Category Archives: archaeology

Seminar CCXXXIV: ground-level archaeology in early medieval northern Spain

Despite my usual policy of alternating them with what I think of as local-content posts, I’m going to crack straight on with another seminar report. This is mainly because if I had been doing this contemporaneously this is where the post announcing the upload of Justinian II’s coins would have fallen, and on my own blog I can be compulsive about chronology if I like darn it, and partly because the next local-content post requires me to read sixty pages of Italian to do it properly so will take time, but it also gets us back to the Iberian Peninsula, because on 17th March 2015 there had come direct from there no less a figure than Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, to speak at the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar with the title, “Agrarian Archaeology in Northern Iberia: a general overview of medieval landscapes”, and I felt I should be there and take part.

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

One of Professor Quirós’s teams at work at Lantarón in Castile, not the right area but a good picture!

Although in some ways I catch the worst of it in Catalonia, where scientific archæology and money to do it both seem rare, actually Northern Spain has been doing really well in the field of ‘new archæology’ in recent years, especially as cheaper techniques than radio-carbon dating have begun to proliferate, and up until the market crashes of 2008 there was also quite a lot of work being funded. Professor Quirós has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, and so is remarkably well-placed to give a synthesis.1 Here he was focused especially on the Basque country (which is after all where he works) and started his comparisons from there, but I know very little about that area so that was fine with me.

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

The castle of Treviño, Basque Country, dug by Professor Quirós and crew some time ago

The paper basically consisted of a series of short ‘state of knowledge’ round-ups of various sorts of evidence and then an overall summary and speculation on the remaining unknowns. The geographical focus also meant that a lot of that knowledge was about farming and peasant settlement, because there simply isn’t much else that’s so far been located until quite late on, except one outlier site of which we will say more in a moment. So we had material from field survey, the archæology of structures, zooarchæology, artefactual evidence, field systems, manufacturing and palæobotany, all taken thematically and joining up at particular questions. All this has been going on with quite some energy in the last decade or so, and the points it’s bringing up are probably best discussed in the overall chronology that Professor Quirós was now able to put forward. This went something like this.

  1. In the fifth and sixth centuries we start to see new villages forming, in the first real change since the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never had much business up here anyway, but the landscape is decentralised and disarticulated, with very low levels of material culture not being transported for any distances. Silos, previously built big, are now built small, suggesting accumulation has dropped to a household level from a community one. Land use seems, from pollen and so forth, to be going up over the period but there’s little sign of increase at the settlements.
  2. In the seventh century, however, field systems begin to show up and so does long-range transhumance (visible in the huts of the travelling herdsmen), and the one estate centre they’ve managed to locate, at Aistra, starts up in this period as well, with enough command of labour to get terraces built, not a small job. This all suggests the beginnings of some hierarchy.
  3. In the eighth century, in what seems to be a much wider phenomenon, settlements here begin to nucleate and cluster but the vestigial links between them visible in the previous century drop off again, even as the social strata in them begin to pile up higher, especially at Aistra where there are now granaries and selective consumption of animals. This is also the period when we start to get rural churches, which also suggests an available surplus being cornered by one particular interest group, and we know from elsewhere in northern Iberia that these groups are probably the same ones as showing up at the top of the secular hierarchies, they’re not separate.2 It is probably not unconnected with these as wider phenomena that there were peasant revolts in Asturias at this sort of time…3
  4. The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa

    The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa, which though itself not early medieval apparently sits over an early medieval cemetery and thus the closest I can quickly find to this phenomenon in standing fabric

  5. In the ninth century there starts to be documentation, mostly from the monastery of Valpuesta at the very western edge of the zone, but the archæology also speaks of more field system organisation and a return to transhumance, while the ways that animals are being slaughtered suggest a system of renders; there are communities which seem never to dispose of particular cuts of pork, for example, even though they have the rest.4 Cattle also start to turn up in the west, suggesting people doing things differently, but on the other hand, animals seem to have begun to shrink in this period, and their diets (which can be got at via isotopic remains in their bones) became more restricted. Those two things are obviously probably linked but they may suggest a shift to home husbandry and therefore enclosure of what had previously been commonly-available pasturing.
  6. Finally for this paper, in the tenth century these trends continue but organisation by the powerful also becomes more obvious: bishoprics are set up for the area, fortification becomes common-place, agriculture intensifies (as we can tell from silos at some fortresses) and the area is in general participating in the economic take-off run and (I think) consequent seigneurialisation that Georges Duby or Pierre Bonnassie would have been happy to see.5

There’re also a couple of general phenomena that struck me as interesting, because they seemed unusual to me. In the first place, the area never seems to have been very short of metal tools; we don’t find very many of them (though some) but right through the period we do, apparently, find shaft furnaces for ironworking, even at fairly humble sites. In the second place, cerealiculture was really diverse: although when we have renders specified in documentation they are almost always in wheat or barley, peasants were also growing millet, particularly, and several others too as well as fruit, legumes and flax for linen and rope. Meat was probably rarely on the menu but when you compare it to high medieval Catalonia (my only comparator) it looks as if the Basque peasants had a rather better ‘third harvest’ than their south-eastern neighbours later on.6

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

Excavation under way at Aistra, on one of what seem to have been a good many dismal days in 2009

