Category Archives: archaeology

Seminar CXLVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

People who know the sad history of archæology as a subject at the University of Birmingham are usually surprised to learn that there still are any archæologists here, but there are, now housed in what is now Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. None are primarily medievalists, however, so while I was a lecturer here I had direct business with them only through teaching (which, indeed, I was repeating only yesterday) or when, on the 18th March 2014, I turned up at the Anthropology Seminar to hear Professor Paul Garwood speaking with the title, “Ashes, Smoke and Fire: rethinking archaeologies of ritual”.1 This was off my usual map in several ways: I’ve not been to an anthropology seminar for years and never this one, there was nothing specifically medieval about the title and it turned out to be much more theoretical than usual for me, but I certainly got some things to think with from it so perhaps you will also.

As Professor Garwood acknowledged, there is a much-mocked but genuine tendency for archæologists to classify objects and contexts they can’t understand as ‘ritual’, which is in some ways a function of a definition of ‘ritual’ as non-functional behaviour; when an object doesn’t have a clear function, therefore… This, as Professor Garwood explained in a painstaking review of the field with due nods to the contributions of anthropological thinking to it, given what seminar he was in, stems from the belief of earlier archæologists that beliefs were not recoverable in material evidence, at least without unusually superb evidence. One of the places anthropology helped to change this was in giving archaæologists a greater appreciation of the rôle of systematised behaviours in orchestrating and regulating societies, which meant that examining things like fires with no cooking or object elements in them, stuff deposited under building foundations or in floors or boundary ditches or similar, could be got at by trying to work out what the rules of this particular system of behaviour were. Nonetheless, we still have people (in all our fields!) saying that ‘ritual’ just isn’t a useful concept because of how much ritual is everyday or even, of course, functional.2 I think, for example, of rituals that are not a specific activity so much as a way or order of doing that activity, like a Japanese tea ceremony, which with no other context might not be archæologically identifiable as anything other than a high-status means of making tea but obviously is.

Teapot, mug and strainer in my kitchen

Even outside the Japanese world, this functional equipment can serve ritual purposes, and anyone who thinks differently has never seen the reverence with which I brew up

So what is needed is some ways to think about ritual as an archæological target that might save it as a concept, and these have been generated, in particular that of seeing it as a performance where as archæologist one is looking not for the matter being communicated by its symobology but its physical outcome, its staging and the environment that guided action in the ways desired; here, recent approaches to Stonehenge are exemplary. Frequency might ideally be a factor here too: was such a setting used so much as to be everyday or was it deliberately unusual and ‘other’? (The tea comparison still makes me think that this isn’t fine enough: I have a couple of teas I will not be able to restock—some Mariage Frères stuff from Rwanda, for example, lovely but now rather hard to get—so that I brew them only when there seems some special reason, but I use the same kit to do so as usual…) Professor Garwood seemed himself to favour an approach he termed ‘chaines opératoires‘, constructing models from the evidence of what the sequence of events and types of object involved had to be for the ritual to ‘work’, so that the technology of the process rather than the outcome remains the target, and that’s certainly easier to approach from finds. (Though would it pick up how important it is to warm the pot and for the milk to go in first?) I found myself inwardly comparing this to Actor Network Theory and similar approaches and liking this better because it left agency clearer, myself, but I understand that those that like ANT do so not least because it spreads agency to the objects, and I suppose that with ritual that is worship, that could be important: look at the big early medieval debate over whether people believed icons themselves did things, after all, and how to stop those people doing so if they did.3 Professor Garwood also recommended a definitional approach in which one looked at the processes in terms of workflow, almost like industrial process analysis: what did people need in what order to do this and what do we find? These approaches could obviously run into one another, but as he said, they do get us out of the basic problem of saying what ritual actually is!4 Free your mind, as they say, and the rest will follow…


1. I don’t know Professor Garwood’s work really, but there are obviously bits of it that could be of interest to medievalists, not least P. Garwood, D. Jennings, R. Skeates and J. Thomas (edd.), Sacred and Profane: Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford, 1989 (Oxford 1991) or P. Garwood, “Rites of Passage” in Timothy Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford 2011), pp. 261-284, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0019.

