Tag Archives: archaeology

Archaeology, peasants, women: links from the fringes

I have little of my own to add just now—the Leeds paper is taking my attention but you’ve heard what I have to say about that stuff here before—so let me instead draw your attention to a few interesting archæogical reports and other things of interest on the web this day that I write.


Peasants and women

It’s approximately 15 years now since I studied the Peasants’ Revolt in any detail, and at first I thought a recent post by Bavardess was merely a worthwhile little reminder about the sequence of events. Actually, having done that, it goes much deeper into the scholarship by asking a very simple and damning question: the sources for the Peasants’ Revolt are full of women, where are they in the scholarship? And, well, I was slightly knocked back because I know that in the sources I got, they didn’t really appear and while I’m used to the idea that history teaching is gendered this is still pretty fierce. So I recommend a read of Bavardess’s post to rebalance yourself if you were taught similarly.

It’s odd that this comes at the same time that a vocal female reaction is making itself heard on parts of the web I pass near to a recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times about the disappearance of ‘traditional’ history courses in the USA. It did cross my mind that I have seen such material termed ‘boy history’ in the past, and Claire Potter at Tenured Radical picks up the opposite end of the stick, shows that the first end is on fire and in your face and suggests that such laments and worries are principally caused by men on the defensive at a slightly greater incidence of women among the faculty. The figures she gives suggest that this defensiveness is, to say the least, well into no-man’s land and that the entrenchments of the establishment are still pretty safe for now. (Though it might have made her case stronger if, er, she’d read the figures that the target article presents…)

1381, 2009, who’s counting? Some men writing history are still scared of women with agency. This is one of those continuities between medieval and modern I wouldn’t mind disappearing. (And that’s intransitive, not transitive.) I suppose that a positive change is to be seen in the fact that now some women are also angrily defensive about such fears making rumour or even policy, but in words quoted about something else entirely by Maximilian Forte at Open Anthropology at the same sort of time, “it is clear that non ah we ent arrive as yet“.

Tintagel newly Arthurable

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

I like to think I’m current on this blog, but sometimes I have these moments where I am left to go, how did that get past me at the time? There is but small comfort, in this case, in learning that UK archæological magazine Current Archaeology is also a bit behind the times. Anyway, it was news to me, and I promised a post to Michelle at Heavenfield after mistakenly correcting hers on the place, maybe it’s news to you: there was probably a royal residence at Tintagel somewhen in the fifth to seventh centuries that might make a plausible setting for some Arthurian Dark Age warlord’s court, and the archaeology justifying assertions like this was published in 2007. Now Current Archaeology are reporting on it in what appears to have been their last issue for 2008.1 The new issue is just catching up with that Orkney stack that yielded a King Edgar penny that I mentioned before, too. Anyway…

A while ago someone asked me about Arthur and Tintagel and the result was one of my pub history rants, because Arthur is a subject about which British early medievalists get asked only slightly less than the Vikings, in my experience at least. At that point I didn’t know much about Tintagel and was still working with what I’d been told about it as a major import centre, but not really a secular power centre.2 I should have wondered about that, because whereas Anglo-Saxon trading sites of that period tend to be associated with, but not at, secular power centres, British and sub-Roman ones are very often at castles, though there is an extent to which we know about them because we dig obvious, visible castles more than eroded beaches and riverside fields. Dinas Powys and its massive assemblage of Mediterranean pottery, to which the Leslie Alcock book I have written about here so much adds several northern parallels, should have warned me there was probably a power presence here too.3 Well, turns out that a team from Glasgow (Glasgow again! They do shedloads up there) has been working on expanding that since 1990, with help indeed from television, helicopters and submarines, and indeed cunning use of your FWSE of choice will find them explaining this to The Heroic Age, so I don’t really have an excuse for not knowing. It’s their work that Current Archaeology is expounding. The web version gives you only a preview, and the eight-page feature with a great many gorgeous photos is actually pretty in-depth cover for CA though the lack of detail about the dating evidence is still very frustrating.

