Barbaric splendour: the use of image before and after Rome

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Over the last few months, my colleague Dr Wendy Morrison and I have been organising a conference to be held at the University of Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education on the 14th November 2015.  The name of our day conference is Barbaric splendour: the use of image before and after Rome.  As the title indicates, we want to take a comparative approach to how archaeologists explore the visual cultures of peoples referred to by the classical world as ‘barbarians’.  Appropriately, therefore, our conference is all about bringing together scholars and students of the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Periods.  This is a subject that has been of some interest to me for a long time.  Similarities between the artistic styles, subjects and contexts of the two periods are considerable and though they have often been casually observed, as far as I am aware, they have not been previously explored in depth. We are not so much interested in drawing lines of continuity between these periods (this isn’t about a transcendent barbarian spirit or culture), but exploring how archaeologists of different period-specific traditions have treated this material, and what we can learn from each other.

We’re thrilled by our lineup of speakers made up of experts from both Iron Age and Early Medieval Archaeology, including Charlotte Behr, Chris Fern, Anna Gannon, Melanie Giles, Chris Gosden, Jody Joy, Siv Kristoffersen, Laurent Olivier and Leslie Webster.

Registration is now open, and you can sign up on our website, where you can also find plenty of other details: https://barbaricsplendour.wordpress.com.

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An interview for “Medieval Herald”

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The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England. You can purchase the book here.

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?


Bringing up the (Anglo-Saxon) bodies

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A reconstruction of early Anglo-Saxon feminine dress. The outer garment is a cloak dual-fastened by a pair of cruciform brooches (illustration by L. Martin, © L. Martin).

A few months ago a paper of mine came out in print called  ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’.  It was published among a collection of papers edited by Paul Blinkhorn and Chris Cumberpatch called The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology (see here). The paper was the result of a presentation I gave during a session at the 2012 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference run by Lisa Brundle, called Archaeologies of Bodily Gesture: Exploring Representation and Performance.  That paper was all about early Anglo-Saxon women’s bodies and dress, but in the published form I also wanted to explore some ideas about masculine bodies.

As far as I know, this is the first explicit application of body theory to the dress and jewellery of 5th- and 6th-century Anglo-Saxon England, which I find quite surprising given the prominence of actual bodies and their accoutrements in the archaeology of the period.  My approach was largely social anthropological, the starting point being Marcel Mauss’ classic 1934 essay ‘Les techniques du corps’.  I also wanted to explore some of Rodney Needham’s ideas about left and right from his edited (1973) volume Left and Right: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification.  I readily admit that neither of these sources of inspiration is particularly cutting edge, but in my opinion both still have a lot to offer.

The paper itself was an offshoot of my work on Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches.  I realised that there were quite a few under-explored aspects of how these objects were actually worn, and how dress assemblages taken as a whole can help to reconstruct aspects of the dressed body, its shapes and sizes, its possible movements and its habits. Brooches in the archaeology of this period are often treated in quite a dry and technical manner. It’s my ongoing objective to try and put these items back into their lived context, in this case as intimate and formative elements of women’s bodies.

I explored a few different areas in the paper, the major topic being how dress and its accessories shape, conceal and expose areas of the body.  Dress is a means of not only making bodies culturally intelligible, but garments also create the actual, physical bodily form as it appears on an everyday basis. There is something almost theatrical about this performance of what is hidden, what is exposed, when and where.  The ‘why’, of course, is the crucial question. As you might imagine, what we can know about this from the evidence is pretty minimal, but the little we do know  is pretty valuable.  It may well be a cliché, but for me these kinds of questions are crucial to bringing these rusty old items back to life.

I was also interested in the position of glittering items on women’s bodies, and how these positions on the shoulders, throat, breast, wrists and occasionally the waist create constellations of signified body parts which were not only gender-specific, but also seem to have varied with age.  I also considered the depiction of gendered bodies in contemporary iconography of the period, which is almost entirely masculine, and quite explicitly so, and far more focused on heads (resplendent with curled moustaches) than it is on either male or female bodies.  Movement is the final aspect that I explored, looking at the kinds of movements that may or may not have been possible in different costumes, and the noises that some items of jewellery would have created during movement.

