Tag Archives: seminars

Seminar CCXXXIV: ground-level archaeology in early medieval northern Spain

Despite my usual policy of alternating them with what I think of as local-content posts, I’m going to crack straight on with another seminar report. This is mainly because if I had been doing this contemporaneously this is where the post announcing the upload of Justinian II’s coins would have fallen, and on my own blog I can be compulsive about chronology if I like darn it, and partly because the next local-content post requires me to read sixty pages of Italian to do it properly so will take time, but it also gets us back to the Iberian Peninsula, because on 17th March 2015 there had come direct from there no less a figure than Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, to speak at the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar with the title, “Agrarian Archaeology in Northern Iberia: a general overview of medieval landscapes”, and I felt I should be there and take part.

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

One of Professor Quirós’s teams at work at Lantarón in Castile, not the right area but a good picture!

Although in some ways I catch the worst of it in Catalonia, where scientific archæology and money to do it both seem rare, actually Northern Spain has been doing really well in the field of ‘new archæology’ in recent years, especially as cheaper techniques than radio-carbon dating have begun to proliferate, and up until the market crashes of 2008 there was also quite a lot of work being funded. Professor Quirós has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, and so is remarkably well-placed to give a synthesis.1 Here he was focused especially on the Basque country (which is after all where he works) and started his comparisons from there, but I know very little about that area so that was fine with me.

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

The castle of Treviño, Basque Country, dug by Professor Quirós and crew some time ago

The paper basically consisted of a series of short ‘state of knowledge’ round-ups of various sorts of evidence and then an overall summary and speculation on the remaining unknowns. The geographical focus also meant that a lot of that knowledge was about farming and peasant settlement, because there simply isn’t much else that’s so far been located until quite late on, except one outlier site of which we will say more in a moment. So we had material from field survey, the archæology of structures, zooarchæology, artefactual evidence, field systems, manufacturing and palæobotany, all taken thematically and joining up at particular questions. All this has been going on with quite some energy in the last decade or so, and the points it’s bringing up are probably best discussed in the overall chronology that Professor Quirós was now able to put forward. This went something like this.

    1. In the fifth and sixth centuries we start to see new villages forming, in the first real change since the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never had much business up here anyway, but the landscape is decentralised and disarticulated, with very low levels of material culture not being transported for any distances. Silos, previously built big, are now built small, suggesting accumulation has dropped to a household level from a community one. Land use seems, from pollen and so forth, to be going up over the period but there’s little sign of increase at the settlements.
    2. In the seventh century, however, field systems begin to show up and so does long-range transhumance (visible in the huts of the travelling herdsmen), and the one estate centre they’ve managed to locate, at Aistra, starts up in this period as well, with enough command of labour to get terraces built, not a small job. This all suggests the beginnings of some hierarchy.
    3. In the eighth century, in what seems to be a much wider phenomenon, settlements here begin to nucleate and cluster but the vestigial links between them visible in the previous century drop off again, even as the social strata in them begin to pile up higher, especially at Aistra where there are now granaries and selective consumption of animals. This is also the period when we start to get rural churches, which also suggests an available surplus being cornered by one particular interest group, and we know from elsewhere in northern Iberia that these groups are probably the same ones as showing up at the top of the secular hierarchies, they’re not separate.2 It is probably not unconnected with these as wider phenomena that there were peasant revolts in Asturias at this sort of time…3
The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa

The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa, which though itself not early medieval apparently sits over an early medieval cemetery and thus the closest I can quickly find to this phenomenon in standing fabric

  1. In the ninth century there starts to be documentation, mostly from the monastery of Valpuesta at the very western edge of the zone, but the archæology also speaks of more field system organisation and a return to transhumance, while the ways that animals are being slaughtered suggest a system of renders; there are communities which seem never to dispose of particular cuts of pork, for example, even though they have the rest.4 Cattle also start to turn up in the west, suggesting people doing things differently, but on the other hand, animals seem to have begun to shrink in this period, and their diets (which can be got at via isotopic remains in their bones) became more restricted. Those two things are obviously probably linked but they may suggest a shift to home husbandry and therefore enclosure of what had previously been commonly-available pasturing.
  2. Finally for this paper, in the tenth century these trends continue but organisation by the powerful also becomes more obvious: bishoprics are set up for the area, fortification becomes common-place, agriculture intensifies (as we can tell from silos at some fortresses) and the area is in general participating in the economic take-off run and (I think) consequent seigneurialisation that Georges Duby or Pierre Bonnassie would have been happy to see.5

