A Weekend in Winchester

A few weeks ago I went to visit one of my uni friends in the stunning city of Winchester.

We walked round it for a solid three and a half hours. I hadn’t brought the correct shoes for this, and so my feet were pretty tender by the end! I also took twelve billion photos (about 60 or 70 in reality) which was probably to be expected because if there was ever a city with a lot of history in plain sight, it was Winchester!

I’m therefore splitting my trip up into two posts today and tomorrow (making the “weekend” part of this post both my experience of doing it and yours in reading it! Yes, I think I’m clever right now) otherwise we’d all be drowning in photos.

Before I get down into the pictures, humour me in my place-name obsession. If you want to skip this, click here.

As a settlement, Winchester has existed for a very long time indeed. There are several Iron Age hillforts around the city. I visited one, called St Catherine’s Hill, which you can see on this image:

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 16.04.56
Source: http://www.natureonthemap.naturalengland.org.uk/MagicMap.aspx

I only took one photo of my climb unfortunately, and it is an uninspiring one of the way down.


After the Roman invasion, this place became known as Venta Belgarum. This is a pretty interesting name because Venta isn’t Roman. It’s pre-Celtic. Did the Romans usually continue pre-existing names? I know very little about Roman Britain.

The Belgares were the Celtic tribe in the area at the time. My place-names dictionary only has “Venta” as the earliest recording, so was Belgares something descriptive added later?

Ah, add it all to my list of things which need further investigation.

So yes, the earliest form of this in my dictionary is “Ouenta” from about 150 CE. Then the Anglo-Saxon invasion happened, and the next recorded name is “Uintancaestir” in about 730. I have briefly mentioned this “caster/cester/chester etc” Anglo-Saxon name form before. It’s a very specific name which they gave to settlements that used to be Roman. This time they even kept the Roman name (more or less)!

My meanderings through history are over.

Onto the pictures!

The first place that we went to was the Great Hall. We had a really excellent tour; however I didn’t take notes or make recordings so I’ll be backing up what I remember from the photographs with judicious googling.


This is the famous Round Table of Winchester. It was made between 1250–1280 but only painted by Henry VII in the early 1500s. Our guide explained which I’m not sure is 100% true but is 100% hilarious: in the intervening 300 years, people forgot how the table had been made, and what had started as merely a homage to the Arthurian legends became considered the actual legendary table itself.

(It was absolutely huge, that photo can’t really do it justice. It would have filled most of the top half of the room!)

Here you can see underneath the table to the left (as you’re looking at it) is a male figure and to the right is a female figure. This showed the side that the king and queen sat on, when this was used for its original royal hall purpose.


Over the years the Great Hall was used as a courthouse quite a lot, and this was where the prisoners would go – presumably just until they were sentenced? Can’t remember. It’s a really small hole. Creepy.


That faint white area in amongst the stones is a remnant of the original  13th century wall.


I spent a very long time looking at this. This is a massive painting on the back wall of the hall. I’ve forgotten what the names actually were – were they MPs? Argh, I forget. However, for me the much more interesting thing was watching the progression of surnames.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, before surnames were inherited they existed as descriptive bynames. So, John Johnsson, John the Baker, John from Winchester, John the Short. Etc. All throughout this side of the wall, the earliest side, you have names like:

“1337 Robertus de Popham” (and roughly 20 years later in 1353, presumably a relative, Johannes de Popham)

This is a locative byname, showing either where he was from or where he was in charge of if he was an important person.  Five seconds of googling and you can see here that Popham was a tiny hamlet near Winchester (first documented 903 CE!), and that both Robert and John were members of the manor family.

These types are most common on the early wall, but you do get unmarked surnames which could have been hereditary (I’d have to do some serious digging to find this out), such as

“1349 Rogerus Normound” or “1345 Richard’s Fromound”

By the very bottom of the early wall in 1381, both names in that year are unmarked (Thomas Wortyne and Johannes Sandes) and as far as I remember from thereon in no-one has a “de” name. So I am hesitantly and on zero proof suggesting that this is an interesting and accidental view of surnames switching from descriptive to hereditary.