Of course, a lot of this kind of research is relatively (and necessarily) speculative, but I think it’s important that when we think about dress and jewellery, we envision it as both dynamic and interdependent on the various bodies that it shapes and creates.

Martin, T.F. 2014. ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’, in Blinkhorn, P. and Cumberpatch, C. (eds.) The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology, 27-38. British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2677. Oxford: Archaeopress.


Authorbiographies

Anselm Kiefer The High Priestess/Zweistromland

Anselm Kiefer The High Priestess/Zweistromland (from the website of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo)

My monograph The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England is finally available as a physical, actual thing.  As the product of over six years work (three in a PhD, three and a half out), I find the prospect difficult to relate to in a straightforward manner.  The monograph began life as my PhD thesis, but was rewritten from scratch during the two years following my graduation.  As such, the book traces a personal journey from postgraduate student to where I am now, but it is rightly intended for public consumption and scientific critique.  I’ll write properly about what’s actually in the book at some future date, but here I would like to reflect on some of that process.

I never really celebrated or recognised the events of thesis submission or passing my viva, because at the time I found it difficult to connect with the thing.  The thesis, such as it was, felt ugly, too personal, too imperfect. It was the swollen product of three years immersion, which were for the most part enjoyable, but they were besmirched in the end by the unwelcome prospects of unemployment and the difficulties and anxieties that closing a relatively secure stage of life typically brings.  The book contract, as I held it there in my hands on the morning of the 19th March 2013, was something I grasped with a measure of intimidation.  Though I was overjoyed to receive it, I felt it would be premature to celebrate.  Besides, at the time, being unemployed, I felt somewhat alienated from the world of academia.  The words and paragraphs over whose construction I had deliberated during the final year of my doctorate now sounded trite and repetitive, even annoying.  I took a certain pleasure in their utter deletion. Perhaps at least that was some form of minor daily celebration as I embarked on several months restructuring, redrafting, reanalysing, redrawing and redacting.

As an archaeologist with anthropological leanings, I cannot help but regard a PhD as a rite de passage, but one that remains frustratingly open.  For the vast majority of graduates, there is no immediate welcome into the realm of the initiated.  You have your preliminal separation from the world, and the middle liminal phase certainly goes on for some time.  The postliminal phase, however, the stage of incorporation, is found wanting.  Of course, I celebrated submitting my PhD in my own way.  To my memory, I went home and had a cup of tea, physically and emotionally exhausted after trekking from Weston Park to the admin offices with a copier paper box full of thesis volumes.  But the viva and its uncertainties were still to come.  When the examination arrived, it was a highly rewarding and valuable experience.  I went to the Red Deer afterwards for a few drinks.  I called my family and a couple of close friends.  But because of the corrections I still had to submit, however minor they may have been, there was no complete closure. By the time I submitted them, the whole thing had become so removed from everyone else’s attentions that it started to become removed from my own.  I had other things to worry about by then.  Again, my graduation was enjoyable because I got to spend the day with my family and some friends.  But it lacked sincerity and meaning.  The University gave me a branded mug and sent me on my way.  The PhD candidate embarks on their initiation in companionship, but they leave it by themselves.

Now that’s a fairly trite anecdote dressed up in pseudo-sociological clothing, but the point I am trying to make is that a piece of substantial work like a monograph comes along with a personal and academic biography.  Recently I’ve been writing and thinking about the emotional and aspirational processes of materialisation (here and here).  There is a strong emotional force that drives us to make inescapably ephemeral things material and, perhaps optimistically, permanent.  Books for me seem to be compromises between knowledge and communication.  They do not constitute that knowledge, they’re a reiterative product of it, frozen at some arbitrary point in time.  Turning knowledge into a material object isn’t necessarily all about power, economics, and curricula vitae, it’s also driven by an emotional impulse to verify and stabilise fragile, dynamic and often quite opaque meanings into a (relatively) permanent avatar, an entity that will survive and extend the existence of the author.

