Category Archives: archaeology

Seminars CCLXIX & CCLXX: From opposite ends of the Mediterranean

I’ve just had a look through my seminar notes from March 2019 and decided that two still bear the telling. As ever, it is good of those who still read here to bear with my efforts to reduce the backlog in the face of the fact that things continue to occur meanwhile… But back then when my backlog is, at the beginning of the month I was present on the 4th when Professor John Moreland addressed Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies Medieval Group with the title, “Sheffield Castle: archives, excavations, and augmented reality, 1927-2018”, and then I was around again on the 27th when Dr Helen Birkett addressed the IMS Medieval History Seminar with the title, “News, Current Events, History: The Preservation of News Texts from 1187/8”. I’ve got no way to tie these together except that they were in the same month in the same university and I saw them both, but why should we need more, eh?

Poster for seminar by John Moreland at the University of Leeds

Seminar poster by Thomas Smith

So to begin with Professor Moreland’s paper, I have to admit that I did not previously know that Sheffield had had a castle. But there was one, and a recent bequest had enabled the University’s then-untroubled archaeology department to start a partnership up with the contract organisation Wessex Archaeology (who for reasons unexplained have an office in Sheffield) and the university’s department of Computer Science, to go over the work that had been done on it and try to synthesize the results of old and new digs. The castle has been dug quite a lot, apparently, being located, under what was between the 1960s and very recently the city market, by an amateur archaeologist in the 1920s and then dug for a decade, with some more work on its perimeter in the 1950s and new work just beginning at the date of this paper. The paper was as much about why what had been done had been done as what it actually was, but the basic story was that some kind of castle was probably put here in the 12th century by one William de Loyelote, built up rather with a gatehouse after license was given to crenellate in 1258, and then possibly burnt in a sack of the city of 1266 by a man really genuinely called John De Eville. There was some rebuilding thereafter and it was still a going concern in the 16th century, and indeed in the English Civil War though perhaps not going enough as it fell to siege in 1644 and 1646 and was slighted in 1649-1650.

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s – sadly, Sheffield’s website doesn’t say which

The question that now arises is what bits of this actually survive. The 1920s-30s digs found lots, and some of that was photographed in situ, very luckily for such old archaeology, but that archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, tended to date what he found from known history, such as the 1266 burning, so that various wooden structures showing destruction by fire he considered to be pre-1266 and everything above them to have been the 13th-17th-century building, which Professor Moreland though would likely prove wrong given the relative depths of stratification. In that case, this fire must have happened earlier and the 1266 sack of the city may not have hurt the castle at all. Another point of difference was over the material that Armstrong considered to have been ‘Saxon’, an alleged cruck-built building in the central courtyard and some of the material culture. Professor Moreland, however, thought that there was no pre-Conquest material at all, and that Armstrong was just after pushing his native city’s origins back to when it could be ‘Germanic’ rather than ‘French’, this mattering rather more in the atmosphere of the 1930s, though not always that way round… The oldest remains Professor Moreland had been able to date were late 11th-century, at which point there seems to have been a Norman motte with maybe a wooden gatehouse. But by this stage he had five minutes left to talk, so we didn’t get all the details of that I might have wanted, and the promised ‘augmented reality’ ironically never materialised, then or now. However, you can find out more! Wessex Archaeology have a good web-page on the digs, including their 602-page site report which, I admit, I didn’t read for this post (or at all), and a video by Professor Moreland explaining what the augmented reality stuff would have been like.1 Also, not very long after this paper, there emerged a book, so it is certainly possible for you to learn more.2

Dr Birkett’s paper was a very different sort of thing, not just because it completed within the time allowed but also because it was a proper old-fashioned text-mining medievalist study, which as I only now find out, had already been published at the point when she gave it to us.3 The object of the search was to find out how people in the West found out about the recapture of Jerusalem by the forces of Islam, under the famous Saladin, in 1187. We know that it created enough of a furore that eventually King Richard I of England, King Philip II Augustus of France and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa all went out to try and get it back – but how did the news actually get to their royal ears?

Poster for seminar by Helen Birkett at the University of Leeds

Poster again by Thomas Smith

Obviously, the answer was probably letters, but what I hadn’t expected was firstly that we would have any such letters surviving, and secondly where they turn up. These were surprises because actually, there are 13, but none are actual autographs by people of 1187; instead, such texts were later copied into chronicles and histories, or just copied; we have some loose copies which got used as bindings, and one rather mystifying copy of a letter from Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (the Latin patriarch, despite his name) that now survives in the Arxiu Parroquial of Cardona, of which town we heard only a couple of posts ago so you know it’s in Catalonia. In fact two such letters made it to Catalonia, but it doesn’t seem to have raised the same response as other places… But from the image I was pretty sure it was a local copy – I know the scripts! – so there was a kind of response even so.

But that is a whole book’s worth of study and for someone else. Better questions to ask might be, as did Alan Murray, of course present, whether multiple copies of such letters were being sent, or whether one was sent and then copied for dissemination, and Dr Birkett thought the latter. There is a particular one by a Templar called Terricas (apparently) which exists in more copies than any other, and Dr Birkett thought that the actual man’s journey westwards to seek help could be tracked. I don’t, myself, see why that precludes him fetching up in, say, Genoa, and then writing his letter and having copies sent hither and thither; but of course, I haven’t seen it, and either solution does explain why what we have is not the original letters, and reminds us that in this era (and to be honest, our one too) a letter only arrives because someone or a chain of someones physically brings it; that process also attracted questions, but answers are hard to provide. Dr Birkett herself was more interested in why these texts were still being copied up long after they were ‘news’, because outside the chronicle texts the preservation rarely seems to have been part of a plan; their homes were often blank folios in manuscripts made for other purposes. It is possible that, since Jerusalem was never recaptured (unless we count Emperor Frederick II’s attempt, which because the Church judged him to be a bad guy we seem never to do), this was ‘news’ that never got old. But the samples are very small, and I was myself wary of any generalisation of plotting trends of 2-4 manuscripts. But the questions are still interesting to ask, and maybe there are more answers to be found.

That will have to do you for this week. Next post will be some more current news and then I have an old musing that never before got written up about the role of the blog in/as scholarship, so please stay tuned for those, and if that’s not enough I hope to have more critique of a certain historian of early medieval military matters ready to go after that, surely therefore something for all tastes. Stay well and safe till then!


1. It is Sheffield Castle, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Final Archaeological Evaluation Report, by Ashley Tuck, 201540.05 (Sheffield 2020), online here.

2. John Moreland, Dawn Hadley and Ashley Tuck, Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927–2018 (York 2020), online here.

3. Helen Birkett, “News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187–1188” in Viator Vol. 49 (Turnhout 2018), pp. 23–61, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.119573.

