Category Archives: Romans

A sixth-century Swedish mass murder mystery

Yesterday and today, dear readers, I have been and am on strike again, because in short none of the promises that were made to stop me and my comrades striking last time have in the end been fulfilled, so we have had to come out again to try and get across that this will keep happening if the people in charge don’t in fact deliver some kind of reasonable attention to their staff’s problems. Indeed, it is not just keeping happening, it is escalating! Last time there were sixty-odd universities; today, and tomorrow and next Wednesday, every university in the UK has picket lines up, we are all out, and not just the academics but also the other two staff unions; the whole show is stopped. Admittedly, so is every school in Scotland, so we’re struggling for attention a bit; but it’s all the same disease, public-sector workers being asked to do more than we can for less than we used to be paid and much less than we deserve for the work we put in. So today that work stops, and you get an extra blog post.

Reconstruction of fifth-century Sandby Borg, Óland, from ‘Viking Murder Mystery’, PAL in Ancient Mysteries (4, London, 15 Dec. 2021) (25 Nov. 2022)

Reconstruction of fifth-century Sandby Borg, Óland, from ‘Viking Murder Mystery’, in Ancient Mysteries, Series 4, episode 2 (London, 15 Dec. 2021), on freeview here

So this is all based on a bit less knowledge than I’d like, and some of that is my own unwillingness to find out more, which I’ll explain. But you might just remember that in November 2019, still a few months before the pandemic deluge, I briefly posted that I was going to be on television. That did happen, in the USA on the Smithsonian Channel, and much much later it seems that it did also come out in the UK on Channel 5, though no-one warned me so I couldn’t tell you. I’m still not sure when it was screened here – IMDB and Channel 5’s own site disagree – and I’ve no idea how many people saw it; all those I dealt with at the relevant company, who were all pleasures to work with, seem to have gone and I can’t get answers from the new ones. The previous incumbents did at least early on send me a video link, but I confess I haven’t ever dared look at it in case I came across like a buffoon (or worse, perhaps, a ‘boffin’), and the link is in my University e-mail which, because of the digital picket, I’m not opening. So I don’t know how much I was in it or what selection of what I said they used. A couple of people have mentioned seeing me on TV, and that must be this, but they couldn’t remember anything much about it, which doesn’t bode well… But I can tell you what it was all about, and that is a story worth telling.

Our location, then, is a place on the Swedish island of Óland, a place called Sandby borg, and the date is, well, that’s a question but let’s say after 425 and before 600 CE, and we can narrow it down in a moment. Sandby borg was not really known about until 2011, when it was first dug by a small Swedish archæological team, and what they found proved quite surprising.1 The place had been a fortress settlement, and whatever it was defending against, it had failed: the place had been breached and ruined, and there were slaughtered bodies aplenty. Some, even, had apparently been placed deliberately across the thresholds of houses before the dwellings were torched. But what had not happened was looting; though smashed, scattered and what-have-you, the material treasures of the site, weapons, ordinary belongings, metalwork, had been left where they fell, and then fires set. And then, apparently, the attackers left and no-one ever came back to it again. It’s really something like the murder and burial of a place. It disappeared under the sands and was left as it had been left at the point of the sack, until found again in “our times”.2

Drone photo of archaeological digging under way at Sandby Borg

Drone photo of the dig under way, from the team’s Facebook site, linked through

Now, you may imagine that at that point the archæologists involved realised that they were sitting on something hot, and the press got involved and so, at some remove or other, did a company called Blink Films who, among many other things, do or did content for series about historical mysteries. Most of what they do is more esoteric, shall we say, than this, but when you have actual mystery any publicity may be good publicity, I guess, and so Blink Films picked this up and went looking for experts. And, because among the finds left to lie unstolen at the site were two Roman solidi of Valentinian III (r. 425-55), or so it seemed (more on this in a moment), one of the experts they needed was a numismatist, and they found me. So I agreed to be involved, and roped in the Barber Institute, where the now-Curator Dr Maria Vrij very kindly let me and a film crew back into my old workplace and we got out some more such solidi and I tried to sound like an expert about how the ones at Sandby Borg might have come there and what it meant that they had.