All in all this was a fairly impressive sweep through what archæology can actually tell us about societies in a period where documentation is scant or lacking, and one wants of course to go and chase up half the data and see for oneself. One would also wish—and Professor Quirós would be with that one—for another estate centre, because although Aistra sounds like a marvellous and rewarding place to investigate (as long as you like rain), the fact that it got going so much earlier than its investigators were expecting and than a documentary picture would have made likely means that a comparator is dearly necessary to make sure that this place wasn’t just weird in some way.7 It would still need explaining even if it was, of course, but as we know some places just did get special attention. Nonetheless, to have a decent basis for being able to assert anything about change on this kind of scale is amazing, and as Andrew Reynolds, chairing, said at the beginning of discussion, whereas Professor Quirós had been kind enough to say that English archæology of this period was the necessary comparator because of its quality, what has been done recently in Spain might well be thought to reverse the situation, and as you will see from the footnotes, he should know. And since I generally aim to bring the Iberian Peninsula back into people’s pictures from the margins where it too often sits, I am fine with that, as long as I can get the site reports…


1. As well as the various project blogs linked in the post above, see (just to pick the most comprehensive things on this post’s themes from his last few years of publications) J. A. Quirós Castillo, “1911-2011: un siglo de excavaciones arqueológicas en los castillos medievales del País Vasco” in idem & José Marí Tejado Sebastián (edd.), Los castillos altomedievales en el noroeste de la Península Ibérica, Documentos de arqueología medieval 4 (Bilbao 2012), pp. 123-143; Quirós, “Los comportamientos alimentarios del campesinado medieval en el País Vasco y su entorno (siglos VIII-XIV)” in Historia agraria Vol. 59 (València 2013), pp. 13-41; Quirós & Giovanni Bianchi, “From archaeology of storage systems to agricultural archaeology” in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado, Quirós & Bianchi (edd.), Horrea, barns and silos: storage and incomes in Early Medieval Europe, Documentos de Arqueología 5 (Bilbao 2013), pp. 17-22; Quirós, “Archaeology of power and hierarchies in early medieval villages in Northern of Spain” in J´n Kl´pšte (ed.), Hierarchies in rural settlements, Ruralia 9 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 199-212; and Quirós (ed.), Agrarian archaeology in early medieval Europe, Quaternary International 346 (Amsterdam 2014).

2. I’m thinking here of work like Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West” in Julio Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the early Middle ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 87-117, and especially Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

3. That is, if it really was a peasants’ revolt; on the misinterpretations of this episode, which has served many historiographical agendas, see this old post.

4. The Valpuesta documents are edited in Desamparados Pérez Soler (ed.), Cartulario de Valpuesta (Valéncia 1970). On peasant diet in the area see Quirós, “Comportamientos alimentarios”.

5. I’m sure you know the works I mean, but for completeness let’s get them in: Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974) and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, but see also La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), a conference in which both took part.

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocañ, “From the granary to the field: archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

7. There seem to be only interim reports and some specialist publications on Aistra so far, the reports being: A. Reynolds & Quirós, “Aistra (Zalduondo): I Campaña” in Arkeoikuska 2006 (Vitoria 2006), pp. 94-100; eidem, “Despoblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2007 (2007), pp. 159-167; Quirós, “Poblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2008 (2008), pp. 209-211; & Quirós & Reynolds, “Despoblado de Aistra: IV Campaña”, ibid. 2009 (2009), pp. 176-180.

Seminar CCXXXIII: the limits of Byzantine contact with India

My backlog now crawls back towards a ten-month lag as I reach March 2015! Either I was busy during the early part of that month or not much was happening, but on the 11th I was in London at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because Dr Rebecca Darley, then still at the Warburg Institute, was presenting with the title “‘A Sign of God’s Favour’: Byzantine gold coins in Indian Ocean trade”. Now, as those who know me will probably be aware, there are good reasons why I can’t pretend to objectivity in discussing this paper, including my continuing collaboration with the speaker over our All That Glitters project, but hopefully you are not here for critique so much as for information, because what Rebecca knows is not stuff most medievalists do so there’s plenty of information coming…

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

But let’s start with this, a perfectly normal and respectable solidus of Constantine I but unusually pierced. This is, we were to learn, how Byzantine gold coins usually occur in India, which is a thing that happens. Roman gold is rather more common (which is to say, still pretty rare): Roman silver coins of Augustus and Tiberius are far from unknown from Indian findspots, as I remember discovering while cataloguing some at the Fitzwilliam years ago, and from Nero onwards gold also starts to turn up, and even some bronze, but the silver dies away quickly. The finds of coins from Constantine’s time are almost entirely solidi (for some quite special values of ‘almost entirely’ that I’ll come back to) and are much rarer, especially after the fourth century, and very often pierced twice, like this, over the portrait and from that side, as if to be stitched to costume as, indeed, coins still often are in India today. And this goes on more and more ephemerally till the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century when the supply seems to dry up. So what was going on?

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I, struck who knows where but most likely in India during the sixth century I suppose

Well, inevitably given how archæology looks for connections and everyone has been very keen to emphasise contact and cooperation in world history over conflict and disengagement since the Second World War, if not before, the normal reading of these coins is that they are evidence of trade. There are texts that have been used to support this as well, but we should, argued Rebecca, be suspicious of this picture. This is at least partly because of the famous Grierson Objection, much beloved of this blog, that coins can be transferred by many processes that are not trade, partly because the texts are not as well-informed or objective as they have been thought to be, but the best argument against it is really the coins themselves, because when that supply dries up (or even before! Datable contexts for these finds are sadly almost entirely lacking) what seems to happen is that people in southern India at least start making imitations of these coins to supply the gap, as you see above.1

Imitation of a Byzantine gold solidus, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Imitation of a gold solidus of, well, let’s face it, it’s just ‘a Byzantine emperor’ isn’t it? The die-cutters here were not after exactitude but impression. I have this image by the kindness of Rebecca herself, it being R. Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Gold imitation of a Roman sestertius, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A. D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 57

This one is even better, because not only is the type hardly visible, but what you can see appears to have been copied off a Roman copper alloy sestertius; note the ‘S C’! Undatable as well as untradeable! Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade”, cat. no. 57.

