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Old 11-23-2012, 02:55 AM   #1
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Did Anglo-Saxons inhabit Roman architectural remains?

Okay. So I failed in my attempts over the last 5 years to avoid bothering AW with this question. I scoured library books, internet archives, asked people, etc. And I found no hint of a possible answer. So I'll start from the beginning.

My novel is a fantasy beginning in early Anglo-Saxon times (early 7th century). I know that most life during the time was agricultural, setting up and taking over the Wealhs/Britons after the fall of Rome, but here's my problem: Rome was a pretty big empire. They had huge architecture with advanced arches, pillars, palaces and coliseums... So how come there's no text of what happened to those places???

Specifically...
What did the Anglo-Saxons do with these structures? Did they burn them? Did they inhabit them? Did they just leave them there like landmarks to marvel at and then go on about their business? If they were somehow destroyed, how much was left at the 7th century?

I understand given the limited amount of research and data of the time, a lot of this question can be put up to speculation, but I don't even know what to speculate. I'm considering flying to England from the US and asking all historians I can find. If there is no answer, any comment as to how I might go about finding the answer to this question would be greatly appreciated. I am barely accustomed to the credit systems on online forums, but I would appreciate any input, whether for credits or kindness of heart. Please help. This question is consuming me!

Thank you so much.
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Old 11-23-2012, 04:27 AM   #2
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Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Hadrian's Wall and Bath are still there.

You can pretty much guess that ruins would be used as quarries for pre-cut material for other buildings. That's been standard in most times and places. If the building was in good shape, though, it would probably be reused.

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Old 11-23-2012, 05:04 AM   #3
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Yes...but they did not have the skill to repair the stone structures the Romans built and left behind. A lot of the structures were vandalized for the stones or other building material. When the Romans left London, the old section was barely used by the new inhabitants as they built their own wood structures. Even the baths and arenas were left to deteriorate. I might also mention his stories are very well written and very interesting...

While Hadrian's wall still stands in places, not all of it was made of stone and what parts of the stone sections were later torn down and used to build churches and such...

Bernard Cornwell writes historical fiction and he touches on this topic in his Heretic series. He sites all his references in the books and notes what liberties he took and why...
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Old 11-23-2012, 07:36 AM   #4
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cool!

Thank you Siri Kirpan and Thothguard.

Well the Romans left around the year 410. Between the vandalism and the quarrying (I never thought of quarrying), I would agree that a lot of damage was done to the Roman architecture by the time the 7th century rolls along

Thanks to your help, I'm able to picture a level of decimation. I'm imagining the two types of settlements in Anglo-Saxon England and am trying to make a reasonable guess as to how much each type of settlement is decimated.

1) -- Anglo-Saxon town/village -- 75% decimation of Roman architecture, leaving a few Roman buildings in the outskirts of the towns.
2) -- Rural Anglo-Saxon farmlands -- 100% decimation of Roman architecture. We need this land for farming! These stones don't belong here!

I would probably need to do more homework as to how the Roman buildings and architecture was distributed in these areas, but this is my guess.

What say you guys? Is this believable or do I need more research on the subject? Are there other factors that would determine where there would be ruins and where there would be nothing left? Feel free to put in your own % of decimation if you want

Thothguard-- do you mean the entire Grail Quest series or just the third book entitled "Heretic?"

Thanks again.
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Old 11-23-2012, 09:11 AM   #5
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Oh fascinating question. I'm so interested in this time and place. My first attempt at a novel was set in 7th century Dorset. I did a tremendous amount of research to come to the conclusion that I could basically say whatever I thought was most suitable to the research, as long as I justified it.

The thing is, unless you really really dig into archeology, there really isn't an answer. And the answers are really mixed. There have been finds in Roman places and finds not in Roman places. I've read novels where the Anglo-Saxons quarry Roman buildings and/or build on them, and I've read novels where the Anglo-Saxons avoid Roman buildings for fear that they are haunted. But without archeology for the specific places you are interested in writing about, there really isn't an answer. I imagine it varied by kingdom, time, origin of people, etc.

Obviously, at some point, the Anglo-Saxons began to build on top of old Roman places. Otherwise, you can't account for London, for example, or Bath. (Although the baths themselves weren't used by the Anglo-Saxons.) When and how that all worked out isn't clear.

I've found that Hill's An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England is tremendously helpful, as is access to academic journals to look up archeological sources.