So what do they say? In brief, they detected lots that the earlier excavations weren’t subtle enough to find, making the picture on the near-island a great deal busier, and divided it on the basis of radio-carbon dates (calibrated; I suppose if I want them uncalibrated I better read the report) into three phases, centering on 395X460 CE, 415X535 and 560X670. That is to say, after some probably late fifth-century disuse it was revived in the sixth century and at that stage it was pretty large, the fortress wall (previously thought to belong to the high medieval castle but now dated by `unequivocal’ evidence to the fifth-seventh centuries) being greater in length even than South Cadbury, which has been generally associated with Camelot in legend since the seventeenth century. Although he later regretted it, Leslie Alcock observed when reporting on Cadbury that so large a perimeter implied a warlord who could gather enough men to defend it all, as any part undefended would have made a defence of any kind pointless.4 Tintagel, in its extremely isolated position, would be a lot harder to assault, but for all that some similar argument can be made. So yes, it’s a power centre, presumably for the kingdom of Dumnonia. The excavators do stress that it may not have been fully occupied for most of the year, which is fine with me, but when it was, it apparently had to hold a lot of people and they bought and used Mediterranean pottery, implying Mediterranean food and drink imported, and generally acted like Romans more than a bit. Whether Arthur fits into that depends very much on when you consider him to have maybe existed: if I was going to I’d wonder about the second phase more, but really I don’t think this is a worthwhile exercise.

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

Now, speaking of things that aren’t worthwhile exercises, have a look at this. This is a further piece of the argument for a royal centre here. I don’t think they need it; Gildas would have called anyone able to fill this place a tyrannus which makes them what we can call a king without worrying too much. Saying which king might be a bit much, but this stone is supposed to tell us more along those lines. It came out of a drain where it had been recycled as a cover in some later phase of occupation. If you can see the inscriptions scratched into it, the smaller lower ones are supposed by epigraphers to be later, and list some Latinised Celtic-sounding names, Paternus, Coliauus, Artognou, Col… again. The upper part, the big wild letters over-running what is now the edge, have been read as H A V G, and that has been expanded by no less a figure than Charles Thomas as H[onorius] Aug[ustus], that is the name of the Emperor contemporary with the first phase of medieval occupation here, which also apparently fits the lettering style. From this we are asked to believe that some Roman authority was still operative here then, hanging on to the tin trade, and that the later names are kings associating themselves with that remnant of Imperial power and renown.5 Well, I’m not alone in being sceptical about this—heck, I’m famous for being sceptical, right? I don’t want to argue with Charles Thomas about the reading, even though that `V’ has tails that mean that I would, untrained, read it as an `X’, and others have suggested that it should really be read [M]AXE… and therefore refer to someone called Maxentius. That would not be an emperor unless the lettering is earlier than Thomas supposes, as Emperor Maxentius died in 312, but it might be someone wanting to sound like an emperor. I like that better, because this is clearly not official inscription, it’s all over the place; this is graffiti. If Thomas is right, which he probably is given who he is, I agree that it means that someone cared who was emperor and I also agree that the names on it were probably people who wanted to sign up with the Empire’s memory somehow, but I don’t think that the messy look of the stone means anything like as serious as CA seem to be suggesting.

Of course, for some people the real news was that `Artognou’ as a name is sort of like Arthur. I don’t buy it myself, and again as I say I am not alone. But since I first wrote anything about Tintagel in answer to the question of evidence associating him with the place, and this time the dating would fit better, I think I owe it to the person to whom I then tried to give chapter and verse to keep up to date here.

1. Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007), reported on in eidem, “What is Tintagel?” in Current Archaeology no. 227 (London 2008), pp. 22-29. I’m not quite sure about the excavators being the authors of the CA article, however; they’re named as “source” which suggests that the actual presentation is down to the editor, Andrew Selkirk, or one of his team, which might explain some of the stranger things it says (see n. 5 below).

2. Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993). The CA article actually gives quite a good run-down on the earlier interpretation as a monastic trading centre, based on digs by C. A. Ralegh Radford in the 1950s.

3 Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.

