Tag Archives: symbol stones

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes’: the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306”
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading


Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word

Is it? That’s the question. I’ve been bothered by this question for a long time, as you know if you’ve been reading a while. We talk of the Picts as a people but much suggests that they were many peoples. That’s hardly surprising, given the way that kingdoms in England and Ireland were forming at the same time, but I’m never sure that it gets into the historiography enough, or that we make the material culture a big enough part of the differentiation. And since I got into this job I’ve been meaning to use it to make me write something—I have in fact written a first draft, if a piece of writing you do to direct the research rather than one that you in the light of it counts as a draft rather than a policy document—trying to make those concerns into a coherent argument.

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

This keeps getting harder. Firstly, as I delay, people like Nick Evans, James Fraser and Alex Woolf close down the angles, so that my point gets smaller and smaller (and more like the few bits of my first Picts paper I still stand by, which means there’s little point in saying them again). Secondly, people like Alex Woolf—in fact, exactly like Alex Woolf, with whom I had the good fortune to discuss this at Leeds and then again here just a few days ago when he presented here, both of which I will record eventually—keep coming up with things that just make me think I’m wrong, or at least that I have to think some more. It may turn out that I actually don’t have anything useful to say. And then thirdly, there’s the actual evidence, brought freshly before me by teaching as well as research. A lot of the distribution maps that were crucial in the original ‘Pictland should be plural’ post of 2008 just don’t make the case I originally thought they should. Partly this is because a lot of the symptoms of cultural production are clustered where there’s agriculturally-useful lowland, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But also it’s because more stuff keeps turning up, and that was originally the point of this post when I began it as a stub in July. The thing is that as with most of my links posts, by the time I finally write it up there’s about twice as much as I’d originally expected, but with Pictish archaeology you’d not expect that so much. Even so:

1. On the Beast, you can find sage musings and collected references in Craig Cessford, “Pictish Art and the Sea” in The Heroic Age Vol. 8 (2005), http://www.heroicage.org/issues/8/cessford.html, last modified 27 July 2005 as of 10 November 2011, §§9-16, though I personally hold out for it being the Loch Ness monster as any right-thinking person would, what with the impeccable contemporary literary evidence for Nessie in the period

2. J. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-111.

3. Mind you, if that there wall is part of a curved structure it must have been HUGE. There’s no more curvature visible in that picture to me than I might expect as a lens artefact. I can see why it’s the broch that’s getting all the attention.

Leeds 2010 Report III

The amount of time I have for this is quite small, so this post may be subject to the law of diminishing returns as I try and compress a day at a busy conference into rather fewer lines than I have been doing up till now. On the other hand, I said that last time. So, Wednesday. I woke up extremely confused for non-academic reasons and eventually got myself together to head over to Weetwood for some really small-scale stuff.

1003. Landscape and Settlement in Early Medieval England: using the evidence of minor names

This session was mainly about getting down into not just place-names but field names to try and dig down into really old toponymy in various areas of England.

Map of field names circa 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire

None of these field names, recorded c. 1601 in Old Marston, Oxfordshire, were harmed in the course of this session

  • Simon Draper, “Minor Names as Evidence for the Roman to Medieval Transition”, focussing on Wiltshire about which he has a book out, argued that it’s fairly easy to demonstrate Roman site survival into the Romano-British and Saxon periods, and among sites where this has been demonstrated those with names containing the elements ‘wic’ and ‘chester’ feature strongly, as we might expect, and thus encouraged us to look at them suspiciously. I raised awkward points about whether it would not in fact be unusual for an Anglo-Saxon site to be on virgin ground, given how densely the land was settled under the Romans, and Dr Draper conceded there was a point there, but his technique was still fairly demonstrably valid, as far as it went.
  • Susan Oosthuizen, “Early Medieval Land Use and its Wider Context”, was working on areas local to my current home, which made it especially interesting to me; she thought that areas of pastoral agriculture could be differentiated from those where arable farming had been carried out from the names for the fields that survived, and these names matched the geology and flood area of those lands quite well. So another proof of concept, but perhaps questionable how much it told us that wasn’t obvious; I suppose the point is that we can check things haven’t changed and that the landscape isn’t misleading like this.
  • Chris Lewis, “Field Names as Evidence for Dispersed Settlement: an example from East Sussex”, was why I was really there, because Chris is always interesting whether he’s working at tiny scale or national, largely because he is capable of both. Here he was also trying to prove a concept, which was what can we do with this sort of evidence in areas where there is almost no other, and picked an area of the South Downs about which this is the case to try it with, the villages of Medehurst and Heberden, the latter of which is the older name, meaning ‘Hygeburgh’s swine pasture’, but which appears to have been a dependent of the older which looks like a hundred meeting site even though it’s not attested till 1120. From this he teased out strings of history of dispersal and agglomeration of bits of settlements like a slightly tentative conjurer, all very hypothetical but certainly a valid demonstration of his exercise.

