Seminary L: analytical caution and 42,000 ringforts

Cambridge is, whether it fully realises this or not, going to miss Dr Alice Rio when she transfers to London at the end of this academic year, and the main reason should probably be the truly excellent series of speakers she managed to gather for the first year’s programme of the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar at the Centre for Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, which provided the first truly cross-faculty forum for the early Middle Ages that I have attended in Cambridge, with historians, archæologists, classicists and ASNaCs (Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) all regulars in the audience. Her successors will have to work to maintain or equal its standard. I mention this because 26th May saw the last of that programme, and because it was Wendy Davies speaking I was there to hear. Her topic, unusually for her especially in recent years, was “Economic Change in Early Medieval Ireland: the case for growth?”

The Tara Brooch, made in Ireland c. 700

Wendy, though she is famous for work on Celtic regions, has never worked primarily on Ireland I think, and so was provoked to this mainly by being invited to give a paper at this year’s Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo at Spoleto, which was on Ireland. She was asked to look at Ireland’s social and economic articulation, and so has been doing so. This involves wrestling with a contradiction betwen the fabulously developed society depicted in the Irish law-codes, almost all from a window of about fifty years at the turn of seventh and eight centuries, and the absence of urban sites or much visible economic stratification. In the past fifteen years or so, a substantial road-building programme has been providing vast amounts of properly-funded archæological digging, however, and the picture has changed a great deal. Wendy spent part of the paper trying to give some account of this, and the part trying to synthesize what the new finds did to the debates and where in this she stood.

The site of Drummaskibole under excavation by the Moore Group prior to road developments

The site of Drummaskibole under excavation by the Moore Group prior to road developments

One of the things that this recent work has done is to tighten up the dating of a large number of sites, and this has greatly increased the early medieval sample. It’s not that vast numbers of sites have been discovered, though many have; it’s that now that they are dated by something more than typology (and you know what I think about that by now) many more are early medieval than was thought. For example, there are apparently 41,916 ringforts known from survey in Ireland. The ringfort has classically been thought to be an Iron Age structure, and when I was first reading up on Ireland in the late 90s that was certainly what I was told, and I wondered then where on earth the early medieval fortifications were. Turns out that of the 200-odd that have now been dug the vast majority were early medieval, which certainly does help explain that. Moreover, one that has been completely dug yielded evidence of a fence across the middle and internal structures only on one side. The implication seems to be that it was in use partly as habitation and partly as livestock corral, which ties up really well with the lawcodes’ well-known harping about cattle, which also served as the main medium of exchange in a society with no money and precious little precious metal, at least as exchange medium. This is the sort of leap of comprehension that the last fifteen years of Irish archæology have made possible.

The ringfort at Rochefort Demesne, whose inner ramparts proved to be seventh- or eighth-century when excavated

The ringfort at Rochefort Demesne, whose inner ramparts proved to be seventh- or eighth-century when excavated

This explosion of data has to be seen in relative terms, however. Firstly, what with the economic contraction of the current moment, the road-building has pretty much stopped, meaning that for now we’ve had all we’re getting. Secondly, there was really not a lot before, so we still have some way to go. In particular what’s missing is sites with long sequences, or at least proven sequences. Some of the ringforts seem to go on a long time but whether that’s continuous is very hard to say; they may be reoccupied later. Quantitative questions are still very hard to answer from a relatively tiny sample of known sites excavated, and that complicates the question that Wendy was asking, to wit, is there economic growth in early medieval Ireland and when? Particular sites that show economical complexity, especially mill complexes like the marvellous tidal mill at Nendrum, may not be representative; and if they are, one might wind up blaming the Church for all development as that’s a monastic site. On the other hand other indexes, like precious metal, towns, and so on, are often attributed to the Vikings; in either case, Ireland is held to have needed external stimuli to get its economy doing something different. These cases could be questioned, and indeed question each other.

Sandstone millwheel and structure under excavation at Nendrum tidal mill, later dated to 619X21 by dendrochronology

Sandstone millwheel and structure under excavation at Nendrum tidal mill, later dated to 619X21 by dendrochronology

All the same there is enough of this snapshot sort of evidence that it can be married with the few broader sorts of survey that there are, most especially pollen analysis. The broad picture that Wendy therefore presented us with by way of her interpretation was that we can accept from pollen that Ireland was undergoing a transformation of cultivation and a lot of land clearance from as early as the third century, but that this stops and forest cover makes a bit of a recovery in the sixth, before clearance resumes in the eighth. At the same time, animal bone assemblages recovered from sites show an increase in non-bovine remains from the eighth century onwards, suggesting that what had been a cattle-dependent economy was then diversifying. At the same time, in the south and east at least, a lot of ringforts seem to go out of use, again suggesting a change in pastoral practice away from large bodies of livestock. On the other hand, many forts continue in other areas and cattle is still most of what comes up in bone assemblages, just not all. And then finally in the ninth and tenth century silver starts making itself known as a medium of exchange, foreign coin begins to appear in hoards (metal detecting is illegal in Ireland so there are only hoards to go on, what doesn’t help assess circulation) and shortly before 1000 Dublin begins striking its own. Also, y’know, Dublin, towns have finally arrived, rather than just the overdeveloped monastic complexes that have to do for Irish urban historians in the early Middle Ages. The interesting things about this are one that Wendy pointed out, and one that a commentator in the audience whom I couldn’t identify added. The first is that this makes the bulk of change pre-Viking, and more interestingly for me, before the supposed agricultural take-off that we’ve mentioned here before, though the particularly bad climatic patch of the sixth and seventh centuries matches the retrocession of clearance quite well. Wendy did say that she distrusts monocausal explanations, but that it’s hard not to give the economic specialisation and professional class required by the Church a substantial rôle in this. The second point however is that there is a definite change when the Vikings do arrive, and it may not be in the actual economy but in the expression of wealth; there’s a surplus all along but they convert a lot of it into metal, whereas before, well, in so far as it was converted and not consumed, it was probably being turned into things like this…

A section of illumination from the Book of Kells

A section of illumination from the Book of Kells


Wendy is unusually good about giving references in such a way that you can find them, whereas many speakers refer to books that they’ve internalised and so assume that you know them too. Particularly useful sounded to be M. Comber, The Economy of the Ringfort and Contemporary Settlement in Early Medieval Ireland, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 1773 (Oxford 2008), F. McCormick & E. V. Murray, Knowth and the zooarchaeology of Early Christian Ireland (Dublin 2007) and T. McErlean & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides. The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (Dublin 2007).

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3 responses to “Seminary L: analytical caution and 42,000 ringforts

  1. Fascinating! As the 15th century dukes of France (Lancaster and Valois both), books can bankrupt you.

  2. Pingback: lezing Wendy Davies « Hersenspinsels

  3. Pingback: Seminar XCIII: in the tracks of the Celtic Tiger « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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