Missing Spoons, Gildas and Punk Rock

I’m so excited about this post! Today I’m lucky enough to bring you an interview with someone who’s taught me a great deal. Despite the fact that he doesn’t necessarily ascribe to some of the ideas behind The Retreat to Avalon and The Arthurian Age trilogy, he has always been exceedingly generous with his time and knowledge and has been invaluable in helping me understand the world of Arthur. If you want to know something about “Dark Age” Britain, you can’t do much better than chatting with this man.

Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
Image from article by The Guardian.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

His name is Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, and he is the Curator and Heritage Access Officer for the North Hertfordshire Museum. In addition to this, he has a fascinating website called Bad Archaeology and has even had a part in the TV show, History Cold Case.

North Hertfordshire Museum. Image from BBC.

Sean— So, to start, aside from my brief introduction, can you talk a bit about your life growing up? How did you get involved in archaeology?

Keith— When I was 5, my mother brought home a book from the library about the Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel. This was at the time that construction work on the new Aswan Dam was about to begin and there were discussions about how to save the temples from the water that would inevitably rise behind the dam. There were several proposals outlined in the book, which was thoroughly illustrated. But it was the final photograph in the book that really grabbed my attention. It was a photograph of the mummy of Ra‘messe II, the king who had had the temples built. Although I had no real sense of deep time at that age, I knew that the temples were old – way, way older than my grandparents – and was amazed that we could see a photograph of the man himself. It made me want to find out more, and I was instantly hooked on archaeology.

I used to take a spoon down to the end of my parents’ garden in the hope of digging down to an important discovery. I never discovered anything (little did I know at the time, but the end of my parents’ garden was on an alluvial floodplain, so there would have been little or nothing to find). My mother lost a lot of spoons, on the other hand.

I spent my time at Grammar School fighting my teachers about a career. Because I was good at French and tolerably competant in Latin, they wanted me to go for a career in languages, perhaps in the Diplomatic Service. Anyone who knows me would understand that I could never be a diplomat: I’m too forthright in my opinions! I decided to take a year out after school and not apply to university during my final year of sixth form. I got a job working in the library of our local hospital (our next-door neighbour happened to be the librarian there). This taught me how to do research, as half of my time was spent looking for information for doctors (and especially surgeons) who had unusual cases. This was long before the internet, so everything had to be done by searching catalogues of abstracts, our holdings of books and journals and even, on occasion, going to visit other hospitals and talking to doctors who had dealt with similar cases. Once I had to translate a paper on aortic aneurysms from Italian, using my knowledge of Latin and an Italian/English dictionary.

Eventually, I got a place at university, initially for a degree in Archaeology and Medieval History. To my horror, I soon discovered that what English universities in the 1970s considered to be medieval history began in 1066: I was interested in the period before that, especially what’s now known as the early medieval period, about 400 to 900. Disillusioned, I swapped my degree to Archaeology, something I’ve never regretted.

Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

Sean— I have felt exactly the same as you! I am far more interested in the early medieval period. I hope it will get more attention for the fascinating and important time it was. What else have you studied or done in order to increase your archaeology skillset?

Keith— I’ve long believed that nothing is irrelevant to archaeology. Every bit of knowledge is of use at some point. I love placename studies, so I’ve had to learn a smattering of Old English and Celtic languages; I still like early medieval history, so I’ve had to pick up a bit of Old Welsh, too (though it’s not exactly something I can read unaided). I am also interested in archaeological theory, which deals with how we use archaeological data to interpret not just the past but also human behaviour in a much wider sense. I’ve also worked on the archaeology of sexuality, asking whether or not it’s possible to determine such private things from material remains (and, yes, I believe that it is possible in a few rare instances).

Working From (Nearby) Home

Sean— Do I understand correctly that you were born in the town where you work? How does that impact your work as an archaeologist?

Keith— I was actually born in the next town (which is only 3 miles away) and have done much of my work in Baldock, which is a couple of miles further on. I feel a deep connection with the local landscape and its heritage and feel almost uniquely placed to understand it. I know virtually every lane, field and woodland in the district where I work and have known them all my life. It’s hard not to feel part of this landscape.

Sean— Are there specific things about archaeology in North Herts that you are particularly excited about?

Keith— Despite being one of ten districts in Hertfordshire, North Herts has over a third of the known archaeological sites in the county, making it an especially rich area. There are several things that really excite me. I love a good set of human remains, and Baldock has the largest collection of human remains from any Romano-British site in this country. We know more about the demography, health and people of Roman Baldock than anywhere else in Britain: we have at least two sub-Saharan Africans from a high-status cemetery, for instance. I’d love to know who they were, how they came to Baldock and how many local people are descended from them, 1700 years later.

