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’


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 2: The Viking ship museum, Oslo

On Sunday I had a free day in Oslo.  I had arrived at the decision some time ago, thoroughly cemented after visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition in the British Museum where the somewhat sad remnants of the Viking ship Roskilde 6 were displayed in their rather more impressive aluminium exoskeleton, that if I could do only one thing in Oslo it would be to see the Viking ship museum.

The museum displays the spectacularly preserved carcasses of three ships and their associated finds from burial mounds at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune.  I’m not going to repeat much information about them here, as you can get that from the far more reliable source of the museum’s website, which I’ve linked to above.

According to the information boards, the decorative metalwork that may have accompanied these burials was seemingly robbed long before their excavation in the later 19th and early 20th century.  The notable exception being the horse gear from another ship burial at Borre (the ship does not survive), which has lent its name to a whole style of Viking art.

In my last post, I talked briefly about the power of material culture to inspire intellectually.  Perhaps because my knowledge of the Viking period is rather limited, these vessels did no so much provoke insight as evoke emotion.  No quantity of photographs can communicate the sense of sheer, dark mass that these colossal vessels evoke, rising in such graceful yet powerful curves to tower over the viewer.  Even as ancient museum pieces they don’t exactly appear fragile.  I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that intimidation, whether through conspicuous display or actual violence, was the purpose behind the construction of these hulks, but that’s certainly how I read them.

The decorative wood carving and its level of preservation on the Oseberg ship was remarkable.  Once again, the motifs combine grace and elegance with the lurid and menacing world of the Viking mythos.  This was also impressive on the four sleighs and other smaller items found alongside the Oseberg ship.

As a final comment, if you ever happen to visit the museum make sure to save some time to squint in frustration at the textile remains in their little darkened room, it’s worth damaging your eyesight for, and I’m half blind as it is.


The Oseberg ship


The robust hull of the Gokstad ship


Grizzled remnants of the Tune ship


Detail of the Oseberg stern


Knobbly attachment (technical term) of the Oseberg rudder


Leather bindings on the Oseberg rudder


Detail of the Oseberg ship stern


Detail of the Oseberg prow


Internal detail of the Oseberg prow


A decorative post (one of four) from the Oseberg burial


Detail of one of the four Oseberg sleighs


A further detail of the same Oseberg sleigh

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.


What is this? An oil rig for ants?



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.


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.


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!

The Migration Period brooches of Norway (research update)


An enormous relief brooch from Dalem, Nord-Trondelag, Norway (length = c. 23cm). This fine illustration is taken from Oluf Rygh’s Norske Oldsager (Fig.259)

During the last few weeks I’ve been compiling a catalogue of 5th- and 6th-century brooches from Norway. Due to the scope of my project, these have only been taken from published sources and compiled with the indispensable help of the Universitetsmuseenes arkeologisamlinger (Norway’s online catalogue of its university collections). By far the largest and most useful of the published catalogues are Joachim Reichstein’s (1975) corpus of cruciform brooches, and Thorlief Sjøvold’s (1993) corpus of relief brooches. No doubt, this leaves out a number of more recent finds, but the numbers are sufficient to show an overview of the kinds of patterns these finds follow. Currently, I’m working on the rest of Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany.

In addition to relief brooches and cruciform brooches, which were the two largest and most decorative varieties of brooch worn in Migration Period Norway, I have also included a sample of the less impressive types. For the most part, these are small, plain bow brooches usually known as “R243” brooches thanks to their place in Oluf Rygh’s (1885) famous catalogue, as well a variety of plain tiny equal arm brooches that come in relatively late in the Migration Period and do not have a standardised name in the English literature, but are usually referred to as likearmede spenner in the Norwegian (Jennsen 1998). In addition to these four major types, there are also a number of what are probably best described as the Norwegian equivalents of Anglo-Saxon small long brooches, some wonderfully serpentine s-brooches, a handful of Nydam brooches and a few other minor varieties.  Although this is work in progress, the distribution of these brooches in Norway predictably follows patterns of overall burial.