Gold coin and jewellery uncovered in the Sandby Borg archaeological dig

I did have pictures of the coins, but I seem to have filed them somewhere ‘safe’; instead, here is one of them, and I think it’s the imitation, in its state of discovery (or a plausible reconstruction thereof), again from the team’s Facebook site

Now, at that point I’d had about four days to read up, and that during term, so I did not know all I wanted. But I had already learnt that, firstly, late Roman coins are not uncommon finds north of the Baltic, or indeed in the northern lands beyond the Empire in general, and that they are usually explained as payment for military service, brought home by the successful soldiery.3 I’d also learned, however, that apparently this set up a sufficient demand for such gold coin in at least what’s now Sweden that it became worth making your own, because a good part of the ones which we have are imitations.4 Whether that means that there were was a circulating economy of gold coin in Scandinavia this early, or that people outside the Empire were hiring Geats as soldier and paying them in knock-off coin when the real stuff ran short, I didn’t have time to consider; but I could say that the likely context of these coins was military service, probably under Rome, and that one of the two finds here was probably an imitation, and I got to wave real ones at the camera and talk about the differences I saw and I hope, I hope, that that’s what’s in the programme. I think I also offered a theory about what had happened to the fort, but at this remove I can’t remember what I knew and what I only found out later, so can’t safely guess what that theory would have been. I can tell you what it is now, though.

Gold solidus of Emperor Valentinian III struck at Ravenna 425-455 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0540

Both sides of a real gold solidus of Emperor Valentinian III struck at Ravenna 426-430 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0540

The important difference between what I knew then and what I came to know, you see, is a book by one Joan Fagerlie called Late Roman and Byzantine Solidi Found in Sweden and Denmark.5 I had started it, I had it with me and I think that’s where I had the idea of imitations from, but at point of filming I’d had no time to do more than open it and check some lists. It was sufficiently interesting, though, that I read all through it and realised that whatever I’d said on camera probably wasn’t wrong but could have been a lot better, because actually Sandby borg, both in its having these coins and in its untimely murder, turns out to have been part of a bigger phenomenon and it’s all, as my inner hippy still sometimes says, pretty heavy, man.6 These are the things I learned from Fagerlie and the other reading I also did:

  1. This coin flow was a long-term affair; even when Fagerlie was writing there were nearly 800 known coins (and of course there are now more), and their dates of issue ranged from 395 to about 600 CE, Theodosius I to Maurice, but with a very sharp falling-off after Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565). After that, indeed, Scandinavia was more or less the same as the rest of Western Europe, which basically stopped seeing imperial coinage in the troubled reigns of Phocas and Heraclius.7 But before that, it had something specific going on.
  2. Fagerlie then did a bunch of very clever deductions from the 726 of the 800-odd coins she had been able to look at. First she observed that the coins largely came from Constantinople, but also from some western mints, suggesting a flow from both halves of the Empire, and secondly she thought that it began under Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474), with anything earlier being stuff picked up from circulation (including lots of Valentinian III). And she noted that this period of maximum flow, from around 461 to about 550, pretty much coincides with when the Ostrogoths were a military quantity in the Roman Empire and then their own, but kind of not their own, kingdom of Italy. So the first clever deduction was that somehow the Ostrogoths were feeding this coin, which they perhaps obtained in tribute or salaries from the Empire, northwards, and that seems hard to dismiss.
  3. Secondly, she worked on distribution and die-links, that is, sets of coins which were struck using the same dies. This corpus is actually busy with die-links, which can only easily be explained by the coins involved having got to the north almost direct from the mint; they must have been shipped, received, paid out again and transported (apparently not through Italy but the Balkans and points north, scatters of incidental finds along the route suggest) and finally redistributed almost without being mixed with anything else. That’s interesting in itself, and tends to confirm the idea that these were state payments of some kind. Furthermore, the die-links start with the coins of Leo I, which also tends to confirm that that was a threshold of some kind and that earlier coin only came there from his time onwards. But this also lets one do something quite serious with distribution, because when you find coins with die-links that are a bit scattered, in this situation you can reasonably hypothesize that they arrived together. But where? And that’s where our stories recombine.
  4. You see, the die-links and distribution together, as Fagerlie saw it, paint a clear pattern of successive, single points of distribution into Scandinavia. The last, where the flow of coinage petered out in the 560s, was Gotland, now more famous for hoards of Islamic silver coin but apparently starting early; but the previous one, up till about 480, was Óland. And everywhere else which was getting these coins, including another island focus, Bornholm in Denmark, which has lots too, was getting them from one then the other of those islands.