Then there’s the henge that I discovered in Letchworth Garden City (the town where I was born) 12 years ago. It’s a very early type (at least as old as Stonehenge) and the easternmost of its class. I feel very proud to have recognised it and privileged to have been able to excavate part of it. Finally, there is the remarkable survival of Roman ways of doing things that’s visible in the archaeology of North Herts.

The standard narrative for the collapse of Roman rule in Britain has manufacturing industries disappearing within a few years of 400 CE, with a complete economic collapse. According to this view, Anglo-Saxon settlers simply stepped in to a landscape that was semi-abandoned, unproductive and inhabited by small numbers of peasants eking out a subsistence living with no recognisable culture of their own. Instead, what I’ve found is that Roman pottery continued to be made until at least the 430s or 440s, although it was distributed over much shorted distances and made by increasingly incompetent potters. Rather than a failure of the economy, I see the fifth century as a period when the older generation failed to train the next. Vital skills were lost and I suspect that the ability to mend increasingly worn-out equipment was lost.

Cup from Gaping Lane, Hitchin.

But there are some interesting hints at what was going on that transformed the old Roman province into Anglo-Saxon England. One of my star exhibits is a little pot found in Hitchin, where I live, in 1930. If you were an archaeologist looking at a drawing of it, you’d have no hesitation in describing it as an East Anglian (Anglo-Saxon) cup dating from a couple of decades either side of 500 CE. But hold the object in your hands and you’ll discover that although it’s the right shape, it’s been fired in a kiln, which Anglo-Saxon pots of this type never were. More than that, it was initially fired in a reducing atmosphere, but the final minutes were in an oxidising atmosphere, turning the surface orange; that’s a Roman technique. Then, you’ll see that the surface of the cup sparkles, as it has been dipped in crushed mica. That’s another Roman potting technique. So, we have a cup in an Anglo-Saxon style made by someone using Roman technology and Roman decorative techniques. This looks to me to be a tipping point when the culture of people in North Herts went from looking backwards to Roman models to looking forwards to Germanic types.

Sean— Do you have many discoveries in your area from the time frame of the Vortigern through Arthur’s era?

Keith— Baldock and Hitchin certainly continued to exist as settlements throughout this period. Baldock was in terminal decline, while Hitchin was growing. I think that this has to do with Baldock remaining resolutely pagan, even after Theodosius I’s edict banning pagan worship in 391, while the growing community at Hitchin was Christian from the outset. The one Roman cemetery in Baldock that appears to be Christian was abandoned around 400 CE, while one that has numerous pagan burials continued until at least 550. Outside the towns, there is a village to the north-west of Hitchin, Pirton, where a Roman village continued to exist throughout this period, although its location shifted a few times.

Sean— What is your most exciting discovery?

Keith— It was the discovery of the burial of an infant aged about 18 months. The grave was very well preserved and we could trace the outline of the decayed wooden coffin, three wooden boxes inside it and some upright posts that seem to have held a superstructure. The were a box on the chest of the baby and, leaning against it, was a pipeclay statuette of a nursing goddess. Although these statuettes were mass-produced in Gaul in the middle of the second century CE, this one had survived two centuries before going into the ground with the child. This tells me so much about how valued that child had been to its parents and gives me an insight into the overwhelming grief they must have felt when it died. One of the reasons I like human remains so much is that they can give this deep connection with real people in the past.

A Reluctant Expert

Sean— You have been such a tremendous help in my studies and writing. One major example has been the way you have helped me with the correct name for locations and people in 5th C. Britain. How did you become such an expert in Latin?

Keith— I didn’t enjoy Latin at school. I did it because I believed that I would need to be able to read it to become an archaeologist. I was wrong, but there were a couple of things it did for me. For one thing, it’s helped me with spelling English. I never have any problems with words like necessary because I know that Latin origins (ne ‘not’ and cessare ‘to cease’). The other thing was through studying Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum for A-Level. Here was a man who wrote a Latin I could follow because his though processes were essentially English and who wasn’t interested in the complex sentence structures of a Cicero or, worse, Gildas.

Sean— In particular, you have a knack for explaining how Latin changes through time. Is that a kind of separate discipline?

Keith— Historical linguistics is a separate discipline. I had to learn about it as an undergraduate when I did a dissertation on Romano-British placenames and I have found that understanding language change is fascinating every since. Being of a very pedantic and literal mindset, I enjoy discovering the etymologies of words and the semantic shifts they have undergone through time.

Time To Get Early Medieval

Sean— One example of this is how you have said that Gildas uses Latin of the 5th Century in his writings. How is this obvious in difference from 4th or 6th century Latin? Do we have any surviving examples of British 6th century writing?