The distribution of just over 800 Migration Period brooches in Norway, focused in the southwest but spreading right up the thin western coastal strip

For someone more familiar with the archaeological record of early Anglo-Saxon England, Migration Period Norway presents its own difficulties, but also some points of exceptional interest. The fact that burial in Norway usually involved barrows means that their location was obvious to the barrow diggers and archaeological pioneers of the 19th century. Hence, a relatively large proportion of the extant record was explored quite early in the history of our subject. Founders of early medieval typology and chronology like Oscar Montelius, Oluf Rygh, Bernhard Salin, Haakon Schetelig and Nils Åberg seized upon these rich resources to create systems and catalogues that are still in use today.

By modern standards, the earliest excavations were scientific only to a mixed degree, and our record of many of these barrows sometimes only comprises a mixed or incomplete assemblage of a number of burials all mixed together into one assemblage. Bone seems to have only rarely survived into the present day. There are very few cemeteries indeed that have been extensively excavated, let alone recorded to modern standards.

On the upside, the mass of material assemblages excavated at such an early stage meant that Scandinavian typologies and chronologies were developed much earlier and on a firmer basis than their English equivalents. Indeed, they still provide a solid basis for ongoing work. On the downside, the nature of Norwegian cemeteries and their frequently piecemeal excavation has made the kind of mass comparisons of grave goods, demography and cemetery structure that have long been staples of Anglo-Saxon and Mervovingian burial archaeology somewhat trickier, though certainly not impossible.

One exceptional opportunity that the Norwegian offer is the potential for looking at long-term continuity. The mountainous terrain of the northwest coast of Norway and the scarcity of agricultural land made continuity of settlement almost a necessity. A large number of these barrow cemeteries span the Roman Iron Age, Migration Period and even the Viking Period – a very rare thing in a period more generally characterised by major breaks in tradition, or at least rapid transition.

The nature of Norwegian brooches also differs from the Anglo-Saxon sample in aesthetic terms. Scandinavia relief brooches, a large number of which come from Norway, without doubt constitute some of the artistic masterpieces of the age. Some of these items, such as the relief brooch illustrated above, are simply quite stunning to behold and represent a higher degree of metalworking mastery than can be found in Anglo-Saxon England at this date.  It is a simple yet highly intriguing fact that a relatively larger number of the the Norwegian brooches are silver gilt as opposed to copper alloy (though I expect the same is true for the Continental brooches too). Norwegian relief brooches, and even more so cruciform brooches, grew into complex three-dimensional forms, deeply moulded and beautifully curved making their Anglo-Saxon equivalents appear very flat and indeed flatter as their development continued.

Of course, cataloguing all this material is only the first phase of my work, but thanks to the accumulated work of other scholars over the last century or so my task has been made immeasurably easier, as there are readily available catalogues for the majority of the core brooch types.  My ultimate task, however, is to begin to combine all of this collected scholarship and see what interest can be drawn out from inter-regional comparison.


Jenssen, A. 1998. Likearmede spenner. Overgangen mellom eldre og yngre jernalder i Norge – en kronologisk analyse. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Universitetet i Bergen

Reichstein, J. 1975. Die kreuzförmige Fibel. Neumunster: Karl Wachholtz.

Rygh, O. 1885. Norske Oldsager: Ordnede og Forklarede. Christiania: Alb Cammermeyer.

Sjøvold, T. 1993. The Scandinavian Relief Brooches of the Migration Period. Oslo: Institutt for arkeologi, kunsthistorie og numismatikk oldsaksamlingen.

‘Odin’s breath’ and a New Type of Cruciform Brooch

During my ongoing research on early Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches, I’ve come across a number of frustratingly unclassifiable fragments, so far only recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.  Although they looked so much like they came from the so-called “florid” series of cruciform brooches (and the PAS recorded them as such), this was not strictly demonstrable.  Nothing larger than these little plates, to my knowledge, had yet been found (I link to all 10 of these fragments at the bottom of this blog).

