Tag Archives: digital medievalism

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.

Chronicle IV: April to June 2016

I am, slowly, increasing the speed at which I move through my backlog on this blog, but I’m still not quite at real-time speed… Still, the perspective of retrospection is often valuable and I make sure you hear about up-to-the-minute stuff one way or another, right? So I now reach the fourth quarter of my reports of what was going on my life academic as I acclimatised to that elusive permanent employment I now have. This picks up in the Easter vacation of 2016, and I’ll break it down into the now-usual headings.

Teaching

The academic calendar is semestral at the University of Leeds where I work, so you might think that teaching was done by Easter vacation, but it’s more complicated than that. Leeds has examinations after each semester, you see, and because there’s no space for exams after an eleven-week semester before Christmas on a UK timetable, the exams are held in the first two weeks of the following semester. We then have a week to get them marked, and then teaching starts again, but we can’t be through all eleven weeks before Easter falls, so the semester breaks over that, with two or three teaching weeks that come once term is resumed after the vacation. Then we examine again, this time for six weeks, then mark for two, then finally it’s the end. Complicated enough? I won’t tell you when I discovered this, but it was well after I’d started work at Leeds and I had to amend a lot of materials…

Cover of my module handbook from HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath for 2015-16

It’s hard to know what to illustrate this section of the post with, so here’s some documentation, the cover of my module handbook for the module I now go onto talk about, HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath

So anyway, that means that term restarted with a jolt for me in the middle of April, though as you may recall this could have been worse, since I was at that point only running one module, the late antique survey I’d inherited on arrival. I was still new to more of it than I would have liked, but it went OK. I had had to envisage a final-year two-semester special subject enough to pitch for it at a module fair we run to compete for students with our colleagues, but that was obviously a lot less work than actually having to teach it (though I did in fact get four pupils so had to run it next year). Apart from that and joint care of a visiting Chinese doctoral student, though, my load was really pretty light this term, for the last time too really.

Other Efforts

On the other hand I was keeping busy in other ways! For a start I was, now that I look back over my calendar, doing quite a lot with coins, including going to meet the University’s principal donor of them, who was (and is) a very interesting fellow. He gave us some more, so I guess it went well? I also took up inventorying the University’s collection again over the summer, which has stood me in good stead ever since, and as you’ll shortly see I also did a short introduction session to the collection for my colleagues, although I’m not sure I persuaded any of the unconverted of their teaching utility…

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

Here’s one of them, here the obverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227…

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

… and here its reverse

I was also mentoring four doctoral students I didn’t supervise; I went to Birmingham for an exhibition opening I told you about at the time, was back there again to give a guest lecture I’ll tell you about in its turn as well, and in between those things, believe it or not, was in Princeton to speak at a conference that the XRF numismatics work had got me invited to, about which I’ll also write separately. Then there was the Staffordshire hoard exhibiton here in Leeds, and of course exam marking, a departmental research away day, and a doctoral transfer for someone I’d later, for reasons of staff change, wind up supervising, so that also stood me in good stead for later. I don’t mean to pretend that this is a lot, but I think I was being a good colleague wherever the chance arose, and getting engaged in the local academic community as well as holding my ties to my old ones where possible, which is generally how I like to play it.

