Stac Lee and Boreray from Hirta St. Kilda by Nigel lynch

Medieval Archaeology on the Move

Next week 2000 European Archaeologists are swarming into Glasgow for their yearly meeting. Medieval archaeologists have a significant presence, and organize a substantial part of the sessions. Mobility is on the agenda

Not a day goes by without the international media reports on the current exodus of people from the warring hot-spots from Afghanistan to Eritrea. Some consider Europe under siege, while others rejoice in the multi-cultural dissolution of the former nation-states. At the EU-level politicians are obviously not able to find sustainable solutions; what we see instead are particularly nasty internecine squabbles covering the fact that the ball (and the blame) is constantly being pushed around the arena. At the same time scholars focus once more on migrationary studies.

Mobility or Migration

Poster for EAA 2015 in Glasgow
Poster for the yearly meeting of the European Association of Archeaologists 2015 in Glasgow. This year the organizers have had a special tartan developed in honor of the conference. The colors are those of the University of Glasgow with some added heather.

No wonder archaeologists convening in Glasgow next week has prioritized the question of “mobility” in their programme. Here it is stated that: “Europe in the 21st century faces several major challenges – economic, social and environmental – and one key to understanding and addressing those challenges involves issues related to mobility. The theme of archaeology and mobility here stands not only for the physical & geographical movement of people but also the movement of people socially, economically and culturally. It includes too the mobility of knowledge and ideas, through innovation or necessity, and whether for altruistic, selfish or sinister reasons.” In view of this, it is interesting to see exactly how archaeologists have struggled to fit their papers into this overall framework

It appears that the conference abounds in papers on roads, landing places for sea-farers, trading-networks and artefacts as symptoms of communication and cultural diffusion of fashions. It also appears that archaeologists favour to talk about mobility (49 word-counts in programme) and not migration (9 word-counts). But papers, which try to present a broader overview, seem to be few and far apart. Especially the intricate questions of how to understand what happened in the migration period still seem still far apart (see below, though, for an exception).

The Migration Period

As is well known, it all started with the 19th century dominant meta-narrative whereby historians inspired by linguists crated the myth of the Roman Empire aka Europe being invaded by different tribes and peoples – Goths, Alammanians, Franks, Burgundians, Lombardians etc. It was believed they in turn founded the kingdoms, which later came to be the core of the modern national states of Europe. Early on Archaeologists pitched into this myth and perpetuated it by digging for archaeological traces (brooches, weapons, jewellery and funeral types) which might help to flesh out the cultural history of these “people”. Since the 1960s this meta-narrative came to be essentially undermined. In short: the tribal identities came to be considered the results of constructions of identity (ethnogenesis), while archaeologists began to identify the processes by which the material cultural patterns had in-fact changed over time. Later processual archaeology disappeared into thin air and left micro-histories of specific finds reflecting specific situations (often queer or transgendered). In this general rethinking of what archaeology should be about, archaeologists came more and more to advocate the view that there had in fact been very little migration going on in the 5th and 6th centuries and that the dissolution of the Roman Empire and the corresponding growth of the barbaric kingdoms were rather a reflection of environmental and climatic changes plus lead-poisening. The Roman Empire did not “decline” nor “fall”, it transformed “processually”.

In the last decade, however, this minimalist position has been seriously challenged by the historians (Peter Heather and Ward-Perkins), who both argue that the events in the 5th century represented a particularly violent revolution whereby conditions of life and political systems changed fundamentally. They both claim that the fundamental shifts in this period were the result of a particular series of events – the huns, who pushed the “barbarians” further to the west – rather than structural change (although they differ on the extent to which the successor kingdoms were the structural results of their interplay with the Roman Empire.) Another issue is the question of identity, which is gaining new ground.

In view of this it is of course important to ask how archaeologists might once again start to rethink their understanding of the events, which took place in the 5th century. Even if population groups no longer “have” material cultural profiles whether acquired by adoption or adaption, the ferocity – as recently claimed by Peter Heather – with which archaeologists like Guy Halsall has searched for explanations of a non-migratory type. calls for speculation. It appears though from the present programme that archaeologists are tentative with tackling the current rethinking of the history of the migration period, also called the Barbarian invasions 300 – 700. However, archaeologists do have a vested interest in reflecting upon this and the conference obviously opens up for the debate. The time has definitely come to rethink the contribution, which Medieval Archaeology has to offer.

