Dark Earth

Dark Earth! Now that is a mysterious title for a piece on a very distant past. If you do not know what Dark Earth is, just spend a moment and reflect on what is conjured in the mind. Dark Eeearthhh. It sounds ominous. The world Dark takes us somewhere. The Dark Ages. The Dark side of the Moon. Dark Tourism. They all hold some form of mystery and unknown that makes our ears prick up, but also gives us a feeling of dread. It is the word “Dark” that does it. The Dark Earth I am going to look at does relate somewhat to the Dark Ages, although like many aspects of archaeology and history, nothing is straightforward.

I find there is usually a disappointment to such terms, being used as a way of piquing interest. There is a computer game called Dark Earth, which is an “item-collection and weapon-​based melee combat.” Somehow the description doesn’t really match up to its name. Perhaps the creators jumped on the name because it holds much mystery. I feel the same about Dark Tourism, which holds no mystery, or unknown. It is tourism of unusual places that reflects the poor and sinister side of humanity: disasters, conflict, and death. I suppose that is dark, but not mysterious.

The Dark Earth I am going to talk of, is archaeological. It is a deposit found across the world, and in northern Europe covers cities, marking their final decline and abandonment just after Roman occupation. In particular, I’m looking at the Dark Earth of Londinium. This Dark Earth does hold a certain amount of mystery to it, as it doesn’t give the archaeologist what they need; stratigraphy, structures and material to give dates. It is a bland, and in many places, an amorphous think dark grey silty layer, with no distinguishable structures or features. The blandness means there is no explanation. It creates a void, which people find disturbing. Voids cannot be left alone. People have to fill them, and they fill them with mystery and conspiracy.

Why was Londinium abandoned, what did the invading “Saxons” think of the City of Londinium. Why did they not settle there. This was a time of upheaval, invasion, new gods and let’s not forget, the time of King Arthur.

The most famous Dark Earth comes above the last remains of structures from the Roman Empire. In Britain that is from about 450s onwards, but this differs from location to location. Londinium in particular has much of it, some dating quite early the 2nd/3rd century, which is well before the end of the Roman period. Some Dark Earth has enveloped whole sites, such as the Amphitheatre from the later 4th century.

It is dark grey, silty and contains charcoal, pollen and seeds form alder, blackberries. It can be metres thick. I’ve recently heard two completely separate people, including an eminent archaeologist, describe it as a blanket. A blanket that’s thrown over landscape and wraps itself over the contours of the topography, which is then replicated on the surface. Imagine doing this, throwing a blanket over some walls or a sheet over something a bit finer. It will, to some degree, pick out the ridges, furrows, the ups and downs of the structures below.

The structure is different in different places. Sometimes there is some sort of stratigraphy. One would expect that to some degree. If it was just an area left for 100s of years, then there may be some sort of visible layering, representing the seasons and years. Sometimes, there is no layering. It is just a solid amorphous one to two metre thick layer that represents hundreds of years

Some ideas are of it being a Roman dumping. It may have been to some degree, but not explicitly. There are theories that the Dark Earth is the remains of structures, huts, houses that have collapsed, or been pulled down, decomposed and mixed up the action of worms, ants, moles, or anything that lives on and under the ground surface and breaks down any structure. Sometimes archaeological finds have been moved within it, so that Roman pottery is found much higher than it should be. I don’t really buy into that, as this “bio-turbation” would be more prevalent in other places. Worms, ants, moles are everywhere. Elsewhere, structures, post holes, and actual posts, and walls survive.

In London, Dark Earth seals the Roman world, like a wax over one of those stilton cheeses in pots. That’s my analogy. Perhaps the Romans were covering something up. Is there something down there we should never uncover and release into the world? What is the secret, the danger, or evil magic?

Or perhaps it was not the Romans, or the Romano British at all. Perhaps it was the invading Saxons, trying to cover up what went on before. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the British were defeated by invading Jutes Hengist and Horsa in 456 (according to my version). This was in Kent at Creaganford (Crayford), and again, the time of King Arthur. The Romano-British fled back to Londinium, presumably as it was a place of safety having walls around it. Did the invading Jutes, make their way to Londinium, slaughter everyone, then cover it up by pouring a huge layer of silty grey amorphous soil over the scene of the crime?

Probably not. Mainstream thinking is that Dark Earth in Londinium is something accumulated over hundreds of years. It represents the decay of an area of buildings and human activity, with plant life taking over. You can see it action today. I spent some time in Odessa a few years ago and there were a few buildings that were in a state of decay. The city was at a point between economic decline and boom, which was reflected in the streets, vehicles and infrastructure. Imagine knackered old buses, pumping out toxic fumes, driving past high-end shops.

There were dilapidated buildings, crumbling, with plant-life growing out of them. People were using them, criminals, drug addicts, teenagers, who knows, but you could see evidence of life and occasionally someone entering a hollow shell of a building through an open doorway (no door; no doorframe).

When I was younger, a child, we had a phrase for a scrap piece of land like this – a Bomb Site. They weren’t actual bomb sites. At the time I thought they were called that because they looked like a bomb site, not that they were. The term was probably handed down from the generation above who were surrounded by actual bomb sites from the Second World War and had played on them. Growing up in the 1970s, there were still some bomb sites left from the blitz of the 1940s, but mostly they had been built on. It was a far cry from kids playing in acres of brick strewn lands with secret doorways going down to cellars you see in the late 1940s films.

