Seminars CXIII & CXIV: Vandals and burning houses

Okay, the marking is done, the exam scripts handed back, and I have a bunch of posts mostly written up, just wanting images and links. But on the other hand I also have a load of freshly-transcribed charter data, an upcoming fortnight of very welcome and distracting house guests and then Leeds (I am going, but for once not presenting), and possibly I should think about finishing some work, you know. So those posts can wait till time is shorter and in the meantime I shall make a gesture towards reducing my ridiculous backlog with reporting on seminars, by telling you about two papers I saw back in January, to wit, Philipp von Rummel presenting on “The Search for the Vandals on the North African Kingdom” to the Late Roman Seminar in Oxford on the 19th January and Maureen Mellor presenting on “The Archaeology of Stuff: scorched interiors” to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on the 23rd.

Silver coin of Carthage in the name of King Gelimer, 530x534

Silver 50-denarius coin of Carthage in the name of King Gelimer, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons. Barbarians I tell you! Denominations of 50 denarii? It’s just not Roman!

Dr von Rummel was asking a simple but important question, which was basically, how much difference did the historically-attested ‘migration’ of the Vandal armies from Spain into Africa in the early fifth century make to the archæology there? Is there a rupture, or continuity? This is not, of course, a simple question because it has been usual to assume that we can recognise barbarians in the archaeology, whereas firstly material culture is portable which means anyone can wear or use it, depending on how the fashions of the day are running, and secondly the fifth-century Roman military and a fifth-century group that identified as barbarians but who’d spent most of a king’s lifetime travelling through the Roman empire and some of that time doing military service for it might well look pretty similar, if not actually be the same.1 And in fact the archæology of the supposed Vandal homelands obstinately refuses to provide anything much one could use as a marker by way of distinctive material culture, because they were already looking pretty similar back there too. So, until very recently, contended Dr von Rummel, archæology of these areas was looking at burials for ‘Europeans’, ‘Germans’ or some other form of alien, and being surprised how little evident they seem to be, focussing on types of fibula that are not foreign so much as new and can also be found in Rome of the period, and so forth. But we know the Vandals came so there must be something, right? I mean, Victor of Vita talks about habitus barbarus and Victor was an honourable man. But no: we get slow change in military culture and no destruction layers.2 Archæologically you’d not know it happened. The towns were in decline in the Vandal period but they were before as well, so that’s actually continuity. And these factors only get worse when one asks the question that’s not about reprehensible but memorably-painted supposed Germans and says, “what about the local ‘barbarians’?” because the same arguments apply to Moorish populations in the archæology, except without the variety, even though their leaders’ names are inscribed in major towns.3 Even the mausolea that now arose were not so much new as really old-fashioned (and with good precursors, see below). And these are of course the populations among whom the Tablettes Albertini were written and that written Latin was continuing alongside a vibrant set of local languages and that, too, was nothing new.

The tomb of the Numidian king Juba and his Queen Cleopatra Selene, Kur-er-Rumia, near Algiers

The local `Moorish’ heritage: the tomb of the Numidian king Juba and his Queen Cleopatra Selene, Kur-er-Rumia, near Algiers, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s not, however, that there’s no crisis or no collapse. The economy shrank considerably over the fifth century, and that does show up in the archæology. Roman state patronage had stopped and the new masters had an alternative organisation to support in the form of the Arian church. The market for products seems to have gone local, the land market’s prices to have shrunk, and the North Sahara zone may be drying out, making previously habitable areas marginal. But it’s hard to blame the Vandals for that! The end of Roman state patronage, of course, is probably a fairer cop, but since what that probably meant was that the area was getting a better return on its exports (and imports of Eastern Roman pottery actually go up during the Vandal period at the coast at least, or so we were told), the effects of it are not actually simply and obviously destructive.4 Instead, Dr von Rummel argued, what was happening if anything is that Rome ceased to be the best alternative and what has been really going on, old habits and practices, returned to view with the ceasing of the Roman cultural bombardment.5 And the Vandals just didn’t matter in any social way. Poor Vandals.

Pottery crucible for metalworking from the Saxon village at Faccombe Netherton, now in the British Museum

Pottery crucible for metalworking from the Saxon village at Faccombe Netherton, now in the British Museum

By contrast with the Vandals, ironically, Dr Mellor was talking about places where destruction was much more obvious, because in the course of a much larger project about domestic interiors of the Anglo-Saxon period, a tricky thing to reconstruct as you may imagine, she has repeatedly come up against houses that were burnt. This was probably pretty common – interior hearths, thatched roofs, straw mattresses, you can see the problems – but of course it can preserve a building in a ‘Pompeii moment‘, even if it was then flattened and built over; at least the warped and scorched stuff under the collapsed roof and so on stays where it was in the house, thus giving some kind of sense of what ‘lived’ where. This is handy because a lot of the time objects one finds in Anglo-Saxon domestic buildings, of which we do know the locations of a good few, and of which some have yielded a lot of small finds,6 are not where they were used, whether because they’ve been swept to the edges of the floor having broken or been lost, or because they were deliberately put in foundations or elsewhere as special deposits. That could obviously make a fantastic amount of difference to how we should interpret the objects: waste or treasure? Functional or token? And even when something is broken, it might tell us a lot about how it had been used if we were able to say how it had broken… And this work of distinction has not really been done and interpreting objects could really be an awful lot more complicated than it usually is. So now Dr Mellor is in progress with this work, but the task is immense and maddening, so I don’t know how long it may be before we hear more, which is a pity because, whether I’ve made this clear or not, this was a really interesting paper. One often says that archæology gets you back to how ordinary people lived but this kind of work gets a lot closer to taking you into their houses and watching them cook, eat and generally do things with stuff than, some.