Well, you might say, perhaps that shows that these coins had now become part of an exchange system and had to be supplied once they were no longer arriving. To which one can only offer the above, not imitations anyone cared to make terribly convincing in size, weight or imagery, and say, probably not really, not if gold value is what it’s about. Besides which, in so far as as we have findspots at all, which is not often, Rebecca showed us that they don’t map at all well to known port sites, usually being inland for a start. They might map slightly better to temple sites, and a few had red residue on that could be puja dust from ceremonies (though if so that could be much much more recent), but mainly what these coins, with their piercings and varying degrees of precision in replicating a portrait coinage with foreign lettering on, seem to suggest is some specific kind of personal ornament which it was important to have for who knows what purpose, in whatever quality you could afford, be that a real one, a best-level fake or the thin uniface knock-off or anything in between. They are not, in and of themselves, very convincing evidence for levels of trade, though obviously coins coming in at all implies some minimal level of contact.2

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So what about those texts, you may now ask? Well, there are two obvious candidates, one being the originator of the above, Kosmas Indikopleustes, whose scholar-given byname means that he had been to India but had actually as far as we can tell not got closer than the East African empire of Aksum, where he had met people who had, probably. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that what Kosmas was writing was a treatise to prove that the world was flat, you can see from the above map that he was not afraid to fit his world into a particular scheme as dialectically necessary, and the point of his relevant story is that even the unknown rulers of Sri Lanka who have no meaningful contact with the Roman world can see that the Roman gold a traveller brings with him is way way better than the silly Persian silver coins that happen to have arrived at the same time.3 It’s not what you’d call neutral reporting on the balance of payments. Furthermore, it also sees to be more or less lifted from Pliny’s Natural History (which does seem to keep coming up these days), who told a similar story about Roman coins impressing the Orientals, except that then they were silver.4 Gotta move with the times! Meanwhile Indian texts, and indeed Sri Lankan ones of which there are rather more, simply don’t mention Roman traders at all.5 And while we’re at it, there are as far as Rebecca knows no Persian coins in southern India at all, and though there are some Persian ceramics known from Indian sites, it is of the order of a millionth of the evidence from those sites.6 Oddly, or perhaps not, there is a little bit more evidence for contact with Aksum, whose coins also got imitated locally. Obviously they would do as well!

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400, with the double piercing again

So Rebecca here positioned herself explicitly against pictures of the early medieval world which are constructed on connectivity and a fledgling form of international relations, pitching instead a picture of low or missing connectivity, in which indeed rather than encourage trade and contact with foreign countries the big empires of the time actually sought to stop it where possible.7 And when objects did make it across the sea, their use, at least these ones, was not primarily economic. This of course provoked some lively discussion, not least because of the limited but significant evidence for commodities from the East reaching the West: as Edward James pointed out, Bede had a box full of pepper he was able to bequeath at his death, which must somehow have come from Kerala because pepper does, at least if it really was pepper.8 So it’s in some ways an argument about how much contact there has to be to count as significant, but I think that Rebecca would rather argue about whom it was significant to anyway, and why, and this paper put that alternative case very strongly.

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy ,Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

One little thing, though, or not so little in some ways, did stick in my mind. This was a paper about gold coins, primarily, not least because silver and bronze Roman or Byzantine coins aren’t found in significant numbers in India, except that in one or two places fourth-century and fifth-century Roman bronze kind of falls out of the river at you, and known examples from these places now number in the thousands, which is an order of magnitude more than the total Roman and Byzantine gold preservation across the whole subcontinent.9 As Rebecca said, it is possible that these all stem from maybe two deposits, just slowly washing down the river over the centuries, and without actually knowing where the deposits are or were, it’s very hard to say any more, but whatever the overall picture is it must, it seems to me, be made different by this. Gold is high-value, prestige, small, might travel singly and sporadically and yes, for non-economic reasons. What the reasons might be for shipping what must have been rather a lot of late Roman bronze across the Indian Ocean and then burying it, as even a minimal interpretation of this would have to involve—a maximalist one, which I’m not putting forward, would presumably be that this stuff was actually commonly shipped over, it was a circulating medium and the coins are either hoards or genuine losses from that circulation—we obviously can’t tell.10 Maybe it was only ballast! But it seems difficult for those reasons to be the same as for the gold. Rebecca could obviously be right about the gold, especially by the sixth century, and this be something else entirely, but I can’t help feel that a ‘global’ picture of Indian Ocean contact will have to account for this stuff as well, somehow.


1. For the Objection, as perhaps only I in this world call it, see P. 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, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II. On the coins in India, meanwhile, you can now see R. Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman Coins in South India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A. D.)” in Himanshu P. Ray and M. Palat (edd.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: landscapes in early medieval South Asian history (London 2015), pp. 60-84.

2. For details here see now ibid.

3. The Greek text is published in Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographie chrétienne, ed. W. Wolska-Conus (Paris 1968-1973), 3 vols, XI.17-20; I here précis from the translation in Rebecca’s handout, however.

