And this *isn’t*…


Ages ago I got given a copy of a book edited by Martin Hall and Stephen Silliman, called Historical Archaeology. I have of course a very great many things I haven’t read, but this one recently got to jump the queue because of my plundering one of its papers for my Material Culture class and figuring I should see what was in the rest.1 You can probably guess that my reaction to the following piece of the introduction was less than friendly:

At the same time, many who study the periods for which documents exist, particularly those outside of the Americas, do not in fact refer to themselves as ‘historical archaeologists.’ Instead, they label their work by general period, such as Roman or Post-medieval, or by regional focus, such as Egyptology or Classical Greek Studies.

Hullo, did we miss something there? Are there really lots of documents from Classical Greece? Are there really lots of documents from the Roman period, indeed? Oh, really, you think there are? And from exactly when are the earliest manuscripts of those texts, do you happen to recall? Oh yes: they’re usually medieval. That bit you missed out. In fact they’re usually early medieval, and very often Carolingian. That Cicero for example! Quintessential man of Roman letters, right? Yes, they thought so in the ninth and tenth centuries too which is why you have any of his works. Argh. And yet it’s not just these people. I used to have a partner in Brighton, so I particularly noticed when Sussex University there ceased provision of medieval history and archaeology. Now their history course started with early modern, but their archaeology one retained an ancient component and a historical one that started, likewise, in the the early modern. The Middle Ages just dropped out of the middle. (Mind you, this appears to have been unsustainable because, unless I am just being stupid, they have now ceased offering archaeology of any kind.) I don’t know how many other places have these attitudes but I find it very strange and, obviously, inimical to my employment prospects.

Now this here was just a list of examples, I know, but it’s a bit ridiculous to be claiming that Roman archaeology could count as historical archaeology and then miss out the medieval. I wasn’t entirely surprised that they go on to say: “we do need an organising concept to frame and introduce the chapters that comprise this volume. Here, a useful framework is that of an archaeology of the modern world”.2 In fact, the paper I originally used from this volume deals with the Picts, as part of a comparison, and it’s hard to get less textual evidence for a medieval culture than exists from Pictland, so I don’t really know what they thought they were doing with this introduction. They try and break down the work they’re presenting into themes, Scale, Agency, Materiality, Meaning, Identity, and Representation, which should be useful, but they’re all incoherent and run into one another, at least as presented here; for example, almost all of the relevant paragraphs involve questions of scale, in as much as they see a common theme as being the linking of the microcosmic to the global. So why not just say that once? And so on.

It’s not just that this wasn’t thought out and that they slight my period that bothers me. Slighting my period is costing them. If you prowled a list of medieval archaeological seminars from some suitably involved department you’d see loads of centre-and-periphery stuff, at least partly driven by the effect that these anthropological and sociological concepts have had on history of the period; I’m told that agency is now out of fashion though I continue to find it a very useful concept for my work; materiality is a weak spot for many medievalists, but obviously really not for medieval archæologists—how can this be a special characteristic of any branch of archæology?—and meaning is something that this introduction fails to locate at all, but we working on the Middle Ages have to defend that they mean something quite often. Lastly identity (because the question of how we represent the medieval world in the present I feel were best left to those like the team at In The Medieval Middle who specialise in it): how much work on medieval identity is there? To read this you’d think this was a new way to take archæology rather than something that two decades’ work on ethnogenesis could inform.3 The places where the texts can’t guide you through the material remains but both sides have to struggle to work it out are where these theories have been melded, tested, bent, broken and reformed for some time now. It’s worth paying attention to us, guys.

(Oh, and while I’m snarking about bad historicity in historical archæology: really, diggers at Bective Abbey, the Cistercians’ were not the first economically viable monasteries. Look up the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie sometime to see how much food a Benedictine house that was well-landed and determined could produce. Enough to feed its community, their labourers and twenty to fifty pilgrims daily, up to 420 mouths a day, people.4 Even in Ireland monks did not subsist on food handouts from the nobility. You have taken the Cistercian bait hook, line and sinker, sorry.)

1. 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.

2. Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman, “Introduction: Archaeology of the Modern World”, ibid. pp. 1-19, quotes here from pp. 1 & 2.

3. There’s been so much of that that it’s hard to know where to start but a review of sorts can be found in Andrew Gillett, “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe” in History Compass Vol. 4 (Oxford 2006) [ironically, from the same publishing house], pp. 241-260.

4. Partial transl. in Paul Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Reading in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 223-229, citing Léon Levillain (ed.), “Les statuts d’Adalhard” in Le Moyen Âge, 2e série Vol. 4 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 354-359. It’s in the first edition of Dutton too but I don’t own that to check pp.

7 responses to “And this *isn’t*…

  1. For the ancient works isn’t actually the form which is medieval (texts written in Carolingian minuscule, for instance) or some later changes of an ancient original content (the texts being corrupted through transcriptions or sometimes preserved only in epitomes)? But once paleography and textual criticism achieve some results, the archaeologists of Classical Greece and Roman Empire mostly use as historical evidence an (assumed) ancient content. A content referring to events happening and persons living two millenia ago (not one). And that’s only the case when these archaeologists rely on texts preserved in manuscripts, because the inscriptions have a different history.

  2. Swein Forkbeard

    If its any comfort, about the dissolving of the medieval history courses, at the high school I went to over here on the other side of the pond, there was a class that covered medieval history. IIRC, it covered mainly English kings, with special emphasis on William I and Henry II’s wife and sons. I still remember that the teacher told us that if we remember nothing else to “remember the date 1066”.

  3. Pingback: The unexamined project is not worth… er… projecting? Or, Help, I got some Foucault on me « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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