The Heroic Age

Issue 4

Winter 2001


What's in a name?

Britons, Angles, ethnicity and material culture from the fourth to seventh centuries

by Keith J Matthews

Chester College of Higher Education & Chester Archaeology

Abstract: The emergence of various 'ethnically' based polities in early medieval Britain has long been a source of debate and confusion. I explore how ethnic self-identity is constructed and how the identities of the former Roman citizens of Britain changed. It is something that cannot be answered by archaeology alone; nor is a uniquely historical approach appropriate. A fully multidisciplinary examination is necessary.

A version of this paper was delivered at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference at Leicester in 1997.


Transition periods in archeaology
The fourth- to seventh-century transtitions
The 'End of Roman Britain'
The Adventus Saxonum
The fate of the Britons
Self-identity and ethnicity
Material culture and ethnicity
Cymru and Englisc:  polar opposites hopelessly intertwined?


The centuries encompassing the end of the Roman period and the emergence of the polities that eventually coalesced into the three major political units of the British mainland can be regarded as the basis for contemporary debates about national and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom. As such, they are of prime importance to our self-perception. The period has been studied by historians and archaeologists, but with no answers to these questions. More than in any other three centuries, virtually every supposed fact becomes a subject for repeated debate and speculation.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this period is that we can perceive a Britain that is in some sense 'Roman' in the mid fourth century, and several polities that are developing distinctive regional styles of material culture that we can retrospectively label 'Welsh/Cornish', 'Saxon' and 'far northern' by the mid seventh. It is because the processes of change during the intervening centuries remain obscure that the period has long been fascinating to archaeologists. The problem is not one of interpreting large numbers of conflicting documents, sifting through complex material remains or of a complete dearth of material. The material is there and the story they seem to tell ought to be clear enough, but something does not quite add up: how does England become ethnically English?

The question I shall pose in this paper is: how was it that the island, with inhabitants numbering somewhere between two and six million (extremes summarised in Salway: 544), managed so complete an apparent population change that the Britons, from being a substantial majority in AD 350, evidently became a minority by AD 650? What happened to the Britons that they were apparently extirpated from the lowlands and replaced by an Anglo-Saxon population?

In this paper, I will explore some possible answers to these questions. To do this, we need to understand something of how ethnic self-identity is constructed. We must also examine how the identities of the former Roman citizens changed and how the notion of the Angelcynn ('English kind') and the Cymru ('comrades') came into being. It is something that cannot be answered by archaeology alone; nor is a uniquely historical approach appropriate. This is an area where a fully multidisciplinary examination is necessary.

Transitional periods in archaeology

Transitional periods are widely recognised to be one of the most important research topics in modern archaeology. For instance, we have all sorts of questions about the developments that led one hominid species towards another as one of the biggest questions in all of archaeology, not just the Lower Palaeolithic. Nevertheless, even in the post-glacial period, we still tend to find that change fascinates more than stability and is what archaeologists seek to explain rather than merely document.

The transition from hunter-gatherer economies to farming that marks the change from Mesolithic to Neolithic is one that still holds an immense fascination for archaeologists. Both in the heartlands of agricultural development - the Mexican basin, the Yangtse valley, the Zagros foothills and so on - and in the areas to which the new technologies spread, the process of change is complex and deservedly the focus of much research. At the other end of the timescale, we have the recent growth of interest in European colonial archaeology in the New World and the transitions from purely indigenous and invasive cultures to those that show some amalgamation (or, at least, westernisation).

The End of Roman Britain is one of those romantic transitional events that stands out in British history, like the Battle of Hastings, the Spanish Armada and so on. We have deeply ingrained notions about the cultured Romans and the ghastly barbarians who destroyed their way of life; we English are still required by the National Curriculum to teach our children about invading Saxons and the destruction of urban (in other words civilised) life. >From the political mêlée of the fifth and sixth centuries grew the numerous kingdoms that finally united as England, Wales and Scotland around the tenth century.

