How Do We Know?
How Long Ago?
People talk of things having been found which were made two hundred, five hundred or even one thousand years ago; but how do they know their dating is correct?
When an archaeological dig takes place, the position of each 'find' is carefully recorded on a plan of the area. It is numbered and notes about where it was found (its 'context') are made. Sometimes dating such items is easy - coins may have dates on them or depict an identifiable person (often a king), though if found under the floor of a building, may only tell the excavator that the building was in use at the same time as the coin. It does not follow that both the coin and the building were concurrent.
Then there are other finds, like knives, brooches, pottery and the remains of meals (bones etc). Metal cannot easily be tested for its age, but can be examined to see if its composition matches that of metals whose age is known. Images or 'Illuminations' known to have been illustrated at a particular time or which employ a specific art style, can help date many things such as jewellery or pottery. One or two datable objects within the same layer will help to date that particular context and contribute towards the dating of the whole site. But what about wood? - things like furniture, houses, boats, etc.?
Wood can sometimes give us far more accurate dating than other methods. You probably know that trees put on a ring of growth every year. If you count back through the thick and thin rings of a modern tree, you can calculate when it was first planted. You can match the earliest rings (thin in a dry year, thicker in a wet year) with the latest ones in a beam from an old house - then overlap that beam with one from an old church, and so on, until you can link that pattern of rings or bands to your find. If you have counted, measured and compared accurately enough (it takes a dating laboratory to do it properly), you can get back to the actual year your wood was cut down. This process is called 'Dendrochronology'. Other techniques of dating finds give a huge cross-section to ensure that one process doesn't favour one date too much, by a system of cross referencing and checking.
How Did They Do That?
You will often read explanations of how things worked, how they were made, etc. in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times, but again, how do we know?
There are several ways of finding this information out. Occasionally, craft techniques can still be found being practiced in various parts of the world that parallel much older crafts that Vikings or Anglo-Saxons themselves practiced. Workshops have been found by archaeologists and images or written descriptions of people practising the crafts have survived as well. In many cases the information gained from these sources demonstrates that many techniques have not really changed since the Anglo-Saxon age, and by consulting and comparing present day or recent practitioners of those handcrafts, much can be learned of how they were originally practised. In some cases the techniques are not identical, but by a careful study of all the available evidence, including detailed studies of the finished items, marks made during construction give clues which helps the archaeologist come up with theories of how the craft was practised.
However, although the archaeologist's theories seem sound, they do not always work well when tried out. So in order to prove or disprove these ideas, practical experiments are carried out. In these experiments, modern craftsmen or often the archaeologists themselves, attempt to replicate items according to the current theory. When these don't work as planned, it would suggest that the theory was probably incorrect. However, if it does work, the finished item, and the waste from its manufacture, can be carefully studied to compare the original items and the new versions.
Despite the success with the replica, the construction marks on the finished item, or the waste does not match the archaeological evidence closely enough, showing that this was unlikely to be the actual technique used by the ancient craftsmen. If things go really well, not only will the technique work, but the constructional marks and waste, etc. will all match the archaeological evidence, implying that this was most likely the process utilised originally.
'Experimental archaeology' as it is called can be applied to many aspects of life in the past, not just crafts. For example, replicas of Anglo-Saxon and Viking buildings have been erected to discover how long they would stay up and how weather proof they might have been. Ships have been reconstructed to find out such things as how fast could they travel, how well they handled in rough weather, etc.. Experimental archaeology has also been used to help our understanding of such things as tools, weapons, farming, etc. By living on a site and 'working' it, or leaving the building to fall down of old age, even burning it can tell you much about the development of an archaeological site.
Other sources which can help our understanding of these things are contemporary pictures or texts, or studies of how other 'primitive' cultures with similar technology solved the same problems in recent history.
What Was It Like?
Understanding what it was like to live at the time is a much more complicated subject. Experimental archaeology can again be of much help here, although other sources must also be used. Obviously the illustrations and writings of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings themselves can give us some clues, although we always have to be aware of inadvertently looking at these sources with a 'modern eye.' For example, something as simple as a colour can be differently interpreted by thinking in modern terms - is a black sheep really black, or is it dark brown? Is white wine white? Did accuracy in the depiction of colour really matter to them? When we use contemporary sources we must always bear in mind the possible differences in their perceptions and conventions and our own.
Specialist archaeology can also give us ideas of what life was like. The study of faeces from latrine pits can show what was eaten, what stomach parasites were common, etc.. Study of rubbish pits or middens, tell us how common different meats were from the bones that were discarded, or which items were considered cheap, and thus 'disposable'.
Study of settlements tell us about vermin, where activities took place, how many people lived in a house or village, extinction rates of shell fish due to pollution as populations rose in towns. Study of skeletons can often show whether a person had any diseases or illnesses, how tall people grew, how old they were when they died, whether they died violently, how healthy their diet was, etc.. In the case of pagan burials, which often included grave goods, we can learn which items may have been considered important, get some idea of what people wore, or a clue as to how wealthy a person was.
Discovering what life was like in these distant times is a like trying to complete a complicated jigsaw, with some of the pieces missing, some damaged, and others scattered around requiring to be found. When it is finally completed you can get a fair idea of the overall picture, although many of the details are obscure or missing.
What Was It Used For?
One of the biggest problems for an archaeologist can be deducing what an item might have been used for. In some cases this is obvious, as similar items still exist today or are well documented from other times or cultures. But in other cases, an item has no obvious parallels. In the past, archaeologists ascribed such items with 'ritual significance'. This is a term used to denote that an item was probably connected with some sort of religious ceremony or ritual, or it may have been some sort of talisman or votive offering. We cannot now have any true understanding of its original importance. Whilst this may be true occasionally for some items, it is not the case for all.
From time to time items are mentioned in written sources which, through careful research, can sometimes be shown to be one of these genuine 'ritual' items, and experimental archaeology can often be used to confirm this. Most usually, however, the identification of such items requires a 'leap of imagination' on the part of the person looking at the item. Anybody's idea could be as valid as anyone else's, be they a small child or a university professor, a museum visitor or the museum curator, an 'expert' or an 'ordinary person.'
The language of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings is not so far removed from what we speak today as you may expect. Many words that they once used are now slightly modified or have fallen out of use. A great deal of these words are agriculturally connected, and as we tend to be a much more urban people today, these terms are now no longer of any use to us. When looked at closely, they can also give an insight as to how people then dealt with things. An items name in the Anglo-Saxon or Viking tongue would suggest strongly that the article was in use then, and was well known by the reader, giving us yet more detail to add to the picture of what life was like for them.
Original article by Roland Williamson 1999