2. I think straight away of Geoffrey Koziol, “The dangers of polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2002.00116.x but Professor Garwood cited Joanna Brück, “Ritual and Rationality: some problems in interpretation in European archaeology” in European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2 (Leeds 1999), 313-344, DOI: 10.1179/eja.1999.2.3.313 and Ian Hodder, “Triggering post-processual archaeology and beyond” in R. F. Williamson & M. S. Bisson (edd.), The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism (Montreal 2006), pp. 16-24.

3. I came to actor network theory as applied archæologically by Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), historical archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 42-64; I’m not sure what the canonical cites would be for any other uses. As for the debate over icons, you should now see Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), and Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009).

4. As is ineluctable with a paper about theory, there were a great many names flying about and I didn’t catch them all. Those I did I haven’t yet followed up, indeed, but they included, as well as those in n. 2 above, Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques et la technologie” in Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique Vol. 41 (Paris 1948), pp. 71-78, Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton 1980), Victor W. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York City 1982) and idem, The Edge of the Bush: anthropology as experience (Tucson 1985).

Seminar CXLVI: forgetting the Thuringian frontier with Willibald

My seminar reporting backlog now shrinks forwards to 26th February 2014, when Dr John-Henry Clay of Durham, another early medievalist blogger apart from anything else, came to speak to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research with the title, “St Boniface in Thuringia”. Boniface, born in Wessex as Wynfrið, is a saint who provokes strong reactions at the time and still does now: I remember speaking to one revered academic who had the previous day returned from a three-day conference about Boniface and who, in a shocking breach of their usual total refinement, told me that the conference conclusion had been that “Boniface was a bit of a prat”. But equally there are those who find him fascinating, and Dr Clay has done much with the material preserved about him.1 As a missionary and church-builder Boniface spent a lot of time at the edges of ‘known’ territory, anyway, and what Dr Clay had to tell us was one of those edges, the duchy of Thuringia.

Map of the territories of Merovingian Francia

A suitably old-fashioned map of the territories of Merovingian Francia, Thuringia being the long vertical strip at upper right. As long as you realise that this is almost completely hypothetical we’ll be fine. “Frankenreich unter den Merowingern” by Johann Gustav Droysen – Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of our information on Boniface as he is conventionally told comes from a Life written for his successor, Archbishop Lul of Mainz, by one Willibald, and he tells us of Boniface’s religious training in Wessex, an early attempt at a mission to pagan Frisia in 716 defeated by resistance from King Radbod and a subsequent papally-backed mission to Thuringia in 719-721. He shows us Boniface going back to Frisia in 721 and then being in Hesse and Saxony in 723-731, after which point he was more and more concerned with the organisation of the Frankish Church as it developed on the eastern edges of Christianity’s range so far and less and less with mission work.2 He died on the mission trail, however, in 754 in Frisia, aged nearly ninety and clearly, from the letters he wrote setting his affairs in order, aware that he could go on little longer and determined to go out a martyr.3 We can thus temper Willibald’s portrayal with the man’s own words here and there and this all gives a fairly consistent picture, but there are hints in it and in other sources that it is definitely not the whole story.4

Illustrations of Boniface baptising pagans, above, and receiving his martyrdom, below, from the eleventh-century Fulda Sacramentary

Illustrations of Boniface baptising pagans, above, and receiving his martyrdom, below, from the eleventh-century Fulda Sacramentary, a prized treasure of the monastery of Fulda which he had founded. “St Boniface – Baptising-Martyrdom – Sacramentary of Fulda – 11Century” by Unknown – Illustration from the Sacramentary of Fulda (Fuldaer Sakramentar), fol. 126 v. See here for more information on the manuscript.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lots of what is missing is, naturally enough, about Boniface’s opponents. He faces down heretic or just untrained priests and has to fight tooth and nail for their removal and replacement because they are backed by local élites;, and this has been read sensibly enough as a strategy of Frankish colonisation of the local Church with papal support, though as my first paragraph implied and Dr Clay also said, the popes don’t seem to have driven Boniface’s mission so much as support it with judgements and texts as required, when they could find them; Boniface seems to have expected a lot more authority and direction from the papacy than it was used to giving and some of his opponents are also therefore ‘backsliding’ Frankish bishops who didn’t understand why orthodoxy mattered and wouldn’t have looked to the pope for guidance ordinarily.5 But the other figures only just in the picture are the dukes of the Thuringians and the conflict and cultural exchange that was going on between Frankish- and Thuringian-controlled zones behind and outside the ecclesiastical context.