4. Idem, “Excavations at Cadbury-Camelot” in Antiquity Vol. 46 (London 1972), pp. 29-38; see also idem, Arthur’s Britain (London 1971), pp. 219-224 & 347-349, disowned in idem, Kings & Warriors, p. 5. Cf. idem, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 58 (London 1982), pp. 355-388, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare.

5. Barrowman, Batey & Morris, “What is Tintagel?”, pp. 27-29. It’s not clear to me that this is genuinely Thomas’s reading: none of the other places I find discussing this stone have him as source for anything more than the later names and their dating, and I can’t find anyone else reading it as `H A V G’. The CA article says, “we can now offer a corrected and more comprehensive interpretation based on meticulous study by Charles Thomas”, but whether this is coming from the site report, Thomas’s actual reading or the various spinning processes that have apparently been interposed between Thomas and this article, I’m not sure.

Internet 1, Print Media 2, the winner in the Tenth Medieval Incredulity Contest

I love the Internet, obviously. Quite apart from its social function and its various commercial and academic possibilities (I think learning is a social function, actually), it provides daily doses of how odd human society can get direct to your desktop (or laptop as it may be). But one day recently, the housemates’ daily Guardian not only took the biscuit but went and hid with it behind the sofa leaving only a trail of unlikely crumbs and an over-stretched metaphor.

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

First blow to the Internet, as David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe pointed me to this article on Science Daily, which nearly made me write a page-long rant by itself. Then I thought that I wasn’t being constructive enough; instead, I invite someone to set it to their students for extra credit by the hundred words they can produce on how badly the article is done. Someone somewhere involved remembers a bit of history from school, I guess: that we aren’t fully decided on why the Roman Empire fell, that the Byzantines considered themselves the Roman Empire still, and that climate change has been blamed for societies collapsing… and then it all gets mixed up into this. A pity, and a greater pity that that school doesn’t appear to have instructed them in the history of early Islam (unlike some). But pity most of all that it got any kind of publication without anyone stopping to ask a historian… Somewhere in this, however, is the important observation that mostly climate evidence is taken from the poles and that a bit of balance might change the results rather. Let’s not lose that in the utter mess of the history.

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

But then I got home and the Guardian attacked. This story has actually gone up since then on Archaeology in Europe too but I didn’t find it there so the printed paper wins this one. How often have you wanted, when reading a site report or even doing a dig if you are such a person, to be able to ask an inhabitant how their site got this way? Some archaeologists that the Guardian is telling you about can do just that as they are excavating the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, base for twenty years’ bitter hippy protests against a cruise missile installation that of course the US eventually learnt how to replace with submarines, which are harder to picket. Apparently the diggers are confused by how many milk-bottles a largely Vegan group went through; the article doesn’t actually report what any of the surviving protestors could add by way of explanation, though apparently getting their testimonies will be part of the project. All the same it’s a nice indication that social memory can often be contradicted or gainsaid by other forms of evidence, or that interpretation of archaeological finds is a tricky business, or, well, it clearly means something because it is weird verging on the allegorical.

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

But then I found this story and nearly shouted out loud. And what I would have shouted is something like:

Feudalism In Action (this is what I’m talking about, seriously, OK?)

Church of England enforces archaic rights to fix church roofs

(Yes, I can shout in different heading strengths. Trust me, I can.) I’m having a bit of trouble working out what the actual story is that puts this on The Guardian‘s page 3, because the actual case they’re talking about happened a full year and more ago, and that was after a ‘final verdict’ in the other direction, also reported in The Guardian seven years before. The substance, however, is that since the dissolution of the monasteries that used to own them, the upkeep of some English churches has been partly assigned to certain properties in the church glebe. Such tenures are still legally binding, if they can be proven. You can sometimes find that you’ve bought a house subject to this that no-one had ever thought to charge before, and you can even buy insurance when buying a house against this happening to you, but the costs rarely come to the £200,000 that was involved in the case the Guardian was reporting in 2001. They claim, now, that other churches are looking in to enforcing this, but they have no actual names or evidence, and the only reason this story’s so far up the paper, I think, is because it’s ‘hard times’-flavour.

