By Dr Neil Faulkner
Last updated 2011-02-17
A land of farmers - Most people in Anglo-Saxon England (AD 450-1066) were farmers who lived in small rural settlements. Had you visited West Stow in Suffolk in the seventh century AD, you would probably have seen only a handful of buildings: perhaps two or three 'halls' and several sunken-featured buildings (or SFBs).
Corn grinding-stones, dumps of animal bone, fallen loom-weights and other finds are evidence that this community of perhaps two or three extended families was largely self-sufficient.
Sunken-featured buildings - Altogether, seven halls and sixty-nine sunken-featured buildings of different dates were found at West Stow. The buildings are called sunken-featured because their most obvious characteristic is that they have a shallow dug-out hollow that is roughly rectangular in shape and usually measures about 2m x 3m (6ft 6in x 10ft), (though they can be up to three times this size).
Around the edge there are usually a variable number of substantial postholes, showing that a roofed timber structure covered the hollow. Was the hollow an underground cellar with a timber floor across the top, or did you step down into the lowered surface when you entered the hut?
Halls - Sunken-featured buildings were probably ancillary structures used for weaving, storage, and labourers' accommodation. The farmer and his immediate family would live in a hall - a rectangular timber building that could sometimes be 10m (33ft) long and more than twice that wide. On elite sites, there might be fewer sunken featured buildings and more and larger halls.
On a royal site, the halls could be truly palatial. That of the Kings of Northumbria at Yeavering measured almost 25m (82ft) in length, and the walls were built of wooden planks almost 15cm (6in) thick. Nothing remained apart from stains in the soil, but surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon art on stone and metal has the chip-carved form of work on wood, so we can guess that timber halls may have been decorated with horned gods, mythic beasts and dragon's heads, set in a maze of interlace.
King Hrothgar's mead-hall - The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf captures the spirit of the age. King Hrothgar's mead-hall was 'a wonder of the world ... a hall of halls ... towering with gables wide and high'. In a world where a man's measure was the size of his retinue, the mead-hall of a king had to be a cavernous chamber. The timber palaces of Anglo-Saxon England may have been as impressive as the grandest masonry buildings of Roman Britain.
The site in Suffolk, was investigated by Dave Cummings and John Newman.
Discover more amazing finds at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.
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