The Viking and Anglo-Saxon Landscape and Economy (VASLE) Project

Julian D Richards, John Naylor, Caroline Holas-Clark, 2008

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Two primary data sets were used within the VASLE project. Firstly, a 'National dataset' was derived from the PAS database, in order to examine the national and regional distribution of portable antiquities c.700-1050. Secondly, a 'Sites dataset' was developed in order to compare artefact fingerprints for individual 'productive sites'.

(1) The national dataset

The data which forms the basis of the 'National dataset' was downloaded from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) on 3 October 2005. This required cleaning and checking for accuracy, standardisation and enhancement to make it suitable for VASLE (Naylor and Richards 2005). Within the PAS database, the records are classified in two ways: date and object type. Dating is divided first by major archaeological period, e.g. Early Medieval (AD410-1066), and then into narrower categories where applicable. For example, Early Medieval divides into 'early' (AD410-720), 'middle' (AD720-850) and 'late' (AD850-1066) subgroups. Additionally, if an object type is dated outside of these parameters specific dates may have been assigned, e.g. AD700-900. Object types are divided into two fields. Firstly, 'Type', e.g. pins, represents broad groups of artefacts irrespective of period, and secondly, 'Class' for more detailed information regarding the type of artefact, e.g. for pins, the class may be listed as 'ball-headed', or a decorative element may be given such as 'ring-and-dot'.

In theory it should have been possible to search for data relevant to VASLE using the 'middle' and 'late' subgroups, or the specified dates, but many of the objects have only been dated through the generic 'Early Medieval' term. In addition, the classification of artefacts lacks standardisation between the different Finds Liaison Officers, with the same artefact type often classified in a variety of ways, especially in earlier records before stricter recording controls were introduced. For example, late Anglo-Saxon stirrup strap mounts were in some cases classified as stirrups under 'Type' and then under Williams's (1997) typology under 'Class', but in others they were defined as 'horse trappings' under 'type' and then 'stirrup strap mounts' under 'Class'. Such lack of standardised classification within the PAS database proved problematic for our initial data searches, as the records could not be searched with confidence that all related records would be found. As a result, the project obtained all 'Early Medieval' data to ensure completeness, but all records dating pre-AD700 were subsequently deleted. However, a number of artefacts, such as 'small simple buckles' (Geake 1997), span the turn of the 8th century. Similarly, the early sceattas issued in the final quarter of the 7th century are better considered as part of the cultural repertoire of the long 8th century than of an earlier period. Such groups were kept within the database. In addition, all records of coinage were deleted, as a more comprehensive record of coins was available from the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds (EMC).

The enhancement of the PAS dataset was based around two main factors. First, the standardisation of the descriptive language used in order to aid confident interrogation of the data, and second, the application of a number of classification systems to the highest level possible (Table 1). Where possible, all artefact groups were standardised, with the artefact type under 'Type' and the sub-classification recorded either under a commonly used scheme, or by the main decorative element.

The choice of published classification schemes was based around several factors. Firstly, Geake's (2001) PAS Recording Guide made suggestions for some schemes which could be used. These were often readily utilised by the Finds Liaison Officers employed by the PAS and so retaining these as the basic classification was the most sensible option.

Secondly, where Geake (2001) had not suggested any particular typology, a range of schemes had been applied haphazardly across the database. An example of the enhancement process is provided by finds of small dress pins, which appear to be ubiquitous on most Middle Anglo-Saxon sites. Over 350 Anglo-Saxon pins have been recorded by the PAS, and each was checked in conjunction with the individual images available on the website to ensure accurate classification and enhancement. Within the PAS database, the pins are generally classified as either 'pin' or 'dress pin' under 'Type', and the shape of the pinhead (the main feature for closer classification) given under 'Class', unless a particular classification scheme has been used in which case the typological class is given, e.g. Hinton (1996). This works well until the data is taken as a whole when the variations in terminology used (especially under 'Class') hinder straightforward analysis. For example, ball-headed pins were described under four other terms, all of which occur within general archaeological literature. In order to standardise this data the pins were re-classified within Hinton's (1996, 14-37) typological scheme.