Anyway, my recommendation is that if you know you will be using a specific town, city, or county, look for as much archeological work on that place as you can. Especially in the 7th century, habitation patterns would have varied by degree of Saxon control of British land, place of origin of Saxon settlers, etc. Historical societies can be amazingly helpful for this. If you do get the chance to visit the place you are interested in writing about, pick up all the small chapbooks and local guides you can. If you can't get there, you can usually find them online or by emailing the historical society. If you have access to an academic library, look for both peer-reviewed journal articles and unpublished Master's theses and dissertations. I once found a thesis about Anglo-Saxon amulets that was so cool and informative.

ETA: My other suggestion is to check out Carla Nayland's blog. She wrote a well-researched novel about King Edwin (7th century Northumbria).
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Old 11-23-2012, 10:16 AM   #6
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Another factor to consider if you're using real locations: what's there now?
If there's a castle or other fortification near the site, not only was the Roman site likely quarried for it's stones, but the fortification suggests that there was fighting in the area, enough to justify all that work.Which implies that an undefended Roman villa/farm wouldn't be a safe place to live, once the Romans were gone.

Also, fighting may have damaged the place enough to make it easy pickings for locals looking for stone.
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Old 11-23-2012, 10:22 AM   #7
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I want to say that what the local Saxons did with abandoned/old Roman buildings probably depended entirely on local circumstances.

We lived in a village in Cumbria, believed to be the site of a substantial fort, a fort big enough to suggest there was a vicus. In certain parts of the village, you only had to stick a shovel in the soil and you'd find a bit of pottery on the other end. I have a huge potsherd that someone gave us. You can feel and see the grooves the potter's fingers left. When the field behind us was sold for housing, one of the requirements of the planning consent was for the developer to pay for an archaeological investigation. I was lucky enough to get to chat with the archaeologist leading the dig. She said that most of the older houses in the village and the nearby stonewalls were built from blocks salvaged/scavenged from the fort. It wasn't an uncommon practice.
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Old 11-23-2012, 01:35 PM   #8
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2) -- Rural Anglo-Saxon farmlands -- 100% decimation of Roman architecture. We need this land for farming! These stones don't belong here!
There was enough farmland that they didn't need to demolish structures.
I suspect that the early Saxons were just not used to living in stone/brick buildings and so didn't use them.
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Old 11-23-2012, 07:27 PM   #9
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Are you aware of the references to Roman ruins in OE poetry? There are several.

Look at "The Wanderer" from about line 73.

The speaker is contemplating a ruined city, that was once filled with men.

More than once scholars have argued that this is a reference to the Roman ruins of Bath.

Other references describe Roman ruins as "the work of giants."

Note that mountains and large gorges are also described as "the work of giants."

There are various churches and monasteries that have incorporated Roman cut stone into their structures, but the actual Roman villas of Britain typically were very much abandoned before the major influx of Anglo-Saxons in seventh and eighth centuries.
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Old 11-23-2012, 11:58 PM   #10
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Oh yes, definitely.

I suggest finding a copy of Bede's 'An Ecclessiastical History of the English People.' He talks of Hadrian's Wall being at least six-foot in height. Arbeia Fort became the site of an Anglo-Saxon village; Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall was used by shepherds to hide from Reivers up to the 16th century; and Dover Castle still has a Roman light-house incorporated into it. Incidently, the worst damage to Hadrian's Wall was done in the 19th/ early 20th centuries! Then there are some excellent examples of Roman stone in churches like Hexham, Melrose and Lanercost [I've even seen bits in people's garden walls!] A lot of churches where built on the sites of forts/praetoriums has they already had religious significance [the shrine where the standards were kept.] An excellent example is in York, where the minster now stands.

And if you do come to the UK, I recomment the north. There's Bede's World in Jarrow [just south of Newcastle/Wallsend] and they have window frames and roof tiles that were taken from nearby Arbeia, and a nearby church [St Paul's] contains Roman stone also.

If you need a tourist guide, I would love to meet up.
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Old 11-24-2012, 12:09 AM   #11
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Well the Romans left around the year 410. architecture, leaving a few Roman buildings in the outskirts of the towns.
The Romans didn't really *leave.* What happened is that as the empire crumbled, the soldiers stopped being paid, and they just abandoned their posts, more than likely staying in the buildings with their families.

