Tag Archives: burial archaeology

Seminar CLX: 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…


An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

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

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

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

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

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

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

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

    Keynote address

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

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

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

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

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Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4

1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.


Flat out for Sutton Hoo

This gallery contains 14 photos.

The Easter holiday was short in the UK last year, but this didn’t stop some of us making good use of it, and for me this included, somewhat to my surprise, an Anglo-Saxonist roadtrip. This excellent idea was one of … Continue reading

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.

1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

Did you see that? Surely not! But yes! It was a post about my research area! But it went so quick you may have missed it because now it’s back to Anglo-Saxon England again, which does seem to be most of what I spent the spring of 2013 reading or hearing about. I did go to one other seminar between this and the previous one reported, in fact, but it didn’t really give me anything to work with so instead we pick up where we left off with John Blair’s Ford Lectures, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, here with his sixth and final lecture on the 22nd February, “Landscapes of the Mind”.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

This lecture revolved around the worthy contention that it’s only really possible to understand how people in the Anglo-Saxon world were using and changing their landscape if we also have some idea how they thought about it, easy to say but rather less easy to do! There are some obvious texts, and some less obvious ones: John did not, for example, use The Ruin, a poem which seems to be about what was then left of Roman Bath that even I have worked to death in a teaching context but which seems, well, kind of like a literary construct, but he did use The Wife’s Lament to open up for us a world constructed in zones, in here and out there, safe versus wild, the hall, as we might (and John did) put it, and the sparrow. As I say, the literary and textual evidence for this kind of thinking has been well worked over but there is these days also the possibility of doing more, and recently much more, with the archæology.1

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Tæppes hlæw, Tæppa’s Low, built within an Iron Age fort and later, as we now believe, equipped with a church

One of the things that becomes obvious when you approach the matter like this is that the Anglo-Saxons were keen reusers of sites that had associations with the past. Despite the otherworldliness felt by the narrator in the Ruin, or rather, because of it, they built in old monumental precincts, they buried people in Iron Age or Bronze Age burial mounds, or, as at Taplow above, built new burial mounds within Iron Age structures. It seems unlikely that the people reusing such sites can have had more idea what their original purpose had been than do we, but that they connected with something unusual may have been enough. After conversion to Christianity, also, as we’ve seen before, these sites retained old associations so that executed criminals might be buried there, or, The Wife’s Lament suggests, the living imprisoned there as exiles from normal space. Those were, however, some kind of official response, and for people without a full understanding of Christian practice such places presumably shared their significance with newer places of contact with the beyond like churches, all being points of access to the sacred or supernatural.

Crop-marks of a 'woodhenge'-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire

Crop-marks of a ‘woodhenge’-type monument at Catholme Farm, Staffordshire, a point which became the main entrance of the Saxon settlement, which, John told us, also backed onto a Roman road, had burials at all its entrances and was laid out on a grid-plan

Both churches and older constructions could in fact be seen as replications of antiquity, John argued, the stone structure of churches calling on Roman antiquity and Anglo-Saxon mounds calling on the older landscape in which their builders found themselves. These ‘structures of eternity’, perhaps also reflected in stone cairns, contrast sharply with the ephemeral, transient traces of the structures of the living, timber houses that would move over generations as one mouldered and a new one replaced it nearby, and that would be opened and closed by rituals we see in the form of placed deposits of materials, animal remnants and so forth.2 These also had their life-cycle, whereas the landscape of the beyond worked in terms beyond mere life-times or generations.

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth, with a distinctive fabric that may result from the imitation of building in wood. Photo by the author, more of these in a future post…

Much of this, however, seems to have changed, wouldn’t you know it, around the year 1000, when the building of churches on a much wider scale really got going, many of which were probably therefore of wood; they start to have stone fonts, too, which is hard to show earlier when baptism may have been done in lead or wooden tanks. Stone bridges begin to be known, by the twelfth century stone houses too, whose generational perambulation around sites was thus arrested.3 In the 1050s, as discussed here before, we also seem to start seeing fortification in stone. The landscape now became permanently occupied, unlike the light, precise and ephemeral imprint left on it by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultures. John, closing with these ideas, was careful to stress extensive local variation, made worse by the fact that our texts, largely from the West Saxon milieu, tell us little of the areas where we can see most investment in material culture, the Wash catchment area he’d identified in earlier lectures. For some areas, especially the West Midlands, there is for some periods just no settlement evidence at all, and almost everywhere there is still much more to do. But, a cheering thought, with so much of what is being done now a matter of digital record, we can proceed to do this more with a much better and easier grasp of what there is to do it with.

1. A first attempt at both in Sarah Semple, “A fear of the past: the place of the prehistoric burial mound in the ideology of middle and later Anglo-Saxon England”, in World Archaeology Vol. 30 (London 1998), pp. 109-126.

2. Most of what I now know about such things I know from sharing a Common Room for two years with Clifford Sofield, whose work has been mentioned here before but from whose thesis, “Placed deposits in early and middle Anglo-Saxon rural settlements”, unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2012, we should expect interesting publications.

3. On the explosion of church-building the best place to look is, of course, John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), forgive no page references but I’m away from my notes as I write this. On bridges, the best and almost only thing is Nicholas Brooks, “Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1381” in Nigel Yates & M. James Gibson (edd.), Traffic and politics: the construction and management of Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993, Kent History Project 1 (Woodbridge 1994), pp. 1-20. Where you go for stone houses, I’ve no idea, it’s after my period; wait for John’s book!