Every book also has a material history.  Behind me there’s a filing cabinet.  Within it there are 2,075 pieces of A4 paper, each illustrating an individual artefact, carefully labelled and set out at the proper scale.  As I look up to the shelf on my left I can see a set of black ring binders, some now buckled to the point that opening them results in a shower of polypropylene pockets, each containing a record sheet.  They are marked ‘group 1’, ‘group 2’ and so on, with labels printed out during a fit of especial zeal at some point in the summer of 2010.  Beneath that there’s the thesis itself, brooding away.  Over to my right there’s another shelf straining under the weight of two volumes of a spiral-bound reprinted thesis, complete with my own, largely derogatory, marginalia, and two sets of marked-up proofs from the publishers.  I’m probably going to have to throw much of this out at some point, but that goes against some deep instinct to preserve.  Finally, just in front of me (my hands reach over it as I type this), lies the monograph.  Years of work and personal biography wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing package, offering perhaps another stage of closure for the PhD.  I find that an odd thought, but in the main it is pleasing I suppose.

 

 


Networks of Dominance – Call for papers

Gollum I am delighted to announce that myself and Kathrin Felder have had our session accepted for the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference this December (15th to the 17th) in Manchester.  Our session is entitled “Networks of Dominance” and it’s all about the use of material culture in the creation and undermining of networks of power. I have a particular interest in this area of theory, because it relates closely to my current work on the role of jewellery in the creation of elite networks in post-Roman Europe, so I’m especially interested to learn from other scholars working in this area from diverse periods. More importantly, we’re seeking another 5-6 papers to complement those we already have confirmed.  The presentations should be 20 minutes long, based on any period or region.  The deadline for submissions is 17th October 2014. You can download our official document (.pdf) from this link, in which you can find full instructions on where and how to send proposals: TAG2014_NetworksOfDominance_CFP. Here’s our full blurb:

Networks of dominance – Aspects of inclusion and exclusion in archaeological approaches to social connectivity Session Organisers: Kathrin Felder (University of Cambridge), Dr Toby Martin (University of Oxford) Recent theoretical work on the nature of human-object relationships increasingly informs the study of past social networks. As a consequence, archaeology is embracing the view that studying past human connectivity is not just a matter of reconstructing the static material traces of social networks but an attempt to understand how people and objects interacted in a dynamic fashion to physically and mentally furnish the fabric of human society. Networks can be used in the pursuit and maintenance of social dominance through strategies of inclusion and exclusion. Simultaneously, networks of dominance can be resisted, contested or transformed through intentional non-participation or counter-activities. Such strategies are performed in arenas that are inescapably material, including access to (or prohibition from) objects circulated in exchange networks, or intentional segregation in the built and natural environment. We are interested in the archaeological study of such social and material strategies in the formation, maintenance and disintegration of networks and invite papers (20 minutes) from various fields of archaeological and interdisciplinary research that deal with, but need not be limited to, the following themes:

  • Strategies of dominance through networks; their successes and failures
  • Socio-material practices of networking (trade, gift exchange etc.) and material culture as a means of enabling dominance
  • The biographies of networks of dominance
  • Forms of participation and non-participation and their intended and non-intended consequences
  • Inclusion and exclusion by access to (or prohibition from) specific material culture
  • Methodological approaches to inclusion and exclusion in the study of human connectivity, including formal network-analytical approaches

We look forward to hearing from you!


Publication date for ‘The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England’

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The cover image, featuring an exquisite if unprovenanced brooch originally from the Hattatt collection and now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Just a quick blog to announce that we now have a publication date for my forthcoming book The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England, which will be coming out in April 2015.  Currently, it is available for pre-order from Boydell & Brewer’s website.

It’s quite difficult for me believe that this work I started in 2008 is finally coming to fruition, it’s certainly been both rewarding and challenging in equal measure.  When it does come out, there will be an accompanying electronic dataset for free download from the Archaeological Data Service.

To whet your appetite, here’s the blurb:

Cruciform brooches were large and decorative items of jewellery, frequently used to pin together women’s garments in pre-Christian northwest Europe. Characterised by the strange bestial visages that project from the feet of these dress and cloak fasteners, cruciform brooches were especially common in eastern England during the 5th and 6th centuries AD. For this reason, archaeologists have long associated them with those shadowy tribal originators of the English: the Angles of the Migration period.

