Great Sites: Hamwic
British Archaeology, Issue 66, August (2002)
For much of the 20th century, historians and archaeologists believed that the 7th and 8th centuries AD were economically disastrous for Britain and North-West Europe. Following the influentual thesis of historian Henri Pirenne, developed in the 1920s and 1930s, this was believed to be when – thanks to the Islamic advance westward – the former north-west provinces of the Roman Empire were once and for all cut off from the Mediterranean. As a result, they were plunged into an economic ‘dark age’ characterized by sparse, debased coinage and a collapse of long-distance trade. These centuries also, so it was believed, delivered the coup de grâce to whatever remained of town life.
Anglo-Saxon Southampton – or Hamwic as it was then known – has, more than any other site, helped to reshape our thinking about the fate of long-distance trade and the origins of towns in England during this critical period. It has long been known from written sources that Hamwic was a port and market during the 8th and early 9th centuries. Indeed, we now know that, far from being a ‘dark age’, this period saw an economic resurgence in Anglo-Saxon England. The Life of St. Willibald, for example, records that in around 721 the saint caught the 8th century equivalent of a cross-channel ferry from a place near Hamwic, which is described as a commercial port (mercimonium). Hamwic (also known as Hamtun) must have possessed considerable administrative importance, as by the middle of the 8th century it had given its name to the shire – Hamtunscire, that is, Hampshire.