Gallery

Dead Vikings in Carlisle

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Sorry for the absence: despite working to contract at the moment, it turns out life fills up blogging time with work for other people sometimes. In order to get something out for the Bank Holiday weekend, however, here is a … Continue reading

Seminars CCLIII-CCLVI: Friends and the Famous Speaking at Leeds

There is a lot of unpleasantness going on just now, he says in a classic understatement. I had most of a series of angry posts about the state of the English university done when Russia invaded Ukraine, something I’d barely seen coming and which is starting, as people break out the word ‘nuclear’, to sound a lot like the bad dreams of my Cold War childhood over again. Now it seems a bit selfish to complain about having secure if worsening employment while others are losing their homes and lives. The Ukraine conflict has also got some pretty deep and obvious medievalist resonances, but with fighting going on at this moment, I cannot look at that now. Instead I’m staying safe around the turn of 2018/2019, when because I was not on Action Short of Strike and being threatened with total pay deduction because of it, I was still going to seminars. I cannot get to many seminars down south any more, so it is always important when people come north (or in one of these cases, east), and in normal circumstances I try to be there whoever’s speaking. But for these four I was there because I knew or knew of the people and was glad to have them visiting us, and so they each get a short report despite this having happened three years ago plus, sorry.

Real Royal Protection for the Carolingian Church?

First up, then, and coming from least far was my sort-of-opposite number in Manchester, Dr Ingrid Rembold, who on 28th November 2018 was in Leeds to address our Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Widows, Orphans and the Church: protection and virtue signalling in the Carolingian world”. Here, Ingrid was looking at the three categories of society whom Carolingian Western Europe considered it a royal duty to protect, and asking why and what it actually got them. For the Church we mainly had monasteries to talk about, and she had some good critical things to say about the legal category of ‘royal’ monastery, which I have myself also always struggled to find expressed in the actual sources; and her general argument that these obligations (which the previous royal dynasty don’t seem to have felt anything like as keenly) mainly sprang from the Old Testament and the idea of the Church as the bride of Christ, temporarily ‘widowed’ by His absence from Earth, I thought was new and sounded right.1

The Torhalle of the Lorsch monastery

The Torhalle of Lorsch monastery, supposedly a ‘royal’ house but whatever that means, this is a building through which Carolingian kings almost certainly passed. Image by Kuebi – Armin Kübelbeck – self-made with 36 single shots (Lens: 1:1.8 85 mm; 1:5.6; 1/500s; ISO 100; manual focus and manual exposure) made by stitching with Hugin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Where there was more disagreement, however, although mainly between me and Fraser McNair, then of this parish, was about what this protection meant and how it was delivered. Ingrid had quite early on argued that Carolingian local power was so reliant on the local powerful that its legislation of this kind could only be exhortatory, without real force except as those locals cared to enforce it, which for her presented the problem that monasteries sometimes sought royal protection against exactly those locals, which makes no sense if they were the ones who would have to deliver it. If, after all, they actually did behave differently because the king told them to, even if he couldn’t coerce them, that is arguably a more powerful king, not less, than if he had to send the boys round. And that does seem to have happened in Catalonia, I will admit, with royal grant after royal grant coming south from kings who could not appoint, remove or direct anyone there; but I have explained how I think that worked, and it’s not universal.2 I just think there was more use of force available to the Carolingian state than Ingrid does, apparently. She fairly asked whether it counts as state power if a local person does it, too, and this was where Fraser and I disagreed. I think the Carolingians mostly could send someone else into a local area with legitimate power to act, if they needed to, because of the three-legged structure of counts, Church and vassals they maintained, whereas Fraser argued that their trick was to recruit the locals into the wider power ideology of ministerium, so that yes, it absolutely did count as state enforcement if a local man did it, as long as he was the right local man.3 I just think that, optimally at least, there were plural right local men, and maybe the lengthy conversations between myself and Joseph Brown in comments on my old posts at the moment are partly about what happened once there was only a singular one in many areas.

Middle-Age spread in the English village

Then, on 4th December, no less a celebrity than Professor Carenza Lewis visited to deliver one of the Institute for Medieval Studies’ open lectures, with the title, “Triumph and Disaster: new archaeological evidence for the turbulent development of rural settlement”. This was showcasing a then-new project of which she was leader, which was seeking to redress the fact that we have a pretty skewed and partial sample of medieval rural settlement in England from archæology, mostly either deserted sites or along a belt from Hampshire to Lincolnshire and then up the Eastern Pennines. To remedy this, her team had been digging dozens and dozens of test pits of a meter square or so in people’s gardens, which was excellent for public engagement as well as data, and what they had mainly discovered was change. Thinly-documented phenomena like the ‘Middle Saxon shuffle’ (a general but not well understood shift of early English villages) showed up well, but the starkest two phenomena were, most of all, desertion of sites after the Black Death, to levels like 40-45% of sites with a concomitant implication of moves into towns as well as, you know, ‘Death’; and, secondly, the long period of high medieval growth before it. Those, perhaps, were not surprises, but they are often assumed from a small sample, so anything that puts such generalisations on firmer footings is probably worthwhile. What was weird to me then and remains so now, however, is that the Roman period, when we suspect settlement in lowland Britain to have been at its densest really until quite recently, showed up very poorly. Professor Lewis didn’t offer an explanation for this, but it made me wonder whether the method was somehow missing an object signature that would be significant. Since Roman ceramics are usually both plentiful and easy to recognise, however, as are Roman coins, I can’t imagine what it would have been! The Saxon period is usually poorer in material remains…4

Making Manuscripts under the Conquistadors

Then, finally ticking over the clock in 2019 and bringing this blog close to only three years behind at last, on 28th January 2019 Dr Claudia Rogers, then of Leeds and as we’ve seen a valued teaching colleague, presented some of her work in a workshop for the Medieval Group under the title of “Encountering Pictorials: a a workshop on sixteenth-century Meso-American manuscripts”. I know that this is not medieval on the usual European clock, but in the first place we have the debate about whether that counts outside Europe – but of course it’s kind of patronising and colonial to assert that, outside Europe, other places were ‘medieval’ for longer, so that’s not my justification here. Instead, I’ll argue that these manuscripts are some of our windows on the pre-Columbian time before, which is medieval on the European clock at least, and also that they’re just really cool.