I quite like this stuff but it’s arguable that I don’t learn very much from it, I just like seeing the little picture drawn out by people who care. The big picture remains the one that offers the chance of making big connections, though, so after much-needed coffee I admitted necessity and went and rejoined the Texts and Identities sessions, which had now stopped talking about Modes of Identity and started talking about Louis the Pious, a subject on which they have been fruitful for many years now. Additionally, now the Hludowicus project have all got themselves t-shirts, identifying them with notable figures of the era in football-player style. I approve of this, mainly. I see that no-one has got Bernard of Septimania, which is tempting, but Mayke de Jong has the Judith shirt (of course) and that makes the ultimate Barcelona-based Carolingian bad boy an awkward choice. Anyway, I’m not part of the group, so let me talk about people who are.

1105. Texts and Identities, VIII: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), I

  • Stefan Esders, “Missi and Inquisition Procedure under Louis the Pious: a new style of government”. I should make clear here for web-searchers that this is not inquisition like Monty Python and Torquemada, this is inquisition in the sense of inquest: Stefan was talking about the representatives of the court, missi, who were sent out to settle cases by holding inquiries. Stefan saw these as the hands and ears of the general initiative of correctio that formed so much of Louis’s royal policy, although he stressed that they only dealt with cases where ‘public’, that is royal, property or persons were involved, not often enough realised I think; monasteries and churches were allowed to conduct their own such proceedings. There is a particular flurry of these enquiries in 829, though they had been running since the beginning of the reign and never clearing their own backlog of cases. His main point was the sheer disruption that all these suits, enquiries and threats to office-holders would have caused; it could not have aided the smooth running of the empire to question all its operators like this, and so Stefan asked what kind of crisis Louis and court thought they were in that it might actually be better to do this. Not for the first time, parallels between the way people are thinking about Louis the Pious and Æthelred the Unready were unavoidable for anyone who’d been at both this and my session, I think.
  • Martin Gravel, “From Theory to Practice: top-down governnance and long-distance communications in Louis the Pious’s ordinatio of 825″ added to this by tracing the manuscript context of the so-called Programmatic Capitulary and including the second half of it that isn’t very programmatic, usually separated, what are cc. 25-28 if you care about such things, seeing the whole thing as a set of instructions for the operation of the Empire’s system of long-distance reporting, pragmatic as well as programmatic. I thought this was perfectly convincing, though I don’t know the text half as well as some so other views would be interesting.
  • Philippe Depreux, “Videte ut nullam negligentiam habeatis: reception of the King’s missi, tractoria and the Carolingian sense of proportion for hospitality of travelling agents”, took this a stage closer to the ground by looking at how much the royal agents of this sort were allowed to demand by way of hospitality from the king’s subjects when about their business. He stressed that while such provisions go back to Marculf’s Formulary, and therefore this was a seventh-century mechanism, it was being used much more heavily by the Carolingians, and so Louis the Pious was engaged in an ongoing effort to restrict the opportunities within the rules for venality and thus for corruption.
  • Whether this all actually worked would be a project for another time of course: it was stressed in question that though we have a lot of orders for how this was supposed to be done we have very few documents showing it being carried out, though Mark Mersiowsky predictably knew of a few. I offered to explore the early Girona documents for this question for them next year but was rebuffed with polite confusion; I might still do it for Kalamazoo. Rosamond McKitterick made the last, excellent but somewhat acerbic point, that Charlemagne and Louis both wanted people to be able to reach them to complain of malpractice,1 but that the officials those people had to go through were not necessarily so keen, especially the ones in the local positions who were likely to wind up ‘corrected’.

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

Obverse of gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-40), Fitzwilliam Museum, Grierson Collection, PG.8162

This then continued after lunch, with a slightly less administrative and more ideological bent.