So we’re done in the Great Hall now; moving on!


Text reads: In pre-historic times, the Itchen flowed in two main channels in the centre of the river valley, near the Cathedral. Following the foundation of the Roman town, about 70AD, this new artificial channel was created. This both reduced the chance of flooding in the town centre and provided an eastern defensive moat. In the medieval period, the river was nearly twice as wide as today.

Following along similar ancient lines, this is an actual piece of the Roman wall. Two thousand years old. I got chills.

Next we went to Wolvesey Castle. Most of the remains are from the 12th century. It is hands down the coolest set of ruins I’ve ever been in because the walls are so intact that it retains the sense of size and scale.





And finally to finish this tour we will positively zoom up the timeline to have a look at the house which Jane Austen died in!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed looking at all the photographs! See you again soon.

A Weekend in Winchester

Redcar and the royal burial

Over the weekend I visited the Kirkleatham Museum in Redcar to check out the Anglo-Saxon exhibit they have there. This is the first time my trip had involved an actual official exhibition, and it was definitely a more detailed experience.

The geographically astute among you are probably noticing that Redcar is an exceedingly long way away from Huntingdonshire. Unless you’re American or from another large country, in which case you probably don’t think that anywhere in Britain is very far away from the rest of it.

I got there because I went up to Darlington to visit a friend. Because she has done Nanowrimo (except properly with a novel) several times, she was sympathetic to my constant search for these daily posts, and so off we tootled to the coast. After she’d patiently stood around while I took photographs of literally everything I could see, including using her height to take better photos, we went to the seaside and got chips and ice-cream. Best trip ever is what I’m saying.

As I said up there, this was a proper museum exhibit. This means that I wasn’t just taking photos of small pieces of buildings, or of things displayed in one small room. This covered the whole second floor; multiple rooms, multiple rooms. Even the gift shop was excellent, since they sold an extremely detailed guide for only £3, written by the same person who’d written … dun dun dun … THE ACTUAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL REPORT.


(Please remember my complete thing for original sources.)

But yeah, so what I mean is that there was a lot of information there. It was exciting. Basic story: they were excavating an area expecting it to be full of Iron Age. They did find some of that, but they also found something completely unexpected: a luxurious royal burial and small cemetery in a 7th century Anglo-Saxon settlement.

You should all go, but in lieu of that, here is my little tour:


This is the exterior of the museum itself. It’s a Grade II* listed building, I think, and is quite impressive all by itself.

In I went, into the reception area and gift shop where the very nice people behind the desk directed us to the only exhibition I cared about:


Into the first room!


I intend to discuss this kind of thing more in this last week of daily blogging: the international nature of high status Anglo-Saxon life. I know the images aren’t clear: the caption is “Trade links across the world in Saxon Times” and some examples from the close-up map are ivory from Africa, garnets from beyond the edge of the map (Middle East? China?? Not sure) and amber from the Baltic. This room also had a detailed timeline and a map of the broad areas of the main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In the second room you could watch a little living history-esque film about the Anglo-Saxon “princess” who is the undisputed star of this exhibition.


She was buried in a bed, which as you will later on was a very rare type of burial. Mock-up of it here:


In the next two rooms, you had these ever so slightly creepy models showing what houses and farms would have looked like at the time.

The next room had a number of Anglo-Saxon games, and a quern stone for grinding flour.






Text: “This diorama is a not to scale representation of the Royal Saxon settlement excavated at modern day Street House. It shows the unusual layout of the cemetery (including the bed burial structure), the people and buildings of the settlement itself, and a small ship lying on the beach at nearby Skinningrove, as her crew trade goods with the local inhabitants.”


tldr; The excavated cemetery is unique in the Anglo-Saxon world. It was only used for a short time, and was focused on grave 42 (bed burial) with many beautiful golden pendants also being found there.