The growth of Scottish, and to a lesser extent, Welsh nationalism and independence movements in recent decades has led to a new urgency for debate about precisely what it means to belong to one of the nations of the United Kingdom. The current (and often heated) debate about Celticity has been characterised by some as an attempt to retain an English political hegemony in the face of oppressed minority cultures, an assertion that has been hotly denied (e.g. Megaw & Megaw 1996: 180; James 1998; Megaw & Megaw 1998: 433; James 1999: 16). The debate has so far hardly affected the English consciousness apart from anger at the Scottish Nationalist Party's suggestion that only those of Scots ancestry be allowed to vote in a future referendum about independence from the UK.

This period when the states of medieval and modern Britain formed has been studied by historians for centuries (and archaeologists for about a century), but each new study finds different answers. If nothing else, this should alert us to the complexity of the situation. We should, in a way, expect this: periods of transition are inherently likely to be times of social upheaval, personal disorientation and polarisation of attitudes. I would argue that this is something we can see very clearly in the fourth to seventh centuries. This is a period when the truism that we can only view the past through the present should be apparent even to the most dyed-in-the-wool empiricist.

By focusing on the fifth- and sixth-century transformations of material culture, archaeologists have become fixated on their supposed ethnic correlates. This is apparently reinforced by the historical evidence. There has long been a swing between two views of the Saxon advent: explaining the change in terms either of mass migration or of small-scale military activity. I will suggest that neither model explains the observed changes adequately and that we need to think more carefully about how ethnicity is constituted and expressed.

The fourth- to seventh-century transitions

In AD 350, Britain was part of the Roman Empire, a diocese on the far northwestern fringes and part of the Prefecture of Gaul. True enough, it had had its share of internal and external troubles - usurpers, rebellions, barbarian raids - but in many ways, it had escaped the troubles of the third century more lightly than Gaul or the Germanies. It had an urban élite, responsible for local and provincial government, men of letters, industrial-scale pottery production and a burgeoning church. In short, it possessed all the trappings of an average western province, albeit one seen as a socially marginal backwater (Wood: 6 note 37).

A century later, though, the situation was quite different. The Roman government was a distant memory, the consumer economy destroyed and any sense of belonging to a wider European political community lost. Only the Church remained as a universal institution, a point that comes across clearly in Patrick's writings. On the other hand, it is hard to see exactly what had replaced the Roman ways. Tribute had presumably replaced tax in those areas-such as the Wroxeter hinterland-where a continuity of social institutions can be postulated (hence the disappearance of coinage), cottage industries had replaced large-scale manufacturing (hence the loss of wheel-made ceramics, for instance), but what of the men of letters and the ecclesiastics? Writing in the middle of this muddle, St Patrick seems blissfully unaware that Britain was then - apparently - in a state of socio-economic and political decay. True, he had been captured in youth by Irish raiders, but he presents this as a fact of life deriving from circumstances of piracy outside Britain, not a disaster arising from internal political chaos. Home-wherever that my have been in western Britain-does not appear to be in any danger.

A century and a half after this, the situation is different yet again. We can identify a number of polities that are recognisably Welsh, English and far-northern (i.e. Pictish, Scottish and 'Strathclydian'), with their own distinctive forms of material culture, settlement patterns, political systems, languages and so on. We can view the three centuries from AD 350 to 650 as hiding a single, poorly located 'End' of Roman Britain, with a transition to the successor states, or we can view the period (or at least part of it) as a discrete entity, the infelicitously named 'sub-Roman' period.

The real problem depends ultimately on our views of ethnic change. Can it only be achieved by a large-scale population replacement, or can it be achieved through other means, such as acculturation? I will return to this question shortly. It is one that has largely been ignored by historians, whose views of ethnicity and ethnic change have tended to be essentialist, viewing ethnic identity as something fixed, a 'given', which somehow resides in the blood or (with a more up-to-date twist) in the genes. David Dumville's classic paper 'Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend' (Dumville 1977: 174) offers a wish list of historical questions he would like to answer. It occupies an entire paragraph. Even so, ethnic identity does not figure in it.