There’re also a couple of general phenomena that struck me as interesting, because they seemed unusual to me. In the first place, the area never seems to have been very short of metal tools; we don’t find very many of them (though some) but right through the period we do, apparently, find shaft furnaces for ironworking, even at fairly humble sites. In the second place, cerealiculture was really diverse: although when we have renders specified in documentation they are almost always in wheat or barley, peasants were also growing millet, particularly, and several others too as well as fruit, legumes and flax for linen and rope. Meat was probably rarely on the menu but when you compare it to high medieval Catalonia (my only comparator) it looks as if the Basque peasants had a rather better ‘third harvest’ than their south-eastern neighbours later on.6

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

Excavation under way at Aistra, on one of what seem to have been a good many dismal days in 2009

All in all this was a fairly impressive sweep through what archæology can actually tell us about societies in a period where documentation is scant or lacking, and one wants of course to go and chase up half the data and see for oneself. One would also wish—and Professor Quirós would be with that one—for another estate centre, because although Aistra sounds like a marvellous and rewarding place to investigate (as long as you like rain), the fact that it got going so much earlier than its investigators were expecting and than a documentary picture would have made likely means that a comparator is dearly necessary to make sure that this place wasn’t just weird in some way.7 It would still need explaining even if it was, of course, but as we know some places just did get special attention. Nonetheless, to have a decent basis for being able to assert anything about change on this kind of scale is amazing, and as Andrew Reynolds, chairing, said at the beginning of discussion, whereas Professor Quirós had been kind enough to say that English archæology of this period was the necessary comparator because of its quality, what has been done recently in Spain might well be thought to reverse the situation, and as you will see from the footnotes, he should know. And since I generally aim to bring the Iberian Peninsula back into people’s pictures from the margins where it too often sits, I am fine with that, as long as I can get the site reports…


1. As well as the various project blogs linked in the post above, see (just to pick the most comprehensive things on this post’s themes from his last few years of publications) J. A. Quirós Castillo, “1911-2011: un siglo de excavaciones arqueológicas en los castillos medievales del País Vasco” in idem & José María Tejado Sebastián (edd.), Los castillos altomedievales en el noroeste de la Península Ibérica, Documentos de arqueología medieval 4 (Bilbao 2012), pp. 123-143; Quirós, “Los comportamientos alimentarios del campesinado medieval en el País Vasco y su entorno (siglos VIII-XIV)” in Historia agraria Vol. 59 (València 2013), pp. 13-41; Quirós & Giovanni Bianchi, “From archaeology of storage systems to agricultural archaeology” in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado, Quirós & Bianchi (edd.), Horrea, barns and silos: storage and incomes in Early Medieval Europe, Documentos de Arqueología 5 (Bilbao 2013), pp. 17-22; Quirós, “Archaeology of power and hierarchies in early medieval villages in Northern of Spain” in Ján Klápšte (ed.), Hierarchies in rural settlements, Ruralia 9 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 199-212; and Quirós (ed.), Agrarian archaeology in early medieval Europe, Quaternary International 346 (Amsterdam 2014).

2. I’m thinking here of work like Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West” in Julio Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the early Middle ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 87-117, and especially Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

3. That is, if it really was a peasants’ revolt; on the misinterpretations of this episode, which has served many historiographical agendas, see this old post.

4. The Valpuesta documents are edited in Desamparados Pérez Soler (ed.), Cartulario de Valpuesta (Valéncia 1970). On peasant diet in the area see Quirós, “Comportamientos alimentarios”.

5. I’m sure you know the works I mean, but for completeness let’s get them in: Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974) and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, but see also La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), a conference in which both took part.

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocaña, “From the granary to the field: archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

7. There seem to be only interim reports and some specialist publications on Aistra so far, the reports being: A. Reynolds & Quirós, “Aistra (Zalduondo): I Campaña” in Arkeoikuska 2006 (Vitoria 2006), pp. 94-100; eidem, “Despoblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2007 (2007), pp. 159-167; Quirós, “Poblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2008 (2008), pp. 209-211; & Quirós & Reynolds, “Despoblado de Aistra: IV Campaña”, ibid. 2009 (2009), pp. 176-180.

