Category Archives: archaeology

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

Gallery

Seven men in a high castle

This gallery contains 26 photos.

The last of the Côte d’Azur tourist posts is also the largest and the most academic. Our final trip destination was a place called Roquebrune-Cap Martin, whither we were lured by the promise of a tenth-century castle. This was actually … Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes': the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306″
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading

Next stop Iceland?

This post is about pre-Viking settlement in the North Atlantic, and here specifically the Faroe Islands. I originally stubbed this in September 2013, when I came across a relevant web report on Melissa Snell’s medieval history blog at About.com, but since that time it seems that they’ve stopped keeping archives over there, so that post is now gone. Actually this is good news, because it forced me to web-search out other reports, and the obvious one, on Nature World News, also includes a link to the actual article behind it all, so now I can write you something informed.1

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain, and shamelessly plundered from a Faroes tourism site, linked through

The story is that new research proves that the Vikings were not the first colonisers of the Faroes. This, and the fact that this was being published in an geoscience rather than a specifically archæological or historical journal, gave me some faint worries about sensationalisation of research meant to prove other things, as we have seen here many times before, but in this case, as far as I can see, it’s the real deal. The team in question were doing a low-urgency rescue dig on a coastal site in danger of erosion at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy in 2002 and 2006. The site had been dug once before in 1994 and had then shown a Viking longhouse at the bottom of its occupation sequence (which subsequently went all the way up to the 19th century, always on the same spot, not least, as the article says, because there just aren’t that many sensible places to put settlements on the Faroes).2 This time they located the long-house’s hearth, and then they kept going and found more beneath. It wasn’t much more, just peat ash with carbonised barley grains in it, but this is significant for two reasons: firstly, barley isn’t native to the Faroes, and secondly, peat-burning requires usually months of cutting, stacking and drying, and thus implies prolonged settlement, not just drop-in visits. And they duly had radio-carbon analysis done on the barley grains and got the figures you see below.

Calibration graph and stratigraphical context of the radio-carbon samples from Á Sondum, Sandoy

From Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dougmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 230, larger version linked through

There are some things I don’t fully understand about this, mainly because to get these dates they used not individual samples but a combined sample, whose results were mathematically combined using a ‘weighted mean’. Well, weighted how? I feel we should be told more about this.3 Still, unless it was actually weighted outside the sample dates, which would be some strange new definition of ‘mean’ of which I was not previously aware, the results still seem fairly inarguable: two straigraphically separate episodes older than the Viking site by between half a century and three centuries. I feel that a mean critic might be able to handwave away the more recent result, given it was right under the hearth and the dates could just about overlap, but the older one is much harder to get around, which gives one that bit more confidence in the younger one.

A forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland

An even more forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland, apparently being slowly washed away by glacial outwash, as presented in Albert C. Hine, Jon Boothroyd & Dag Nummedal, “Glacial Outwash Plain Shoreline, South-Central Iceland”, Beach of the Month, Coastal Care 1st August 2013, linked through

So, OK, what does this all mean? Well, most obviously it means that someone was on Sandoy burning peat and scattering its ash on the shoreline well before the Vikings got there (and the study is extremely careful to emphasise that we have no idea who). What our authors are most excited about is that there were, previously, very small signs of pre-Viking occupation in the palaeobotanical record (which is to say, barley pollen had been found before in a hard-to-date but potentially early context4), and that having been able to pin it down with actual digging like this has big implications for other island chains where such out-of-place floral data has turned up but been dismissed. But it also made them think of what it makes me think of, which is an old question about whether anyone got to Iceland before the Vikings. There are stories about this in the texts, firstly bewildering seafaring fantasies like the Irish Navigatio Sanctio Brendani, in which Brendan and his monks find a series of fantastic islands in the Western Ocean while in search of Paradise, which they duly locate and are allowed to stop in for a bit before turning for home to spread the good word.5 Much effort has been spent on pinning actual Atlantic islands into his tale, but, to be cynical again, one might as well try the same exercise with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the islands are equally allegorical in both texts.6 But there is also the Íslendingabók of Ari Thorgillson, ‘The Book of the Icelanders’, in which Ari reports that the first Viking settlers on Iceland found white-clad men they called ‘papar’ there who fled before the Norsemen, leaving behind croziers and bells.7 That looks so like the kind of people St Brendan actually led that it’s usually been assumed these were Irish religious taking the spiritual exile thing unusually seriously. But there is no archæological evidence to show that Ari was doing anything more than making this up by extrapolation from stories about the Western Isles of Scotland or similar. The archæologists here are suitably cautious about fitting these older debates around their findings:

