In 1848, workmen digging foundations for the London Coal Exchange uncovered what came to be known as the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths. Dating from around AD 150, the villa complex was perhaps the finest example of Roman building ever found in the capital; such was the stir it created in Victorian London that the site was preserved and a spiral staircase constructed to give access to the remains. It was not until the 1960s, however, with the demolition of the Coal Exchange, that archaeologists turned up an Anglo-Saxon brooch in a pile of broken roof tiles. The brooch was Germanic in style, suggesting that the woman who dropped it might have been an early Anglo-Saxon settler. But what had brought her to the abandoned city of Londinium, which after the final withdrawal of Roman imperial forces from Britain had rapidly collapsed? The mile-wide metropolis was largely uninhabited, its streets silted with mud, its once-grand buildings reduced to rubble, so why was she there?
These questions sit at the heart of Rebecca Stott’s third novel, Dark Earth. The book is set in AD 500, in the darkest of the Dark Ages, when few written records were made or kept, a period for which the little history we have has been cobbled together from shards and scraps. For post-Roman Britain, in a state of political and economic collapse, this was a time of dwindling trade and mass migration, of warring kingdoms and bloody land grabs, of superstition and myth and ancient pagan rites and the first stirrings of Christianity. Despite the end-of-empire echoes we in a declining West might project onto this history, it is a world that feels unimaginably distant from our own.
And yet, from the scant fragments that remain, Stott has created a startlingly vivid world. Dark Earth tells the story of Isla and Blue, daughters of the Great Smith, whose exquisitely tooled swords are prized by the Seax Lord of the South Lands, Osric. When the Great Smith