Seminar CCXXXII: technical change in Byzantine history-writing

Now it’s time for the third seminar in three days of February 2015, in the vague hope that I can be out of the month in my backlog before February 2016 rolls around! On Thursday 26th February, therefore, I was back in Birmingham and went to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies as was then my wont, where Dr Staffan Wahlgren was speaking with the title, “From Theophanes to Psellos: transformations of Byzantine historiography”. This was a paper that he had come to because of translating the tenth-century chronicle of a chap known as Symeon the Logothete and wanting to know, basically, how odd it was or wasn’t.1 So he had set it next to the better-known chronicles of Michael Psellos, Michael Attaleiates and John Skylitzes, more or less spanning the eleventh century, and also the rather less well-known one of Peter of Alexandria (c. 900), as well as other bits and pieces as they came up, and had looked for things that were common to or changed over this period in the actual ways that these historians used the Greek language to write history.2

Michael Psellos, here shown with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas

The one of those guys of whom it is easiest to find an illustration—which would please him mightily, I suspect—Michael Psellos, here shown with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas. “Michael Psellos” by Unknown/Άγνωστος – Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery/ Κώδ. 234, φ. 254α, Άγιον Όρος, Μονή Παντοκράτορος. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Dr Wahlgren had separated three sorts of variation, whole-culture shifts in the way that language was used, deliberate distinction of learned writing from other uses of the language at that same cultural level and variation that was actually the individual writer’s choice, and he gave us an example of each. Now, I have basically no more Greek than a coin inscription can hold, so in what follows I can only be guided by my notes, but they tell me that we were told that one of the things that differentiates ancient Greek from modern Greek is that anciently it had a dative case, for indirect objects and things acted upon by various prepositions, and now it doesn’t, just a subject, [Edit: an object] and a possessive case. This was a long change, as you can apparently find the dative missing in second-century papyri but still being used in speech in the eighteenth century, but all of the texts that Dr Wahlgren had looked at retained it, at least for location of things though not so much for direction, at but not towards. So that was a whole-culture thing, the historians somewhere in a larger process of change. Then Dr Wahlgren looked at emphatic particles (and here we are beyond my understanding, I can see what these must be but I’ve no idea what they look like): these apparently come back in in a big way in thirteenth-century historical writing where they had been absent or moribund before, which shows the deliberate archaicisation of the learned languages. And lastly he looked at narrative structure and the general constraints of genre upon form and discovered that although the older Chronographia of Theophanes was a force upon them all in different ways, they all had their own variations upon it, although his home case, Symeon, was still more episodic than the others.

Modern Russian icon of St Symeon Metaphrastes

It’s not that there are no illustrations of Symeon, it’s just that they’re all modern icons, because he also wrote a huge collection of saints’ lives, the Menologion, which the Orthodox Church later decided was sufficient to put him among their number… SimeonMetaphrastes

I report all this mainly because it struck me as a slightly strange combination of traditional and modern techniques. Obviously this kind of work is not per se new, that’s how we have some kind of framework into which to fit these chroniclers’ use of the dative. On the other hand we would probably now expect a work such as this to be done with lexomics and corpus analysis, but Dr Wahlgren didn’t mention a computer once and of course you don’t actually need one if you’re willing just to sit down with the texts and a pad of paper for tallies and similar. There remains the question of how to interpret it all, however, and in discussion it was particularly the issue of constraints of genre that came up. Ruth Macrides, who knows her chroniclers, thought that what we might otherwise call the content of the form could be crucial here, accounting both for the sort of language generally used and the individual variation: Theophanes had written a Chronographia, so structured everything with time, Psellos used that title too but frequently followed an episodic trail in the style of Classical ‘historia’, while Skylitzes wrote a Synopsis, and what seems like individual variation between these texts could be therefore something much more structuredly literary and cultural.3 Dr Wahlgren argued that this kind of analysis would be one way to see if those categories really exist, but when you have writers deliberately trying to look old-fashioned it’s obvious that such forces did apply, even if not to all equally. The argument was, shall we say, not settled on this occasion. But this kind of work is still a set of tools we have available to use.


1. He has already edited this, as S. Wahlgren (ed.), Symeonis magistri et logothetae chronicon (Berlin 2006), though of course despite the Latinised title it is in Greek; a few tiny excerpts are already trans. Paul Stephenson online here.