Other People’s Research

On that subject, I was also still going to seminars, though this was kind of a quiet period for them anywhere outside Leeds, and even there a lot of it was internal stuff like work-in-progress meetings I don’t plan to talk about here. Running through my notes files, I find these:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Medieval Coins for Beginners: a Workshop”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, which I’ve already mentioned and will describe briefly in due course;
  • Joanna Phillips, “The Sick Crusader and the Crusader Sick: A ‘Sufferers’ History of the Crusades’, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, one of our own then-postgraduates here showing that she could compete with her graduated colleagues on a perfectly equal footing, in a careful and entertaining talk that crossed the history of medicine and philological text critique in a really good showcase of how our department’s strengths could combine;
  • Coins, Minting, and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy Conference, Princeton University, already mentioned and definitely deserving its own post;
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of History and Science: Testing the Purity of Byzantine Gold Coinage”, Guest Lecture at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, likewise already mentioned and worth at least a quick note, I feel, given that this is my blog;
  • Caroline Wilkinson, “Depicting the Dead”, Digital Humanities Workshop, University of Leeds, probably worth its own post too as the issue interests me;
  • Mark Humphries, “‘Partes imperii’: East and West in the fifth century”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, a detailed study of recognition of emperors in the western half of the empire by the eastern ones and indeed vice versa, neither of which were as simple or common as one might expect in the tangly history of the fifth century and the sources for which each have problems not always appreciated;
  • Philip Kitcher, “Progress in the Sciences and in the Arts”, Leeds Humanities Research Institute Seminar, which I was going to blog about separately as it definitely provoked me to argument in my notes, but I now discover that the speaker was giving this all over the place at this point, so you can see it for yourself, I have a lot to write up already and my views aren’t necessarily the same in 2019 as they were in 2016, so I shan’t, leaving it to you to decide what you think if you like:
  • Andrew Prescott, “New Materialities”, Cultures of the Book Seminar, University of Leeds, a visit to the Brotherton Library by a man I knew well to be an Anglo-Saxon manuscripts specialist, who was as the title suggests talking mainly about digitisation but emphasising the sometimes unappreciated physicality of the digital medium—you work it by touch—and the changing rôle of the library—perhaps only some libraries—from being literacy stores to being special archives, as well as the persistent worth of many old technologies (such as, you know, the book).

And that, I think, gets us to the end of the list for that quarter, and my main impression looking back is that there really was a lot going on in Leeds! It definitely helped me feel that I’d wound up in a good place, even if, as mentioned at the time, outside events were threatening to crumble some of my plans for it.

My Own Research

I was almost dreading writing up this part of this post until I went briefly through my files. I’ve no clear recollection of what I was working on this long ago and I was very afraid I would turn out still to have been in the kind of vague fugue I mentioned in one of the earlier ones of these posts. But not so! With the weight of teaching mostly off me, apparently despite all the other things I was up to I was also getting some work done. Not only were there those three papers I mentioned, but on inspection I find that I also turned round a new draft of that article on Carolingian crop yields that has now come out; that in this period I also reworked and sent out again my ill-fated article from Networks and Neighbours, though you’ve heard how that turned out; I must also have been reading Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez’s excellent then-new book on those Andalusi frontier warlords par excellence, the Banū Qāsī, because I was slated to speak about them at the fast-approaching International Medieval Congress, and was because of this able to do so; and I was also writing pretty decent chunks of what was then supposed to be my second book, on Borrell II.1 All of this, of course, took some time thereafter to come to fruition, where it has at all, but at least I was doing it then!

So yes: I think I was having a good time in these three months, looking back. There were certain other griefs that must have damped that impression at the time—my partner and I had decided we needed to move out of the area we were in, which did not like us, and so were doing a lot of house-hunting in this period, for one thing—but writing it up, from the academic side, at least, I wish it was always like that! And I shall move on now to telling you more about some of the interesting bits…

Kirklees Hall

This, sadly, was not where we wound up, although it is extremely suitable for medievalists and was on sale while we were looking… but for rather more than we could afford! But it has a crypt bathroom and a neo-medieval hall and went for less than a million…


1. The book I mention here is Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

Many many Barber Institute coins now online

Following up on that previous post more quickly than usual, the mention of Dr Maria Vrij of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, my honourable successor and exceeder in post there as Curator of Coins, and also the use of the University of Birmingham’s online objects catalogue to instance a Barber coin, both lead me together to pointing something out that’s deserved notice since it began in March 2016 with some of the Barber’s Roman Republican coinage, which is: they have managed to put really quite a lot more of their coin collection online since I left you know!