Now, there is a lot here, and it’s all known just from the coins, which may explain why I’ve seen so little use of this corpus in more conventional histories. The Ostrogoths were, at least in the sixth century, apparently prone to claiming ancestry in Scandinavia: Jordanes’s Getica, which he wrote around 550 in Constantinople alongside a history of the Romans in order to prove that the two peoples had equally honourable and ancient backgrounds, claims to have this from an earlier history by Cassiodorus which no-one but him seems ever to have seen, and he only for three days; but it doesn’t matter where he had the idea from, it was there to be had.8 Now, these coins obviously don’t prove anything about a deep Gothic prehistory in Sweden; but they do show pretty sharply that there was by the sixth century a strong connection between the political entity of ‘Ostrogoth’ and the place that was by then being claimed as their homeland. And we really don’t know what that connection was, just that it was worth a lot of gold. Military service is a possible, even a likely answer to that question, but only a hypothesis even so.

Jordanes, ‘De origine actibusque Getarum (Fragment)’, Parchment, 1 f., ca. 14.5 x 18.5, Parchment leaf (Fulda, ca 830) (Lausanne, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Ms 398) (https://www.e-codices.ch/en/list/one/bcul/Ms0398), fo 1r

One of the oldest (fragmentary) texts of Jordanes, Lausanne, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Ms 398, fo. 1r, which was probably written at Fulda around 830, itself raising questions I can’t look at here; licensed under CC BY-NC via e-Codices, linked through and here

Secondly, the other end of the connection must have been something quite specific, or perhaps someone quite specific, because apparently the peoples of these islands were the Ostrogoths’ sole agents in the area, and that must have put them in quite a powerful position, since apparently everyone else was having to come to them for this imperial gold coin which was getting everywhere around southern Scandinavia, but getting there only from Óland and then Gotland. There’s a power structure there about which we just know almost nothing, but which is required to explain the coin finds.

Now, there is one more part of this context I’ve not yet mentioned, which is that Sandby borg is not alone in its sudden destruction. In fact, pretty much every coastal fortification of this early period in either Óland or Gotland which has been investigated met a messy end, and even when Fagerlie wrote it was recognised, largely because of the coin find threshold indeed, that this must have happened in the late fifth century in Óland and in the middle-to-late-sixth for Gotland, presumably in some associated fashion each time. The latter of these waves of destruction has been tentatively explained, when at all, in terms of the takeover of the people from whom Sweden takes its name, the Svear, chasing out the Gotlanders from a previously dominant position in eastern Scandinavia, and one could therefore guess at the former wave being how the Gotlanders got that position in the first place, apparently at the expense of the Ólanders.9 In both cases, while I might not now want to endorse these pseudo-legendary peoples’ existence, it’s tempting to see that stranglehold the populations of the two islands apparently had on imperial prestige goods as being too much for their power-hungry dependents to stomach, and episodes like Sandby borg the messy and unpleasant result.

Archaeological investigation under way at Sandby Borg

The investigation under way at Sandby Borg, again from their Facebook site

So at this point, had we learned anything from the Sandby borg dig? If I’d already done my reading when I did that excited piece-to-camera in summer 2019 in the dark of the Barber’s coin room, would I have been saying confidently that this happened all the time, wasn’t unusual, in fact wasn’t even the only such coin find in Sandby or the most important one even if the actual borg hadn’t been found before, and that it told us nothing new? I don’t think so, because firstly, in terms of coin finds the finds here seem to say something different from the hoards; they were both early, separate and one’s an imitation. If Fagerlie was right then they should have arrived here maybe forty years after they were struck; and maybe they did, but I wonder if what we see here is actually the type of place these coins were going all over Scandinavia, perhaps heirlooms from service with a foreign army that it was worth having because it marked you as member of a kind of élite; and if I’m being properly fanciful, maybe the reason they stayed here was because for some reason Sandby borg’s defence included two very old soldiers who, in the end, lost their last battle, but whose status was recognised in death in so far as they got to keep their coin-badges. There have been hoards of Fagerlie’s types found nearby; but these two didn’t get hoarded, they stayed with their owners, and that might be important.