2. The first three of these are all available in translation, Michael Psellos, Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1953) and online here, Michael Attaleiates, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis & Dimitris Krallis (Washington DC 2012) and John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057, transl. John Wortley (Oxford 2010). For Peter we are not so lucky: there is, apparently, Z. G. Samodurova (ed.), “Хроника Петра Александрийского” in Византийский Временник New Series Vol. 18 (Leningrad 1961), pp. 150–197 for the Greek, and after that you’re kind of stuck. On all of these guys you can see Warren T. Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians (London 2013), though you should be warned that Dr Wahlgren said that one of the reasons he had started the project was that book, which he felt needed correction. Treadgold also corrects Wahlgren, Symeonis chronicon, at Treadgold, Middle Byzantine Historians, p. 110 n. 108 and other places, so it’s all quite reciprocal. You can now see some of what we heard in Wahlgren, “Past and Present in Mid-Byzantine Chronicles: Change in Narrative Technique and the Transmission of Knowledge” in Mari Isaoho (ed.), Past and Present in Medieval Chronicles, Collegium 17 (Helsinki 2015), online here, pp. 34-42.

3. I imagine that the best proof of Ruth’s knowledge is R. Macrides, “The Historian in the History” in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys & Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, but as I’ve observed before, good luck getting hold of it. Theophanes is a bit easier, being translated most recently as Cyril Mango & R. Scott (transl.), The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford 1997), though the Continuations with which our guys here worked are not so easy to get.

Seminar CCXXX: digitising a text, one-to-many style

Interrupting my perorations on the state of the Academy with another backlogged seminar report turns out still not to get us very far from computers and the open access agenda. This is because there is at Birmingham a man by the name of Aengus Ward, whom I had clocked as a quantity quite early on in my time there on the grounds that he apparently worked on Spain. He was somehow accidentally elusive, however, and it wasn’t until 24th February 2015 that I finally tracked him down at the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, speaking under the title “Digital Editing and the Estoria de Espanna: of XML and crowd-sourcing.”

King Alfonso X of Castile-León, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

The project’s masthead image is hard to beat, so I’ll just, er, borrow it…. Here is King Alfonso X of Castile-León in all his lion-checkered glory, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

I will freely admit that I had almost no idea what the Estoria de Espanna was before this seminar: a historical text, obviously, and after my period but still medieval. With the precision of great familiarity, Dr Ward filled in the rest: it is a chronicle that was begun as part of a big courtly learning project by King Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284), frustrated would-have-been Holy Roman Emperor and canonically known as ‘the Wise’, though not wise enough to avoid being deposed by his son as also happened to fellow scholar-king Alfonso III of Asturias (886-910), a lesson I never get tired of pointing out. It covers the Iberian Peninsula from the supposed time of Hercules to that of Fernando III, Alfonso’s father, and there are forty or more manuscripts of it now surviving, including some translated into the Latin, the original being in Romance. Anyway, the crucial word in all of those may be ‘begun’, because ‘finished’ never really occurred: there was a ‘primitiva’ recension, compiled in 1270, but amended in 1274, then a ‘critica’, revised by Alfonso in prison in 1282, and then his son Sancho IV oversaw an ‘amplificada’ in 1289, with quite a lot of revisions to recent history at each stage. Also, we don’t actually have a full text of the ‘primitiva’. So what in fact do you edit if you are editing the Estoria?

Madrid, Biblioteca de l'Escorial, Y 1 2

One of the manuscripts of the Estoria that the team is using, Madrid, Biblioteca de l’Escorial, Y 1 2. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For its first editor hitherto, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the answer was to produce a synthetic version, emended to whatever he thought was most likely to have been Alfonso’s considered intent – at least so we assume, since his edition apparently makes very little of the actual editing process.1 And, as long as you’re editing on paper, there’s not a lot better you can do, though you could be more explicit about it. But with computers, XML mark-up and a four-year grant from the AHRC, you can hope for rather better. The project is doing (by now, indeed, has done) full transcriptions of five manuscripts, of various versions including one of the translations, and are marking up what’s different, added, removed, spelled differently and so on in an XML system called Textual Communities (hmm… seems familiar…2). In the end (late in what is now this year) it will eventually be possible to enable many-way comparisons between different versions and different versions of versions, setting text next to image with the words linked at an underlying level, comparing images or texts of the different manuscripts, a ‘recension’ view of each manuscript’s text and a synoptic edition, plus a tentative reconstruction of the full ‘primitiva’, all fully searchable and open to the web. Such is the plan.

