First Trip to China, III: a Forest of Steles

Returning, after that last shaft of contemporary relevance, to the blog’s backlogged position in mid-2017, not everything that I saw in China on my trip there then was medieval, or even Byzantine. Before we left Changchun we were bussed out … Continue reading


It has been more than a month since I last put text to blog, and though I’m sure this isn’t a complete surprise given what the world and its people, and universities specifically, are up against just now, it might still be worth an aside of apology and explanation. In terms of my working life, this is roughly how the whole Covid-19 thing has worked out so far:

  1. In March 2020, in the middle of teaching, we very suddenly switched to online delivery, and I’ve since been back onto campus only once, for a half-hour-limited visit to my office to pick up teaching materials.
  2. Throughout the crisis, the various organs of the UK government which rule higher education have been rattling sabres about how it is up to universities to ensure that the education we deliver online is of an equal standard to what we’d deliver face-to-face, and threatening us with permitting students to reclaim their fees if we don’t.
  3. Because of the situation, meanwhile, many students didn’t complete work on time, got extensions or had to resit, so that teaching and marking activity ran desultorily on long into the summer.
  4. As that summer dragged on, my colleagues and I have also been planning for the twin possibilities that, this year, we would either be teaching entirely online or that we would be doing everything we could face-to-face. The government, however, required us also to plan back-up online provision for students who might be ill, self-isolating and so on, again under threat of reclaimed student fees or fines if such provision were not available. That all meant planning about twice as much teaching overall as usual, as well as training to use our suddenly-developing suite of online teaching tools, and so the bits of the summer that weren’t already swept up by the long tail of last year’s teaching disappeared under getting ready for this year’s.
  5. As the new semester approached, a few weeks before we were due to start, the UK government again raised the possibility of fines or fees refunds if universities didn’t offer as much of a normal teaching experience as was possible.
  6. As a result of this, along with some other factors I haven’t mentioned, three weeks before teaching started, my colleagues and I had to replan for doing everything but our first-year undergraduate teaching face-to-face (albeit without access to offices…).
  7. Almost immediately after that, the government made a complete mess of awarding grades for the final school exams for the year, which had not been held, and eventually required universities to honour offers to students who had missed them because of grade adjustments, as well as those who had actually been given their target grades. This left most of the universities in the country suddenly struggling to plan for teaching an intake about ten per cent larger than they’d expected, if possible face-to-face, for which many of them didn’t in fact have enough places, staff or facilities, especially because of having to use their physical space in a socially-distanced manner.
  8. Then students arrived on campus and predictably enough, almost every university town in the country developed into a Covid-19 hotspot within days.
  9. On the Friday afternoon before teaching started, therefore, my department was allowed to abandon our new plans for face-to-face teaching and to switch back to delivering all teaching online, starting straight after the weekend…

So that has all taken up more time than was expecting, forcing the other necessary activities of life into what gaps remain, and for the last few weeks there just hasn’t been the time on Sundays in which I would usually blog. I’m having a very kind pandemic compared to some, I know, safe and well in my house (in a town that actually doesn’t have many cases, albeit in a wider area that does) and still being paid in full, but believe me, I have been earning that wage, and the effective cost has been partly passed on to you, my gracious audience. Sorry about that. Let’s see what we can do about it as this weird year lurches on forwards…

First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

Despite the tourism so cheerfully recounted last post, I was in fact in China in 2017 for academic purposes. The formal cause was a conference at North-East Normal University in Changchun, by name the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. If I can be Aristotelian about this, then I suppose the material cause of this was that, one way or another, there are a reasonable number of Byzantine solidi and, maybe more interestingly, imitations of them, that have come to light in China, and this is one of the major research areas of Professor Lín Yīng of Sun-Yat Sen University, whom I had had the pleasure of moderating at a Leeds International Medieval Congress two years before.1 But she is not the only Byzantinist in China by quite some way; I suppose an ancient empire likes to know about its contemporaries… And a number of people with such interests hang out at North-East Normal, because it runs an Institute for Ancient Civilizations, which was the hosting organisation for this conference, under the particular auspices of its Vice-Director, Dr Sven Günther. In fact, North-East Normal also boasts a Medieval History Research Centre, and you’d think that they would be my obvious point of contact, but because, you see, the efficient cause was that Professor Lín knows me as a Byzantine numismatist, because when she met that’s what I was, professionally, and of course I have not completely left that identity behind.2 I guess if you come in through the door marked ‘Byzantinist’, you’re a Byzantinist, but if what that means is that (assuming we get to a stage where this is possible again) I get invited halfway across the world and shown round the local wonders, then I guess I can come up with a paper about Byzantine coins for you…