1205. Texts and Identities, IX: government, mobility, and communication in the Carolingian Empire under Louis the Pious (814-840), II

    Here we had hoped to see Steffen Patzold, who had been so thoroughly invoked two days previously, but though we must have said his name five times, he was still unable to attend so instead things went like this…

  • Jens Schneider, “Louis the Pious on the Road”, which was an old-fashioned attempt to map Louis’s itinerary. This has of course been done, and big problems since found with the technique because we are no longer half so sure that the charters that are issued in king’s names with places of issue on them necessarily indicate any presence of the king, even if the dates are to do with the grant rather than whatever occasion, maybe weeks later, that the document was actually drawn up. Jens elected at the outset to ignore these problems, and so I thought it wasn’t surprising that he found that charter issue locations didn’t look the same as the spread of recorded assembly locations. He wound up with a further methodological problem, in as much as we don’t know how far the king was able to set these locations or how far they were guided by events: I was minded of Jennifer Davis’s argument at Kalamazoo that most of Charlemagne’s so-called policy was a reaction to immediate and present crisis. So as you can probably tell I thought that any charter historian would find big problems with this and so it may not surprise the attentive reader that Mark Mersiowsky stood up in questions and basically tore the method to pieces, allowing as a saving throw the fact that the documents still allowed us to show a connection between king and subject. Stuart Airlie, who was moderating, said he was cancelling his subscription to Archiv für Diplomatik forthwith, which would be a pity if he meant it as I’m in the next one. Anyway…
  • Between these questions and that paper was a rather calmer one, Eric Goldberg, “Hludowicus venator“, which asked what we should take from the unusual attention that is paid to Louis the Pious’s hunting in the sources. It’s not that Charlemagne, who built a huge deer park around his palace and so on, was immune to the thrill of the case, but the chronicles and biographies that cover Louis’s reign do largely pay a lot of attention to his hunts. It has been suggested that this was a way to engage a military élite who were having to come to terms with the fact that there would be no more big conquests, a means of continuing to supply victory, albeit on a smaller scale. Eric balanced the sources that make so much of this with others that don’t (Nithard and Thegan for example) and suggested that though it was plainly only one strategy out of many for leading an imperial-style court lifestyle, it might well be one in which Louis was a greater success than his father.
  • Because we’d only had two papers, Dr Airlie as moderator gave us an improvised “Response” to fill some of the time, reminding us that the court authors and even the legislators of the Carolingian era were often aware of each other’s work, and that while Aachen might well not be the be-all and end-all of Carolingian power, as it sometimes seems, it is still a pretty big deal, a centre of tension and above all suspicion. (Dr Airlie’s vision of ninth-century politics is often darker than many others’.) However, he also said, people were not just passive consumers of Aachen: the audience who beheld it also thought about it and interpreted it to their needs, and they evidently did interpret it as the key centre even though perhaps, in realpolitikal terms, it wasn’t. This seems like a good point, though somehow cheating in a way I can’t pin down.

By the later afternoon, I was flagging. I’d been up too late the night before, it had been three fairly intense days, and caffeine was becoming vital. Also, the rain impeded use of the silver machine, which is the only way I can explain why I was late to the next session, which was a pity. It was this one.

1302. Medieval Monuments as Technologies of Remembrance, II

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Bet Giorgis church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