An anonymous bronze quadrans of the Roman Republic, struck at Rome in 215-212 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0073

For a while Maria was keeping me posted as uploads went up, so that I could post about them here, but since I wasn’t really posting and she soon had a new exhibition to cope with, that stopped and I’ve only just got as far as the first stub I made to mention this to you all. What this means is that the phenomenon has meanwhile achieved very serious proportions! When I took on that collection, 188 items were online, out of a collection of nearly 16,000; by the time I left, not least due to the efforts of Maria, that was 462. But since I left, in four fairly short years (three only 365 days each, I believe!), that total has risen to more than the 3,000 items the search will find at once, even in just Byzantine coins. I can determine that it includes 2,109 Roman coins, including 400-odd Republican pieces, but not including 22 Late Roman pieces of about 250, so that at least is still ongoing work, and the Byzantine collection doesn’t yet include the coins of Constantine XI so can’t be finished yet either, but it’s amazing what has been achieved. That achievement includes the digitisation and getting online of 908 Sasanian Persian coins, a larger collection than most other places in the world and surely pretty much the only one online; it includes the fascinating Mardin hoard, which is very worn Roman and Byzantine coins that were some of them countermarked for use in the medieval Islamic world and therefore presumably were all used thus, since they were buried together; and a selection of Trebizond and Vandal stuff, to name but a few things I can find in searches.1

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked 'Saif' and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked ‘Saif’ and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

So great things have been afoot, and so many feet have they been a’ that I can’t actually determine how great they are; but we are talking records in the thousands, all with good images and metadata that tell you at least something about the rulers who issued them and sometimes the collectors who found them and made it possible for the Barber to make them available all these years later. More is doubtless still to come, but meanwhile I invite you to have a browse, follow some cross-references and revel in the numismatic riches of it all!

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081. Note the way that the method of striking with two dies has left the image of Christ doubled up on the obverse!


1. The Mardin Hoard has actually been exciting people for long enough to be published in print, at least in summary, as N. M. Lowick, S. Bendall & P. D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic countermarks on Byzantine folles (London 1977).

Name not in print II: story of an article lost and found

Here is another post that has been in the wings for a long time, but which appears now with sudden news that completely changes how I have written it, with a new and unexpected happy ending! So, let me tell you a story about an article I wrote and its path to publication, which is also the story of a journal from beginning to more-or-less end.

This is a story that begins in 2012, when a team of four bright postgraduates doing early medieval doctoral study at the University of Leeds decided that what they wanted to do was to start a new journal. With great energy and determination, they got a website set up and assembled an impressive-looking editorial board, largely, I later learned, by getting their supervisor to call in favours on a massive scale. Nonetheless, they did it, and got in several convincing looking articles to kickstart the first issue, as well as a set of book reviews and conference reports to fill it up. Somewhere in the process, they started talking to the then-brand-new anarchistic academic press, Punctum Books, and secured an arrangement with them by which Punctum would give this new journal a print existence, on demand. With that, an ISSN and a professional-looking website running the Open Journal System, they were good to go and off they went. Thus was born the journal Networks and Neighbours.

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 2 issue 1

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 2 issue 1, Comparisons and Correlations

I became aware of this about midway through 2013, I think, when the first issue went live and I was finishing up at Oxford. Somewhere in the later part of that year I became aware that they were now on volume 2 and I decided I wanted in. There have, I know, been repeated attempts to turn the Internet into the new space of freely-available scholarship at the highest level—I think of now-dormant journals like Chronicon, intermittent journals like The Heroic Age (to whose intermittency I’m conscious I have contributed in my time, or rather failed to contribute, sorry folks), and more successful ones like Rosetta or Marginalia, which latter two survive by being run by a cyclical staff of postgraduate students. So perhaps their odds weren’t good, but there seemed to be something about the set-up, the ethic, the coincidence with the burgeoning open access movement and the number of important people they had behind them, and I decided that this looked like fun and possibly the future and that as someone who was, at that stage, still being published as an authority on scholarship on the Internet, I should endorse it.1 They had a call for papers up about cultural capital, which made me wonder whether some of my new work on the frontier as concept could benefit from an application of Bourdieu, and so I put a little while into writing an article-length version of some of the ideas I worked up in my big frontiers posts here, making cultural capital one of the backbones of my argument.2 By the time I’d finished (which I did, as I recall, largely in an afternoon spent in the Bibliothèque de l’Université de Genève, thanks to a kind host who will not wish to be named), I thought it was pretty good, but it had also really helped me think through some of that material and start making it do useful things.