The 'End of Roman Britain'

The 'End of Roman Britain' is generally viewed as an event. This has been the case since the late fifth century, when the Byzantine historian Zosimus claimed that around AD 411 "the inhabitants of Britain ... were obliged to throw off Roman rule and live independently." Ian Wood (passim) has shown how Byzantine historiography developed a 'pack of cards' view of the collapse of the west, beginning in Britain and gradually reaching the centre.

Native tradition presents a slightly different framework, in common with other parts of the west. It depends ultimately on Gildas, a younger contemporary of Zosimus. This British tradition saw the beginning of the end in the various tyrants (tyranni) who stripped Britain of its male youth, taken to Europe as soldiers to help in their bids for the throne. Gildas sees this as the end of Roman rule: exin Britannia omni armato milite militaribus copiis rectoribus licet immanibus ingenti iuuentute spoliata quae comitata uestigiis supradicti tyranni domum nusquam ultra rediit ...[1] (de Excidio 13 in Winterbottom: 93).

Nevertheless, what is striking in Gildas is the way in which he discusses post-Maximus Britain. In his view, Rome abandoned the province, asserting itself only in reaction to appeals for help, two of which were successful. Whatever we think of the historicity of Gildas's account of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, his view is valuable as an alternative to the Byzantine.

Archaeology does not deal easily with single events. Rather, it detects processes and the effects of events. The archaeology of the early fifth century is often hard to recognise because it is difficult to separate deposits of this date from those of the late fourth century. It does not actually help us at all in defining when the Roman government of Britain ended. What it does show, though, is that the first half of the fifth century saw the gradual collapse of town life, the decline of organised civil defence, the collapse of manufacturing and increasing regionalisation. At the same time, new forms of material culture, of north German inspiration if not manufacture, begin to dominate the record of eastern Britain.

The adventus Saxonum

The arrival of Germanic settlers was viewed in native tradition as a series of events. This begins with the account of Gildas, who describes the invitation of a group of mercenaries by the 'proud tyrant' Vortigern at an unknown date [2] in the fifth century: tum omnes consiliarii una cum superbo tyranno uortigerno caecantur adinuenientes tale praesidium immo excidium patriae ut ferocissimi illi nefandi nominis Saxones deo hominibusque inuisi quasi in caulas lupi in insulam ad retundendas aquilonales gentes intromitterentur [3] (de Excidio 23, adapted from Winterbottom: 97). His story then relates how this group of Saxons found a pretext to invite yet more barbarians into eastern Britain and how they then rebelled against the Britons.

The English traditions were similar but more detailed. Although Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica I.XV in Plummer: 31) gives only the legend of Hengist and Horsa as the first leaders of the English of Kent, his chronological summary (V.XXIV in Plummer: 353) also mentions Ida as the first leader of the Northumbrians. The late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle further amplifies this. As well as Hengist and Horsa in Kent, and Ida in 'Northumbria', it tells of Ælle, first leader of the South Saxons, Cerdic, first leader of the West Saxons, Port, Bieda and Mægla, first leaders of the Meonwara of Hampshire and Stuf and Wihtgar, first leaders of the Wihtwara of the Isle of Wight.

All is not well here. The stories are often transparent foundation legends. Hengist and Horsa ('mare and stallion' in Old English) do not sound like the names of real people, but are the stuff of myth. Indeed, Hengist figures as an apparently Frisian hero in the well-known fragmentary poem conventionally called 'The Fight at Finnsburh'. Port is a transparently concocted eponym for Portsmouth, his supposed landing place, while the well-known problem of Cerdic and various members of his progeny is that they have British names. Cerdic bears the same name as the British tyrant addressed by St Patrick as well as the last British king of Elmet in South Yorkshire. It is also the name of the first-century chief who entered legend as King Caractacus. His son (or grandson, according to the genealogies) Cynric has a name very similar to that of an Irishman (Cunorix) whose memorial was found at Wroxeter. One of his putative descendants, Cædwalla (born around 659), was evidently named after a ruler of Gwynedd noted for his hostility to the English, the namesake of Caesar's main opponent in the first century BC, Cassivellanus (for *Catuuellaunos). These problems have long been known, but it is rare that any attempt is made at explanation. Something very curious is going on here.

