Tag Archives: Charles Thomas

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

  1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
  2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
  3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field. So first of all I’ll deal with what the paper is doing, then try very briefly to describe the debate in which it belongs, and lastly assess the former against the latter. And because these things turn out to take a while, I will do so behind a cut… Continue reading

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The unexamined project is not worth… er… projecting? Or, Help, I got some Foucault on me

Self-critique

books

Despite my initial reservations, the Historical Archaeology I’m currently reading is making me think a lot and mostly in a good way. It is very theory-driven, which might be expected to get my goat, especially since some of the language is not that obvious (I am glad to find I have fellow feeling here)—and I’ve already run across ‘imbricated’ once—but I suspect that I am learning my way through this particular semantic jungle, and also it’s just that bit easier with archæology, because the initial remove of content from creation is not so pronounced as with the study of texts. The empirical existence of a thing from the past in question seems to make an empirical starting position more automatic, which suits me.

That said, a great deal of the writing here is about archæology’s effects in the present.1 While one suspects that in part this is a subject trying to impress on a funding-giving audience its own contemporary importance, it must be said that making this case seems to be a darn sight easier in the USA, where indigenous burial sites, the self-acclaimed descendants of whose occupants are still around, make it a very very live concern. (Contrast the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with the very British furore over the location of the body of a prehistoric child near Avebury Ring recently, in which the various bodies of modern druidism tried to achieve something similar. Those thousand extra years of antiquity, to say nothing of the problems inherent in druidism trying to claim continuity, just make it so much harder for people in the UK to care, it seems.) The theory that gets invoked for this sort of thing is transferable to any study of the past with no real trouble. It’s mainly about being self-aware, and aware that one’s work is constructed within and affects the society of which one is part. If, for example, one finds a huge Neolithic temple site on Orkney (oh look! how convenient for this example…) it is probably understandable that the modern Western observer may liken it to a cathedral, but there is in that not just an assumption that big-investment Christianity is still normative, but also an impression conveyed to the reader that monolithic high-investment and hierarchical religious practice is also what we should be looking for in the Neolithic period, what is a bit more dubious.

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

And so on. The authors of the article I’m mainly thinking of here argue that since one cannot avoid being political anyway, it is best to do so consciously and to advance a political purpose in one’s work, in their case by exposing contradictions in our social construction that have become accepted, naturalised and part of our social structures. So, for an example from the past which we can now easily reject, the white male Victorian view that the European human being represented a higher standard of development than, for example, the African. It’s harder to spot ourselves doing this now, though, even though I was already trying. With that in mind, rather than try and give an account of the scholarship here (it would be easier for you to read it, really, and I will go so far as to say it is worth doing), I thought I’d try and apply it to my own ideas deliberately, and see what reflection could do.

So, one of my many future projects (seriously: I have had to cut down my plans for a couple of job applications lately because having more than you can fit on a page just looks unrealistic, and indeed probably is), and the one that I hope to start on properly some time next year, is a book-length study of Borrell II of Barcelona and his times, which I think were not just hugely interesting but partly shaped by him in a way that his contemporary fellow counts didn’t grab in the same fashion. What can I say about the current political impact of the decision to do that?