Initially, things seemed to go well. I mean, they were inconvenient, but only in the way that peer review can be, in as much as the article went out to review and came back with a report that basically said, “if your points are any good they ought to work in Castile as well as in Catalonia and I’m not sure they do, but convince me”. Of course, it was an article about Catalonia, not Castile, but since my project pitch was that I was generating transportable theory, I decided I had to face the challenge. So I downloaded or borrowed everything I could on the Castilian frontier in the tenth century, while my first job in Birmingham drew to a close, and sent off a revision, which was nearly twice the length (and nearly half of that now citation) but did, I flatter myself, satisfy that requirement. Anyway, it satisfied the editors, who had all but one now graduated and moved on, and before very long at all a pre-print version appeared on their website and everything seemed to be under way. Admittedly, that preprint did spell my name wrong—not that that would be a first among my publications—and even after I’d sent in proof corrections which also made it clear that the preprint’s pagination was wrong, there it remained. So, things now began to get sticky. The supposed print date came and went and nothing seemed to happen, and then the issue after mine went up, and I began to fear that something had gone wrong.

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 3 issue 1

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 3 issue 1

Now, at this point in the process, an unexpected but useful thing happened, which was that one of the editors, Ricky Broome, came to present at the Digital Humanities Seminar I mentioned a post or two ago, on 16th November 2015 with the title, “OA and Me: a postgraduate perspective of Open Access publishing”. So I turned up, and of course, it was the story of Networks and Neighbours, peppered with reflections on the wider sphere of open access publishing. Ricky emphasised that in order to edit such a beast you need a living and spare time (which rarely coincide in academia), a credible editorial board and a lot of willpower, including to avoid the temptation simply to fill space in the journal with your own work. He thought that their ability to generate any revenue, even to cover basic costs, had hinged on the production of the print version, since as he put it more people would buy something they could see. He also had great hopes for the immediate future, with another issue in hand, but not so much for the long-term, as he saw the traditional journal as unlikely to make it online in the face of alternative models like repository or publish-then-filter mechanisms of dissemination. The discussion revolved largely around that and alternatives to peer review, but of course what I wanted to know, but waited till afterwards to ask, was where was issue 2.2? And Ricky was helpful and explanatory about that—the problems were not all theirs but their most web-savvy team-member had also got a full-time job that removed him from the project—but it didn’t leave me with much hope. And then a few months later the project officially folded the journal, moving the whole operation onto a Blogspot site where they now intended to publish articles as and when they came ready, in one of those future styles that had been discussed at the seminar indeed, but not what I was hoping for when I’d sent the proofs in expecting print, by now a year and a half before.

So I then did something I shouldn’t have done and would live to regret. After one more attempt to get a corrected version uploaded, I told them I wanted to withdraw the article. It was now part of my probation slate at Leeds and I couldn’t see that it would in fact be published, and the protestations of the people I could reach (not Ricky, I should say) that it was published online, for me, failed in the face of the fact that it still wasn’t correctly paginated and still didn’t spell my name right. I would not be able to show it to my colleagues as was, so it wasn’t going to do. Therefore, I needed to send it somewhere else that would actually publish it, which I hoped would be fairly easy since it had already been through peer review. But such a journal wouldn’t accept it if it had already been published elsewhere. So I stamped my electronic foot and got Networks nd Neighbours to take it down and unlink it, which they did; you could no longer download it and it wasn’t listed in the issue. And I sent the article out again and, by way of nemesis, perhaps, the relevant journal rejected it as not being at all well enough informed about Castile. So there I was with no article at all, and no time at all in which to do the reading that would be required to make the necessary revisions. Not my smartest move, and the cause of some difficulties in probation terms, as you can imagine, as well as no little disheartenment about his work for yours truly.

