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’.


One response to “Seminary XXXI: Chris Wickham maligns neither historians nor archaeologists (much)

  1. Pingback: Chris Wickham and the dialogue of the deaf « On boundaries

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