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Durham University

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Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


In 2009 a series of workshops was held across the UK in which participants explored the idea of 'Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England'. This project was led by Richard Jones, Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester, in collaboration with Sarah Semple, Department of Archaeology, Durham University and David Parsons, Institute of Name Studies, University of Nottingham, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The workshops brought together historians, archaeologists, historical geographers, and place-scholars all working on different aspects of settlement history with a particular emphasis on village and hamlet origins. They began with a simple premise: that the settlements in which we still live present perhaps the greatest legacy of the major social, economic and landscape upheavals that took place in England during the early medieval period. The majority of these places continue to be referred to by names coined over a thousand years ago. And they tend to occupy the same locations chosen by their founders. They therefore provide us with an unbroken link to the past. These are focal points in our English landscape for settlement across the centuries, and have often helped curate and pass on a strong sense of community identity. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to explore the origins of these names and try and investigate and understand what their creators thought about these places too.

The workshops set out to understand the early phases of settlement formation, and trace broader changes in the English countryside in the Anglo-Saxon period. They successfully offered a new way of exploring the creation of secular, ecclesiastical and administrative landscapes, emerging social hierarchies, and the agrarian exploitation of the land. As we expected, we found that by starting with the place-names themselves, we had a way in to unlocking deeper understandings of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to their landscapes and social structures, but only when archaeological and topographical studies of settlement were fully integrated to place-name studies.

The outcomes of the workshops are now published in a compendium of papers edited by Richard Jones and Sarah Semple (2012), but the workshop discussions also revealed just how much more investigation is needed. Often the evidence upon which we have built our current understanding is very slim. There is also a clear need for a broader program of integrated, multi-disciplinary study of English place-names in their landscape and archaeological contexts. The edited volume provides a new way in to thinking about place-names in England and provides an incentive for students to enage with and develop research on the English Landscape using place-names studies as a core element of their methods.

Published Results

Chapter in book

  • Reynolds, A. & Semple, S. (2012). Digging for names: archeology and place-names in the Avebury Region. In Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England. Jones, R. & Semple, S Shaun Tyas. 76-100.
  • Jones, R. & Semple, S. (2012). Making Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England. In Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England. Jones, R. & Semple, S. Shaun Tyas. 1-17.


From the Department of Archaeology

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