The Early Medieval period

The next layer of time is the early medieval period. This is the time from when Roman rule in Britain ended (probably soon after 400 AD, which is about 1,600 years ago) until the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when the Normans conquered England.

The early medieval period used to be called the Dark Ages, because Roman society suddenly collapsed and historians didn’t have many written accounts from the time to tell them what happened and why. We now think that it isn’t such a good name because, although few records were made, great art and writings do survive to the present day.

A huge part of our modern British life began at this time, for example our legal system. This was also a time of great change in Europe with an incredible mixing of cultures, languages and ideas. Some of the cultures in England and Wales at the time were the Anglo-Saxons (a mix of mainly Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came from north Germany, Denmark and northern Holland), the Vikings (who came from Scandinavia), the Welsh and the Cornish.

What we know about the people that lived here in the early-medieval period comes mainly from archaeology. The PAS has recorded thousands of finds from this period and what is being discovered is hugely adding to our knowledge.


The Anglo-Saxons began arriving in Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Many came via the East of England. The Anglo-Saxons formed several small kingdoms that grew, like Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. These kingdoms were eventually joined together to form England.

Anglo-Saxon England and Wales

Some of the most beautiful and exciting objects from the early years of this time were put into Anglo-Saxon graves. Many people were buried in their best clothes, with particular tools or weapons next to them. We think that this might have been because the family wanted to show how important or interesting the dead person had been – a heroic warrior, or a woman skilled in weaving, or a beautiful girl. The clothes do not usually survive, but the metal brooches, buckles and glass and amber beads do, along with pottery bowls, iron swords, spears, and tools used for weaving.

There weren’t really any coins used at this time. After the collapse of Roman rule, shops and markets stopped being used. People were paid in things like food and firewood, and swapped their possessions instead of buying and selling.

Anglo-Saxon objects

Objects were put into Anglo-Saxon graves up until the early eighth century, but after that the practice stops. Most of the finds recorded by the PAS in the eighth century and later are small personal items that were probably accidentally lost. These include buckles, pins, brooches, and little fittings from the ends of belts called strap-ends. Buttons hadn’t been invented yet, and clothes weren’t stretchy, so pins and brooches were used to keep the clothing tight and warm around the body. At this time, too, coins slowly become more common as people begin to buy and sell more.


The next big event that happened in the early medieval period was the arrival of people from Scandinavia during the Viking Age. In England, the Viking age was soon after 790 AD and lasted until around 1066 AD. ‘Viking’ people came mainly from Norway and Denmark, and at first raided and stole from the wealthy monasteries.

Tortoise brooches But ‘Vikings’ were not just raiders, they were also farmers, traders and explorers and later on they came to settle here with their families. Many ‘Viking’ families settled in northern England and East Anglia and there are lots of Viking age objects recorded on the PAS database. The brooches, buckles and strap-ends that they used to hold their clothing together are often decorated in Scandinavian style, and they also brought new kinds of objects with them (such as oval brooches called tortoise brooches).

Stirrup mountBy the eleventh century fashionable dress included both Anglo-Saxon and Viking elements. Even the horses at this time had metal accessories – we find lots of decorative mounts from stirrups and bridles. The stirrup-strap mounts and stirrup terminals are particularly exciting as they are the earliest archaeological evidence for the use of stirrups in England. It’s hard to ride a horse without stirrups

Stirrup mounts

Why not have a go at searching the PAS database to see what kind of early-medieval finds have been recorded?

The Portable Antiquities Scheme’s online Anglo-Saxon village lets you explore how people lived over 1,400 years ago. West Mucking is an imaginary village which has been created from real archaeological evidence. You can see houses dating from 560 AD, and find out how people made a living then. What did they eat? Where did they sleep? What did they do all day? Try it for yourself and find out more.

Viking coins

© The British Museum 2012 | Credits