Tag Archives: settlement archaeology

Leeds 2014 Report II: the edges of many different empires

Returning to the backlog on reporting what others think about the Middle Ages finds me now at the second day of the International Medieval Congress 2014, on 8th July 2014, and faced with some hard choices between sessions. In the end, I chose this one because I knew one of the people in it, had reviewed the work of another and Wendy Davies was moderating, and this is what I got.

515. On The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, I

  • Frode Iversen, “Impact of Empires: the Scandinavian fringe AD 200-1300″.
  • Letty Ten Harkel, “On the Edge of Empire: early medieval identities on Walcheren (the Netherlands)”.
  • Margarita Fernández Mier, “Peasant Communities and Distant Elites in Early Medieval Asturias”.
  • As you can see, the unifying thread here was Carolingian periphery, but this didn’t always make it through. Dr Iversen gave a very rapid run-through of significant bits of the settlement history of Norway, and when he began to speak of how urbanisation fitted to a new structure as if he’d described change, I realised I must have missed something. I also struggled with Dr Fernández’s paper, although the sites she was talking about, rural sites whose material culture might tell us something about the links from elite to peasants in early medieval Asturias, were very interesting-looking, but as it turned out known much more from place-names than anything more material. She drew a picture of competing local identities visible in funerary archæology and developing church sites that would be familiar in Anglo-Saxon England, however, and looked worth chasing in more places. Both of these papers had a tendency to argue for connection between sites that seemed to me from their maps to be a good distance from each other, in the former case up to 50 km, however, and I wasn’t sure that either case had been demonstrated.

    Aerial view of Middelburg in Walcheren

    Middelburg in Walcheren, one of those cases where it could hardly be clearer where the original settlement was and how the church was inside it…

    Letty Ten Harkel was also arguing for very local identities in her study area, however, and in particular in what has apparently been seen as a chain of associated ringforts along the Netherlands coast that have been blamed placed either in the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious of the Franks (814-840) from texts or the 890s from radio-carbon. The latter is problematic, because by then the area was split between two kingdoms, but Letty argued that there is such variation in size of and finds at these forts that they actually make more sense read as very local lordship centres, erected independently of each other. If there was outside influence, for Letty it was coming from the reviving bishopric of Echternach, not in the era of its Carolingian foundation but in the twelfth century. For me this paper connected most closely to the theme of the session, but only by disputing it!

Nonetheless, my interest was piqued enough to come back for more once caffeinated, as follows.

615. The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, II

  • Alex Langlands, “Empire and Infrastructure: the case of Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries”.
  • Iñnaki Martín Viso, “Local Communities and Kingship South of the Duero, 9th-11th Centuries”.
  • Álvaro Carvahal Castro, “The Astur-Leonese Power and The Localities: changing collective spaces (9th-10th centuries)”.
  • This session played a lot closer to my usual interests. Dr Langlands was chasing a word, ‘herepath’, literally ‘army-path’ but using a word for army that usually means raiders’ bands, not the army you serve in, and one would think that a path wide enough to carry an army might in fact be a road anyway, so it’s a funny term. Most of the references are in Anglo-Saxon charters, and while Dr Langlands argued convincingly that these paths appear mainly as links between sites rather than routes as such (though now I write that I am no longer seeing the difference) I wasn’t really sure that we could be sure they were anything to do with either roads, bridges or army-service, all of which had come into the argument.

    The track of an ancient herepath near Avebury

    Wikimedia Commons believes this to be an actual herepath, near Avebury, and who am I to say different? “Herepath Avebury England” by Chris Heaton. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Professor Martín then took us into the almost-unknown territory of the southern Duero valley in the centuries either side of the year 1000. Somewhere in this period, and with setbacks due to the final, red giant phase of Muslim rule in Córdoba, the kings of Asturias-León acquired a dominant control in this area and most of what we have is to figure it out with is archæology. With it, Professor Martín depicted a process by which the king used military service, and his ability to demand it (or possibly to convince local élites to join in with it) to elbow those élites into a position of obligation to him. He tied this to a particular sort of fortress with square towers and sloping walls that seems to be Andalusi workmanship but in a zone that was never under Andalusi control; I myself thought that that was a very unsafe thing to say, but the general proposition could fit round what I think happens in such zones.

    The Porta dos Cavaleiros in Viseu

    A location of military service in Viseu, one of Dr Mart&iacute’n’s example sites, even if that service would have been a bit later: this is the Porta dos Cavaleiros. “Nt-Viseu-Porta dos Cavaleiros“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Lastly Álvaro, whom in this session I realised I had known while we were both at Oxford but never quite fixed his name in my head, looked for those same local élites a bit closer into the Asturo-Leonese core where we have charters to play with, and found them manifest in assemblies, often as small power groups within likewise small communities, the kind of people who make deals for their communities and so on, who must have existed in these zones before our sources, generated by the making of those kinds of links, show them to us.1

    The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

    The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona, one group of ‘local élites’ we can name

    I’ve gone into some detail with this because these questions, of why people on the edge of polities decide to join in with them, are meat and drink to me and my frontier interests, and as Charles Insley rightly pointed out in discussion, the crucial questions here are ones of agency: who makes anyone in these situations do stuff? All three speakers offered answers, although Professor Martín’s was mostly a judicious refusal to guess where there was no evidence. Only Álvaro seemed to me to have a clear eye on what sort of people these local élites actually were, however, a problem we’ve discussed before, and I offered the answer I even then had in press and alas still do, to wit that we can at least see them in church consecrations, leading their communities.2 Alas, this is a category of evidence that only exists in Catalonia, so Professor Martín remained obdurate, only suggesting that the fueros of the twelfth century indeed suggest some continuities that we can’t, all the same, prove. He’s right, of course!

