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Germanic peoples in Britain before the `Anglo-Saxons'? Genes can only ever be part of the story.
on 6 June 2007
Oppenheimer contends that Britain's genetic stock is driven by migrations from glaciation refuges such as the Basque region and the Balkans. The `Celtic' fringe forms part of an Atlantic coastal zone of influence from Iberia active from 15,000 years ago. Nearly the entire source of western Britain's gene pool is from `Ruisko' and its re-expansions R1b-9, R1b-5 and R1b-14, as well as R1b-10, the main gene cluster moving into the British Isles during the Mesolithic. In contrast, eastern England produces a more mixed picture starting with the I1c group spreading from the Balkans just before the Younger-Dryas reglaciation but then complicated by waves from different directions (e.g. I1a during the late Mesolithic, J1a from N Germany, J1b1 from Norway as well as the Neolithic re-expansion of R1b-12). However, whilst some of the gene maps look superficially convincing, others don't: I1c being a case in point; I1b2 with a strange and unexplained Sardinian foundation event even more so.
Less controversial is the now accepted argument that there was no Celtic homeland in Central Europe associated with Hallstatt and La Tène. However, Oppenheimer draws on research suggesting that the Celtic language group may have broken away from the Germanic and Romance languages thousands of years prior to the sort of time most linguists would expect. The old P-Celtic and Q-Celtic division is swept away and even the strange Vennemann Hypothesis is brought in regarding a possible Atlantic-Semitic substrate.
There does turn out to be a marked watershed between eastern England and western Britain but the difference goes back much further than the Germanic invasions of which Gildas and Bede speak. Potentially, this is where the book gets interesting as, Oppenheimer aside, there are real problems surrounding the `Anglo-Saxon' invasions and the origins of English. What happened to Brythonic, the Celtic language which is supposed to have been spoken across England prior to the fifth century? According to Gildas and later commentators, there was some mass extermination (and potentially even apartheid) but nobody has ever stumbled upon a mass grave and there are hardly any loan words from Celtic languages in Old English. According to Oppenheimer, it is because it wasn't spoken in much of England.
Caesar famously starts his Gallic Wars by explaining that Gaul is divided into three - the northern part being Belgic. It is likely that this area was Germanic speaking for the most part and when Roman writers say that Britain was much like France opposite it, they are really implying not Celtic populations - but Germanic ones. So perhaps Britain already had large areas speaking a Germanic language as `lingua franca'. That might explain the situation with the Atrebates - a tribal name which appears on both sides of the Channel but Oppenheimer neglects to mention the Ogham inscription found at Silchester - their capital.
Suddenly Oppenheimer is all over the shop. English gets mooted as a fourth branch of Germanic, having more in common with the Scandinavian languages than Western Germanic. Everything is brought in to support this: runic inscriptions (with no analysis of the futhorc differences), Beowulf (with completely spurious comments on its dialect, no consideration of the fact that formal poetry is always `conservative' or why the odd seemingly Celtic word turns up: `Com on wanre niht scrithan sceadugenga'), coin distributions etc. He almost manages to disprove himself: if the people here before the fifth century were similar to Nordic populations and used runes, they couldn't have been the same people who were guarding the `Saxon' Shore because there have never been any discoveries of runic inscriptions along the supposedly densely-populated South Coast.
Oppenheimer is an amateur geneticist but he sounds convincing at it (at least to me). In contrast, his analysis of the early `Saxon' period is riddled with holes: no mention of St Albans and its absence of pagan cemeteries, no mention of Cerdic - the British name connected with the foundation of Wessex, no mention of the fact that according to self-penned Anglo-Saxon histories some places such as the Cotswolds were not under Anglo-Saxon control until the end of the 570s, no mention of how long Bernicia might have stayed outside of the newcomers' influence. No mention either of things that might help his case: of Britain's links under Rome with Trier, or the continuity implied by the Hwicce's use of Bath (or who they might be); no thought about whether Offa's Dyke might turn out to be far older than Offa. However, I do like his clear distinction separating Angles from Saxons - it is interesting that Danish Vikings only invaded those areas of Anglian settlement (with the one exception inside Danegeld being Essex).
He misses something really obvious though and it was right in front of him in his source material. Bede actually mentions the Danes living in England before the attacks on the coast. He also mentions the Rugini, a people who we know moved from the Baltic region to Central Europe and then moved with Attila, and the Boructuari (Boructware). Significantly we also know that some Germanic pottery found in England seems to predate 410. There is also no speculation as to why Kent and the Franks should have such tight cultural links (Frankish names, the conversion to Christianity, AEthelberht's daughter's protection under Dagobert I).
Once the idea that pre-5th century Britain was exclusively Romano-Celtic is ditched, all sorts of other ideas beyond Oppenheimer are raised. Are we even looking in the right century for the Arthur legend? Was the call from tribes in Britain for help from Rome in response to a resurfacing Germano-British conflict? Was Berikos / Varica in some way connected with Berkshire - a name which has created some problems up until now? When the Franks claim control over Kent, is this a sign of an ongoing division between East and West Kent (which resurfaces) and between Jutes and Franks? Haplotypes, mtDNA and NRY gene groups won't answer these questions.