So there, apart from occasional denials of its existence to people who’d found references to the article in searches and couldn’t then get it, things rested until May 2018. I only found out about this a few days ago, however: I was putting together an application and thought to myself that I really could use something that demonstrated my ability actually to do this frontiers stuff of which I speak, and I wondered if even the old preprint was still around anywhere to link to. And what I found was that the Blogspot operation has now ceased as well, and the whole journal has been archived on its own static website. And, blessed day, whoever did that job had not got the memo about withdrawal and had, more to the point, somehow found and uploaded the corrected, properly paginated, Jarrett-not-Jarret version of the article which I had never before seen. On re-reading, it is still, dammit, an article to be proud of and I am exceptionally glad to have a version I can, at last, cite. So although I had just about reached Ricky’s seminar paper in my backlog and was preparing a post explaining the story of this missing article, now it has a quite different ending. Of course, the journal’s fate is still an exemplar of what can and can’t be done without institutional support and postgraduate levels of free time, and it helps explain why so few other such journals have made it. I am sad about my meanness in the face of their difficulties now, but hey: Networks and Neighbours the project continues, doing some impressive things, indeed; the journal was itself an impressive thing even if not always printed; and at last I have my article, and I can be happy with that.

So, statistics as is now traditional: two drafts, and time from first submission to publication, four years one month. Of course the story explains that, and let’s face it, I seem to collect these stories. But it exists, you can read it and cite it, and I think it’s quite good.3 And that’s the end of the story…


1. I refer, of course, to my previous works, Jonathan Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991–995, DOI: 10.1111/lic3.12016, and Alex Sayf Cummings & Jonathan Jarrett, "Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy" in Jack Dougherty & Kristen Nawrotzki (eds), Writing History in the Digital Age, Digitalculturebooks (Ann Arbor, 2013), pp. 246–258, DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv65sx57.26.

2. A good introduction to the theories in play here is Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital”, transl. R. Nice in J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City, NY, 1986), pp. 241–258, online here, and in the words of ‘well-known’ band Half Man Half Biscuit, “if you’ve never, then you ought”.

3. That cite being: Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Binghamton, NY, 2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online at <https://nnthejournal.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/nn-2-2-jarrett-engaging-elites1.pdf>, last modified 26 May 2018 as of 12 April 2019.

Crusading and a Non-Deterministic Climate

The marking ebbs, and the ability to blog reappears… And for once it is clear what I should blog about, because I said I would pass over Conor Kostick‘s long-ago paper to the Digital Humanities Seminar in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (which, as every sub-university-level academic organisation must every few years, has since changed its name), and then Dr Kostick himself cropped up in comments encouraging me not to, and so it seems rude to refuse. I admit that part of my initial reservation was that I might have to be rude, but now that I review my notes, even though the paper was called, “Digital Linguistics and Climate Change: a Revolution in the Digitisation of Sources since 2000”, which you can imagine annoying me in several ways I’m sure, I find less to be annoyed about than I remembered, but also less that one might call, well, conclusive.

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v, image copyright not stated

Dr Kostick’s research at this time had arrived at the central theme of his paper from a circuitous direction. Starting with the study of the Crusades, he’d got into digital humanities as a lexicographical way of working out what medieval authors most probably meant by the words they used, which were of course changing as they used them. His example here, an interesting one, was that Archbishop William of Tyre, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem already, may have been the first author to use the Latin word classis, classically meaning ‘fleet’, to mean ‘class’, as in first- and second-class, which are ways he divided up the nobility of Jerusalem in terms of tax liability. That wouldn’t have been clear without being able to find all the places he uses and all the places other people do and thus being sure that his is the usage that seems to begin it. This kind of technology lets us get further than the grand old lexicographers of old such as Charles Du Fresne Du Cange; as Dr Kostick put it, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants, with big binoculars”.