Bridging Scales

It is this context we must read the title of one of the more prominent sessions organised by the medieval archaeologists, which advocates “Bridging Scales”. This session grapples with scales of interpretation in the first millennium AD. The archaeology of this period is traditionally situated within large-scale interpretive models – the demise of an empire, migrations of peoples, the fall and rise of long-distance trade – yet its evidence is approached from a human scale. The plan is to explore physical, social, and ideational mobility at the micro-scale of human interactions, or through the human-thing-relationship rooted in the household, funeral event or on the surface of the single artefact”, write the organisers, and continue: The aim of this session is to explore conceptual frameworks and methods for traversing these scales. We focus on connections, interactions, transmission, and the reshaping of social relationships through movements of people, things, and ideas across social and physical space.”

A highlight here is sure to be the paper by Toby Martin from the University of Oxford, Monuments in Miniature: Brooches and Multiscalar Networks in Migration Period Europe.

This paper investigates the relationship between feminine dress and networks in 5th-to 7th-century Europe. In the abstract he writes that: “The dress of elite women during this period was characterised by large brooches, often covered in complex ornament. During the first half of the 20th century this jewellery became a highly influential means of constructing culture-historical models of interacting groups on global and regional scales. Problematically, the social exchanges that constituted such interactions were dissolved in a sea of abstract competing ‘cultural influences’, which lacked much meaning beyond the somewhat dubious tracing of tribal migrations, a method now regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism. As a consequence of that critique the study of brooches has become limited to increasingly local scales in which the big picture can be obscured behind a screen of technical detail. This paper uses a new database of several thousand European brooches in an attempt to reinvigorate the subject using an approach based on network and material culture theory.” In the paper he proposes “a model of multiscalar networks operating from the global to the local, characterised in terms of style and use. Taken together, these brooches covered most of present-day Europe. Undeniably, they represented a globalised phenomenon. Yet because they were a part of dress their meanings and significances were enacted during proximal interpersonal interactions. This leads to questions principally concerning scale, inviting comparisons between the institutional power of Roman monumentalism and the intimacy of early medieval power relationships facilitated by personal objects.”

Cruciform Brooches

Cruciform Brooch Timeline auctions
Cruciform Brooch. From: Timeline auctions 2014

This is one of the first presentations of the promised extension of his recently published work on Cruciform Brooches in Anglo-Saxon England. According to this important study cruciform brooches played an significant part in the formation of a specific cultural identity among 5th century people in Eastern England.

It all began with relative small cruciform and insignificant cruciform brooches found in cremations from around AD 420. These were “almost indistinguishable” from their Northern German equivalents and Martin considers them imports brought to England from the continent by migrants. Immediately afterwards, though, cruciform brooches began to be cast locally using copper alloys and techniques reminiscent of those used in their homeland. However, almost at the same time these early items veered away from the originals and continued to be mainly used in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.

Towards the end of the fifth century the number and character of furnished inhumations grew significantly. This was accompanied by a comparable growth in the size of the brooches, which also became quite stringently restricted to East Anglia, the Eastern Midlands, Lincolnshire and parts of the North-East. In terms of style they seemed to represent highly localized statements of identity. At the same time these brooches became reserved for elderly ladies, who wore them as fasteners of their cloaks. Finally, during AD 525 – 550 they became universally very large and gilded, obviously representing a key elite-symbol for the group of people Bede termed the  “Anglians”. After which they faded away from view. It is believed that this was followed by the introduction of new fashions sported by the Franks and perhaps inspired by the Byzantines.

However, Anglo-Saxon England was just a very small corner of a world which reached from Crimea to Norway and where crucified brooches were prominently displayed in the grave goods. Exactly how these brooches developed through time, though, is not known. This is his future project, which anyone attending the conference in Glasgow may have the opportunity to get a first report on.

Getting acquainted with the work of Toby Martin thus qualifies the comments by Peter Heather that “the fundamental ambiguity of the available archaeological material must be recognized for what it is”. [1]


[1] Migration. By Peter Heather. In Networks and Neighbours Vol 3: 1 p. 6


European Association of Archaeologists 21st Annual Meeting
Glasgow 2015
02.09.2015 – 05.09.2015

Scientific Programme

Book of Abstracts


The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England CoverThe Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England.
By Toby. F. Martin
Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer 2015
ISBN-10: 1843839938
ISBN-13: 978-1843839934