Category Archives: Romans

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.

Aside

Probably only one person reads my blog so closely as to notice this, but the backlog has actually advanced to the point where the ‘sticky’ posts on the front page that I have been using to hold current events and … Continue reading

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 CCXXV: an attempted rehabilitation of the Emperor Honorius

On 28th January 2015, I was once again in the Institute of Historical Research for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, which turned out to be one of the more impressive double-acts I’ve ever seen in academia, with Graham Barrett and George Woudhuysen taking the stage with a paper entitled “Small Wars in Faraway Places under the Emperor Honorius”. I say ‘double-act’ and ‘stage’ deliberately; the paper was not just scripted but choreographed, with each speaker stepping forward for a few lines then stepping back to let the other take the spot; slick was not the word. So what was it that was being so slickly imparted?

Madrid, Real Academia de Historia, Codex 78, otherwise known as the Codice de Roda, fo. 190r

Madrid, Real Academia de Historia, Codex 78, otherwise known as the Codice de Roda, fo. 190r, showing the opening of our text in question, the De Laude Pampilona Epistula

Well, those who know Graham or have read of him here will know that he is in his normal appearance a scholar of post-Muslim Northern Spain, whereas George is a late Roman person, and the point of this paper was in something that concerned them both, a misunderstood text in the Codex Rotensis. This is a tenth-to-eleventh-century manuscript made for the court of Pamplona that contains a version of Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans, to which were then added Isidore of Seville’s History of the Goths, the Chronicle of Alfonso III in its simpler version and the Prophetic Chronicle, some noble genealogies and a bunch of ephemera, these including a Visigothic poem of praise for the city of Pamplona which, crucially for the paper, incorporates a letter of Emperor Honorius (393-423) whose rubric says that it was brought to Pamplona by an otherwise unrecorded patrician.1

A portrait of Emperor Honorius in the consular diptych of Probus, dated to 406

A portrait of Emperor Honorius in the consular diptych of Probus, dated to 406, “Consular diptych Probus 406“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The letter has, claimed our two speakers, been dismissed as unintelligible, but confrontation with the actual manuscript helps with this—and it is of course now online, which makes that a lot easier—and George and Graham interpreted it as a tax break for local soldiery, not identified but not Gauls as they were being granted the same privileges as the Gauls. There apparently follows an additional provision that actually mentions Spain and establishes a retirement fund for the soldiers addressed. In other words, it looks like an attempt to reward loyal soldiery or buy back intransigent ones. Now, I have been very cautious about how I phrase all that because despite all the preparation one thing that Graham and George did not give us was a text, or sight of one, so my notes are based only on what they told us it said.2 If they’re right, however, then this all probably fits in with the fairly recent rebellion of the prefect in charge of the Spanish army, Constantine the-would-be-III, who had also held Britain and Gaul against Rome for a while between 407 and 409. Honorius is generally held to have been unable to regain the provinces he lost in that rebellion, so this letter, if it’s correctly interpreted and its associated texts mean that it really does belong in Spain, show some attempt on his part to put things back in place.

London, British Library, Add. MS 10970

The opening of the sixth book of Zosimus’s New History, not in the oldest manuscript (Cod. Vat. Gr. 156 of the tenth century) but in a sixteenth-century paper copy that is now London, British Library, Add. MS 10970; my late medieval Greek palæography is not good enough to find you the right bit, I’m afraid, but the rest of the MS is linked through if you want to try

Now this may all sound strangely familiar to those who know their Bede, because Britain is another province which Honorius is supposed to have lost, and indeed abandoned; the sixth-century historian Zosimus mentions a letter of Honorius to the Britti telling them to look to their own defences. George and Graham therefore then turned their attention to that, reminding us that other interpretations had been offered but thinking that the letter probably was meant for Britain but has also been misread; in Zosimus’s actual Greek, sadly not (yet) digitised in its oldest version which is likewise eleventh-century, it just tells the British to be on their guard against the emperor’s enemies.3. The context here, noted George and Graham, was the deployment of the Gothic army of Alaric against Constantine, permitting the interpretation that Britain, too, was a loyal province to whom Honorius could offer nothing but words but did so hoping that they would be enough. Consequently, arguing that Britain left the Roman Empire in 410 would be misguided and we should assume that it too simply fell apart under the pressure to defend itself with whatever non-Roman forces were making themselves available.