The Bomb Sites of my childhood were plots of land that were no longer being used. Next to where I grew up, was a tomato factory; long green houses, concrete bases with water channels embedded into them, long warehouses, machinery that rolled the tomatoes into their boxes. It clanked and rumbled as I remember. The company closed and for years the factory was left abandoned. The glass had been taken out, as it was useful elsewhere, as was the machinery. But the structures, the wooden frames, the concrete floors were all left. Over the course of just a few years, plants, shrubs and trees had taken over. The wooden structures decayed and started to fall in on themselves. Eventually, they disappeared and replaced by more mature trees.

It is this that creates the dark earth. Imagine if that ex-tomato factory had been left for 400 years. The plant life grew, died, decomposed, new plant life replaced that, living on the mulch and compost created by its predecessors, and so on. After 400 years, there would be a thick layer of this compost, or Dark Earth that replicated the concrete structures below on the surface.

This was Londinium, from about the middle of the 300s onwards. Over the course of the 400s, people stopped living in Londinium, the buildings were not looked after and started to decay. Plant life grew up, around and through the decay. Imagine a city, unpopulated with the buildings falling in on themselves through neglect. Over the decades and centuries it was gradually taken over by plants and wildlife. It much have been very eerie. There are reconstructions of Londinium for this period, but I have only found one of Canterbury. It really gives that feel of abandonment. I took it from the internet (apologies in advance).

When Londinium was re-populated, about the 9th century onwards, buildings were built on top of the Dark Earth and this sealing it for archaeologists to discover 1500 years later.

The Saxons, as we call them (in reality the “Saxons” were made up of a number of peoples, from northern Germany), settled to the west of Londinium, a place called Lundenwic, in the late 5th century and not in Londinium. Many a time the question is asked, “why did they settle there and not in Londinium with its walls and protection?” Why did they go to all that trouble to establish a new settlement?

A lot of mythology and superstition has been used to answer this question. Simply put, the “Saxons” feared the walls and structures they saw, or rather, what or who had built it. Did dark (that word again) and evil spirits dwelled in such a place? One of the earliest references we have of Londinium during the Saxon period is from Bede in the 8th century, where he refers to Londinium as being built by giants. He is often cited in this context, but can we really say that this sentence he wrote, has any reflection on reality? I don’t know.

I think there is a more pragmatic reason around survival. The residents of Lundenwic needed to establish themselves quickly. If you are establishing a settlement, you need to get the basics right first: water, food, shelter, security. You would use what was to hand and what you could achieve using your skillset. These Saxon’s skillset was in building wooden rectangular houses with thatch, or wooden rooves. Living in stone and brick buildings with glass windows, hypocausts and tiled rooves requires much ongoing maintenance, which was a huge investment of time and learning new skills. That would be wasted time.

Technology such as hypocausts would cause problems too. If you moved into a house with underfloor heating, you would have to keep that going, otherwise during the winter months, the cold draughts being brought through under your floors, would make living in such a place unbearable. There is evidence in the domestic Roman house at Billingsgate that the hypocausts were blocked up during the early 400s, probably to stop the draughts. People were still living in the building, but couldn’t afford to keep the hypocaust going day and night. Whereas wooden, wattle and daub houses, with an earthen floor, an open central fireplace, would have been very cosy.

Londinium was not a “No Go Zone” by any means. There is plenty of evidence for people going into Londinium during the late 5th to 8th centuries, the supposed time of de-population. They probably picked blackberries, scavenged bits of houses, stone and wood. There was a cemetery on the eastern side of the City and people cut through Londinium, instead of circum-navigating it through boggy land to the north or the River Thames to the south. You can pick up the Saxon routes that turned into streets in the modern City today. The main road from Lundenwic in the west, passes St Paul’s and continues to Bank Junction. It then splits into two, Threadneedle Street arcing to the north and Lombard/Fenchurch Street to the south. They then join each other heading towards Aldgate. If you superimpose a Map of Roman Londinium on the modern London, you can see how the two roads take a route either side of the Forum/Basilica. This was a huge structure, with huge foundations, and even in the 5th and 6th centuries, there would have been sufficient remains of it to make people (and animals, carts etc) go around rather than over the top. The best map to do this on is Londinium: a new map and guide to Roman London, published by MOLA.

I like the idea of the Saxon mythology and superstition preventing people from entering the City. It is a wonderful period where Christianity and paganism interacted and existed side by side. I mentioned this is the time of King Arthur didn’t I? But, practically, I am not convinced that superstitions kept these people out of Londinium to such an extent that it crumbled and died, creating the mysterious Dark Earth. As always, storytelling tells us more about ourselves than the people we are looking at. It is us who believe Saxons thought Londinium a strange and mythical place where demons, dragons, bad gods and giants lived.

If the Saxons had settled in Londinium, then they would have cleared areas, dug into the ground, re-used buildings, created new ones, and the Dark Earth would never have been created. Perhaps this is it. Dark Earth, here, in Londinium, represents that question why not? It represents an unanswerable question we can only surmise at. When you look at it and scrutinize the Dark Earth it is bland and unremarkable. It is as blank as the period it was formed in. But it represents the mystery, the unknown, and an evocative time of King Arthur, invading pagans and a period we don’t know much about – the Dark Ages.

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