Category Archives: archaeology

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453″
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death': new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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Seminar CLV: tracking the head of John the Baptist

I proffer my usual apologies for the intermittent service here at the moment. I had hoped that the holidays would give time for blog catch-up but I am between even more places than usual this Christmas and have also been contriving to get about 1,500 words a day of book written and an article finished off and ready to submit, and I’m loath to mess with the magic… Nonetheless, tonight I have some time and so I can tell you about going to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 14th May 2014 to hear Dr Georges Kazan speak to the title, “The Head of St John the Baptist: Byzantium and the Circulation of Relics in the Early Middle Ages”.

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov

This was an unusual paper, not least because the speaker confessed himself out of his area of expertise almost immediately and then turned out to know an awful lot. Dr Kazan’s expertise is archæological, and specifically he knows a lot about reliquary types and designs, especially in the Byzantine world. But reliquaries are what they are only because they contain things connected with saints, and that gets you into the world of hagiography, that most tricky and unreliable of genres. Plucking up his courage after getting involved in the Bulgarian find of relics that were immediately hailed as John the Baptist’s at Sveti Ivan near Sozopol in 2010, as reported sceptically here indeed, Dr Kazan had tried using the texts to tell him what relics of St John the Baptist were around in the early Middle Ages and where, and had been pretty exhaustive in breadth about it.

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The first thing that surprised me about this catalogue is that it was surprisingly unambitious till about 800. Despite John’s fame, his head was not claimed by anyone until the end of the fourth century, although then there were two, in Alexandria and in Constantinople. Other places claimed to have unspecified relics of his and it is possible to guess that these might in fact have been coming from Constantinople, not least because the Sveti Ivan relics were in a reliquary of a type that was exported from there in some numbers. In about 800 a third head came to light, however, and by 814 a fourth one (claimed to be the same one) was in Rome, and after that it begins to get silly: there are, to Dr Kazan’s knowledge, thirty-six claimed heads of John the Baptist currently preserved in whole or in part, and a hundred and thirty-seven relics of him in general, with sixty-seven other cases now lost. All this is exactly why I was sceptical about the Sozopol claim, though I didn’t know the numbers. Interestingly, however, that has been radio-carboned and DNA-tested and comes out (at least the human bones in the casket, which were accompanied by lots more including animal bones 500 years older) as bone from a Middle Eastern male alive in the first century A. D., so at the very least it was a suitably-old body the makers piled in there…

The supposed relics of St John the Baptist as discovered at Sveti Ivan, in the sarcophagus that contained them

Not that there was very much of him… The relics as discovered, in the sarcophagus. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

That was the second thing that surprised me, and the third was that, with excruciating effort, it was more or less possible for Dr Kazan to construct a story that more or less reconciled all the different snippets of hagiography up till 800.1 In that construction, that of the chronicler Rufinus of Aquileia, the body of St John was first reported at Sebaste in Palestine, when with that of the prophet Elisha it was attacked by pagans during Emperor Julian’s persecutions in 361. It was gathered up and brought to Jerusalem for safety, then to Alexandria, then back to Jerusalem in 362, by which time the body had been divided; it was then established in a martyrium in Alexandria (again!) in 395. On the other hand, in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, monks who had found the head in the mid-fourth century were reported to be venerating it in Cilicia during the reign of the Emperor Valens; Valens ordered them brought to Constantinople but the mules pulling the cart would go no further than Cosilaos, where a new cult was set up and whence Emperor Theodosius I removed the relics in 391, taking them to Constantinople where they were established in a church at the Hebdomon.2 The thing that makes this all just about possible is the first story’s insistence that there were two bodies at Sebaste and that they were burnt and broken up; after that, how to know which head was which? Both groups could have believed they had the right one. Of course, then there come the heads of 800, one supposedly located in the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace by yet more monks and stolen off to Emesa by parties unknown, who sealed it into an urn that became the property of an Arian healer, who hid it in a cave when his quackery was revealed and he was run out of the town. The cave got used by hermits, who eventually turned up the urn in 453, and passed it on to a monastery back in Emesa in 753. This was the head that was claimed to be at Rome in 800 but was unfortunately also still attested at Emesa in 814, so by then things have got silly but before 800 the details we have that are not fantastic are not in themselves clearly contradictory.

