Place-names in the Landscape
The upper thames
It was in the Upper Thames valley near Cricklade in Wiltshire that Win Scutt found an ideal landscape to test the hypothesis that an ancestor of English might have been spoken in prehistoric Britain.
islands and meres
Many of English Place-Names are made up of words used by speakers of Old English, a language spoken before the Norman conquest in 1066. The Old English for island was 'eg', pronounced 'ey'; for 'lake' it was 'mere'At first it might seem an impossible task to work out what languages were spoken in Britain in prehistory. After all, there were no tape recorders, no books, not even any writing.
But Win Scutt used a technique he calls "Toponym/Environment Correlation Analysis" (TECA). It involves comparing the picture that place-names paint of the landscape with data obtained from archaeology and environmental studies.
Here in the Upper Thames Valley is a series of place-names which appear to relate to a lake. There are a number of island names, such as Oaksey, Eisey, and Minety, which refer to small 'hills' in the valley bottom. From them it is possible to work out the exact level of the lake. If you "fill up the contours" of the Ordnance Survey map with water, the lake extends some 12 kilometres. Raise the water level above 90m, and some of the islands submerge; lower it too much and some of the islands join up with the shore. So it is possible to say that the place-names describe a lake which once filled the valley to the 85 metre contour.
There are other place-names which circumscribe this possible lake: stert, a headland; Somerford, implying a ford that can only be crossed in summer when the lake is low; and a number of mere names.
Crucially, an important Roman Road, the Ermin Way, crosses the valley bottom. This suggests that the lake must have existed in pre-Roman times. Since the place-names are Old English, then one can conclude that some kind of English was spoken before the Roman Conquest.
Most British archaeologists now reject the idea that Britain was invaded by "Celts" in the Iron Age. It is a complicated story, but brilliantly explained by Simon James in "The Atlantic Celts" and by the more detailed "The Celts" by John Collis. Both Scutt and Oppenheimer see Welsh, Cornish and other so-called "Celtic" groups coming north to Britain along the Atlantic coast of Europe.
Take part in the debate
You can take part in this debate by contributing your own views and ideas. You can access the draft of an academic paper by Win Scutt entitled "An English Prehistory" online, and add your own comments and amendments. But please be polite and constructive!
Go to http://123.writeboard.com/a1f300104540dbaa4 and enter the password: "durrington". You can now read the paper and add your own comments. You are most welcome - whatever you wish to contribute.