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.

Abstract Submitted for EMASS 2013

Here is the text of the abstract of the paper I intend to give at the Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium, 20-22 May 2013 hosted by the University of Chester:

This paper presents the findings from a recent geophysical and topographical survey carried out in Church Norton, West Sussex. Church Norton is the name given to a hamlet in the north-east corner of Selsey parish at the mouth of Pagham Harbour, south of Chichester. This region is widely known for its rich Roman archaeology; however, an extensive 30-acre magnetometry and topographic survey will explore remnants of early medieval occupation at Church Norton. More specifically, these surveys aim to determine the evidence for an early medieval monastic complex. Writing via West Saxon sources which recounted the life of Wilfrid of Northumbria, Bede reports that the South Saxon kingdom “remained persistently heathen until this time [AD 684], on account of its thick forests and rocky coasts”. However, Wilfrid was received by King Æthelwalh and given a villa regalis and 87 hides to establish a monastery on the island of Selsey which eventually came the first seat of the South Saxon Bishops. The fate of Wilfrid’s monastery has been variously argued in the literature: a natural hillock called “the Mound” at Church Norton and the remains of a twelfth century church could represent the site of Wilfrid’s monastery; antiquarians on the other hand, believed that erosion had claimed the site. The results of these surveys will add a new dimension to this debate and direct future work.

As this is my first real academic conference, I am over the moon to be considered to present although my work is still in its early days.