But what of the crowd-sourcing? Well, that was one of the surprises of the project, in fact. If I have this right, the students who were working on the mark-up had people who wanted also to try their hand at it, out of sheer geeky enthusiasm for old stuff I think (which is what we all trade on, after all), and so worked out at least the logistics of actually allowing version-controlled mark-up editing over the web. Then the project put in for extra money to develop this, got it and suddenly found that they had what turned out to be a dozen or so extra staff to train and manage, all without actually seeing them, which changed some of their jobs quite a lot. I make it sound as if there was no benefit, mainly because as a coin curator I always felt that a volunteer who was available for less than a term was as much of my time lost training as gained not cataloguing, but obviously once the Estoria team were through that hoop this was a valuable extra source of labour and one of the mmajor reasons they’re looking to finish on time, as well as being a valuable demonstration of that elusive quality ‘impact’, not least as one of their transcribers subsequently went back to university to do a Masters in palaeography and diplomatic!3 And as Dr Ward said in questions, they do proof-read each others’ transcriptions already, so there isn’t actually that much extra work once the volunteers know what they’re doing.

Transcription mark-up of a page of one of the manuscripts of Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna

Oh, and maybe you’re wondering about the spelling ‘Espanna’? Confused by that double ‘n’ where now we would expect an ‘ñ’? Don’t worry, so were the scribes…

In general, while I have no particular stake in this project, it seems like one of the better ones of these jobs I’ve encountered. It seems set to produce its planned result on time, they’ve actually built several extra components into it without prejudicing that, and the ways that they want to present the manuscript and the ways they’ve incorporated outside and amateur interest and built that up into full-blown participation and passing expertise all look like things that you could call best practice. They even have a regularly-updated and interesting project blog! Of course, the real test will be the website, because without that there is nothing except promises, but I came away from this feeling that those promises really did have promise. I look forward to finding out if I was right!


1. Alfonso X el sabio, La crónica general de España que mandó componer el rey Alfonso el Sabio, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal (Madrid 1916).

2. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Princeton 1983).

3. Obviously not in the UK, where as long ago discussed such study has become far too marginal to have an actual degree course for it.

Seminar CCXXVIII: a new method for analysing Mediterranean connectivity

The seminar report backlog now takes us back to Birmingham, where on the 5th February 2015 Dr Matthew Harpster was addressing the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Matthew is one of the friends I hope to keep from Birmingham; we had friends in common when I arrived and then someone gave me the office opposite him, so I had quite a lot of contact with him, but still I didn’t actually see him talk about his stuff until I was working at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. This then was that occasion, and it sparked off quite a lot of subsequent thought and action. His title was “Refashioning a Maritime Past in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996; it probably isn’t Matthew in that wetsuit, but it could be!

It had been Matthew’s doing that this same seminar had earlier been addressed by Rebecca Ingram on the subject of shipwrecks, because Matthew too is a maritime archæologist who once worked at the Theodosian Harbour in Istanbul with her, and like her he also had a particular shipwreck with which he was concerned, a ninth-century one off Turkey.1 This seems likely to have been a Byzantine one but as Matthew had poked at this he had become less and less sure that we have any solid methodology for making such judgements: does one go from the cargo, the personal effects of the crew, the location, the building style, or some or all of these? All of these things could easily be out of place as we understand them. Matthew had gone so far as to assemble all the 254 attempts to identify shipwrecks in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology from 1972 to 2012 as he counted them, and found no consistent practice.2 At that point his project became the one that then brought him to Birmingham, to database as many shipwrecks as possible from the ancient world and try and pattern-spot in such a way as might underpin such a consistent methodology for identification.

Cover of Parker's Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

Cover of Matthew’s foundational text, Parker’s Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

There is at least an easy place to start, an inventory of 730 ancient shipwrecks assembled in the early 1990s to which Matthew was able to add 120 more; the standard of record is of course variable but it’s a start.3 From there Matthew had used the cargo, fittings and personal items recorded for each wreck to work out route profiles for each vessel, assigning each of its items a point of origin and using those points as plots for a polygon that represented that shipwreck’s notional catchment area. Of course, this relies on others’ identifications of the goods and archæology being able to assign them correctly to places of origin, and as Morn Capper (present) pointed out, it is also tracking the finds, not the ships, and if those finds had moved in several ships in turn, not one all the way, the polygon of the one that actually sank would be considerably larger than that ship’s own sea area.

Map of ancient shipwrecks from the Benthos project

This is, sadly, not Matthew’s work but someone else’s attempt to do something similar, mapping the ancient Mediterranean’s nautical archæology, but only where it now rests, not where it had come from… The project concerned is called Benthos, and looks interesting but doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond its preliminary phase as of three years ago, alas.

