Keith Briggs

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Anglo-Saxon communication networks

by Jake Shemming (Thurleston High School) and Keith Briggs (BT Research)

It is known that in Anglo-Saxon times, systems of beacons were used, especially along the south coast of England, for defensive purposes. These were fires, set up on hills chosen to be visible from each other. The system seemed to be more than local, so that for example, signals could be sent from the Isle of Wight to the Thames valley. The evidence for such systems has been reviewed in ASBS.

Our aim has been to map these beacon sites, discover new ones, and compute their inter-visibility. We can do the last step more accurately than has been done before thanks to the SRTM shuttle elevation data.

bécun, weardsetl, tót, ...

How do we know where beacon sites might have been? There is, of course, no direct documentary information. The best evidence comes indirectly from those place-names which have early records. These indicate quite clearly where hills that were used for watching were located, but the names alone usually cannot tell us which places were linked to which by signals. This is where our mathematical analysis comes in.

There was an Old English (OE) word bécun, from which modern "beacon" descends. But there are not many place-names records of this name from the Anglo-Saxon period.

The OE word weardsetl meaning 'watch-point' appears in OE charters with these S number (see Sawyer): 258, 383, 400, 405, 487, 491, 565, 671, 680, 738, and 864. (ASBS p. 162 also claims 1591 contains the word, but we can't find it.) Several of these references are to the same point in Highclere; others are outside the Hampshire-Dorset area, so we have not made use of these. But more work is possible on these sites. Related names also worth searching for include weardhyll and wearddun (S 491 has (of) weardan dune, now Worndown). In Micheldever (S 360) there was a weardhangra.

Another word for a look-out point was tót.

Here are tables giving some data about places with these names:

namelocationreferencedate & notes
Beacon HillUpotteryD:6511731
Beacon DownBridford D:423 1754
Beacon Luppitt D:643 1469
Beacon HillMarsh ChapelL:4.1141416 le fyre bombe, 1556 le firebeacon
Beacon HillKelvedon HatchEss:59 1450 Bekynghill
Beacon HillTotham Ess:59 1768
Firebeacon Hartland D:78 1400 Fyrbykene
Firebeacon Tiverton D:545 1571 Fyerbeken

namelocationreferencedate & notes
Warden HillStopsleyBd:1641504
Old WardenBd:971086 DB Wardone
WardourW:197899x924 (æt) Weardoran S 1445: weard-óra 'watch-slope'
Warshill TopKidderminsterWo:2531275 warseld
WasselHagleyWo:2921275 warselde
WasthillsAlvechurchWo:335780 æt Wærsetfelda S 117
Wardstone BarrowDo:1.112weard-stán 'ward-stone'

namelocationreferencedate & notes
TostockSuffolktót-stoc?
TothamEssexEss:310tót-hám?
TotternhoeBedfordshireBd:1381086 DB Totenehou
totleieEbbesborne, Wiltshire902 S 1285

How we calculated inter-visibility

For each pair of points, we tracked a three-dimensional straight line between them. If the distance was greater than 40km, or the elevation at any point was above the line, the points were classified as not inter-visible. We placed towers of 10m height at each point, to see over local obstructions.

The heights of the SRTM data are relative to a reference ellipsoid known as WGS84. The overall calculation should be accurate to within a few metres, and of course takes full account of the curvature of the earth.

On our maps, a line is only drawn between two sites if our calculation shows them to be inter-visible.

maps/visibility_diagram.png

Pre-Anglo-Saxon signal stations

maps/trajan_tower_eighth.jpg

The Romans had five signal stations on the Yorkshire coast, each about 20m high (see Ottoway). The picture is of a tower depicted on Trajan's column in Rome. The individual sites are well studied, but, as far as we know, no-one has yet calculated their inter-visibility.

Here is our result. Note that Filey is required as a relay between Scarborough and Ravenscar.

maps/AS_networks_roman_5000.png

click here for higher-resolution version of above map.

Nodes and Nothes

One of our main aims has been to study the 'nothe' names of Dorset.