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

  1. Well, any project that focuses on Catalonia probably has to start with that choice and the current politics of nationalism there. When I first went to Catalonia I found this local pride quite charming, but I’ve since had it pointed out to me how it looks from other, less wealthy and self-developing, parts of Spain. I’m going to be looking at a period when what is now Catalonia was many counties under four or five different counts, who did not act in cooperation; when the counties included numerous uncontrolled independents; and when claims to new parts of those territories and more besides were being developed. I’m also dealing with the count who is legendarily supposed to have led Catalonia into independence even though he only ruled half of it, and that quite shakily as I’ll argue. I am therefore weakening a case for Catalan nationality in the tenth century, and there is no way that that doesn’t at least connect to current campaigns for greater recognition as a nation. On the other hand, even using the word ‘Catalonia’ implies a vision of unity which I don’t profess and so has to be dealt with very carefully whenever it seems to be necessary.
  2. Connected to that, it is my habit to normalise names to modern Catalan, except the place-names in the parts of the territories that are now in France, which I give in French. The pragmatic reason for this is that I want people to be able to find these places on an atlas or a tourist guide so the current usage is important. But it legitimises French possession of those areas and it’s anachronistic. The latter bothers me more of course but I realise that it bothers others less than the politics. Remember at times like this that Perpignan’s rugby team is called Catalans Dragons. In French. Sort those loyalties out if you dare.
  3. Not the least important: his female relatives are going to get featured, along with his other relatives, but what am I doing to scholarship by focussing on a male power figure?
  4. Similarly, what about the peasants? Surely the story of the majority oppressed is more important than the nobility? At least, it’s easy to imagine contemporary perspectives of society that feel that way, and politically I have more sympathy with them than with the sort of worldview that thinks noble ancestry important… and yet, here I am.
  5. Borrell was only one of several counts, as I’ve said, and I’ve also said that his rôle in bringing the area to independence is exaggerated because of this fact (among other things). But I’m still writing about him and not the others, except where he opposed them. I argue that this is because he does more interesting things, to us—reforming the judicial body and the coinage, representing himself to Córdoba as ruler of his area, losing wars rather than being heroic, and making political statements about the basis of his rule—but even though I think these probably represent an insecurity in power rather than a grand enlightened agenda, there’s still questions not just about whether his contemporaries would have seen him, the traditional monarchist patron Gauzfred of Empúries or the dynastic absolutist Miró Bonfill of Besalú as the strongest ruler, but as to the teleology of focussing on things that appear more modern than ‘feudal’ about his rule.
  6. One thing that I couldn’t have articulated without reading this article, however, is what I think Borrell was doing with these elaborate constructions of his power in his somewhat variable hold on it: by looking for opportunities to intervene, and creating systems of justice and exchange that he controlled (and the Church could also come in here, given that he fought over appointments in it), he was creating spaces of governing action that he could claim were his alone but which everybody used. I have never read any Foucault, so without someone else telling me I was never going to use the word ‘governmentality’ for this practice but all the same I seem to have picked the idea up from somewhere, and now I have a reasoned way to express it. Of course a lot of the people I read have read Foucault, which will be where I have assembled this from, but I suspect I must go back to the source if I’m already doing it second-hand.2 And of course if I’m subscribing to that theory, then I am taking a position with respect to the legitimacy of the public intervention in the private and, by pinning it to one power-hungry and status-anxious noble, saying something about the acquisitiveness of the current public power, no? and that was probably mostly unconscious till now.

Of course I’m not a Catalan, and I’m not publishing it in Catalonia, or at least I’ve no plans to do so (though if I do I know where to go). So it’s very hard, even given all the above, for me to have an overt political purpose other than using Borrell as a platform for my own views about how I think society was changing in Western Europe in the run up to the year 1000, which respond quite strongly to a fairly modern idea I have of political actors having genuine agency in their societies. That has an obvious political import, a message of empowerment; but I suspect that really I’m trying to emphasise an individual’s agency in his environment to me, not to a political audience. These two purposes need not be distinct, of course. And if I’m seriously calling the book Agent of Change (if the eventual publishers will even let me) I have to consider that I am certainly making a public statement of that order, even though it was originally really a shrouded Blue Öyster Cult reference.

Cover art of Agents of Fortune, by Blue Öyster Cult, from Wikimedia Commons

So I’m a bit confused, really. I think these agendas are important, but apart from the nationalism question which I’d like to think I can step outside of, I have trouble locating them in my plans. Do you suppose that it’d be OK to just write the thing and let someone else work out what my political purpose was?

Stones and symbols

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

I also want to mention that Patricia Galloway’s article that I mentioned before, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within”, is still really important, not least because it finds ways to apply the same schemata of interpretation to both objects and texts while giving suitable accent to their differences. It also, however, as I said, uses the Pictish symbol stones as an example, and neatly summarises Charles Thomas’s work on them from the 1960s which read the symbols inscribed on them not as art but as a code referring to peoples and members of peoples. When I hit the phrase, “It is especially interesting as an example here because in it Thomas literally translated artifacts into texts” I was immediately reminded of Jeffrey Cohen’s current work on stones as, well, long-term historical actors? And I thought I should tell him about this and also about a book called And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, which is Thomas’s similar work on Welsh and Irish inscribed stones and the ogam script.3 If Prof. Cohen or someone close by doesn’t comment here I shall make my way over there and stick my oar in.