“Who were these earlier settlers, how many of them were there and where did they come from? Were they single ecclesiastical anchorites as described by Dicuil from Ireland, Late Iron Age groups of colonists from Atlantic Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia? Did they continue on to Iceland, or did the Faroes represent a temporary diasporal bottle-neck, requiring later Viking seafaring technology to be able to sail to Iceland and Greenland, and importantly to sail back? To answer these questions, more and better-preserved pre-Viking Faroese archaeological sites need to be identified, excavated and analysed.”8

To that, I would only say that the Vikings’ seafaring technology was perfected well before the Viking disapora started, so that might not be the significant limitation, but the Faroes radio-carbon dates are still very early and the authors’ caution here is absolutely commendable.9 What they do do, however, is establish an excellent idea of where to look for such remains in island contexts, and that gives me hope that Iceland might, indeed, be the next stop, just because it would be fun finally to have some kind of archæology to set against Ari’s stories. I’ll let the authors of the article have the last word, though, because they have bigger things in mind than my antiquarianism, and will myself just finish by saying that I wish all science publications with historical impact could manage it as well as these writers have:

“This detailed examination at the base of coastal erosion archaeological sections was successfully used to identify the first archaeological sites of Mesolithic date in the Western Isles of
Scotland. A similar palynological argument for early human settlement was proposed for the ‘invisible Mesolithic’ of the Western Isles, where small-scale clearance episodes evident in pre-Neolithic pollen sequences, coupled with a rise in microscopic charcoal, led researchers to suggest that hunter-gatherer fire ecology accounted for these disturbances, despite the lack of any Mesolithic archaeological sites in the island chain. In the Faroes and the Western Isles of Scotland, small-scale perturbations in pollen sequences were interpreted as ephemeral human occupation events in periods prior to the orthodox landnám ['land-taking'] events attested by the substantial settlement record of structures, dating to the Viking and Neolithic periods respectively. In both cases, the palaeoecological interpretations were eventually proved to be correct on discovery of ephemeral archaeological remains of pre-landnám date at the base of large coastal erosion archaeological sections and this raises intriguing issues about perturbations in palaeoenvironmental sequences prior to orthodox landnám chronological horizons in other island systems elsewhere in the North Atlantic and across the world, as in the Pacific."10


1. Mike J. Church, Símun V. Arge, Kevin J. Edwards, Philippa L. Ascough, Julie M. Bond, Gordon T. Cook, Steve J. Dockrill, Andrew J. Dugmore, Thomas H. McGovern, Claire Nesbitt, Ian A. Simpson, “The Vikings were not the first colonizers of the Faroe Islands” in Quartnerary Science Reviews Vol. 77 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 228-232, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.011. Assigning author order on that must have taken nearly as long as the project itself…

2. Ibid. pp. 228-230; the previous dig, led by the second author here, seems not to have been published.

3. Rather than tell us about it, they refer to two other studies, P. J. Ashmore, “Radiocarbon dating: avoiding errors by avoiding mixed samples” in Antiquity Vol. 73 (Edinburgh 1999), pp. 124-130, which you’ll notice is a vote against doing this, and Ascough, Cook & Dugmore, “North Atlantic marine 14C reservoir effects: Implications for late-Holocene chronological studies” in Quarternary Geochronology Vol. 4 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 171-180, DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.12.002, which presumably isn’t.

4. Here they cite a whole rook of stuff, the most recent of which is K. J. Edwards & D. M. Borthwick, “The pollen content of so-called ‘ancient’ field systems in Suethuroy, Faroe Islands, and the question of cereal cultivation” in S.-A. Bengtson, P. C. Buckland, P. H. Enckell & A. M. Fosaa (edd.), Dorete – Her Book – Being a Tribute to Dorete Bloch and to Faroese Nature, Annales Societatis Scientiarum Færoensis, Supplementum LII (Tørshavn 2010), pp. 96-116.