The fate of the Britons

Recent treatments of the adventus Saxonum (e.g. Hodges: 25; Higham 1992a, 15) have tended to play down the numbers of putative immigrants in an attempt to allow a British majority to be subsumed within a dominant but minority Anglo-Saxon culture. The considerable changes observed in material culture in fifth- and sixth-century lowland Britain are seen as the result of an increasing Germanisation of taste among the native population as much as the migration of substantial numbers of people from north Germany.

Critics of this model have focused on what they see as the inability of small numbers of immigrants to effect change on the scale needed for the shift of ethnic identity from British to English. They point out that there was almost complete language replacement, transformation of material culture and disruption of settlement patterns between AD 400 and 600 in most parts of lowland Britain. Even where 'continuity' has been suggested, the quality occupation is of a different order from that in 400; few would contend that the 'squatter' occupation seen in Roman villas, for instance, takes us into the seventh century except on a few rare sites.

The material culture of the former Roman citizens during the fifth and sixth centuries ought to provide valuable clues about social patterning. The British population remains largely invisible, although the recognition of sub-Roman pottery types has helped the identification of continuing occupation in a few places. One particularly interesting example of this material was found during rescue excavation of a late to sub-Roman settlement at Pirton, Hertfordshire. Employing decorative elements found on later sixth-century Anglo-Saxon pottery, it was found in a purely sub-Roman context. Moreover, the fabric, a sandy black ware, was not a recognised Saxon type and the juxtaposition of decorative elements was unusual, if not unique. Had the maker of the vessel seen pottery of Saxon type and was consciously imitating its decoration without understanding the semiotic grammar? Perhaps this is evidence for the beginning of Germanisation in an otherwise conservative British community.

Martin Millett (228) has suggested that "Roman Britain disappeared piecemeal". It is certainly possible to explain the political changes of the early fifth century in terms of a gradual erosion of romanised legal structures from beneath or within; the economy, of course, is another matter entirely, with its complete and catastrophic collapse, perhaps as early as the 390s. The adoption of forms of material culture that show Germanic influence and taste by indigenous underclasses and other subcultures may mean that we have dated the disappearance of Romanisation too soon as early dates for Anglo-Saxon pottery have been taken to indicate early dates for ethnic change. As Ken Dark (216) has proposed, the Romanised state(s) could survive for longer, control increasingly eroded as more members adopted the iconography of the new material culture and the habits of an emergent élite, including its language.

Self-identity and ethnicity

We need to understand something of the self-identities of the inhabitants at the two ends of the period to see what changes may have occurred. I have argued that a native British identity was something that developed only because of the Roman invasion in the first century AD.[4] By the fourth century, it will have been relatively well developed. When we look at the writings of Bede at the start of the eighth century, we can see that he was postulating an insular English identity that is quite distinct from that of the continental Germans. Whether it existed in the self-identities of the people he labelled Saxones, Angli or Iuti is something that has often been too easily assumed from the material culture.

Bede's ethnography of the English is well known:

Aduenerant autem de tribus Germaniae populis fortioribus id est Saxonibus, Anglis, Iutis. De Iutarum origine sunt Cantuarii et Uictuarii (hoc est ea gens quae Uectam tenet insulam) et ea quae usque hodie in prouincia Occidentalium Saxonum Iutarum natio nominatur, posita contra ipsam insulam Uectam. De Saxonibus (id est ea regione quae nunc Antiquorum Saxonum cognominatur) uenere Orientales Saxones, Meridiani Saxones, Occidi Saxones. Porro de Anglis (hoc est de illa patria quae Angulus dicitur et ab eo tempore usque hodie manere desertus inter prouincias Iutarum et Saxonum perhibetur) Orientales Angli, Mediterranei Angli, Merci, tota Nordanhumbrorum progenies (id est illarum gentium quae ad boream Humbri fluminis inhabitante) ceterique Anglorum populi sunt orti [5] (Historia Ecclesiastica I.XV in Plummer: 31).