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos showing just some of the stuff which the Aztecs had previously claimed in tribute every 80 days from their dependencies, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

They are, however, wickedly complex to interpret. They are mostly on bark-paper, and come in three broad categories, organising knowledge by place (being, roughly, figured maps of significant things, people or events), events (iconographic treatments of single themes in detail, as here the tributes paid at conquest) or, to me most intriguing, by time, these being calendrical, cyclical, year-by-year chronicles with one image only per year to sum up everything in it. Obviously, one of their primary topics is the ‘Qashtilteca’ (‘Castile-people war’), but their reactions to it and involvements with it are quite complicated, and implicated: one group who produced several of these texts, the Tlaxcalans, had been in rebellion against the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived, and gladly accepted help against their overlords from the conquistadores, who, however, then turned on and subjugated their erstwhile allies. Tlaxcalan artist-scribes thus had a lot to explain. Smaller themes of the conquest can be picked up as well; apparently dog attacks on people became a new theme of depiction, for example. And these texts were produced in a world where the Spaniards were the new élite, and some were glossed in Castilian so we know that they were sometimes being explained to the conquerors. Are they therefore colonial or indigenous, collaborative or critical? Complications also arise when you compare these texts with solely-written ones of the same period: they seem to focus on different things, including giving more prominent roles to women. Was that a genre convention, or was one mode of discourse closer to (someone’s) truth than the other? And so on. And then there’s the question of what gets assumed or put back in the restorations that are making these texts increasingly available. Basically, you have to have a 360° critique going on at all times when trying to do history with these. Claudia did not necessarily have answers to these questions then, but even explaining the complexity of her questions was quite a feat, to be honest…5

Exemption by Whatever Means

Lastly for this post, a mere two days later I was back in probably the same room, I don’t remember, to hear then-Dr Levi Roach present to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Forging Exemption: Fleury from Abbo to William (997-1072)”. This was a paper dealing with no less fiendish, but much more focused, questions of source critique, revolving around the French monastery of Saint-Bénoît de Fleury (a ‘royal’ monastery in theory, but as we shall see and as Ingrid had already told us, that didn’t necessarily mean much). At the very end of the tenth century, Fleury found itself caught between a new dynasty of kings and their client, Bishop Arnulf of Orléans, Fleury’s local diocesan bishop, both of which were a problem for them (for reasons my notes don’t actually record). As well as Fleury’s own rights, they were in contention over the much bigger issue of who should be the Archbishop of Reims, a long-running fracas I will let someone else try and explain instead of me. For all these reasons, the monks found they needed extra support, and Abbot Abbo (or, I suppose, Abbo Abbot) went to Rome to get it, at that stage not yet a normal thing to do. Pope John XV apparently charged too much, but Pope Gregory V was more amenable and Abbo allegedly came back with a document detailing lots of things bishops could not demand from them.6 The problem is, however, that it’s not confirmed, and there is a nest of associated forgeries for other monasteries, and Levi’s work for about half his paper was to disentangle those from whatever the source of the copy of this document we now have actually was. Those who know my work well will realise that this twitched several of my interests, because only a few years before, I have argued that a count of Barcelona also went to the pope, on this occasion John XIII, to get a privilege which was not in fact awarded, and came back with the unconfirmed documents they’d presumably tried to get him to sign and pretended they were legit; but no-one believed them.7 Both that and the resort to the pope only when the king couldn’t or wouldn’t provide therefore looked quite familiar to me.8 I did raise these questions with Levi, indeed, and he defended his position by saying that when Fleury’s privilege was challenged, which it was, it was challenged on the basis of being unprecedented – quite literally uncanonical – rather than on being faked. To which I say, OK, but that doesn’t actually tell us what was going on. I need to check in on Levi’s subsequent work and find out what he now thinks, I guess! Had I but world enough and time, and did it not look like labour for my bosses when I’m on strike…9

But there you are, four good papers and only a selection of what I attended in November 2018 to January 2019 as well. Some of us clearly do find time to do research, or did! And I’m glad that they then come to Leeds when they have.


1. My picture of what the Carolingians did with monasteries probably relies principally on Matthew Innes, “Kings, Monks and Patrons: political identities and the Abbey of Lorsch” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 301–324, online here, which I still think is excellent, as I do most of Matthew’s stuff, but may still take that category of ‘royal monastery’ somewhat for granted.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. The odd thing is that I think we are both here channelling Matthew again, in the form of Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), just apparently from different directions.

4. When reporting at this distance, it’s always wise to check if something has actually come out that would represent a more up to date presentation of the same research, and in this case it seems to have, as Carenza Lewis, “A Thousand Years of Change: New Perspectives on Rural Settlement Development from Test Pit Excavations in Eastern England” in Medieval Settlement Research Vol. 35 (Leicester 2020), pp. 26–46.

5. In Claudia’s case the subsequent publication is newer media, John Gallagher, Nandini Das and Claudia Rogers, “New Thinking: First Encounters”, MP3, BBC Radio 3, Arts & Ideas, 23rd October 2019, online here.

6. This must be Maurice Prou and Alexandre Vidier (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Documents publiés par la Société archéologique du Gâtinais 5-6 (Paris 1907-1912), 2 vols, online here and here, I, doc. no. LXXI.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1–42.

8. I can’t take any credit for noticing people from the Catalan counties heading for Rome like they’d used to head to the king; that observation goes back as far as Ramon d’Abadal, Com Catalunya s’obri al món mil anys enrera, Episodis de la història 3 (Barcelona 1960).

9. It’s at least easy enough to find out that is, because Levi has since been all over the web about a book he’s published, Levi Roach, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton NJ 2021), DOI: 10.1515/9780691217871, where pp. 113-152 look very much like a version of this paper.

Link

A really good way to display coins (in Ankara)

This must be a short post today, as I’m trying to write something substantial about the UK’s higher education situation that will then appear here, but happily there is something short I did want to share with you all. Those who’ve been following this blog and my career for a while will remember that I have done some time in museums’ coin collections, and mounted an exhibition or two. As a result, I’ve come up against – and even published on – the two perennial problems of the numismatic curator, to wit, firstly our most common piece of feedback, “they’re very small, aren’t they?” and secondly, the fact that coins have two faces and in a normal exhibition case you can only show one. My usual solution has been photographic enlargements that include the face that’s downwards in the case, but there are certainly more effective – and expensive – ways to do it.1 There is also the problem that you can’t usually display very much of a coin collection without saturating everyone’s interest well beyond any normal point. And, as a result of the British Academy Writing Workshops I mentioned three posts back taking me to Ankara, I saw a new solution to all these problems (new at least to me) and was quite impressed.

https://nomadicniko.com/2019/11/06/erimtan-archaeology-and-arts-museum/

On the second of those trips, having run through some of the major tourist destinations already, we found ourselves outside an establishment called the Erimtan Arkeoloji ve Sanat Müzesi (Erimtan Archaeology and Arts Museum) and went in to have a look. That link above will take you to the photos of someone else who did that thing, for I took none apparently, but they’re worth a look not just for the space but because of the coin displays. The collection is actually stored, at least in part, in the museum hall itself, in vertical glass panels mounted on runners. If you pull one out at a time, you can see the coins from both sides, from pretty much as close as you could get handling them. The lighting is also such that you can actually see details without the other objects in the display hall suffering from exposure. It’s brilliant, and must have cost a bomb. But then, almost everything that’s in here turns out to have been one person’s collection, and the buildings themselves are leased from the Turkish government, so I’m guessing that money is a problem they (at least then) faced less than some other museums do. Still: if I ever find myself advising a museum with a numismatic collection they want to store and display in a safe and useful fashion for the foreseeable future, I’ll have this in mind!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: care and use. A Guide to Best Practice by the COINS Project (Cambridge 2009), pp. 19-24.