5. I’m not sure what the preferred edition of the Navigatio is these days but in trying to find out I have found Guy Vincent (ed.), “Navigation de Saint Brendan : texte latin et traduction”, http://www.utqueant.org/net/doc.3.Bren.II.html, last modified 24th October 2005 as of 26th August 2014, which will probably do. There is a good English translation in J. F. Webb (transl.), Lives of the Saints (Harmondsworth 1965), pp. 31-68, repr. in D. H. Farmer (ed./transl.) & Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (Harmondsworth 1983), pp. 231-267 even though the text is likely from a century after Bede.

6. There are various studies on the Atlantic world implied by the text in John W. De Courcy & David Sheehy (edd.), Atlantic Visions (Dun Laoghaire 2009), which I will admit straight up I have never seen but just now pulled out of a database; any other suggestions?

7. There seems to be an edition of Íslendingabók by Guðni Jónsson online here but I have no idea how good it is; again, any better references would be appreciated. The standard translation, Siân Grønlie (transl.), Íslendingabók; Kristni Saga. The Book of the Icelanders; The Story of the Conversion (London 2006), pp. 3-34, is online here in PDF.

8. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

9. Jan Bill, “Ships and Seamanship” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 182-201.

10. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

Cat of four silver tails

The last few posts’ illustrations have been extremely manuscript-heavy. I make no apology for that but all the same some variety is nice: what do you make of this?

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

Silver scourge from the ninth-century Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410.4

I think it’s fair enough to say you don’t see this every day, even if you work at the British Museum, since it’s in store, but also because it’s pretty much unique. It was part of a hoard of silver objects found in 1774 in a streambed running out of some tin workings at Trewhiddle in Cornwall, these objects having come to be the types of a particular style of Anglo-Saxon metalwork which they embody, but this scourge is not really in the style since, as you can see, it’s hardly ornamented at all. It’s very fine: what you’re looking at is strands of silver chain held together by loops and broken out into four strands with plaited lumps at the ends, and a loop at the other end, presumably for hanging the thing up? But it’s not sophisticated, and it seems to raise a lot of questions, not the least of which is what it was for.

Items from the Trewhiddle Hoard, Britism Museum 1880,0410

The rest of the hoard items as now conserved. I count a chalice, two buckles, three lengths of ornamented silver strip (two curved, all toothed), three silver pennies (one in fragments), a hook-tag, one sword-pommel, two diamond-shaped mounts, two strap-ends, the scourge and the two bits that look like fragments of some apparatus of rods at top-left, including the one with the peculiar dodecahedral termination. But there was more! British Museum 1880,0410.

Now, OK, you might think the answer to that is obvious: it’s a scourge, it’s for hitting people. But really? It’s silver. I don’t have a lot of experience myself with whips and flails but from what talking I’ve done with people who do, I’m pretty sure this would draw blood if used in any kind of anger, and blood is hard enough to get out of most things, let alone plaited silver wire. Anyone who owns any silver will know how hard it is to stop it taking a tarnish; now count that difficulty strand by strand and tie them all together… I don’t know what one would have cleaned silver with in the early Middle Ages: I guess a pad of wool soaked in urine would get most stuff off, but what you’d polish up with afterwards that would stop the effects of even that mild acid I’m not sure at all. If this had ever been used to strike people with, even if then cleaned, I’m pretty sure the ends would be blackened in a way that even the best metals conservators couldn’t remedy, at least after nine hundred years in the Cornish ground to finish the job.

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

A depiction of of the god Osiris from the tomb of Seti I, with crook and flail

So, OK, if it’s not for use it must by symbolic, right? And indeed my son, when I described it to him, immediately thought of the flail borne by the Egyptian pharaoh in depictions, presumably (though not certainly) to symbolise his power to punish. And that makes extrinsic sense but in an Anglo-Saxon context, as Trewhiddle is usually seen, it’s still weird, because in Anglo-Saxon law corporal punishment is really something done only to slaves. Freemen paid fines, or were reduced to slavery if they couldn’t, and anyone who had slaves had the right of punishment over them, so there was nothing exclusive about it worth symbolising in silver, or so it seems to me. But on the other hand we are not necessarily in an Anglo-Saxon context here. The hoard is no longer complete: when found, as well as the items depicted above, there were some things now lost and a lot of coins whose dates make a deposition date of around 868 seem likely. That was of course a reasonable time for hiding treasure, in as much as there were large numbers of Vikings about, but the goods also send mixed signals, as the British Museum website now points out.

“The accompanying metalwork presents an intriguing mixture of ecclesiastical and secular material, and in addition to its obvious and predominant Anglo-Saxon components includes one brooch of Celtic origin.”

