The Origins of Wessex

Research team: Prof. Helena Hamerow (PI), Dr. Chris Ferguson, Dr. John Naylor

The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex is popularly assumed to have originated around its later capital, Winchester.  In fact, its origins lie in the Upper Thames Valley (stretching roughly from Lechlade to Reading), with the emergence of a people referred to in early sources as the Gewisse, who, by the end of the 7th century, had come to be known as the West Saxons.  Yet the process by which Anglo-Saxon polities formed following the collapse of Roman authority in Britain in the early 5th century remains obscure. While written sources for this period are practically non-existent, archaeological evidence for the 5th and 6th centuries is constantly increasing and has enormous potential to illuminate the process by which supra-local communities formed, providing the basis of numerous small kingdoms by the 7th century.  

This project  focuses on one such kingdom, that of the West Saxons.  A pilot project funded by the John Fell Fund is being carried out on a stretch of the river Thames between Abingdon and Dorchester-on-Thames, an area with a major concentration of early to mid Anglo-Saxon sites.  Our aim is to identify places in the landscape where people would regularly have come together along the Thames and its tributaries during the fifth to mid-ninth centuries (i.e. from the collapse of Roman authority to the arrival in this region of the Vikings) and the relationship of these places to communication routes.

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The project considers the potential of aerial photographic evidence as a means of establishing the relationship of Anglo-Saxon sites to earlier trackways and monuments, and the potential of data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds to establish the distribution of imported metalwork, high-status objects, and coins. Concentrations of such objects may indicate the location of previously unrecorded cemeteries, markets, and high-status centres.  Potential routeways and nodes in communication networks will be identified through the distribution of sites and artefacts, as well as the use of ‘cost-pathway’ analysis, a GIS software which  calculates the most likely routes taken through a landscape by assigning a ‘cost’ to moving through different types of terrain.  Integrating this with archaeological evidence can help establish the ‘cost’, for example, of riverine versus terrestrial transport. The role of inter-visibility in determining the placement of formal markets, early Christian sites, ‘princely’ settlements, and cemeteries will be considered, particularly in relation to rivers, roads, prehistoric and Roman monuments, and other landscape features, by using ‘banded’ viewsheds. 

Through the combination of finds distributions, aerial prospection, and LiDar data, the project is identifying new sites and is exploring the areas around previously identified sites.  The second phase of the pilot will involved new campaigns of fieldwork and survey. This project builds upon Oxford-based projects excavating early medieval material in the Upper Thames Valley, such as the Discovering Dorchester Project.

School of Archaeology > Research > The Origins of Wessex: uncovering the kingdom of the Gewisse