Digging normality in the 11th-century Pyrenees

Hullo again! It’s been quite the festive season, and hasn’t left a lot of time for blogging, but I did have some subjects lined up and here is one of them, arising as I foretold from Marta Sancho i Planas‘s paper at the 2018 International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. That was, as I said in the post where I covered the congress, entitled, “The Underground Memory: 25 Years of Medieval Archaeological Research in Catalan Pyrenees“, and used a series of sites to talk the audience through the developments that society up in the south side of the eastern end of the Pyrenees underwent as the Roman system receded and broke up and was slowly turned into something that I would not, but Marta was happy to, call feudalism. Basically, we mean a situation in which the settlement was overdriven by the demands of a taxing state to one where it was more locally driven by the demands of aristocratic landowners with some connections to a state, via a situation in the middle where the economy was more subdued and the state and government only really present, in these areas at least, in the form of the Church, visible largely as monasteries or very tiny village buildings. The social paradigm, therefore, was really nothing we haven’t heard before—and if the results fit that paradigm then that’s hardly a reason to abandon it—but the sites covered for me raised another question, which was one of typicality or normality.1

The Castell de Mur, in Castell de Mur, Pallars Jussà, Catalonia

The Castell de Mur, centre of an eponymous jurisdiction in lower Pallars. Image by Ainhoa from Catalunya – Castell de Mur, licensed under CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

That question could basically be phrased as: what did normal settlement look like up here? For example we can be pretty sure it wasn’t this, Castell de Mur having begun as a round tower on my normal side of the year 1000, when it was still under Islamic control, then developing a curtain wall that didn’t stop it getting taken over in 1048, grabbed by the counts of Pallars in the 12th century and becoming home to a canonry at its nearby church, then the castle being abandoned in the 14th century and the area resettled as a hill village in the 15th. There are aristocratic burials at the church and it was obviously a rather singular settlement socially as well as visually.2 So not this, sure, but then what?

1994 picture of settlement at Vilavella de Castellet, Pallars Jussà, Catalonia

Joaquim Parcerisas Civit, Albert Parpal i Tamburini, Teresa Reyes i Bellmunt & J. Sánchez, “Vilavella de Castellet”, licensed for reproduction from Calaix, online here and photographed before digging began

At first I would have assumed that this place, Vilavella de Castellet, was more like a normal operation, being a sheep-farming settlement that seems to have collected itself into being in the 11th century, and which at its greatest extent was seven houses and a small church, probably 40 people all told.3 This chimed with my then-recent study of Ardèvol and my expectation of dispersed settlement in the mountains but even then, apparently, I was asking this question because my notes have in square brackets, “Typical? Evocative…” And it is the latter, but indeed, is it the former?

The Coll de Fabregada, in Sant Esteve de la Sarga, Pallars Jussà, Catalunya

The Coll de Fabregada, in Sant Esteve de la Sarga, image by Gustau Erill i Pinyot – own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The reason this seemed worth asking in so structured a way as a blog post is that the next place that was looked at, this one or at least in the vicinity, seemed to show a different and unusual pattern but one of which Professor Sancho had a lot more examples. ‘Fabregar’, as you may not know, is the Catalan word for ‘to make’ and more specifically ‘to forge’, and indeed, Fabregada was an iron-working site at a crossroads with charcoal furnaces and water power. It was active from around 1000, and abandoned in the late fourteenth century again (the common factor in these abandonments around that time probably being the major civil war into which Catalonia and its appendages then descended).4 Now, there aren’t many specialised iron-working sites like this in the record; but at Gerri de la Sal, otherwise known for an important monastery, there was salt production of a similar scale, and nearby Vilamolera made millstones. By this time, therefore, I was beginning to wonder if a bit of specialised craft or industrial production was actually what made it worth gathering people together, because sheep-farming obviously doesn’t necessitate that all the sheep farmers live together; in fact, it is kind of hampered by nucleation of settlement.

So although Professor Sancho’s analysis was primarily in terms of changes in power structures, which I would ordinarily default to myself, by the end of this paper what I had begun to see was a settlement structure that was really best explained by the growth of enough of a market economy that specialised production made sense, whoever controlled the means of it. Power is part of the picture, for sure – for example, searching up the images has taught me that once the counts of Pallars owned the iron-works of Fabregada, and gave it to a follower, which is probably exactly the kind of privatisation of fiscal interests that Bonnassie saw and others since him have seen as the feudalisation of Catalonia.5 Nevertheless, I’m not seeing growing feudalisation in this evidence, but rather growing economic connection and complexity. There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg question that then follows about which causes which, and that is an old debate here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. But evidence like this makes it worth asking the question again – at least, if the specialised production villages were actually more normal than the tiny sheep-farming hamlets…


1. Thinking most directly here of Pierre Bonnassie, “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)”, transl. Jean Birrell in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 288–313.

2. The definitive write-up appears to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, Marta Sancho i Planas (ed.), Mur: la historia d’un castell feudal a la llum de la recerca històrica-arqueològica (Tremp 2009).

3. Here the write-up is more recent, being Xavier Badia, Walter Alegría Tejedor, Júlia Coso Alvarez and Sabina Batlle Baró, “Vilavella del Castellet (Tremp, el Pallars Jussà): Resultats de les intervencions arqueològiques realitzades en el període 2015-2018” in Segones Jornades d’arqueologia i paleontologia del Pirineu i Aran (Barcelona 2020), online here, pp. 156–165, but Xavier Costa at least was one of Marta’s students when the digging was happening.

4. Here see Marta Sancho, “Ipsa Fabricata”: Estudi arqueològic d’un establiment siderúrgic medieval (Barcelona 1997).

5. As well as Bonnassie, I’m thinking mainly of Josep M. Salrach, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), but cf. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Arqueologia de la Catalunya feudal i prefeudal: Poblament i territori. El model teòric de la Comarca d’Osona” in Jordi Bolòs (ed.), La caracterització del paisatge històric, Territori i societat: el paisatge històric. Història, arqueologia, documentació 5 (Lleida 2010), pp. 399–465, which reads similar settlement changes differently.