  • So I came in in the opening minutes of Niall Finneran, “Subterranean Memories: rock-cutting Ethiopian churches as commemorative practice”, which meant that although I got to enjoy the pictures, which were fabulous, I didn’t get the paradigm he was setting up that he then spent the part of the paper which I saw contesting. We were talking about churches actually carved from the living rock, hollowed out chunks of cliff or cave, so it was easy to have fabulous pictures. I got to hear about the Axumite culture, which carved its churches so carefully that they look like wood, and had subterranean tombs in their centres just like the pagan shrines they replaced, and the slower process in which the same change-over happened in rural areas, so that Axumite features were still being replicated a millennium later 400-500 miles way. This sounded pretty amazing and then I thought, wait, what about a religion that likes its places of worship with a long hall, let’s call it a nave, crossed by another one with a place for a choir beyond the cross… how far could that spread? But the proof of the continuity of ideas is still worth something, especially when some of these buildings are in such inaccessible places. Who’s the audience? Someone who can replicate it, apparently…
  • Second paper was Meggen Gondek, “Revealing the Pictish Stones: carving ritual, memories, actions and materials”, which was why I’d chosen this one: Dr Gondek’s stuff is always very engaging and deeply thought-out. I was very glad to hear her say that the Picts weren’t one group, as you might expect, and tried to encourage her towards saying that the stones were an élite means of self-identification in questions; she wouldn’t, but did admit that the stones define the region, at the same time saying wisely that their use might not be uniform. The most interesting part of the paper was where she outlined a small group of supposedly Pictish stones which are in fact reused prehistoric standing stones, Pictishly carved, spread over the whole Pictish symbol zone. Whether this was an adoption or an erasure of the previous heritage, given that these things are displaced and arguably disfigured, however, is a lot more tricky to say. If you thought you might say, pairs of these stones in which only one is recarved, like Nether Corskie below, might then still mess up your theory. She instead chose to argue that the process of carving may be the important thing, which we are left trying to read from its results as if they were the thing the act had been focussed on, when in fact it may not have been. You see what I mean when I say her work thinks deeply…
  • The two standing stones at Nether Corskie

    The two standing stones at Nether Corskie, one of which shows Pictish symbols still in the wet

  • Last up was Howard Williams, “Technologies and Transformations in Anglo-Saxon Architecture”, which was exactly the sort of theory-driven paper that might get certain blog acquaintances’ backs up were they not friends of the speaker, but which was focussing on temporary structures, buildings for example that went on top of funeral pyres, built only to be burnt, and in that to be compared to funeral boats or the pyres themselves. Again the focus was on process: we get to see a body, a burial, and the stuff that is buried with the body, and so that’s what we think is important, but we don’t get to see, as it might be, the three or four days that the elaborate room burial is left open to be viewed by visiting relatives; by the time it’s filled in, Williams argued, its purpose might well be over, so intuiting things about belief from its durable contents might be trickier than we’ve so far imagined. The other end of this scale, of course, is the re-use of much older structures, forts, burial mounds, and so on. All this has something to do with memory, but the nature of that memory may be very little like what we think it was; it certainly wouldn’t have to be actually remembered or in any way correct to have a working effect among its holders. The ultimate point of the paper as Professor Williams pitched it was to remember that architecture is built for many more reasons than just settlement, but what I was mainly left with was the urgent need to actually conceptualise the process of burial when dealing with graves. Burial’s always kind of been the archæological focus I don’t have, though, so others may have heard different parts of this rich paper more loudly.

Now this evening was the dance. I actually nearly didn’t go, so tired was I, but I recognised from long experience that giving into that urge is a sure-fire way to feel wretched and friendless so instead I went, drank enough beer to loosen my legs and gave it some. There were enough people who wouldn’t normally dance dancing that I didn’t feel I could really claim it wasn’t my thing, after all. But some mention needs to be made of Kathleen Neal, who if there were prizes being given for enthusiasm ought to have won one, I don’t think she stopped dancing all night and this was no small reason for my also doing such as I did. This is supposed to be a point in the proceedings when you can let your hair down (in my case quite literally) and have fun, after all, it has a cathartic function, and while it’s never going to let me lose it like something where they play the music I actually own would, it’s so much better to join in than to be snotty and aloof. I went back to my room long after I’d meant to leave, reasonably happy with the state of things and much more relaxed than I had been when I got up. Now this entry has been brought to you by Amon Düül II’s Phallus Dei and Country Joe McDonald and The Fish’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body, so don’t worry that I’m losing my élitism, but I can put it down for occasions such as this, and just as well really.

1. Would you like an example? Here’s a good example because of the extra complications about how people might not have wanted the plaintiffs to reach the emperor. One occasion in 839 sees Louis the Pious make a restitution to a trio of fellows whom the Abbot of Notre Dame de la Grasse brought all the way north and east to Frankfurt, modulo my concerns about the truth of such information, where they told the emperor a sorry tale of oppression by evil men, at what comes over as very great length. The thing that makes this especially interesting is that the three men, whose names were Gaudiocus, Jacob and Vivacius, were Jews, and moreover Jewish farmers or at least, rural landholders. Presumably they were also clients of the abbey of la Grasse or they wouldn’t have got that kind of representation, so although Louis or Louis’s scribe find some good Biblical cites for not being les nice to non-Christians than to Christians, there’s really no obvious way in which these men aren’t part of the usual network of patronage and landholding in their area. People are conscious there’s an ethnic, or at least a religious, difference, but with the right intermediary they get their hearing and the verdict is just what you’d expect, albeit with a lingering impression that Louis might have given them anything just to get the lead guy to shut up: his speech is reported for some time