Also, remember that a lot of the soldiers where local to the area in which they served. They generally served as soldiers in the same forts as their father's had. If you want some good books I recommend The Wall by Alistair Moffat, and An Imperial Possession by David Mattingly.
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Old 11-24-2012, 03:43 AM   #12
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There are various churches and monasteries that have incorporated Roman cut stone into their structures, but the actual Roman villas of Britain typically were very much abandoned before the major influx of Anglo-Saxons in seventh and eighth centuries.
I remember reading somewhere (and I'm sure Medi will correct me if I'm wrong) but there is/was a theory that perhaps there was superstition attached to the old Roman buildings - not nesc. by the Anglo Saxons, but by the natice inhabitants at the time (who may have passed it on). The mind set of someone that long ago is not the same as one today - superstition (as we view it) probably/possibly played a large part in the culture and might well have played a part in not just taking over the Roman buildings, but dismantling them and using the parts.
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Old 11-24-2012, 05:01 AM   #13
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I would probably need to do more homework as to how the Roman buildings and architecture was distributed in these areas, but this is my guess.
David Brown Book Company is your friend. (Or Oxbow Books if you live in Europe.)

I've got several books on dead Saxons from this time period (the Archeology of various early Saxon cemeteries, mostly in Kent). Formulate a few questions and I'll see what I can find in them. They do not, alas, talk much about Saxon buildings. I've been more interested in Saxon clothing and small finds.


ETA: The beginning of The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart has Merlin's grandfather inhabiting a crumbling Roman villa. I wouldn't take that as anything to do with history, as there are other parts in those books that are ahistorical, but it might be worth a read.


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[SIZE=2]The Romans didn't really *leave.* What happened is that as the empire crumbled, the soldiers stopped being paid, and they just abandoned their posts, more than likely staying in the buildings with their families.
As I tell people when I reenact this time period, imagine that the police, the army and the government all went away one day. What you're left with is retired army and bureaucrats. There's no more monetary support coming from Rome. You've all got to figure it out for yourself. When the Romans abandoned Britannia, they'd been there for 400 years and the natives were fairly well Romanized.

After 150 years or so, you've got tiny kingdoms ruled by those that can hold off outsiders. The Saxons took a good look at the political situation and all that unclaimed (or at least underdefended) land and came across in droves.
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Old 11-24-2012, 05:20 PM   #14
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I don't have tons to add to the thread, but it's very interesting.

I remember vaguely reading about the ruins of Roman Londinium. Apparently, it was abandoned for many years, but the Anglo-Saxons built their own settlement nearby. The conjecture was, as the posters above said, that they either preferred wooden buildings to the stone ruins or that they thought the ruins might be haunted (or at least not worth inhabiting).

You could look for info on what happened to Londinium. It might be different from your area, but the info would be easier to get your hands on.
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Old 11-24-2012, 07:47 PM   #15
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As I tell people when I reenact this time period, imagine that the police, the army and the government all went away one day. What you're left with is retired army and bureaucrats. There's no more monetary support coming from Rome. You've all got to figure it out for yourself. When the Romans abandoned Britannia, they'd been there for 400 years and the natives were fairly well Romanized.
I'm going to disagree with you here. Not only is the idea of 'Romanization' rubbished by academics, there was no such policy. What happened was 'Romano-British' or otherwise called 'the Roman Interlude.' An interlude because the local population pretty much continued the same way of life: they still lived in round-houses; still worshipped the same gods; iron-age Britain were already trading with the continent and coins where in circulation. And it depends where you where in Britain, in the south they adopted to Roman culture far more than the north ever did. I recommend the book 'An Imperial Possession: Britain In The Roman Empire' by David Mattingly [one of my brilliant tutors at The University of Leicester.] One central government collapsed Latin literacy disappeared [and returns with the Normans], Christianity dissolves and Druids return, and villas etc crumble.
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Old 11-24-2012, 09:25 PM   #16
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This might be a bit far north for your purposes, but I'll add the info just in case it's useful.

I grew up in a town in central Scotland that had the remains of a fort, buildings and bathhouse on the outskirts. We studied the remains when we were covering local history in high school. Let's see what I can remember.

The fort had been pretty much decimated at some point. Only the foundations were left and showed marks of charring, suggesting it had been burned to the ground, then the stones carted off somewhere. The buildings only had the outlines of where they had once stood, but nothing to indicate they had been burned. The bath house was in the best shape, suggesting it had not been destroyed, but had fallen into disrepair over time. The well was still in pretty good shape, though fenced off for safety purposes.

The roman bridge still stands, though it underwent a thorough repair job in the early medieval. It's thought that the fort was there to protect the bridge and keep the road (which ran between the Hadrian and the Antonine walls) open. The roads are still in use, though they've been widened and paved over with modern materials. One of them is still called Roman Road.