Here you can see the remnants of the burial bed, which meant that the archaeologists and researchers could figure outwit the bed would have looked like. Unusually for a bed burial it was apparently a previously-used bed, and not one built for the occasion.








And here are the most impressive of the grave goods:





If you can’t see the text, it basically says that all the jewellery here was very rare and unusual, and this specific example is of Iron Age coins being used as part of a necklace. These were already antiques for the Anglo-Saxons, being at least 600 years old at the time, so would have been a brilliant status piece and probably very expensive, same as antiques today.



And acknowledgements of the huge amount of hard work that this exhibition has clearly taken:


Thanks for reading!

Redcar and the royal burial

An exceedingly natural burial

The French do make my life difficult sometimes. For once I’m not talking about the Normans, or even the French public toilets of my childhood holidays.

I have an alert set up for when “Anglo-Saxons” get mentioned in the news, and it’s often filled with French newspapers talking about us. Like, I know we as a country left the rational world a good ten months ago and are charging onward to the moon yelling “WE CAN DO ANYTHING!”, but still, stop clogging up my early medieval interests!

Eventually I found a couple of recent pieces of news about Anglo-Saxon discoveries. Sadly these won’t be quite as thorough as I was able to be with the cannibalism vs vampire story, because I can’t find the original report behind either story.

Today’s is about … well, not quite mummified trees. Kind of exactly the opposite, if you’re associating mummies with heat and drying out. Preserved. Really stunningly well-preserved.

(I tried to come up with an Old English heading along the line of “waterlogged trees” but couldn’t find any decent adjectives and couldn’t for the life of me think what tense the verb would be in (trees which had been soaked???). Ah language skills, I miss you.)

The story is about a discovery of two very rare types of Anglo-Saxon grave on a dig in Great Ryburgh in Norfolk. I’ll link you to the funding body’s article, Historic England, for want of a better source. I don’t know if I can use the images from that so I won’t – you should really go and look at them!

(I love learning about things like this. It can be so difficult to picture people from a long time ago without actual things to look at.)

As it obviously by now, these graves involved trees. The majority, with 81, were tree trunks. I think they were oak trees. These had been cut in half lengthwise and hollowed out. The bodies went in the bottom half and the top half was the lid. To continue the mummy theme, imagine a kind of tree sarcophagus. (Click the link up there and you’ll find an option to explore one of the coffins in 3d!). This is an ancient form of burial which we first see evidence for in the early Bronze Age, so, around 2000BC.

Forgot to mention: not only were the graves still around, so were the skeletons inside! Truly phenomenal preservation.

One of the things that I found most fascinating about this form of burial is that the trees had to come from somewhere, reliably, in large quantities. Did the Anglo-Saxon community involved “farm” the trees? “Death Orchards”? Did they perhaps trade for the trees with other areas? And the work was extremely intensive, up to 4 days work according to the Historic England article, so again was that labour which came from within the Norfolk community or was that bought in? If it wasn’t skilled work, just difficult, maybe slaves were involved? I would assume that the burials would be high-status but there were so many of them!

(Yes, the Anglo-Saxons had slaves. I’ll try to do something on this later)

The remaining six graves were even rare and more unusual. The grave space was cut into the ground and then the area was lined with planks of wood and more planks were used for the covering/lid. These are thought to be the earliest examples of this type of burial yet found in England.

However, the buzzword on most of the newspaper articles about this was “Christian”, because the lack of buried possessions and apparent timber church foundations nearby, along with east-west oriented placement, suggests this rural 7th – 9th century Norfolk settlement was Christian. There’s a novel Christian funeral for you – inside a tree.

The only reason that these pieces of wood remain so astonishingly intact is apparently:

James Fairclough, Archaeologist from MOLA said: “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive, revealing remarkable details of Christian Anglo-Saxon burial practices.””