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich. By LarryB55 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the fact that that is possible does not mean that any of it is true, and the fantastic details do present a problem or two here, ones that may be more apparent to the textual scholar than the archæologist. In the first place, the deposition of the bodies at Sebaste is hard to take in Rufinus’s terms because we have very little sign otherwise of persecution under Julian, rather than just cutting funding. In the second place, of course, it is completely unclear how many of these details could possibly have been known by the people who would have to have hold the story; in the case of the Emesa head most of that is frankly impossible (and this Dr Kazan freely acknowledged). To do any more one would need to know a lot more about the manuscript situation of each of the texts (Rufinus, at least, not being preserved in any version earlier than the seventh century, surely affecting what his redactors knew to be ‘true’ about such matters, and you already know what I think about Sozomen’s critical faculty) but Dr Kazan had not gone any further than the nineteenth-century editions, so there that matter had to rest. At this rate, to accept any of the details as any more than a fortunate stab in the dark by an inventive hagiographer is pretty much unjustifiable, so the body part maths doesn’t really get us very far, and what we are left with is more or less where Dr Kazan had started, the Sozopol sarcophagus and its siblings.

Reliquary box which contained supposed relics of St John the Baptist, found at Sveti Ivan

The reliquary with its lid on. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

By Dr Kazan’s account, pressed from him in questions by Charlotte Roueché, Alan Thacker and Caroline Goodson, these kinds of reliquaries were made in Asia Minor half-finished and finished wherever they were needed, but the best finishing was done in Constantinople. They often contained metal caskets, although both the stone shells and the caskets are found separately. They were not necessarily reliquaries, but were almost always put to funerary purposes and so make sense for that use. It would seem that Constantinople had quite the trade in these things going on, so that by the fifteenth century relics with a Constantinopolitan provenance were considered automatically suspect. Nonetheless, it was and had been for a long time one of the kinds of status Constantinople had to offer people. The trouble was, I think these were things that Dr Kazan had known already before starting research for this paper. It was delivered sincerely and contained a great deal of interesting information, but very little of it was information on which a historian could put any weight, and sadly that is a state of the record which further finds are unlikely to fix.3

1. Happily for me given the state of my notes, Dr Kazan seems to have had most of these references worked up for a conference he organised in the Sozopol finds in Oxford in 2011, which I completely missed but whose papers are now online. I get most of the textual references following from Dr Kazan’s own “The Head of St John the Baptist—the early evidence”, and the site details and a number of the images in this post from Rossina Kostova, Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Tom Higham, “Relics of the Baptist: Scientific research planned for the finds excavated in Sozopol, Bulgaria in 2010 (Radiocarbon Dating, DNA testing)”.

2. Rufinus of Aquileia, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. Theodor Mommsen in Eusebius, Werke, ed. Eduard Schwartz (Leipzig 1903-1909), II: Die Kirchengeschichte – die lateinische Übersetzung des Rufinus, II.28; an earlier translation is here. Other later historians also report this, and are listed in Kazan, “John the Baptist”, p. 2, but all seem to be working from Rufinus. Sozomen, who worked explicitly to correct Rufinus, is edited in Sozomène, Histoire ecclésiastique, ed. J. Bidez, trans. André-Jean Festugière & rev. Bernard Grillet (Paris 1983-96), and in older English online here, VII.21.

3. Kostova, Popkonstantinov & Higham, “Relics of the Baptist”, cites as publication of the excavation K. Popkonstantinov et al., ‘Srednovekoven manastir “Sv. Ioan Prodrom” na ostrov ”Sv. Ivan”, Sozopol’ in Arheologičeski otkritija i razkopki za 2009 godina (Sofia 2010), pp. 595-599.

Seminar CLIV: continuing to work out the Staffordshire Hoard

There seems to be little question that being in Birmingham has put me in a place where I can reach a much wider range of medievalist activity than my previous employments allowed, and by way of proof of this, on 13th May of this same year I was at the University of Leicester hearing Chris Fern give us the latest news on a certain famous find under the title of “The Staffordshire Hoard: the current state of knowledge”. Not many people would be better placed to, since Dr Fern (of whom we have heard here before) was then producing the object catalogue, meaning that he had perhaps a better view than anyone else of what the whole assemblage was like (at least, until they had got it all onto one table two months previously). For me, there were three particular areas where this lecture told me something new, and those were the silver items, the links between items, and the problem of parallelling any of the stuff, so that’s how I’ll divide the post.