Keith— Gildas’s Latin is thoroughly steeped in the Bible, particularly the Vetus Latina version that preceded Jerome’s new version in the fourth century. I wonder if British churchmen like Gildas thought that the old-fashioned phrasing had greater authority than one in the current vernacular, much as there are those today who insist on using the King James translation rather than the New English Bible. But he moves beyond it in elaborate similes, the use of obscure words, alliteration, rhythmic effects that come not at the ends of sentences but in their middle, complex sentence structures, with adjectives far removed from the nouns they modify. All this makes reading Gildas difficult, but it has parallels in 5th-century continental writers, especially those who wrote tracts considered Pelagian. His use of verbal tricks is the sort of thing that would have been taught as part of rhetorical training for members of the Roman upper classes who would be expected to have a career in law before moving on to high administrative posts. It contrasts with an earlier 5th-century British writer, Patrick, whose Latin is, by his own account, schoolboy. He is quite different from 6th-century continental writers such as Cassiodorus or Gregory of Tours. Their Latin is often more restrained and more logically rhythmical.

Sean— You’ve said that, based on Gildas’ form of Latin, we must either assume that he was born and educated in the 5th Century, or that Britain was a backwater where out-of-date Latin was being taught. Can you explain this more?

Keith— Gildas’s Latin is what we would expect from someone who had been trained by a rhetor: it’s designed to make biting rhetorical statements, using sarcasm and alliteration. That sort of education can’t have carried on long after the end of Roman rule in Britain: it was designed to equip the sons of the wealthy for a career in government service. There was no Roman government in Britain by the time Gildas was born, but if he was born, as I believe, early in the 400s, there would still have been an expectation that it would return. After all, Britain had been ‘independent’ of Roman rule on many occasions in the past. But by the 460s, any dream of a return of Roman governors was long gone. There would have been no reason to educate a boy in rhetorical techniques as they would no longer be needed. I think that this is part of the explanation for Gildas’s complaint that the tyrants of his day sit in judgement but do not seek the rules of right judgement. A Roman legal system has been replaced by the whims of autocrats.

To me, this makes better sense as an explanation than having Gildas writing old-fashioned Latin in the middle of the 6th century. Who would he have been writing it for? Where would he have learned the rhetorical style and to what purpose? To me, a 6th-century Gildas is a contradiction.

Sean— Where might Gildas have been educated?

Keith— There is complete disagreement among those who have studied Gildas other than saying that it was somewhere in the west (Strathclyde – the most unlikely – Carlisle, Chester or Dorset). I don’t see why he can’t have been an easterner. As we now know that some Roman towns were struggling on in the east throughout the 5th century, why couldn’t he have been educated in London or York?

Sean— I have been absolutely fascinated by your assertion that Gildas wrote his “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” much earlier than is popularly imagined at around 510 to 530 AD. As I understand it, this is primarily due to a mis-interpretation of how Gildas dates the Battle of Mount Badon, which you place at approximately 483, rather than the more common, circa 516. Can you give a brief explanation of this?

Keith— As I read Gildas, he dates the siege of Mons Badonicus to the forty-fourth year after a metaphorical ‘storm’ and the only such ‘storms’ he mentions earlier in the text are the raids of Picts and Scots at the start of the 5th century and the later revolt of the Saxon mercenaries. We have independent dating for the outcome of the revolt, from the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which puts the takeover by Saxons in 441/2; presumable the revolt began shortly before that. The forty-fourth year would then be in the first half of the 480s. As he also says that it is the forty-fourth year of his nativity, that means that he was born in the year of the ‘storm’, which is why he’s insistent that he knows it’s the 44th year.

Sean— Another point of this is when Gildas actually set down to write. Part of the confusion with the dating of Badon seems to extend to this, with the thought being that he wrote “The Ruin” ten years after Badon. But you assert he wrote it very soon after Badon. Can you explain?

Keith— He describes the battle in Chapter 2 as the postrema patriae uictoria, the ‘final victory of the fatherland’, which has been granted nostris temporibus, ‘in our times’. It is stretching his meaning to breaking point to suggest that ‘our times’ can mean forty-three years ago and the very year of his birth. As he was writing an essentially political and moral pamphlet, addressed to the people of his day, he cannot on the one hand say that ‘an age ignorant of that storm’ has grown up, if that ‘storm’ were quelled by the victory of Badon, yet have that same victory ‘in our times’.

Sean— Where do you think Badon might have been?

Keith— I don’t know for certain, but I really like Caitlin Green’s suggestion of Baumber in Lincolnshire. It’s in an area of very early Saxon settlement, the linguistics works (it was Badeburg in Domesday Book) and it’s so unexpected that I think it has a good chance of being the best contender.

To Exist, Or Not To Exist

Sean— Do you think Arthur was a real person?

Keith— Yes. The long answer is that, as a teenager, I was persuaded by Dumville’s 1977 paper ‘Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend’ that there is no evidence for Arthur and finally, as I worked in greater depth on understanding the Historia Brittonum in its context, I came to realise that it provides very strong evidence for a character named Arthur at the right period.