All the same! What is happening here, allegedly, is a tax that no-one has thought to attempt to exact for years being stumbled over by lords who urgently need to extract more cash from their domains and then being enforced by law that they partly control. (The main case was appealed to the British House of Lords, the upper chamber of our Parliament, for judgement in 2007, but of course the Lords Spiritual, that is, bishops of the Church of England, are part of the House, and I’ll bet they didn’t refrain from voicing their thoughts.) The motives aren’t the same: the Church are hard up just because of owning too much property that no-one uses but which they’re obliged to maintain. The guys I’m thinking of were faced with a fierce competition for status as the area they were in experienced an economic boom at the same time as a political collapse—rather the reverse of our situation!—and lots of new people starting having enough resources to be big fish in a newly-shrunken pond. The strategy adopted by the eleventh-century nobility, for it is of course the “blessed” feudal transformation to which I refer, is however exactly the same: find an old right, grab it and squeeze, even if people complain, until this exaction becomes a ‘bad custom’. I imagine I would be quite annoyed by such a bill if I ever owned a house, and I don’t really approve of our union of Church and State so wouldn’t normally take the side of the Church of England even when it’s a question of preserving historic buildings, but the fact that they’re basically using feudalism to do it has me quite enchanted by the idea, I have to admit… Match that, Internet!

Also, a later reflection that this causes in me is that, if you were an eleventh-century noble whose area was in the grip of so-called feudalization, would you know these were the good times? Would you be aware that general prosperity was growing? Or would you merely be worried that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the de Montforts, that any kind of riff-raff seemed to have a castle nowadays whereas yours went back to your grandfather, already, and your family had always been beloved by Saint Gilles and so on? Concerned that prices were rising, and that there were more and more traders now, whom you couldn’t turn away in case you looked poor? And the money you had to pay these people with was getting poorer and poorer anyway? That there were bands of heretics up at le Mans causing havoc? That the papacy was making these impossible demands about chapel clerks when you’d always had the advowson of your own grandfather’s chapel for Saint Gilles’s sake! and so on. And would you be looking for rights to exact, not because times were good, but because as far as you were concerned they were tougher than ever? In times of boom I guess people know they have it good but the eleventh century can’t really have been a boom, just steady growth. And I wonder if steady growth and disintegrating political power actually look a lot more like ‘anarchy’ than collapse and retrenchment would, when you’re actually living it.

Seminary XXXVII: small pieces of metal from the ninth century

Alice Rio’s fabulous programme for the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar continued to unfold on the 25th November when Jinty Nelson, no less, came up to talk to us to the title “Bits and Pieces: why historians should think about small metal objects from the ninth century”. Jinty is as I’ve said before always an engaging speaker, her papers perforated with tiny sidetracks that seem like digressions but that function as hooks to help you remember what she was talking about afterwards. A different result of this is, though, that there’s so much gravy in any given paper that it’s hard to just talk about the meat if, like me, you’re trying to report it…

Bark of a palm tree

Bark of a palm tree

Broadly speaking this was a second instalment in one of Jinty’s recent themes, that historians and archaeologists not only can learn a lot from each other but absolutely need to, this kind of being the case studies to support her anecdotal introduction to the theme of last year. So she started with the annal for 858 from the Annals of St-Bertin, which of course she translated years ago but only really saw this time round.1 Prudentius of Troyes, still writing it at this point, recorded a year full of terrible and unnatural events, and among them is a tree washing up from the sea whose trunk was covered not in proper bark but in triangular protrusions, which he likened to the decorations that men and horses have on their wargear. I know what it brought to my mind, to wit something like the picture above, but what this brings to the mind of those learned in objects is apparently strap-ends, and I suppose I see what they mean.

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Now these are treasure, and so Jinty took us through some of the social meanings of treasure in the early medieval world, and highlit power, of course. Then from there to coins, especially the portrait coinage of Charlemagne, which I touched on here some time ago, and the messages it sends to have your likeness sent about the realm. This had more mileage in it than some discussions of this I’ve seen, because of considering whether people really looked at the coins (and could read them)—without looking, UK people, what’re the queen’s titles on a British coin now, eh?—and also whether they could be effective without also being economically functional. This garnered some discussion afterwards, though because my boss was lecturing in London the same day Jinty had quit there for Cambridge, of course, I kind of had to be the numismatist in the room, which isn’t something I enjoy too much because I fear type-casting in a sphere where I’m really not very expert.