It's interesting. The Romans weren't even in this area for very long, but still managed to build a lot of things, some of which are still in use.
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Old 11-24-2012, 11:21 PM   #17
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I'm going to disagree with you here. Not only is the idea of 'Romanization' rubbished by academics, there was no such policy. What happened was 'Romano-British' or otherwise called 'the Roman Interlude.' An interlude because the local population pretty much continued the same way of life: they still lived in round-houses; still worshipped the same gods; iron-age Britain were already trading with the continent and coins where in circulation. And it depends where you where in Britain, in the south they adopted to Roman culture far more than the north ever did. I recommend the book 'An Imperial Possession: Britain In The Roman Empire' by David Mattingly [one of my brilliant tutors at The University of Leicester.]
I'd be interested to read that if I can find it. I agree I overgeneralized. But certainly there was a lot of Roman civilization in Britain scattered about and, as you say, more prominent in the South than the North.


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One central government collapsed Latin literacy disappeared [and returns with the Normans], Christianity dissolves and Druids return, and villas etc crumble.[/SIZE]
Literacy re-appears in Britain with the Christians. Christians were active in various parts of Britain, generally in the west, from the 4th century.

Anglo-Saxon culture was quite literate before the Norman invasion. King AEthelberht had a written law code in the 6th century. St. Augustine came to Kent in the 6th century. The Venerable Bede finished his history in the early 8th century. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle was created in the 9th century. They had law codes dating back to the Heptarchy. Their government was one of the most sophisticated in Europe.

The Norman invasion destroyed much of Saxon culture. But enough of their writings remain to demonstrate that it was very literate before William.
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Old 11-26-2012, 01:16 AM   #18
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So many great ideas, suggestions, and references. It's delicious, for lack of a better word. I'm going to look into this some more and see if I can add some further info for others to enjoy. Thanks again, all.
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Old 11-27-2012, 10:39 PM   #19
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So many great ideas, suggestions, and references. It's delicious, for lack of a better word. I'm going to look into this some more and see if I can add some further info for others to enjoy. Thanks again, all.
I remember looking at some archaeological reports that showed that there was some use of villas by people who didn't use the living spaces in the way they were originally designed.

Also, there are some things about detecting how structures are used that can be misleading. One thing that can happen is that if people clean up things a lot, you really can't tell they were there so several things make it hard to determine how much Post-roman use there was of Roman buildings:
1) were the new inhabitants fewer? (there was a big plague in the 540s...a drop in population would make their impact harder to detect)
2) did they use the buildings differently?
3) did they clean up after themselves?
4) did they generally just not repair things?
(this is not as odd as it sounds. The new inhabitants may have preferred just to build whole new houses or barns rather than repair old ones -- for ownership/legal reasons as much as anything else)
5) was their technology or use of buildings so highly derivative that it can't be separated from Roman?
6) did they have less manufactured ceramics (this is an old controversy: the apparently disappearance of Roman stuff might be just the ceasation of typical Roman red wares..ie there may be no real connection between the vanishing of what can be seen as Roman now with the actual social world of say 500 AD -- which may have still been very Roman except in terms of ceramics)
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Old 11-28-2012, 02:38 PM   #20
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I think they used remains of Roman buildings as all barbarian tribes. Anglo-Saxons could borrow some features of Latin culture.
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Old 12-07-2012, 05:33 PM   #21
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I finished reading 'Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise' a couple of weeks back. Apparently what happened to the old Roman buildings is what I'd expected - it varies by the region.

Bath stayed in regular use.

Churches got built in Roman towns in the West, though a lot of people moved to more defensible locations, such as old hillforts.

Londinium (along with most of the rest of the cities in the south and east) was abandoned, but people came back a while later and built a new wooden town a mile or so further up the river.

The soldiers and their descendants hung around in some places for an extra century or so, particularly in the north along Hadrian's Wall, then faded from view.

Scavenging parties would seem to have been quite normal in the early period after the Fall at least, going through the old ruins to see what the Romans had left. A lot of towns were quarried for stone for new buildings. Canterbury was abandoned until an emissary from the Roman Catholic church arrived in Kent and was granted leave to build there; at that time Canterbury was empty, and it seems that life didn't actually return to the city until a while later.