Thirdly, there were artefact groups where no classification has been applied to any great extent. Alongside the previously published classification schemes, the increasing numbers of finds made and reported to the PAS has allowed for three new schemes to be produced specifically for the VASLE database, namely covering Late Anglo-Saxon buckles, ansate brooches, and hooked tags.It should be noted at the outset that these classifications are not designed as schemes showing the typological development of the groups, but were created with data management in mind. All are centred upon morphological elements in each artefact, such as plate shape in hooked tags or loop shape in buckles, with any decoration added as a secondary characteristic. These could then be entered into the database under 'class' and 'decorative style'. The three classifications produced all use images derived from the PAS database, which are used with permission.

Finally, the occurrence of multi-find records (i.e. records containing more than one find from the same site) also proves problematic for studies where analyses that involve quantification are important. In these cases, enhancement also had to include the separation of such records into standard, single entries.

Artefact type Classification system used
Strap-ends Thomas 2003 & 2004
Pins Hinton 1996
Stirrup-strap mounts Williams 1998
Stirrup terminals Williams 1997
Bridle fittings Williams 2007, enhanced by VASLE
Buckles (earlier varieties) Geake 1997
Buckles (Later Anglo-Saxon varieties) VASLE-produced classification [link]
Ansate brooches VASLE-produced classification [link]
Hooked tags VASLE-produced classification [link]

A number of fields irrelevant to the VASLE project, such as artefact dimensions, have been deleted, and for the purposes of making the enhanced database available for re-use it was agreed that precise geospatial referencing would be removed. The original PAS record identifiers have been retained, making it possible to link the enhanced VASLE records to the original PAS entries, and allowing those with authorisation to gain access to more precise locational information, direct from the PAS.

The final list of fields in the main PAS early medieval table is:

ID: VASLE ID number
Old find ID: The PAS identifier (duplicated where multiple finds have been split into separate records)
Description: Freetext description. Any text following 'ADDITIONAL' has been added by the VASLE project
Functional group: Broad object grouping, added by VASLE
Objecttype: Artefact type, standardised by VASLE
Class: Classification scheme (see Table above)
Decorative style: Decorative information
Numdate1: Earliest date
Numdate2: Latest date
Broad subperiod: MSx = Middle Saxon; E/MSx = Early/Middle Saxon; LSx = Late Saxon; ASx = cannot be more finely dated than Middle/Late
Material1: Material; coded according to separate Material types table
Known as: Common name applied to the site
Parish: Civil parish name
District: District name
County: County name

(2) The sites dataset

It became clear as the VASLE project progressed that the examination of the nature of middle and late Saxon metalwork and/or coins assemblages from individual sites would require a separate dataset from that used in the first phase of the project. The focus on individual areas of activity meant that any source which provided a assemblage from a discrete site could be considered, making much more data available, notably from Historic Environment Records and excavation reports. In addition, by the time this phase of the project was undertaken (in 2007) many records had been added to both the national databases (the EMC and the PAS), so new downloads and filtering of these datasets was also undertaken.

This section describes the compilation of the VASLE 'Sites dataset'. In order to allow comparative dating, objects were categorised as either 'Middle Saxon', 'Late Saxon' or 'Middle/Late Saxon' (henceforth MS, LS and M/LS), and the criteria for this dating, which varied between sources, are highlighted in the discussion below. The way in which the assemblage for each 'site' was collected also varies between the different data sources, and is discussed below.

Filtering of PAS dataset for VASLE

Restrictions on time made it impossible to consider an assessment of the more recent PAS records as comprehensive as that which had been undertaken for the VASLE 'National dataset'. However, comparison of the PAS records of 'EARLY MEDIEVAL' artefacts (downloaded 30 May 2007) with the final VASLE 'National dataset' suggested that data cleaning to allow easy comparison between a range of data sources could be achieved by applying four principles:

1. excluding any object whose primary material is not metal

2. excluding any object whose 'date from' is 0 or after 1000

3. excluding any object whose 'date to' is 0 or before 700

4. excluding any object whose date range was more than 500 years

The first three criteria ensured that the data was relevant to VASLE's focus on coins and metalwork, and its study period in the middle to late Saxon era. The final criterion was intended to clean the data by excluding artefacts whose identification was essentially insecure and which might have distorted patterns in the better-quality data.