1. As you know by now I guess, my text of resort for these matters is Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), and here esp. pp. 101-110, but you may justly suppose that others would disagree and chief among them would be, I imagine, not yet having made time to read it, Peter Heather, Empire and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe (Oxford 2010). I don’t see exactly how one argues with Professor Halsall on this but I’ve heard Professor Heather do it anyway.

2. Dr von Rummel did, in justice, admit that this is easier to say since one of the few places the sources are insistent was destroyed, the theatre at Carthage, was excavated but the findings never published and then it was reconstructed over the diggings so that there’s no prospect of checking again. But even then, we have seen in our lifetimes, have we not, that the destruction of an iconic and highly-visible building in a busy city does not in fact equate to the end of that city’s urban existence…

3. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 405-411, is illuminating about these supposed barbarians who didn’t migrate.

4. The economic effects of the Vandals now owning one end of the old grain supply route to Rome are teased out and placed in context in Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 635-644.

5. Something like this argument has also been made about the ‘return to the hills’ in sub-Roman Britain, of course, a native culture resurgent, but there the circumstances are rather different because of the scale of social collapse. Africa kept most of its cities and continued to ship in wine, use Latin and worship Christ, and the situation is just a bit different…

6. Here again, however, work is stifled by the amount of these sites which have never been published, like the many boxes of small finds from a post-late-seventh- but pre-mid-eleventh-century mill at Old Windsor, never catalogued because of the increasing difficulty and then death of the excavator, Brian Hope-Taylor, only one of several examples that featured in the earlier part of this paper.

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7 responses to “Seminars CXIII & CXIV: Vandals and burning houses

  1. Thank you for the kind comments. It should be said, though, that I got much of my steer, and info, on Vandals from Dr v. Rummell!

  2. Albertini tablets are available here: (they are under the rubric t.alb),
    or here: (with a link to a pdf of the edition (but not commentary) from 1952).

    You might need to talk me through the following: “The market for products seems to have gone local [and then a few lines later]… the area was getting a better return on its exports”. Perhaps the good speaker meant that the distribution within North Africa of African ceramics became more confined, while export markets remain bouyant?

    On the drop in the price of land – given that are only “data points” (to use an infelicitous americanism) are the Albertini Tablets spread over all of a handful of years, the jury may have to remain out on that. David Mattingly many years ago argued that the many sales in the Albertini tablets were a response to a particular moment of crisis, but this argument is undermined by the existence of astonishingly unpublished tablets just like the Albertini tablets from at least two other sites (Bir Trouch – found at the same time as the ostraka from that site, but only the ostraka were published (in 1966-67)) and the plain of Guert (photos of two published in MEFRA 1969, pages 284 and 285, available at .
    To me this makes it look like such tablets were an ordinary way of recording documents and not a response to any particular crisis.

    Mark H.

    • Thankyou for the steer to the Tablets online, Mark, I did have a poke round the site but I obviously just don’t know the sigla well enough to spot them when they turn up. I’ve linked that part of the site up and removed my complaint. As to your other question:

      You might need to talk me through the following: “The market for products seems to have gone local [and then a few lines later]… the area was getting a better return on its exports”. Perhaps the good speaker meant that the distribution within North Africa of African ceramics became more confined, while export markets remain bouyant?

      Sorry, this is me crossing the streams. The speaker was indeed observing that distribution of ceramics in North Africa became constricted, being confined much more to the coast than previously; he also observed later on that the slow decline of the towns despite supposed economic collapse might be because although the amount of goods being shipped from Africa across the Mediterranean was now smaller, since the Romans were now paying for what had previously been the annona, the returns to the exporters might still be higher. What you have in what you quote is me leaping between the two points as my notes record them. I suppose on reflection that the area seeing that return would also be more constricted in its distribution, however.

      I would expect from the Visigothic slates that the tablets are regular documents, for sure, but that wouldn’t of course prove Mattingly wrong that they were recording a crisis… However, I think that one thing Dr von Rummel left perfectly clear was that the presupposition of crisis needs some justification before we introduce it to arguments.

      • Me not being clear – Mattingly was arguing less that the sales were the result of the moment of crisis, but that the impulse to record the sales in these sorts of documents was the result of the crisis. It is this argument I find hard to get on board with.
        I guess from a 9th/10th-century Catalunya perspective the impulse to record such things in documents seems utterly ordinary, as does the survival of such documents. From the perspective of the 5th-century West, the Albertini tablets are (apart from the “count on one hand” above-mentioned unpublished comparanda, and the handful of Ravenna papyri that go back that early) utterly remarkable.

        • Right, I understand. You’re right that the impulse to record things seems ordinary in the Catalan context but that is explicable not least in the requirements of the Visigothic Law, which is often cited in these documents, that such things should be recorded. And of course, that law also ran where the Visigothic slates were made and not just in ninth- and tenth-century León but among Christian populations in al-Andalus, and the late Roman law on which it was based, also in Africa and Ravenna… And you will know better than me or most how widespread the use of inscriptions as record is in all of these areas. We have good reason to expect that documents were produced in quantity in all these areas, but we have very few of the documents except those corpora you mention and a few others. So I think survival is incredibly various and that to posit explanations based on culture, rather than on accident, for the presence of the evidence we have, when so much has plainly been lost for unconnected reasons, is by now unsustainable. Or, in short, just because we don’t have it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there

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