It is generally accepted that three Isle of Wight names containing the element "node" are from Old English (atten) ád, meaning 'fire' or 'beacon'. (Here the accent just means a long vowel, normally written with a macron, which html cannot do.) These are (IoW pp 76-77, see also the article ád in VEPN):

Node's Point SZ 635 905
Node's Farm SZ 488 938
Nodewell Farm SZ 325 855

Note that this word has no connection to the modern word node used for a hub in a communication network - that word is from Latin nodus, meaning 'knot'.

We think a variant *áð might have existed, which would explain these Dorset names:

Nath Point SY 986 861Do:1.23
White NotheSY 775 805Do:1.24
The Nothe SY 686 787Do:1.256

For these Mills in Do invokes an OE hnoþ which is conjectural, though he does not * it. However, all three Dorset names are in good beacon locations; the last two are coastal, and Nath Point is exactly half-way between Corfe Castle and Poole, and is at the only possible location for a relay station between those points. Thus, our claim will be strengthened if we can show that the Dorset 'nothes' link up to the Hampshire 'nodes'.

In the IoW, some lost names like le Ode are known - see VEPN s.v. ád.

maps/AS_networks_nodes_dorset_2500.png

click here for higher-resolution version of above map.

We were right! This means the Hampshire beacon system described in ASBS does extend into Dorset. We have shown inter-visibility, which strongly supports our conjecture.

symbol name location reference notes
Nodes Point SZ 628 896 OS2007
Nodes Farm SZ 488 938 OS2007
Nodewell Farm SZ 325 855 OS2007
Noads Copse SU 255 325 OS2007
The Noads SU 395 055 OS2007
Nath Point SY 986 861 OS2007
yellow dot White Nothe SY 775 805 OS2007
yellow dot The Nothe SY 686 787 OS2007
yellow dot Wardstone Barrow SY 792 813 OS2007 Do:1.112 weard-stán 'ward-stone', stone where watch was kept
yellow dot Corfe Mullen SY 983 953 OS2007 footnote 1
Headon Hill SZ 312 862 OS2007 footnote 2

[1] We included Corfe Mullen because it was a likely site of a beacon and helped join the Dorset and Hampshire beacons together, as well as fitting in well with some of the Armada beacon sites.

[2] We included Headon Hill as it was near Nodewell Farm and appeared on the Armada beacon map, and so was a likely site of a beacon. By this means we can link the Dorset naths and nothes to the nodes and noad sites of Hampshire.

Maps and tables for Node names

click here for higher-resolution version of above map.

symbol name location reference notes
Nodes Point SZ 628 896 OS2007
Headon Hill SZ 312 862 OS2007 Also on BSH
Nodes Farm SZ 488 938 OS2007
Nodewell Farm SZ 325 855 OS2007
Noads Copse SU 255 325 OS2007
The Noads SU 395 055 OS2007

Maps and tables for the Dorset names

maps/AS_networks_dorset_7000.png

click here for higher-resolution version of above map.

symbol name location reference notes
Nath Point SY 986 861 OS2007
yellow dot White Nothe SY 775 805 OS2007
yellow dot The Nothe SY 686 787 OS2007
yellow dot Wardstone Barrow SY 792 813 OS2007 Do:1.112 weard-stán 'ward-stone', stone where watch was kept
yellow dot Parkstone SZ 033 922 OS2007
yellow dot Corfe Castle SY 954 823 OS2007
yellow dot Corfe Mullen SY 983 953 OS2007

Maps and tables for Armada beacons

The Armada system was used in the 16th century and was studied in BSH. Here we just check the results and do not claim any originality.

click here for higher-resolution version of above map.

