An interview for “Medieval Herald”Posted: August 1, 2015
Here’s the transcript for an interview I recently gave for Boydell and Brewer’s Medieval Herald XXII (2015, the original is published here)
Can you tell us about your career in archaeology to date and what lead you to focus on the early middle ages?
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study archaeology as one of my A‐levels at Cirencester College, a town very much steeped in Roman archaeology. Even by that point I think I was hooked and went on to study for a BA in Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Oxford. After finishing my degree I worked for an archaeological field unit, whilst also supervising excavations in Romania and Belarus. Following that I studied for my PhD at the University of Sheffield, and now I’m back at the University of Oxford on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship. The early middle ages have always fascinated me because of the special place they play in our European past. The power of Rome fades and we are left with a lot of unanswered questions about how we get from there to the Norman Conquest. That period was longer than the Roman occupation of Britain, but it is still often glossed over as the ‘Dark Ages’.
For anyone still wondering, describe a cruciform brooch for us.
Cruciform brooches were used by women in the 5th and 6th centuries AD to fasten their clothing. They were quite bulky items of jewellery, often ornamented with intriguing animal and human forms. They start out as these small and simple safety pin‐like objects, but within the space of about a century they develop into enormous gilded plates. Quite why this happened is essentially what the book is about. Not to give too much away, but I think it suggests their meaning adapted dramatically during that period, perhaps due to changes in how communities were constructing their identities using material culture.
And the shape has no link to Christianity, is that right?
No. The name ‘cruciform brooch’ is misleading. Like most archaeology terminology, it’s actually quite a prosaic description of their overall shape, which is formed by the three decorative knobs that protrude from the headplate, and the long foot that extends beneath them. This period, in northwest Europe at least, was pre‐Christian, and some have argued that the kinds of iconography we encounter on jewellery like cruciform brooches may in fact reference pre‐Christian cosmologies involving the animal and human worlds.
Is it possible to trace a single point time or place from which the form originated?
Cruciform brooches emerged at some point in the early part of the 5th century AD. Their geographical origin is important because cruciform brooches appear on our shores around about the time of the documented Anglo‐Saxon migrations. I think we can now be fairly sure that the prototypes of cruciform brooches lie among a group of rather unprepossessing items from northern Germany and southern Jutland known as Nydam brooches. Whether or not that indicates the extent of the migrations to lowland Britain from this part of Europe is another question, but it does indicate the connectedness of these societies around the North Sea.
Why focus on brooches as opposed to other surviving artefacts and jewellery?
During the 5th and 6th centuries AD, brooches start to be worn exclusively worn by women, and they also become larger and more elaborate. Crucially, they also start to be deposited in graves, fastening funerary garments. As such, brooches seem to take on a special role in this period, and it makes them a very useful entry point into thinking about the nature of the societies that produced them. Quite why such value was placed on ostentation using skilfully crafted metalwork is something I am very interested in.
Your book takes a very broad approach and links brooches with identity, specifically Anglian identity. Tell us more about that and what it was in the brooches you examined that led you to this conclusion.
Cruciform brooches have always been fundamental in debates about Anglian identity, precisely because their distribution matches the region in which the Angles from northern Germany settled according to Bede. As such, it’s pretty difficult to study these objects without getting involved in a debate that contributes significantly to present‐day notions of English identity. The very name of our country has its roots among the Angles, whoever they might have been. I wanted to tackle this head on and show how material culture can be intimately involved in how regional identities evolve, rather than just seeing objects as a passive reflection of those identities.
And it’s true that you examined over 2000 brooches in your research?
For artefact specialists, encountering the material first‐hand is an important part of our research. It’s also the most enjoyable part. The experience of holding a possession of someone that lived and was buried with it a millennia and a half ago is a privilege that does not diminish. I went on a tour of most of the local museums in eastern England to document more than 500 brooches. A large portion of my study sample was also taken from the online catalogue of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, an initiative that’s been running since 1997 with the aim of recording objects unearthed by metal detectors and kept in personal collections. There’s a lot you can take from the photos and commentary freely available online, but it will never replace the unique value of first‐hand experience.
Where are most of them and where might our readers view the best examples?
Cruciform brooches are generally found in eastern England, from Kent, East Anglia, the East Midlands, Lincolnshire and the Northeast. Because of their prominence in these regions, local archaeology museums in these places will usually have a few on display. A particularly good place to see a few very fine examples is the recently revamped early medieval gallery at the British Museum, where you’ll also be able to compare them to more exotic related items from all over Europe. It’s a trip I’d highly recommend!
What does your new typology and chronology bring to the study of these brooches? Are you confident they will be accepted?
Typology and chronology are most accurately seen as not so much replacing outmoded models, but rather as building and refining the work that has gone before. Nils Åberg, for instance, built a serviceable typology as long ago as 1926 which is still in use. And it’s still in use for a reason: it offers a very simple but highly practical method of classification into just 5 types. My typology, thanks to the number of new brooches that have been discovered since, features more than 40 types, and the chronology is correspondingly more refined. The level of detail it offers is therefore going to be more useful for some purposes. While I would certainly hope that other researchers found my typology useful, I should emphasise that the scheme itself was conceived around the research questions I wanted to answer. The typology is all about the structure of design, because I was interested in how these objects were conceived in the minds of those who made them. That may or may not be interesting to future researchers, but I’d still very much hope that my model offers a practical solution to a problem of classification that has been around for a while.
What’s next for you now? Have you seen enough brooches or do they still have more to tell us?
Never! Material culture, like historical literature, can always be revisited. There’s an occasional misplaced sense that once a type has been ‘done’ we can move on to the next. Cruciform brooches provide a good example of why that is precisely not the case: they’ve been repeatedly studied since the early 20th century, always with new questions that produce new interpretations. However, once I’d finished writing this book I took a step back and started thinking about the wider context. Eastern England looks terribly small when you start to think that related brooch types were being worn throughout Scandinavia and Continental Europe all the way across to the Crimea. I’m currently working on a project funded by the British Academy to investigate this phenomenon from a more global perspective. Why was it that women in the 5th and 6th centuries AD throughout Europe were wearing such large personal ornaments? To what extent does this show the connectedness of all these places in Europe?