Now, there are considerable problems here. Since the earliest efforts to define Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups using material culture, fruitless attempts at separating 'Saxon' from 'Anglian' from 'Jutish' have wasted the time of many people. The complex folk movements that were at one time postulated, for instance bringing the West Saxons to southwest England from Cambridgeshire along the Icknield Way, now appear hopelessly simplistic. In many ways they resemble the conflicting theories put forward to explain the apparent migrations of Beaker Folk during the European Chalcolithic. Bede's ethnography derives from imperial models: how appropriate it was in his day is a difficult question.

Linguistics holds some promise of a resolution. Of the three ethnic terms used by Bede, only Angli has an Old English equivalent - Englisc, whence modern 'English'. Saxones is a term restricted to Latin, British and Gaelic documents - whence Scots Gaelic Sasunnach (Sassenach). Iutae appear in Old English documents as the Geatas, but they are always located in continental Europe. Bede seems to be postulating an ethnography of Englishness that has no vernacular terms to describe it. Again, there is evidently something slightly unsatisfactory here.

Material culture and ethnicity

Ethnicity is one of those surprising words that turns out to be only half a century old, yet its use is widespread, at least among middle-class liberals. It underpins many of our notions of self-identity, group identity and national identity. It is clearly a concept of value to the archaeologist, but for some time, the profession has been very wary of using it. This may have occurred because it is felt to be too closely linked with extreme right-wing views and the discredited 'settlement archaeology' of Kossinna and others that was put to overtly racist use.

The creation of labels of all kinds appears to be a human universal, probably rooted in the structures of the mind, especially the so-called 'language instinct'. As Paul Graves-Brown (83) has reminded archaeologists, the practice of labelling consists in defining the boundaries between entities. With human groups, these boundaries are dynamic and depend on the recognition of cultural traits. Although the archaeological 'culture' is characterised by its static nature, we can reconstruct something of the discourses embodied in material culture by looking at synchronic and diachronic relations between those objects.

In discussing the archaeology of Hungarian origins, Csanád Bálint (188) attempted to demonstrate the impossibility of defining ethnospecific objects. He discusses the heterogeneity of the material culture of eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages without questioning the self-identities of the peoples he examined. To what extent is it legitimate to assume that early 'Hungarians' viewed themselves as a distinct people, separate from their neighbours?

The relationship between language and ethnicity, so frequently assumed, is not a simple one, and it is important that other factors be taken into consideration. Slightly different lists of characteristics constituting ethnicity are given by Renfrew (130) and Hutchinson and Smith (6) which can nevertheless be combined fruitfully. They include:

1. a shared name;
2. shared territory or land;
3. a claimed common descent or genetic relationship;
4. community of customs or culture (which may include religion, customs or language);
5. self-identity and sense of solidarity;
6. a shared myth of origin;
7. a link with an ancestral homeland, real or mythical;
8. shared historical memories.

This list ignores the huge variety of meanings embedded in material culture that can frequently be used to convey group affiliation but which can only be reconstructed by looking at the relationships between diverse object types, not specific objects. The creation of the English states in the post-Roman period is associated with massive cultural change involving objects that appear to be ethnospecific (north German pottery and metalwork styles, changes to settlement types and so on). However, closer consideration of the evidence has led more recent interpretations to conclude that, while these objects are stylistically of north German origin, their use need not have been by people who considered themselves 'Angles' (Hines: 266).

The ways in which material culture styles become attached to ethnic identification has not been questioned. This is where an archaeological approach to ethnicity fails unless it retains historical perspective. The meanings attached to material culture are not fixed but fluid. They change through time and without a clear understanding of context, the symbolic elements that contribute to ethnic identity are lost. In her recent book, The Archaeology of Ethnicity, Siân Jones concludes that 'it cannot be assumed a priori that similarity in material culture reflects the presence of a particular group of people in the past' (Jones: 126).

