Isotope Analysis is a new form of biological research developed by Dominic Powlesland.
There may have been no Anglo-Saxon invasion but, what there was, however, was a change in fashion. Clothes, pottery, weapons and burial practices underwent a dramatic change in the centuries after the Roman government collapsed. These new fashions are very similar to styles found on the Continent. And this change in fashion did not just happen at West Hesleton.
For decades, these burials have been taken as a key piece of evidence that the new set of people had taken over. But what were invading Anglo-Saxons doing in Dominic’s peaceful landscape? Could it be that they weren’t actually invaders?
Dominic Powelesland gave some of the skeletons from his Anglo-Saxon cemetery to Paul Budd at Durham University. Paul has pioneered a new form of biological research called stable isotope analysis.
Dr Paul Budd “what we’re really interested in is the tooth enamel because this is formed in childhood. Unlike any other tissue in the body, it’s not remodelled during life. It gives you a little window of what was happening in your diet what you are eating in childhood when the tooth was formed.”
Paul’s discovered that tooth enamel has, within it, materials specific to the person’s location at birth. One of these materials contains oxygen isotopes.
Paul Budd “Your main source of oxygen is the oxygen you consume as water. Because you’re eating local food, this signal will find its way into your bones and teeth.”
By measuring the oxygen isotopes in a person’s tooth enamel, Paul can tell what climate and what part of the world they were born.
Paul Budd “This is a technique that offers the opportunity of identifying first-generation immigrants, because you are going to see people who grew up somewhere different.”
Dr Paul Budd
Paul successfully analysed 24 bodies from Dominic’s cemetery and a few of these were indeed foreigners, but other results were surprising.
Paul Budd “The things we expected to see where some continental immigrants, and we did see four individuals from the site who had drinking water which you can’t find in the UK.”
So were these rich, swaggering, warrior-type people?
Paul Budd “No, the interesting thing about those four is they’re all females. They’re very poorly furnished graves. In fact they’re the only four females that don’t have any dress fittings at all.”
Household servants or something like that?
Paul Budd “Well, it certainly seems to be the lower status people, yeah. The most likely candidate would be Scandinavian, Norwegian coast or possibly Sweden.”
What about the remainder of the population? Presumably they were all Yorkshiremen?
Paul Budd “Well, you would think so. But the surprises don’t stop there. We did indeed find about half the sample did look like they were local to West Hesleton. Then another half of the population were associated with the western side of the country. Early east Yorkshire was occupied by a large proportion of Cumbrians as far as I can tell. You got a big immigrant part to the West Hesleton population, but not coming from the East, coming from the West.”
So the foreign bodies in the cemetery weren’t continental warriors but visitors or economic migrants. The results did not surprise Dominic.
Dominic Powlesland “There is a small number of newcomers, continental Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and so forth, in different parts of the country, but the majority are the same. It’s a continuously-evolving and cared-for landscape. We see Roman sites with Anglo-Saxon components, we see Roman activity underneath the Anglo-Saxon settlement. There is no gap between the two. If there were, we’d have a wodge of red sand between the two. And it doesn’t happen.”
Historians tell us that the Anglo-Saxon invaders came to a society which had been severely weakened by the collapse of Roman rule. But Dominic’s vast excavation had found no such evidence.
Dominic Powlesland “People are coming to appreciate that the picture we thought was genuine for so long is seriously flawed. And our population, we can prove, include one or two people that come from Scandinavia. But this isn’t an invasion. There is always resistance to change. Once people are happy with an established understanding they do not want to change it. It’s much more exciting to find that it’s all wrong.”
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