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The Kings of Kent

The surprising discovery of an Anglo-Saxon feasting hall in the village of Lyminge is offering a new view of the lives of these pagan kings

Monday, May 20, 2013

aerial-lyminge-excavation

 

Fifth-century Britain was a tumultuous place, wracked by violence, upheaval, and uncertainty. The Roman Empire was crumbling throughout western Europe as waves of barbarian invaders overran its borders. By A.D. 410, groups of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began crossing the North Sea from Germany and southern Scandinavia to claim land in Britain that had been abandoned by the Roman army. These tribes succeeded Rome as the dominant power in central and southern Britain, marking the beginning of what we now call the Anglo-Saxon Age, which would last for more than 600 years.

 

While the story of this period is known to us in broad strokes, in archaeological terms, there remains much to uncover. The early Anglo-Saxon period is a time whose events are often shrouded in fantasy. This fantastical view can be traced to later, Christian writers who described the pagan world of the fifth and sixth centuries as being inhabited by wizards, warriors, demons, and dragons. Legendary tales, passed down, were often the subject of later Old English works of poetry. Perhaps the most famous of all is the epic work Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters and fire-breathing dragons. But some of the details of early Anglo-Saxon life that have been gleaned piecemeal from texts are now being confirmed by archaeology. Such is the case with the recent surprising discovery of a Saxon royal feasting hall.

 

For the last six years the Lyminge Archaeological Project has investigated the modern village of Lyminge, Kent, located a short distance from the famous white cliffs of Dover. Researchers from both the University of Reading and the Kent Archaeological Society are documenting Lyminge’s transition from a pagan royal “vill” into a significant Christian monastic center. The settlement encompasses both the pre-Christian and later Christian Anglo-Saxon periods and is proving valuable in understanding the development of early English communities. According to Alexandra Knox, archaeologist and Lyminge Archaeological Project research assistant, the work there is supplying a key piece of the puzzle. “The history of the Christian conversion in Kent,” Knox says, “the historically earliest kingdom to be converted in the Anglo-Saxon period, is integral to our understanding of the creation of medieval and, indeed, modern England.”

 

The Christian Anglo-Saxon community in Lyminge founded an important “double” monastery—home to both monks and nuns—dating from the seventh to ninth century. The existence of this monastery has been known from at least the middle of the nineteenth century, when Canon Jenkins, a local vicar and amateur archaeologist, discovered the remains of the ancient monastic complex. But apart from these Christian ruins, little was known about Lyminge’s earlier history.