Siân Jones attempts to explore this relationship between ethnicity and material culture. She examines the two major theoretical paradigms underpinning modern concepts of ethnicity: primordialism and instrumentalism. These are effectively the same as essentialism and social constructionism, and share the same difficulties of interpretation. The primordial approach is similar in many ways to the older anthropological concept of 'race' in that it stresses a genetic component to ethnicity, sometimes even descending to referring to it as 'ties of blood'. Instrumentalism, on the other hand, sees the roots of ethnicity in social practice, a perspective that will be familiar to most archaeologists.

Siân Jones finds both paradigms wanting. She criticises the first for '[failing] to address the dynamic and fluid nature of ethnicity in varied social and historical contexts' (Jones: 72). The second '[tends] to be reductionist and [fails] to explain the generation of ethnic groups' (Jones: 79). Neither paradigm explains the relationship between culture (including material culture) and ethnicity. Taking the cue from Bourdieu, she outlines a 'practice theory of ethnicity' based around the multidimensional habitus in which the individual's self-identification with an ethnic group becomes situational. She therefore suggests that ethnicity is wholly embedded within power relations through which it is reproduced and transformed (Jones: 123).

This is social constructionism at its most thoroughgoing, in which ethnicity is seen as part of the performativity of language: self-identification is achieved through the actions of hegemonic and restrictive discourse. This discourse enables an individual's life to be given structure and meaning through narrative, which may involve some statements possessing ontological status ("I have brown eyes") and others having political and moral status ("I am English"). The problem, as social constructionists see it, is that both types of statement become epistemological in personal experience (Burr: 87).

In approaching ethnicity, we must not forget the fluid and unbounded nature of group identity and self-identity. It can be argued that rather than hegemonic discourse, it is the marginal subgroups that are central to the production of identity at both personal and group levels. The largely unexplored contribution of subcultures, for instance, to culture change and to the mediation of ethnicity between different groups is an important feature not just of contemporary societies but also of the past.

We can therefore view the use of material culture in fifth- and sixth-century Britain as a means of establishing and reinforcing ethnic identity at a time of political crisis and social fragmentation. Transmission of the new material culture would often be by means of those on the social peripheries, as well as by the 'Big Men', the warlords, indigenous or otherwise. A large-scale movement of the disaffected, similar to the Gaulish bacaudae, could be one of the channels of communication, although this remains to be demonstrated. Another channel, and one not to be underestimated in its impact, would be the north German immigrants, not all of whom necessarily arrived in the fifth and sixth centuries. They need only to have been few in number and were, perhaps, mostly male.

With one exception, the areas in which the earliest Germanising material culture appears are in eastern England: east Kent, Norfolk and Lindsey. There were only small numbers of Romano-British towns and villa-estates in these areas. Both of them may be taken as indicators of social and economic prosperity and, in the case of the latter at least, of identification with southern European élites. We may suggest that these areas, indeed peripheral to the social life of the late Roman Diocese, had easy contacts with north Germany and Scandinavia.

The exception is the upper Thames valley, where there are large numbers of villas and small towns but an early group of German material culture remains. What makes this group stand out is the early date of the material culture and its homogeneity: this group appears to have few contacts with the local Romano-British population, unlike the thousands of Germans whose material culture sits alongside that of indigenous groups elsewhere in the Late Roman diocese. The upper Thames Valley group has long been identified as in some way anomalous (e.g. Leeds: 53), as the invasion/settlement hypotheses are clearly inadequate to explain so massive a penetration so deep into central Britain at this date. Furthermore, it is not identifiable as the core of a later Anglo-Saxon kingdom, despite valiant attempts to link it with Wessex (e.g. Stenton: 26). Here is perhaps the best evidence for the Germanic mercenaries mentioned by Gildas (Higham 1994: 104).