Fragments of silver foil from the Staffordshire Hoard during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Fragments of silver foil during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

When the Hoard first came to light, one of the questions I quickly developed was “what is the silver stuff?” The news was always clear that that there was about three kilos of gold and one and a half of silver but it seemed that the gold was all we saw. This turned out to be not least because the silver was in much smaller parts than the gold, and thus harder to separate from the mud, but also because both those factors made it much harder to identify. In fact, it turns out very largely to be bits of 12 friezes that might all be from a single helmet, and the difficulty in working that out will be clearer if I say that amounts to more than 700 fragments. This is not actually a job I would want, I have to admit…

A silver strip from the Staffordshire Hoard in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

A silver strip in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

However, the Hoard team had been doing this, and not just with the silver. Of the total of circa 3,800 fragments they could at this point join up more than 600, not a lot but enough to show patterns. For example, they had 41 pairs of hilt collars to go at the top and bottom of sword grips, but a total of 85 pommels for those swords, as well as enough hilt-plates to allow for 4 each per sword, and much of this groups into two basic styles albeit with great and ingenious variations, one being gold, garnets and cloisonée glass and the other, later, involving much more filigree work and fewer gems or glass bits. On the other hand there are also some odd things that won’t group, the crosses and the wire serpents for example but also the three sword-rings that seem to have been casts, meant to look like really old Scandinavian swords but not actually being made the same way.

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work from the Staffordshire Hoard

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work, and when I say fine, I mean, the wires are less than a millemetre thick each!

This, along with the fact that we don’t know and probably can’t know who it was that stripped all this stuff violently off the objects it had once adorned, who it was who gathered it together and then who it was who buried it, and whether any of these people were the same or around at the same time, makes dating the Hoard qua hoard very difficult still. (One interesting point that only makes that more complex is that apparently though many of the fragments show signs of wear, this is typically at the extremities, not the parts that were handled, suggesting that these splendid weapons were perhaps worn more than drawn. This opens up the possibility that they might have been kept for a long time, and be heirlooms whose antique look was important in an age where normal weapons would have looked different.) We have a lot of stuff here that Dr Fern thought was best paralleled from East Anglia, which is something that happens a lot because basically our biggest single source of early Anglo-Saxon art parallels is the assemblage from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and that was so varied and so is this that parallels are to be expected, but there are a lot; on the other hand some of the material, especially the older-looking stuff and the silver, is more Scandinavian and at the other end of the period range Dr Fern suggested that some of the material, which is best paralleled from the Scottish site of Mote of Mark, might indicate British workmanship under Northumbrian influence and by that point, really, anything is possible except that there will be an easy explanation. So there is still a lot to do, but in some ways it seems that the range of things we can actually hope to resolve is closing down, and the parts of the Hoard that are destined to remain enigmas are, paradoxically, becoming more clearly obscure as our knowledge of it increases.

Presumably a full publication of the Hoard is now relatively close but until that time, apart from the project website from which I have linked almost all my pictures in this post, the basic starting point is Kevin Leahy & Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard (London 2009), which was quite limited in what it could then say. For the other two sites I’ve mentioned there’s a wealth of material on the Sutton Hoo ship burial but the easiest way in is perhaps now Gareth Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo (London 2011), in the same series. Then lastly there’s Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: a Dark Age hillfort in South-West Scotland (Oxford 2006).


Perhaps the most castly castle ever

This gallery contains 23 photos.

As I teeter through the ruins of my sleep patterns towards the end of the term, there seems to be just about time tonight to attack the blog backlog! And that puts me up against the last set of photos … Continue reading


Perhaps the finest Gothic cathedral in Switzerland

This gallery contains 25 photos.

I assure you that on the trip to Switzerland lately mentioned I did do some things other than visit cathedrals, that wasn’t even all the medievalist things I did, but it certainly did result in the best photos. On this … Continue reading


Genève médiévale I: beneath the cathedral

This gallery contains 26 photos.

Firstly I should apologise for the longer-than-usual interval preceding this post; as you will see, it needed photos, and unfortunately my processing of photos is also backlogged…. Anyway, the background to this is that last year I had reason to … Continue reading

Seminar CXLVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

People who know the sad history of archæology as a subject at the University of Birmingham are usually surprised to learn that there still are any archæologists here, but there are, now housed in what is now Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. None are primarily medievalists, however, so while I was a lecturer here I had direct business with them only through teaching (which, indeed, I was repeating only yesterday) or when, on the 18th March 2014, I turned up at the Anthropology Seminar to hear Professor Paul Garwood speaking with the title, “Ashes, Smoke and Fire: rethinking archaeologies of ritual”.1 This was off my usual map in several ways: I’ve not been to an anthropology seminar for years and never this one, there was nothing specifically medieval about the title and it turned out to be much more theoretical than usual for me, but I certainly got some things to think with from it so perhaps you will also.