Charles Du Fresne Du Cange, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19

Du Cange himself, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From here, however, he had gone via an investigation of crusade preaching and had wound up at medieval climate data, not an obvious transition you might think, but several paths lead there. One is the kind of work that has been, let’s say examined, here before, attempting to correlate major political and social upheavals with climate events; another is the fact that at least one historian of the First Crusade, Ekkehard of Aurach, actually made the association for us, saying that the massive participation in that Crusade was at least partly down to a bad harvest, famine and ‘plague’ (perhaps ergotism, suggested Dr Kostick) in France that meant people with no other hope were willing to sign up with someone with a poorly-realised plan and take their ill-informed chances.1 The problem with many such analyses looking for other correlations, apart from the basic logical one of the difference between correlation and causation, has been poor focus of data, using, for example, tree growth in Greenland as a proxy for harvests in continental Europe, and this Dr Kostick avoided by taking as wide a range of sample evidence as possible. He started with chronicles, especially, using the same text-mining techniques as already mentioned, counting entries mentioning famine, plague and strange weather; added tree-ring data from a range of different areas (assembled by Francis Ludlow); and used ice-core data from Iceland and Denmark for finer dating. It’s a pretty good sample, as these things go, and this obviated many of the objections to such work I’d gone in with. So having done that, what do we then know? Well, the texts make it clear that both in 1095 and 1146, i. e. just before the First and Second Crusades, there were outbreaks of disease, which the tree-ring data suggests often coincided roughly with years of poor tree-growth, and the ice-core data sometimes allowed one to associate these and other such peaks with volcanic eruptions.

(I went looking for a climate data graph to put in here but the amount of short-sighted nature-blaming one quickly finds just made me angry so you’ll have to manage without an illustration between these paragraphs.2)

So case proven? Well, sometimes. It’s certainly possible, especially in the light of Ekkehard, to imagine how such a causal chain could fit together: a ‘year of no sun‘, poor crop yields, famine, destitution, desperate mobility, a convenient casus belli or particularly effective preacher, and suddenly what was meant to be a few thousand carefully-picked troops heading East, probably on the expectation of campaigning on an imperial salary for a few months, has become a horribly underplanned mass movement that winds up changing the world.3 The problem is that the chain doesn’t always work the same way. That works very well for the First Crusade, but in the Second Crusade, the popular participation was nothing like as large, though it was certainly large enough for Odo of Deuil to lament, I’ll admit; still, it was provoked by the fall of Crusader Edessa in 1144, and preparations were well underway by 1146 so I’d have thought that popular uptake is all that the bad year could have affected. Meanwhile, there was another significant peak between these two Crusades (not at 1101, at 1130 or so) which correlates with no such action, and there was no such peak before the Third or Fourth Crusades. Hey, maybe that’s why the Fourth Crusade couldn’t raise enough men, right? But the Third still presents problems.

A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from  David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r

An unexpected result of a bad harvest? Probably not, eh? A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r, says Wikimedia Commons where this image is public-domain

Obviously, this paper was never meant to present a thesis as simple and obviously falsifiable as ‘volcanic eruptions caused the Crusades’, but without that, what do we learn from it? Our chroniclers already told us that plague and famine powered recruitment for some of the Crusades, and we didn’t need text-mining to see that. We might, now, understand better where that plague and famine had come from in these cases, but as with my earlier critique of Michael McCormick’s similar deductions about volcanoes, the problem lies in the volcanic eruptions that did not cause crusades, the famines and plagues that were not caused or strengthened by climate events, the crusades that did not correlate with bad weather or famines, and so on.4 No general rules could be extracted from this sort of causation, and neither was Dr Kostick out to present some, but without some such finding, it seemed like a very laborious way to conclude that a couple of our sources were maybe more right than we sometimes reckon. There seemed no question that Dr Kostick and his team had been more careful with data and correlations and even with causation than previous studies, but naturally enough perhaps, that had also limited what they could conclude.

