Seminary VIII (a room packed with archaeologists)

You know, at the moment my readership actually goes down when I post something, whereas the longer I stay silent the healthier it gets. I’m not quite sure what goes on here, whether I’ve just reached search-engine critical mass or something. Hullo the new readers anyway. I shall risk driving you away by putting in more content, as I’m running badly behind.

falling pots! by Mary Chester-Kadwell

On Wednesday 24th October the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar took a short trip up the road to have a joint meeting with the University College London Institute of Archaeology. This is obviously the sort of thing that should happen more often, and indeed the speaker referenced a paper by Guy Halsall that pointed out how silly it was that these two seminars never met, as of 2003, though unfortunately I didn’t get a handout and Guy’s own webpages haven’t been updated since he moved to York, so I can’t give a further citation.1 It was pointed out by Andrew Reynolds, who had organised the meeting (for which the archaeologists had generously shifted their usual meeting day), that ordinarily of course Guy had never been able to go to that seminar himself because he was usually teaching at the same time that it was on. Generally we all agreed that London is just too busy, which was easy to do given the hundred or so of us that were crammed into a room made for forty to sit in comfort.

But I’m digressing. What on earth led a hundred-plus academics to come and squeeze into a darkened room in UCL, you may be wondering, and the answer is that the speaker who was talking about Guy, historians and archaeologists was none other than Professor Dame Janet Nelson, or Jinty as most of us know her, and she was speaking to the title, “Spades and Lies? Interdisciplinary encounters”. Now Jinty’s worked with a good few archaeologists, and meanwhile has her own definite views on what’s useful and what isn’t in the study of the past, so it was clearly going to be worth hearing, and she didn’t disappoint, although she had warned me beforehand that it was going to be a rambling anecdotal piece. Well, so it was I guess, but every anecdote had a point as an example and Jinty’s own asides and self-deprecations make her an endearing speaker, especially when she has something definite to say but, you get the impression, isn’t sure whether you’ll take her seriously. What she had to say was largely a set of stories that, like St Bede with his Ecclesiastical History, aimed to give examples of interdisciplinary practice both bad and good,

For if history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it mentions evil things of wicked persons, nevertheless the religious and pious hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and perverse, is the more earnestly excited to perform those things which he knows to be good…. (HE, Preface)

I can’t even attempt to reproduce the various stories that came out, but the upshot was that she feels that the two fields need to respect each other’s aims and our common ground a lot more. We’re all trying to do the same thing, she argued, and it doesn’t get us anywhere to denigrate the other approach when we should instead be trying to see what it can contribute to our understanding.

Thus, her title referred to an article by Philip Grierson that I reminded you all about a little while ago.2 I didn’t mention this, but that article opens with the memorable quote, “It is said that the spade cannot lie, but it owes this merit in part to the fact that it cannot speak.” Philip then went on to stress how all archaeological evidence is subject to interpretation and that, really, people ought to be more careful with that then they often are, and so on. Jinty stressed that she was a great fan of Philip’s work and owed him a great deal (not least because he’d been one of her D.Phil. examiners!),3 but had to say that this was exactly the kind of attitude that she felt wasn’t helpful; mocking specialists from across the divide for how they use ‘your’ evidence is not the way forward. Of course, archaeology has moved on a lot since 1959, and meanwhile there exist far too many historians who’ve forgotten Philip’s warning as I was trying to point out, but it’s a fair enough point. Which is not to say that Jinty didn’t herself have some private gripes about some archaeologists’ use of documents, but some historians came in for mild censure too. Overall it was entertainment: but I must get hold of the handout as the depth of reference it seemed to involve would be a really useful thing to have handy when next I have to deal with the gap (which will be in January I think, though details are not yet on the web) between the text and the trench.


* The roadsign image at the head of this post is the work of, and copyright to, Mary Chester-Kadwell. I’ll justify my use of it to her if she objects next time I see her as `fair use’ somehow or other, possibly by buying her drinks till she agrees, but I think she would prefer it if it didn’t get distributed from here, so please don’t be reusing it without her permission. A link to her web presence is concealed under the image.

1. Though if I had to guess, I’d imagine it would be his “Early medieval archaeology and history: some interdisciplinary problems and potentials for the twenty-first century” in Hans-Werner Goetz & Jorg Jarnut (eds), Mediävistik im 21. Jahrhundert. Stand und Perspektiven der internationalen und interdisziplinären Mittelalterforschung, MittelalterStudien des Instituts zur Interdisziplinären Erforschung des Mittelalters und seines Nachwirkens, Paderborn, 1 (Paderborn 2003), pp. 163-185, about which I am able to inform you thanks to the incomparable Regesta Imperii OPAC.

2. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

3. As well as a faint horror of the passing of time during my lifetime, this fact again makes me marvel at Philip’s longevity. Jinty is retiring this year, 2007, two years later than she wanted to in 2005. I don’t know when she did her doctorate, but Philip, who examined it, had at least six papers out in 2001 and a last one in 2002, and was still firmly intending to get back to work, when he felt up to it, until very shortly before he died in early 2006, and was still collating reference material and reading new work for most of 2005. If Jinty had had her way she’d have retired before her doctoral examiner had stopped working. It’s not a bad run, you know?