Seminar CCL: heritage employment for historians

Obviously, if I thought all was well in academic employment in the UK I wouldn’t be on strike right now for the fourth time since I got this job, and it is clear that despite what the vice-chancellors would have the world believe, the number of others who feel that way is growing, not shrinking, each time action is resorted to.

All the same, if there is an area of work in a worse state than UK academia for precarious and underpaid employment, it is surely the heritage and museums sector, a sector whose pay is already so poor that people can often only do it as the second job in a household, meaning that the majority of staff in it are female but somehow the majority of management is still male.1 I came from that sector to academia, twice, because of the precareity and low wage; I actually enjoyed the museum work more and might have stayed if there had been any prospect of permanence or progress.2 But I was fortunate enough to work in museums with some private funding, and even then, the job I held at the Fitzwilliam Museum for five years, on a rolling annual contract whose renewal was never certain, does not now exist. I left just in time to see the UK government utterly gut the sector, with national funding briefly being distributed through only four ‘hub’ museums in England, all in the Golden Triangle, before settling on steady money to 14 ‘national’ museums, 13 of which are based wholly or partly in London. Every other museum in England is either privately funded or paid for by the local councils which the same government also progressively defunded under austerity, leaving them surviving on volunteer labour, what grants they can scrounge, or a dripfeed of emergency funding that doesn’t allow the establishment of a stable staff base to carry on any work that gets started. (The situation in Scotland and Wales is a bit different, and I’m not really up to speed with it, so while I realise that this is to continue that Anglo-centric London-focused attitude, I’m not going to talk about the Home Nations in this post. Sorry. Comments that would educate me are very much welcomed, though!)

So, for all these reasons, whenever someone in academic history hits upon the idea that we could increase our graduates’ employment prospects by directing them at the heritage sector, my reaction is more or less this:

Jack Nicholson emphatically saying 'no'

And thus you may imagine that when I learned that, on 14 May 2018, the Medieval Group in the Institute for Medieval Studies here at the University of Leeds were hosting a three-speaker workshop entitled “A Day in the Life of… Heritage Professionals”, I was initially a bit sceptical that we should really be doing this. But it was actually very good, and got a good discussion going, and maybe represents a perspective that is more realistic than the one I’ve just given above, so I thought that I should in fairness present it. Our three speakers were:

I had already met Dr Baxter, because she is the Curator of Archaeology at the city museums, which among other things – many other things – puts her in charge of their coin collection, with which some day I hope to do some work. Her actual speciality is Neolithic stuff, but Leeds Discovery Centre houses 25,000 objects from the far end of then to the current end of now, and 15,000 coins (which does seem to be the magic number for underused coin collections I know about). Some of those objects are in drawers, some in cabinets, some in freezers and some are too big to be in anything except the building, and Dr Baxter is the only archaeologist on staff, so specialisation isn’t really an option. This was one of the questions that came up, about how to cope with such breadth, and Dr Baxter and Dr Tuckley gave different sides of the same answer: you can’t really do your thing any more, but you can acquire a lot of new things!

Interior space at Jorvik Viking Centre

Interior space at Jorvik Viking Centre, photo by the Jorvik Group of which Dr Tuckley is part and published in ‘Review: Jorvik Viking Centre’, Current Archaeology no. 327 (London 2017), linked through

Dr Tuckley, then as now Head of Interpretaton and Engagement at his Trust, was more optimistic perhaps because of having slightly more spare staff resource; he works primarily at the famous Jorvik Viking Centre, and for what he’s doing, which is the most patron-facing aspect of the work, just has more staff than Dr Baxter does for her rôle, I guess. Still, the tale he told of getting to where he was, and getting Jorvik to where it was, twice over, was no less frantic and exhausting to hear. The trust of which he is part also had bases on several different constituencies, with heritage units at Steffield, Nottingham and Glasgow, all staffed by ex-commercial archaeologists. Of course, Sheffield’s is now gone and I don’t know how true any of this now is, but at that stage it sounded like a healthily-diversified portfolio. Of course, you would hope a public-sector body didn’t need a business survival strategy, but that’s not where we are these days.

Restored walls at Pontefract Castle

Restored walls at Pontefract Castle, photo at their site, linked through

Eleanor, meanwhile, was the most directly-connected of the speakers to the IMS, having lately been a doctoral student there, but was now coordinating the volunteer staff at Pontefract Castle, one of our locality’s lesser-known medieval sites but one where an awful lot has been done in recent years by volunteers, including several from the IMS. The scheme had been built from the ground up and at the time of the workshop was 4 roles being filled by 70 people, so coordinating it was itself a full-time job, though I don’t remember if Eleanor was actually being paid full-time. Of course, actually doing stuff with a site tends to draw people in to see, so they were still recruiting volunteers but also finding more stuff which they would ideally be doing. Quite how far this job could have been expanded, I don’t know, but since Eleanor is now a Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Armouries in Leeds I suppose that one might argue that it served at least one purpose, and Pontefract Castle still has its volunteers, so this, like Jorvik, was probably a success story in the making.

So where does this leave my gloomy prognosis about graduate employment in the heritage sector? Eleanor has clearly managed it, Kat was there doing it, and Chris Tuckley, as it turned out, was not only an IMS graduate himself but had two more of them on his staff. Nor is he alone in this: someone who was then one of my research postgraduate advisees has also gone to work in the sector and looks likely to stay there for now. One lesson from this might then be that, if you want a job in the heritage sector, come and do a doctorate at the Institute for Medieval Studies! But it was also, I think, a good and somewhat bracing clarification about what that heritage job would look like, and how what it was not was a chance to continue your research. One question that was asked was what each of the speakers would do with one day of fully-funded unconstrained time, and all the answers were ironic, but only one even featured research. At the moment, academia can still sometimes give you that unconstrained time, though one has to ignore a lot of electronic clamour to keep it that way. But as of 2018, at least, I had reasons to think better of the state of the heritage sector than I had been used to do, so this was worth it for that dose of realism and balance as well as for the interest of the various work the speakers had going on.


1. The best figures I can find for this are four to eight years old, in Equality and diversity within the arts and cultural sector in England: evidence and literature review, by Andy Parkinson and by Jamie Buttrick, Final Report (Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2017), online here, so it’s possible things have now changed, but with the pandemic as a factor, we might gloomily guess which way: see Megan Frederickson, “COVID-19’s gendered impact on academic productivity”, preprint in GitHub, 2020, online here, being the broadest-ranging study I’ve seen so far; all the published ones are hard-science-specific.

2. I didn’t necessarily realise this until my last day at the Fitzwilliam, actually, when, searching for something to say at my leaving do, I found myself saying that I’d never regretted having to come into work there. As far as I could remember, it was true. I’m not ragging on academia specifically when I say that I’ve not got that from any other job before or since.