Gathering of delegates to the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

Now, ever since I hit the time buffers on this blog in 2017, I have been reporting conferences by listing the papers I went to and then sticking my other remarks below a cut for the interested reader to follow up if they wish. On this occasion, however, I want to write at least something about the actual experience of the conference first, because it had some important and impressive differences from the Western format to which I’m used. Firstly, I suppose, everything was paid for; I remember when that used to be possible in the UK, just, but it was a while back, certainly before this blog. One can get into arguments about where taxpayers’ money should be going, I guess, but it is salutary to realise that the answers aren’t necessarily fixed.3 However, the differences that really struck me could be grouped under two headings, those being tea and languages. And the greater of these, for me at least, might even be tea. For look: if you examine this photo…

Session at the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Session in progress

… you will observe that everyone, even the beardy foreigner in the pale jacket with his pen in his mouth close to the back of the middle of the picture, has a nice porcelain mug with a lid in front of them. When we entered the conference room those mugs had small piles of auspicious green leaves in them; before we started attendants went round and poured lately-boiled water onto those leaves and put the lids back on; and then, every hour or so thereafter, they came round again and topped them up, because of course for decent green tea you don’t need, or even want, boiling water, and it will sustain several infusions. Indeed, I understand that with some teas you just throw the first one out because what you’re really after is the subtleties that come out in the second one, but dear reader, I digress. During lunch new mugs were set out and we were set up again for the afternoon. When I compare this to the desperate scrabble between sessions for the inadequate coffee at most Western conferences, it is hard not to feel that we were guests of a more anciently civilised culture than our own, I tell you. The coffee breaks were still there, but the caffeine was now a vestigial part of them because what they were really for was to enable the conversations between papers that are actually the important part of the academic conference. So this all worked rather well.

And then languages. At this point I had no functional Chinese (and even now I can manage very little more than greetings and very basic questions about menus), and a good few of the speakers had no functional English. This is not to say that people here didn’t know languages: one professor gave a very rough greeting speech in English but was able to introduce one of the Western speakers in fluent Greek, I guess because that was what he had needed to learn for what he wanted to do in his career. In general, though, English was not the default second language, which was salutary and a bit challenging, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of the papers were delivered in Mongolian, which is another thing again. So any two people did not have great odds of understanding each other. But, this didn’t matter too much, because the other thing that there were people doing was immediate, translated summarisation of each paper after it was given, Chinese into English, English into Chinese, Mongolian into both. Questions were also translated this way during discussion. This responsibility was distributed around so that no-one had to do more than two, it was timetabled into the sessions, and it meant that the language barrier, while still very present, could pretty easily be hurdled, or at least messages flung across it in mutually satisfactory fashion. I could go off into speculation about how this worked in previous eras when other people crossed into China – the importance of the intermediary became really obvious in this meeting – but I could probably again be accused of digression. After all, we were here to talk about coins. So what were people talking about? I will list them!

24th June 2017

  • Zhāng Qiáng, “Introduction”
  • Xú Jiālíng, “Welcome”
  • Claudia Sode, “Welcome”
  • Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng, “Trade Pattern of 1-4 c. CE Silk Road – A Preliminary Study Based on Kushan Coins”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Islamic Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia: Concepts, Transformation and Monetary Organisation”
  • Stefanos Kordosis, “Some Remarks on the Term ‘Fromo’ of a Late 7th-Early 8th c. Bactrian Coin Inscription ‘Fromo Kesaro’ (Caesar of Rome)”
  • Coffee

  • Sven Günther, “The Migration of Motifs as a Qualitative Approach to the Question of Connectivity in Late Antiquity”
  • Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Coins in Gold in the Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries)”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Separated by the Past: Western Coinages from Pseudo-Imperial to Quasi-Independent, 5th to 7th c. AD”
  • Lunch

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Roman and Byzantine Coins and their Reproduction in Western Central Asia”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Transition of the Monetary Situation of Khurasan and Transoxiana between the Islamic and T’ang Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.”
  • Coffee