Lots of future study is planned on the bodies and the coffins to find about more how they lived and died, and finds from the dig will be kept at the Norwich Castle Museum.

There we go, a summary of a unique find. Hopefully in a while I can link back to this blog as I discuss their findings on the skeletons’ lives, but if not I have certainly enjoyed reading around the internet about this.

Hope you enjoyed reading too; let me know!


An exceedingly natural burial

A Quick News Roundup

Things have occurred and I am in a grumpy and demotivated mood, but since this is a challenge and I am sticking to it, dammit, I will just show you some links to nice/cool Anglo-Saxon/Viking/etc things which have happened (fairly) recently.

The Jorvik Viking Centre has reopened after massive flood damage at the end of 2015. Their “reimagined” exhibition is a whole collection of experiences based around the discovered remains of York while it was under Scandinavian control (remind me to do a 101 on this). I really, really need to go one day.

In 2015, researchers at the University of Nottingham working in a thoroughly interdisciplinary fashion (can’t think of many other times when medievalists work with biologists!) discovered that an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections not only works, but actually kills the superbug MRSA. Thus creating the new field of “ancientbiotics”! (Actual study here – remember, go to the study!!) This research is still very much alive and kicking today across the pond. I remember feeling very proud of my university when I heard about this – and also it’s a good kick in the teeth to those people who believe that progress is linear, our technology is best, and nothing can ever be learned by looking backwards. I might do a full blog post on it soon.

The brilliant Anglo-Saxon exhibition and living history farm which I knew as Bede’s World in 2013 (actually for some reason I always called it Bede’s Farm??) had major issues with funding and looked set to go under, but has now re-opened as Jarrow Hall. I desperately need to go back there too.

OK, this may only interest me, but, the phenomenally detailed Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland was published late 2016. I have met one of the editors! (Actually I have seen talks by him, two research associates, and a researcher of Irish names. Rubbing shoulders with the greats at the place-names conference last month!)

Do you really know what “Viking” means?

And last but not least, possibly my next trip:

The University of Nottingham Museum (Lakeside Arts) is opening up a new Viking and Anglo-Saxon exhibition. THINK OF ALL THE PHOTOS.

That’s all for tonight, see you again tomorrow!

A Quick News Roundup

Spel Banum – The Story of Bones

I had a different blog topic planned for today, but a friend sent me a very interesting article instead.

(Also please forgive the bastardised Old English in the title. I couldn’t resist giving it a go.)

So today we are looking at the collection of mutilated bones found in the medieval settlement of Wharram Percy. This archaeological study has just been released, and I am delighted to say that it’s Open Access, which means FREEEEEEE, and you can read it here if you want to. I’d recommend it. That was the one thing that my Masters really drilled into my head: always go to the original source where possible.

Let’s just indulge my main interest for five seconds:

Wharram: Old English hwer “kettle/cauldron” but in the plural dative (-um), so it’s more like “(missing word) at the cauldrons”. First attested in the Domesday book as Warran.

Percy: de Percy, from the Percy family.

(All information from A Dictionary of British Place-Names by A. D. Mills (revised first edition, 2011).

Ok, good, that was cool, let’s go!


A collection of bones was found during an excavation for something else entirely in 1964. They were originally shrugged off as Roman remains, but some of them were carbon-dated somewhere between 182-86 and revealed to be from much later. Ten more samples were sent to be dated in 2014.

(Update for those unaware, the Romans were in Britain from AD43 to about AD410.)

Some of these bones were marked in ways that suggested they had been burnt, hit hard with something sharp, and broken soon after death. Some of the sharp implements used were knives, and others were “a sword or other sharp bladed implement”. (I wonder how many farming tools come under that heading …) The age range of the bones went all the way from 3 years old to over 50.

In sum, the whole collection consists of 137 bones representing a minimum of 10 individuals: six full adults (two females, two probable males, two unsexed), one possible female who died in her late teens/early 20s (above enumerated with the adults), one subadult in their mid teens, one child aged about 2–4 and one aged about 3–4 years.