That brooch was I guess not wholly of silver and thus now stored somewhere else in the BM? In any case, it’s not obviously in the picture borrowed above. But, aside from the odd bits of broken stuff, there are some unique things. One is the scourge, which seems to have attracted really very little commentary, but the chalice is another, the only known Anglo-Saxon silver chalice says the BM website (though it also says that the interior was gilded), and its best parallels all come from Ireland. And all this reminds me that this hoard was in Cornwall, which had at this point been under definitive Anglo-Saxon control only for a generation or so but which prior to that had been the rump of the British kingdom of Dumnonia. While it’s absolutely true that much of the material in the hoard is culturally or at least artistically Anglo-Saxon, other symbol libraries were surely available in this area, and that scourge is so simple of manufacture that it’s pretty hard to date… It could be a deal older than some of the other things in the hoard. Is there, I wonder, anything in Welsh or Cornish myth that gives a whip or scourge some important rôle? Early medieval Welsh law, in so far as we really have it, is firstly still supposed to be later than this and secondly just as compensation-focused as the Anglo-Saxon ones, but I wonder if some royal or ex-royal family had a story about themselves that made this tool an important thing to display…


I stubbed this post when I met this item in Leslie Webster & Janet Backhouse (edd.), The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon art and culture AD 600-900 (London 1991), no. 246 (b), and that’s still quite informative but the website link I’ve given here has all that material and more up-to-date references, so I see no point in my usual array of footnotes for once…

How to protect yourself from feudal violence, and other links

Today there is only time for a links post, I’m sorry about that. But happily I had most of one ready in the backlog drawer, and they’re all of reasonable moment.

A late-eleventh-century underground refuge site at Bléré Val-de-Cher, seen from above during excavation

The refuge site at Bléré Val-de-Cher, seen from above during excavation

Firstly, while I was still reading other blogs (a habit to which I hope to return), Archaeology in Europe fed me this link to Past Horizons, who had a report on an archæological site in Bléré-Val-de-Cher, an area much disputed between the counts of Blois and Anjou in the late eleventh century, which turns out to be the date of a cooking pot they’ve retrieved from an underground chamber beneath the floor of a house there. It looks pretty inarguably like a hidey-hole and there are some great pictures. But was it a peasants’ last resort (in which case that’s a lot of digging, guys, well done) or if not, whose?

Aerial view of Farfa Abbey

Aerial view of Farfa Abbey

Then one of my old Oxford students, fellow frontierist Rodrigo García-Velasco, pointed me at this new virtual tour of the Abbey of Farfa, with 360° views of many of its more impressive chambers (though those need Quicktime). Granted not very much of it is still Carolingian but there is Romanesque enough to keep me happy and I gather some later architectural movements may also have had a trick or two up their sleeves that are visible here.

Portrait denier of Charlemagne

Portrait denier of Charlemagne

And then lastly, a work of great moment, the Kings College London project The Making of Charlemagne’s Europe, which as you may know from such august blogs as Magistra et Mater has been striving to get all charter material from the territories ruled by Charlemagne generated during his reign into a database for prosopographical, micro-historical and generally historiographical reasons, has now tentatively gone live to the web. They explain what they’re doing, report on a conference the project ran earlier this year and also, of course, have a blog. And where else are you going to find Jinty Nelson blogging? So I recommend you take a look! I’ve linked it from the sidebar as well, so you can always do it later…

Seminar CLXXX: hiding English coins in tenth-century Rome

One good paper about travel to Rome deserves another, or something; five days after hearing Lizzie Boyle tell us about Irish clerics whose journies to Rome went awry, on 27th May 2013 I was listening to my old colleague Rory Naismith addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Peter’s Pence and Beyond: the Forum Hoard and Anglo-Roman monetary relations in the Middle Ages”. The hoard in question here is 870 silver pennies and a gold solidus found in digging in the Forum of Rome in 1883. The digger was looking for the house of the Vestal Virgins so went pretty much straight through the later building between Santa Maria Antiqua and San Silvestro in Lacu where the coins turned up, so they have had only the most cursory publication up till now; Rory and colleagues are now changing that and he was in Oxford to tell us more about it.1

I guess about the middle of this picture...

