, with modern scientific analysis at their disposal, are able to date their finds with some precision. The overall picture now shows settlement over quite a long period. New arrivals came to the eastern shores soon after the Roman occupation ended and gradually increased in numbers. England was underpopulated compared to what we are used to, perhaps only 1.5 million in total and there was plenty of room, particularly if the new settlers could claim virgin land. The new settlers may have arrived one boatload at a time in small numbers. Over a century the newer arrivals had to move further westwards.

This is probably what happened in Wolverton where the English started to appear early in the 6th century. The work done y the MKAU is able to tell us a great deal. There were established farms that we know of at Bancroft, Manor Farm and Haversham. They were based on the Roman villa farming system, but it is likely that they were still occupied (or the land was still occupied) when the English arrived. They appeared to settle and create their village at Wolverton Turn, on the south side of the Stratford Road, near the copse we used to call the "Happy Morn." This was probably unoccupied land at the time and since the bones of animals that have been discovered show an emphasis on animal husbandry, they may well have used the rough land on the higher ground, later known as the furies, for pasture. So it is quite reasonable to speculate that the English incomers were able to settle peacefully without threatening the livelihood of the established Celts. Obviously the latter group became dominant in time, but the settlement may be closer in character to the settlement of Europeans in North America than to an actual armed invasion. Later the village was moved to the north.

At the time Milton keynes was created there was much more awareness of the danger of destroying archaeological heritage and it was quite a modern thing to undertake "rescue" archeology prior to land being cleared for development. In 1971 the Corporation appointed two full time archaeologists and the unit grew from there, eventually disbanding in 1991. Over that 20 year period extensive work was done in the area with may now rank as the most comprehensively studied area outside London.

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