Anglo-Saxon Stevenage

by Brian Adams

Historical Evidence

Stevenage appears in the Domesday Survey of 1086 within Broadwater Hundred, one of the nine in Hertfordshire.

A Hundred was an Anglo-Saxon land division, in theory made up of 100 hides, a hide in eastern England totalling some 120 acres. This corresponded to the holding of one peasant family. It cannot be assumed that this was the case in Hertfordshire however. Some 33 villages made up the Broadwater Hundred including Stevenage, Chells, Shephall, Aston etc, i.e. the area now covered by both old and new Stevenage.

The manor was held by the Abbot of Ely, with 8 hides, worth £12, (before 1066 worth £13). The village was named as "Stigenace", although "Stithenaece" is also recorded by the 11th century. It may be assumed that the pre-Norman village clustered around the old church of St. Nicholas, with a possible market where the Great North Road forks at Corey's Mill. IJXMargary suggested that the Road through Knebworth and Stevenage followed a Roman alignment. These Roman roads were not entirely abandoned in the Anglo-Saxon period and indeed local road maintenance became a legal requirement. However, Saxon settlements created during the early or Migration period were often re-located in middle Saxon times or when the dominance of Christianity resulted in a movement away from the old pagan sites.

Place-name evidence for the early Anglo-Saxon period from the rest of Hertfordshire is rare. Braughing, which was the site of the Roman settlement of Curcinate has an "ing" suffix suggesting a primary Saxon presence, while Wickham (Bishops Stortford) has two elements-"WickM and "Ham". Both of these indicate early settlements.

Archaeological Evidence

The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period in the area now known as Hertfordshire is equally fragmentary. For the Migration period in the 5th and 6th centuries, there are indications that the Chiltern escarpment was occupied, with early cemetery material from Ashwell, and at Luton, and Kempston, just outside the county boundary. Such evidence that there is, suggests Saxon occupation from the Thames Valley and along the Icknield Way. Elsewhere, as at Verulamium, Romano-British civilisation continued certainly well into the fifth century, if not beyond. Any early Saxon evidence is found outside the town as at Old Parkbury, Radlett. Recent research makes it clear that Saxon and Briton warily co-existed in many parts of the country. Not that there were many of either race in Hertfordshire, and it looks as though the Roman withdrawal, combined with a serious plague in Britain during the first half of the 5th century resulted in a pretty deserted landscape. The Saxons really started to colonise the county from the mid-6th century onward. So the early material from Stevenage is of considerable interest.

The Stevenage Hut Site

While there is positive evidence for a Roman presence in Stevenage, some 43 Romano-British sites having been recorded in a 40 square mile area around Stevenage, information about the Anglo-Saxon period is tantalisingly vague. There are no surviving above-ground features from the period in the town. The nearest church where possible Saxon elements have been identified is 4 miles away at Walkern. The main evidence comes from just one hut site inexpertly excavated in the 1960's. The dig took place under difficult circumstances at 444, Broadwater Crescent, some five years after the estate had been built. It is most unlikely that this was an isolated building and must have formed part of a settlement of some kind. The hut was of the sunken-floored variety known at the time of its discovery as a "Grubenhaus". It measured 12 feet 3 inches east to west, and 10 feet 8 inches north to south. The floor sank 1 foot into the ground. It is difficult to say how much of the topsoil had gone before the hut came to light, but enough survived to identify the type. Technically, the building falls within West's type A, i.e. "a simple two-post rectangular structure" and lies within the normal size for these.

In recent times, this type of hut with its roof sloping to the ground supported by a few posts filled in with wattle and daub, has been socially downgraded and is no longer regarded as the typical dwelling of the Anglo-Saxon. There was no sign of a hearth on the Stevenage hut floor and they are now seen in general as workplaces or storage areas. Ring-shaped loom-weights were found on the floor suggesting weaving. These clay objects were used to weigh down the warp threads of a primitive vertical loom. Most settlements of this period had weaving sheds and were self supporting in the production of clothing. Indeed Saxon cloth could achieve a very high quality. In addition, the floor was littered with debris -bones, Roman and Saxon pottery, and a considerable quantity of Roman building materials. All this suggests that the hut ended up as a storage area, having been previously used as a weaving shed.