Silver siliqua of Emperor Honorius, struck probably at Milan between 383 and 402 but found near Colchester in Britain

Silver siliqua of Emperor Honorius, struck probably at Milan between 383 and 402 but found near Colchester in Britain

I’m not, per se, against the decatastrophising of the end of Roman rule in the West here; as the speakers put it, there was no Waterloo moment, just a long series of too many problems. All the same, this is an awful lot to try and base on two letters, both of whose attribution is debatable and whose preservation context is dubious in the extreme—an eleventh-century collection of texts perhaps referring to Pamplona and Zosimus, preserved in a manuscript no older and far less directly informed, are not where one would wish to find unalloyed depictions of fifth-century imperial strategy. Questions therefore centered not least on whether other evidence could be available: Rebecca Darley asked about the preservation of Honorius’s coinage in these areas, and Graham admitted that they more or less cease to turn up after 410 but argued that the dating of those later coins may well be wrong; Wendy Davies however added that in Britain at least these late issues are found only in a very few places, like Caerleon, anyway, so in fact the coinage doesn’t really help either side of the argument except by supporting the idea that Honorius had no actual resources to commit to preserving the empire. Graham and George may still be right, however, that that didn’t stop him trying.


1. The standard edition of this text, and not the only one, is José María Lacarra (ed.), “Textos navarros del Códice de Roda” in Estudios de Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 1 (Zaragoza 1945), pp. 193-284, online here, at pp. 266-270; for further and more up-to-date references see Esteban Moreno Resano, “Cultura jurídica e instituciones cívicas entre la Antigüedad Tardía y la Alta Edad Media: observaciones a propósito de De laude Pampilona epistola” in VII Congreso General de Navarra: Arqueología, Historia Antigua, Historia Medieval, Historia del Arte y de Música volumen I, Príncipe de Viana Vol. 72 no. 253 (Pamplona 2011), pp. 193-205 at pp. 193-194 n. 1.

2. I could of course now provide you the text from Lacarra or even try and read one myself off the facsimile, but to be honest, I’ve linked you to both and it’s been quite a difficult few days, you can manage, or at least, will likely do as well as I can; I don’t find the facsimile especially easy going.

3. For those other interpretations see Edward A. Thompson, “Fifth-century facts?” in Britannia Vol. 14 (London 1985), pp. 272-274.

Seminar CCXX: rôles for superfluous imperial women

The day after the seminar I last reported on I was at yet another, back in Birmingham to hear Professor Jill Harries presenting to the General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Her paper was entitled “Mother vs maiden: Helena, Pulcheria and the formulation of imperial dynasty in late antiquity”, and it was fun; I haven’t seen someone presenting who enjoyed their topic so visibly for quite a while. Some interesting points came out of it, too, so I shall try and give a decent report even though the period is not my usual one; after all, these days, teaching requires that it become more familiar… Professor Harries’s paper set out to assess just how much freedom women of the late Roman imperial family actually had to decide their own fates. It doesn’t seem like too much of a spoiler to say straight away that the answer was ‘hardly any’, although I thought that more could be teased out of the material and I’ll say more about that below. But basically, the imperial women were policy tools for the emperors, and so the meat of the paper was in the changes visible in the ways in and the extent to which emperors did that.

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R3141; all coins pictures given at maximum size, not to scale

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453. “Pulcheria Coin” by Asybaris01http://www.romancoins.info/Wives3.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were four phases implicit in the paper, and two explicit ones, those two represented by these two ladies, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine I (306-337), finder of the True Cross and eventual saint, and Pulcheria, daughter of the Emperor Arcadius (395-408) and thus sister of and something like religious consultant to Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), before finally becoming the wife of the Emperor Marcian (450-457) as which she died. Outwith that, however, there were implicit before and after phases, before Christianization and after the breakdown of Roman rule in the West. The latter of these was basically a point of fissure; after it, what Professor Harries observed was no longer so observable, so I won’t discuss it here. In the pre-Christian phase it is basically rare to see imperial women having had any rôle at all; in the very earliest empire Livia was arguably a serious power-broker and in the third century a small raft of women called Julia (and especially Julia Mæsa) were very important in the appointment of emperors, but these both seem to be those difficult combinations of exceptional times and exceptional women that make generalisation about such things so very hard. (I do wonder how far this is an artefact of the focus of our written sources, I have to say. One of the things that working closely with the Barber Institute’s coins made clear is that an awful lot of empresses got coin series. Again, I will say more about this below, but I feel as if the coins may be telling us that empresses had more of a rôle as faces of the state than our various chroniclers were interested in reporting, and that subsequent developments as described here might therefore look less weird.1)

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa struck at Rome 223-226

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa, paired with the mother-goddess Juno, struck at Rome 223-226