We’re not talking full skeletons here, or anything close, as you can probably tell by those numbers. One complete human skeleton has over 200 bones. So. Bits and pieces.

Because I’m a medical nut too, I liked finding out that there was evidence of these diseases in the bones found: degenerative joint conditions, porotic hyperostosis and a case of Paget’s disease of bone.

The radiocarbon dating showed that most of the people probably died between 1000-1250.

So what happened to them?

Well, the investigation suggests that the heads were severed from the bodies before being burnt, and that the limbs were probably lying on the ground rather than stacked up in a fire since only one side of them is burnt. All the sharp implement marks were found on bones from the upper body, and all bar three of the marks are from extremely sharp un-serrated metal knives. They were probably buried elsewhere else before ending up in the pit where they were found. The scientists rule out several possibilities, like victims of battle (not enough sword marks) or a group of people excluded from church burials (suicides and unbaptised babies for example). They came up with two possibliltes: cannibalism through starvation, or:

“attempts to lay the revenant dead.”

Understandably the media has seized on “vampires” as their story, but I like the cannibalism theory, so let’s run through that briefly.

Potentially gruesome words ahead.

Medieval rural society was almost wholly harvest dependent – bad harvest meant a really, really bad food year. The study notes that between 1066 and 1300 twelve famines were recorded. And that was just the ones considered, and I quote, “worthy of note”. Wharram Percy’s soil wasn’t ideal quality for agriculture, and its upland northern location also made harvests less reliable than those lower down/more southern. (Despite what my mother thinks, those two things are not interchangeable). There isn’t much documentary evidence for medieval cannibalism, but the situation could have been severe enough, and other countries and places have shown that resorting to this does happen.

  • Some of the long bones were broken: this could have been to extract tasty fatty bone marrow. Yum.
  • They weren’t cooked in a pot, but could still have been roasted.
  • There are some knife marks on bones which could indicate filleting the meat, but on the other hand the knife marks concentration around the head and lack beneath the chest area doesn’t fit known cannibalism patterns.
  • The cut marks, burning and some breaking of these human bones are all different from those found on animal bones from Wharram Percy. This might indicate they weren’t being prepared for food, or simply, I think, that human remains in such desperate straits were treated differently.
  • My Personal Thought: one of the diseases found in the bones, portico hyperostosis, has been used to show lack of adaption to environment, low iron due to fighting disease, and vitamin deficiencies. Sounds like a malnourished population to me …

Ok, fine, to the vampires. Zombies. Whatever.

People used to believe that corpses could rise from the grave, after death but before the flesh decomposed fully. These reanimated corpses generally had bad and destructive intentions. Though the Church tried to claim this belief had Satan at its roots, it might be far older than Christianity in Britain and was generally believed to happen to dead people who a) had done bad, bad things in life and had some leftover evil to spare or b) people who died very suddenly and so still had some life energy left over. How to deal with these horrors? Well, dig them up, cut them up, and burn them!

The fire at Wharram Percy wasn’t very hot (about 400 degrees) but would have been hot enough to remove or distort the skin and flesh, thus getting rid of the danger.

What’s the point of breaking the corpse’s legs if its flesh is the problem? Well, who knows, but it’s been recognised as a way that these corpses were dealt in other occurrences of reanimation.

Recorded “zombies” were always adults, and almost always men. This would seem to cast doubt on this interpretation, since as stated above there was a real mix of genders and ages in the Wharram Percy bones. However, documentary evidence is not the be all and end all, especially in an era without widespread literacy, and when looking at something that the church considered a sticky subject.

The authors think that the evidence weighs in the direction of reanimated corpses. I’m intrigued by the idea that it might have been cannibalism. Neither of these explanations explain why the bones were found in a pit away from where they had been buried, separate from the rest of their skeletons. I love a mystery.

Let me know what you think, or indeed if you’ve managed to read this far at all!


Spel Banum – The Story of Bones