And then secondly, of course, there’s the macabre picture of how one of these settlements, apparently a casualty in a much bigger war, was not just destroyed but almost ritually ended, bodies across thresholds, buildings literally closed by the dead, and everything left where it had fallen, forever, never again to be visited. Or at least that was the plan, it seems. And that’s telling us about something more than a commercial power-grab; it’s telling us something about what that power meant and how it was explained, and if some day we figure that out properly, this site will be part of the explanation. But until then, it may remain at least mostly mystery, even though we apparently know more than many people think about the times in which the mystery was set.


1. The academic publication of these finds, until the full report at least, is Clara Alfsdotter, Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay & Helena Victor, “A Moment Frozen in Time: evidence of a late fifth-century massacre at Sandby borg” in Antiquity Vol. 92 no. 362 (London 2018), pp. 421–436, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2018.21.

2. Andrew Curry, “Óland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480” in Archaeology (Boston MA March/April 2016), online here; “The Sandby borg massacre: Life and death in a 5th-century ringfort” in Current World Archaeology (London 25th July 2019), online here.

3. For the data see Arkadiusz Dymowski, “Roman Imperial Hoards of Denarii from the European Barbaricum” in Journal of Ancient History and Archaeology Vol. 7 Supplement 1 (Bucharest 2020), pp. 193–243; for some interpretation see Svante Fischer and Fernando López Sánchez, “Subsidies for the Roman West? The flow of Constantinopolitan solidi to the Western Empire and Barbaricum” in Opuscula: Annual of the Swedish Institutes at Athens and Rome Vol. 9 (Rome 2016), pp. 249–269.

4. See n. 5 below.

5. Joan M. Fagerlie, Late Roman and Byzantine Solidi Found in Sweden and Denmark, Numismatic Notes and Monographs 157 (New York City NY 1967).

6. Those that know me may be wanting at this point to suggest that the hippy is not in fact inner, and I who am currently sitting in a stripy woollen jumper that would fit in fine on the pampas and listening to Os Mutantes’s debut album would, I admit, have few arguments against that position. But it is pretty heavy, all the same.

7. See Cécile Morrisson, “Byzantine Coins in Early Medieval Britain: a Byzantinist’s assessment” in Rory Naismith, Elina Screen and Martin Allen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (London 2014), pp. 207–242.

8. If you want to read it, the oldest translation is helpfully online, as Jordanes, “The Origin and Deeds of the Goths”, transl. Charles Christopher Mierow in Texts for Ancient History Courses, 22nd April 1997, online here; for (competing) study of him and his project, try Lieve van Hoof and Peter van Nuffelen, “The Historiography of Crisis: Jordanes, Cassiodorus and Justinian in mid-sixth-century Constantinople” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 107 (London 2017), pp. 275–300, DOI: 10.1017/S0075435817000284 or Robert Kasperski, “Jordanes versus Procopius of Caesarea: Considerations Concerning a Certain Historiographic Debate on How to Solve ‘the Problem of the Goths'” in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies Vol. 49 (Berkeley CA 2018), pp. 1–23, DOI: <a href="https://doi.org/10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.116872&quot;. For the kind of work which you’d think would love this stuff, but doesn’t use it, see Herwig Wolfram, “Origo et religio: Ethnic traditions and literature in early medieval texts” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 3 (Oxford 1994), pp. 19–38, reprinted in Thomas F. X. Noble (ed.), From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms, Rewriting Histories 22 (London 2006), pp. 70–90; but against it, see Walter Goffart, “Does the Distant Past Impinge on the Invasion Age Germans?” in Andrew Gillett (ed.), On Barbarian Identity: critical approaches to ethnicity in the early Middle Ages (Turnhout 2002), pp. 21–37, also reprinted Noble, From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms, pp. 91–109.

