Sunday, 17 February 2013


When giving talks on the origins of place names, I am often asked to name my favourite place name or names. I have no particular favourite any more than any piece of music or song has remained my number one choice for both change with time. In defining place names I do have a particular favourite theme, that is a name which very specifically describes the place so as to give a mental picture.

For example Stinchcombe in Gloucestershire tells us it was a ‘valley frequented by sandpipers or dunlin’; or East Stockwith in Lincolnshire and West Stockwith across the border in Nottinghamshire share an origin in ’the landing place made of logs or tree-stumps’; and Wilby in Norfolk is ‘the farmstead at the circle of willow trees’. While we know a fair amount of life in Saxon England, these names enable us to picture the place very much as it would have looked in the time when the name was coined – and these are images no painter would commit to canvas and no camera could record.

Often the questioner comments how archaeology could also tell us the same thing and yet while the value of archaeology is unquestioned, in the three examples given archaeology would concentrate on the location of the buildings, artifacts, clothing, etc., to build up a picture of life. In the place name we have a picture of the place as the inhabitants would have seen it.

There is also an example of a place name showing an archaeological find which was known before the terms antiquarian or archaeologist was even coined. In Hampshire is a place called Hordle, a name coined before the Domesday survey and described ‘the hill where treasure (or hoard) was discovered’. Note the place could not have been known as such until the hoard was unearthed, we have no notion of the name of the place prior to this, hence it is a little pointless looking for other buried treasure.

Archaeology, at least as a science, is relatively new. Certainly the person who found the treasure at Hordle would never have seen him or herself as an archaeologist. Modern archaeology can be traced to the middle of the nineteenth century when finds were analysed with other sciences now showing the earth was billions and not thousands of years old. Until the finds were examined with a view to understanding what could not be seen, this cannot be said to be scientific archaeology.

Doubtless uncovering artifacts had happened for almost as long as people have been living on the same site for several generations, for human habitation does tend to remain in a certain area as long as climate and conditions do not change dramatically. There is some indication of research being conducted in Egyptian history by the Chinese from the ninth century. However these were undertaken to discover rituals and/or technologies. Relics would then bring parts of the Egyptian culture to China, reverse engineering would enable the Chinese to re-invent lost discoveries, always assuming they were ever discovered in the first place.

Yet perhaps the first true archaeologists who sought information on the lives of early peoples can be found in Italy and the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Two men in particular could be said to be instrumental in making archaeology a study, if not a science. Flavio Biondo is most often referred to as the founder of archaeology after he documented the ruins and topography of ancient Rome in the first part of the fifteenth century. A contemporary of his, Ciriaco de Pizzicolli, travelled through Greece doing much the same on the ancient buildings and relics of Greece, before heading off for the eastern Mediterranean and eventually produced six volumes on his discoveries leading to him being known as the father of archaeology.

With their chosen field a comparatively modern science, archaeologists have the advantage of realising just how quickly advancements in techniques and technologies can happen. Hence wherever possible the finds are recorded and left for future generations to analyse when improvements in equipment, greater knowledge and experience will enable the story of a site to be better understood. This makes perfect sense for while there are undoubtedly many, many more sites to be dug, there is a finite number and that number will never change until man journeys to other planets and finds other long-dead civilizations – and they will have to be long-dead otherwise the present occupants will defend their rights and never allow us to dig their own archaeological sites.

When it comes to understanding history, the value of understanding a name will help the archaeologist and, as I can vouch from personal experience, the reverse is also the case with toponymy benefiting from evidence at a dig.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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