Seminars CXXV & CXXVI: differing data from the East

In the continuing attempt to clear some of my ridiculous blogging backlog before the new academic year starts in the UK, I am sadly going to pass over James Palmer‘s paper at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in London in February this year, not because it wasn’t interesting but because Magistra has already covered it, and this brings me back to Oxford. As we saw with the last of these posts, on a Monday when it seems to be required, it’s possible to attend both the Medieval Archaeology Seminar and the Medieval History Seminar here as there’s half an hour’s grace between them, and the 27th of February was such a day, as a remarkably complementary pair of papers were being given across the two. The first was “Between the Carolingian West and the Byzantine East: fortified élite settlements of the 9th and 10th centuries AD in Central Europe”, by Dr Hajnalka Herold and the second was “Dirhams for Slaves: investigating the Slavic slave trade in the tenth century” by Dr Marek Jankowiak.

The hilltop over which stretches the site of the Gars Thunau hillfort complex, on what seems to have been a horrible day when whatever satellite Google gets its pictures from flew by

I first heard Hajnalka speak at the Kalamazoo of 2010, as is duly recorded here indeed, and this meant that some of what she was presenting was not new to me, as in order to set things up she had to talk us quickly through a number of sites which are not exactly household names in the West. (I sympathise with this: it frightens me how few people have any clear idea where Girona is and no-one but me and by now you has heard of Vic or Urgell but at least, bar the latter perhaps, people can usually spell the names from my area once they’ve heard them.) The sites are scattered across a zone shared between what is now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the state of publication and excavation is very various but, starting especially from Gars Thunau in Austria, Hajnalka is trying to fit these various, and variously-sized, power centres into wider frameworks, and as you can tell from the title of her talk is willing to look quite widely to find out what the builders thought they were doing and what kind of position they’d achieved that meant they could do it. The zone lay between empires, Frankish, Byzantine and at times Bulgarian, and any of these might be found pushing their influence into it at a given point in the period. The two former especially competed in the mission field, and had done for some time of course, which makes it particularly tantalising that many of these sites contained churches, in fact in the case of Mikulčice, in Moravia, nine churches, and in Zalavár in Hungary, a huge one which seems to have been of a size and complexity to rival pretty much anything in the West of the time, and a number of smaller ones on neighbouring patches of sandy ground. A Salzburg text called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum claims that this was the work of the Archbishops of Salzburg, but it would be nice to know which phases and when, if that’s even true…1 (I note that further south, in Croatia, there is dispute over whether the Aachen-like complex at Zadar was put there in emulation of or in reaction against Carolingian ecclesiastical pressure.2)

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár,  Hungary

Reconstructed ruins of the ninth- or tenth-century church at Zalavár, Hungary, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy initially to see what unites these complexes: firstly, they’re all fortified settlements and secondly, where there is good dating evidence, they seem to have all got new ramparts at the close of the ninth century. That’s more or less where the similarities end, however: the technologies of building, the size and focality of the complexes and likely, therefore, their apparent purposes all differ site to site. Furthermore, with only archæology to go on (the few written sources here, Conversio included, don’t help very much at all putting together a big picture) it’s hard to guess at who was in charge of any of these places or how they were supported.3 There are aspects that look familiar from the West: all these sites showed evidence of craft manufacture (though glass and precious metal were confined to the biggest ones), of space for Christian worship and for burial (not obviously non-Christian, if there is in fact any such thing archæologically-speaking) and of social stratification. On the other hand, these sites were not emporia, their trade links as so far testified in the material culture were thin and almost incidental, although quite farflung, there’re almost no coins and so forth. (More digging could change this in almost all cases, however.) The links that we do see, however, run both east and west, and this is clearest in the dress hinted at by the burial evidence: broadly, Hajnalka sketched, we’re looking at a set of sites at which the men dressed Frankish and the women dressed Byzantine, high-status persons in both cases of course and not without exceptions. The rank and file (and indeed the slaves who must have been there) are less distinctive. So the big message that Hajnalka had was that, although it is very easy for Westerners to look at a scenario like this (or that at Zadar, as noted above) and see a reaction to the Carolingian and Ottonian Drang nach Osten, in which local élites funnel luxury goods from the pressuring western empire and use that wealth to build up structures against it, when you’re on, and indeed in, the ground at these places the Franks were very far from being the only players for these people’s attention and imitation.4 But there is much more to be done to work out what the people in question were actually up to, in political or other terms, and we can hopefully look to Hajnalka to do some of it!5

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid I from Tashkent, struck 713, found in Latvia