Anyway, that was all fun and put me back on some Castilian radars I think, but there wasn’t much time to capitalise on it as there was another lunchtime keynote lecture, and again personal and institutional loyalties drove me to attend, as well as the expectation that it would be very interesting, as indeed it was, which I tried not to spoil by noises of eating my packed lunch again. (I’m glad they dropped this arrangement this year.)

699. Keynote Lecture 2014

  • Naomi Standen, “A Forgotten Eurasian Empire: the Liao dynasty, 907-1125″.
  • The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao

    The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao. By Gisling (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


    Naomi introduced what was for many people an unfamiliar area by setting up the familiar dichotomy of civilisation versus nomads, a way of classifying society probably familiar to most people in the West from the work of Ibn Khaldūn but very common in Chinese sources too, especially when the Mongols are at issue. On one side, bureacracy, tax, education, cities, a professional class and so on, on the other personal hierarchy, tribute and plunder, and a life for which warriors trained in the saddle, you know the deal. Naomi then pitched her subject area of the moment, the Liao Empire, as a third way that breaks this dichotomy, using archæology wherever possible to vie with the impression of the Liao given by Chinese writers who were determined to put them, and their cities too, in the nomads box. But they didn’t fit either, Naomi argued: they had a structured élite but it was maintained by family succession, they had a trade network which we can see in ceramics finds along routeways but no sign that the state tapped it, the empire was stable and not expansionist and held to long treaties with inner China, the citizens were called nomads but lived in cities, and people in the empire invested hugely in religious patronage. It also comprised more than two hundred ‘peoples’ as the Chinese geographers counted it but made no legal distinction between them. It had not borrowed all this from central China or been civilised by contact, or so Naomi claimed; it was a different sort of empire. I’m sure that some might contend with this or find it idealistic but the thought experiment of substituting a trinary for one of the binaries with which Western historiography is famously dogged is probably worthwhile even so, and the detail is meanwhile still coming together as the pottery series and the architectural history of the zone get worked out by Naomi’s super project, so we will either way know more before long.

Thus refreshed both physically and mentally, I headed some of the way back west.

719. Were the Umayyad Caliphates Empires? I

  • Andrew Marsham, “In What Respects Was the Umayyad Empire an Empire?”
  • Harry Munt, “The Umayyad Imperial Rationale and Hijazi Cities”.
  • Hannah-Lena Hagemann, “Rulers and Rebels: Kharijite Islamic resistance to Umayyad authority in early Islamic historiography”.
  • This was an interesting and tightly-focused session, even if again about the category of ’empire’ as much as the actual materials of the presenter’s study. Dr Marsham invoked the work of Michael Mann (which I should know better3) and used its categories to argue that the early Islamic caliphate, with its emphasis on dynastic succession, its religious qualities attached to state office, its structured hierarchy of that office and its tax system, was as much an empire as the late Roman one it replaced, which given the inheritance perhaps shouldn’t be surprising but still often is. The other two papers focused on opposition to the Umayyad Caliphs, but from two different sources, in the case of Dr Munt from the cities in the Hijaz area of modern Saudi Arabia and most notably Medina, whose ruling class never aimed at separation from the state but frequently rebelled to achieve better inclusion in it. In the case of Dr Hagemann, however, the rebellion came from the Kharijites, a sect of early Islam who declared, according largely to their opponents, that there were no legitimate successors to the Prophet and therefore rejected all attempts at command in his name; she pointed out that even some of those enemies still used them, in pleasingly Roman style, as a foil for criticism of the Umayyad reégime where those writers felt it had gone so far wrong as almost to justify the reaction of the supposed ‘heretics’. It all gelled very nicely and in discussion I witnessed, for the only time I can remember, someone successfully defend their point against a question about the economy from Hugh Kennedy, no small achievement.

This was all grand, therefore, but I sorely needed caffeine by now, and hunting in the bookfair, always dangerous, found myself deep in conversation with Julio Escalona about the need to get Castilian and Catalan scholars around the same table. Thus it was that I was late for the next session, nothing to do with books honest…

812. Empire and the Law

  • Vicky Melechson, “From Piety to the Death Penalty: new capital crimes in the Carolingian Empire”.
  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and its Afterlife in Early Medieval Europe”.
  • Sharon Fischlowitz, “Laws of an Empire: after the Romans, what were the leges barbarorum?”
  • So I was late for the start of Ms Melechson’s paper but caught her point quickly, it being that while the Romans really only imposed the death penalty for crimes against the emperor, and the various barbarian laws attempted to divert people from vengeance for murder to compensation payments, nonetheless the influence of the Old Testament in the way the Carolingian kings presented themselves made capital punishment an appropriately Biblical step for increasingly many things. There are arguments one could have with several parts of that but the basic argument seemed well-founded. I got rather less out of Dr Fischlowitz’s paper, which was given largely from the perspective of teaching modern law using the ‘barbarian’ laws as examples. It sounded as if she was having great fun doing it but the paper nonetheless really only told us what she found the most striking bits of late Roman and Frankish law.

    Breviarium Alarici [Bréviaire d'Alaric].

