Living on the edge: making and moving iron from the ‘outside’, in Anglo-Saxon England

Thomas Birch

The production of iron in Anglo-Saxon England is little understood due to the lack of evidence. There are less than a dozen iron smelting sites known. This is a distinct contrast to the wealth of evidence of iron smelting during the Roman period. Should we believe that the Anglo-Saxon world was relying on recycled Roman iron? The absence of evidence should not be taken as the evidence of absence. Instead, we can look towards contemporary archaeological examples and ethnography to try and explain the production of iron and the movement of ferrous objects. This paper will argue that the production of iron was located outside the settlement. Not only does this activity occupy the periphery of the physical and cultural landscape, it was embedded in the liminal zone between reality and myth. Blacksmiths were feared for their art was associated with magic. The evidence of their mobility in north-west Europe emphasises how marginal they were in society, along with their goods. The value of items coming from the ‘outside’ was heightened as they came from the distant unknown, the unfamiliar. In order to understand the dynamic role of iron in Anglo-Saxon society, we must review the negative evidence of iron smelting, and the evidence for smithing. This should be considered with reference to the literary evidence available to us in the context of the Migration period in north-west Europe. Iron production in early Anglo-Saxon England should also be sought after using archaeological prospection techniques.

Appendix: References to smithing in early place-names, Della Hooke


The Crossing of Dartmoor, Andrew Fleming

An  east–west route across Dartmoor, marked by a series of late medieval granite crosses, probably goes back at least to the eighth century;  it is the moorland component of the pre-Conquest road from Ashburton (and Exeter) to Tavistock and then through Horsebridge and into central Cornwall. The road links up with, and partly follows, another  road linking  important early medieval places in west Devon, which  may once have related to the ‘frontier’ with Cornwall. Such early roads originated as instruments of elite control and were critical engines of regional military and political stratagems. Understanding their courses, in conjunction with other evidence, may aid the reconstruction of pre-Conquest settlement and political geography.


A hunting thicket in Roissy-en-France (France), Jean-Yves Dufour

Excavations at Roissy-en-France revealed an intriguing concentration of archaeological features relating to the history of the landscape. Forty-six ditches and 150 small sunken features covered a concentrated rectangular surface of approximately one acre. A detailed explanation of these remains has been obtained by a close examination of plantation types described in old agricultural manuals. The combination of vine, copse, meadow and watering place constitutes a small Modern-period hunting thicket (sixteenthth–eighteenth century). Some indication of the animal species hunted has come from archaeological research carried out on a nearby farm dwelling and on the stately home at Roissy. Hunting in the Île-de-France region during the Modern period was a source of considerable tension which focussed on thickets, perceived by farmers as being harmful.



The Croston Drainage Scheme: co-operation and conflict in the development of the south west Lancashire Landscape, John Virgo


The history, technology and economics of fenland drainage are briefly reviewed and a comparison made between the Lancashire mosslands and the Fens and Somerset Levels. In the eighteenth century Croston Finney was a low-lying, remote area subject to annual flooding on which improvement had been made on a small area by enclosure and piecemeal attempts at drainage by various landowners but complexity of land-holding and the differing township interests required a Drainage Act(1800) before real progress could be made. The scheme was finally completed in 1836 after prolonged efforts. The Croston Drainage Scheme provides a clear example of development by drainage, followed by reclamation  and then settlement and the inter-relationships of landscape, economic and social history.



Bruno David and Julian Thomas (eds), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (Andrew Fleming)     

Bas Verschuuren, Robert Wild, Jeffrey McNeely and Gonzalo Oviedo (eds), Sacred Natural Sites. Conserving nature and culture (Della Hooke)                                                                    

Alan Lambourne, Patterning within the Historic Landscape and its Possible Causes. A study of the incidence and origins of regional variation in southern England (Christopher Dyer)           

David C. Cowley, Robin A. Standring and Matthew J. Abicht (eds), Landscapes through the Lens. Aerial photographs and historic environment (Toby Driver)

Bill Finlayson and Graeme Warren (eds), Landscapes in Transition (Graeme Barker)

David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Cumbria (Tim Padley)

Jim Leary and David Field, The Story of Silbury Hill (Alasdair Whittle)

Peter Halkon, Archaeology and Environment in a Changing East Yorkshire Landscape (Dominic Powlesland)

John Poulter, Surveying Roman Military Landscapes across Northern Britain (David J. P. Mason)

Richard Hoggett, The Archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon Conversion (Andrew Rogerson)

Tom Williamson, The Origins of Hertfordshire (Richard Jones)           

Martin Carver, The Birth of a Borough. An archaeological study of Anglo-Saxon Stafford (David A. Hinton)

John Langton and Graham Jones (eds), Forests and Chases of Medieval England and Wales c.1000–c.1500 (James Bond)

A. R. J. Juřica (ed.), The Victoria History of the Counties of England. A History of the County of Gloucestershire, Volume XII: Newent and May Hill (Joe Bettey)

Mary Siraut (ed.), The Victoria History of the Counties of England. A History of the County of Somerset, Volume X: Castle Cary and Brue-Cary Watershed (Stephen Rippon)

Andy Chapman, West Cotton, Raunds. A study of medieval settlement dynamics AD 450–1450 (Paul Stamper)

Christopher P. Rodgers, Eleanor A. Straughton, Angus J. L. Winchester and Margherita Pieraccini, Contested Common Land. Environmental Governance Past and Present (Bob Silvester) 

Philip Riden and Dudley Fowkes, Hardwick. A great house and its estate (Paul Everson)

Andrew Hann, The Medway Valley. A Kent landscape transformed (Anthony Ward)

Karen V. Lykke Syse and Terje Oestigaard (eds), Perceptions of Water in Britain from Early Modern Times to the Present: an introduction (Ian Whyte)                                                                   

Eurwyn Wiliam, The Welsh Cottage (Della Hooke)

Mireille Galinou, Cottages and Villas. The birth of the garden suburb (Sue Wilson)

Sefryn Penrose, Images of Change. An archaeology of England’s contemporary landscape (Mark Riley)


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Volume 32 (2011) Issue 1