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The last example of metalwork and power was another famous one, the Alfred Jewel, which is now believed to have been the head from an æstel, a book-pointer; you’d have had a stalk of some sort marking your position on the page and your hand over the jewel, like, as Jinty said, a computer mouse. But did you know we’ve now got several of these things, three found quite recently? None as grand as this one, but one from the Lofoten Islands of all places. Or, given the one visitor to Alfred’s court whom we know went there, maybe not so strange… But this little clutch of things shows how eloquent some of these non-speaking objects can get: they are intimately associated with the written word and are probably gifts of a king trying to get his officials to read more; they may even be associated with office, which might explain why they don’t seem to occur in wills (this was the neatest answer to an awkward question I’ve ever seen anyone give in a seminar). Every time you pick one up that message is implicit in it, and if you were given one by the king, then anyone who sees it knows you’re one of a new kind of élite with a special badge. This was an aspect of the political policies of Alfred the Great where Jinty confessed herself indebted to David Pratt, not least because he was there,2 but it all fitted very nicely into the theme: messages in the metalwork, for those with ears to hear.

1. Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1991).

2. David Pratt, The Political Thought of Alfred the Great, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series no. 67 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 189-192.

Questionable interpretation: early medieval church sites in Northern Britain?

I’m all for a bit of free-thinking archaeology, as I hope the blog makes clear—in fact, for this post I finally caved in and created an ‘archaeology’ category that has been variously retrospectively applied—and as someone who works with people who work with metal detectorists, I am not one to diminish the rôle of the amateur in the unearthing of the past. All the same, sometimes ya gotta wonder.

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

Standing stones at Baliscate, Tobermory, Mull, Scotland

For example. Very near the site of these standing stones, reports News for Medievalists on the back of several newspaper stories, it is being reported that two amateur archaeologists have located the site of a fifth- to tenth-century chapel, and the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland have been called in and said that it seems to be so. But really, the evidence is no more than that there is a square building there, it hasn’t been dug or anything and the dating and purpose is being deduced entirely from the building’s shape, which I don’t think will really do; I’ve seen what kind of leaps of logic that can lead to when there’s no digging done. It’s noticeable for one thing that even in the news story it’s evident that the RCAHMS team disagreed among themselves, and for another that they’re not prioritising digging it, which I think if there was good evidence of such an early date they genuinely would, what with the plethora of such sites just lately. Some might of course argue that what with the standing stones, it was a good candidate for conversion, and this may be true, but that really isn’t evidence enough to record a chapel here.

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswalds Lythe

Carved stones from the churchyard of St Oswald's Lythe

On the other hand, this exhibition of carved stones from the churchyard of a little-known Northumbrian church is certainly the real deal, and it is therefore reported both by Medieval Material Culture and the Whitby Gazette, with considerable pride on the part of the latter. On the other hand, though a first glance might make it look as if these were new discoveries, they were actually found in 1910, and though that means that they just about missed the standard big textbook on the subject, and they have at least been restored in the previous year and are going freshly onto exhibition, I’m slightly less excited than I thought I was going to be by this news. All the same, the irony exists, in that though at least one of the pieces they hauled out of the ground here in 1910 had what seems to be a depiction of Ragnarok on it, not at all Christian, I’m a lot surer there was a Christian place of worship here in the tenth century than at Baliscate.

Recent finds in soil and sea, from the heart of the Empire and well beyond its borders

Since my own work this brief ‘holiday’ has so far been mostly revising stuff I wrote long ago, rather than finding out new stuff, I’m sticking to observations culled from the Internet this post. I think almost all of them came from either News for Medievalists or the Heroic Age blog, so thanks to both those fine institutions for these links that I went and followed.