I guess this is in E. Magnou-Nortier & A. M. Magnou (edd), Recueil des Chartes de l’Abbaye de la Grasse Tome I 779-1119, Collection des documents inédits sur l’histoire de France : section d’histoire médiévale et de philologie, Série in 8vo 24 (Paris 1996), but I know it from the rather older Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. E. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach & A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier, Vol. II (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

‘Iron Age’ Picts and their spoken language

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

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

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

I should not always write off journalists’ history. Only sometimes.

I am establishing a bit of a pedigree here for complaining about journalists writing about history without knowing what they’re on about, so it behoves me to recognise when the opposite happens and something genuinely good appears in the paper. After all, one thread of the discussion down a bit about how pseudo-scholarship gets disseminated is incriminating the media working from out-of-date half-remembered university courses (and probably Wikipedia entries written by people doing the same), and I think they do have a power to inform over and above that which we have and which we need to try and inform in turn, or where that’s not possible, embarrass.

King Athelstan, as drawn by Martin Rowson

King Athelstan, as drawn by Martin Rowson

But this is a good one. A few weeks ago, the Guardian, a British left-leaning newspaper that likes to include small booklets on unnewsable themes like 20th-century poets, cycle maintenance, geographical statistics and so on, did a pair on Kings and Queens of Britain. I only saw the first one, but it was lots of fun. The guilty party is one Helen Castor, whose pedigree has “medievalist” stamped all over it and so it’s not surprising to find that I probably walk past her every few weeks, for she is an academic writing for the papers (and this is good) and has been in Cambridge nearly as long as I have and rather more successfully. Anyway, she should take a bow as not only was this booklet chock-full of memorable factoids and soundbites, but they were all but one at least sustainable while still being interesting. She covered from Athelstan, justifying that choice in good historical terms, to Richard III, but she also explained Athelstan with a box on Alfred the Great, and that included the story of the cakes. The mistake, and as I say the only one I noticed, was that she ascribed the story to Asser not William of Malmesbury, which obviously affects how people who can compare years will read it. So that’s an annoyance but it was possible for her to make that mistake because she mentioned Asser, with his approximate dates, and explained who he was and so on. Now, when do you suppose was the last time anyone read about Asser in a newspaper? So on the whole I am full of praise for this endeavour, which shows not only that it can be done, but that it can be done concisely and accurately without losing punch, interest or, importantly, humour. I’m not so sure about Martin Rowson, the cartoonist’s depiction, of the Anglo-Norman kings, who were surely not piggy and fat as he has them. But that’s a small price to pay for the effect of pulling people in with the drawings. It shows Horrible Histories a clean pair of heels, anyway.

King William I, as depicted by Martin Rowson

King William I, as depicted by Martin Rowson

But then, something else rises to the top. This seems to have caught the blogular imagination but it made me choke on my ever-ready supply of bile (black bile, of course). Some jokers have built themselves a ‘Pictish throne’, I’m sorry, I quote, “a throne built to a design used by the ancient Picts“. Unfortunately these jokers are the National Museum of Scotland. I’m not sure whether it’s the fault of the reporting that it implies that we have a ‘design’ for such a thing as used by the ‘ancient Picts’, or if they got that from the museum’s press release, of which, to judge from the accompanying illustration, reproduced below, there seems to have been one. Now, I mean, look. Once you’re out of the headline the BBC report does clarify:

The seat was created by master furniture maker Adrian McCurdy who drew inspiration from stone carvings.

And the actual NMoS press page is a lot more circumspect, so I might blame the journalists overall. But the key word there is inspiration, because we’re talking about a very few carvings. I can’t immediately find out which stones have such a depiction on it but firstly, and most obviously, from a stone carving you can only guess what material the original object was in: it might have been stone! Secondly, but not much less important, we only have guesses as to what the Pictish stones actually depict in their mise-en-scènes; whatever source Mr McCurdy used may have been depicting, for example, an Old Testament king of Israel, for all we know, or a contemporary king depicted as one, and so on. So there’s really no foundation for this beyond “we made something a bit like what’s on the stone”. I wonder whose spin it is that makes it more here.