Examination of the dataset produced by this filtering revealed a number of artefact-types that were clearly early rather than middle Saxon still present in the dataset. It was therefore decided to apply another filter:

5. if an object could be dated to a range of <250 years, its start date must be after 700

This deleted a relatively small number of records that could be genuinely considered Middle Saxon, but reduced the number of apparently Early Saxon artefacts considerably. Of the remaining artefacts, the overwhelming majority with start-dates before 450 could clearly be identified as Early Saxon, so a final filter was applied:

6. The start-date of all artefacts must be after 450

This effectively removed the last significant group of early Saxon artefacts from the dataset.

Dating of PAS records

The next stage was to establish how, without individual examination of each record, a 'period' dating (i.e. MS, LS or M/LS) could be assigned to each objects. 'Sub-period' dates were available for some of the objects in the PAS database itself, but as they were not available for all records, they could not provide a consistent guide, and would, in any case have only been a partial solution. The period assignments for the VASLE 'Sites dataset' were therefore created using specific criteria identified for each source.

The PAS data was particularly complex, so several different analyses were necessary to establish the best way to attribute a period to each record. Firstly, the length of the date-range associated with the artefacts was analysed, as presented in Figure 1, to check what proportion of the data could be clearly identified as either middle or late Saxon. The major peaks at 100 and 200 years, indicate that the majority of the PAS data was quite closely dated. In fact, 84% of the artefacts filtered by the four criteria above had a date range that was less than 250 years and so could probably be assigned to a specific period.

Chart showing the Date-Range Analysis of PAS 'EARLY MEDIEVAL'  records of metal artefacts
Figure 1: Date-Range Analysis of PAS 'EARLY MEDIEVAL' records of metal artefacts

Having established that most records could probably be identified as middle or late Saxon, it was necessary to identify the most appropriate date to use as a boundary between the two. This was done by analysing the filtered records by the start- and end-dates of their date-ranges, as presented in Figures 2 and 3. Initial estimates of 700-850 for the MS date-range and 850-1000 for LS date-range seemed reasonable with the start-date analysis illustrated in Figure 2, which shows clear peaks at 700, 800, 850, 900 and 1000, suggesting that most of the Middle and Late Saxon artefacts had been entered into the database with an date-range starting with one of those dates. However, the end-date analysis, presented in Figure 3, showed that while there was a small peak at 850, there was a much larger peak at 900. This implied that 900 was more commonly used as a boundary by those inputting middle and late Saxon artefacts, i.e. many more had been assigned an end-date of 900 than 850.

Chart shwoing the Start-Date Analysis of PAS 'EARLY MEDIEVAL' metal artefacts
Figure 2: Start-Date Analysis of PAS 'EARLY MEDIEVAL' metal artefacts

Chart showing the End-Date Analysis of PAS 'EARLY MEDIEVAL' metal artefacts
Figure 3: End-Date Analysis of PAS 'EARLY MEDIEVAL' metal artefacts

Figure 3 therefore suggested that objects whose date ranges ended 900 should be classified as MS, while the peak at 850 in Figure 2 suggested that a smaller, but still significant number of LS objects had been inputted with a start date of 850. The following criteria were therefore used to assign a VASLE period to each record:

1. If the object's date range ended at or before 850, it was dated as MS

2. If the object's date range started at or before 850, it was dated as LS

3. If the object's date range ended at or before 900, and was greater than or equal to 125 years, it was dated as MS

4. All remaining objects were dated M/LS as their date range was either too long to be assigned specifically or was located too close to the boundary in the ninth century to be definitively assigned to either period.

The first two criteria are historically intuitive, placing the boundary between the middle and late Saxon periods at 850. The third criterion is a response to the likely dating of many middle Saxon objects with an end-date of 900 in the PAS; the requirement for the object to have a date-range of longer than 125 years ensures that objects that have been securely identified as basically ninth-century are not misleadingly described as 'Middle Saxon' in the VASLE dataset. The fourth criterion assigns MS/LS to all records not covered by the previous three for the reasons noted above.

Defining sites from PAS data

Sites were identified from the 'parish' field in the PAS database, so assemblages could theoretically come from several sites of activity within a single parish. Time constraints precluded the mapping of this parish data which could have confirmed that the assemblages from the 10 parishes for which the PAS is a significant, or unique, data source were indeed from discrete sites of early medieval activity.