In the first place, of interest to no-one but me most likely, I have discovered a Catalan archaeology blog, ArqueoCat, which has duly been blogrolled, though nothing there has been posted since I did this. Its focus seems to be mainly prehistoric, and of course it’s written in Catalan (there is a translator for webpages offered by the Catalan government but its results are, er, erratic) but I have hopes for it and I also have the relevant language skills. If you have those, I’ve also just happened across a Catalan blog dealing in medieval romances and chivalry, Eixa altra Edat Mitjana, whose author is apparently reading this, so hullo! I warn the general readership, it is about as work-safe as Got Medieval, and phrases like “butt-trumpet” may be necessary. As we’ve observed before, the Middle Ages weren’t a particularly clean-minded era.

For those of you reading mainly in English, I had Kirsten Ataoguz’s Early Medieval Art blog down in the resources section, but discovered I was never checking it, and have therefore put it with the other blogs where it probably rightfully belongs, and have simultaneously discovered, I think through someone’s notice at the Unlocked Wordhoard (how do people expect Prof. Nokes actually to read all those darn blogs? I lose too much time on the ones I follow already) Medieval Ecclesiastical Art, which is a bit late for me academia-wise but has the signal advantage of telling me about places I might actually visit, because I in turn have the signal advantage of being in Europe of course, though some of our political parties here might prefer to think otherwise.

That kind of leads us to archaeology, and recently the hot archaeology appears to be in Rome where they are claiming to have found the underground retreat where the Emperor Caligula was murdered. I am pretty dubious about this. I mean, even I have fallen prey to the whole let’s-associate-a-written-source-with-our-recent-find syndrome, it’s natural enough, but in the case I blogged about here, the source was rather more solid than Suetonius’s Vita Cæsarum and the archaeology rather clearer. This new case could be all wrong: let’s remember that the Roman digs are being led by someone who was trying to tell us he’d found genuine evidence for Romulus and Remus only a few years ago. Their level of interpretation comes across too much, in English-language media at least, as “it looks so close it must be true! what do you mean, dating evidence?” and I worry. There’s some further reports that I haven’t seen (no YouTube at work, no inclination to switch off the Black Sabbath at home—after all, heavy metal’s a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry now) here on News for Medievalists, which I guess are covering the same stuff. However, that’s all Classical so I don’t have to worry more than I choose to. Much more interesting to me, and not sensational for them so rather less likely to be over-/misreported, is this story that they’ve found evidence for ‘Dark Age’ habitation apparently in the Classical catacombs, people living among the ancient dead. A certain amount of sensationalism has crept in with a claim that these people “must” have been runaway slaves or persecuted Christians living in hiding, but I wonder (and I’m not the first). The Roman catacombs elsewhere in the city, and some of those in Milan, have turned up much more complicated scenarios than this, including anti-Christian graffiti, so I hope more investigation goes on here as it would be a window into a period of Rome about which I don’t think we know as much as we’d like.

The site of the tomb complex uncovered in Rome (follow link for credits)

Then from the other end of Empire, I discover that Martin Carver isn’t the only one with a Pictish-period monastery in Scotland to play with, although Inchmarnock, where digging has recently been concluded, is on the opposite coast to Portmahomack, where meanwhile the digging and finds continue, which must be almost irritating for them now that they have the Visitors’ Centre up and running and have to rearrange the display every time something new that’s old comes up. Inchmarnock isn’t quite so productive a site, or so Pictish but, as has been said here before the Picts were on Skye, though we only see them as they Gaelicise, so the dating could be crucial for such a definition. Unfortunately for the Pictish nation enthusiasts, what’s come up so far is mainly slates, and those used for writing in Ogham, which makes an Irish connection most likely. But writing on slates is always interesting anyway, my first really popular post here was about that very phenomenon, and the parallel intrigues me especially as the report suggests that the slates suggest people learning Ogham, which would be inordinately important for the literacy scholars, some of whom, of course, taught me to pay attention to this stuff. If writing was being taught, I suppose it is likely that what they’re finding is from a monastery, and we know that there was eventually one there. All the same, it’s not as conclusive as Portmahomack’s all-male cemetery, but I see that this hasn’t stopped the dig leader writing a book about it which I guess I shall now have to read, some day in my mythical free time.