The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands


1. Matthew M. Palus, Mark P. Leone and Matthew D. Cochran, “Critical Archaeology: Politics Past and Present” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 84-104.

2. Ibid. pp. 92-96, citing esp. Michel Foucault, “Politics and the Study of Discourse: Questions of Method. Governmentality” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (edd.), The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality (Chicago 1991), pp. 53-104.

3. Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Hall & Silliman, Historical Archaeology, pp. 42-64, citing esp. Charles Thomas, “The Interpretation of the Pictish Symbol Stones” in Archaeological Journal Vol. 120 (London 1963), pp. 31-97; Charles Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? (Chicago 1994).

Tintagel newly Arthurable

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

Tintagel viewed from above the mainland

I like to think I’m current on this blog, but sometimes I have these moments where I am left to go, how did that get past me at the time? There is but small comfort, in this case, in learning that UK archæological magazine Current Archaeology is also a bit behind the times. Anyway, it was news to me, and I promised a post to Michelle at Heavenfield after mistakenly correcting hers on the place, maybe it’s news to you: there was probably a royal residence at Tintagel somewhen in the fifth to seventh centuries that might make a plausible setting for some Arthurian Dark Age warlord’s court, and the archaeology justifying assertions like this was published in 2007. Now Current Archaeology are reporting on it in what appears to have been their last issue for 2008.1 The new issue is just catching up with that Orkney stack that yielded a King Edgar penny that I mentioned before, too. Anyway…

A while ago someone asked me about Arthur and Tintagel and the result was one of my pub history rants, because Arthur is a subject about which British early medievalists get asked only slightly less than the Vikings, in my experience at least. At that point I didn’t know much about Tintagel and was still working with what I’d been told about it as a major import centre, but not really a secular power centre.2 I should have wondered about that, because whereas Anglo-Saxon trading sites of that period tend to be associated with, but not at, secular power centres, British and sub-Roman ones are very often at castles, though there is an extent to which we know about them because we dig obvious, visible castles more than eroded beaches and riverside fields. Dinas Powys and its massive assemblage of Mediterranean pottery, to which the Leslie Alcock book I have written about here so much adds several northern parallels, should have warned me there was probably a power presence here too.3 Well, turns out that a team from Glasgow (Glasgow again! They do shedloads up there) has been working on expanding that since 1990, with help indeed from television, helicopters and submarines, and indeed cunning use of your FWSE of choice will find them explaining this to The Heroic Age, so I don’t really have an excuse for not knowing. It’s their work that Current Archaeology is expounding. The web version gives you only a preview, and the eight-page feature with a great many gorgeous photos is actually pretty in-depth cover for CA though the lack of detail about the dating evidence is still very frustrating.

So what do they say? In brief, they detected lots that the earlier excavations weren’t subtle enough to find, making the picture on the near-island a great deal busier, and divided it on the basis of radio-carbon dates (calibrated; I suppose if I want them uncalibrated I better read the report) into three phases, centering on 395X460 CE, 415X535 and 560X670. That is to say, after some probably late fifth-century disuse it was revived in the sixth century and at that stage it was pretty large, the fortress wall (previously thought to belong to the high medieval castle but now dated by `unequivocal’ evidence to the fifth-seventh centuries) being greater in length even than South Cadbury, which has been generally associated with Camelot in legend since the seventeenth century. Although he later regretted it, Leslie Alcock observed when reporting on Cadbury that so large a perimeter implied a warlord who could gather enough men to defend it all, as any part undefended would have made a defence of any kind pointless.4 Tintagel, in its extremely isolated position, would be a lot harder to assault, but for all that some similar argument can be made. So yes, it’s a power centre, presumably for the kingdom of Dumnonia. The excavators do stress that it may not have been fully occupied for most of the year, which is fine with me, but when it was, it apparently had to hold a lot of people and they bought and used Mediterranean pottery, implying Mediterranean food and drink imported, and generally acted like Romans more than a bit. Whether Arthur fits into that depends very much on when you consider him to have maybe existed: if I was going to I’d wonder about the second phase more, but really I don’t think this is a worthwhile exercise.