4. Pliny, Natural History, ed./transl. H. Rackham (Cambridge MA 1942), 2 vols, VI.24.

5. I did not realise till I started talking to Rebecca about such things that there was a Sri Lankan chronicle tradition that seems to have compiled a nine-hundred-year long history in the fifth century A. D.! I also have no clear idea of where the historiography now sits on its actual composition and reliability, either, but you can read it, as Wilhelm Geiger (ed.), Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon, transl. Geiger & Mabel Haynes Bode (London 1912) and Geiger (ed./transl.), The Culavamsa, being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa (London 1925), with all being online here.

6. A synopsis of available information here, I think, would be Roberta Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: from post to pepper (London 2009).

7. Procopius, De Bello Persico, ed. & transl. H. B. Dewing in Procopius, History of the Wars (London 1914), 5 vols, I.20.

8. Cuthbert, Epistola de obitu Bedae, transl. in Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert, transl. Roger Collins and Judith McClure (Oxford 1990), pp. 299-303 at p. 302.

9. R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), is the only collected write-up of this material, which I should make perfectly clear I would not be able to cite without Rebecca having made her own copy available to me.

10. Ibid. pp. 10-17, while not taking a position in this debate, quotes a number of works that seem to align with that maximum view.

Seminar CCXXIX: complex identities in the later Roman Empire

So where am I now with the backlog in seminar reports? Later February 2015, it seems, so about eleven months behind still alas, but despite the disjuncture between this and the stuff of my own on which I have also been reporting, this post gels quite nicely with the previous one, as several of the same questions of what was maintained that was Roman when Roman rule ended in the West are covered in it. The occasion on this, er, occasion, was Simon Esmonde Cleary‘s inaugural lecture as Professor of Roman Archaeology in the University of Birmingham. Professor Esmonde Cleary’s is a name I knew of old by this point but I had never heard him speak or knowingly met him, and the title seemed to promise a fun lecture: it was “A Funny Thing Didn’t Happen on the Way to the Forum: archaeology and the refashioning of the late Roman West”. Now, in some ways I don’t need to say anything here because the lecture, which was indeed one of the better hours I’ve spent in a lecture theatre, was quickly put online, so if you have a spare hour you can in fact just experience it yourself nearly as well, and arguably should especially if you like your humour wry and British.

But, maybe you don’t have an hour, maybe you read this at work and can’t put sound on, maybe in fact you want to know what I thought about it beyond that it was good, so perhaps a brief post won’t hurt. The lecture trod quite a neat line between making statements soothing to ruffled interdepartmental feathers within the University, which is probably evident even to the outside listener, and making points that emphasised the necessity of comparative and interdisciplinary understandings of historical periods for the most meaningful conclusions about them, as well as Professor Esmonde Cleary’s unusual familiarity with the materials of those understandings. On this occasion those conclusions centred especially on the political import of material culture and on the complexity of personal and political identities, and the interest of the later Empire in ensuring and maintaining that complexity to its own advantage, particularly where that complex enveloped civil, military, Roman and ‘barbarian’ aspects. Professor Esmonde Cleary did this largely through a series of particular episodes and sites that helped make his points, and I will just pick three that spoke particularly to me. These are Séviac, in what I think of as Aquitaine, South-Western France to the modern reader, Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, not far away, and Lankhills in Hampshire in England.

The Gallo-Roman site of Séviac as it currently is, seen from the air

The Gallo-Roman site of Séviac as it currently is, seen from the air

Séviac is a villa complex, with rather impressive mosaics and a bathhouse, and most of the complex is fourth-century.1 This itself is not too unusual, especially in that part of the world (and, as Professor Esmonde Cleary pointed out, in Southern Britain) but it is evoking, and enabling, a very particular form of Roman élite life in which essentially civilian affluence is expressed by having a country residence with agricultural revenue in which you spent money on displaying your familiarity with Classical culture such as the scenes in the mosaics, even though by the time this was all being put up, much of the ruling class of the Empire had had a military background, including many of the emperors who nonetheless spent their time in the provinces in such buildings and whose own buildings this one was mimicking. There is nothing military here. At Séviac it was still important to display one’s training in Romanitas in its essentially literary and civilian aspects, even in the era of the Tetrarchy and the spread of Christianity.

The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the distance, with the Romanesque church of Saint-Just de Valcabrère in the foreground

The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the distance, with the Romanesque church of Saint-Just de Valcabrère in the foreground

Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, I will admit, my heart leapt a little bit to see just because of the Romanesque church, which is one of my signs of home turf, but it is also a fascinatingly complex site. At the core of it is a tall cathedral, as you can see, which is also Romanesque with Gothic additions (apparently, says Wikipedia, actually put there by someone called Bertrand de Goth, which is kind of hard to beat), but it sits in the middle of a walled town and those walls are, at base, fifth-century, which is unusually late for the Western Empire and speaks instead to the military side of things.2 There was also, however, a Roman villa outside at what is now Valcabrère, much of whose stonework went into that there church of Saint-Just. The Roman walls were also topped up a couple of times in the Middle Ages. This is the other sort of Roman continuity, where adaptation is very close to scavenging, and one with which I’m much more familiar.

