Place-names, archaeology, and boundaries of early medieval polities

The Mardens are so-called to refer, in the collective, to North Marden, East Marden, West Marden, and Upmarden, in West Sussex. The place-name is interpreted as containing the Old English an element from gemǣru, meaning `a boundary’ (Mawer & Stenton, 1969). This element is not unique to Sussex, nor to early medieval Britain as a whole; it appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in reference to a battle fought at mearcredesburna, the ‘boundary stream agreed to by treaty’ as well as referring to the Myrcna, the Mercians (the ‘Border People’), one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms in Britain until being subsumed by King Edward of Wessex after the death of his sister Æthelflæd in A.D. 918. Usage has survived into modern times to describe border areas or territories, such as the Welsh Marches, or an area inhabited by a specific people, such as Denmark.

Sketch map showing the location of the sites discussed in the text. The South Downs Way is the modern track as plotted on the modern Ordnance Survey map and may not reflect the precise route in antiquity. Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

Map showing the location of the sites discussed in the text. The South Downs Way is the modern track as plotted on the modern Ordnance Survey map and may not reflect the precise route in antiquity. Crown Copyright/database right 2013. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service.

The importance of the ‘boundary’ interpretation of the Mardens lies in the exploration of the local topography and determining how the landscape was divided and between what political units. The boundaries of early medieval polities, whether they be estates or kingdoms, are typically vague and often rely on landmarks or extant features, such as Roman roads or burial mounds. ‘Marden’ can be either gemǣru-dūn, a ‘boundary-hill’, or gemǣru-denu, a ‘boundary-valley’. The topography is somewhat unhelpful in drawing out the meaning, as the undulating downland heights are broken by lower dry and intermittent/ephemeral stream valleys; the hill known as Apple Down is located above a dry valley which runs all the way from the coastal plain to the ridge of the northern scarp-slope.

A fifth- to seventh-century mixed-rite cemetery was discovered on Apple Down in 1981 and extensively excavated between 1982 and 1987 (Down , 1990, 9). Cemeteries as ‘places’ in the earliest medieval period served as foci where ideas of the past and present could be articulated such as claims over territory and resources and as statements of group identity (Williams, 2011, 255). It could be that the cemetery at Apple Down demarcated the western boundary of Sussex from its neighbour Wessex, where another topographic feature or settlement, served as a marker on the coastal plain. The South Downs Way is an ancient track which traces the scarp-slope on the top of the chalk downs and is marked along its extent with Bronze Age and early medieval tumuli and other monuments. The cemetery at Apple Down is only 4 km south of the South downs way; it may have been placed to reinforce a claim to land or resources and named to inform east-west travellers on that track that they were entering another territory.

Another possibility, if the ‘hill’ interpretation of Marden is accepted, is to consider that gemǣru-dūn refers to a much wider area than the modern parish that bears the name and demarcates a boundary between a polity on the coastal plain and one north of the downs in the Vale of the Western Rother, rather than eastern and western neighbours. A Roman road (Margary 155) from Chichester, perhaps to Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), passes approximately 4.5 kilometres from Apple Down and was still in use in the earliest medieval centuries. In the passage over the downs, gemǣru-dūn may refer to the chalk downs themselves and represent a ‘boundary’ between discrete polities within a socially fragmented South Saxon kingdom, with power bases existing on the coastal plain, known to be at least the primary territory in the late seventh century of King Æthelwealh and a possible polity suggested here, in the Vale of the Western Rother, north of the scarp-slope of the chalk downs. The intersection of place-names and archaeology may represent folk-territories in southern England, and particularly Sussex. Place-names with patronymic elements occur in the possible folk-names Stæningas (Steyning) on the River Adur, the Piperinges (Peppering) on the River Arun (Semple, 2008). Such a model would accommodate a polity in the Vale of the Western Rother, between the South Downs and the Low Weald. This also perhaps sheds light on the riddle of why there are often concurrent kings of Sussex, of apparently parallel dynasties, witnessing charters when they begin to be issued after A.D. 700 (Kelly, 1998).


Down, A., & Welch, M. (1990). Chichester Excavations 7. Chichester: Chichester District Council.

Kelly, S. E. (1998). Charters of Selsey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Semple, S. (2008). Polities and princes AD 400-800: new perspectives on the funerary landscape of the South Saxon kingdom. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 27(4), pp. 407-429.

Williams, H., 2011. Mortuary Practices in Early Anglo-Saxon England. In H. Hamerow, D. Hinton, & S. Crawford, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 238–265.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s