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8 responses to “Seminary VIII (a room packed with archaeologists)

  1. Philip Grierson isn’t the only medieval historian with that kind of productive longevity record. Francois Louis Ganshof managed more than 50 years of publications, and Karl Ferdinand Werner has 40+. A month or two ago I went to the celebrations for Christopher Brooke’s 80th birthday, and though physically frail, he was still doing research. So there is hope for all of us yet.

  2. Christopher’s closest (and he is a wonderful gent, and a fellow of the same College as Philip was of course—I don’t know, maybe the cellar’s just really that good) to beating Philip’s record, but he has a little way to go yet. Philip’s first publication in Regesta Imperii is from 1934; last was 2000, 66 years solid publication. Christopher, though my gods he’s published a lot, only started in 1946, and then it was with his dad; first solo article in 1950, according to the same source. So he needs to keep publishing for another 9 years minimum. Stripling!

  3. Let’s not forget the redoubtable Majorie Chibnall.
    I had hoped to go to Jinty’s paper, but as someone with a foot on either side of the archaeology/history ditch, Grierson’s comments have done little to foster understanding between the two disciplines. Fifty years down the line in supposedly more receptive times, tt doesn’t help when convening an interdisciplinary seminar that the historians won’t go to the archaeologists’ papers and vice versa. The musicians just don’t turn up to anything…

  4. It does perplex me, that. Most early medievalists will freely admit that they need archaeological material to have any kind of full picture. (It’s harder to get high medievalists to do so, and I can understand why people who struggle to get all the textual material under their hats would object to the idea that they’re not reading enough.) But very few of either stamp either turn up to things like this or do the basic theoretical grounding to allow them to understand why the archaeologists read their material the way that they do, or just understand words like ‘stratigraphy’. Yet, as Jinty said, we know which side of the disciplinary divide is going to increase the source-base more…

    On the other hand, some archaeologists are equally sniffy about writing so as to be accessible to a non-specialist audience. I think my favourite example of the opposite trend, writing real archaeology or a wider audience, is Brian Hope-Taylor’s report on Yeavering, which to me at least really did open up the wonder of what you could reasonably learn from little more than a bunch of post-holes and their fill, and how serious a claim archaeology has to being scientific. But the last chapter was full of (I thought exciting) hypothesis about early Northumbria that writers of the Dumville kind of approach could rip to shreds, and so historians have tended to ignore it as `archaeology’. And it, and many other such works when they eventually do come out, get ignored unjustly when they are really full of data we could use.

    Nonetheless, there are some, like yourself, I hope myself, and some friends I’ve made, who keep trying to meet the other side on the bridge. And there are people like Guy Halsall to remind us that it is possible to use both sorts of material and retain the respect of your colleagues…

  5. I think 100 people turning up to a seminar hardly suggests a lack of interest. (I’d have gone myself, but had childcare problems). But the archaeologists don’t help their case when at the same meeting last year they had Richard Hodges making ludicrous statements about Charlemagne. I’d recommend Chris Loveluck, who is very interesting on early medieval consumption. Any other particular heroes from the archaeologist side?

  6. Hodges is an odd case, isn’t he? Because lots of historians have taken his stuff on big time, despite the really heavy theoretical angle to it (at least in Dark Age Economics). But because that theory is so heavily based on Renfrew, whose stuff is now I believe becoming less fashionable among the archaeological fraternity, he’s possibly less accepted by archaeologists than he is by historians. Given the which, maybe he should be more careful what he says about Charlemagne…

    I agree about Chris Loveluck, I’ve seen him present and he’s very alive to texts as well as material, which is the key thing. My personal star in this line is Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, but as you can tell from the name perhaps, he’s Catalan so no-one else outside the country but me cares. Another one who doesn’t seem to be bothered by what sort of evidence he has, he’ll use it and use it well. I would also have to mention Caroline Goodson, whose published work doesn’t necessarily demonstrate how keen her sense of text criticism is, but I’ve seen her teaching materials. It’s not a long step from intent of an artist to intent of an author…

  7. I was in a glum mood when I posted my last comment. One a more positive note, last year at the TAG, I was involved in a session on medieval material culture, which involved a museologist, an art historian, an archaeologist and three people who work in history departments. We had a dialogue, we engaged and managed to generate an amazing degree of consensus on the need for more dialogue and cooperation. As the only voice of dissent was of the same generation as Richard Hodges, I have come to the conclusion this is a generational thing.

    There, I’ve lowered the tone of this blog nicely.

  8. Not at all! Consider, for example, how much more erudite that was than my Lolhistorian post…

    In a likewise positive vein, my next two seminar reports are also going to involve historians listening avidly to archaeological evidence, in the latter case given by none other than Caroline Goodson, whom I mentioned, who was also pleased about recently having had a theory vindicated against, wait for it, Richard Hodges. How the circles do close, and so on. But most of her audience were of Hodges’s generation too, with a few lost-looking postgrads and me and some like me somewhere in the middle. But I think London is a lot better equipped for dialogue generally because the opportunities for it are so much larger and the social worth of sitting in your disciplinary ivory tower and being a sole authority on things just not available as it is at more isolated institutions. Academics who can’t avoid each other talk a lot to each other. Except at Cambridge where they pretend not to hear their enemies speaking. (I wish I was joking, I’ve seen it happen. `Did someone say something?’ For heavens’ sake, grown men…)

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