Over time, more records of middle and late Saxon coins and metalwork are likely to be added to the parishes recorded in the VASLE 'sites' dataset; this is true for all of the data sources used apart from the published excavation or site assemblages. In order that the particular artefacts used in the VASLE analyses can be reconstructed, the source identification reference (in the case of the PAS, for example, this would be the Find ID) has been included for each record (in the 'SourceArtefactID' field of the VASLE 'Sites dataset'), so that it can be easily linked with the source data.

Filtering of EMC data for VASLE

Data from the EMC was much less complex to filter to the VASLE requirements than the PAS data. Dr Mark Blackburn kindly provided the project with a full download of the EMC from 7 October 2007. Coins were excluded if production began after AD 1000, in line with the VASLE study period of 700-1000. A circulation period of at least 30 years has been accepted for early medieval coins (Blackburn 2003), so at the earlier end of the study period coins were only excluded if their production began before 670.

Dating of EMC records

Coins can be dated much more precisely than objects, but the production of most coins is still dated to a range which covers several years. As noted above, coins may then continue to circulate for many years after this. However, in order to plot the coin charts produced within the project, each coin needed to be assigned a single date. It was decided to use the median of the date-range of production for this purpose. Other approaches have been taken to the dating of coins (such as the adjustment for circulation times in Blackburn 2003), but it was felt that the simplicity and consistency across all coin types of the median date of production were most appropriate to the needs of the VASLE analyses.

Very few coins in the EMC have a date range greater than 50 years so the median date was hardly ever more, and very often less, than 25 years from the date of production. Coins were therefore assigned as middle or late Saxon using the date of 870 as a simple dividing line - if their median date was earlier, they were classified as MS, if later, then MS. M/LS was not used for dating mid-ninth century coins as the median date established the middle or late dating with reasonable precision.

Defining sites from EMC data

The 'Findspot' field of the EMC database was used to identify and name individual sites. No other locational data was available, so it could not be definitively established that all of these were discrete sites, although in some cases (often identified by the term 'productive site' in the 'Findspot' field, which was carried over into the VASLE site name), it is known that they were. As with the PAS data, more records are likely to be added to these findspots, but the assemblages used in VASLE can be identified from the EMC numbers listed in the 'SourceArtefactID' field of the VASLE 'Sites dataset'.

Historic Environment Records

Data on single coin finds was collected for the project from the Norfolk HER in Gressenhall and the Suffolk HER in Bury St Edmunds. It was originally hoped that a number of other archives, in particular those of Lincolnshire (which has a significant representation in the PAS records) would be examined for the project. However, an initial assessment of the quantity and quality of the material from East Anglia, in particular the Norfolk HER at Gressenhall, lead to the decision to focus on completing the data-entry from these sources, and time constraints precluded further investigations.

Norfolk HER

An index of the data in the Norfolk HER is available online, but this gives only the artefact types recorded at each site. Determination of the quantity of each artefact type found at the site required consultation of the paper archive at the HER office in Gressenhall. The data recorded in this archive has been gathered over a period of decades and is of extremely high quality, with artefacts reliably identified in detailed entries, and securely dated. The support of the Norfolk HER staff is gratefully acknowledged, in particular Andrew Rogerson and Alice Cattermole, whose support and advice were of great benefit to the project. A considerable amount of time was devoted to the entry and processing of this data into the VASLE database, and most of it is published in detail for the first time in this context.

Dating of Norfolk HER records

The Norfolk HER assigned MS,LS, and MS/LS periods to all its coins and artefacts, so these assignments were carried over directly into the VASLE project, although in order to facilitate the dating analysis artefacts dated only as 'MS' or 'LS' in the SourceDate field were re-coded with an artificial numeric date ("753" or "953" respectively). For example, an artefact broadly dated as 'MS/LS' was re-coded with a SourceDateFrom "753" and a SourceDateTo "953".

