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.

The celts

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 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.




























The Natterjack Toad

When place-names - which are supposed to be Anglo Saxon - describe prehistoric places better than they do early medieval places, a radical explanation is called for. A conference in Dublin prompted such an explanation. Geneticist Graham Rowe gave a paper on the Natterjack toad, Bufo calamita, explaining that, like many species of plant and animal, the distribution of toads forms an east west pattern in Britain. This phylogeographic pattern is attributed to the post-glacial colonisation of Britain by many species. He suggested that "tall blond" people in the east of Britain, and "short dark" people in the west of Britain may also be due to post-glacial colonisation. To Win Scutt, this revealed the possibility that the English language, too, might have been spoken by people in prehistoric Britain.


Roman Place-Names

Since it has always been assumed that speakers of 'Celtic' languages lived in much of Britain before the Roman conquest in 43AD, Roman place-names have been scrutinised for traces of anything that resembles early forms of Welsh or Cornish. However, elements of English can be discerned in the same names just as easily - perhaps more so. Untangling the remnants of an older language in place-names is not reliable. It is even possible to find in Roman place-names resemblances with the names of dishes in a curry-house! Nevertheless, there is some remarkable support among the evidence from Roman place-names for origins in a form of English. more

The great debate on the origins of Britain's early languages has started. Find out the latest news and how you can learn more by following this link.

Learning Archaeology

If you're curious about archaeology, but a total beginner, this site will show you how to find out. Here you'll find advice on good books, weblinks and courses.

World Archaeology News

Hear the latest archaeological news from around the world, tune in to Win Scutt on BBC Radio Five Live every Tuesday morning at 3.35.

Website by Win Scutt

A truly excellent book! This puts the whole argument about the "Celts" in plain English.

Another excellent book explaining the myth of the Celts. This goes into the arguments more deeply than Simon James, but is "heavier".

Like Win Scutt, Stephen Oppenheimer has been researching the origins of the British. But while Win built his hypothesis from place-names, Stephen started with the genetics of living people. His new book is an exciting and convincing read. Click on the link above to buy it at a substantial discount from Amazon.