Sean— One argument I’ve heard for the existence of a leader named Arthur is that there was a notable increase in the use of his name in the period soon after the time period Arthur would have lived. Do you have more information about this?

Keith— There were four of perhaps five people whose births can be placed in the second half of the 6th century named Arthur, all of Irish descent. Then there were none for several centuries. Something happened to make the name popular and the best explanation has to be that someone more famous called Arthur had existed before they were born.

Sean— Another point I’ve heard in favour of a historical Arthur is what is thought to be the oldest reference to him in an Old Welsh poem entitled,  Y Gododdin, about a battle that occurred around 600 and where a valiant warrior is compared to Arthur .

KeithY Gododdin isn’t a single poem, but a collection of elegies, some of which probably go back to around 600, others of which might be up to 50 years later (unless you’re one of those sceptics who believes them to be 10th-century compositions). There is a verse that says that a character known as Gwarddur – of whom we know nothing else – was a brave warrior, but he wasn’t as good as Arthur. Arthur is certainly named, as it provides a rhyme for Gwarddur. There are various grammatical constructions that John Koch has identified that make better sense in the early 7th century than they do in the 9th or 10th. By the 9th century, Early Medieval Brittonic had developed into Old Welsh; features such as the modification of vowels by an –i– in the following syllable had altered words, destroying what ought to have been rhymes in the original poems.

Sean— Regarding “King” Arthur, you envision him not as a king, but as a general or “Dux Bellorum” in Northern England around Hadrian’s Wall, if I recall correctly. How have you come to this theory?

Keith— I think that a proportion of the battles attributed to him in the Historia Brittonum can be identified with locations on the ground. As I also think that the list derives from a 6th-century poem, it has claims to authority. The identifiable battles are all close to the northern and southern borders of the Late Roman province of Britannia Secunda, administered from York. This is where a military command known as the Dux Britanniarum had been based, so I suggest that Arthur is the last Dux.

Sean— Where do you think the Battle of Camlann occurred?

Keith— I think there’s a good chance that it was at Camelon, just north of the Antonine Wall. The present name Camelon derives from a Brittonic *Cambolanda, which would give *Camblann or *Camlann in Old Welsh.

On My Christmas List

Sean— You’ve done quite a few papers about these subjects. Can we look forward to a published book from you soon?

Keith— I’m currently working on two non-archaeological projects: one is a book on the placenames of what I’m calling ‘Ancient Britain’, which deals with all the evidence for placenames up to 750 CE. This enables me to look at the changes from the Roman to the early medieval names across Britain and shows that the placenames of the Roman (and earlier) period weren’t lost because of Anglo-Saxon settlement: they are also mostly lost in Wales Scotland. Something else is going on. To find out what, you need to wait for the book to appear! The other project is my edition of the Historia Brittonum. It’s something I’ve been working on intermittently since I was an undergraduate, but I’ve only begun serious work in the past three years. It promises to be a radically different version from any printed to date and I have a paper coming out in Studia Celtica next year explain the rationale behind my approach to the text.

Alternative Interests

Sean— I know you also have a passion for music and work as a DJ. Would you like to talk about this?

Keith— After University, I found it difficult to get a job. There were no positions in archaeology that I could find and I drifted back to Lancaster, where I’d studied. After three years away from my parents, returning to live with them proved a real struggle, especially as I’d discovered my sexuality during my final year at University. After a brief stint working as a chef in a vegetarian café, I started helping out at a local ‘alternative’ disco, where the regular DJ had just left. We played punk, new wave, post-punk, New Romantic and electronic music. This was what I had come to love in my late teens after growing up obsessed with Classical music.

One night a week in Lancaster turned into a full-time job at a night-club in Manchester, where I remained until having a row with my boss, who’d cheated on his girlfriend in my flat while I was away one weekend. I stopped DJing at this point, as I returned to my parents (again) but quickly found a job on an excavation close to home. I’ve been constantly employed in archaeology ever since (34 years), which is unusual, as the work tends to be on short-term contracts. I suppose that I’ve been very lucky.

I still DJ occasionally. Instead of lugging around crates of vinyl, as I used to, I now have an all-in-one system with about 32,000 tracks loaded onto it. I keep up with the generally ‘alternative’ scene (which we now tend to refer to as Indie) and have got really interested in some modern English punk bands (such as Slaves, Idles and Life).

Sean— It sounds like you keep a very full schedule.

Keith — I’m never going to have the time to retire!

Thank You!

Sean— Well, Keith, when you do, it will be a huge loss to us all. Thank you so much for taking the time for this. It’s been absolutely fascinating, and I have the greatest appreciation for how willing you’ve been to offer well-reasoned and respectful arguments for these topics with me and many others. Much of what I have learned from you has become a part of my own fiction writing. I look forward to your books coming out!

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