In any case, these women were exceptional in some sense at least, but this changed in the reign of Constantine. Not straight away: Helena was Constantine’s father’s first wife of two and when Constantine recalled her to the palace in 312 it was after she had endured some years of political occlusion. Professor Harries showed us that Helena had something of a rôle in Rome as Constantine’s representative, though she was not alone of the family there, and as I already knew, after a short test run in Alexandria she was featured on coins right across the Empire from 324 to 326. The thing is that she was not alone in that; not only had Constantine’s sons had their own coinages for a few years by this time, but in 324 they were joined not just by their grandmother but by their mother, Constantine’s wife, Fausta, and indeed for a very short time at Rome only, Constantine’s sister Constantia.2 His younger sons were called Constantine, Constantius (after granddad) and Constans, by the way; Constantine understood brands… His eldest son, however, was called Crispus and was murdered in 326 for reasons that have become legend to such an extent that the reality will never be known, and perhaps as part of this Fausta was also dead by the end of that year and those coinages stop.3 Showing that money isn’t everything, it was at this point that Helena suddenly became a really public figure by visiting the Holy Land and there supposedly finding the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified, of which Constantinopolitan rulers would be handing out fragments for nine centuries thereafter. There was some kind of exercise of moral repair going on here in which Helena’s Christianity suddenly became a way out of whatever trouble Constantine’s family was in, suggested Professor Harries, and it’s as good an explanation of the changes in Constantine’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Christianity as any I’ve heard at least.4

Bulgarian icon of Saints Constantine and Helena with a patriarchal cross

That ambivalence, of course, is a feature of modern Western scholarship which the Orthodox church, considering both son and mother saints, would dismiss or even condemn. Here is a later Bulgarian icon of them both serenely untroubled by such concerns, which the Bulgarian National Commission for UNESCO have not seen fit to attribute

There isn’t, in this, really any suggestion that the by-now-septuagenarian empress had a lot of choice in her elevation to imperial Christian patroness; her religion was convenient, her status unaffected by whatever had befallen, and Constantine had need of her. Nonetheless, argued, Professor Harries, Christianity opened up new ways for emperors to put their women to work, ways that remained options even if, as in subsequent years was usual, they were not used and imperial women were largely either hidden or married off to generals or Cæsars. Pulcheria is arguably the first flicker we get of Christianity as chosen imperial career path, and even her dedication to virginity in 413 didn’t prevent her being named Augusta in 414 (or from getting a coin series). The Church historian Sozomen, who seems to have liked to use powerful women to make points about failings of emperors as we’ve seen before, tells us a lot about her influence on Theodosius, and she seems to have lent the court a cladding of sanctity that was useful to Theodosius but which would, in time of need at his death, be dispensed with in the cause of a peaceful succession when she married Marcian after a few months as effective ruler in her own right. She was too old to continue the family by then, but it gave Marcian some kind of link to the previous régime. Interestingly, Marcian’s successor Majorian was to legislate against this kind of parking of women in religious status until convenient, and significantly increased their rights to leave. For Professor Harries, Pulcheria didn’t have such a choice; although she may have been inclined to and even happy with her intermediate status between the worlds of withdrawal and policy, it was part of the emperor’s presentation of his court, not her modification thereof.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

Copy of an ivory plaque supposedly showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, although I’m sure I’ve seen them identified as Constantine VI and Eirini before now; this copy is in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

That is of course a reasonable default position and Sozomen is really not the source one would want for this job, since his interest was so very far from straightforward political narrative. Nonetheless, it did seem to me that some of what he apparently says had implications of something different. Professor Harries had stressed that Theodosius didn’t necessarily pay much attention to Pulcheria, as often her requests in the name of patronage could be refused. But consider that a moment: what it implies is that Theodosius didn’t necessarily approve of her requests, which in turn makes it very unlikely that he put her up to them. In which case, what we are surely seeing there is her initiative, at least in so far as she was choosing whom to try to promote. If all her requests had been granted, we might justly suspect that Theodosius had for some reason set her up as a perfect intercessor whose requests would thus doubtless have been very carefully chosen, but because she couldn’t always get her way I think we actually have some reason to believe that ‘her way’ was something that existed. This has the rather paradoxical implication that we only have good basis to believe in agency’s existence when we see it being thwarted, which feels wrong in a number of ways but might still be worth thinking with, not least as it resembles the more widely-accepted idea that we tend only to see identity being defined when it is under threat and therefore weak.5 You can already see from the above, which is based almost entirely on information Professor Harries provided in the paper (and in a ten-minute addendum during discussion), how rich a paper this was and how many little avenues of interest could have been pursued; for me, however, that extra step of thinking is the big thing this paper gave me.