The Three Orders’ Houses: a model on the ground

Somehow I was out doing things yesterday and forgot to write a blog post, sorry, but for once I do have time in the week, so I will make it up now.

The yard at Embsay station on 27th June 2021

What your blogger was looking at yesterday instead of his computer

Here is something about as delayed as even my various crazy backlogs can make something. This was prompted by reading something in the British Library in 2012, back when we could do that thing, and in my notes on it I even then made a note to blog about it; but I didn’t in the end process those notes until late 2017. At that point I laid down a stub to complete later, and now, four years on, here we go. All of this is ironic, because in 2012 I was for once reading something pretty new from Catalonia, an intriguing piece of settlement archaeology discussion by the medieval archaeologist to whom perhaps I owe the most favours in the world, Professora Imma Ollich i Castanyer, about the Catalan monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes.1

Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes

Sant Pere de Rodes from its most impressive side, which is to say, the one that’s mostly there; image by Pixel – own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, that is an inaccurate over-simplification that I should immediately correct. The article, like much of Professor Ollich’s work, is mostly about my favourite study area, the comarc of Osona, and it is a fairly major argument with a basic paradigm of the social history of the tenth and eleventh centuries. This holds that, however you like to explain it, rural settlement in Catalonia was mostly dispersed and only loosely territorialised in the tenth century but by the end of the eleventh had nucleated into reasonably-defined villages. The favourite explanation hitherto has been feudalism, of course, working either through violence compelling people to group together for safety or through aggressive lordship pressing people together to intensify their farming, around either churches or castles depending on the agency, and no, neither of those are completely logical chains of events as I’ve laid them out but for some people they make sense, even now the proponents of those ideas are dead.2 This process is usually referred to as incastellamento, as coined by Pierre Toubert who first observed it in Lazio, is not yet dead and has in recent years suggested that he was probably partly wrong, or encellulement, as coined by Robert Fossier so as to get away from a dependence on castles, and it has been very widely played with, debated, contested and challenged, at least outside Catalonia.3

But this is the scenario on which Professor Ollich’s observations land like a series of well-mannered munitions. She argues that, once you have a decent picture of this area’s, and therefore quite possibly any nearby area’s, settlement patterns, it’s way more diverse than just dispersed or nucleated. She winds up developing a typology that has seven categories, including settlements around churches, settlements around castles, settlements with both (like Tona, where I have of course been and been photographed) and settlements around neither, the first three of which can be split into ones where the settlement predated the supposed focal point or points and ones where it didn’t. Only two or three of these seven types conform to the dominant paradigm, so even if it turns out still to have been numerically dominant, which Professor Ollich doesn’t think it was in Osona, that paradigm at least needs to give up some room to alternatives. It’s one of those arguments that makes such clear sense that once you’ve read it it’s hard to go back, and is a welcome attempt to provide something in place of the theory one’s out to demolish.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

But, despite its importance, that isn’t the thing that I thought, nine years ago, I should blog about. That was Professor Ollich’s final example, which is, as promised, Sant Pere de Rodes, out in coastal Empúries way to the north-east. She picks on Sant Pere because it gives her several of her types of settlement in close proximity and shows how an obvious focal point doesn’t necessarily do what the paradigm expects to settlement development. The monastery was first here, and its tangled history is more than we can go into here; suffice to say that there is an argument about whether, as its documents claim, it was founded in a wasteland location or if it was deliberately sited on Roman remains instead, and of course it could probably be both and curious treasures have allegedly been found there that might provide more esoteric explanations and we could go on. But right now I shan’t; you just need to know that in the ninth century someone started a monastery there, in the tenth century some of the local counts decided to make it their pet monastery and by the eleventh century it was, as they say ‘kind of a big deal’.4 But it didn’t ever pull a village round itself. Instead, a village that was almost certainly related grew up somewhere quite close by, at Santa Creu. It was then fortified in the eleventh century, so looks like an independent effort, but its major market and lord must still have been the monastery. Furthermore, there was also a local castle, eventually, at Verders, and that had its own church so could in theory also have gone it alone. But because they were all here they perhaps prevented each other from becoming the major force in the locality. The Google Map below sows them in relation to each other. In the end, the monastery, the oldest, was also the longest lasting, but then it was also way rich, at least for a while, so perhaps that isn’t surprising.

Now, apart from the neat demonstration that the basic model just isn’t complex enough to handle the actual variation of human activity, and the encouraging thought that nonetheless we might still be able to build an adequate one (this is a big mantra of mine these days), the obvious thing that struck me here is that it’s a settlement archaeology demonstration of that old eleventh-century trope about medieval society being divided into three orders, those who fight, those who work and those who pray. Because, look, here’s where they all lived: a castle, a village and a monastery! It should have been the perfect arrangement, at least for someone like Adalbero of Laon. As it is, I imagine they actually disputed with each other like cats and dogs, and that our records would (if Sant Pere’s charters hadn’t mostly been lost) show that the Church mostly won even if it actually didn’t, but the point is, here they all are, almost as if it was real. That is very definitely not the theory Professor Ollich set out to address, and I don’t mean to make any claim that my observation actually, you know, means anything, but once I’d thought it I had to say it, even if I do so nine years (and one day) late…


1. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Arqueologia de la Catalunya feudal i prefeudal: Poblament i territori. El model teòric de la Comarca d’Osona” in Jordi Bolòs (ed.), La caracterització del paisatge històric, Territori i societat: el paisatge històric. Història, arqueologia, documentació 5 (Lleida 2010), pp. 399–465.

2. The most obvious progenitors of this idea locally would be Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195–208, and, of course, Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : Croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols. A fairly recent acceptance of it can be found in Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, “Early and High Medieval ‘Incastellamento’ in Northern Iberia: Fortified Settlements in the Basque Country and Upper Ebro Valley (9th–12th Centuries)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 192–204.

3. Some later takes on the idea, led indeed by Toubert, in Miguel Barceló and Pierre Toubert (edd.), L’incastellamento: actes des recontres de Gérone (26-27 novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 mai 1994), Collection de l’École française de Rome 241 (Rome 1998); Toubert’s most recent re-evaluation in “L’incastellamento: Problèmes de définition et d’actualisation du concept” in Sandra Pujadas i Mitjà (ed.), Actes del Congrés Els Castells Medievals a la Mediterrània Nord-Occidental celebrat a Arbúcies, els dies 5, 6, i 7 de març de 2003 (La Gabella 2003), pp. 21–35. For Fossier still doing his thing, see Robert Fossier, “The Rural Economy and Demographic Growth” in David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith (edd.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, volume IV, c. 1024–c. 1198 (Cambridge 2004), 2 vols, I, pp. 11–46. More recent demolition efforts in †Riccardo Francovich, “The Beginnings of Hilltop Villages in Early Medieval Tuscany” in Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick (edd.), The long morning of medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 55–82.

