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?
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.
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.
If you were wondering why this blog’s been a little quiet over the last couple of months, it’s because I’ve had my head in the sand completing the manuscript for a monograph. The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England is based on my PhD, so that stack of paper above represents a large portion of the last five years of my life. Though this is by no means the end of the process (the book is currently in review), for me it certainly represents a major step.
Turning a thesis into a book has been a far greater challenge than I thought it would be. Knowing that too much had to be removed and the whole tone of the piece had to change, I barely even attempted a cut and paste approach but instead dived straight into a complete re-write from scratch. I didn’t want a book that felt patched together but something that stood by itself as a coherent whole, conceived over a very long duration but actually written over the course of ten or so months. For this task, my editor recommended I read the book From Dissertation to Book by William Germano. I would pass on that recommendation to anyone else about to undertake the same task.
The greatest challenge of the rewrite was finding a new voice. Writing a thesis is quite a specific task, with a specific reader in mind. Writing a book is also a specific task, and one must have a certain audience in mind, but it obviously has to be a broader one than the two individuals who generally examine a PhD. The second challenge was updating the data set, re-doing the analyses and checking all the data. The third largest task was producing new illustrations, many of which were hand-drawn – a highly time-consuming if quite enjoyable job. Overall, it’s been a somewhat monstrous undertaking that has eaten into far too much of my supposed leisure time, but I’ve actually quite enjoyed the whole process and found it to be a highly rewarding one. I dearly hope the results will be rewarding for others.
I’ll write a bit more about what’s actually in the book when it comes out. But in short, it contains a new typology for Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches, based on a corpus of 2,075 of them, alongside an updated chronology. These empirical matters, though important in their own right, form only the jumping off point for an exploration of the social significances of cruciform brooches in 5th and 6th century eastern (what was to become) England.
For post-Roman Britain this was a highly turbulent and transitional period. It sits between a literally crumbling world of cities and the somewhat more familiar kings and missionaries of the 7th century. I like to think of the 5th and 6th centuries as a time during which a profoundly different new world took shape. I also like to think that this transformation depended, at least partly, on changing relationships between people and objects. Instead of a world of cities and a power structure driven by their economic structures and civic administrations, our early Anglo-Saxons lived in a world dominated by central people whose power rested in no small measure on personal display, as well as their ability to channel skilfully crafted objects into particular, favoured hands. Dress and jewellery, therefore, played no small part in the forging of this new world. That transition, in essence, is what the book is about.
Last Friday (8/11/2013), I attended the research seminar Re-Dating Early England at the Society of Antiquaries of London, a day of eight papers and a discussion session, organised to celebrate and explore the themes of two recent major publications: The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill IX: Chronology and Synthesis by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy (the final volume in the Spong Hill series) and Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries AD: a Chronological Framework, an edited volume by Alex Bayliss, John Hines, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac and Christopher Scull (edited by John Hines and Alex Bayliss). Both have fundamental implications for our understanding of the chronology of 5th-7th-century Anglo-Saxon England.
The morning began with a welcome from Chris Scull, before the first session commenced with talks introducing each of those two new publications, the first by Catherine Hills and Sam Lucy, and the second by John Hines. After a break for coffee, we heard two talks focusing on statistical methodology, the first on absolute dating by radiocarbon, the second on relative dating by grave-associated artefact groups. In the first, Alex Bayliss explained how Bayesian analysis can be used to refine the probabilities of radiocarbon dating to a level of resolution useful for this relatively short period. Alex must have done a good job, as I surprised even myself by coming away with some understanding, albeit a basic one, of what had previously seemed a mysterious and dark art. Karen Høilund Nielsen provided an overview of the principles of seriation and the methods of correspondence analysis, a method that has become fundamental to establishing chronologies for this period and its many thousands of furnished graves, and one in which the speaker has for some time been leading the field.
Following lunch, we had two papers providing perspectives from the continent and a third on numismatics. Andreas Rau clearly communicated the quite complex methodological issues concerning the very earliest dates of ‘Germanic’ material in eastern England. Frank Siegmund’s contribution was perhaps the most thought-provoking of the day, dealing as it did not so much with the methods of chronological analysis, but with a novel manner of interpreting the different absolute lengths of chronological phases in terms of the ebb and flow of cultural change. Marion Archibald’s paper dealt with a seemingly quite critical disparity between the absolute dating suggested by Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods and those traditionally stated by numismatists.
The day closed with an open discussion session chaired by Andrew Reynolds. It was perhaps this session that raised the most pertinent question of the day. That is, now that we have the most secure chronological framework yet devised for early Anglo-Saxon England, what do we do with it? Unfortunately, this question seemed to stump the audience, including myself, who remained either silent or staunchly focused on methodological or relatively peripheral issues. This was perhaps inevitable after a day of papers whose focus was quite legitimately focused on methodology. Indeed, for a specialist like myself, this focus made the seminar among the most valuable I have attended. But it does beg the question, what next?
There is also a question, I believe, concerning the extent to which this chronological research will be used by Anglo-Saxon archaeologists in the decades to come. I have little doubt that they will be justly acknowledged and taken up by specialists, whose artefact-focused studies, like my own, have been crying out for an overarching chronological framework on which to peg their phasings. The question of ‘what next?’ for us is fairly obvious: we can refine our studies even further and justifiably place more confidence in our findings. Both of the above publications, for instance, have some impact on the absolute dates I suggested for cruciform brooches in my PhD thesis, which are confirmed at the latest end, and revised at the earliest. However, the real question concerns the extent of the effect they will have on more interpretative accounts. There has been a unfortunate tendency in more thematic, social archaeologies of the 5th and 6th centuries to treat these two centuries virtually synchronically. This is a result of necessity rather than ignorance. Until now, despite a couple of key volumes, chronological work on Anglo-Saxon archaeology has been relatively diffuse or obscure. We now have a challenge, I think, to incorporate those more theoretically inclined archaeologies with a methodological knowledge of the material on which they are grounded.