Monday, September 3, 2012

West Stow: An Insight Into Anglo Saxon Life

The Dark Ages create numerous problems for writers.  Accounts from the time are few and often written at second hand.  The remaining physical evidence is scant.  That’s why reconstruction can be so useful.  The Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow is a case in point.  It’s situated in the Lark Valley in Suffolk.  This county is part of East Anglia, once the dominant kingdom of England under King Raedwald.  (He featured in my previous blog on Sutton Hoo.)  It was also part of a much wider European culture.

West Stow Saxon village

    West Stow reveals much about the early Anglo Saxons in the period from 420-650AD.  The village has been recreated on the site where it was originally excavated, using the available archaeological evidence to determine the design and materials used.  Inevitably, experimental archaeology involves an element of best guess as well as trial and error.  For that reason the buildings are not uniform.  Some are constructed of timber, whereas others feature walls of wattle and daub.  One house has an earthen floor, a design that was abandoned when further excavations revealed evidence of the existence of wooden floor boards.  Consequently, subsequent houses incorporated these.  The houses also feature windows with weatherproof shutters, and stout wooden doors that can be securely fastened from inside.  Roofs are made of reed or straw thatch.  Taken as a whole they offer a real insight into the lives of Anglo Saxon people at the time.

door locking mechanism

weaving loom

Most of the structures are remarkably sophisticated and there is painstaking attention to detail.  This is also reflected in the simple furnishings inside each of the buildings whether it’s a box bed, a door latch, a loom or a bucket.  In addition to the various dwellings there is a barn and also a central hall.  The latter is modest in comparison to some of the great halls of the later Saxon period (like the magnificent example created by Regia Anglorum near Canterbury in Kent) but it serves a similar function.  Apart from offering additional sleeping accommodation in time of need, it was a focal point, serving both as a meeting place and also for entertainment, perhaps the telling of stories round the hearth of a winter night, or the relation of news from traders and travellers.  West Stow also boasts a carpenter’s shop as well as a forge and a kiln.  There are pig sties too complete with occupants, a cross breed of the ancient Tamworth with wild boar.  It is thought that pigs in Anglo Saxon times were originally descended from Iron Age stock.  People also kept cattle and sheep.  The river provided fish and fowl, the forest deer and boar.  There is also evidence of hens, geese and goats as well as domestic animals like cats and dogs.

crop growing
West Stow demonstrates the types of crops grown during the Anglo Saxon period: spelt wheat, barley, oats, rye, peas, beans, white carrots, kale and numerous herbs.  Back then the acreage of crops would have been much larger to maximise food production and thus see the community through the winter and also the lean months before the next harvest.  However, the existing area under cultivation gives a clear impression of what was grown and the surprisingly varied nature of the diet.

The village was virtually self-sufficient though excess crops could be used to barter for ornaments and trinkets from travelling traders.  Large towns were then unknown.  The scenery would also have been very different since the land was not enclosed and the big skies for which East Anglia is renowned would have seemed even greater.

different building styles
Writing about the Dark Ages is always an exercise of the imagination, but reconstructions like the one at West Stow really do provide some wonderful insights.  I’ve used the knowledge gleaned here to inform the stories that are set at a slightly later period.  For instance The Viking’s Defiant Bride and The Viking’s Touch both draw on this information and extrapolate from it.  Information about these and my other books can be found on my website at 

What historical locations have offered you the greatest insights?  I’d be interested to know.



  1. A fascinating piece - the Dark Ages were clearly not as 'dark' as we are inclined to believe. Joanna Fulford is a writer who explores every avenue in her research. Without the advantage of a Dr Who-style Tardis, visiting West Stow sounds like the next best way to connect with Anglo Saxon society. Thank you Joanna!

    1. Thanks, Leonie. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. As you rightly say, places like this do make us question previous assumptions about the period.

  2. Hi Joanna, recently, I've been walking up to the top of Karl Wark, near Sheffield. I was struck by the remoteness of the site yet it was at one time a place of strategic importance to Iron Age tribes. It's interesting to think about how people survived in such an inhospitable environment, and how resourceful they must have been. Rosie G