Literacy definitely didn't return with the Normans, though. The idea of the 'Dark Ages' as this total gap of civilisation and the early Anglo-Saxons as invading, unwashed savages gets annoying. There were several very beautiful books produced between the fall of Rome and the Norman invasion, and a few have even survived to this day.
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Old 01-13-2013, 06:16 AM   #22
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As far as I've read (and seen on all-too-infrequent holidays in the UK), the Christianized British tended to overlay their own religious structures onto pagan places of worship. The Church would have encouraged this. I've seen Roman stones used in later buildings also, as have the others commenting above, and even in Rome itself, the Coliseum was used as a stone quarry by later people.

I think the answer most likely varies according to where and when. The Romano-British, and later the Anglo-Saxons, probably did what was most expedient to their practical needs, although I daresay they wondered deeply about the Roman construction they found.
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Old 01-13-2013, 02:23 PM   #23
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The Romans didn't really *leave.* What happened is that as the empire crumbled, the soldiers stopped being paid, and they just abandoned their posts, more than likely staying in the buildings with their families.

Also, remember that a lot of the soldiers where local to the area in which they served. They generally served as soldiers in the same forts as their father's had. If you want some good books I recommend The Wall by Alistair Moffat, and An Imperial Possession by David Mattingly.
Well, originally they were not local because the Romans had a policy of never manning a fort with locally recruited soldiers because that led to all sorts of issues if there was ever an uprising... the fort at Arbeia was manned by Arabic Romans, for example, which is believed to be the source of the name Arbeia...

However, many of them would have married in the local population (another thing the Romans encouraged a lot of because that stimulated local loyalty to the Empire) and so by the time of the fall many of them may have preferred to stay rather than leave as you say.

Many of the cathedrals and abbeys in the north have bits of Hadrian's wall included in them and many were built in or around the 6-8th centuries. Hexham abbey is probably the prime example. Not only can you see Roman gravestones in the ceiling of the crypt but the artifact known as St Wilfrid's chair was carved from a block of stone taken from the wall.

As an aside, the chair was later used by the monks who lived there as a test for would be seekers of sanctuary. They made a big thing about the fact it was sat in by a saint and told everyone that if you sat in it and told a lie god would strike you down. They would sit the potential sanctuary seeker in the chair and ask them if they committed the crime. According to the records many would admit to the crime out of fear of god's wrath.
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Old 01-13-2013, 02:33 PM   #24
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Oh, as an additional... while it is very nice to have accuracy in your historicity, there are occasions where it is not really all that possible to get it due to a lack of evidence or a controversial topic. This strikes me as one of those occasions (though I quite like Medievalist's references above, very strong indication of what likely happened).

The question you should maybe ask is: what suits the story best in this instance? If you need an anglo saxon living in a Roman building, then I do not see a problem with that happening, especially if you make it clear that it is a rather rare occurence and that person has good reasons for doing it. The resources are there to be used though, as stated, the majority probably preferred to loot them for other purposes and stay in easier to keep warm wattle and daub. Because that is what I think was the main issue in anglo saxon Britain... the cold weather. Big stone buildings are all very well for churches and for mediterranean countries where stone being cold is a boon, but if you try to live in one in the British winter without that convenient underfloor heating you will not last long.
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Old 01-17-2013, 01:20 PM   #25
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There's an astonishing amount of Roman stuff still around in ways that suggest some continuity of use over the centuries, though I'm not an archaeologist and I'm just passing on my own observations. Below York Minster (the cathedral in York, for our US friends) you can still see the remains of the centre of the Roman settlement. The Minster was built on the very centre of the Roman remains.

In Wales, I went for a long walk on a footpath across the fields. The footpath had obviously once been a proper paved road. It followed the course of a Roman military road which led to a fort. Where the fort had been, there is now a farmhouse. To my untutored eye (and referring to maps but not making any proper study) it looked as if one corner of the farmyard may well have followed the line of the original fort.

I read a magazine article a few years back that said that the motorway building programme in the UK turned up lots of Roman remains in areas which had not been thought to be settled by the Romans and that archaeologists were having to rethink their ideas on Roman Britain. I don't know how true this was, but I do think that a lot of the shape of modern Britain is based on roads and settlements that go back at least to the Romans.

EDIT Just remembered: if you go to the Tower of London, just outside you can see the remains of the Roman Wall. So the Normans built their military buildings alongside the location of old Roman works. And I don't know about the wooden town of the Saxons being elsewhere but I do know that in the last few years we've dug up evidence that Roman London was bigger than we had thought, so it's at least possible that some of the Saxon settlement may have been built on Roman remains after all. I don't know, but it's probably worth checking with the latest data.
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