4. For the monastery’s early history, at least, see Montserrat Mataró i Pladelasala and Eduard Riu-Barrera, “Sant Pere de Rodes: un monasterio condal en la periferia del extinguido imperio carolingia (siglos X y XI)” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X): 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuïc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 236–242, transl. as “Sant Pere de Rodes: a large monastery under the countship on the edge of the Carolingian empire (10th – 11th centuries)”, ibid., pp. 536-539.

A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?


1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it. Continue reading

An argument for Merovingian control in Álava

So, I promised there would be more academic content soon, and I think this is some of it, though there might be room for debate. You see, we’re still back about four years in my academic life here, in October 2017, at which point something happened which I had never before experienced, which was… research leave. It was only one semester, and I had to finish four articles in it, but still, it was a bit of a shock to the system, as I had to learn how to manage unstructured time again.1 Probably the below has nothing to do with anything I was supposed to be doing, but I’m going to explain my happening on it as part of that learning process and just tell you about it.

Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun

Professor Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun of the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

So, in a fairly obscure volume of proceedings from a conference in Galbiate, Northern Italy, in 1991, there is a paper by Basque archaeologist Agustín Azkarate Garai-Olaun called “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue”.2 I’m not sure why he decided to publish this in English, but I’m glad he did or when noting the contents of the volume I might not have bothered to skim it. Having done so, though, this is what I found, summarised as bullets:

  1. We know very little with any security about the history of the ‘Wascons’ (as he unfortunately chose to translate Vascones) in late Antiquity, because writers about them tend just to repeat stereotypes about obstreporous barbarians who wouldn’t toe political lines (pp. 179-180).
  2. Since the fifth century saw them attacked by Romans, Sueves then Visigoths, all coming through the Western Pyrenees, the Basques must have been involved in things (pp. 180-183).
  3. Nonetheless, the first real textual whisper we get of their existence after the collapse of Roman government is a Visigothic royal campaign against them in 581, followed by many more, after a few of which we also start to have records of Basque raiding and even settlement in south-western Gaul, in the patch, indeed, which is now Gascony (pp. 183-184).
  4. However, archaeologically, these violent settlers are basically undetectable; they did not apparently use a distinctive material culture which can be recognised in finds or organise settlement in any distinctive way (pp. 184-185), BUT!
  5. A cemetery at Aldaieta, close to Vitoria, has instead shown, as well as quite a variety of burial rites, weaponry and dress fittings of decidedly Frankish types, rather than the Visigothic ones which the Visigothic sources’ claims of dominion might lead one to expect (pp. 184-186). So, what’s up with that?
  6. Well, others have noted place-names south of the Pyrenees based on the word ‘Frank’, and the pseudonymous Frankish chronicler Fredegar reports sixth-century Frankish campaigns into the Iberian Peninsula as far south as Saragossa, and even Frankish rule of the northern province of Cantabria under a duke actually (and suspiciously) called Franco; but in general no-one much from either side of the Pyrenees in the modern era has thought this at all likely and have pointed to the lack of material evidence which might support it (pp. 186-188).3
  7. So, obviously, Aldaieta looks a lot like that material evidence, as does further burial evidence from a cemetery in Pamplona, where the excavator classed the goods as Merovingian (i e. Frankish) and everyone who’s written about it since has called them Visigothic, and another then-unpublished site called Buzaga adds to this sample (pp. 188-190).
  8. So, maybe this is how come the Basques could keep chasing off the much-more-powerful Visigoths: they had Frankish back-up (pp. 190-191)! He promises more support for this soon (p. 191), and I have not come across it but the man has published a lot, I haven’t read it all, perhaps it’s out there. But this is enough to think with.

It’s an unusual argument: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else contend that the Merovingian Franks had any control in the Iberian Peninsula, though he has cites for others. But there are things one can line up with the idea. Gregory of Tours records a number of sixth-century Frankish campaigns bound for the Peninsula. They didn’t all get there, but it was still evidently Frankish campaigning space.4 It would also make a certain amount more sense of the Carolingians’ repeated attempts to intervene over the Pyrenees, which have never really fitted with their expressed idea of renovatio regnum francorum, ‘renewal of the kingdom of the Franks’, if some of that territory had in fact previously been claimed by Frankish kings, and an ongoing idea of that kind might even explain the otherwise rather odd apparent obeisance on the part of King Alfonso II of Asturias to Charlemagne recorded by the Royal Frankish Annals in 798, odd because as we normally understand things their territories didn’t meet so you’d think Alfonso could cheerfully ignore Big Chas across the mountains.5

An early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso

All the images I can find of the Aldaieta excavation are full of skeletons, perhaps naturally enough given it was a cemetery dig but still perhaps not what you need with your possibly-breakfast reading. Instead, here is an early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso.

On the other hand… Gregory’s reports, unlike Fredegar’s, don’t imply any Frankish success in establishing a presence south of the Pyrenees; indeed, as Azkarate notes, what Gregory implicitly records is Basque settlers pushing north, not Franks south. It might be that the Merovingians set out to reverse that, but no-one says so. The Carolingians intervened in plenty of places that didn’thave old Frankish claims and always found a justification, and by the time they did it the government on the other side was even foreign and hostile of religion, though the Basques were not and still got hurt badly by the Carolingian efforts.6 Furthermore, the argument that the Basques would have needed Frankish support to throw off Visigothic overrule looks weaker when one remembers that they threw off Carolingian overrule long after the Visigoths were gone (though by then, we could probably use other evidence, including burials at Pamplona again, to suggest that they may have had Muslim back-up…7 The Asturian appeals to the Franks have by now been plausibly put in the context of long-term contests for the Asturian kingship, which may have been split down party lines over exactly the issue of ties to the Franks and, perhaps, consequent choices of Christian sect according to ‘Mozarabic’ Adoptionism led from Toledo and ‘Frankish’ or ‘Roman’ Orthodoxy led from Aachen, and that may be enough to explain both Alfonso II’s sending a tent to Charlemagne and some Frankish-looking architecture in Oviedo.8

An early medieval belt buckle and weapon fittings from burials at Aldaieta, Basque Country

Actually, I tell a lie, here is some of the Aldaieta kit, apparently on display at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum Mainz, or at least on their website (linked through)

But all that is textual argumentation, you may say, and Azkarate was presenting archaeological evidence, as he points out, indeed, “archaeological data which is often more truthful given its involuntary nature” (p. 180), so hasn’t he still got a point? Well, obviously, material culture is portable, and anyone can use it unless there is some restriction, economic or social, on doing so. I’m conscious that in England there are good cases of proven-locals buried with ‘Germanic’ weapons, that on the eastern Frankish border there have been found Saxons with Thuringian kit and that in the territories of the Avars, to judge by their chosen dress fittings, as someone put it at a seminar I was at once, ‘men are from Bavaria and women are from Byzantium’.9 This stuff is chosen, that’s the point; pots don’t mean people and Frankish weapons do not have to mean Frankish occupation, rather than Frankish arms sales, or raided Frankish armouries, since even arms sales would tell us about contact and a power balance; I’m not sure, given their concern about exporting weapons to the Vikings, that the Franks would have been kitting out Basques when they had to fight them nearly as often.10 But that is to look back from the Carolingian period and its concerns onto the Merovingian one, whose kings surely had their own ideas (and no Vikings).