This book provides a multifaceted, holistic and contextual analysis of more than 2,000 Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches. It offers a critical examination of identity in Early Medieval society, suggesting that the idea of being Anglian in post-Roman Britain was not a primordial, tribal identity transplanted from northern Germany, but was at least partly forged through the repeated, prevalent use of dress and material culture. Additionally, the particular women that were buried with cruciform brooches, and indeed their very funerals, played an important role in the process. These ideas are explored through a new typology and an updated chronology for cruciform brooches, alongside considerations of their production, exchange and use. The author also examines their geographical distribution through time and their most common archaeological contexts: the inhumation and cremation cemeteries of early Anglo-Saxon England.

 


Field notes 1: Stavanger, Norway

On Friday I finished a week’s work at the Arkeologisk museum i Stavanger, recording about a hundred or so Migration Period brooches as part of the fieldwork element of my postdoctoral project.

During my time in Stavanger I also had the opportunity to explore the town and learn a little about its history.  These days, cruise ships aside, Stavanger derives considerable wealth from its offshore oil rigs, and it has a whole museum dedicated to to the history and processes of extracting oil from the sea floor, replete with (perhaps a few too many) tiny scale models of rigs.  The colossal, earth-shattering drills, however, were my favourite bits.

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What is this? An oil rig for ants?


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Drillbits

From the late 19th century to the 1960s, however, Stavanger was a relatively poor town, with an industry based on canning fish. Indeed, the town has a canning museum too, located on the site of one of the old factories, where you get to relive the godawful experience these people (and children) lived through by seeing if you could fill a tin with plastic sardines in 6 seconds.  It took butterfingers here 15 seconds.  Though I would’ve been sacked, I’m proud to say that all the little fish were put to bed especially neatly in strict typological order.

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The highlight was all the old sardine tins, if you’re into that kind of thing

Petroleum and little fish aside, my time at the museum was very fruitful indeed.  It was a real pleasure to work under the generous guidance of the extraordinarily knowledgable staff of the museum.  I really couldn’t have asked for much more.  Despite having spent some months trawling through the Norwegian literature and catalogues, there really is no substitute for listening to the people who have worked with their collection for years, and have a seemingly encyclopaedic and highly valuable knowledge of the region.

This alone is reason enough to travel so far to visit the collection first hand. The other invaluable thing about handling these objects is that you notice aspects you haven’t before.  Spend too much time looking through catalogues, and it becomes hard to imagine these items as anything more than two-dimensional diagrams.  In the flesh, you not only notice more, but you also remember the power of material culture to inspire thought and insight.  To me it’s the equivalent of reading a primary text rather than the notes someone else had made on it.

Consequently, with just a few days handling these objects (it’s been nearly 3 years since I was last doing this kind of work), I’ve already thought of a couple of articles I’d like to write.

This time round, I’ve pared down my recording technique.  During my PhD research, I took along an array of equipment and pro forma sheets for recording each object in infinitesimal detail.  I took close to 40 measurements of each item, to a tenth of a millimetre, as well as extensive written notes on the placement of certain decorative aspects, and so on.  This led to quite an extraordinarily detailed dataset, but it was arduous and time consuming. Very little of it ever turned out to be useful for the project at hand. Additionally, this level of detail is entirely unfeasible for my present, much larger project.

This time around, I’m using just a camera and a notebook.  I’m taking high quality images of the fronts, reverses and profiles of each item as standard, plus detailed shots of anything I find interesting.  This could be a number of things, including close-ups of tiny punched decoration, iconographic motifs, technical details to do with casting technologies, repairs or wear patterns.

I use my notebook to jot down summary descriptions of each item, if necessary, plus any other details of interest. Usually this is to do with unique or at least rare characteristics, perhaps notes on where I’ve seen such features before.  I also have some small sketches of details I’m worried might not show up in the photography, or to remind me what to look out for in those photos.

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My trusty notebook

My notebook also includes critical details like museum (accession) numbers and running photo identification numbers, which allows me to locate the photos of particular objects when I get back home and have to deal with all these data.  This is perhaps the most important aspect given that in just a week I have already accumulated more than 2,600 photos.  These of course need to be sifted through as most photos are bracketed (3 shots of each view, taken at high, low and supposedly ideal exposure).  Needless to say, my notepad and backup hard drive are at present probably more precious to me than my passport.

After a long (and at times precipitous) train journey, I arrived in Oslo last night.  I’ll be here for a few days working with the university’s collection. Watch this space!