Ruins of the thirteenth-century castle at Frauenberg, Hesse

The ruins of the fortress of Frauenberg in Hesse, this building probably being thirteenth-century but apparently by no means the first on the site… „Frauenberg2wiki“ von Peter Voeth. Original uploader was Die silberlocke at de.wikipedia – Transferred from de.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper.(Original text : selbst photographiert). Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons.

Noting various such omissions and demonstrable errors in Willibald’s account, therefore, Dr Clay brought in data from burial archæology and fortress excavations, or at least, a class of fortresses he sees in the area of which one in Hesse, Frauenberg, has been excavated and diagnosed Frankish by its material culture remains. The picture he got from this was one of a broader Frankicisation of the Thuringian duchy, visible in Frankish burial practices and funerary kit, and, as the reference to local priests above suggests, Christianity, this not least because St Willibrord of Utrecht, with whom Boniface worked in Frisia in 721-723, had run a mission in Thuringia around 714 already, something that Willibald doesn’t mention at all! So as Dr Clay told it what Willibald was doing was to turn a career that had essentially been one of fixing other people’s mission work with intermittent state backing, as part of a larger and ongoing process of Frankish acculturation of a border area, into a sanctified career of personal evangelisation that spearheaded all social change for the better in the area.

There were, I have to say, quite a lot of arguments with this thesis from the audience. I had two, one being that I wasn’t clear if Dr Clay was arguing for immigration from a material culture change—he was arguing for a distinct, Frankish funerary kit in the fortresses, as it turned out, which he therefore saw as military occupation rather than settlement on a broader scale—and the other of which being his diagnostic fortress type, which I could have paralleled quite happily from Pictland and therefore thought needn’t be any more than functional similarity. More excavation might of course show other links, what I would not deny. But there were wider issues about the opposition of Frankish and Thuringian as cultures in the first place, raised not least by Julie Hofmann, by whom the IHR was richer this spring and summer just gone and who knows a thing or two about Thuringia.6 The Thuringian aristocracy was long married into Frankish ones, just like the Bavarian one; whether this was anything more than a political branding exploited as convenient was, for Julie, very much to be doubted. That doesn’t prevent wars arising out of it, of course, as they plainly did, but marrying it to wider shifts in material culture as anything more than fashion, and linking those to other forms of political change is, I tend to think, unprovable.

Kloster Sankt Salvator Fulda

The centre of the cult of Boniface, the monastery of Sankt Salvator Fulda. „Catedral de Fulda“ von Author and original uploader was ThomasSD at de.wikipedia – Originally from de.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Lizenziert unter Public domain über Wikimedia Commons.

Between these two Alice Taylor had asked what was perhaps the sharpest question, which was to wonder what Willibald’s purpose was in all this: Dr Clay said, and this seemed obviously correct once he’d said it, that the Vita was using the holiness of Boniface’s career to justify and sanctify the kinds of action towards Church reform that his successors for whom the text was written were still struggling to carry out. It is, in other words, a text about the politics of the 750s, not those of the 720s, and probably had little interest in being accurate, rather than partial (in both senses) about the earlier period. This was, to an extent, where we had begun, with the problems with Willibald’s Vita, but by now they looked serious enough that I think several of us were uncomfortable with using the text for a picture of the 720s at all. That time was perhaps not long forgotten when Willibald wrote, but having others remember it was apparently not his concern!


1. J.-H. Clay, In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-54, Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages 11 (Turnhout 2011).

2. The Life has been much translated, and Willibald, The Life of Saint Boniface, transl. George W. Robinson (Cambridge 1916) seems now to be all over the Internet to purchase, presumably because it is also online at the Internet Archive for free here; the one I am used to setting for students is that in C. H. Talbot (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Germany, being the lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba, and Libuin, together with the Hodœporicon of St Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St Boniface (London 1954, repr. 1981), pp. 25-62, which is reprinted in Thomas F. X. Noble & Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1995), pp. 107-140, but is also online for free (because copyright-free in the USA) via the Internet Medieval sourcebook here.