We should see the Broadwater settlement as a group of rectangular timber-framed houses of varying sizes, some large enough to be called "halls". These would be interspersed with pigstys, hen coops and storage pits as well as ovens for bread making, and a metalworker's or blacksmith's shop. Sometimes there are suggestions that a village produced pottery, but this was a specialised craft and certain places seem to have become centres for potting. There is very little archaeological evidence for any kind of defence around Saxon settlements, although place-names such as "Stockton" indicate their presence. The recreated Saxon village at West Stow, near Bury St. Edmund, Suffolk, gives a good idea of what the Stevenage settlement must have looked like.

The Finds

Roman

Nearly 500 fragments of tile or brick came from the site, all small and mostly worn. Only 4 pieces could be identified as roofing tiles and 5 as bricks. The 9 pottery fragments were identified as coming from kilns in the Thames Valley in Oxfordshire, and dated to the late 4th century A.D. There were also 2 fragments of dark colour-coated ware, equally late in the Roman period, and a piece of light green window glass. The one coin was very corroded and the emperor's head totally worn away. The reverse shows what could be the prow of a boat. Possibly this is a 4th. century coin issued by the emperor Constantine or his successors. Part of a pair of tweezers or a stiffener from a belt, a pin spring fragment, and a crudely made toilet set, could be either Roman or Saxon.

Saxon

26 fragments of iron-rods, nails, possible knife blades and several lumps of iron slag came from the hut floor. One knife could be more positively identified, with a curved back and curved cutting edge-a common type which can date from the 5th. to the 7th. centuries. 3 disc -shaped pieces of lead 6=cm across, could have been some sort of balance arrangement on the loom.

There is one decorated bronze fragment 0.8cm long and 0.25 cm thick. This is most likely part of a belt tag. The problem is whether this is Roman or Saxon. If the latter, its dating could be critical for the hut site itself. Circular or amphora -shaped belt tags occur in late Roman and post-Roman contexts often but not solely associated with the army. So this piece could have been left by the latest Roman inhabitants in the area, or by an early Saxon settler who could have built the first hut on the site. In either case this type of belt decoration had disappeared by 450 A.D. For a more positive dating sequence we must turn to the non-Roman pottery.

The Pottery

823 sherds of Anglo-Saxon pottery came from the hut site, mostly from level 4 which the excavator, Miss Irene Traill, identified as the floor. A report by the late Dr. J.N.L.Myres in the 1960's wrote that "the pottery suggests the establishment here, perhaps around the middle of the 5th. century, of an isolated group of Anglo-Saxon settlers springing direct from the coastlands of north Germany or Friesland." Today this very early dating would not be so readily accepted. While some of the decorated "Buckelurnen" could belong to the late 5™. century, the rusticated and other pieces properly belong to the next century.

Summary

Both the post-Roman decorated metalwork and the Anglo-Saxon pottery may suggest a date range from the late 5th to the 6th. century for the settlement as a whole, taken from this one surviving hut site, not an ideal situation for the archaeologist! However it is possible to suggest that the inhabitants were early immigrants from modern Germany or the low countries. They could well have brought pots with them and would later make their own. They re-cycled as much Roman material as they could, although where this stuff came from is not known, but the site was probably quite close.

It is possible to get a little more information about their way of life from the analysis of the animal bones studied by Mrs. Lily Turner. Nearly all of these were waste from cooking-boiled or stewed meat, which included venison, mutton, lamb, beef and goat, together with the occasional chicken or goose. Perhaps even horse was eaten. Some of the animal long bones were used as pestles or skates. A pile of split acorns found at the north east end of the hut could well have been the food store for a rodent after the place had been abandoned, but it is just possible that they were intended to be used as food for human consumption. There are references in Anglo-Saxon literature to the use of acorns to make a form of bread.

Of the men, women and children who made up the Broadwater Saxon village, we can say nothing. So far there is no evidence of a Saxon cemetery in the area, although this is not at all unusual since the two were often placed some distance from each other. We cannot sadly, breathe as much life as we would wish, into the earliest English inhabitants of Stevenage.

Related pages

History of Stevenage

Contact details

Stevenage Museum
St Georges Way
Stevenage
SG1 1XX

01438 218881
museum@stevenage.gov.uk

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