    The opening of the Theodosian Code in the Breviary of Alaric, ironically one of its principal manuscript sources, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 4404, fo. 14v, from Gallica

    But it was all worthwhile for Graham’s paper, which was him absolutely on form: he was arguing that although we know and read late Roman and early medieval law as codes, big books of more or less organised and collected legislation, it could almost never have been used like that, especially not the huge late Roman codices. It was also hardly ever issued like that: the late Roman codes explicitly compile decisions, largely reactive rather than proactive, fragmented and disparate, from centuries apart by many different emperors, the Visigothic Law does some of the same work and citations like this also appear in the Salic and Burgundian laws. What this means is that capitulary legislation like that of the Carolingians would actually have the primary form of law, and the codes we think of as definitive only its secondary collection, which could have very little to do with law as it would have been used, as dockets and loose gatherings of relevant edicts, rescripts and proclamations. This was one of those papers that seemed to make everything very obvious which before had not been, and I hope as with almost all of Graham’s work that we get to see it in print before very long. It provoked a lot of discussion, also, with Paul Hyams wisely pointing out that law that got written relates only to the problems that couldn’t be solved more locally, and is therefore always outstanding. There was also some discussion about law that gets made as part of a treaty process, to which Dr Fischlowitz offered the Lex Romana Burgundionum, intended to regulate the relations of the Romans of what is now Burgundy to the newly-arrived military group after whom it got named, and I proffered the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, after which, probably wisely, the moderator drew the session quickly to a close.

Again I can’t remember how the evening went, but the day had been pretty full and this post is certainly full enough, so I shall leave it here for now and pick up after a couple of smaller posts that don’t take me days to write. I’m sure you’re already looking forward to it…


1. On such groups see now Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here.

2. Few better statements of this line of thought are available for Spain than Álvaro’s own “Superar la frontera: mecanismos de integración territorial entre el Cea y el Pisuerga en el siglo X” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 42 (Madrid 2012), pp. 601-628, DOI: 10.3989/aem.2012.42.2.08, but I hope soon to be adding to it in “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Leeds forthcoming for 2014), pp. 202-230, preprint online here.

3. Presumably most obviously M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume 1: a History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge 1986)? I wonder if this will supply something I found myself in want of in a dissertation supervision a few weeks ago, too, a cite for the conceptual differentiation of ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ lordship. If anyone reading happens to have one handy, however, I’d be glad of it!

The Carolingian Frontier III: points north and east

Picking up the now-legendary backlog once more we find me still in Cambridge in early July 2014 for the third day of the Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference already described. This was the morning only, and so there were only four papers, in two pairs as follows.

  • Robert Smith, “Hedeby after Ansgar: the continued contacts with Carolingian Christianity in the border emporia of Hedeby”.
  • As you can see we started in Denmark, and indeed we were not wholly to leave it for the rest of the day. We started in Hedeby, founded by an aggressive transplantation of traders from the Baltic seaport of Reric by King Godefrid of Denmark in 808, and the last paper would come back to it. Mr Smith’s paper was however about how deep the impact of the Carolingian mission to Denmark in the 820s and 840s-850s was, and in fact there is thin evidence for continuing Christianity in the town into the 880s and beyond. It’s always hard to assert religion from material culture, especially when one’s main evidence is burials because the dead don’t bury themselves, but one surprising piece of evidence is a pair of church-bells that have been recovered from the harbour, one cracked as if the other might have been its replacement. I’m not sure how we date them, mind…

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour, dated by the website where I found it (linked through) to 850, but seriously, how?

    Mr Smith’s point was that conversion did not bring any kind of political control, but that cultural exchange and mixing happened all the same. This raised the question of whether we were in fact on a frontier here or just at a port, but I think it’s probably arguable that a port of entry is a frontier of sorts… There were also arguments about whether coin finds necessarily demonstrate trade, which of course they do not, but that took us into the next paper.

  • Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian coins in Denmark: commerce and prestige”.
  • For Dr Moesgaard, his initial scepticism about that question had now somewhat reluctantly turned to acceptance; for him sites like Hausmarken, which has so far thrown up twenty single-finds of Louis the Pious deniers, are approaching the inarguable, so we have to accept that there was trade between Denmark and the Carolingian Empire coming through the Danish emporia, but he also noted that it very much died off in the 840s, and coin finds then become rarer as well as more international (and also less: Hedeby and Ribe start minting their own in the later ninth century, and Ribe seems never to have kept Carolingian coins so as to deposit them). That doesn’t however mean that all Carolingian coin finds are relics of trade, not least because as the discussion drew out, they seem often to have been recovered from relatively wealthy dwellings and also treated differently, being very rarely cut, unlike Islamic dirhams. That might be because they were largely arriving earlier, or it might be, well… Many possibilities remain but here there is at least the chance of a continuing increase in evidence to make patterns clearer.

Then there was coffee and then we resumed with what turned out to be quite the longest haul of the conference.

  • Joachim Henning, “The Fortified Carolingian Border Line with the Slavs along the Elbe and Saale: military defense and cultural exchange”.
  • I am quite conflicted about this paper, because it was extremely interesting and you can see how it would be vital comparative data for some of my interests, but on the other hand it was also twenty minutes longer than it was supposed to have been. It also raised some quite important questions that somehow never got asked, onto which I will come. We were introduced to a series of problems that have dogged the interpretation of fortress archæology on the German-Slavic border of the Carolingian Empire as was which modern archæological techniques, especially scientific dating, are beginning to solve. One has been even finding very many Slavic fortresses, which as we were told began to unstick once it was realised that they were probably small and earthen-ramparted rather than being big stone structures. The second has then been dating them, but with enough animal bone and radio-carbon tests that is also now being done and the problem is now that there are almost none to be dated before about 900. This apparent sudden fortress boom could be a reaction to campaigning by the Ottonians, as some would indeed have it, but raises some questions about what this frontier was like before then which are now harder to answer.1

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe, where the fortress dug by Professor Henning has now gone under the Autobahn, if I understand the German article linked through correctly. Photo by Sigrun Tausche.