Burial under excavation in the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester

Burial under excavation in the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester

Lankhills increased that sense of familiarity still further. Although the late Roman cemetery there seems to have ceased being used by about 400 A. D., so that it’s hard to call it early medieval, still the occasional burial goods and the questions that have been asked about the site (which was the first one on which Professor Esmonde Cleary had dug, as a teenager) all seemed very familiar to me from my years teaching Anglo-Saxon history and archæology in Oxford. This was not least because when the site was first dug, art-historical comparisons of the grave-goods found in some of the grave led the then-excavator to hypothesize that he had found barbarian recruits into the Roman army from around Pannonia, settling in the area as the Empire that had paid them left the area.3 This was more or less plausible given understandings of that period at the time and seemed to fit the goods, but now it is possible to check that assumption by means of isotopic analysis of the skeletons. What this has revealed is that a quarter of the test sample put to examination seemed to have grown up somewhere other than the locality, but that some of the notional ‘Pannonians’ as suggested by their kit were locals whereas others were not, while three of them came from much further south, one possibly Africa (and he, helpfully, did have some African-provenance stuff with him too, just to emphasise that sometimes this actually happens even when no-one else is doing it), while on the other hand many other non-locals, including women, did not have their origins signalled by such grave-goods at all.4 This sets up all kinds of interesting possibilities about local group identities and second-generation immigrants but it also makes Guy Halsall‘s suggestion that certain army units had brandings which had nothing to do with their recruits’ origins seem as justifiable an explanation here.5

A selection of late Roman military belt buckles

A selection of late Roman military belt buckles, which one imagines that soldiers did not usually get to choose themselves…

So at the end of this round-up you can see how many things came up here that I have thought with before but with new evidence that these were good things with which to think: identity displayed but not necessarily as a deliberate statement or single entity, attempts indeed probably to look like someone different from whom you’d started by deliberate deployment of material culture, and a state apparatus for which the ability to acculturate, to erase signs and habits of origin in favour of its own traditions of education and behaviour had always been important, but over a period of centuries, failed it. All of this and jokes too! This is why you should watch the lecture, really…


1. Obviously, Professor Esmonde Cleary was not stopping to do footnotes, but mostly it has been easy for me to find the works he was using, not least as they were often his own. On Séviac, however, I have drawn a near-blank; its museum is obviously a good place to find out lots about the site, but further publication of its finds is very difficult to search up. An initial report of the first digs there is R. Métivier, “Fouilles des ruines gallo-romaines de Séviac, près Montréal” in Bulletin de la Société archéologique du Gers Vol. 14 (Auch 1913), online here, pp. 146-149, but it’s not what you could call comprehensive. Besides which, the site was gone over for a decade starting in the 1980s (the museum pages tell one) and one feels that should have resulted in some publication, but all I can find is R. Monturet & H. Rivière, Les Thermes sud de la villa gallo-romaine de Seviac (Paris 1986) and some suggestion that there is coverage in Catherine Balmelle, Les demeures aristocratiques d’Aquitaine : Société et culture de l’Antiquité tardive dans le Sud-Ouest de la Gaule, Mémoires 5 (Bordeaux 2001).

2. Here, however, it seems clear that the work you want is A. Simon Esmonde Cleary & Jason Wood, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges III : Le rempart de l’Antiquité tardive de la Ville Haute (Bordeaux 2006).

3. G. Clarke, Pre-Roman and Roman Winchester. Part II: The Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester Studies 3 (Oxford 1979), pp. 377-398.

4. H. Eckardt, C. Chenery, P. Booth, J. A. Evans, A. Lamb & G. Müldner, “Oxygen and strontium isotope evidence for mobility in Roman Winchester” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 2816-2825, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.010; see also Paul Booth, Andrew Simmonds, Angela Boyle, Sharon Clough, H. E. M. Cool & Daniel Poore, “The late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester: Excavations 2000-2005”, unpublished project report (Oxford Archaeology 2010), online here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 101-110.

Seminar CCXXVIII: a new method for analysing Mediterranean connectivity

The seminar report backlog now takes us back to Birmingham, where on the 5th February 2015 Dr Matthew Harpster was addressing the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Matthew is one of the friends I hope to keep from Birmingham; we had friends in common when I arrived and then someone gave me the office opposite him, so I had quite a lot of contact with him, but still I didn’t actually see him talk about his stuff until I was working at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. This then was that occasion, and it sparked off quite a lot of subsequent thought and action. His title was “Refashioning a Maritime Past in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996; it probably isn’t Matthew in that wetsuit, but it could be!

It had been Matthew’s doing that this same seminar had earlier been addressed by Rebecca Ingram on the subject of shipwrecks, because Matthew too is a maritime archæologist who once worked at the Theodosian Harbour in Istanbul with her, and like her he also had a particular shipwreck with which he was concerned, a ninth-century one off Turkey.1 This seems likely to have been a Byzantine one but as Matthew had poked at this he had become less and less sure that we have any solid methodology for making such judgements: does one go from the cargo, the personal effects of the crew, the location, the building style, or some or all of these? All of these things could easily be out of place as we understand them. Matthew had gone so far as to assemble all the 254 attempts to identify shipwrecks in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology from 1972 to 2012 as he counted them, and found no consistent practice.2 At that point his project became the one that then brought him to Birmingham, to database as many shipwrecks as possible from the ancient world and try and pattern-spot in such a way as might underpin such a consistent methodology for identification.

Cover of Parker's Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

Cover of Matthew’s foundational text, Parker’s Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

There is at least an easy place to start, an inventory of 730 ancient shipwrecks assembled in the early 1990s to which Matthew was able to add 120 more; the standard of record is of course variable but it’s a start.3 From there Matthew had used the cargo, fittings and personal items recorded for each wreck to work out route profiles for each vessel, assigning each of its items a point of origin and using those points as plots for a polygon that represented that shipwreck’s notional catchment area. Of course, this relies on others’ identifications of the goods and archæology being able to assign them correctly to places of origin, and as Morn Capper (present) pointed out, it is also tracking the finds, not the ships, and if those finds had moved in several ships in turn, not one all the way, the polygon of the one that actually sank would be considerably larger than that ship’s own sea area.