9. For the wider background see Bjørn Myhre, “The Iron Age” in Knut Helle (ed.), The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, volume I: Prehistory to 1250 (Cambridge 2003), pp. 60–93; the end of the Gotland system is passed through on p. 84, but for specifics I had to go back to Alfsdotter, Papmehl-Dufay & Victor, “A Moment Frozen in Time”.

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The Empire Strikes Back (in Ravenna)

This gallery contains 37 photos.

I promised something more academic for this post than holiday photos, I know, although I hope that even my holiday photo posts have something educational going on in them. But when I did check forwards, in the thin light of … Continue reading

Name in Print XXX: the other parcel from China

A short bonus post for the celebratory weekend, celebrating, well, me again I’m afraid, plus ça change… You remember a few posts ago I wrote about receiving a fairly unexpected Chinese translation of one of my conference papers in the post? If you do remember, one of the reasons it was unexpected was that while I heard nothing about its progress into print, I had heard lots about the progress of another conference paper I’d given in China some time before, in a story I have already told. Well, a few weeks ago that one also arrived with me.

Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021)

Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021)

Although it’s not as much of a shock as the previous one was, this too has wound up looking rather different from what I’d expected. The original plan was for the papers we’d all presented in Changchun to emerge as a special issue of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations which is edited in the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations that had hosted us.

Covers of Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021) and Journal of Ancient Civilizations 32/1 (Changchun 2017)

The same volume next to vol. 32/1 of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations, like large child with small parent

The actual year of appearance, however, was originally to be 2020, which unhappily coincided with that pandemic of which you may have heard tell, and of course that fell on China first. So everything there became difficult, and not just for that reason. In any case, the perpetual shuffling of this special issue was messing up the journal timetable, it was also a lot more material than they usually publish in an issue, and there is also a series of supplements to the journal. So, at some point very late on in the process, it became clear to me that that is what would be happening with ours, that the covers would be red and cloth not blue and paper, and this is what I now have.

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Günther, Qiang, Lin and Sode, Constantinople to Chang’an, pp. 31–74

Now, this doesn’t necessarily make the paper more accessible; the book is more expensive than the journal would be and even if your library has a subscription to the JAC – which some do, don’t be like that nowthey probably don’t get the supplements. And yet I do want people to be getting hold of this, because the paper I wrote I wrote fully intending it to be nothing less than an up-to-date, thought-provoking, student-accessible and copiously-illustrated guide to what happened to coinage in the various zones of the Roman Empire over the period about 400 to 700 CE which I could set to my own students (and you could set to yours!). It checks in on the coinage at the turn of the years 400, 500, 600 and 700, observes changes descriptively, and then addresses major issues like continuity and imitation, and there are seventy-odd illustrations, for which I laid out an entire year’s research expenses, in order to create the for-now-definitive one-stop article-length introduction to coinage in the late and post-Roman worlds. Mad, they called me, mad, I who have created numismatics! And so on. But dammit, it is rather good.1

Figures 49–60 of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying & Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74 at pp. 70–71

Figures 49–60 of Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World", pp. 70–71

So, if this sounds like a thing you would want to read, or to make others read that you might educate them, and you have an institutional budget to support you, please try and get hold of the book; I am far from the only interesting thing in there, especially if you care about Byzantine (or Sasanian) coinage out of place, and IHAC does good work, including supporting foreign scholars and encouraging East-West dialogue, in an area of China far from Beijing or Shanghai.2 If you just have spare cash and like well-made books of interesting content, consider buying it too maybe, because the country which invented paper does make pretty nice books (and this is one). But if you don’t have the money and feel you might still benefit from my dubious expertise here, you can also find the article in a reduced-quality version on my Academia.edu page, with IHAC’s permission, so do feel free to enjoy that instead (or as well!). I’m pretty pleased with it and hope you will be too.


1. Full citation, as per, is Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74. Of that, a slightly frightening pp. 52-61 is bibliography and pp. 62-74 are figures, so it’s not as frightening a read as that makes it sound. I owe tremendous thanks to many people for making images available, but especially Maria Vrij at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, whence came most of them, and to the British Museum, CGB Monnaies, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard College and Ruth Pliego for not charging for their images.

