Dark Age Traffic on the Bristol Channel, UK: A Hypothesis

Dark Age Traffic on the Bristol Channel, UK: A Hypothesis

By Nancy Hollinrake

International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol.36:2 (2007)

Abstract: Exotic pottery from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Gaul in the late 5th to 7th centuries is recognized as the characteristic find from Dark Age sites in Ireland and western Britain. But there is no consensus on the mechanisms by which they arrived. Interpretations range from diplomatic gifts through souvenirs to commerce. This attempt to resolve the issue is based on sites around the Bristol Channel. The quantities of pottery and numbers of sites are used to generate a rough estimate of the number of ships carrying the pottery to the area. It is argued that the estimated volume represents commercial trade.

Introduction: Since the 1960s it has been known that the Bristol Channel area was a major trade route for the importation of goods from the Mediterranean and Gaul in the Dark Ages, the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain and the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the West of Britain. In Somerset this dates roughly from AD 400 to 700, while the same period was extended in Wales until the disruptions of the Viking attacks. During this time the indigenous post-Roman British and Irish populations conducted their own affairs. The evidence for this exotic trade is in the form of pottery, but there may also have been perishable goods for which we now have no evidence. Find-spots of this pottery occur throughout the western parts of the British Isles, chiefly at or near to the coasts of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The dates of the finds suggest that they were imported into Britain throughout the 5th and 6th centuries.

Excavation of this type of pottery is often the clearest sign of the re-occupation of Iron-Age hillforts, suggesting aristocratic associations, but it is also found on other types of site as well. Sites like Trethurgy Round in Cornwall, for example, appear to show all the signs of being defended farmsteads, while Reask and Whithorn are monastic sites. Although Glastonbury and Carhampton are also monasteries, the imported pottery from both those sites was found in close association with metal-working. No clear pattern of deposition has so far emerged, although the suggestion that the imports should be considered to represent much-sought-after high-status items and commodities is difficult to refute.

Such large quantities of this pottery have been recovered from Tintagel that many scholars suggest this as proof of a commercial basis to the transactions, although other mechanisms have been put forward to account for this importation, such as gift-exchange, the high status of the site, and personal purchases by pilgrims to the Holy Land. Harris has suggested that the Mediterranean imports could have arrived in Britain as diplomatic gifts from the Emperor Justinian, who ruled Byzantium between 527 and 565. Apart from Tintagel, there is general agreement that the volume of the pottery is not great. The quantity of the trade, however, is crucial for its interpretation; only large quantities of imports may be interpreted as the product of commercial trade.

The Bristol Channel lies to the north of Cornwall, between south Wales and the coasts of Devon and Somerset, narrowing at its eastern end in the estuary of the River Severn. Lundy Island lies at its south-western margin. With the publication of the excavations at South Cadbury in Somerset, and other publications of excavated Dark Age sites in that region, it is now possible to quantify the imported pottery found in this part of the seaway.

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