So at the end I’m not sure. I’ve never seen anyone else pick this up; but given where this came out, in a conference volume almost all of which is Italian-focused, would anyone else who needed it have found it? I didn’t come across this by deliberate search, I know that much.11 Obviously a lot hangs on the ‘ethnic’ identification of these weapons and grave-goods, and they were all a small number of the burials in their cemeteries, which again opens up questions about who carried (or at least was buried with) weapons in these societies. I’m no kind of archaeologist, barely know my Salin from my Saxon, so I shouldn’t be allowed to pronounce, really. But I wonder if there is anyone reading who has a better idea, or fewer scruples…


1. To be completed: Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535; idem, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: Cereal Yields in Early Medieval Europe and the 2:1 Misapprehension” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67.2 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28; idem, “Keeping it in the Family? Consanguineous Marriage and the Counts of Barcelona, Reviewed” (forthcoming) and idem, “Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia” in English Historical Review (forthcoming). Actually completed: Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics”; idem, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 34 (forthcoming); “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, for Michelle Armstrong-Partida, Dana Wessell Lightfoot and Alexandra Guerson (edd.), Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Lincoln NB 2020), but rejected from that volume and only later accepted to be published in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), 125-152; and Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”. Some difficult meetings followed those relevations… But we’ll tell that story, or not, as we get there.

2. Agostin Azkarate Garai-Olaun, “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo and Lanfredo Castelletti (edd.), Il territorio tra tardoantico e altomedioevo: metodi di indagine e risultati (Firenze 1992), pp. 179–191.

3. The Fredegar reference is equivalent to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with its Continuations, translated from the Latin with introduction and notes (London 1960), XXXIII (p. 21), though I don’t have access to that and get the reference from Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd edn (Oxford 1990), pp. 91-92, who gives the translation as: “He [King Sisebut of the Visigoths] won Cantabria, previously held by the Franks, for the Gothic kingdom; a duke named Francio had conquered Cantabria in the time of the Franks, and it had long paid tribute to the Frankish kings.” For me this raises the question, when the heck was ‘the time of the Franks’ from Fredegar’s perspective? But for most other people it has raised the question of whether Cantabria must mean Cantabria as we know it or whether it could include modern-day Álava (Collins, Basques, pp. 91-92). For Azkarate’s purposes, however, it doesn’t matter, since he’s focused on Álava.

4. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (London 1974), III.9 (pp. 170-171), III.29 (pp. 186-187), VI.41 (p. 375), VIII.28 (pp. 456-457) and VIII.30 (pp. 459-460), of which only the first, second and fifth were actually more than plans.

5. On the Carolingian ideological pitch, as evinced by the man who actually secured their transpyrenean territories, Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine, see Josef Semmler, “Renovatio Regni Francorum: die Herrschaft Ludwigs des Frommen im Frankenreich 814-829/830″ in Peter Godman and Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 125–145. On Charlemagne and Asturias, try Roger Collins, “Spain: the Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272–289, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521362924.014, pp. 279-280. He only gives it a paragraph but that is really about all the evidence by itself is worth.

6. Quite a debate has developed in recent years about the Carolingian motivations for intervening in the Iberian peninsula. Compare Jonathan P. Conant, “Louis the Pious and the Contours of Empire” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 336–360, Daniel G. König, “Charlemagne’s ›Jihād‹ Revisited: Debating the Islamic Contribution to an Epochal Change in the History of Christianization” in Medieval Worlds Vol. 3 (Vienna 2016), pp. 3–40, and Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “‘Those same cursed Saracens’: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 405–428.

7. José Antonio Faro Carballa, María García-Barbarena Unzu and Mercedes Unzu Urmeneta, “Pamplona y el Islam: Nuevos testimonios arqueológicos” in Trabajos de arqueología Navarra Vol. 20 (Pamplona 2007), pp. 229–284. There’s also the fact that the Arabic sources in the Peninsula for this area seem to think that the Kings of Pamplona were under pact to the Emir, which could very easily have been true: see Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), pp. 194-198.

8. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: Inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso Antón, Hugh Kennedy and Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: Political Discourses and Forms of Legitimacy in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223–262.

9. England: Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland and Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope Evidence for Mobility, Subsistence Practice, and Status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Washington DC 2005), pp. 123–138, cf. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past & Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22–43, though to be fair to Härke his views have shifted in the light of critique, and idem, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Reading 2011), pp. 1–28, is probably a better reflection of them, if less relevant. For the Saxon-Thuringian example see Patrick Geary, “Rethinking Barbarian Invasions through Genomic History” in Magyar Régészet / Hungarian Archaeology (Autumn 2014), pp. 1–8. A less anonymous reference for Avar material culture could be Falko Daim, “Avars and Avar Archaeology: an introduction”, trans. Ingrid Bühler, in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jörg Jarnut and Walter Pohl (eds), Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval peoples and kingdoms in the transformation of the Roman world, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (Leiden 2003), pp. 463–570.

10. On the Carolingian bans on weapon export, the reference I most easily have is Anne Stalsberg, “Herstellung und Verbreitung der Vlfberht-Schwertklingen: Eine Neubewertung” in Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters Vol. 36 (Bonn 2008), pp. 89–118. On the Basques getting away from their rule, see Collins, “Spain”, pp. 284-289. As for the fact that goods transfer need not mean trade, of course you have all got bored by now with me citing Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, but it’s still really important.

11. It must be admitted that Professor Azkárate has tried addressing other audiences: while looking for images for this post, I found out about A. Azkárate Garai-Olaun, “Francos, Aquitanos y Vascones: Testimonios arqueológicos al Sur de los Pirineos” in Archivo Español de Arqueología Vol. 66 (Madrid 1993), pp. 149–175, online here, which is very much the same argument as idem, “Western Pyrenees”, and Agustín Azkarate, Aldaieta: necrópolis tardoantigua de Aldaieta (Nanclares de Gamboa, Alava), Memorias de yacimientos alaveses 6 (Vitoria 1999).