Map of ancient shipwrecks from the Benthos project

This is, sadly, not Matthew’s work but someone else’s attempt to do something similar, mapping the ancient Mediterranean’s nautical archæology, but only where it now rests, not where it had come from… The project concerned is called Benthos, and looks interesting but doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond its preliminary phase as of three years ago, alas.

But, this is something that one can do, it’s still telling one about a species of connection and the results are impressive, the more so because of the work Matthew had done with Dr Henry Chapman to load them into GIS and process them. I wish I could show you one of the resulting visualisations, as they are not only fascinating but things of psychedelic beauty, but Matthew seems not to have put any of them on the web where I can steal them, goshdarnit. In any case, in so far as what they show can be summarised, that summary might be:

  1. The weight of maritime activity shifted eastwards in the Mediterranean between the fourth century B. C. and the fourth century A. D., with more and more material travelling in the eastern half of the Mediterranean and less in the western one.
  2. Throughout that period, however, there is a visible separation of the two halves, either side of a zone including Sicily, Malta and the northern tip of Africa, which seems to have been a zone busy with transshipment but across the whole of which relatively little passed without stopping.
  3. In the fifth century A. D. this trend changes, with the Eastern Mediterranean dropping off in importance and goods from the West beginning to travel much further. Pirenne would have been worried!
  4. Pirenne would, however, probably have taken refuge in the fact that there is much less data from the late period, and in fact almost nothing for the eighth to tenth centuries, but the real peak is in the first centuries B. C. and A. D., not as one might have expected the height of the Roman Empire, and any conclusions for what was going on outside that period are based on dangerously small samples. Was sailing just safer under Hadrian or something? In any case, moving on… 

Matthew’s main point was that, within the limits of the evidence, his method could be used to measure and display change over time in the much-vaunted connectivity of the Mediterranean, but in discussion, predictably, the gathering set to trying to work out what else it told us or might do if extended.4 Archie Dunn wondered how journeys recorded in texts would map using such a method, Rebecca Darley offered military campaigns, as well as coins of course, and I wondered about inscriptions and diplomatic formulae. It seemed to me, and I said out loud, that all these things might well map out differently and result in an even more complex and textured picture of how people moved around the Mediterranean. And at that point Professor Leslie Brubaker said, “Funding bid!” and well, somehow from this seminar came a research proposal involving seven people, including myself, Rebecca, Matthew, Henry and Leslie, and it’s currently under review after making it to the second round of the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant competition, so I guess we shall see what a great fire a little matter may yet kindle; I’m still quite excited about the prospects it raises. But whatever comes of it, Matthew started it, by giving this excellent paper to an audience who thought of useful questions, and that is really how all this is supposed to work, isn’t it?

Divers over an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Sicily

Who knows what we may find? Though I at least won’t have to get wet for my portion of the material if it all comes together… This is a recent excavation off the coast of Sicily of a ‘2,000-year-old ship’ about which I can tell you no more, but it’s a good image to close with!


1. And indeed he has published on it: see M. Harpster, “Designing the 9th-Century-AD Vessel from Bozburun, Turkey” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 38 (Oxford 2009), pp. 297-313, DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2009.00226.x.

2. See Harpster, “Shipwreck Identity, Methodology, and Nautical Archaeology” in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory Vol. 20 (Heidelberg 2013), pp. 588-622, DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9131-x.

3. A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 580 (Oxford 1992).

4. The vaunting is primarily to be found in Peregrine Horden & Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history (Oxford 2000), on which see Paolo Squatriti, “Mohammed, the Early Medieval Mediterranean, and Charlemagne” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2003), pp. 263-279, DOI: 10.1046/j.0963-9462.2002.00111.x.

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…


Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Seminar CCXVI: Umayyad connections in early medieval architecture

The backlog remains larger than a year but the only way to deal with that, apart from ceasing to go to or think of things about which I want to blog, which ain’t gonna happen, is for me to keep writing. So, let me now bring you to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the University of Birmingham on the 20th November 2014, where you could have found myself among a good number of others there to hear Professor John Mitchell speak to the title: “Abul-Abbas and all That: the West and the Caliphate in the age of Bede, Desiderius and Charlemagne”.1

The desert palace of Qasr Amra, in modern-day Jordan

The desert palace of Qasr Amra, in modern-day Jordan, which will be made to bear a great deal of weight in this report. “Qasr Amra“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Despite the venue, Professor Mitchell had come not to praise Byzantium but to sideline it, in as much as he was out to contend with the common idea that most early medieval art was basically attempting at one or more removes to look Byzantine, that being the current reflection of the inheritance of Rome to which so many western rulers and patrons wished to lay claim. Instead, he suggested that the evidence is just as strong for early Islam, the alternative and more recently successful superpower of the Eastern Mediterranean and in control of the Holy Places where Westerners more often voyaged than they probably did to Constantinople.2 For example, he argued that the idea of a palace with an inbuilt chapel, found in Byzantine and Lombard contexts and adopted from the latter by Charlemagne, most famously in Aachen, can be found earliest at Khirbat al-Mafjar; that the ornamental projecting towers found on Charlemagne’s palace at Paderborn were best paralleled from the Umayyad desert palaces at Qasr el-Hayr; that Khirbat and Qasr Amra both boast baths like the ones in which Charlemagne sometimes held councils at Aachen (and that Caliph al-Walid is said to have done this himself at Qasr al-Hallabat). More specifically, he pointed to the use of gypsum stucco, not a Roman technique but found at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés, Cividale and San Salvatore di Brescia anyway and for which there are many Islamic examples, and diagonal marbling of columns, another trick with no known Roman roots but good Islamic ones and also found at Brescia; and there was more besides.3