3. The letters are translated in Ephraim Emerton (transl.), The Correspondence of Saint Boniface, Records of Civilisation 31 (New York City, but a selection is also in Talbot, Anglo-Saxon Missionaries, pp. 64-149.

4. Cited here was Ian N. Wood, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe 400-1050 (London 2001).

5. This is a perspective that I think I got from Rosamond McKitterick, Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: personal connections and local influences, Eighth Annual Brixworth Lecture, Vaughan Papers 36 (Leicester 1991), repr. in her The Frankish Kings and Culture in the Early Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 477 (Aldershot 1995), I.

6. And we need her to publish some of what she knows! But in the meantime there is no standard work, at least in English, though there is now John Hines, Janine Fries-Knoblach & Heiko Steuer (edd.), The Baiuvarii and Thuringi: an ethnographic perspective, Studies in historical archaeoethnology 9 (Woodbridge 2014).

Link

An insider’s view of Lichfield cathedral

Special Subject Field Trip to Lichfield Cathedral, 19th March 2014: Swords, Hoards and Overlords: Anglo-Saxon England and its Neighbours in the Age of Bede

One of the two courses I ran at Birmingham last year was a two-term option on early Anglo-Saxon England, taken up to more or less the death of Bede. I got handed that remit as part of my contract negotiations and if it had not already been advertised, I think I’d have stretched it to reach King Alfred, but it was still fun, I had an excellent group for it who remained interested throughout, and the person who had designed the initial offering, none other than Peter Darby, had built in two slots for field trips. The first of those was to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to get up close to the Staffordshire Hoard, but the other had not been fixed, so I cast about and thought of Lichfield Cathedral. This was a splendid idea: the chapter did a great job with us, including not just making sure we saw more bits of the Hoard, the St Chad’s Gospels and the Lichfield Angel, but letting us in places others might not get to go. And, since we had been awarded money to cover the travel, the School of History and Cultures demanded a student report on it that they could use for publicity on a specially-created blog, and one of my students, Alex Tweddle, bravely stepped up to write it around my photographs. It took a little while to go online: I didn’t help by thinking it would be best to send the relevant person actual HTML and a ZIP folder of image files, in whose use I then had to train them… It still shows the signs, alas. But since April it’s been up!

Dilbert cartoon for 9th November 1995

I always think of this cartoon in such moments, but had forgotten its medievalist reference point…

Alex’s text is almost embarrassingly fulsome but I’m quite pleased with the photos (one choice one set as header), and it was a marvellous opportunity, so perhaps you’d like to go and have a look?

Seminar CXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, on 2nd November last year I was in a little Northamptonshire town called Brixworth, crowded into its rather splendid church of All Saints with about a hundred other medievalists and interested parties for the annual Brixworth Lecture. Attendance at this was mandatory for me for two reasons, firstly that Birmingham were that year employing me largely to impersonate an Anglo-Saxonist and it would therefore have seemed odd for me not to go, and secondly and perhaps more importantly that the lecture was being given by one of our own, Professor Leslie Brubaker. So there I was, thanks to the good offices of Rebecca Darley in driving us there, and thus I got to hear Professor Brubaker speak to the title, “Byzantium at Brixworth”.

All Saints Brixworth

Wikimedia Commons has a better image than any of the ones I took. This is by Alan Simkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I do wonder what Professor Brubaker’s reaction was when this was first suggested to her, as one thing that students of either side of the divide represented here can say with reasonable confidence is that there were almost no links between Britain and Byzantium after the sixth century. On the other hand, the ones best-documented are probably artistic ones, so, ask an art historian? In any case, Professor Brubaker’s task was made slightly easier by the very recent publication of the new site report for Brixworth, which she thus ran through very quickly setting up quite how much of what we were in was Saxon and what wasn’t. The church seems to have been quite a project: big enough as it stands now, it was bigger when new by virtue of having aisles that have since been removed, which were crowded with side chapels. It was built on a repeating module of 9 m2, with the fourth one being the apse over the crypt, suggesting a relic deposition as its focus. Some of the stone was Roman spolia, too, but not from the nearby villa site but all the way from Leicester, indicating some fairly long-range patronage.1 Since the date now proposed for the church is c. 800, even Professor Brubaker could not resist the temptation to suggest that an obvious patron would be King Offa of Mercia (757-796). I feel this is unfair on King Cœnwulf (796-821), who repaired a lot of Offa’s damage and was also what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’ (albeit not a Byzantine scale, I admit) but gets largely ignored because he wasn’t as bloodthirsty or earthmoving as his predecessor.2 This also got raised by none other than Nicholas Brooks in questions, however, and Professor Brubaker was able rightly to say that even if it wasn’t Offa her argument would still hold up, so, I should tell you her argument.

