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Beach parties are, I believe, a popular pastime in foreign lands. Here in Britain, the chill wind which tends to spring up around dusk and the icy water that appeals to no one except the health freak and the masochist, successfully discourages such activities. (Raves, when most of the participants are out of their heads on drugs, are the only exception to this general rule.)
There was a deal of interest, therefore, when archaeologists in Devon discovered that the distaste for beach parties is a modern phenomenon, and that back in the Dark Ages, the people were much more enlightened (or masochistic).
Bantham, 14 miles south-east of Plymouth, is a typical Devon beach, with cliffs at either end, between which the chill waters of the Atlantic surge. The report of ancient pottery on the beach led the archaeologists to assume either a shipwreck washed up on land or a building washed down into the sea, but in fact it was neither. What they found was evidence for ten separate beach parties – charcoal from big bonfires, fragments of amphorae from the eastern Mediterranean, and large quantities of animal bones representing beef, mutton, venison, rabbit, duck and chicken. The evidence is, therefore, that whoever took part in these parties was not only warm and well fed, but tolerably snootered at the same time.
Speculation, of course, centres on the reason for these parties. Was it the arrival in town of some Dark Age equivalent of the Rolling Stones? Was it a religious ritual? and Why the beach?
Associated with the bonfire sites are four large camp sites, in which has been found at least one clear furnace for metalworking. The slag found at the hearth indicates that the metal was tin, a product for which Devon and Cornwall were famous from Phoenician times right down to the 19th century. A shipwreck, discovered some years ago a few miles off the coast at Bantham, yielded 43 ingots of tin that had been roughly cast in beach sand – possibly even from one of the camps that has now been discovered.
Many historians have believed that during the Dark Ages all contact between Britain and the rest of Europe was cut off by wandering bands of barbarians. In particular, the emergence of an independent Celtic church has been taken as evidence for a complete break in communications between Britain and Rome. That picture has never been terribly convincing, for Celtic missionaries freely roamed over Europe seeking converts among the heathen Franks and Germanic tribes, and even visited Rome to seek papal approval of their work. Now it appears that in the 6th century at least, there were active trading links between Britain and Byzantium.
Admittedly, those links may not have been frequent, which may be why the arrival of a Byzantine fleet was greeted with such delight, but the evidence points to a different reason for the beach parties. The crockery used at the feasts – pottery bowls and platters – appears not to have been local but to be from Tunisia and western Turkey. We would naturally expect that whoever was putting on the feast would also provide the plates, even if they bought the food locally, so it would appear that the beach parties were organised not by the Britons to celebrate a trading opportunity, but by the Byzantine traders themselves.
The reason is not hard to imagine. It is well known that a business lunch is ideal for productive negotiations – and if you can induce the person who is being given the business lunch to partake freely of liquid refreshment, it is highly likely that the terms you will arrange will be more favourable than otherwise. What better way, therefore, for the Byzantine merchants to get their tin cheap, than to get their suppliers in a good mood – a very good mood if the number of amphorae fragments from north Africa, Turkey and Palestine is anything to go by.
However, although the tin miners and smelters may have woken up the following morning with monumental hangovers and no tin, they clearly did not feel that they had suffered any disadvantage. The number of beach parties shows that they kept on coming back for more, for after all, it wasn’t every day that a poor peasant could take time off from battling the Saxons to taste imported Palestinian wine.
On the other hand, it may not have been the peasants who benefitted from this Byzantine largess. A similar quantity of Byzantine pottery has been found at Tintagel, believed to have been a royal residence and certainly associated with the legendary King Arthur. If it was the masters who were being treated rather than the merchants and workers, then there is a good possibility that there may be a Dark Age royal palace near Bantham. The archaeologists are keeping a good look out for any evidence that this may be so.