  • Lĭ Qiáng, “The Dynamics of the Studies on the Byzantine Coins and their Imitations discovered in China, 2007-2017”
  • Guō Yúnyan, “On the Byzantine Coins Unearthed in China”
  • Dinner

25th June 2017

  • Ankhbayar Batsuui, “Regarding a Coin”
  • Erdenebold Lkhagvasuren, “West-East Relations and Nomads: A Study on Coins Discovered in Shordon Bumbagar, Bayannur, Sum Mongolia”
  • Odbaatar Tserendorj, “Sassanid Period Silver Coins Collection at National Museum of Mongolia”
  • Yngve Karlsson, “Main Features of Sasanian Silver Coins, with Examples from Mongolian National Museum”
  • Coffee

  • Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins in India in Late Antiquity”
  • Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands found in Southeast Asia”
  • Li Jinxiu, “Silver Coin and Silver Trading Circles: the Differing Destinies of Persian Silver Coins in Tang Times”4
  • Lunch

  • Shi Yang-Xin, “Collection of Ancient Coins from the Silk Road in Xi’an Tang West Market Museum”5
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Silk Road Coinage: its Definition and Research Value”
  • Coffee

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Byzantine Influence on Sogdian Monetary Type”
  • Responses by Zhang Xushan, Stefan Heidemann, Aleksandr Naymark, Claudia Sode and Lín Yīng
  • Closing Ceremony and Farewell Drink

It’s harder than usual to write up this conference, because it was so frequently telling me things I had just not previously known. Lín’s article is a neat introduction to the problem that brought us together, but is focused quite reasonably on some particuar Silk Road tombs, and there was so much bigger a picture being put together here, by experts from zones and on zones thousands of miles apart and linked more by sharing an era than by anything else. So it seems best, rather than to comment on individual papers, to try to write some kind of synthesis of what, by the end, I thought I knew about what was going on with coinage eastwards of Byzantium and, for the most part, northwards of India, over the mostly-fifth to more-or-less-ninth centuries. Predictably, given the size of the zone and the number of actors in it, this turned out to be very confusing, but, to me at least, also really interesting, and it got added into my teaching very quickly once I came back. Continue reading


First Trip to China, I: Old China Renewed

This gallery contains 35 photos.

As the pandemic continues and Leeds itself heads back towards local lockdown, it is admittedly quite hard to imagine my way back to June 2017, partly just because of the urgencies of the now, but also because as we’ve just … Continue reading


In Marca Hispanica XXXVI: Castell de Montclus

This gallery contains 20 photos.

I have again to apologise for a gap in posting. I’ve been on holiday! I did mean to have something ready for posting before I went, but the preparation overwhelmed everything, sorry. Now I’m back, and back in the past, … Continue reading


Second try at Sant Esteve de Palautordera

This gallery contains 9 photos.

I have mentioned before now that, by pretty much complete coincidence with my research topic, I have occasional family reasons to pitch up in Catalonia, at a place called Palautordera. Long ago I wrote a post lamenting that the one … Continue reading

Another showcase of my department (as of 2017)

I’ll try to make up for some lost time here by following fast on the last post for once. The next thing I want to record from the memory banks of 2017, after a huge conference in which my department played a small part, is a small one in which we were all of it. The theme for the 2018 International Medieval Congress (which was a huge conference organised from my department, to coincide with the Congress’s 25th birthday, was ‘memory’, and by way of trying to get the department, or at least its partly contained cluster the Institute for Medieval Studies, geared up for that, on 23 May 2017 we held a workshop on that theme of memory. This was an all-day event featuring twenty speakers, which we managed by limiting everyone to no more than five minutes. This kept everyone to showcasing one important point about how our work intersected with the key theme and no more, and was actually quite an enjoyable challenge, but it also makes a neat little time capsule of who we then were. It would be a bit daft to try to summarise five-minute papers, but it seems worth giving at least a running order and some comments arising. So this was that running order.

