Why this website exists
Across the Internet and in many books you can read an awful lot of nonsense about ancient geographical names. It tends to run along the lines of: Modern place xxxxxxx used to be called yyyyyy, therefore zzzzzz ..... Up to a point, this is just harmless fun. After all, most nations have creation myths, so why shouldn't a town have one too?
The purpose of this website is to present all the key evidence about all the names of towns, forts, lesser settlements, rivers, islands, battlefields, seas, tribes, etc that are attested from early Britain. About 570 geographical names have survived from the period between 55 BC (when Caesar visited) and about 410 AD (when Roman authority crumbled) but a few names from the later “Dark Ages” have also been allowed in here.
Three key attitudes have guided the production of this website. First, evidence is all-important. There are extensive hyperlinks to other websites, so that you can rapidly check facts. Please stay eternally vigilant and write in if something is reported incorrectly here. Is there a better photograph to back up or correct a name spelling reported here? Has a web link died or been replaced? Have we missed a key fact?
Secondly, let's be clear why theories exist. A good theory saves you needing to remember a huge pile of facts. However, humans internalise theories and cling onto them long after those theories no longer fit the facts. Place names pose a particular problem of nationalism. Britain has an age-old linguistic gradient between Welsh/Cornish/Gaelic speakers in the western, highland areas and English/Scots speakers in the eastern, lowland areas.
The research project underlying this website originated with a simple observation: if a place name in the east of Britain was said to be “Celtic”, that etymology was probably wrong and, more importantly, it was a clue that something interesting remains to be discovered about that place. As time went on, the researchers involved gradually became better educated in historical linguistics, and started to gain a wider perspective, no longer limited to investigating single names.
Some academics reacted very badly to the developing heretical challenge to their fiefdoms, refusing to meet their critics for even the most friendly discussion. The sheer rudeness of certain individuals has been really quite startling. Their attitude seems to rest partly on imagining that their critics are still as naive as five years before, but mainly on arguing from authority – treating certain standard books as holy writ.
That leads on to the third key issue. Getting stuff published in traditional academic journals takes anywhere from one to five years, and it can be really annoying to spend several man-months of hard work producing a document in the peculiar style of a journal only to have it rejected on the basis of a referee's report of stunning ineptitude. Furthermore, printed matter is inherently fixed and cannot be updated to correct mistakes or to reflect new information.
This website is really just a modern successor to the classic 1979 book by Rivet and Smith – such a brilliant book that many people fail to realise it has limitations. Something like a third of all its explanations and/or locations of place names are seriously unsatisfactory, and this website aspires to do better. Please do not misinterpret criticism as disrespect. Everything here is built upon the hard work of generations of honest, clever people.
You should never declare one name explanation right and everything else wrong. Roman-era Britain was administered in Latin (and to a limited extent in Greek) by soldiers who grew up speaking languages from all over Europe, which certainly included forms of Germanic (from around the Rhine and Danube) and of Celtic (from parts of Iberia and Gaul). The indigenous population probably spoke a range of dialects evolving from a basic Indo-European towards what would later become Welsh and English.
All these candidate languages throw up multiple plausible etymologies for every early geographical name. So the challenge for any investigator is to find all these possibilities and then to rank them in order of likelihood. In the past, it was customary to track down the most plausible Celtic explanation, declare that the right answer, and ignore everything else. Such behaviour must stop. There may not be space to discuss all possibilities, but it is vital to consider all possibly relevant evidence.
Notice this website’s focus on geography. Nowadays the Internet gives access to Ordnance Survey maps, flood risk maps, huge databases, aerial photos, tourist photos, and much more, which previous researchers could only dream of. This makes multiple plausible locations open for consideration for many names. Once again, they all need to be considered and ranked by likelihood.
Names and locations need to be considered collectively, by area or by the sequence in which they are listed. Essentially one must deal with a heap of fuzzy data, which needs to be analysed in the spirit, if not the formal mathematics, of Bayesian statistics. This website has the big advantage of pre-publication access to a study of the Ravenna Cosmography, which is a far more reliable and geographically logical document than has hitherto been realised.
If you would like to contribute to this work, please email in to feedback at this website. We have lots of documents that are not just on the end of a hyperlink but could be shared privately. If anything seems wrong, or just slanted unfairly, don't just sit there choking in fury – write in to suggest how to improve it.
The hard core of work on this site was done by Anthony Durham, with much help from Michael Goormachtigh, Gavin Smith, Suzanne Miller, and Hugo Davenport, plus contributions from a huge number of other people who responded to our requests for advice. Special thanks, too, to Cambridge University Library. Obviously everything here rests upon centuries of labour by a vast number of historians, archaeologists, and linguists.