    Professor Henning did have some suggestions, however, including that Hohenwarthe, upriver from Magdeburg in Saxony, may be one such early Slav fortress in some sense. It was raised during Frankish campaigns of 806 according to the Chronicle of Moissac but according to the finds evidence is much older, going back to the second century. Other such fortresses built by others and thus hard to identify as Slavic typologically can be added to such a list: Professor Henning named Höhbeck and Potzlow, where there was also a battle grave including men, women and children, some killed with what seemed to be Viking arrowheads. All of this would indicate how dangerous an area and how many players there might be in it (and the next paper would also work to this effect), if I was only sure that identifying the users of a site by a culture remained viable now that archæology accepts that material culture was a choice made from what was available for many reasons that don’t have to be to do with ethnicity, and that doing so by the shape of buildings (since Professor Henning was ruling some sites out of being Slavic, whatever that would actually mean, because they were “too rectangular”) can survive in a context in which fortified settlements were being reused by forces other those that had built them, and could very easily change hands in quite short timeframes. As it was, while I’m intrigued by the empirical quality of this data—there’s lots of it, it’s been very well recovered and thoroughly analysed—this paper made me more, not less, suspicious that we cannot, in fact, say who was in any of these sites without resorting to textual evidence that we already had…

  • Daniel Melleno, “Between Borders: the place of the Slavs in the northern politics of the Danes and Frabks in the ninth century”.
  • In the little time that was left him, Dr Melleno then took us succintly through the various testimonies of the narrative sources for the groups we think of as Slavic who were part of the political contest between the two kingdoms of Franks and Danes in the long ninth century. His basic contention was that the Obodrites, a difficult group to pin down as we have discussed, were the most successful of several such groups in profiting from Carolingian support as a buffer state to get into a position where they were actually coherent and united enough as a polity to start interacting with the Carolingians, and indeed the Danes, on their own terms. Unfortunately for them, this left them much more obvious targets than the Franks once the Danish kingdom descended into Frankish-backed civil war in the 820s and they more or less ceased to be that coherent polity in the subsequent warfare. My only complaint about this paper was that it took everything in any source used as absolutely straightforward, and I did wonder what might have come out of trying to read the Carolingian presentation of these groups as either faithful or faithless allies as a product of the annalists’ political stances, rather than the Obodrites’.

Still, it was reasonable to close with a reminder that we had almost all, coins, Christianity and trade not withstanding, seen the Carolingian frontier as a warzone first and foremost. Dr Melleno was right to end with the famous line from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne: “have a Frank for a friend, not for a neighbour”!2


1. This is a conclusion warmly adopted by, for example, David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), where see pp. 24 & 151.

2. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), online here, transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), pp. 17-44, cap. 16.

Seminar CXLVII: de-emphasising Greece in Byzantine history

Long before I knew what my next job would be, on 13th March 2014, I was persuaded to attend the University of Birmingham’s General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I have been doing this on and off since then, and naturally more regularly given my new employment, but I think I am still the only person not speaking who attends from outside the Centre, which is slightly odd. I came along because I was told by someone who should know that I’d be interested in this particular paper, however, and so it proved, that paper being one called “Byzantine Greece — Microcosm of Empire? Retrospect and Prospect”, by Dr Archie Dunn.

Map of Byzantine Greece c.900

Byzantine Greece c. 900. By Cplakidas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn’s basic starting contention was that, at least since its revival as a nation in 1830, modern Greece has been central to Byzantine studies, since its area preserves or generated many of the major narratives and almost all the surviving Byzantine documentary material, and was the location of many of the pioneering digs in Byzantine archæology. It’s just taken places like Turkey who have less interest in claiming some kind of continuity with their Byzantine predecessor longer to decide this stuff might still be interesting, I think, though it is now happening, and a Greek-language academy presumably also helps. Anyway, this presents problems of generalisation, because Greece thus drives the older and still basic synthetic narratives of Byzantine history but wasn’t necessarily typical of the wider empire. So Dr Dunn here attempted, using the archæology that he knows best, to set up a new synthetic model of landscape development in Byzantine Greece and then test it against Thrace to see just how bad this problem is. The basic lynchpins of this picture were cities, castles and churches and their interrelations, so you can probably already see how I would find thinking material in this.

The Angelokastron in Corfu

The Angelokastro in Corfu, about the best copyright-free image of a Greek Byzantine kastron I can find even if well out of area… By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The synthetic model for Greece went something like this. By the fifth century Greece, once a landscape of cities, still counted a lot of cities in its territorial organisation but far fewer than before and not all of them actually physically instantiated, rather than just being organisational constructs, settlement having moved out to rural settlements like Italian hill-villages (a comparison I thought of about a minute before Dr Dunn invoked it), walled in undressed timber-braced stone, and articulated also by churches separated by 4-10 km distances. Over the sixth to eighth centuries the cities continued to fade but from the seventh century on fortifications arise instead, partly as a reaction to Slav incursions. Those incursions were gathered under more or less willing jurisdiction eventually, however: by the ninth centuries some such notional groups have official seals, for example. These new kastroi, castles, often had bishops, despite the tiny territories thus implied, but even so were not poleis, cities, to the government but choria, villages, even when abandoned cities were close by. They were however centres for military organisation, and however they’d got there were incorporated into systems of government.

Castles at Didymoteicho in Thrace, now Greece

Castles at Didymoteicho, which we do have textual evidence was founded by Justinian I. By Aramgar (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn then compared the situation of Thrace, roughly modern Bulgaria and a bit west into Greece, where a lot of the same factors could apply but somehow, don’t all. Here, though the scattering of new villages and kastroi did occur, it did so without the end of the urban network that had preceded it; the bishops stayed in the old poleis and the kastroi fitted in new places between these. Dr Dunn argued, I think from my notes, that this was an attempt by central govenment to impose a similar system to that that was being managed in Greece over a landscape whose old jurisdictional anchors were still in place, and which couldn’t be ignored—the Thracian cities did revive somewhat over the seventh to ninth centuries—but which weren’t the focus of attention from the state any more. Some of the new fortifications subsequently became towns, however, which prompted me as the then-temporary-Anglo-Saxonist to ask if, as with the fortress-towns of Alfred the Great’s burghal system, they took a long time to do this; sadly, the archæology hasn’t yet been done that would ground that comparison.