That was my feeling as Dr Kostick wound up, anyway, but questions revealed other doubts and issues among the audience, many of which I thought he actually had good answers to. One of my colleagues argued that climate event references in chronicles are often wrong, to which Dr Kostick wisely observed that this was a good reason to correlate them with scientific data. Other questions focused more justly on causation: Graham Loud has in the past argued, apparently, that a famine which preceded the Third Crusade actually limited response from Germany, and here again Dr Kostick argued that while local responses to stimuli would obviously have varied, the bigger correlations still need explanation when they occur. True enough, but that seems to have been very rare… Well, I certainly don’t have better answers, and if Dr Kostick had been unwise enough to try and push his data further than it would go I imagine I’d have had bigger issues with that, but my feeling remains on this revisiting that his admirable caution robbed the paper of its potential power. The success of McCormick et al. suggest that, sadly, the route to publication of such work is not to care about such things but to push the deductive boat out well beyond sensible recovery, and maybe that’s why this one didn’t (yet?) achieve wider dissemination; it just wasn’t crazy enough!


1. F.-J. Schmale and I. Schmale-Ott (edd.), Frutolfi et Ekkehardi Chronica necnon Anonymi Chronica Imperatorum: Frutolfs und Ekkehards Chroniken und die Anonyme Kaiserchronik, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Darmstadt 1972), pp. 19-38 (commentary) & 123-309 (text), cap. 13/40, pp. 124-127, the relevant section transl. J. H. Robinson in Readings in European History Vol. I (Boston 1904), pp. 316-318, online ed. P. Halsall as “Medieval Sourcebook: Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade”, online here.

2. I should clarify that the thing I think is stupidest in these arguments is neither that there is dispute over climate change at all, which I find explicable if dangerous, nor that there is argument over its causation, which is predictable really, but the conclusion that some people who believe climate change now is not anthropogenic reach that therefore we need do nothing about it because it’s natural. I imagine these people largely do not live in the areas most affected.

3. This interpretation of events largely rests on my old piece linked off this very blog, but is similar to that put forward in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012).

4. My target here is of course Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and P. A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950”, Speculum, Vol. 84 (Cambrudge MA 2007), pp. 869–895, online here.

Introducing the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

I am buried in marking, so have to resort to stored content for this week, in the hope of more progress later in the week. This is a post that I’ve had stubbed for so long to complete, indeed, that I have just repeatedly forgotten that it should come next on quite numerous occasions. Now, however, its turn in the sun finally comes! For lo, it was in the year 2015, in the January of that year, while I was still residing in the settlement of Beormingaham, that word reached me of a new digital venture by two of my by-then-bosom colleagues, Dr Rebecca Darley (now of Birkbeck, University of London) and Dr Daniel Reynolds (still, but now establishedly, at Birmingham), called the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive.

Screen capture of the home page of the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

Screen capture of the home page of the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

If I have my memories right, and I seem to, this came about because while those two had been in charge of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts coin collection (in which of course they preceded me), they had found in the coin room several cardboard boxes of photographs and ephemera, which on inspection turned out to be nothing less than the photographic archive of the Byzantine excavations of Professor David Talbot Rice, eminent art historian and archaeologist at Edinburgh. Apparently his widow thought the Byzantine materials would be best homed with Birmingham’s famous Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies of which I once had the honour to be part. It was quite the little hoard, anyway, as most of his photographs had been taken before the Second World War, so he had, for example, pictures of Istanbul (where he’d dug the Great Palace of Constantinople) which showed it completely different to its current state, with things that are now long gone, built over, or otherwise inaccessible visible and inspected with an academic’s precision. And this being our modern digital age, the immediate thought of our bold curators was to get this stuff online.

Pages from David Talbot Rice's notebook from the excavations of the Myrelaeon in Istanbul in the 1920s, image Myrelaion 006 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

Pages from David Talbot Rice’s notebook from the excavations of the Myrelaion in Istanbul in the 1920s, image 386 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

Now, those who know these two will also realise that no plan of theirs ever stays small. After all, though this was a special one, there are a lot of academics with photo archives, and what happens to them usually? If we’re fortunate, they go to a museum collection which may or may not have time to catalogue and/or display them; if we’re not, they either wind up in someone’s attic (or a coin room) or they go to landfill or recycling. What if someone set up a digital archive that could guarantee upload and preservation of such things? And thus was the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive born.