But, this is something that one can do, it’s still telling one about a species of connection and the results are impressive, the more so because of the work Matthew had done with Dr Henry Chapman to load them into GIS and process them. I wish I could show you one of the resulting visualisations, as they are not only fascinating but things of psychedelic beauty, but Matthew seems not to have put any of them on the web where I can steal them, goshdarnit. In any case, in so far as what they show can be summarised, that summary might be:

  1. The weight of maritime activity shifted eastwards in the Mediterranean between the fourth century B. C. and the fourth century A. D., with more and more material travelling in the eastern half of the Mediterranean and less in the western one.
  2. Throughout that period, however, there is a visible separation of the two halves, either side of a zone including Sicily, Malta and the northern tip of Africa, which seems to have been a zone busy with transshipment but across the whole of which relatively little passed without stopping.
  3. In the fifth century A. D. this trend changes, with the Eastern Mediterranean dropping off in importance and goods from the West beginning to travel much further. Pirenne would have been worried!
  4. Pirenne would, however, probably have taken refuge in the fact that there is much less data from the late period, and in fact almost nothing for the eighth to tenth centuries, but the real peak is in the first centuries B. C. and A. D., not as one might have expected the height of the Roman Empire, and any conclusions for what was going on outside that period are based on dangerously small samples. Was sailing just safer under Hadrian or something? In any case, moving on… 

Matthew’s main point was that, within the limits of the evidence, his method could be used to measure and display change over time in the much-vaunted connectivity of the Mediterranean, but in discussion, predictably, the gathering set to trying to work out what else it told us or might do if extended.4 Archie Dunn wondered how journeys recorded in texts would map using such a method, Rebecca Darley offered military campaigns, as well as coins of course, and I wondered about inscriptions and diplomatic formulae. It seemed to me, and I said out loud, that all these things might well map out differently and result in an even more complex and textured picture of how people moved around the Mediterranean. And at that point Professor Leslie Brubaker said, “Funding bid!” and well, somehow from this seminar came a research proposal involving seven people, including myself, Rebecca, Matthew, Henry and Leslie, and it’s currently under review after making it to the second round of the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant competition, so I guess we shall see what a great fire a little matter may yet kindle; I’m still quite excited about the prospects it raises. But whatever comes of it, Matthew started it, by giving this excellent paper to an audience who thought of useful questions, and that is really how all this is supposed to work, isn’t it?

Divers over an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Sicily

Who knows what we may find? Though I at least won’t have to get wet for my portion of the material if it all comes together… This is a recent excavation off the coast of Sicily of a ‘2,000-year-old ship’ about which I can tell you no more, but it’s a good image to close with!


1. And indeed he has published on it: see M. Harpster, “Designing the 9th-Century-AD Vessel from Bozburun, Turkey” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 38 (Oxford 2009), pp. 297-313, DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2009.00226.x.

2. See Harpster, “Shipwreck Identity, Methodology, and Nautical Archaeology” in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory Vol. 20 (Heidelberg 2013), pp. 588-622, DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9131-x.

3. A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 580 (Oxford 1992).

4. The vaunting is primarily to be found in Peregrine Horden & Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history (Oxford 2000), on which see Paolo Squatriti, “Mohammed, the Early Medieval Mediterranean, and Charlemagne” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2003), pp. 263-279, DOI: 10.1046/j.0963-9462.2002.00111.x.

Seminar CCXXVI: Ottoman professional network maintenance

Returning in somewhat subdued fashion to my seminar report backlog finds me still somewhat out of area, as you can probably tell from the title. My tenure in Birmingham as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts sort of ex officio made me welcome at the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the University, and that welcome was warm enough that I tried, when I could, to get along to the Ottoman papers as well as the Byzantine ones. So it was that on 29th January 2015 I was there to listen to Dr Christine Woodhead give a paper entitled, “Friends, Colleagues and Grand Vezirs: the Ottoman art of letter-writing”, and it had enough crossover with things I’m interested in that it seems worth a report.

Portrait of Islamic judge Azmizade Mustafa Efendi of Istanbul. d. 1631 The only portrait of our star, Azmizade Mustafa Efendi, that I can quickly dig up, and I have no idea of either provenance or date, so it could be very misleading but it sets us up, anyway, doesn’t it?