Well outside the Empire in one direction, because I already mentioned Inuit cultures here once I now feel they’re sort of part of the remit even though I know nothing about them. Partly it’s because it’s useful to keep a vague notion of what else is going on where in the world during the Middle Ages just so that one doesn’t get too fixed to a European idea of progress and development. So, late Antique Alaska: we have new evidence. Constantine was founding a new Rome and these people really didn’t care, but we know more about them than we did a few weeks ago.

"A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles"

'A bird bone... grooved for snapping out thin blanks that would be ground down and eyed into sewing needles'

And lastly, and maybe most importantly of all I find this story about a sunken Arab dhow, from its cargo datable to after 826 A. D., that has been found, still mostly preserved on the seafloor with a fabulous cargo. The important thing is not so much the cargo, however, as the location, which is off Sumatra. Then the cargo becomes important, because it’s basically gold treasure and really really fine Tang dynasty pottery of the highest grades, as well as 40,000 china bowls—which are now the oldest known actual ‘china’ in the world—packed in beansprouts… Who knows what this stuff was doing on one badly-lost dhow, which seems to have come to grief on the reefs of the Gaspar Strait, but it illustrates really high-value commercial links between (probably) Iraq, via Basra and on into the cAbbasid Caliphate, and Tang dynasty China, well before we have much evidence of such contact. Also, bulk long-distance trade too: even Chris Wickham would have trouble writing off 40,000 bowls as marginal luxury traffic… So I hope for much more on this in future months.

If that isn’t enough to keep you clicking, and in some cases boggling at how little some Romance languages can change over six hundred years, well, I don’t know what would be but I look forward to seeing it…

Seminary XXXI: Chris Wickham maligns neither historians nor archaeologists (much)

The week before last I did not go into London for seminars, and I suppose neither did I last week, in as much as that week instead, not just the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, but also the joint UCL Institute of Archaeology & British Museum seminar that usually runs in London on Tuesdays, to which for various reasons I can never go, all forestalled proceedings for the first ever Sir David Wilson lecture, organised as part of that latter seminar but separate therefrom and thus happening on the Wednesday, 22nd October. It wasn’t a seminar, because firstly there were more than a hundred people there, some from as far away as Southampton and Edinburgh (N. B. US readers, I realise that these are not real distances from your point of view, but it still means people came from the next country), and secondly because there was no discussion afterwards. This in turn was kind of a pity, because the speaker is usually all about argument, he being the Chichele Professor of Medieval History, Chris Wickham, who was talking to the title, “Problems with the Dialogue between Medieval Historians and Medieval Archaeologists”.

I have searched and searched for an online picture of Chris when writing about his stuff here, as has often happened, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t one. I’m not going to be the one to take it, though, because it might be so for a reason, and as the man generously writes me references, I can afford to offend him not at all. Similarly, you can’t really expect me to say anything too adverse here about his papers, but I will say that I have seen more fur fly in a Wickham paper than was ruffled in this one. I don’t think this was any failure on his part, but just that people who would come to hear Chris speak on such a topic already know about, and lament, the chronic lack of dialogue and understanding between history and archaeology, so I’m not sure how easy it would have been for Chris to tell us something genuinely new. Instead there was a lot of nodding in agreement, and though it might have been nice to see how easily the nodding divided between the two disciplinary components of the audience, let’s face it, that gathering had ears to hear what he was saying, and the problems are in the others who don’t.

The castle on Bamburgh Rock, one place where we can be pretty sure there was an Anglo-Saxon fortification

The castle on Bamburgh Rock, one place where we can be pretty sure there was an Anglo-Saxon fortification

So there was perhaps little left for Chris to suggest. He gave us some good case studies, such as the entirely different disciplinary classic theories about how castles come to England (historians: the Normans bring motte-and-bailey castles and generalise a rule from castles that the Anglo-Saxons had always resisted, thus bringing England up to speed with a century of development on the Continent, vs. archaeologists: there is a slow development of fortified sites over the tenth and eleventh centuries and these can be found in England at the same time as they appear on the Continent, and all the Normans bring is mottes, which would surely have been adopted anyway) and argued that both sides could learn from this, historians that ‘castles’ of a kind were very far from new (which any historians observing how readily Edward the Elder threw up medium-term fortifications against the Vikings according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ought to have realised) and archaeologists that nonetheless the Normans do something different with them, because their ideas of lordship are much more local, defensive and seigneurial than the grand Anglo-Saxon nobles living on fiscal allotments that are preserved between office-holders.