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

Here is a handy plan showing the original layout, apparently from C. F. Watkins, The Basilica and the Basilican Church of Brixworth (1867) so probably to be taken with some caution but, illustrative. “Original Brixworth Plan“. Original uploader was Simon Webb at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She proceeded essentially by taking a Byzantinist’s view of the church, marking out what seemed familiar or strange, and then wondering how that might be explained. Among the strange were the marks at the door, which she thought might be connected with the liturgy of baptism in which the family waited there to be admitted and the disconnection of the west-work from the rest of the building’s operations (I confess that I don’t now remember what was said to describe this); among the familiar, the crypt and choir as a focus on a relic deposition and the reuse of Roman material. All of this was backed up with images of sites in the Byzantine world which provided good support for the contentions. In a special category, though, were things that would have been familiar some time before the church was built but that would then have looked odd to any contemporary Byzantine visitor. These were the long-nave plan with side chapels, the current Byzantine fashion by 800 having been for a cross-and-square layout, and, especially, the apparent lack of decoration: it seems that Brixworth ran to a tiled floor, maybe, but that otherwise the walls were as plain as they now are.

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

A good photo of the current state of the interior taken by Frank Burns, whose site duly linked through; he gives no copyright notice so I hope attribution will do because it’s a much better picture than any others I could dig up…

The reason that is a live issue, of course, is that between about 750 and 787 the Byzantine empire was in something of a pother about decorative religious imagery, and perhaps no-one is more expert on this than Professor Brubaker.3 This makes me almost afraid to summarise but the big point is that by 800, for the Byzantines, this was over, and painting and colour and so forth were back in. The message seems to have taken a while to reach England though, as the question was still being settled at the Council of Chelsea in 816 (under, we might note, Cœnwulf). So there is a case to be made that Brixworth was responding to Byzantine fashions in art, but if so, it was doing so rather late.

The characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave in All Saints Brixworth

Very blurry picture of the characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave

The probable reason for that is the route cannot easily have been direct. While there are Byzantine parallels for many of the Brixworth features, there are a much more collected set of them in the form of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. Here, especially, we find the triple-arched separation between nave and west-work that I photographed so badly, in which the patron monarch may have sat and watched his congregation but from which, the tower not then being present, he could also have addressed his people outside the building. (That sounds familiar…) But the inspirations at Aachen, while Byzantine, were largely old Byzantine, in the form of Justinian I’s San Vitale di Ravenna. Justinian, at least, also got imitated in England: there was an Alma Sophia in York modelled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though we know very little about it.4 What we are seeing at Brixworth may reflect this second-hand Justinianism, therefore (although, as Professor Brubaker pointed out, what Charlemagne may have been more interested in imitating was King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, Dietrich of song and story). If so, its ideological response to the current worries over imagery may even be more up-to-date than some of its models. I felt that the case for everything reacting at some remove to Byzantium was maybe a little over-stated here—the Anglo-Saxons presumably didn’t miss the Carolingian end of the worry over images, for example, and Professor Brubaker’s suggestion that the new Caroline minuscule script reflected a recent shift to minuscule in the East seemed to me to miss out all the myriad Western pre-Caroline minuscules that it more or less replaced5—but as a reminder that there was, all the same, a very big empire whose issues resounded westwards in the form of ideas and their expression in art at the other end of the Anglo-Saxons’ world this was salutary and enlightening.


1. This is all apparently in David Parsons & Diana Sutherland, The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire: Survey, Excavation and Analysis, 1972-2010 (Oxford 2013).

2. For now the best neutral coverage of Cœnwulf is probably Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Sheffield 2008), pp. 345-413.

3. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011)!

4. It’s described in a poem by Alcuin, translated by Peter Godman as The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford 1983).

5. See Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and David Ganz, “The Preconditions for Caroline Minuscule” in Viator Vol. 18 (Turnhout 1987), pp. 23–43, respectively.