Rihab, St George, Jordan: stone-lined tomb with accompanying grave cover (left and middle). Image 15704362483, Rihab, by Daniel Reynolds, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, Creative Commons 3.0

Rihab, St George, Jordan: stone-lined tomb with accompanying grave cover (left and middle). Image 15704362483, Rihab, by Daniel Reynolds, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, Creative Commons 3.0.

Buy-in was pretty rapid. Dan contributed his own photos straight away, and their (indeed, my) then-colleague Matthew Harpster gave a load of his, but these were born-digital and in some ways easy pickings. Rather more of a coup was to obtain the promise, then the delivery, of the photos of Birmingham’s founder Byzantinist and then-living legend, Anthony Bryer, who had also trodden or ridden many a road no longer recognisable. Work to upload those is ongoing, and other scholars’ archives have been promised. But this is work that can use your help! To be maximally useful, these images need tagging. That’s a fair labour in itself, and both Rebecca and Dan now have full-time high-demand jobs that don’t leave much spare effort for tinkering with photographs, but there’s also the basic problem that some of them are unrecognisable, or at least unfamiliar to anyone but the seriously expert. By way of an example: can you identify this church? Because as far as I know, we/they can’t, as yet…

A church somewhere in Trebizond, c.1920, image 002 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

A church somewhere in Trebizond, c.1920, image 002 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

So I, and Rebecca and Dan, invite you to have a look at the archive as it now stands and see what you can find. Please note their terms and conditions, and their careful statement of limitations, but also please note the possibilities, and if you think you can help, I’m sure that they’d love to hear from you!

Metablog XI: link clear-out

As is now normal, alas, I have to apologise for the gap in posting; there have been exam marks to finalise and then, heavens help me, I actually took some time off to do non-medieval things. But now I am back and I’m trying to work towards the point where I’m not just up to date with my own stuff but also with at least some other people’s. That’s still a long way off but as a first effort I have taken a long haul through the links in my sidebar, taking out those that no longer existed or are inactive, updating those that had moved and fixing some typos in what survived. Now, everything I’m linking to should be some kind of relevant and active.

There’s room in such an exercise for reflection, of course. It’s noticeable, for example, that most of what I had to prune was in the Resources section; I had to take out far fewer blogs even though my criteria for them are more stringent (viz., they have to have medieval content less than a quarter old on the front page). It seems that a one-person operation with commercial hosting is more practical to maintain than a static institutional website, who knew? Well, we all knew it probably, but it shouldn’t really be that way should it? Digital continuity is for some reason something the Academy can’t manage as well as WordPress. Then again, it may be the one-person thing. When it can be someone else’s fault if something isn’t done, it’s easier for everyone to ignore it maybe? Certainly, group blogs seemed to have survived less well than single-author ones, though obviously this is not real statistics given it’s a selective sample of a tiny size.

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth's atmosphere

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth’s atmosphere, located and explained at Perishable Press (linked through)

Then there’s nostalgia (which is, as we know, not what it used to be). It’s not just me that’s had trouble keeping up with updating; some of the most venerable medievalist blogs, the ones who were an encouragement to me that other people did this thing when I was starting and who have been written about as bloggers, are now silent or dormant. In some cases there were real, sometimes fairly awful reasons; in some cases like mine it’s just acute time shortage; but I guess that it’s also that for a lot of now-silent bloggers online interaction has moved, to Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use those (because as Stuart Airlie once insightfully told me, it’s all about control) but no less a figure than Geoffrey Chaucer shows how this can happen. It’s not that blogs are dead, despite worries to that effect for many years now. There are also several fairly new blogs on the roll, but they are more noticeably academic publicity operations and less anonymised relations of the life academic than was once the case. The medium continues, but it’s now being used for different things, indeed roughly the things I set out to use it for when I started, although I slipped towards the middle of that continuum fairly rapidly. I doubt I started the trend, I think it was the pressure for impact and relevance that did that, but it is still noticeable. There’s still masses to keep up with, of course, and as yet I can’t, but I do hope to again some day. Now, at least the list of what I can’t keep up with is up to date again…