    Axel Müller, “Welcome and Introduction”

  1. Catherine Batt, “Mind, Memory and Penitential Psalm in Cambridge MS CUL G.I.1”
  2. Fozia Bora, “The historical digest (mukhtasar) as an aide memoire in the medieval Islamicate”
  3. Hervin Fernández-Aceves, “Del olvido al no me acuerdo: the medieval memory of Mexico”
  4. Discussion

  5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Remembering the Deeds of Guifré the Hairy?”
  6. Alan Murray, “Memorialising Virtue: Exempla in Chronicles of Teutonic Order”
  7. Trevor Smith, “Remembering the Nation’s Past: Middle English Passages in the Long Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Manuscripts”
  8. Daniele Morossi, “How Manuel I’s Good Memory Led to the End of the Venetian-Byzantine Alliance”
  9. Discussion and Coffee

  10. Julia Barrow, “Hereford Cathedral Obit Book”
  11. Melanie Brunner, “Memory and Curial Processes in 14th-Century Avignon”
  12. Joanna Phillips, “Memorialising the Crusades: History with the Nasty Bits Left In”
  13. Thomas Smith, “Constructing German Memories of the First Crusade”
  14. Discussion

  15. Iona McCleery, “Memories of Meals”
  16. Francisco Petrizzo, “The Disappeared: Memory Loss in Family History”
  17. Pietro Delcorno, “The ‘Memorable’ Armour of John of Capistran”
  18. Alaric Hall, “Alternative Facts, History, and the Epistemologies of Wikipedia”
  19. Discussion and Lunch

  20. Emilia Jamroziak, “Response”
  21. Further Discussion

  22. Alec McAllister, “Mnemonic Software”
  23. Sunny Harrison, “Between Memory and Written Record”
  24. Coffee and Cake
    Closing Discussion

So there we have seven permanent members of the School of History, two from the School of English and one from the School of Languages, Culture and Society; one from IT Services with a responsibility for us in History; two temporary members of History staff; and five of the IMS’s postgraduates. And what were we saying? Well, it’s my blog, so let’s start with me me me… I used the different ways that the half-legendary founder count of Barcelona, Guifré the Hairy, has been put to work for various political endeavours over the centuries following his demise, to argue that we had a responsibility to ensure that the control of certain memories cannot become a political monopoly. This involved a pomo syllogism so I’m not sure if I convinced even myself, but there is material there.

C19th statue of Guifré the Hairy outside the Palacio Real, Madrid

C19th statue of Guifré the Hairy outside the Palacio Real, Madrid

Catalan stamp depicting Count Guifré the Hairy

Catalan stamp depicting Count Guifré the Hairy

As for the others, you can see from the titles that we ranged from these islands and the Western Mediterranean to the Baltic, Arabia and México, as well as purely virtual space and, although it’s not obvious from her title, Iona’s case study was from Ghana, so I think our range shows up pretty well. Stand-out points for me that are still worth repeating might be these:

  • There were several examples here of things that were actually Roman being used to plug gaps in both medieval and modern memories, like nineteenth-century depictions of the pre-conquest kings of México, the medieval historical legends of Britain and of course actual ongoing Roman history in the form of the Byzantine Empire of the Komneni. I thought harder than I ever had before about this when putting together my 2015 exhibition Inheriting Rome, and I still think we could do with theorizing this reach for Rome better: my impression remains that we reach for it exactly when there is a gap that has arisen in our own memories, whether through ignorance or inconvenience of the truth, and it’s so natural that people don’t usually notice they’ve done it. But it has an effect…
  • A smaller and more obvious point but again not always remembered: we are at the end of a long chain of choices about what to remember from the period we choose to study, all of which left some stuff out. Here that was obvious from the letter Tom Smith had studied, which recorded a call to Germans to come and assist the newly-established Latin states in the Holy Land in 1100; this was probably forged, but survives largely in places from which Germans went on the Second Crusade in 1144. There’s a question there about which is chicken and which egg, that is, whether the Crusade demanded the creation of propaganda or the letter already existed and provoked that response. Our dating of the manuscripts isn’t tight enough to resolve that problem. But the other thing, which Alan Murray noted, is that the letter was apparently of no interest to keep in areas without much crusade response. Well, OK, obvious you may say, but if we start judging popular response by the survival of such texts, or just leaving out areas where they don’t occur from studies of supposedly global phenomena, problems may arise… And they’re bigger ones than just this source, too.
  • Lastly, apparently with a bit of quick work you can make Azhagi+, a software tool mainly designed for typing Tamil and other Indic languages from an English keyboard—which may already be something you’d want to know about—type pretty much combination of diacritics and letters you like… I had forgotten this till going back over my notes and now need to do some experimenting!