Dr Woodhead was working on a translation of the letter collection of one Azmizade Mustafa Efendi, a senior judge in Ottoman Istanbul who died in 1631, and she was running into many questions arising.1 Apparently Ottoman letter collections are not uncommonly preserved, but like early medieval ones they tend to have been preserved not for historical but for literary interests, as examples of writing to be imitated, making such minor details as date and addresses uninteresting to copy and thus they often have to be worked out from context, not always possible. It also means that the letters that are selected by preservation are highly stylised, often very poetical, fairly formulaic in terms of the emotions that they express or the occasions chosen on which to write (and thus, not least, quite hard to render into modern English that still sounds purposeful). Dr Woodhead argued that these are anyway very valuable sources for outlooks and worldviews, but even as she presented the questions that kept coming to the surface were more basic ones about to whom Azmizade was connected by these letters and when and why they were written.

Portrait of Azmizade Mustafa Haleti I really am struggling for images here but, here is another unprovenanced undated portrait that seems to be of the right man…

In particular, there is very little in the collection from after his appointment as qadi in 1614, either to him (much rarer in any case) or from him. Was this because having risen to a top spot the networks of grace and favour which had sustained him thus far were now less important, or was it just that that was when he became important enough for someone to compile his letters as examples (perhaps itself an expression of flattering attention by an underling), or even, did he just start a fresh volume at that point and we don’t have it or it hasn’t yet been found? Answering any of these questions is very hard to do from the collection itself, and so what one winds up wanting is other letter collections from his correspondents so that the missing voices in these exchanges can tell us something to condition and contextualise the literary posturing that is the first thing these letter collections were made to preserve. There were lots of other issues to explore here, such as the genuineness of the emotions expressed (and whether they are naturally filtered by the fact that letters were apparently mainly written to people long distant whom the writer hadn’t seen for ages, whereas a more jovial tone might have been used to a friend easier of access), but these seemed so familiar from what reading I’ve done about Carolingian and, actually, Byzantine letter collections that it was nice to be reminded that as we’ve suggested before sometimes the early modernists are really not facing anything very different from we medievalists, even in a world where all could be thought to have changed between the two periods.2


1. Setting up this post has let me come across C. Woodhead, “Circles of Correspondance: Ottoman letter-writing in the early seventeenth century” in Journal of Turkish Literature Vol. 4 (Syracuse 2007), pp. 53-68, online in preprint here, which suggests that perhaps not all of these were new questions to our speaker.

2. For my home period and area my stock references are Mary Garrison, “‘Send more socks’: on the mentality and the preservation context of medieval letters” in Marco Mostert (ed.), New Approaches to Medieval Communication, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 1 (Turnhout 1999), pp. 69-99 and Matthew Innes, “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions of in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 247-266, but really the wellspring for both of them and also cited by Dr Whitehead is Margaret Mullett, “Writing in Early Mediaeval Byzantium” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 156-185, which joins up the circle quite nicely I think.

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…


Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Seminar CCXXII: counterfactuals and computer games

There were more seminar series at Birmingham than I could easily keep track of, and less well advertised than would have made it easy, but I was delighted nonetheless to see the name of old acquaintance and general nice guy Robert Houghton, now of Winchester, on a poster at some point in late 2014 and made a point of making it to the paper on 11th December 2014 even though I had no real idea what the seminar, the History and Cultures Workshop, was. It transpired to be one of the many postgraduate-run events and I think I surprised them by being a staff member (just about) there at all, but perhaps they were no more surprised at me than I was at Rob’s title, which was “Modelling the Middle Ages in grand strategy computer games”.

Game start screen for Charlemagne in Crusader Kings II

Not my screen, I don’t play, but this seems to be game-start condition for Charlemagne and you know, it could be a lot less accurate…

It transpired that Rob had, while teaching at St Andrews, also managed to find some extra work advising the makers of the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II—so if you play it and have been favourably impressed by its apparent accuracy that may be his fault—and the coincidence of his two rôles had made him start to think about how such games might be used as teaching tools, and whom that would reach, and he had started doing some very informal research among his teaching groups. After all, if it can work then games are an interactive and exploratory tool that are quite unparalleled by anything we can offer by more conventional means; I remember an admissions interview at Oxford in which the candidate was courageous enough to say that there was probably no better way of getting a sense of what it was like to walk around medieval Florence than playing Assassins Creed, and although I’m pretty sure it should be easier to kill yourself falling off the Duomo than it seems to be, I got and get their point.

