Recent finds in soil and sea, from the heart of the Empire and well beyond its borders

Since my own work this brief ‘holiday’ has so far been mostly revising stuff I wrote long ago, rather than finding out new stuff, I’m sticking to observations culled from the Internet this post. I think almost all of them came from either News for Medievalists or the Heroic Age blog, so thanks to both those fine institutions for these links that I went and followed.

In the first place, of interest to no-one but me most likely, I have discovered a Catalan archaeology blog, ArqueoCat, which has duly been blogrolled, though nothing there has been posted since I did this. Its focus seems to be mainly prehistoric, and of course it’s written in Catalan (there is a translator for webpages offered by the Catalan government but its results are, er, erratic) but I have hopes for it and I also have the relevant language skills. If you have those, I’ve also just happened across a Catalan blog dealing in medieval romances and chivalry, Eixa altra Edat Mitjana, whose author is apparently reading this, so hullo! I warn the general readership, it is about as work-safe as Got Medieval, and phrases like “butt-trumpet” may be necessary. As we’ve observed before, the Middle Ages weren’t a particularly clean-minded era.

For those of you reading mainly in English, I had Kirsten Ataoguz’s Early Medieval Art blog down in the resources section, but discovered I was never checking it, and have therefore put it with the other blogs where it probably rightfully belongs, and have simultaneously discovered, I think through someone’s notice at the Unlocked Wordhoard (how do people expect Prof. Nokes actually to read all those darn blogs? I lose too much time on the ones I follow already) Medieval Ecclesiastical Art, which is a bit late for me academia-wise but has the signal advantage of telling me about places I might actually visit, because I in turn have the signal advantage of being in Europe of course, though some of our political parties here might prefer to think otherwise.

That kind of leads us to archaeology, and recently the hot archaeology appears to be in Rome where they are claiming to have found the underground retreat where the Emperor Caligula was murdered. I am pretty dubious about this. I mean, even I have fallen prey to the whole let’s-associate-a-written-source-with-our-recent-find syndrome, it’s natural enough, but in the case I blogged about here, the source was rather more solid than Suetonius’s Vita Cæsarum and the archaeology rather clearer. This new case could be all wrong: let’s remember that the Roman digs are being led by someone who was trying to tell us he’d found genuine evidence for Romulus and Remus only a few years ago. Their level of interpretation comes across too much, in English-language media at least, as “it looks so close it must be true! what do you mean, dating evidence?” and I worry. There’s some further reports that I haven’t seen (no YouTube at work, no inclination to switch off the Black Sabbath at home—after all, heavy metal’s a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry now) here on News for Medievalists, which I guess are covering the same stuff. However, that’s all Classical so I don’t have to worry more than I choose to. Much more interesting to me, and not sensational for them so rather less likely to be over-/misreported, is this story that they’ve found evidence for ‘Dark Age’ habitation apparently in the Classical catacombs, people living among the ancient dead. A certain amount of sensationalism has crept in with a claim that these people “must” have been runaway slaves or persecuted Christians living in hiding, but I wonder (and I’m not the first). The Roman catacombs elsewhere in the city, and some of those in Milan, have turned up much more complicated scenarios than this, including anti-Christian graffiti, so I hope more investigation goes on here as it would be a window into a period of Rome about which I don’t think we know as much as we’d like.

The site of the tomb complex uncovered in Rome (follow link for credits)

Then from the other end of Empire, I discover that Martin Carver isn’t the only one with a Pictish-period monastery in Scotland to play with, although Inchmarnock, where digging has recently been concluded, is on the opposite coast to Portmahomack, where meanwhile the digging and finds continue, which must be almost irritating for them now that they have the Visitors’ Centre up and running and have to rearrange the display every time something new that’s old comes up. Inchmarnock isn’t quite so productive a site, or so Pictish but, as has been said here before the Picts were on Skye, though we only see them as they Gaelicise, so the dating could be crucial for such a definition. Unfortunately for the Pictish nation enthusiasts, what’s come up so far is mainly slates, and those used for writing in Ogham, which makes an Irish connection most likely. But writing on slates is always interesting anyway, my first really popular post here was about that very phenomenon, and the parallel intrigues me especially as the report suggests that the slates suggest people learning Ogham, which would be inordinately important for the literacy scholars, some of whom, of course, taught me to pay attention to this stuff. If writing was being taught, I suppose it is likely that what they’re finding is from a monastery, and we know that there was eventually one there. All the same, it’s not as conclusive as Portmahomack’s all-male cemetery, but I see that this hasn’t stopped the dig leader writing a book about it which I guess I shall now have to read, some day in my mythical free time.

Well outside the Empire in one direction, because I already mentioned Inuit cultures here once I now feel they’re sort of part of the remit even though I know nothing about them. Partly it’s because it’s useful to keep a vague notion of what else is going on where in the world during the Middle Ages just so that one doesn’t get too fixed to a European idea of progress and development. So, late Antique Alaska: we have new evidence. Constantine was founding a new Rome and these people really didn’t care, but we know more about them than we did a few weeks ago.

"A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles"

'A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles'

And lastly, and maybe most importantly of all I find this story about a sunken Arab dhow, from its cargo datable to after 826 A. D., that has been found, still mostly preserved on the seafloor with a fabulous cargo. The important thing is not so much the cargo, however, as the location, which is off Sumatra. Then the cargo becomes important, because it’s basically gold treasure and really really fine Tang dynasty pottery of the highest grades, as well as 40,000 china bowls—which are now the oldest known actual ‘china’ in the world—packed in beansprouts… Who knows what this stuff was doing on one badly-lost dhow, which seems to have come to grief on the reefs of the Gaspar Strait, but it illustrates really high-value commercial links between (probably) Iraq, via Basra and on into the cAbbasid Caliphate, and Tang dynasty China, well before we have much evidence of such contact. Also, bulk long-distance trade too: even Chris Wickham would have trouble writing off 40,000 bowls as marginal luxury traffic… So I hope for much more on this in future months.

If that isn’t enough to keep you clicking, and in some cases boggling at how little some Romance languages can change over six hundred years, well, I don’t know what would be but I look forward to seeing it…

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2 responses to “Recent finds in soil and sea, from the heart of the Empire and well beyond its borders

  1. Hullo! Congratulations for your blog and thank you for the brief review of mine (a divulging blog about “another Middle Ages”, you know: parody, satire, sexuality, carnavelesque, etc.)
    Meeting and contacting other medievalists around the world is always a pleasure.
    Be happy.

  2. It’s always entertaining reading, even if some of the Catalan is a bit too—ah—colloquial for my dictionary. I would love to know where you start looking for your material. I have also been tempted to try and translate one or two of your posts into English for this blog, but I don’t know how you would feel about that… The GenCat translator doesn’t really finish the task.

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