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece. By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The main points that came out of this paper, then, were firstly and mainly that Greece can’t be taken as typical of Byzantium even if much of our information comes from it, but also a point about scales of comparison. To make a real point when dealing with a state of this size, one’s micro-regions need to be quite large. No one or few of these city districts would tell a typical story; comparing chosen themata across the two provinces would probably miss the general shape of change entirely. That then implies that to compare at this scale you have to look at something that occurs widely enough but thinly enough to be manageable; cities may be too slight, churches is heading for the feasible maximum, house types would be impossible, it seems to me. Other questions did arise, of course. The obvious one, asked by Ruth Macrides, was, well, why is Thrace different, to which the obvious answer seemed to be proximity to Constantinople, leading to better-funded development of both defences and agriculture because the capital needed them both in a way that it didn’t from further-off Greece. Someone I didn’t know asked about agency, whether these new foundations were necessarily top-down, to which the honest answer could only be that we know some are so there is some kind of central effort to do things, but whether other sites are in on the plan, who knows? And Rebecca Darley asked what was organising society at the village level before they started getting churches, and whether they might have replaced an older religious articulation, to which Dr Dunn said that if there was such an older sacred landscape, it is now largely invisible, though a few cases could be adduced. Here again it seems to me that scale of comparison is important. In the previous answer, a few cases were indicative because we know there was some linkage of them together; in this one a few cases were not, because we don’t have that linkage. Such a linkage would have to be some organised pagan Greek priesthood for which there’s no evidence, of course, so that’s probably OK, but looking at it now the argument from silence still sits oddly next to that from information. It would be nicest of all to be able to show this by digging of course, and I’m sure Dr Dunn would be more than happy to start on that given funding! It was certainly clear that he would know where to start or, indeed, carry on looking.

Next stop Iceland?

This post is about pre-Viking settlement in the North Atlantic, and here specifically the Faroe Islands. I originally stubbed this in September 2013, when I came across a relevant web report on Melissa Snell’s medieval history blog at About.com, but since that time it seems that they’ve stopped keeping archives over there, so that post is now gone. Actually this is good news, because it forced me to web-search out other reports, and the obvious one, on Nature World News, also includes a link to the actual article behind it all, so now I can write you something informed.1

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain

View from the south-eastern extremity of Sandoy in the Faroe Islands, looking south down the chain, and shamelessly plundered from a Faroes tourism site, linked through

The story is that new research proves that the Vikings were not the first colonisers of the Faroes. This, and the fact that this was being published in an geoscience rather than a specifically archæological or historical journal, gave me some faint worries about sensationalisation of research meant to prove other things, as we have seen here many times before, but in this case, as far as I can see, it’s the real deal. The team in question were doing a low-urgency rescue dig on a coastal site in danger of erosion at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy in 2002 and 2006. The site had been dug once before in 1994 and had then shown a Viking longhouse at the bottom of its occupation sequence (which subsequently went all the way up to the 19th century, always on the same spot, not least, as the article says, because there just aren’t that many sensible places to put settlements on the Faroes).2 This time they located the long-house’s hearth, and then they kept going and found more beneath. It wasn’t much more, just peat ash with carbonised barley grains in it, but this is significant for two reasons: firstly, barley isn’t native to the Faroes, and secondly, peat-burning requires usually months of cutting, stacking and drying, and thus implies prolonged settlement, not just drop-in visits. And they duly had radio-carbon analysis done on the barley grains and got the figures you see below.

Calibration graph and stratigraphical context of the radio-carbon samples from Á Sondum, Sandoy

From Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dougmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 230, larger version linked through

There are some things I don’t fully understand about this, mainly because to get these dates they used not individual samples but a combined sample, whose results were mathematically combined using a ‘weighted mean’. Well, weighted how? I feel we should be told more about this.3 Still, unless it was actually weighted outside the sample dates, which would be some strange new definition of ‘mean’ of which I was not previously aware, the results still seem fairly inarguable: two straigraphically separate episodes older than the Viking site by between half a century and three centuries. I feel that a mean critic might be able to handwave away the more recent result, given it was right under the hearth and the dates could just about overlap, but the older one is much harder to get around, which gives one that bit more confidence in the younger one.

A forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland

An even more forbidding shoreline in South-Central Iceland, apparently being slowly washed away by glacial outwash, as presented in Albert C. Hine, Jon Boothroyd & Dag Nummedal, “Glacial Outwash Plain Shoreline, South-Central Iceland”, Beach of the Month, Coastal Care 1st August 2013, linked through

So, OK, what does this all mean? Well, most obviously it means that someone was on Sandoy burning peat and scattering its ash on the shoreline well before the Vikings got there (and the study is extremely careful to emphasise that we have no idea who). What our authors are most excited about is that there were, previously, very small signs of pre-Viking occupation in the palaeobotanical record (which is to say, barley pollen had been found before in a hard-to-date but potentially early context4), and that having been able to pin it down with actual digging like this has big implications for other island chains where such out-of-place floral data has turned up but been dismissed. But it also made them think of what it makes me think of, which is an old question about whether anyone got to Iceland before the Vikings. There are stories about this in the texts, firstly bewildering seafaring fantasies like the Irish Navigatio Sanctio Brendani, in which Brendan and his monks find a series of fantastic islands in the Western Ocean while in search of Paradise, which they duly locate and are allowed to stop in for a bit before turning for home to spread the good word.5 Much effort has been spent on pinning actual Atlantic islands into his tale, but, to be cynical again, one might as well try the same exercise with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the islands are equally allegorical in both texts.6 But there is also the Íslendingabók of Ari Thorgillson, ‘The Book of the Icelanders’, in which Ari reports that the first Viking settlers on Iceland found white-clad men they called ‘papar’ there who fled before the Norsemen, leaving behind croziers and bells.7 That looks so like the kind of people St Brendan actually led that it’s usually been assumed these were Irish religious taking the spiritual exile thing unusually seriously. But there is no archæological evidence to show that Ari was doing anything more than making this up by extrapolation from stories about the Western Isles of Scotland or similar. The archæologists here are suitably cautious about fitting these older debates around their findings:

“Who were these earlier settlers, how many of them were there and where did they come from? Were they single ecclesiastical anchorites as described by Dicuil from Ireland, Late Iron Age groups of colonists from Atlantic Scotland or pre-Viking explorers from Scandinavia? Did they continue on to Iceland, or did the Faroes represent a temporary diasporal bottle-neck, requiring later Viking seafaring technology to be able to sail to Iceland and Greenland, and importantly to sail back? To answer these questions, more and better-preserved pre-Viking Faroese archaeological sites need to be identified, excavated and analysed.”8

To that, I would only say that the Vikings’ seafaring technology was perfected well before the Viking disapora started, so that might not be the significant limitation, but the Faroes radio-carbon dates are still very early and the authors’ caution here is absolutely commendable.9 What they do do, however, is establish an excellent idea of where to look for such remains in island contexts, and that gives me hope that Iceland might, indeed, be the next stop, just because it would be fun finally to have some kind of archæology to set against Ari’s stories. I’ll let the authors of the article have the last word, though, because they have bigger things in mind than my antiquarianism, and will myself just finish by saying that I wish all science publications with historical impact could manage it as well as these writers have:

“This detailed examination at the base of coastal erosion archaeological sections was successfully used to identify the first archaeological sites of Mesolithic date in the Western Isles of
Scotland. A similar palynological argument for early human settlement was proposed for the ‘invisible Mesolithic’ of the Western Isles, where small-scale clearance episodes evident in pre-Neolithic pollen sequences, coupled with a rise in microscopic charcoal, led researchers to suggest that hunter-gatherer fire ecology accounted for these disturbances, despite the lack of any Mesolithic archaeological sites in the island chain. In the Faroes and the Western Isles of Scotland, small-scale perturbations in pollen sequences were interpreted as ephemeral human occupation events in periods prior to the orthodox landnám [‘land-taking’] events attested by the substantial settlement record of structures, dating to the Viking and Neolithic periods respectively. In both cases, the palaeoecological interpretations were eventually proved to be correct on discovery of ephemeral archaeological remains of pre-landnám date at the base of large coastal erosion archaeological sections and this raises intriguing issues about perturbations in palaeoenvironmental sequences prior to orthodox landnám chronological horizons in other island systems elsewhere in the North Atlantic and across the world, as in the Pacific."10


1. Mike J. Church, Símun V. Arge, Kevin J. Edwards, Philippa L. Ascough, Julie M. Bond, Gordon T. Cook, Steve J. Dockrill, Andrew J. Dugmore, Thomas H. McGovern, Claire Nesbitt, Ian A. Simpson, “The Vikings were not the first colonizers of the Faroe Islands” in Quartnerary Science Reviews Vol. 77 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 228-232, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.011. Assigning author order on that must have taken nearly as long as the project itself…

2. Ibid. pp. 228-230; the previous dig, led by the second author here, seems not to have been published.

3. Rather than tell us about it, they refer to two other studies, P. J. Ashmore, “Radiocarbon dating: avoiding errors by avoiding mixed samples” in Antiquity Vol. 73 (Edinburgh 1999), pp. 124-130, which you’ll notice is a vote against doing this, and Ascough, Cook & Dugmore, “North Atlantic marine 14C reservoir effects: Implications for late-Holocene chronological studies” in Quarternary Geochronology Vol. 4 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 171-180, DOI: 10.1016/j.quageo.2008.12.002, which presumably isn’t.

4. Here they cite a whole rook of stuff, the most recent of which is K. J. Edwards & D. M. Borthwick, “The pollen content of so-called ‘ancient’ field systems in Suethuroy, Faroe Islands, and the question of cereal cultivation” in S.-A. Bengtson, P. C. Buckland, P. H. Enckell & A. M. Fosaa (edd.), Dorete – Her Book – Being a Tribute to Dorete Bloch and to Faroese Nature, Annales Societatis Scientiarum Færoensis, Supplementum LII (Tørshavn 2010), pp. 96-116.

5. I’m not sure what the preferred edition of the Navigatio is these days but in trying to find out I have found Guy Vincent (ed.), “Navigation de Saint Brendan : texte latin et traduction”, http://www.utqueant.org/net/doc.3.Bren.II.html, last modified 24th October 2005 as of 26th August 2014, which will probably do. There is a good English translation in J. F. Webb (transl.), Lives of the Saints (Harmondsworth 1965), pp. 31-68, repr. in D. H. Farmer (ed./transl.) & Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (Harmondsworth 1983), pp. 231-267 even though the text is likely from a century after Bede.

6. There are various studies on the Atlantic world implied by the text in John W. De Courcy & David Sheehy (edd.), Atlantic Visions (Dun Laoghaire 2009), which I will admit straight up I have never seen but just now pulled out of a database; any other suggestions?

7. There seems to be an edition of Íslendingabók by Guðni Jónsson online here but I have no idea how good it is; again, any better references would be appreciated. The standard translation, Siân Grønlie (transl.), Íslendingabók; Kristni Saga. The Book of the Icelanders; The Story of the Conversion (London 2006), pp. 3-34, is online here in PDF.

8. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

9. Jan Bill, “Ships and Seamanship” in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 182-201.

10. Church, Arge, Edwards, Ascough, Bond, Cook, Dockrill, Dugmore, McGovern, Nesbitt & Simpson, “Vikings were not the first colonizers”, p. 231.

Seminar CLXXVIII: comparing post-Roman European uplands

May 2013 seems to have been a busy month in Oxford for seminars and the like, despite my attempt at daily posting I seem still to be fourteen months behind and possibly even falling back. Though this is alarming what is to be done but press on, and on this occasion hot from the press is the Medieval Social and Economic History Seminar of the 15th of that month, at which Nicholas Schroeder presented a paper entitled “From Roman to Medieval Landscapes: settlement, society and economy in Belgian, English and German uplands”.

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region

The valley of Malmédy in the Eifel region. There are less hospitable-looking study areas, for sure… “Vue de Malmedy en mai 2012” by CathLegrandOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve already described Dr Schroeder as one of the brighter sparks of the transient Oxford firmament, and it was noticeable how much progress he’d made since his previous paper here recounted, a progress primarily of breadth as his title may imply to you. In an attempt to gather what was going on in the Ardennes region in the fourth to the sixth centuries he had embraced the power of wide-ranging comparison and also studied the old British kingdom of Dumnonia (modern Devon and Cornwall) and the German side of the Jura region, the ‘Swabian Alps’. The first part of the paper was thus a comparison of the areas’ scholarships — lots more actual dug archæology and aerial photography in Britain, lots more economic history writing and more pollen data in Belgium, much stronger structures of interpretation in Germany but largely focussed on centres not landscapes, among other things — and then turned to a detailed comparison of the former two areas, Britain versus Belgium.

I don’t want to recapitulate Dr Schroeder’s summary of the two areas as he had learned to see them, but the elements of comparison are worth drawing out: these were, more or less, villas, hillforts, the balance of cereal and pastoral agriculture and the rôle of new centres of lordship. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given for example that Devon and Cornwall are coastal and the Ardennes/Eifel region is not, there seem to have been more points of difference than comparison: Belgium has far more villa sites generally while Dumnonia’s Roman-period settlement was largely in what are called ’rounds’, the Ardennes had a noticeable return to woodland (though the same work with pollen doesn’t exist elsewhere, which may make this a weaker comparison) whereas in Britain what we have noticed is hillforts, the Ardennes’s culture remained at least slightly monetised and ceramic while Dumnonia lost both, Belgium’s shifting settlements associate with cemeteries of firstly a German-Roman military character and then what’s identified as ‘Merovingian’ in new locations whereas the sub-Roman population is famously invisible in funerary archæological terms, and each area grows different crop complexes at all points, though not without change, but there are also points of comparison.

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall

Tregonning Hill in Cornwall, a hillfort with two ’rounds’ fairly clearly visible on the side nearest the viewer and strip fields corrugating the far side of the hill. Photo copyright Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service so only hotlinked here from their site.

The first important one of these, in as much as neither this nor the following point are what we would necessarily expect from the historiographies, is that both areas seem to have made heavy use of a form of agriculture that Dr Schroeder called ‘convertible husbandry‘, in which one grows crops on a field for 3-4 years then turns it over to pasture from 6-7, rather than switching dramatically between agrarian and pastoral models. (Rosamond Faith argued in questions that mixed agriculture must have been the general pattern almost everywhere before economies were developed enough to permit specialisation, but the question is when and where was that? I have more to say on this, I think.) The second point was that in both areas the durable changes happened not in the wake of the Roman collapse in the fourth and fifth centuries but in the seventh. It was then that in Dumnonia ceramics return to view, that rounds began to die out and longhouses appeared, and what seem often to have been royal estates developed in valley bottoms that became the new foci of the rural economy, while in the Ardennes it was not least then that the major monastery of Stavelot-Malmédy that dominates the evidence here got itself established, but also that burial moved into churchyards and again, that royal vills start showing up as, along with monastic estates, the articulations of the new economy. This I find intriguing: I think I would have expected the eighth century, as the climate began to improve and, in Dumnonia at least, as the kings of Wessex took over there. As it is it might be that the collapse of Rome was more survivable in these areas than in some others less marginal to that system, but that these survival mechanisms themselves ran into a kind of crisis that permitted reorganisation in favour of the new powerful later on. Dr Schroeder doesn’t seem to have published anything between now and then and I imagine he has been well occupied by writing up this project, but when he does it will be very interesting to see what his interpretations of what he has found look like.


I didn’t get down many of Dr Schroeder’s references, which were not all full cites rather than namechecks, but they certainly included (among the former) S. J. Rippon, R. M. Fyfe & A. G. Brown, “Beyond Villages and Open Fields: The Origins and Development of a Historic Landscape Characterised by Dispersed Settlement in South-West England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 50 (Leeds 2006), pp. 31-70, DOI:10.5284/1000320 and (among the latter) Adriaan Verhulst and Chris Wickham. From the former I suppose a good reference points would be his Le paysage rural : les structures parcellaires de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, Typologie des sources du moyen âge occidental 73 (Turnhout 1995) and from the latter the obviously relevant works here are Wickham, “Pastoralism and Under-Development in the Early Middle Ages” in L’Uomo di fronto al mondo animale nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 31 (Spoleto 1985), pp. 401-455, and idem, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, both rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 121-154 & 201-226 respectively.