symbol name location reference notes
Burley Beacon SU 205 025 OS2007 Also on BSH
Headon Hill SZ 312 862 OS2007 Also on BSH
Bembridge SZ 645 875 OS2007 Also on BSH
Sandown SZ 595 845 OS2007 Also on BSH
Toothill SU 375 185 OS2007 Also on BSH
Dibden SU 405 085 OS2007 Also on BSH
Popham SU 555 435 OS2007 Also on BSH
Farleigh Wallop SU 625 465 OS2007 Also on BSH
Crondall SU 795 485 OS2007 Also on BSH
Bitterne SU 455 135 OS2007 Also on BSH
Ports Down SU 635 065 OS2007 Also on BSH
Burghclere SU 475 615 OS2007 Also on BSH
Malwood SU 275 115 OS2007 Also on BSH
Setthorn SU 265 005 OS2007 Also on BSH
Butser Hill SU 715 205 OS2007 Also on BSH
Barnet Side SU 715 285 OS2007 Also on BSH
Odstock SU 145 265 OS2007 Also on ASBS
Farley SU 415 295 OS2007 Also on BSH

Maps and tables for all names

Map for all names

click here for higher-resolution version of above map.

symbol name location reference notes
Burley Beacon SU 205 025 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Headon Hill SZ 312 862 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Bembridge SZ 645 875 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Sandown SZ 595 845 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Toothill SU 375 185 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Dibden SU 405 085 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Popham SU 555 435 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Farleigh Wallop SU 625 465 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Crondall SU 795 485 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Bitterne SU 455 135 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Ports Down SU 635 065 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Burghclere SU 475 615 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Malwood SU 275 115 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Setthorn SU 265 005 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Butser Hill SU 715 205 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Barnet Side SU 715 285 OS2007 Also on BSH
blue square Odstock SU 145 265 OS2007 Also on ASBS
blue square Farley SU 415 295 OS2007 Also on BSH
red square Exton SU 602 224 OS2007 Also on BSH
red square Basingstoke SU 637 525 OS2007
red square Bricksbury SU 822 492 OS2007
red square Fosbury SU 307 609 OS2007
blue dot Nodes Point SZ 628 896 OS2007
blue dot Nodes Farm SZ 488 938 OS2007
blue dot Nodewell Farm SZ 325 855 OS2007
blue dot Noads Copse SU 255 325 OS2007
blue dot The Noads SU 395 055 OS2007
red dot Leckhamstead SU 420 792 Sawyer 491
red dot Micheldever SU 535 366 OS2007
yellow dot Nath Point SY 986 861 OS2007
yellow dot White Nothe SY 775 805 OS2007
yellow dot The Nothe SY 686 787 OS2007
yellow dot Wardstone Barrow SY 792 813 OS2007
yellow dot Parkstone SZ 033 922 OS2007
yellow dot Corfe Castle SY 954 823 OS2007
yellow dot Corfe Mullen SY 983 953 OS2007

The meaning of the symbols on the maps

blue dot "node" name
red dot weard name
yellow dotDorset name
blue squareArmada name
red squarebeacon name

References

ASBSD. Hill and S. Sharp An Anglo-Saxon beacon system, in Names, places and people, ed. A. R. Rumble and A. D. Mills, Stamford 1997
BdA. Mawer & F. Stenton, The place-names of Bedfordshire & Huntingdonshire (EPNS 1926)
BSHT. E. White The beacon system in Hampshire, Proc. of the Hants Field Club X, 252-278 (1931)
DJ. E. B. Gover & A. Mawer & F. M. Stenton, The place-names of Devon (EPNS 1931)
DoA. D. Mills, Place-names of Dorset (EPNS 1977-)
EssP. H. Reaney, The place-names of Essex (EPNS 1935)
IoWA. D. Mills, Place-names of the IoW
LK. Cameron, The place-names of Lincolnshire (EPNS 1985-)
OS2007Ordnance Survey website, accessed 2007 June
OttawayP. Ottaway, The Romans on the Yorkshire coast. York Archaeological Trust & EH, no date
Sawyeranglo-saxons.net
SRTMCGIAR Consortium for Spatial Information, SRTM 90m Digital Elevation Data
VEPND. Parsons and T. Styles and C. Hough, The vocabulary of English Place-names, Á-Box (EPNS 1997)
WJ. E. B. Gover & A. Mawer & F. M. Stenton, The place-names of Wiltshire (EPNS 1939)
WoA. Mawer & F. M. Stenton & F. T. S. Houghton, The place-names of Worcestershire (EPNS 1927)

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