Of course we are not complete strangers to walk-around visualisations in historical teaching, but it's obviously not as interactive as a game environment and you can hardly climb anything

Rob’s findings, anyway, with a very small cohort as he freely admitted, were more or less that most people don’t get their medievalism this way but for those that do it may actually influence their understanding very deeply. In that case it may matter what they are playing, because what’s available gives a rather Eurocentric, ultra-violent, male-dominated picture (although this is not unique to computer games, of course). However, there are limits on what can be done and still have a playable game. Particularly with grand strategy games the player has a level of abstraction, information and control that no medieval ruler ever did, but the gradation from there to single-handed sword swinger is very shallow. Also, the computer can’t create the environment without solid parameters. Where you don’t know something, you can’t just leave it blank; that pixel, that bit, must be present. There were other issues usefully pointed out too, both by Rob and the others present, but I got particularly engaged with the issue of counterfactuals.

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

Again I should preface this with a tale of an Oxbridge admissions interview but this time it’s my own. You see, at school, for the sins I mostly had yet to commit, I ran a paper-based wargame of my own invention for a year or so. I more or less stole the combat system from Fighting Fantasy and made it work for World War II and imagined-World-War-III air and sea combat. Because my path was probably already clear, I got interested in trying to recreate certain battles as tests of the game system, and especially the above, the Battle of the River Plate. I got it to the point where I could, with all kinds of reservation, make River Plate come out about right two-thirds of the time. Now, I must have mentioned this in my application form as most of what I remember about my Cambridge interviews is the late lamented Clive Trebilcock pushing me for five minutes or so on whether I thought such things could be used as tests for counterfactuals; if I could make River Plate come out right two-thirds of the time, for example, did that mean that this gave some basis for saying that the odds were genuinely against the Germans despite appearances? And I gave no ground: no, I said, because firstly I know the desired outcome and so can make player decisions that are likely to create it; also, because I can’t test for how important chance ought to be. I have set the parameters of the system—damage delivered by weapons, ability to minimise and inflict it, resilience of ships and crews—to give what seem to be like the ‘right’ outcomes, but the more accurate I get with that the less of a rôle chance has, and the more it slides from being a test of alternatives to just a recreation with dice. On the other hand, the more room for actual play there is, the less testably accurate it will get. I probably didn’t put it as eloquently even as that while 18 and nervous as hell, and there are ways I can now see to refine it—retests varying single factors, for example—but I still think it wouldn’t work.

Screenshot of a Crusader Kings II game

Not quite Rob’s example, but a situation in which something alternative has quite clearly and thoroughly happened whose story would be quite fun to know

More to the point, though, it wouldn’t be much fun if you could make it into a useful predictor system. And here Rob was on the same page. He had a marvellous Crusader Kings II screenshot in which someone playing as the ‘Duke of Alba’ had managed to conquer or otherwise gain control of basically all of north-eastern Europe and the Baltic. Now, I can just about think of ways something like that could be set up in fiction—royal Scottish exile during a succession crisis who has a monastic conversion and joins the Teutonic Knights, rises to be Grand Master and then gets recalled to the throne and, like Ramiro II of Aragón marries, for the sake of the dynasty, an heiress to Brandenburg whose brother dies soon after…—but it really is fiction, this could never have happened (even if ‘Duke of Alba’ were a real title). But should the game exclude it? Many reasons why not come to mind, not least trying to program for all such eventualities, but most obviously that one of the ways people treat computer games is to try and bring about heroically unlikely outcomes, winning through with the least likely playable character or from the weakest starting position and so on, and that this is one of the things that makes such games fun, because you can win against great odds. In Assassins Creed, I don’t believe it helps you particularly but you can climb the Duomo.

Screenshot of an attempt to climb the Duomo in Florence in Assassin's Creed

Go on…

Now, obviously sometimes in history people did win through against what seem to have been great odds, but as far as we are concerned as historians there was actually only one possible outcome of all the actual variables in play, and part of what we’re doing is trying to account for what seems to have been unlikely by identifying the significant variable. But even at age 18 I could see some reasons why a game will probably never be a tool for testing such outcomes; too much must be preset by assumptions about the outcomes. In some ways it might be better for teaching them, because then the presets are actually part of what we want to teach, but if the Duke of Alba can’t wind up ruling the entire southern Baltic coast or the Aztecs somehow reverse-conquer the Spanish Empire, then I’m still not sure I wanna play…


My only halfway reputable cite for using counterfactuals in medieval history is Jes Wienberg, “Europeanisation around the Baltic Sea: a counterfactual perspective” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region: papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 421-429, but that has a good go at defending the practice.