Anglo-Saxon Frisia

Map from schotanus.us

After the departure of the Roman state administration in AD 409, England saw the arrival of numerous Germanic-speaking migrants during the 5th century. They brought with them a foreign language (Old English), a foreign religion (Scandinavian paganism), foreign social organisation (non-urban, decentralised), foreign material culture (south Scandinavian), and their genetics have been shown to survive in English people to this day.

These people later believed that they had originated in Angeln, Saxony and Jutland, the area around the mouth of the River Elbe. Therefore we call them Anglo-Saxons.* But linguistic and genetic data don’t point to that kind of origin.

The closest documented linguistic relative of Old English is Old Frisian, whose home was closer to the mouth of the River Rhine, west of Angeln and Sachsen. The closest genetic matches to Anglo-Saxon skeletons are also found in Frisia.

So was these people’s origin story erroneous? I’ve wondered about this for years, and I just learned something that suggests no. I’m at a conference in the Netherlands, and my colleagues here explain that parts of Frisia have very little 5th century settlement at all. This seems to have been due to over-exploitation of coastal peatland in the Late Roman era. People drained the peat for agriculture, it got compacted by gravity and microbial action, the ground level sank sharply, and the sea moved in, rendering the land useless to agriculture. And when eventually people re-colonised these areas… they were using pottery that my colleagues describe as Anglo-Saxon.

So the reason that the English immigrants’ language and genetics look Frisian is probably that both England and Frisia were colonised by the same people. Or possibly even, that Frisia was repopulated from A-S England.

* I am not interested in what this term means today to US right-wing hate groups.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

6 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon Frisia”

      1. Thanks. Yes. I’m fairly sad that I didn’t take the chance to visit the dig at Aska. However life came in between. Anyway, without idolizing, I like your work and I’m fond of archaeology. Hope to sign up for a course some day.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Thank you. I will follow you through this blog, I’m trying to minimize my social media presence. Anyway, your archaeology from my layman’s terms is extraordinary. That’s all I have to say about that. Thanks for the word. /Tim

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As they say: “Butter, bread and green cheese is good English and good Frisian.” Frisian is the language closest to English.

      This is another example of an area being depopulated and then repopulated. I’ve been reading various books on human genetic history – I’ll recommend Ancestral Journeys – and it is surprising how often an area was dominated by one genetic clade, then depopulated and then repopulated by another genetic clade. I’m guessing the Frisian Islands were marginal backwaters, even in the glory days of the Hanseatic League, so their language was highly conserved. It’s like that French colony in the Canadian maritime that speaks a dated version of French or parts of Appalachia in the US that have preserved 17th century English.

      P.S. For a good adventure yarn set in the Frisian Islands and thereabouts, try Riddle of the Sands. It’s the author, Childers, only book. He was executed for gunrunning during the Irish Troubles.

      Liked by 3 people

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