The Medieval Archaeology seminar has lately taken to laying on tea and cake afterwards, which is very welcome and made it much more possible to pay attention to Marek Jankowiak after the brief trot to All Soul’s College. My notes indicate that he had an excellent set of visuals to back up his argument, about which sadly I can remember nothing, but those of you who may be setting up to see what must be a related paper at this term’s Institute of Historical Research seminar are in for a treat, at least. Here I can only recreate from my notes alas, and they tell me that what was principally at issue here was the absolutely huge preservation of Islamic silver coinage in Northern Europe. Dr Jankowiak wanted to get us thinking about how they had wound up there and what was moving in exchange. This first entailed a more detailed analysis of the finds than I’ve seen before, noting that particular areas receiving dirhams seem to have blipped in and out of the record at different times (except in Gotland where deposition was pretty continuous), and that the area providing them seems to have shifted from Iran to the Samanid Emirate at Khorasan over the tenth century, with Iraq hardly showing up and Spain not there at all. These were supplemented by imitations of such coins from the Khazar and Bulgar areas, again shifting from one to the other over the tenth century. By a series of rather unlikely calculations, Dr Jankowiak hypothesized that, if 75%-80% of this exchange was being paid for with slaves (a figure whose basis he did not explain) then we might be thinking of an export of 30,000-60,000 human beings over the century, a few hundred every year, but that that would not include exports to the West which, however they were going, were obviously not being paid for in a medium so readily hoarded. Identifying the slaves archæologically, given that they were exported and acculturated, is basically impossible but just because of the numbers involved Dr Jankowiak wound up developing a picture in which entire peoples, small tribes or whatever, were basically hoovered up and fed into this market by their more powerful neighbours, and thus suggested that the reason for the sudden boom in fortification in Central Europe in this era is because those who could be wanted to be on the rich side of this process, not the poor side! He saw in this the origins of settlement nucleation in Poland, especially, and suggested that we should perhaps see the lesser hillforts not so much as fortifications but as slave corrals with garrisons via a chain of which the unfortunate human goods were convoyed eastwards, a system out of whose profits new states might bloodily grow.

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air

Naszacowice hillfort, Southern Poland, from the air, rebuilt 989 after destruction by fire of unknown previous date

At that point, of course, these two papers came directly into conflict. For example, in Dr Jankowiak’s Southern Poland, apparently, many of the forts (and there are many there, but of course only a few have been dug well enough to provide dating evidence) show destruction layers. Is this because Poland was developing a central power that had to suppress these places? In that case, one might equally expect the Polish forts to be refuges, something that Dr Jankowiak ruled out due to the very small number of finds there that suggests to him only temporary occupation. But, many of these sites were dug (when they have been) a long time ago and it’s debatable what would have been found in such excavations and whether occupation, rather than just ‘artefacts’, would have been recognised. Anyway, the point of refuges surely is that they’re only temporarily occupied. And so on. These are issues I’ve brought out myself, but plenty of other people also had objections, about the neglected contribution of the fur trade (better seen in animal bone evidence further east than here, according to Dr Jankowiak), about the effects on prices of this influx of money that likely make a constant figure for the tenth-century slave economy problematic and (of course) about the hypothetical mathematics, it wasn’t even me for once. I did, however, ask about the hoards in Scandinavia, to wit: why on earth is there deposition on such a scale here without retrieval? Because if you have a hoard, one thing you can say for sure is that the owner didn’t come back for it. Was Scandinavia then even less stable than Central Europe’s slave-grounds? Dr Jankowiak thought that the hoards might be sort of treasure banks that were accessed on a small scale only, an increasingly fashionable idea, but if so, what the finds evidence seems to be showing us is an Eastern Scandinavian economy that brought in a great deal of coin but seems then to have considerable difficulty doing anything with it, which must make it worth rethinking whether this was in fact about getting rich. So there was a lot of debate. All the same, there is this much that cannot be gainsaid here: we know there was a slave trade, some of this money that we have found must have been paid for slaves, the changes in its deposition probably do reflect a variation in the availability of goods that Islamic merchants would pay for and so there’s a certain horrible plausibility about some of the mechanisms Dr Jankowiak laid out here, even if not whether the forts are part of those mechanisms or not. With that much accepted, if I can bring George Bernard Shaw back in again, we may just be haggling over how much was involved…


1. This intriguing but allusive text was edited by Herwig Wolfram as Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum: das Weissbuch der Salzburger Kirche über die erfolgreiche Mission in Karantanien und Pannonien (Wien 1979) and he seems to have spent a long time since then trying to figure it out, resulting in idem, Salzburg, Bayern, Österreich: die Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum und die Quellen ihrer Zeit, Mitteilungen des Instituts Österreichs für Geschichtsforschung Ergänzungsband 31 (Wien 1995). This is not my area and I’m not going to pretend to have read either of these (I’ve seen quotes from the former), but they exist should you want to.

2. Here I know what I know from Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

3. One possibility, which I understand from Hajnalka may indeed be feasible at some of these sites, could be the kind of analysis of animal bone that Leslie Alcock was able to get done at the very early medieval Welsh site of Dinas Powys, and which showed that the cattle they were getting there were all young animals, not the spread of ages or mostly mature beasts that you’d get from a natural herd, thus showing that the occupiers of the site were probably receiving tribute: see his Dinas Powys: An Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82.

4. For a round-up of the post-Carolingian view of this general area see Matthew Innes, “Franks and Slavs c. 700-1000: the problem of European expansion before the millennium” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 201-216.

5. And indeed since this paper took place she has done, in the form of “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries AD in Central Europe: Structure, Function and Symbolism” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 56 (Leeds 2012), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.1179/0076609712Z.0000000003. I’m not quite clear if this is actually out yet: the journal’s website says the current issue is Vol. 57 (2013) but only gives indices for up to Vol. 55 (2011). In either case I must thank Hajnalka for sending me a preprint version ahead of publication.

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One response to “Seminars CXXV & CXXVI: differing data from the East

  1. Pingback: Seminar CLIII: how ‘Great’ Moravia got that way then stopped | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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