As Professor Garwood acknowledged, there is a much-mocked but genuine tendency for archæologists to classify objects and contexts they can’t understand as ‘ritual’, which is in some ways a function of a definition of ‘ritual’ as non-functional behaviour; when an object doesn’t have a clear function, therefore… This, as Professor Garwood explained in a painstaking review of the field with due nods to the contributions of anthropological thinking to it, given what seminar he was in, stems from the belief of earlier archæologists that beliefs were not recoverable in material evidence, at least without unusually superb evidence. One of the places anthropology helped to change this was in giving archæologists a greater appreciation of the rôle of systematised behaviours in orchestrating and regulating societies, which meant that examining things like fires with no cooking or object elements in them, stuff deposited under building foundations or in floors or boundary ditches or similar, could be got at by trying to work out what the rules of this particular system of behaviour were. Nonetheless, we still have people (in all our fields!) saying that ‘ritual’ just isn’t a useful concept because of how much ritual is everyday or even, of course, functional.2 I think, for example, of rituals that are not a specific activity so much as a way or order of doing that activity, like a Japanese tea ceremony, which with no other context might not be archæologically identifiable as anything other than a high-status means of making tea but obviously is.

Teapot, mug and strainer in my kitchen

Even outside the Japanese world, this functional equipment can serve ritual purposes, and anyone who thinks differently has never seen the reverence with which I brew up

So what is needed is some ways to think about ritual as an archæological target that might save it as a concept, and these have been generated, in particular that of seeing it as a performance where as archæologist one is looking not for the matter being communicated by its symobology but its physical outcome, its staging and the environment that guided action in the ways desired; here, recent approaches to Stonehenge are exemplary. Frequency might ideally be a factor here too: was such a setting used so much as to be everyday or was it deliberately unusual and ‘other’? (The tea comparison still makes me think that this isn’t fine enough: I have a couple of teas I will not be able to restock—some Mariage Frères stuff from Rwanda, for example, lovely but now rather hard to get—so that I brew them only when there seems some special reason, but I use the same kit to do so as usual…) Professor Garwood seemed himself to favour an approach he termed ‘chaines opératoires‘, constructing models from the evidence of what the sequence of events and types of object involved had to be for the ritual to ‘work’, so that the technology of the process rather than the outcome remains the target, and that’s certainly easier to approach from finds. (Though would it pick up how important it is to warm the pot and for the milk to go in first?) I found myself inwardly comparing this to Actor Network Theory and similar approaches and liking this better because it left agency clearer, myself, but I understand that those that like ANT do so not least because it spreads agency to the objects, and I suppose that with ritual that is worship, that could be important: look at the big early medieval debate over whether people believed icons themselves did things, after all, and how to stop those people doing so if they did.3 Professor Garwood also recommended a definitional approach in which one looked at the processes in terms of workflow, almost like industrial process analysis: what did people need in what order to do this and what do we find? These approaches could obviously run into one another, but as he said, they do get us out of the basic problem of saying what ritual actually is!4 Free your mind, as they say, and the rest will follow…

1. I don’t know Professor Garwood’s work really, but there are obviously bits of it that could be of interest to medievalists, not least P. Garwood, D. Jennings, R. Skeates and J. Thomas (edd.), Sacred and Profane: Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford, 1989 (Oxford 1991) or P. Garwood, “Rites of Passage” in Timothy Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford 2011), pp. 261-284, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0019.

2. I think straight away of Geoffrey Koziol, “The dangers of polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2002.00116.x but Professor Garwood cited Joanna Brück, “Ritual and Rationality: some problems in interpretation in European archaeology” in European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2 (Leeds 1999), 313-344, DOI: 10.1179/eja.1999.2.3.313 and Ian Hodder, “Triggering post-processual archaeology and beyond” in R. F. Williamson & M. S. Bisson (edd.), The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism (Montreal 2006), pp. 16-24.

3. I came to actor network theory as applied archæologically by 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; I’m not sure what the canonical cites would be for any other uses. As for the debate over icons, you should now see Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), and Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009).

4. As is ineluctable with a paper about theory, there were a great many names flying about and I didn’t catch them all. Those I did I haven’t yet followed up, indeed, but they included, as well as those in n. 2 above, Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques et la technologie” in Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique Vol. 41 (Paris 1948), pp. 71-78, Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton 1980), Victor W. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York City 1982) and idem, The Edge of the Bush: anthropology as experience (Tucson 1985).