On the 24th of March, I rocked up to the Milton Hill hotel in Oxfordshire. It was 20:30 on a Friday and I’d driven straight from work. I was very tired, but also elated for completing what, for me, was a long and complicated car journey.
So why did I do that to myself? It certainly wasn’t for the hotel itself, though it did have swimming pool, spa and coffee on tap included in the room price. My room was nice too, and my bathroom could have fitted at least one more bath in it – unnecessarily large room. Even the grounds were gorgeous. But no, I wasn’t there for any of that relaxing stuff. I was there to spend the best part of 9am til 9pm in one room, listening to a string of different people.
Why?? Because this was the annual conference of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland. Where learned academics and well-researched amateurs turn up to present papers on place-names.
Now, place-names, in case you didn’t know, was my favourite topic during my Master’s (which I do keep mentioning without explaining, it was this one). It’s the study of the origins of names of places (funny that) and how they have then been altered down the years, and about what that knowledge can tell us about the languages, settlements, agriculture, status … place-names can tell us an awful lot about the people who lived there, basically.
So yeah. I love place-names. I also desperately miss the whole university experience, even including writing coursework! So visiting this conference as a day delegate was the perfect combination: it allowed me to still feel like I was plugging into the academic world and more specifically the place-name world.
It’s also a peculiar conference, or so I was informed, because it allows presentations from people who aren’t place-name academics. Again, perfect, as it wouldn’t require post-doc levels of knowledge from me.
So I listened to all of the talks. Some I enjoyed more than others, some I understood more than others, and some I found interesting for almost completely unrelated reasons. I’m disappointed to say that my attention didn’t always hold, especially just before lunch and after 8pm, and that I often didn’t take notes because I stupidly thought I would actually remember things, so some of my summaries will be, uh … supplemented … with the abstracts we were given (see here.)
Land use in East Oxford – comparing the test-pit and field-name evidence (Katie Hambrook and Jane Harrison)
This was a great starting talk as it addressed something I really only got into briefly in my Masters; namely the importance and potential usefulness of research which involves more than one discipline. In this case you had Jane Harrison from the East Oxford Archaeology Field Project, which had dug some test pits in an area of interest, and Katie Hambrook investigating the place-names in the same areas. As I understood it, they were looking for evidence from both types which agreed with each other to form more solid conclusions which they might not otherwise have reached.
A test-pit, by the way, is a one metre square “mini excavation” studied in 10cm layers of soil for fragments of pottery and other materials called sherds.
(Fun fact: I 100% thought they were just mispronouncing shards and was exceedingly confused until I could sneak a Google on my phone)
They can help with dating subjects such as when did this land start to be farmed? However, of course, as they are so small they require very careful interpreting and ideally a large amount of local knowledge.
On the place-names side of things, the sources used to study the field-names in the area were documents referring to the university estates and the 1004 charter. As I might have said before, it is vital to always find the earliest occurrences of place-names that you possibly can. This goes doubly for field-names (names of fields, rivers, streets, etc), since they can change a lot more readily than names of settlements.
Do I have anything written down about their actual results? You know, the important bit?? Of course not. *sighs*. Maybe I was googling “sherds” at the time. I do remember that far fewer field names could be used than Katie wanted, and that there was something about a name on a hill? I’m hopeless. I actually have a better memory of the soil type map we were shown than the results. There will be more of this uselessness ahead.
Next up was one of those presentations that I had a completely unrelated reason to be interested in: ‘Place-names and the study of the medieval wool trade in Gloucester’ by Kishli Laister-Scott. Why the interest? Well, because my dad is currently involved in a campaign to get more people buying wool carpets, and my youngest brother did his History dissertation on the impact that the Industrial Revolution had on the wool industry. (Something like that. Let’s see if he reads this blog at all). So my ears prick up when I hear ‘wool’, as sad as that may be.
Kishli studied the Cotswolds, which was known as one of the best medieval wool producing areas. She had noticed as part of her wider thesis research that there seemed to be an assumption in the literature that places with names referencing sheep had been involved in the well-known medieval wool trade, but those statements weren’t really backed up with evidence. So she decided to go searching for proof or negation of this idea.
A lot of my notes refer to interesting details she told us about the medieval wool trade, such as the huge extent to which the Church was involved, and that it said in the Domesday book that the queen at the time was entitled to Cirencester wool. However, as far as direct correlation between sheep place-names and important wool places, she couldn’t find much. One of the only points was that the three earliest names were near the biggest wool fair, Northleach. This could have been because the big players in the wool industry didn’t live in the relatively small places named for sheep; they were huge landowners and monastic houses. The Anglo-Saxons, who named most of the places studied, seemed to care far more about sheep milk than their wool. In fact, Kishli actually found that there were more cattle names in the area than sheep! This could make sense, as owning cattle was seen as a wealth indicator for the Anglo-Saxons.
I’ll come back and ramble on some more tomorrow. Watch as the quality of my note-taking steadily decreases. TBC.