Supposedly Pictish throne replica on display at the National Museum of Scotland

"And I suppose now you're queen, is that it?"

(Also, for more on a similar theme see this from Karen Larsdatter at Medieval Material Culture, if you like.)

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



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

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

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

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

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

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

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

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

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

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

Stones and symbols

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

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

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

The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

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

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

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

Pictland should be plural

The Picts have recently been invading the blogosphere. I didn’t start it, though my rant about the Pictish Arts Society has been part of it. But at about the same time Carla Nayland opened the very vexed question of Pictish matriliny at her blog, and the comments have ballooned into a very interesting exploration of just who and what the Picts were, which is something of course which we will never really be able to settle, but that’s not going to stop bloggers trying :-)

I’ve weighed in quite a lot there already, and when I found myself building another mini-essay for her comment box, I decided at the last minute to bring it here instead. Partly because I’ve dominated that too much already, partly because I think it will work better with pictures that I can’t provide there, and mostly because I want to establish a claim on some of these ideas, which I’ve been wanting to find time to write up properly for ages, in my own space on the web. Selfish, but that’s blogging for you, it’s about thinking you have something to say, isn’t it. So here goes. Let’s mark that with the traditional Pictish Beast and get down to the politics.

A so-called `Pictish Beast’ as seen on the Pictish symbol stones of Scotland

Carla says, you see: “There’s little doubt that the people fighting the Romans were the same people who later became called the Picts.” And this is indeed a staple of the field, but I’d have to quarrel I’m afraid. I think Picts means too many peoples. Let me explain.

Map of Pictland c. 600 A.  D.

There’s a huge area of what is now Scotland that Pictland is supposed to cover, in which we can dimly detect lesser political formations. At first there’s the Caledonii and Verturiones mentioned in Ammianus (if that is Ammianus, I forget), then we get a whiff of a kingdom of Argyll later on, this mysterious place Fortriu, Orkney seems to be sort of a kingdom or sub-kingdom apart…

All this could make a model like England, where there are lots of kingdoms and maybe sometimes an overking but we can still talk about the English as a lump, even if maybe not before the Viking Age. But there’s also the material culture. In the North-East, the `Picts’ build (or had built and now lived among) brochs.
Mousa broch, Shetland
In the south-west they like souterrains to store their grain in, in a way that the rest of `Pictland’ does not. An excavated souterrain at Ardestie, near Dundee
In the East and South-East they bury like the British, in long cists, except that sometimes the `Picts’ recycle symbol stones as grave-slabs, which is extremely difficult to understand given what I think the symbol stones are; An early cist burial at Angus being excavated
but elsewhere they either like reusing cairns, for important people presumably, or we just don’t really know what they did. Some Pictish place-names are identifiably Pictish because they are recognisably P-Celtic; but some don’t appear to be Celtic at all, and the actual script of the symbol stones, where it’s used, is Ogam imported from Ireland, and has `maqq’ instead of `mapp’ so that the language of writing may even have been Gaelic. The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands
No way are these all the same `people’.

You just can’t talk about Pictish material culture or society the way you can talk about `Saxon’ archaeology, except where we’re dealing with art and the stones, which seem to be élite statements of some kind because they must have cost real wealth to get made. Pictland is a political construct, just like England, which is built out of smaller units; but the lost history of those units seems to be much more various than in England, and we probably need to think of Pictland in terms of something that exists as a unit only for brief periods, like Wales for example except more often than that, and at other times is a grouping for whose various inhabitants and their local cultures only outsiders from beyond the walls would use the same name.

This helps explain another question asked in Carla’s comments, about what happens to the Picts, in fact, because I think that the answer is that really, the most identifable thing about them, their stonework and sculpture, is an élite cultural manifestation that needs to be thought of as court or noble culture. Most of the so-called `Picts’ would have had precious little to do with this stuff, however distinctive it be. So when the élite changes, as it does with Cinaed mac Alpin’s takeover, even if maybe not by much, there is a sea-change in élite self-representation, the nobles may be the same people but they fairly quickly change their fashions, and the result is that we stop seeing the only thing that really identifies itself as `Pictish’ so quickly that we wonder where all the `Picts’ went. Well, they were probably still there but with nothing to identify them by. I bet that Pictish went on being spoken just as much—but then the Vikings arrived and messed up the place-name map for ever.