Happily, it’s no longer true that we know next to nothing about the period between the pullout of Roman troops in 410 – if indeed that was when they did pull out, which I’ll discuss more about shortly – and the early 7th century battles that finally established Saxon supremacy. An increasing focus on this period by scholars is turning up both more literary evidence – though this is still scant, and mostly adding to what we know about pre-existing sources rather than new material – as well as an archaeological record unfolding with renewed interest in the first stretch of Britain’s so-called Dark Age. New discoveries are bearing out the truth that this period was “dark” mainly because few to none were seriously trying to shine light on it for so long.Share
The archaeological record is also turning up more questions than answers – or at least, seriously questioning even our most fundamental assumptions about the Roman Empire’s westernmost territory.
What is becoming evident with digs down to the 4th and 5th century layers in city and country alike is that Britain might not have been as stable in the Empire’s last decades there as previously thought, certainly not as much as Rome’s continental holdings. Instead, evidence is mounting that cities in particular were already in decline by the late 4th century – and that, as Richard Reece argued over thirty years ago, the Roman economic paradigm was already being challenged by a renewed, traditional barter and gift-giving system as early as the 2nd century.
Archaeologists digging in ancient urban remains regularly find layers of black earth indicating urban spaces being used for gardening, for example. In the late 4th century the layout of the fort and colonia at York were altered to bring civilians and the military in closer proximity to one another. Historians and archaeologists have proposed the idea that perhaps the Britons, even the Romanized ones, didn’t take to the cities nearly as well as their neighbors in places like Gaul, but rather preserved a hot streak of country blood in their veins that began reasserting itself as soon as Rome’s hand began to weaken. That’s still up for debate, but if true it puts a very different spin on all aspects of Britain’s falling away from Rome.
Yet nevertheless, evidence is simultaneously accumulating that the Roman cities still in existence today were continuously occupied to some extent for centuries after the legions left. Even the now-abandoned Viroconium, in Shrewsbury, provides ample evidence for rebuilding between 530 and 570, a total of thirty-three new buildings “skillfully constructed to Roman measurements” according to Roger White and Philip Barker in Wroxeter: Life & Death of a Roman City. Viroconium may have survived all the way to the early 8th century. (Read more.)