An Oxford Historian
Anglo-Saxon Emporia: an Exploration
Updated: May 28, 2021
The Emporia represent an interesting set of archaeological evidence in the 'Anglo-Saxon' world, likely representing a return to urbanisation for the first time since the Romans. However, as is often the case with archaeological evidence, must about them is unclear. In the latest deep-dive, we take a brief look at the conflicting arguments around the Emporia.
Alternatively named Wics, Emporia emerge in the 7thC - a unique settlement form that seems to represent the first true return of urbanisation in England after the fall of the Roman occupation. Three archaeological sites can conclusively be identified as Emporia - Hamwic (Southampton), London and Gippeswic (Ipswich) (perhaps York, too, but that will be excluded here).
Archaeologically speaking, these sites are clearly different from other rural settlements, not least because of their size and their developed nature Hamwic appears to cover up to 45ha of space, and the Six Dials site is perhaps the best-excavated example of an Emporia in England, revealing a complex set of roads, organised buildings and a boundary ditch. In London, the Royal Opera House site has been excavated, showing an apparent similar organisation of houses along a street.
How are we to interpret these archaeological remains? how did the Emporia function?
Early models of economic development in the early medieval period were constructed without a knowledge of Emporia. Pirenne's theory is perhaps the most notable - Roman economic systems across Europe don't actually collapse until the 8thC until the Islamic caliphate's expansions stop them, and that by the 9thC there is no real trade apart from agriculture. The evidence of urbanisation, centralisation and trade at the emporia clearly challenges this, and provide a prime example of archaeologists and historians challenging hypotheses with the emergence of new data.
Hodges extended the first real theoretical understanding of Emporia. In an initial Systemic analysis, Hodges suggests that Emporia were primarily a means of controlling the flow of prestige goods into the country (although, nb., Hodges has changed his opinion over his career). Think, for example, of the Byzantine bowls evident at Sutton Hoo. In a system where gift redistribution by leaders facilitated the forming of allegiances, losing control of the import of those goods meant a loss of control over people.
For Hodges, then, Emporia were primarily royal establishments.
It certainly seems true, from the archaeological evidence, that Emporia had an interaction with royalty. The rigidity and standardisation of the road design at the Six Dials site (Hamwic) points towards a top-down element of control to the development of these sites, rather than an organic growth. There is certainly also documentary evidence suggesting royal tolls at Lundenwic.
However, it's clear that the Emporia functioned as more than simply funnels of international imports. There is strong archaeological evidence for areas of production at Emporia. The Six Dials site shows evidence for metal-working (slag), leather-working and antler work, while the Royal Opera Site at London shows possible evidence of smithies and glassworks. However Ipswich is the clearest example, with the production of Ipswich Ware Pottery. Wheel-made, kiln-fired pottery, Ipswich Wareis found widely distributed across many Anglo-Saxon sites, and three kilns have been located in the excavation of Ipswich that point towards centres of production.
There is equally evidence for an engagement in systems of actual trade. Internationally this is clear, and Emporia seem to have participated in the interconnected web of European trading hubs known as the North Sea Littoral. Over 180 coins have been found at Hamwic, and 18% of the pottery found at the Six Dials is imported from Northern France. They seem, also, to have been interconnected in a system of internal trade. The Emporia seem to have been embedded in a complex system of trade and movement of goods within England. The emergence of so-called Productive Sites, possibly markets and notable for their high levels of coin and artefact loss, appear often to be integrated into the hinterlands of Emporia. Furthermore, zooarchaeological and palaeobotanical evidence at Ipswich suggest that Emporia were consumers not producers of food, and there must surely have been a trade with smaller settlements for this. This is potentially to be tied into the agricultural revolution of the Long 8thC, through which an extensification and intensification of agricultural output created a surplus. Were Emporia only able to succeed because, for the first time, there was enough food to supply urban centres?
It seems likely, then, that Emporia were actively involved in the economic systems that surrounded them rather than simply funneling in resources, and that Emporia represent genuine post-Roman (proto-)urbanisation. While the role of royal oversight in Emporia seems possible, Hodges simpler Systemic explanation seems unlikely in itself.
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Check out my previous articles on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames. A new Deep-Dive article on Anglo-Saxon thegnly diets can be found here.
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(Please forgive the rather lapse attitude toward referencing in this piece - it's constructed from a set of rather old notes without very specific biographical evidence recorded)
Hodges, R., Dark Age Economics: a New Audit
Hill, D. and Cowie, R. (eds.), Wics: the Early Medieval Trading Centres of Northern Europe
Hinton, D. A., Archaeology, Economy and Society