Diagonally-marbled columns at San Salvatore di Brescia

Diagonally-marbled columns at San Salvatore di Brescia, a Lombard foundation much modified by the Carolingians. By Stefano Bolognini (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

To this, Professor Mitchell met several kinds of counter-argument. Archie Dunn invoked parallels from Greece, and specifically a place with a name like ‘Lulutheis’ which my notes obviously don’t have right (Eleutherai maybe?), for the towers and bath-house, as evidence that such things could also be found in Byzantine contexts and Leslie Brubaker pointed out how much Byzantine evidence is gone, not least because this was the era of the supposedly Iconoclastic emperors whose works were subsequently largely derided and replaced, and both together argued that, if the traditional view is not to hold, at best it must be replaced with one of a three-way conversation, in which the two superpowers both influenced each other and which one then influenced the West is yet to be decided. I, meanwhile, was struggling with some of the supposed influence: the palace chapel idea seemed too vague of definition, since after all what is a palace? The projecting towers at issue seemed to me to clearly be echoes of Roman camps, rather than anything palatial, and in any case Paderborn’s towers were curved, unlike those at Qasr el-Hayr; arguments about connections showing in the fact that these places’ walls contained plumbing seemed to me to forget that they would presumably all have had latrines in; and the stucco work, while the technique may be as Professor Mitchell says unknown in the Roman world, was certainly being used for very different imagery on his Western and Eastern examples. The best parallels of all seemed to be at San Salvatore di Brescia, but that reduces the question to what was going on at that one centre, not over the West as a whole…

Theoldulf of Orléans's church at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés

Nothing survives of Paderborn above the surface, and we’ve had San Salvatore already, so here is Saint-Germigny-des-Prés which I suppose we have to remind ourselves was commissioned by someone who’d grown up in Muslim Spain, for what relevance that may have… « Germigny des Pres » par user:CancreTravail personnel. Sous licence CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to appear wholly sceptical; after all, it’s not as if there’s any good reason why people in the West who’d been East shouldn’t have tried to imitate some of the wonders they’d seen there, particularly if, as I speculated in questions, they didn’t necessarily know that these palaces and baths and so on were new and Muslim rather than slightly older and Roman or Byzantine, given how imitative of late Roman building some Umayyad stuff was. If even a tenth of what Professor Mitchell suggested was accurate, we probably should be thinking of such people’s ideas being thus inspired, and in that case what I find most intriguing about this paper in retrospect is the apparent importance of Lombardy as a conduit. I can see how, once someone in Benevento built a palace like the one he’d seen at Qasr Amra or wherever, and then people from there went north or someone from the Frankish court came south and saw it and wanted to build something ‘like they have in Italy’, the style might leak north. But the thing about Umayyad desert palaces is their location, you know? And now I wonder what on earth was taking Lombards to Qasr Amra about which we have no other idea…

Ruins of the Umayyad desert palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine

Again, we’ve had Qasr Arma, so here’s the ruins of the Umayyad palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine. “Hishams Palace site view Author MDarter” by MichaelDarter at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


1. I was there not least because of an excellent chapter of Professor Mitchell’s I read a long time ago which was the first thing that made me think about monumentality as a political statement properly—who could see what and what would they take from it?—that being J. Mitchell, “Literacy Displayed: the use of inscriptions at the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno in the early ninth century” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 186-225.

2. On contacts of this kind between Islamic East and West Professor Mitchell cited Oleg Grabar, whose most relevant work would I suppose be his “Trade with the east and the influence of Islamic art on the ‘Luxury Arts’ in the west” in Atti del XXIV congresso internazionale di Storia dell’Arte (Bologna 1982), 10 vols, II pp. 27-34, but his “La place de Qusayr Amrah dans l’art profane du Haut Moyen Âge” in Cahiers Archéologiques Vol. 36 (Paris 1988), pp. 75-83 and his “Umayyad Palaces Reconsidered” in Ars Orientalis Vol. 23 (Ann Arbor 1993), pp. 23-38, also look worth investigating on the topic. One could add John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Jerusalem 1977), to which cf. for now Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the Case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022; Dan has more work on this sort of thing under way.

3. I was wondering whether Professor Mitchell might have published some of this material by now, but websearching for it has brought to my attention Beatrice Leal, “The stuccoes of San Salvatore, Brescia, in their Mediterranean context” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo & Francesca Morandini (edd.), Dalla corte regia al monastero di San Salvatore – Santa Giulia di Brescia (Mantova 2014), pp. 221-247, which appears to be part of the same project. On the desert palaces more widely see Grabar, “Umayyad Palaces” as above and on the Carolingian palace at Paderborn the latest word seems to be Antonella Sveva Gai, “Die karolingische Pfalzanlage in Paderborn (776-1002). Vom militärischen Stützpunkt bis zum Bischofssitz” in Götz Alper (ed.), Sulzbach und das Land zwischen Naab und Vils im frühen Mittelalter, Schriftenreihe des Stadtmuseums und Stadtarchivs Sulzbach-Rosenberg 19 (Sulzbach-Rosenberg 2003), pp. 135-154, apparently transl. as “La residenza palatina di Paderborn in Westfalia tra la fine dell’VIII secolo e l’anno mille. Da centro militare a sede vescovile” in Sveva & Federico Marazzi (edd.), Il cammino di Carlo Magno (Napoli 2005), pp. 13-40, though I haven’t seen either so can’t be sure.