And that was my local academic community of 2017, many of whom are still there, and although I’m not sure exactly how well it set us up for the upcoming IMC, it was fun and collegiate to be part of and as you can see, did provoke thought as well. And the cake was excellent, which cannot always be guaranteed! So a day well spent in 2017, I think, and not the only one either.

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

Death of an Archaeologist

As too often, I owe apologies for a late post. I spent much of Sunday driving and since then it’s been busy. But the task is eased and, at the same time, made heavier, by being diverted from my plan to recount the fun bits of the last time I went to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, what could have been a very long post, by some very unfortunate news, which was the death of the Scottish archaeologist Oliver O’Grady.

Oliver O'Grady on an archaeological dig in East Lomond

Oliver O’Grady on an archaeological dig in East Lomond, from an obituary in the Courier, linked through

My discovery of this was one of those terrible things Google can do to you with auto-suggestions. This summer I am reckoning, since we can’t go abroad, to embark on a Scots road-trip of Pictish theme, and consequently I was searching up a list of sites that included the erstwhile Pictish palace at Forteviot. It is quite hard to find out what there is to see at the site from the Internet, and so I put into Google the name of the man who had led the dig, Oliver O’Grady, and Google suggested “… archaeologist death”. And this turned out to be true and left me quite shocked and dismayed, mainly because he was only 39, but also because everyone else who knew him is clearly at least as shocked and dismayed; this has surprised everyone.

I think Dr O’Grady would himself have been surprised to know he’d get an obituary on my blog; we met only twice, and it was a long time ago. The first time was my second International Medieval Congress (not the same as the International Congress on Medieval Studies), at Leeds in 2006. At that point I had just finished my doctorate and was at last in temporarily secure work in the Fitzwilliam Museum, but despite being employed numismatically and doctorally qualified as a Catalanist charter geek, I had not (still have not) dropped my old interest in Pictland and so when I saw a Scotland session with a paper called ‘Assemblies in Medieval Scotland: landscape and the performance of memory’ I went along. Dr O’Grady, who at this point would have been 25 and presumably not yet Dr, was the first speaker, and the memory of him has just stuck with me, partly of course because like myself he was a long-haired bearded guy wearing black jeans and a black t-shirt, but unlike me he was actually showing it whereas I was hiding in conference garb. Still, obviously one of the black-clad brethren I’ve sometimes been thankful to be recognised by. I also remember him being quite nervous and rumbly and having been at the beginning of what turned out to be the long-running Forteviot project. We talked briefly afterwards but he was kind of carried off by his colleagues. Thereafter, his name came up here and there and it became clear he was doing big things (like discovering ‘the birth certificate of Scotland’). I know I ran into him again once more but I cannot work out from my notes and conference programmes where it was. So I can only say that I got a very good impression of the guy from that first paper and have always remembered him. I would have liked to talk to him about his sites and try out my plural Pictland idea on someone who’d got a better idea than most about what the centralisation of that kingdom looked like on the ground.

Given that I can say so little, therefore, and that from so long ago, I have to use words of others, borrowed from that article in The Courier that gave me the bad news:

“Falkland Stewardship Trust chairman Joe Fitzpatrick said there was ‘shock and disbelief’ around the centre following news that Oliver – a close collaborator and one of Scotland’s leading archaeologists – had died. ‘Oliver was a friend and colleague who impressed everyone who had the pleasure of working with him,’ said Mr Fitzpatrick. ‘He led the three archaeological excavations on East Lomond in 2014, 17 and 19 and his warmth, openness and encouragement were appreciated by all our excavation volunteers and staff. No one’s “theory” was dismissed and his patient explanations were educative and informative. He loved being able to engage and involve community members in archaeological discovery…”

And there’s more there, from more people, and I’m sure there is still more over the social web, but it’s obviously not much comfort for them, his family, the field or anyone really. I fear we lost another of the good ones.


Bolton Abbey Priory

This gallery contains 13 photos.

By way of a light break between the last post, arguably intended to start an argument, and the likely next one, intended to record a conference, here’s some pictures. At the end of April 2017, with a relative visiting, m’partner … Continue reading