Seminary XXXIII: Martin Carver asks us if he’s crazy

Second seminar of that week that was was by Professor Martin Carver, who had come to Cambridge to be the second speaker ever at the new Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar. Although his own dig at Portmahomack is still one of the most exciting things in Scottish archaeology right now, and has an initial book just out about it by him,1 and although Inchmarnock across the country is also generating lots of new stuff (as mentioned here previously), he was taking on more than just a sit-rep of finds, and was talking to the title, “What were they thinking? Some reflections on the archaeology of Christianization”, which was a brave attempt to get at the mindsets of conversion in early Britain through the monumental remains of religious practice.

Jewellery from the Anglo-Saxon bed burial at Street House, Loftus, 200 yards from a Neolithic and a Bronze Age burial mound

Jewellery from the Anglo-Saxon bed burial at Street House, Loftus

Those who have read some of Professor Carver’s more adventurous work may understand why, as in the title, as he wound up he was asking us if he was just sounding crazy now. I think in fact that my answer would have been, “you are hanging on to the evidence by one hand while trying to take in as broad a possible range of explanation as you can with the other, but you are in touch with your evidence.” The argument was reasonably easy to synopsize. Firstly, religious practice in Britain was very diverse, and broad categories such as ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ or even ‘Roman Christian’ and ‘Celtic Christian’ don’t begin to do this justice. Secondly, many phenomena that are often used as diagnostics of Christianity in Britain, especially Celtic Britain, such as “monastic” valla or long-cist burials, actually spread over a much wider area and period, because these things usually have roots in pre-Christian practice. The argument from there was basically that this pre-Christian inheritance was much much larger, and also more deliberate, than is often reckoned. For example, he had some isolated evidence of a Neolithic cult of the head, and when he talked about this I wished that I’d tried to make Bo of The Cantos of Mutabilitie come along as he would have been able to do more than just squeak “Brán the Blessed!” by way of literature parallels (which I did do, at least; Prof. Carver and I laughed about wishing for site reports with literature sections as a future hope for the field, before it struck me with something of a cold shock the next day that actually that was very much the approach that Leslie Alcock took in his Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests that I reviewed here a while ago…) One particularly sharp example was from Portmahomack,2 where as well as the extensive monastic cemetery about which they can be pretty sure, they also had a lot of long-cist burials, which they had assumed were palæo-Christian conversion-period burials until some radio-carbon dates came back 1st-millennium B. C…. Now we have to accept that the first church of St Colman there was set up on a site with extensive funerary, and therefore probably pre-Christian religious, associations.

One of the cist burials from beneath St Colmans church, Portmahomack

One of the cist burials from beneath St Colman's church, Portmahomack

Professor Carver was however not arguing for long continuity from prehistoric to Christian (at which point we might have had to call him crazy) but for the conscious choice by the new cult’s managers to imitate, reference or adapt old practice. This was why he had chosen monumental evidence, which we can still see now, because it was clear that that would have been available to such decision-makers, and be something they would have to explain or ignore. He argues moreover (and this bit he’s been doing for a long time3) that because even northernmost Celtic Scotland is not cut off from but plugged into the general European iconographic conversation, as its art and symbolism shows (and here again Professor Alcock would have very much agreed), these are conscious choices where they are made from a large range of options, new and Christian, Roman Christian, Celtic Christian, sub-Roman, actually Roman-period, Iron Age, Bronze Age, and whatever variants of any of those were known to the people at the time. That makes such choices deliberate strategies of reference to the past, so that the foundation on an old burial ground is not just a takeover but an appropriation of its surviving symbolism for their own spiritual capital.

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives

The St Andrews sarcophagus, famous for its combination of Celtic and Old Testament artistic motives

There’s enough stuff with the reuse of church sites that we needn’t have a problem with this,4 I think, but it did occur to me to say to someone afterwards that if the people aren’t as fully connected as Prof. Carver told us that we “had to believe”, the repertoire of symbolic construction could be very much smaller, viz. the community’s sense of custom versus one garbled report of how the Romans do things by the new missionary with his royal backing, which might not make such choices so significant. I also thought he didn’t allow enough room for these choices to be deliberately conflictual, not appropriating the past but abrogating it by literally hiding it with one’s own customs. That said, certainly he is right, I think, that we need to allow for a great deal more very local syncretism in conversions, and even if I was a little anxious that Christianity is a normalising religion, both the previous day’s and, could I but have known it, the next day’s paper would have weakened my sense of how far its norms can be preserved without central contact. (Michael Wood’s paper had mentioned that the cult of Shiva, who is a dancing god, has affected Indian Christianity sufficiently that at Easter-time now you get dancing Virgin Maries acting out the story of Christ’s resurrection…) When Professor Carver introduced the work of Natalie Venclová on tonsures by way of suggesting that even the Roman/Celtic division over monastic hairdos had such pre-Christian roots, however, I did wonder briefly about revising the question of ‘crazy’.5 All the same, a thought-provoking paper and a highly entertaining one, and also perhaps the only time I have seen people from at least four faculties (History, Archaeology & Anthropology, Classics & Anglo-Saxon Norse & Celtic) wilfully come to listen to an academic paper in Cambridge, and for both of these things speaker and convener need to be congratulated. I’m looking forward to the next one in this series already.

1. Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008).

2. But only one: it was a broad-ranging paper, and included some fabulous illustrations of the slates from Inchmarnock, which include drawings—I’ve found one drawing by a chap called Thomas Small which I include below but it’s not the one I really would have liked, which was apparently an illustration of the theft of St Ernan’s reliquary by a mail-clad wild-haired Viking and his shield-adorned longship…):

Drawing of an inscribed slate from Inchmarnock, by Thomas Small, licensed under Creative Commons

Drawing of an inscribed slate from Inchmarnock, by Thomas Small, licensed under Creative Commons

3. Since at least Martin Carver, “Introduction: Northern Europeans negotiate their future” in idem (ed.), The Cross Goes North: processes of conversion in northern Europe, AD 300-1300 (Woodbridge 2003), pp. 3-13.

4. See Mayke de Jong & Frans Theuws, “Topographies of Power: some conclusions” in de Jong, Theuws & Carine van Rhijn, Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 533-545.

5. Natalie Venclová, “The Venerable Bede, druidic tonsure and archaeology” in Antiquity Vol. 76 (London 2002), pp. 458-471.

One response to “Seminary XXXIII: Martin Carver asks us if he’s crazy

  1. Pingback: Leeds 2012 Report 3 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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