There are, Chris stressed, things that draw the two disciplines together. Most obviously, we are both trying to work out the past. In as much as both texts and artefacts represent by their existence an attempt by a creator to produce meaning, that we now try and discern in his or her creation, we are doing the same job. The important difference here, for the early Middle Ages at least, is that the audience for material culture was far huger than for texts, and this has to affect how we study them. I reflect that in an era of advertising and pretty-much-mass literacy, our own situation may now be the reverse of this, and wonder whether this explains how difficult some historians seem to find it to accept this or find it interesting.

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

Gilded plaque with zoomorphic animal ornament from Stavnsager, dating from c. 600 AD

He also pointed, however, out that the strengths of the two disciplines, history to elucidate meaning and consciousness, and archaeology to elucidate form and function, have led their practitioners in different directions. In this, his interesting point was that history has in some ways been running away from the archaeologists faster than they can catch up; the sort of hardcore Rodney Hilton social history of the sixties and seventies has a lot more to do with archaeology, and what archaeology can do, than do current trends in history towards cultural studies and literary analysis. Chris said he felt that history had left him behind a bit here, whereas archaeologists freshly strengthened with systems theory, processualism and then post-processualism, and a new certainty that they could construct their own version of the past without reference to texts, were now pursuing questions as big and broad as he had always felt important, and thus being much closer to his own work than many of his supposed colleagues. People who know me will see why I lap up Chris’s teaching so readily, this is a stance I have increasingly found myself being left with too.

The Umayyad mosque in Damascus, originally a church

The Umayyad mosque in Damascus, originally a church

Thus, even on sites where they agree, and he had some examples, the two disciplines tend to be asking very different questions, historians about practice and archaeologists about presence, historians about control and ownership, archaeologists about use of space, and so on; we can quite easily fail to overlap entirely. But in the end, while archaeology is hot, as Time Team and so on persist in proving, someone who wants to know what happened in the past does not yet go to archaeology, because the grand narratives, if only because as Magistra has recently been arguing we as personalities ourselves want personalities in narratives, are largely established by historians. Chris justly excused archaeology in part because it’s really only been going at these questions since the Second World War, and it’s in the areas where there is no grand narrative, prehistory being the obvious one, where archaeology has done its most challenging work to develop one. He however challenged early medieval archaeology, saying that it’s now at the level where it could start to provide its own grand narratives, His example was Syria and Palestine in the eighth and ninth centuries, when as he showed a consistent and comprehensible narrative of productive success, eventual fragmentation and reintegration at the cost of apparent lack of continued prosperity, plus new styles in the public use of space and new religious buildings, could be construed entirely from non-textual evidence, without damaging or challenging the separate textual grand narrative of the rise of Islam and the Muslim Conquests. In fact, as he pointed out, there are things that archaeology can add to the historical story, the apparent acute localisation of the Umayyad period and the previous continued prosperity of Byzantine Syria for example. He finished by hoping that archaeology make the most of this ability it has to produce evidence that must cause historians to reconsider their ideas, because otherwise we may so easily continue just not really paying any attention to each other.

P. S. I have delayed too long with the posting of this. In the interim the redoutable Magistra has weighed in with a fair challenge to, well, the interest of this kind of history. I don’t want to slow down this post by rewriting it some more, so I’ve replied to her there, and you may wish to go and see who if anyone wins…

Edit – P. P. S. Gesta of On Boundaries, who was also present, has now voiced their thoughts, which are rather different to mine or Magistra’s, and stem from a grounding in the practice of both disciplines so perhaps have a better foundation than either of us to say how far Chris is right about the ‘Dialogue of the Deaf’.