‘Cantucuudu’ – The Quantocks in the Dark Ages

Published by Dan Broadbent on

Dan Broadbent, QLPS Historic Heritage Officer

The recent release of The Dig, the film telling the story of the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, has created a surge of interest in the Dark Ages, that enigmatic period between the departure of the Roman legions from Britain in the early 5th century and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms towards the end of the 7th.

Historical evidence for the period is famously scarce and the few written sources we have portray a Britain collapsing into ruin, helpless as incoming tribes of Saxons, Jutes and Angles exploit the power vacuum and ravage the land. This view has been challenged ever since the magnificent discoveries at Sutton Hoo. Similarly breath-taking discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the so-called Prittlewell Prince, further attest that this was far from a cultural or economic dark age. The recent discovery of a post-Roman mosaic in Gloucestershire further emphasises the point.

Yet, despite such high-status finds, there remains a paucity of archaeological evidence for the period as a whole. In many ways our understanding of the period is informed as much by myth as by fact; this is after all the period of both Arthur and Beowulf. When it comes to the Dark Ages, it remains difficult to disentangle myth from reality, particularly so as we move westwards across the country, tracing the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon settlers from their early strongholds in the East. But, if we know where to look, there are traces of this period to be found, even on and around the Quantocks.

In fact, the earliest written record of the Quantocks comes from this period, in a charter recording a grant of land at West Monkton from King Centwine of Wessex to Glastonbury Abbey in AD 682. This charter describes the area as being close to the famous wood called ‘Cantucuudu’ or Quantock Wood. These wooded hills would not become a formalised royal forest until the Norman Conquest, but the charter suggests it may already have been an established Saxon hunting ground.

Excavation of Roman-period farmsteads at Maidenbrook and Hinkley Point suggests that occupation ends in the 4th century, but elsewhere the picture is one of economic change rather than collapse. At Yarford, for example a mosaic-floored room of the Roman Villa appears to have been converted into a workshop, and at Carhampton excavations unearthed an iron-working site with finds including sherds of imported pottery of 5th or 6th century date.

Mosaic being excavated at at Yarford Roman Villa
Mosaic floor at Yarford Roman Villa

West Somerset has a particular concentration of cemeteries from this period, the most spectacular being at Cannington where the excavators suggest that as many as 5000 people may have been buried between around AD 400-700. At least some of these people continued to have access to high status goods including glass and imported pottery, and the presence of objects crafted from bone and antler has led to speculation of an association with the horned pagan god Cernunnos. A further 300 graves dating from the 5th to 7th centuries were unearthed during recent excavations at Hinkley Point while a further five graves from the same period have been identified at Stoneage Barton.

Another glimpse into life at this time can be found in form of Old English place names. The eastern boundary of the West Monkton charter, for example, is marked by the Wealaford, modern day Walford, which can be literally translated as ‘Ford of the Welsh’, Welsh being the Anglo-Saxon term for the native population. The inference of native activity in the area at the time of English incursion into Somerset may be supported by the presence of a nearby series of cropmark enclosures which have yet to be archaeologically investigated.

Similarly, the western boundary of the same charter is mark by Haegstealdcumbe, which can be translated as the valley of the Haegstalds and is now known as Hestercombe. The term Haegstald defines a specific class of Saxon who, because he had no share in a village, was forced to take up a holding on its fringes.

We can say with some certainty then, that the Quantocks were not abandoned during the early Saxon period. The Quantock Landscape Partnership Scheme has many archaeological works planned over the next four years. We might not find a ship burial but who knows, perhaps we might be able to shed further light on the Quantocks’ own Dark Ages.

To learn more about Sutton Hoo visit: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/death-and-memory/anglo-saxon-ship-burial-sutton-hoo

There is a superb website about the discovery of the Prittlewell Prince here: https://www.prittlewellprincelyburial.org/

Further Reading:

Michael Costen, ‘Anglo-Saxon Somerset’ (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2011)
Michael Havinden, ‘The Somerset Landscape’ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981)