The apparently ethnospecific material culture of the migration period may well turn out not to be ethnospecific at all, but expressive of changes in taste and, indeed, the collapse of British manufacturing industries. We can suggest that the creation of an English ethnicity arose indirectly from the specific political and economic situation of the fifth and sixth centuries. In this way, it could easily have drawn in people who would previously have considered themselves Britons with the material culture performing an active role in the construction of new ethnic identities. The confused years between 400 and 600 were something of a melting-pot for ethnic identities with the collapse of the pre-existing normative political framework and the considerable time-lag before the situation resolved itself again into stable polities.

Cymru and Englisc: polar opposites hopelessly intertwined?

The difficulties of the period I have chosen to examine stem from two main sources: firstly, the continuing political and ethnic division between Scottish, Welsh and English; and secondly, the compartmentalisation of archaeological specialisms into distinct period-based studies. Add to this the tendency for Classical, Celtic and Germanic linguistics to remain separate, the inward-looking nature of nationalist historians and politicians and the lack of synthesis in contemporary archaeology, then the problems of understanding this period become fixed not in the period itself but in late twentieth-century academia.

In terms of global politics, the borders between England and Wales or between England and Scotland are little more than a line on a map. We do not have passport controls to move from one country to the other; neither is in itself a sovereign state. However, the perceived difference - the ethnic difference - is enormous. Exacerbated by centuries of English hegemony, the roots of the problem are to be sought in the fifth and sixth centuries.

We should not fall into the trap of regarding ethnic identity as fixed or as monolithic. My own ethnic identity is polymorphous in a nested way: my primary ethnic identity is English, but within that, I am a southerner and beyond it, I am British and European in equal measures. In a North American context, I would be regarded as a WASP, despite my objections to the label. Depending on circumstances, I can choose my ethnic identity from this list of options without any necessary shift of self-identity. In this way, my ethnic identity becomes recognisable as a performance, not a fixed status conferred on me by the application of labels or through the use of a material culture signifier.

The clue to understanding ethnic identity during this period, as at any other, is therefore to regard it as entirely performative. While political instability was the norm, individuals will have found it expedient, perhaps even necessary, to retain a variety of allegiances, choosing between them as circumstances dictated. Those who supported Magnus Maximus in the 380s cannot have been entirely wiped out after his fall; instead, they will have transferred their support to Theodosius. Similarly, it is entirely possible that some of the fifth- and sixth-century lowland Britons will have transferred their political allegiance to new, Saxon-identifying masters without any sense of treachery. It is, I would suggest, only a small step from this politically convenient shift of allegiance to a conscious shift of ethnic identity, particularly if it is one of the individual's choosing, rather than one imposed from above. This is where parallels with, for instance, a Chechen population that refuses to become Russian despite generations of 'Russianisation', falls down: the Chechen people have actively resisted 'becoming Russian' because it is imposed from outside. Once again, we can see the importance of change from within and below, a true subcultural effect.

Important evidence for the changing emphasis on different aspects of ethnic performance in the fifth and sixth centuries comes initially from the shift away from Late Antique artistic canons towards those we now label 'Celtic', rightly or not. This change in élite symbolism appears to be a conscious rejection of the older identification with Mediterranean tastes and the re-emphasising of pre-Roman roots. The mechanisms by which this was achieved are not known; it has long been suggested, for instance, that Iron Age styles continued at a vernacular level on non-durable objects, but this may be special pleading. We should not overlook conscious archaising and antiquarianism as sources for a resurgence in these styles. At the same time, we can see the slow and partial acquisition of styles with a Germanic origin. The adoption of such styles by fifth-century people says no more about the ethnic origins of their users than had the adoption of Mediterranean styles almost four hundred years earlier by the wealthier inhabitants of the island.

The coalescing of ethnic identities in this period cannot have begun before the foundations of the various polities that seem to have come into being in the sixth century, perhaps slightly earlier in the west than in the east (although Higham 1992b: 159 would place it in the fifth century). Insofar as ethnic identity depends on a variety of factors, archaeologists need to take a broad view of the meanings of material culture. They also need to look critically at whether a particular pot or brooch form can be regarded as labelling its owner. It would be naïve to assume that things are ever that simple.




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Copyright © Keith J. Matthews, 2001. All rights reserved.

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