Defining sites from Norfolk HER records

Detailed locational information was available for all the records within the HER. Sites included in the VASLE database were therefore mapped to confirm as far as possible that the assemblages came from unique areas of activity. This mapping was undertaken on a parish scale. Appropriate parishes were established through analysis of the HER index and with the advice of Andrew Rogerson, and the HER Sites and Monuments database was used to generate a list of all HER sites (the 'PrefRef' field in the HSMR database) which contained records of middle or late Saxon coins and metalwork. These were then mapped out and groups of related HER numbers identified as a discrete middle/late Saxon 'site'. The VASLE sites from Norfolk have all therefore been topographically identified, but as some of the locations are sensitive, they will not be published here; all the maps generated in the project will be archived at the HER in Norfolk, where they can be securely consulted for research purposes. The HER number for each record, however, is included in the 'SourceArtefactID' field of the VASLE 'Sites dataset'.

No examples of two significant and discrete areas of middle/late Saxon activity within a single parish were identified, so each 'site' was named by the parish in which it was located. The HER files were then consulted, and artefacts entered from all the HER numbers associated with the site to create the total assemblage. Data-entry was undertaken in September and October 2007; as much information as possible was entered into each record to enable identification of the VASLE records with the original files in the HER archive.

Suffolk SMR

Several sites within Suffolk have been the subject of dedicated research and VASLE has benefited in particular from Jon Newman's collated data for the important sites at Barham and Coddenham. Analysis of PAS data suggested a further three parishes: Freckenham, Ixworth and Lackford as potential areas of middle or late Saxon activity. Judith Plouviez extracted the PAS data from visibly discrete areas within these parishes (ie excluding outlying finds from the parish's assemblage). As with the Norfolk data, only one such site was noted from each parish (with the exception of Freckenham, where the data was extremely complex and only the main area of activity was considered), which was given the parish name. These extracts formed the assemblages of the VASLE sites, which, as with the PAS data, can be reconstructed using the PAS Find ID in the 'SourceArtefactID' field of the VASLE 'Sites dataset'. As this data was all derived ultimately from the PAS database, the same process was used for dating the artefacts as MS, LS or M/LS.

Other Sources

Several other published and unpublished sources were also utilised in order to complete the VASLE 'Sites dataset':

Barham, Suffolk Newman, pers comm
Beverley, East Yorkshire Armstrong et al 1991
Marlowe Car Park, Canterbury Blockley 1995
Coddenham, Suffolk Newman, pers comm
Cottam A Richards and Haldenby in prep
Cottam B Richards 1999
Cowlam Richards and Haldenby in prep
Hartlepool Cramp and Daniels 1987; Daniels 1988
Royal Opera House, London Malcolm et al 2003
Meols, Cheshire Griffiths et al 2008
Sandtun Gardiner et al 2001
South Newbald Leahy 2000
Southampton (Hamwic) Hinton 1996
Torksey, Lincolnshire Brown 2006
Wharram Percy Milne and Richards 1992; Stamper and Croft 2000
Whitby Abbey Peers and Radford 1939 (EMC data used for coins)
Fishergate, York Rogers 1993 (EMC data used for coins)

Identification of discrete sites from these sources followed the authors' own definitions in their published or forthcoming reports (see Newman 2003 for preliminary discussion of Barham and Coddenham). Assigning the MS/LS period to the artefacts followed the stratification in the excavation reports. For metal-detected finds, the period assignment followed the same principles as used for the PAS data.

The final list of fields in the main arfefact data table is:

VASLEArtefactID Unique artefact number assigned by VASLE
VASLESiteID Unique site number (see VASLE Sites table)
VASLEArtefactType Broad artefact class, assigned by VASLE:
  • Brooch
  • Coin
  • Hooked tag
  • Horse fitting
  • Other
  • Other Dress/Jewellery
  • Pin
  • Strap-end/fitting
VASLEMetal Primary material, assigned by VASLE:
  • Coin (Coins were retained as a distinct category)
  • Copper alloy
  • Gold
  • Iron
  • Lead
  • Silver
VASLEPeriod Broad period (see above)
  • Late Saxon
  • Middle Saxon
  • Late/Middle Saxon
VASLESourceComments Source for this record
SourceArtefactID Unique ID in source data
SourceArtefactType Artefact identification in source data
SourceMetal Material type in source data
SourceDateFrom Earliest date in source data
SourceDateTo Latest date in source data
DateRange Calculated date range (see above)


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