Seminar CCXIV: how a seventh-century ship was built, and then abandoned

You may remember, a long time ago, before this blog even, when the powers-that-be in the modern city of Istanbul decided it was time to expand the metro system of the city, started digging and almost immediately found themselves trying to put a tunnel through what was evidently an ancient harbour at Yenikapı? That much, at least, had been sort of expected—the Theodosian harbour of Constantinople was known to be in that location and in any case you can’t really dig into the ground in an old Roman capital city and not strike heritage—so they had archæological intervention ready, but what was not anticipated was the scale of the find. They got thirty-seven vessels out of it in the end, and that took teams of diggers working six days a week right through from 2004 till 2013, with at peak 660 people on site a day, while the bus station and live train tracks that also pass through there continued in operation. It’s one of the more incredible feats of archæology in our times, and one of those 660 people was quite often Dr Rebecca Ingram, who on 14th November 2014 was in Birmingham to tell the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies about it, under the title of “Making it Last: the construction and repair of a 7th-century ship from Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour”.

Survey and measurement of a ship in the Yenikapı harbour excavations, Istanbul

The speaker and her eventual co-author showing nautical archæology at its most glamorous; note the waders…

The harbour itself was the work of Emperor Theodosius I and opened in the 390s AD, but had begun silting up at the western edge as early as the seventh century, and by the twelfth was unusable to any but shallow craft. New docks were still being built in the fifteenth century, that despite, but by 1544 (now of course under Ottoman rule) it was finally abandoned and given over to gardens and housing. The area now sits a block back from the sea, but nonetheless even the fraction that was dug turned out to contain all those ships still, wrecked, sunk or abandoned at various times in that 1200-year history. Of the thirty-seven wrecks, which included six military galleys as well as a range of merchantmen from the fifth to eleventh centuries, eight were selected for detailed study and conservation, and Rebecca was able to speak to us as that work drew near its conclusion and the first ships were being written up.

Shipwreck Yenikapı YK14 under conservation in Istanbul in 2007

Yenikapı shipwreck no. 14 under a soothing regimen of salt spray during conservation in 2007. Note the dock pilings next to which she sank. Other ships had new docks sunk through them, so much a feature of the bottom had they become.

Rebecca had been especially concentrated on the vessel now known as YK11, an eleven-metre commercial vessel built in Turkish pine probably at the beginning of the seventh century, and apparently abandoned on the silt in the western end of the harbour some time soon after the middle of that century. In that relatively short lifespan the ship had seen a lot of use; she had been repaired so much that some of her repairs had repairs, and at one point the whole inside had been rebuilt though the hull was apparently never properly overhauled. The ship was partly built from second-hand timber and thus shows every sign of having been built and run on the cheap and finally—though I don’t think the archæology showed why—having become irreparable. Maybe she just went aground and was too much trouble to refloat…

Yenikapı shipwreck YK11 under slow reconstruction at Istanbul in 2008

Yenikapı YK11 under slow reconstruction with aid of a total station in June 2008

Although Rebecca’s work was mainly focused on the details of the construction, which is beautifully preserved and seems to represent a turning point from shell-building, where the strength is in the hull, to skeleton building, where the strength is in the framework and the hull is just skinning, our questions tended to be that kind of speculation: where would a fairly lightweight ship with an eight-ton cargo capacity have been and gone and what would she have carried? (There was no sign of cargo in the remains.) Would she, for example, have helped supply the city during the Arab sieges through which she must have survived? And when she was abandoned, why was she? Little to none of this could be answered from the archaeology, of course, but Matthew Harpster, also a sometime veteran of the dig, noted the particular concentration of wrecks in the harbour from around the early eleventh century and wondered what disastrous event might have struck. Rebecca said that all attested events of that sort were too late, but this is what you get from taking your stuff out to the public; someone was able to supply a reference to a tidal wave at Constantinople at some point before 1058 from a letter of Jaroslav the Wise. I had heard of this for the first time then and there, but now I am able to offer it as a source for those who like skimming narrative sources for extreme weather events!1 But I am also much more knowledgeable about ship-building and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean than I was before. And if you would like to be so also, then you may like to follow up the first publications of Rebecca’s team, which have now made it to print.2 I’m here to help!


1. Or at least, I would be if I could find any mention of that letter to cite. It’s not apparently mentioned in Nora K. Chadwick, The Beginnings of Russian History: an enquiry into sources (Cambridge 1949), so I wonder if what the commentator meant was something in the Russian Primary Chronicle? But I can see nothing there beyond a reference in the notes to an earthquake at Constantinople in the late tenth century reported by Leo the Deacon, so no, I’m at a loss, sorry.

2. Witness Cemal Pulak, Rebecca Ingram & Michael Jones, “The Shipwrecks at Yenikapı: recent research in Byzantine shipbuilding” in Deborah N. Carlson, Justin Leidwanger & Sarah M. Kampbell (edd.), Maritime Studies in the Wake of the Byzantine Shipwreck at Yassiada, Turkey (College Station TX 2015), pp. 102-115; Pulak, Ingram & Jones, “Eight Byzantine Shipwrecks from the Theodosian Harbour Excavations at Yenikapı in Istanbul, Turkey: an introduction” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 44 (Portsmouth 2015), pp. 39-73.