Gallery

Brixworth Church at day’s end

This gallery contains 7 photos.

On Saturday 2nd November last year, for reasons that will probably be obvious to Anglo-Saxonists—in fact if you’re a UK-based Anglo-Saxonist you probably saw me there—I was at Brixworth in Northamptonshire, where people were generally gathered from across the field … Continue reading

Seminar CLXXXVI: making sense of Glastonbury

There are a great many seminars to interest medievalists in London of a term-time, but the two that most usually cross my radar are, of course, the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and the Joint Medieval Seminar of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum. I can’t usually get to both in the same week, but in recent years they have got round this for me (and maybe some others, hey) by coinciding for the first instance of the latter each year in order to host the David Wilson Lecture in Medieval Studies. This year the speaker will be Guy Halsall, which should be fun; last year it was Professor Robert Gilchrist, which certainly was. She was speaking with the title “Glastonbury Abbey: reinterpreting the Anglo-Saxon archaeology”.

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Interior of Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey, looking eastwards

Glastonbury Abbey is of course a site in which many people are interested, for reasons not always critically historical, but it’s certainly of deep academic interest too: largely because of the testimony of William of Malmesbury, it has been held to be the earliest Christian site in Britain, St Patrick’s foothold in England, the first cloister in the country and also a place with pyramids in its cemetery.1 This is, as you can imagine, the kind of stuff that one would hope archæology might be able to check, and indeed the site has been much dug, in more-or-less continuous campaigns from 1904 to 1974, but not very much of that ever got published by any of the eight directors in charge, and what Professor Gilchrist has been doing with her team is working through the extensive surviving notes of the last excavator, C. A. Ralegh Radford, and the remaining finds, and trying to get to the point of a modern synthesis of what has actually been located by all these people.2 (Thus, she hasn’t actually done any digging, but as she said at the outset, since she isn’t an Anglo-Saxonist perhaps it’s best that she hasn’t done any damage…)

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

Ralegh Radford and team in the midst of the Glastonbury excavations

This is, as you can probably imagine, not at all simple. Radford was lone archæologist on his project, which he was doing with a rotating staff of volunteers well into retirement, and all the notes were apparently kept in his spare room and occasionally turfed off the bed to accommodate guests! He had done all his digging as narrow trenches across the site, never dug beyond the precinct and thus wound up with a very complex set of findings. This was further complicated by the fact that he was also doing the same job of synthesis with the earlier digging, which had been larger-scale and open-plan but not necessarily so well-informed (and Radford was, at least, informed by a full lifetime of digging Anglo-Saxon sites). So, he never dug the churches, but reinterpreted the findings of the previous archæologists, which had also never been fully published… It’s turtles all the way down.

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Tourist map of the Glastonbury Abbey site

Anyway, what Radford thought he had drawn from all this was a site of pagan or Celtic origins (despite his having no material he’d identified as earlier than eighth-century!), largely because he thought he’d found a vallum (a rampart marking a monastic precinct, usually reckoned Irish practice), on which a series of early churches were built with a cemetery in use from the seventh to tenth century, then a big rebuild under St Dunstan in the tenth century, including the cloister and many extra buildings of which one at least was a glass workshop. Reevaluation of this produces some interesting results: actually, Radford did have pre-eighth-century remains, late Roman pottery of the fifth and sixth century not recognised as such, and the glass he’d found which he took to be Dunstan’s era’s is actually very late seventh-century, and so probably relates not to Dunstan but to the endowment of the abbey by King Ine of Wessex that is its earliest documentation.3 The vallum also seems to date to the seventh century, from what little there is to date it with. But there are also signs of Dunstan’s work, too, including perhaps canalising the river to supply the abbey’s water. What there isn’t is a cloister: the sections that Radford had taken to be part of one don’t date consistently and would if joined up be about the hugest cloister that ever was. As for the cemetery, that shows no good sign of use before the eleventh century, although there are some cist graves (of that period!) with material heaped up round them that might just have been whatever William was describing as pyramids, and between them, where he said the body of King Arthur was found, there was apparently at least a really big hole dug somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth century…

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

Supposed location of the tomb of King Arthur on the abbey site, pyramids not shown