One of the mysterious fragments recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (NMS-312CA1)

One of the mysterious fragments recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (NMS-312CA1)

Among the cruciform brooch series they seemed unusual.  They have an uncharacteristic square outline, and the decoration is strikingly realistic among the more abstract and compositionally complex decoration that is typical of the period.  They are decorated, quite clearly, with unambiguous human faces, staring out at us with wide eyes, chubby cheeks and occasionally open mouths, apparently focusing a stream of breath towards us.  Occasionally, this motif is referred to as a ‘divine breath’ or a ‘tongue of fire’.  Some (perhaps overly imaginative) accounts have even referred to this motif as the breath of Odin, probably referring to the story where he breaths life into Ask and Embla, the equivalents of Adam and Eve in Norse mythology.

Needless to say, these items were produced considerably earlier (5th-6th century) than the Norse myths were written down (13th century), which makes such a specific link extremely tenuous.  That is not to say these motifs did not have specific symbolic significances, but we might equally see the mask as singing or shouting, especially in those other cases of the motif where from the mouth seems to issue forth a plethora of symbols (in a form of animal art known as Salin’s Style I).  This is depicted in the drawing of another cruciform brooches below.   A triangular field containing two crouched beasts (perhaps amphibious ones judging from their tapering bodies) erupt from the mouth of the moustachioed human mask.

Another example of the open-mouthed human mask motif, from a cruciform brooch from grave 81, Empingham II, Rutland (drawing by T. Martin)

Another example of the open-mouthed human mask motif, from a cruciform brooch from grave 81, Empingham II, Rutland (drawing by T. Martin)

The one thing that I did note down as important on the unclassified fragments was the occasional presence of up-curled eyebrows or fringes, a feature seen among a small group of “florid” cruciform brooches (which happen to fall into my sub-group 4.6).   I used this observation to loosely associate these fragments with that classification.  The other unusual thing about that sub-group, is that they have perfectly square head-plates, lacking the flanking wings seen on nearly all other cruciform brooches.  For these two reasons, I grouped them all together in the hope that one day a complete example would be found that shared similar traits.

Lo and behold, a larger example has finally arrived on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with both of these features: a square head-plate and a human face with up-curled eyebrows.  It’s still a pretty fragmented specimen, but in my opinion it’s enough to conclusively identify these fragments as parts of cruciform brooches.  Interestingly, it’s only the knob at the top of the head-plate that is furnished with up-curled eyebrows (or hair), which explains the rarity of this feature among the other examples.  Differential treatment of the top-knob among the “florid” series of cruciform brooches is a relatively late trait.

Cruciform brooch head-plate from Marham, Norfolk (NMS-13B110 on the PAS database)

These new cruciform brooches actually represent quite an important group, probably being among the latest in the whole series, dating approximately to a point around the mid-6th century AD.  However, among this group they are very unusual for not being gilded and silvered (a decorative technique known as “bichrome”).  Based on that fact, one might be able to make an argument for them being a little earlier than this.  There is little unusual about their distribution, which is concentrated in Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

The only downside to this discovery is that I found out about it pretty much the day I submitted my manuscript that details a new typology for cruciform brooches…


Known examples of the new type

NMS-13B110PAS record number: NMS-13B110

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url:



PAS record number: LIN-FE8EA4

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url:


ESS-0C29F8ESS-0C29F8PAS record number: ESS-0C29F8

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Essex

Stable url:


NCL-C90E94PAS record number: NCL-C90E94

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: North Yorkshire

Stable url:


NMS-E911A6PAS record number: NMS-E911A6

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url:


NMS-5D0970PAS record number: NMS-5D0970

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url:


NMS-55AC65PAS record number: NMS-55AC65

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url:


NLM-CDB1D0PAS record number: NLM-CDB1D0

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url:


NMS-312CA1NMS-312CA1PAS record number: NMS-312CA1

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url:


NLM4175PAS record number: NLM4175

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url:


NCL-D4DF11PAS record number: NCL-D4DF11

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: North Yorkshire

Stable url:


Finally, there is a single possible lead example, though I think I am now more inclined to see it as a fragment of some kind of mount, quite possible from a horse harness given its stylistic similarity to some other examples:



PAS record number: LIN-7E9045

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url:



Attila the Fraud and the Politics of Burial


A 16th-centiry re-imagining of Attila on a silver medallion (image source: wikipedia)

A few weeks ago a very strange story was doing the social media rounds: Hungarian archaeologists had found the tomb of Attila the Hun.  Now, if this was really the case, it would certainly represent one of the most important finds in the history of archaeology.  Strange then that it was only reported by what can only be described as a fringe news source, the World News Daily, which has previously reported allegations that Indonesia’s horned beast man had been captured, a mermaid skeleton had surfaced in New Zealand, and that a half-sasquatch girl had been born in the US (don’t think about that last one too hard).

Stranger still that accompanying the story was a photograph not of a Hunnic burial, but of a Chinese mummy.  I’m sure that very few people were actually taken in by the story, but that did not stop quite a few archaeological Twitterers, Facebookers and even some institutional accounts hitting that ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button.  In fact, if you look at that story today, more than 136,000 people shared that story on Facebook.

Needless to say, the story was a load of old tosh.  I don’t know whether it was based on any truth whatsoever, if the quoted authorities were real or had had their identities hijacked.  Neither do I know if indeed a rich ‘Hunnic’ burial had been found in Budapest, which would be a newsworthy discovery in itself.

If we can salvage something from this nonsense, it’s an excuse to recount the little that we do know about Attila’s demise.  Priscus (a contemporary Roman diplomat who had earlier encountered Attila) reported that Attila’s death in AD 453 was the result of an over-enthusiastic celebration of his most recent marriage, which ended with a particularly severe nosebleed (a later and probably less reliable account by Marcellinus Comes implicated a wife in his demise).  Following this undignified exit, Attila’s corpse was allegedly put into three successive coffins of gold, silver and iron.  A river (we don’t know which one) was temporarily diverted and his tomb was dug on its bed.  Afterwards, the river was set back on its course, forever concealing the grave.  I don’t think we need to contemplate the logistics of diverting the Danube in Budapest.  We can probably rest easy, the scourge of God remains securely tucked up in his tomb.

Although the hoax tells us nothing about Attila or archaeology, it does reveal the way in which this kind of rubbish can be promulgated by social media.  This is only possible because of the excitement generated by two combined factors: (1) we have disturbed the dead, a practice not exactly encouraged in our society and (2) the dead has a name.  Currently, such exhumations have captured the imaginations of the public and the media in an especially acute manner.

But perhaps they have always aroused such excitement.  Excavating the graves of historical leaders stokes the myths upon which contemporary identities are built.  If you want a slightly depressing taste of this, you can read the discussion below the Attila news story.   However, all burials tap into a very special kind of morbid fascination.  Strangely personal connections are drawn between the digger and the deceased, partly because digging up dead people is a strange thing to do in our society, and partly because it’s a reminder of our own mortality.  I wrote about this in my very first blog, and returned to the theme in a later post.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the peculiar power of names.  With a name, bones that were previously numbered specimens become re-inhabited by personality, even if that personality is largely one of our own creation (take Richard III for example).  That can be a personal name, but it can also be an identity label: woman, man, child, Saxon, Roman, slave, prince.  It all goes back to that most basic human act of needing to classify things, to fit them into our world view and attribute them some kind of value.  We pull something from the ground and ask “but what is this worth”?  But is that a fair or even useful question to ask of the named and the anonymous dead?