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

The Artognou stone, found at Tintagel in 1998

Now, speaking of things that aren’t worthwhile exercises, have a look at this. This is a further piece of the argument for a royal centre here. I don’t think they need it; Gildas would have called anyone able to fill this place a tyrannus which makes them what we can call a king without worrying too much. Saying which king might be a bit much, but this stone is supposed to tell us more along those lines. It came out of a drain where it had been recycled as a cover in some later phase of occupation. If you can see the inscriptions scratched into it, the smaller lower ones are supposed by epigraphers to be later, and list some Latinised Celtic-sounding names, Paternus, Coliauus, Artognou, Col… again. The upper part, the big wild letters over-running what is now the edge, have been read as H A V G, and that has been expanded by no less a figure than Charles Thomas as H[onorius] Aug[ustus], that is the name of the Emperor contemporary with the first phase of medieval occupation here, which also apparently fits the lettering style. From this we are asked to believe that some Roman authority was still operative here then, hanging on to the tin trade, and that the later names are kings associating themselves with that remnant of Imperial power and renown.5 Well, I’m not alone in being sceptical about this—heck, I’m famous for being sceptical, right? I don’t want to argue with Charles Thomas about the reading, even though that `V’ has tails that mean that I would, untrained, read it as an `X’, and others have suggested that it should really be read [M]AXE… and therefore refer to someone called Maxentius. That would not be an emperor unless the lettering is earlier than Thomas supposes, as Emperor Maxentius died in 312, but it might be someone wanting to sound like an emperor. I like that better, because this is clearly not official inscription, it’s all over the place; this is graffiti. If Thomas is right, which he probably is given who he is, I agree that it means that someone cared who was emperor and I also agree that the names on it were probably people who wanted to sign up with the Empire’s memory somehow, but I don’t think that the messy look of the stone means anything like as serious as CA seem to be suggesting.

Of course, for some people the real news was that `Artognou’ as a name is sort of like Arthur. I don’t buy it myself, and again as I say I am not alone. But since I first wrote anything about Tintagel in answer to the question of evidence associating him with the place, and this time the dating would fit better, I think I owe it to the person to whom I then tried to give chapter and verse to keep up to date here.


1. Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007), reported on in eidem, “What is Tintagel?” in Current Archaeology no. 227 (London 2008), pp. 22-29. I’m not quite sure about the excavators being the authors of the CA article, however; they’re named as “source” which suggests that the actual presentation is down to the editor, Andrew Selkirk, or one of his team, which might explain some of the stranger things it says (see n. 5 below).

2. Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993). The CA article actually gives quite a good run-down on the earlier interpretation as a monastic trading centre, based on digs by C. A. Ralegh Radford in the 1950s.

3 Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys (Cardiff 1963), rev. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987); see also idem, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850 (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 209-210.

4. Idem, “Excavations at Cadbury-Camelot” in Antiquity Vol. 46 (London 1972), pp. 29-38; see also idem, Arthur’s Britain (London 1971), pp. 219-224 & 347-349, disowned in idem, Kings & Warriors, p. 5. Cf. idem, “Cadbury-Camelot: a fifteen-year perspective” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 58 (London 1982), pp. 355-388, repr. in idem, Economy, Society and Warfare.

5. Barrowman, Batey & Morris, “What is Tintagel?”, pp. 27-29. It’s not clear to me that this is genuinely Thomas’s reading: none of the other places I find discussing this stone have him as source for anything more than the later names and their dating, and I can’t find anyone else reading it as `H A V G’. The CA article says, “we can now offer a corrected and more comprehensive interpretation based on meticulous study by Charles Thomas”, but whether this is coming from the site report, Thomas’s actual reading or the various spinning processes that have apparently been interposed between Thomas and this article, I’m not sure.