The composition of the hoard first: the solidus is one of Emperor Theophilus (829-842), and among the silver there are five Continental pieces, one of Emperor Berengar I (915-924) from Pavia and the others from Pavia, Strasbourg, Regensburg and Limoges.2 The rest is Anglo-Saxon pennies of all the kings from Athelstan (924-939) to Edmund (939-946) barring six from the mint of Viking York. The whole thing seems to have been in a bag of some kind because also found were two silver hooked-tags that could have been fasteners and seem to bear the garbled name of Pope Marinus II (942-946), and when it came up it was all in a cooking pot.3 A 940s assemblage date thus seems pretty obvious, but Athelstan’s contribution makes up nearly half of the English stuff even though it would have been in circulation the longest, and should, we might think, have been withdrawn by this time.

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

A silver penny of Athelstan naming him as King of All Britain, from the London mint

London is the mint best represented, and that is where the die-links are most frequent, suggesting that coins from there had circulated less than the others, but a sixth of the coins are from Midlands mints and another sixth from even further afield. Rory thought that this probably represented the circulation available in London or close by around that time, and pointed out that Bishop Theodred of London, who died 942×951, had been to Rome and bequeathed stuff he’d bought in Pavia, among a sum of wealth from which 870 pennies would hardly have been significant.4 Whether that constitutes a smoking gun or not, if this was circulation (and we have very few southern English hoards of this period from which to judge, they’re actually more frequent in Italy!) if this was the coin doing the rounds in 940s London the Anglo-Saxon coinage system was some way off its later level of regulation. I also don’t see how we can rule out that the owner of these coins wasn’t adding stuff or even taking stuff out as he moved, so there are difficulties with interpretation still, but it’s still a good chunk of evidence for money use somewhere!

Inscribed hooked-tags from the Forum Hoard

The hooked-tags from the hoard, inscribed +DOMNO MA and RINO PAPA, a matching pair. Blunt, Okasha and Metcalf, Pl. VIII.

The question that follows, however, is that with any hoard: why did someone bring it where it was found, put it there and then not come back for it? The last one of these can almost never be answered, and here the second one was hard to answer too — opinions varied on whether this was a run-down or busy part of tenth-century Rome and the most that could be agreed was that it would have been hard to be unobserved, while the actual location doesn’t seem to have been part of the precinct of any active churches — but with the first there are two obvious suggestions. The first is that this was a pilgrim’s gift, and the custom-made fastening does make it look like a votive offering; if so, however, it obviously never got given! The second, which has the same problem, connects to the tax of Rory’s title, ‘Peter’s Pence‘, a levy on the English for the support of the papacy which is canonically blamed on either King Offa of Mercia or King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but which is otherwise hard to demonstrate in operation before the time of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016). This seems too early, therefore, and in any case it’s nothing like as much as a Peter’s Pence payment would presumably have been: Rory said that it matches about one-third of what Berkshire paid in the time of Domesday Book, in which case where’s the rest?

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

A Pavia denaro of King Berengar I

It was the closing points that probably interested me the most, though, sometimes-numismatist as I suppose I am. These were about the use of money in tenth-century Italy. This seems to have been quite restricted. A full quarter of early medieval coins found in Italy have been English ones. The papal coinage is only ephemerally preserved. However, from the 970s onwards the royal coinage of Pavia seems to have had some kind of a renascence; it rises in find frequency to drown out both English and papal issues. This being Western Europe’s most urbanised area, it seems improbable that there wasn’t money of some kind in use in markets; the English stuff however seems to have been what one hoarded (presumably because it was well-known to be better). In that case, should someone have just stolen this bag meant for Pope Marinus from Bishop Theodred or whoever, and then found it full of English coin, stashing it somewhere out of the way where they could take coins from it few by few, and not getting very far with that before some mishap befell them, still seems a perfectly possible outcome. We will never know: but lost precious metal really seems to pique the popular interest, and in cases like this it’s not hard to see why!


1. I suppose it depends what you mean by cursory: there’s D. M. Metcalf, “The Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 62 (London 1992), pp. 62-96, online here.

2. These details, except the attribution to Berengar, are from ibid.; Rory mentioned the Theophilus solidus but called the others ‘Frankish'; the Berengar attribution came out in questions.

3. The tags have been published in James Graham-Campbell & Elisabeth Okasha, with Michael Metcalf, “A Pair of Inscribed Anglo-Saxon Hooked Tags from the Rome (Forum) Hoard of 1883″ in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 20 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 221-229.

4. His will is edited in Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge 1930), no. 1, and translated in eadem (transl.), English Historical Documents vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 106.