Seminar CLXVI: debating with John Blair

The next seminar in my backlog pile is not about Anglo-Saxon England, it being when Marie Legendre spoke to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 27th February 2013 with the title, “Neither Byzantine nor Islamic? The Dukes of the Thebaïd and the Formation of the Umayyad State”, and that was really interesting, but the thing is, I’m fourteen months behind with these posts and Magistra et Mater already covered that one. So I thoroughly recommend you go and look at that, and meanwhile I will write some more about John Blair’s Ford Lectures. But what? I hear you say. You dealt with the last one only four posts ago! True, but there is, it transpires, also a Ford Lecturer’s Seminar, in which the year’s lecturer is invited to discuss his findings with his audience, and that happened on 1st March 2013 with the same title as the lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and I was there.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The format this took is that John had distributed a handout that gave a seven- or eight-point summary of each lecture and then after a very short introduction simply took questions for an hour, and whatever discussion kicked off out of them was followed as far as it led. There were certainly lots of people with questions to ask, but the biggest focus of interest was on the organisation and planning of settlements for which John was arguing in the Anglo-Saxon world. In particular there was discussion about the shift of paradigm that he had proposed from central places to central zones: I wondered how much the concentration of sites in such zones differed from that outside them, to which John said that the important thing might not be concentration so much as the links between the sites, and Mark Whittow wondered if the burh in these complexes of sites wasn’t still the centre, to which John countered that as far as he could see the different elements in these complexes were as important as each other in as much as none of them shared functions, so were all indispensable to the whole. As Mark said, there’s a model here that could work in a number of other places where someone was organising the landscape to this much effect.1

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill, supposed site of the hermitage of St Modwenna and certainly site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, just across the River Trent from Burton-on-Trent

That leads us onto the other question that really had people going, which was that of who was organising these landscapes and how. John had argued, as part of his section on the grid-planning he had detected in many Anglo-Saxon settlements, that the key knowledge involved here was probably preserved and transmitted through monasteries, but of course monasteries were themselves large landowners so it was hardly locked away, and their links to the nobility and to kings were such that their knowledge would have been available for most of the people we can imagine planning sites. Nonetheless, we see little if any such sign of organised planning in the early trading ports or wics that have long been seen as the lynchpins of economic development in middle Saxon England and whose organisation is usually attributed to the kings.2 John pointed out that some of Hamwic, the site of this type across the River Itchen from modern Southampton, was in fact gridded, but reckoned that this was probably a monastery within the town.

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

This bit of the discussion didn’t really reach a conclusion that my notes record but John was again keen to emphasise chronology in what he saw, in as much as while settlement gridding was for him a phenomenon of the eighth and late-tenth-to-eleventh centuries, and often very short-lived indeed, to the extent that he thought it might have been more symbolic than functional (very interesting), the basic organisation of settlements as dispersed houses each with their infield for cereals and outfield for animals goes on throughout and doesn’t change until well after the various things that are supposed to kick off economic take-off in the tenth century. That take-off thus precedes the things that English historians have tended to blame for England’s medieval economic miracle, open-field settlements and three-field crop rotation, but the change in settlement pattern does coincide with that, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries primarily.3

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford; note the shape of the enclosure. I think someone involved may have been present at these lectures…

There were also smaller issues raised: Lesley Abrams wondered about the spread of the ‘egg-shaped’ fortified sites John had detected in the later part of his study period and their relation to the villages of which they were part, to which John responded that so far they were all in the East Midlands (though we know that Allan McKinley thinks others could be found further west…) but that their relationship to villages differed a great deal, being built on top of them, within them or outside them; this may be a matter of their functions, which are not yet clear. There were also a number of questions about minsters as centres of organisation which didn’t really add anything to what John has already written on the subject.4

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire, of a typical type that may be one of the few things that seems to have transmitted from British to Anglo-Saxons; image from Wikimedia Commons

The other question, that might in some ways be the biggest one, was that of the West. Most of what John had discovered in the archæology was at its most evident in what he had termed the Wash Catchment; this is good in as much as our texts favour the South and the North and not the Midlands, but the West Midlands, the North-West and anywhere British had still been very much missing from these lectures, and that basically because material culture remains have been far less frequently discovered there. To some extent, this is a matter of lowland versus highland with the economic intensification possible in the one leading to scales of wealth and structure not visible in the other, but since John had been at pains to stress that much of Anglo-Saxon wealth was expressed in portable and transient forms, and the British West was no stranger to such goods, there’s still some mysterious gaps to account for. John’s work and that of others have already taken some steps to guess what’s in those gaps, but gaps they remain, and yet as you know if you’re a long-term reader I feel that these zones, where British met English and held them off for quite some time in some cases, must be an important part of the story of how the one became the other and I wish more would come out of them to make that story possible to tell.5


1. Of course, one could argue that this model was already out there in the form of Glanville Jones’s concept of multiple estates, in his “The multiple estate: a model for tracing the interrelationships of society, economy, and habitat” in Kathleen Biddick (ed.), Archaeological approaches to medieval Europe (Kalamazoo 1984), pp. 9-41, and Rosamond Faith raised this; John’s counter here was that Jones argued essentially for the long-term survival of Roman settlement organisations with devolved functions, whereas John sees a wave of new creation of such sites from the eighth century onwards.

2. The basic integration of wics into a scheme of history is still that of Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn. 1989); cf. relatively current discussion in Tim Pestell & Katherine Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in early medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003) or Mike Anderton (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Trading Centres: beyond the emporia (Glasgow 1999).

3. E. g. the unquestioning use of this paradigm in C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, DOI: 10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5; cf. the various international perspectives presented in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. In J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), more or less passim to be honest.

5. Christopher Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A. D. 400-600 (Stroud 1998); Steven Bassett, “How the West Was Won: the Anglo-Saxon takeover of the West Midlands in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 11 (Oxford 2000), pp. 107-118; J. Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013); Chris Wickham’s vision of Britain in this period in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 306-333 & 339-364, rather involves assuming that these zones did not impede access of English to British and this is one of the few places where I think that book’s ideas might need revision.

Seminar CLXIV: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 5

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

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

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

The Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire

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

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

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

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

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

The mostly late-Saxon church of Brixworth

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

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


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

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

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