So, in so far as we can give a synthesis yet, it might go like this. If there is a pre-Christian site at Glastonbury, it’s probably on the Tor, where late Roman pottery has been recovered, though that still doesn’t make religious activity up there any earlier than the current St Michael’s.4 The earliest church, in fact, was probably not there or on the abbey site, but at Street nearby. Down where the abbey now is, though, we have some evidence for fifth- and sixth-century occupation, in timber buildings that might qualify as halls, and this may even be what the vallum relates to, so, not a monastery at all then but some kind of fort like an Irish dún It was presumably in fact a royal vill, since King Ine was able to endow a church here in the seventh century, and we can be pretty sure that church had glazed windows. No sign of St Patrick sadly, though as Professor Gilchrist pointed out the wattle church of his date that William of Malmesbury records had not only burnt by William’s time, but would also have been archæologically eradicated by the current Lady Chapel, so we can never say it wasn’t there… The church that was, however, seems to have been two separate chapels on what is a common pattern for early English churches, which were as at Canterbury subsequently joined together in rebuilding, and this perhaps in the tenth century, when the site seems to get a general kick up the material scale; most of the small finds are of that period or later. Before St Dunstan, it’s hard to see very much going on here at all, and King Ine’s best attempt may not have been very long-lasting. There is also the strong possibility that the core of the site of that period was off to the north and just hasn’t been dug, however! Anyway, despite these interruptions to its noble spiritual history, the evidence for sub-Roman occupation here is actually better than Radford thought, and if it doesn’t tell us about continuity, when put in its wider context it might tell us about the shift of focus and use in a settled area during the period of sub-Roman collapse, as well as the early Saxon church later on. So apparently now Professor Gilchrist is quite keen to do some digging after all! We can but hope…

Route up to Glastonbury Tor viewed from bottom of steps

To finish with some stairs… the Tor and St Michael, viewed from (well) below


1. William of Malmesbury, De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, transl. Frank Lomax as The Antiquities of Glastonbury (London 1906 repr. Llanerch 1992).

2. F. B. Bond, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations”, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 72 (Taunton 1926) pp. 13-22; Theodore Fyfe, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1926″, ibid. pp. 20-22; idem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1927″, ibid. vol. 73 (1927) pp. 86-87; C. R. Peers, A. .W. Clapham & E. Horne, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1928″, ibid. Vol. 74 (1928) pp. 1-9; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1929″, ibid. Vol. 75 (1929), pp. 26-33; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations, 1930-31″, ibid. Vol. 77 (1931), pp. 83-85; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1932″, ibid Vol. 78 (1932), pp. 109-110; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1933″, ibid. Vol. 79 (1933), p. 30; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1934″, ibid. Vol. 80 (1934), pp. 32-35; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1937″, ibid. Vol. 83 (1937), pp. 153-154; eidem, “Glastonbury Abbey excavations 1938″, ibid. Vol. 84 (1938), pp. 134-136; C. A. Ralegh Radford, “Excavations at Glastonbury, 1954″ in Antiquity Vol. 29 (London 1955), pp. 33-34; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1955″ in Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset Vol. 27 (Wells 1958), pp. 68-73; idem, “The excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1956-7″, ibid., pp. 165-169; and finally, synthesizing the lot, idem, “Glastonbury Abbey before 1184: interim report on the excavations, 1908-1964″ in Medieval Art and Architecture at Wells and Glastonbury, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 4 (London 1981), pp. 110-134, supplemented later on by Humphrey Woods, “Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey 1987-1993″, Proceedings of the Somerset Natural History and Archaeological Society Vol. 138 (1994), pp. 7-73 & Oliver Kent, “Ceramic finds from archaeological excavation at Glastonbury Abbey, 1901-1979″, ibid. Vol. 140 (1997) pp. 73-104 with corrections Vol. 141 pp. 221-231. That is a total of eighty pages, more or less, with another hundred or so on the finds in the later two articles. Not so much to show for nearly as many years’ work…

3. Susan Kelly (ed.), Charters of Glastonbury Abbey, Anglo-Saxon Charters 15 (Oxford 2012), presumably no. 1, but I don’t know as the Electronic Sawyer hasn’t yet caught up with this publication.

4. See Philip Rahtz & Lorna Watts, Glastonbury: Myth & Archaeology (Stroud 2003) for details of the Tor digs and the wider landscape.

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.