2. Admittedly, right now I admit I can’t find any way that you can buy it, but hopefully that situation will ease and if people want it I can try and find out how that can be done in present circumstances; leave a comment or send me mail and I’ll do what I can. Meanwhile, other tempting highlights might be Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Gold Coins in the Mediterranean (5th-7th Centuries), pp. 1–30, Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins and Peninsular India’s Late Antiquity”, pp. 135–169, Li Qiang, “Trends and Dynamics in the Study of Byzantine Coins and their Imitations Unearthed in China: 2007‒2017”, pp. 193‒206, Guo Yunyan, “Classification of Byzantine Gold Coins and Imitations Found in China”, pp. 207‒240, Lkhagvasuren Erdenebold, “East-West Relations and Nomads: a Short Introduction to the Tomb of Shoroon Bumbagar, Bayannuur Soum, Mongolia”, pp. 241–257 for those Sasanian finds, or Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands Found in Southeast Asia”, pp. 277–314.

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Dead Vikings in Carlisle

This gallery contains 16 photos.

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

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

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

Real Royal Protection for the Carolingian Church?

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

The Torhalle of the Lorsch monastery

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

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

Middle-Age spread in the English village

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

Making Manuscripts under the Conquistadors

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

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

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

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

Exemption by Whatever Means

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conferring over coins in Birmingham

Sorry about the lateness of this post; I write between two family gatherings that have taken up quite a lot of writing time. But here is a post even so! We’ve come so far with the whole world situation that people are contemplating having real in-person conferences again, but this post is still a story of the distant past for now, and specifically of 18th November 2017, when I was down in Birmingham and indeed my old place of employ, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, to listen to a conference about the collection I briefly managed, entitled ‘The Barber Coin Collection Colloquium Day: Past, Present and Future Research’. I didn’t speak at this myself, being somewhat embroiled with other work just then, but I learnt a few things by going. These were the speakers:

  • Margaret Mullett, “The Legacy of Anthony Bryer”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Sri Lankan Coins in the Barber Collection”
  • Maria Vrij, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mezezios?”
  • Wei-Sheng Lin, “Armenian Cilician Coinage”
  • K. MacDonald, “African Gold Sources for Byzantine Carthaginian Coins”
  • Anika Asp, “Numismatic Sources for the Empire of Trebizond”
  • Alex Feldman, “Coinage and Commonwealth, 9th-11th Centuries: local dynasties and mints in the ‘Ummā and Oikoumene”
  • Joseph Parsonage, “Coins and Co-Emperors – Crowned Regents in Byzantium”
  • Michael Burling, “Sasanian Numismatic Imagery and its Influence”

Now, of these, Wei, Alex, Joseph and Mike were at that stage various levels of postgraduate at Birmingham and were not primarily working on coins for their theses, and had really been introduced to them either by me or Maria as Curators, so they were presenting partly for practice and partly out of goodwill, and for that reason I shan’t discuss their papers in any detail. Professor Mullett’s presentation, in turn, was largely a biographical sketch of a man who had been involved in the negotiations that led to many of the collection items being in the Barber at all, and you can read about him in more detail yourselves if you like. So that leaves Rebecca, Maria and Dr MacDonald, all of whom had things to say which are still probably interesting if you’re interested in such things!

Gold imitation of a solidus of Emperor Theodosius II possibly made in India or Sri Lanka, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0482

Gold imitation of a solidus of Emperor Theodosius II possibly made in India or Sri Lanka after 402 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0482