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I, paired with the mother goddess Juno, struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of public happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of Happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Writing this up now, however, I find an urge to append my own little extra bit in the form of the promised extra point about the pre-Christian phase. The women above were also empresses, in the family of another emperor who put as many of his relations on the coins as he could, that being Antoninus Pius, still of course alive and blogging up until a few years ago. Antoninus was also, as his name suggests, something of a one for the public display of piety; but what of the empresses? Did they form part of that strategy of presentation, did they sit at court being pious in a pre-Christian Roman fashion or go out and dedicate buildings and help the poor as did Helena? Well, we just don’t know because our main source, the Historia Augusta, is not concerned with them in the way that Sozomen was with Helena and Pulcheria, though it does tell us that Antoninus established funds for destitute women in his wife’s name after her death, which of course tells us that she had not, even if he thought it a fitting tribute. But basically we don’t know, and yet we see many of the same things going on with coins here, in terms of the association of the imperial women with particular virtues, as we see with the women of Constantine, to which can be added the imperial promotion possibilities inherent in their deification, which was duly recognised after both their deaths in ceremony and on the coinage. I’m not sure I’m saying that this makes what Constantine was doing with his women any less unusual, but it might tell us where the idea was coming from, and if it did, it would most likely be telling us that it actually came from the coins…

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217


1. For example, just listing those empresses represented in the Barber Institute’s collection gives one Livia, Antonia, Agrippina, Julia, Julia Titi, Domitia, Plotina, Marciana, Matidia, Sabina, Faustina I, Faustina II, Lucilla, Crispina, Manlia, Didia Clara, Julia Domna, Plautilla, Julia Paula, Aquilia Severa, Julia Sœmias, Julia Mæsa, Orbiana, Julia Mamæa, Paulina, Sabina Tranquillana, Otacilia Severa, Herennia Etruscilla, Mariniana, Salonina, Severina, Magna Urbica, Galeria Valeria, Helena, Fausta, Theodora I, Flaccilla, Eudoxia, Eudocia, Galla Placidia, Licinia Eudoxia, Pulcheria and Verina, which is not that far off every known emperor’s wife and a few who were not even wives. I think we would be safe to consider putting the empress on coins a usual thing to do.

2. I have become familiar with the images Helena and Fausta just because of seeing them on the Barber’s coins, not least in getting them out for Professor Harries the day after this paper but Constantia is less well-known and I know of her issue only from Harold Mattingly, C. H. V. Sutherland, R. A. G. Carson, J. P. C. Kent & Andrew Burnett (edd.), The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 7: Constantine and Licinius A. D. 313-337, ed. Patrick M. Bruun (London 1966), from which I can’t give a detailed reference right now; she’s in one or two of the indices. On empresses on coins more generally in this period, however, see Leslie Brubaker & Helen Tobler, “The gender of money: Byzantine empresses on coins (324-802)” in Gender and History Vol. 12 (Oxford 2000), pp. 572-594, repr. in Pauline Stafford & Anneke Mulder-Bakke (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), pp. 42-64.

3. It is tempting to suggest that the reason was that he wouldn’t change his name to fit, but the basic problem is that contemporary sources obviously knew it was unwise to discuss this affair in writing, later sources therefore don’t know what happened and then it gets wrapped into the Legend of Constantine as the reason for the curse of leprosy of which Pope Sylvester supposedly cured the emperor and after that no possibility of factual report remains…

4. The obvious rival candidate is Timothy Barnes, author of Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Oxford 2011), who came in for a good deal of good-natured criticism in this paper. Prof. Harries’s own views are evident in her Imperial Rome AD 284 to 363: The New Empire (Edinburgh 2012) but this paper was part of a more focused study on Constantine that we can only await eagerly! As for Pulcheria, there there is Ada B. Teetgen, The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria A. D. 399-452 (London 1907) and now all over the web, and there must be more recent stuff too but I don’t know it, sorry.

5. This is perhaps the single most powerful critical insight I got from my undergraduate study of history. Of course, it is in some ways just the carrying into discourse of the Shakespearian formulation about protesting too much, and I’m certainly not claiming I thought of it—I’m pretty sure, instead, that I got it from Matthew Innes‘s teaching—but it is still worth having as a tool. If a source is all up about something being natural, traditional, well-established, old or usual, it’s often because they’ve met people who think it’s not…

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7


1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…