Tag Archives: settlement archaeology

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
  4. 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

  5. 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.
  6. 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 Marí 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 J´n Kl´pšte (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 & Ocañ, “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 CCIX: difficulties of studying medieval Balkh

The backlog now advances to the autumn term of the academic year just gone, a mere ten months now, and finds me in the Medieval Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham on 7th October 2014, when one of our resident scholars, Arezou Azad, was presenting with the title, “Balkh Art & Cultural Heritage Project: exploration, maps and Silk Road history from northern Afghanistan”. I should read Arezou’s book, because although Balkh is some way off my usual patch it’s really interesting, a real point where worlds met as the routes across the north of the Himalayas arrived at a junction heading both south to India and west to Persia, a major early Buddhist centre and that not the first or last faith to locate itself there, this also being the place of death of Zoroaster; under medieval Islam, likewise, it was a thriving university town that supplied many of the Caliphate’s leading scholars, and now somehow it’s a place almost no-one in the West has heard of.1 So I was eager to find out what I should already have read in the speaker’s book, which is always one gain of going to seminars, isn’t it?

What better image to borrow than the project website’s masthead, not least because it’s quite impressive…

The project about which Arezou set out to teach us is indeed an ambitious one: there have been eleven people involved both on site and spread across the scholarly globe, as the website says: “a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts”, and more besides given that some of the documents from the area are in Bactrian, a language that really very few people in the world now read (which is frustrating to me, as these documents are obviously charters and I want to know how they compare…). They have aimed to look at settlement patterns, resource use, connections and conversion, fortification (the city walls seem to have been almost gone between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is some suggestion that a new circuit was put up to encircle the whole oasis, a 72 km effort that it would be marvellous actually to prove), administration, religious building and a few other things besides including editions of the few surviving texts from the city. These include the Bactrian charters, which are apparently largely one family’s archive (which is perhaps even more intriguing than a civic one would be), and a fifteenth-century history of the city called the Fada’il-i Balkh, surviving in a Persian translation of its Arabic original and providing biographical notes about seventy generations of city luminaries, including a couple of notable queens and some learned women about whom Arezou has already written.2

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

All of this is however complicated by the fact that the project is trying to study a place now in Afghanistan, which is not currently perfectly accessible… Balkh is largely clear of warzone but local security is still quite tight, not least because that actually puts it very close to the border with Uzbekistan. That also has the complication that sites in the city’s old territory are now in fact across the border, meaning that they have to have a team member working with old Soviet archæological reports on finds that they can’t get at. The finds that they can get at, meanwhile, are in Kabul, were mostly excavated by French teams in the 1970s and were found in storage of the most dreadful kind, rooms full of uncatalogued potsherds and coins carefully stored in airtight plastic bags with perhaps just a little bit of moisture along with them that consequently provided perfect conditions for thriving populations of mould to grow on them then die in the bag.3 Even once conserved, the original records of these coins’ discovery context has been lost, and the situation is little better for many of the other finds, but what little is known suggests that they are only from two or three areas of the city, so that a great deal remains archæologically blank.

A coin of al-Mubarak (Balkh)

A coin of al-Mubarak, which is to say Balkh, cleaned and conserved; I can’t tell you metal or date but it’s one of the finds!

The team can’t afford to maintain an actual presence in either Balkh or Kabul except for local interns, who have been having to work largely unsupervised and unpaid with what help the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan is able to offer. This seems not to have stopped them making great efforts, but it’s obviously not ideal and putting their findings to work is very difficult. Indeed, at the time Arezou was speaking, the whole team had only been able to meet twice since they began the project in late 2011, although there was to be a conference in January 2015, which seems to have been the last time the project website was updated. The publication of those papers is obviously a desideratum, but at the end of Arezou’s paper my hopes for what they may contain were, I have to admit, considerably dampened.4 It seems as if new primary material is going to be very hard to add into any new synthesis, so the best we can hope for may be the refinement and greater accessibility of earlier syntheses. There are some places—and many worse than this, right now—which we just can’t study properly!

Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow at the BACH conference, Oxford 2015

The conference looks as if it may have been fun, though! Here the pictures from it show Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow.

1. That book being A. Azad, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford 2013).

2. A. Azad, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: The Quiet Legacy” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 56 (Leiden 2013), pp. 53–88, DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341277. The Bactrian documents have been being published for some years now as Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol I: Legal and Economic Documents (Oxford 2001), idem, Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol. 2: Letters and Buddhist texts (London 2007) and Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan III: Plates (Oxford 2013), which must have been a trial judging by the three different publishers. The Fada’il-i Balkh has been edited before, as Shaykh al-Islām al-Wā’iz & ‘Abd Allāh al-Husaynī (edd.), Fadā’il-i Balkh (Tehran 1350 [1971]), but this is apparently “inadequate” (Azad, Sacred Landscapes, p. 22 n. 2), and a new one by project member by Ali Mir Ansari, which will then be translated by Arezou and Edmund Herzig, apparently as Azad, Ansari & Herzig (transl.), Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (London forthcoming), is in progress still.

3. Kids, a curator’s advice to you: if you have old coins in a sealable plastic receptacle, like a zip-lock bag or something, poke a pinhole in that plastic or you too may face this problem after 35 years…

4. Arezou’s Birmingham webpage does mention as forthcoming something that looks as if it might be that publication, A. Azad, Edmund Herzig & Paul Wordsworth (edd.), Early Islamic Balkh: History, Landscape and Material Culture of a Central Asian City (forthcoming), but that’s the only trace I can find so far.

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!

1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

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”.
  • Iñaki 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, bureaucracy, 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 régime 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 been 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 CXCVII: 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.