Archaeology: Key to Understanding Ancient Britain


Germanic invaders were commonly lumped together as Saxons in early accounts of the invasions-migrations, but the Angles and Jutes were well represented. They were, after all, coming from different Continental points of origin. But how to distinguish?

An important clue can be found in pottery, that staple of archaeology that can provide answers to many burning questions of history. It seems that the Saxons preferred a sort of stamped decoration in a curvilinear style to adorn their pots, bowls, and the like; the Angles and Jutes, on the other hand, preferred decoration of a more rectangular style. Dig up a 6th-century potsherd in the Wessex area and you might think it’s Saxon, but only when you’ve examined the style of pottery will you know for sure.

Jewelry of a sort can also help distinguish Saxon from Angle and Jute. Saxons preferred round and equal arm brooches, which they used to fasten their clothes. Angles and Jutes used cruciform brooches. The effect was the same but the delineation different. Stumble on a Germanic burial ground and you probably won’t dig up any clothes from the time period; brooches are a different matter.

It is also interesting to note that burial grounds can include clues to the origin and wealth of the dead buried there. A Saxon warrior, for example, would be buried with a spear if that was his primary weapon, or if he passed his sword down to his son. If an axe is found next to the body, we can probably conclude that the warrior used the axe in battle. If we find a bow and arrow, then we find a rare warrior indeed, for this weapon was not much favored by the Germanic settlers of Britain. Shields were common but body armor was not. (If a warrior was buried with his body armor, then he had wealth to spare, for this kind of protection was expensive.) And unlike pottery and jewelry, weapons crossed Germanic borders.

The study of ancient Britain is short on primary sources, so historians must rely on archaeology. From looking at pots, brooches, and weapons we can get a better idea–but never a complete one–of how life was way back then.