Rebecca’s paper was an analysis of the sale history of five late-Roman-or-Byzantine coins which, according to a note lurking in the Barber’s archives, had been found in Sri Lanka. This seemed, on the face of it, dubious. Now, not many people have a better idea of what imperial numismatic material is found in Sri Lanka, and as we’ve seen Rebecca also knows a thing or two about numismatic collectors. A false hope was realised by the possible connection of two of the coins to one Leslie de Saram, a man famous in Lankan archaeology but who nonetheless acquired pretty much all his coins on the London market; but the coin above, as well as one of Maurice, she thought could possibly be Sri Lankan finds given everything recorded about them in the Barber (not much) and the wider finds patterns, though even there the Maurice coin would fill a gap rather than having parallels.1 It makes me suddenly think that if our failed attempts to get through the surface dirt on these coins with an X-ray had in fact been directed at analysing the dirt, maybe we’d have been able to settle this question! But as it is, it is still a matter of possibility whether the Barber does in fact hold coins that went all that way out of the Empire and then had another Empire bring them back again and out the other side…2

Gold solidus of Emperor Constants II struck at Carthage 641-654 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4100

Gold solidus of Emperor Constans II struck at Carthage 641-654 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4100, tested in the All the Glitters project and not found wanting

Since we’re now talking about metals analysis, it probably makes sense to discuss Dr MacDonald’s paper next. This was coming out of a project that was trying, effectively, to work out when and if trade across the Sahara Desert can be archaeologically documented before the Islamic era. Part of this work had involved trying to work out if sub-Saharan gold had reached the north of Africa before that time, and one way to determine this was to test coinage issued in Byzantine Carthage, of which of course the Barber has a bit (and we tested some). The thing here is that Byzantine coins from Carthage took on an increasingly thick, globular aspect over the sixth century, as you can sort of see above, and it has been suggested that this is because the blanks were coming in as lumps from the Essouk goldfields, way way south, because such lumps have been found as production debris there.3 Somehow I didn’t write down what methods Dr MacDonald was using to test his coins, but the methods must have been better than ours as he was finding distinct differences between the normal, flat solidi previously minted by Carthage and the globular ones which did not themselves prove, but were consistent with, the idea of them being on Essouk blanks, and what the difference largely was was that the globular coins were made out of unrefined gold. I would have to say that this didn’t fit with what we’d found when we’d tested one, but then as we know our methods were not very good. This is why I (still) want to know more about his…

Gold solidus probably struck by Emperor Mezezios in Syracuse 668 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4272

Gold solidus probably struck by Emperor Mezezios in Syracuse 668 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4272

Lastly, here if not on the day, Maria’s paper covered a very rare coin of which the Barber has one, apparently struck by a very short-lived usurper—I suppose if he’d been long-lived we’d just call him an emperor—by the name of Mezezios, who rose up in Sicily in 668 after the murder of Emperor Constans II. His coinage was first identified in 1979, but has been disputed ever since, and while Maria did not claim to have solved the problem herself, she did, by explaining the arguments for and against, make it seem much more likely that such a thing would have existed, and therefore that since there are several known from different contexts, they’re probably that thing. The argument really hinges on the fact that, iconographically, the coins appear to imitate those of Emperor Justinian I, from a century before, rather than anyone more recent, and while this has a been a mark against the theory for some people Maria thought, quite reasonably I reckon, that if you’re usurping the throne from a dynasty you don’t borrow their iconography, but go back to before their problem ever arose. Certainly this happens with those who finally did, temporarily, replace that dynasty by overthrowing Justinian II and reversed his numismatic innovations, so I don’t have a problem with it thirty years before either!4

All things considered, this was a good thing to have been part of. It did what I think Maria had hoped, by demonstrating that having a good collection in a university can actually be a generator of research and that that research, even on tiny things like coins, can open up bigger findings. It is necessary to remind people of this, every now and then, and while I’m not sure the people who most needed to know it were there, at least by writing it up, even this late on, I can help to remind a few more people of this significant truth!


1. That Maurice coin is Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1767, visible here.

2. Rebecca now has a version of this story in print, and indeed online, as Rebecca Darley, “‘Implicit Cosmopolitanism’ and the Commercial Role of Ancient Lanka’ in Zoltán Biedermann and Alan Strathern (edd.), Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (London 2017), online here, pp. 44–65 at pp. 51-56.

3. Dr MacDonald cited what had then just emerged as David W. Phillipson, “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade and Byzantine Coinage” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 97 (London 2017), pp. 145–169, online here.

4. My bit of that is due soon to emerge as part of Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 36 (forthcoming). You will hear here when that happens!

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