The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe. The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling. In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era. In the West it’s Late Antique. Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period. In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one). The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age). The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.
I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age. For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age. This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire. Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones. They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not.
These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters. Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint. Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814. Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana). A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste. The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6). Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.
Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition. Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting. Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject. A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains. Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.
Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:
- Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
- Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
- Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
- Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
- Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
- Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
- Menhir by the Sea (1838)
- Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
- Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
- Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
- Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]
All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany. The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment. Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few. Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape. People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us. Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own. Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.
Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings. Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché. He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal. Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles. In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past. In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker). Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).
Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains. They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers. They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past. This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.
None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn. Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one. During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed. As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature. Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.
As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery. While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes. Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context. The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive. Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures. Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl. Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage. With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.
Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites. For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists. Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor. Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?
Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/future_anterior/v006/6.1.lending.html, accessed July 2015].
Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Francis Bacon was a frequent visitor to the British Museum where he repeatedly went to see the Parthenon Marbles. Bacon said that they “were always very important” to him, but he wondered if that was because of their delapidated state, “whether if one had seen the whole images they would seem as poignant as they seem as fragments” (Harrison comments on this in “Bacon and Sculpture”, p.34, the original quotation is from David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, see below for full references).
Fragmentation imparts both meaning and emotion to objects. It represents the inexorable forces of decay and collapse in a literal sense, as well as figuratively in terms of human lives and relationships. The inevitability of fragmentation pokes fun at the permanence material culture is often supposed to represent, showing it to be a vain pretence.
There is also a sadness and a sense of loss among the broken and forgotten. Objects once lovingly crafted and jealously curated ultimately become lost, unremembered, and uncared for. This process of forgetting is ultimately linked to the vicissitudes of human life: the innocence of childhood is lost along with its material trappings, gifts given in love become painful reminders before they are cast out, death, either as an individual event or as a gradual accrual of loss in whole communities, inevitably contributes to the discarding and at least partial destruction of objects. Most frequently, something is simply broken by accident and rendered valueless. The archaeological recovery of these neglected, forgotten and fragmented objects invites us to imagine their orphaned time out in the cold, after their ancient ownership and before their adoption by our museums. Fragmentation implies an anonymous, meaningless, and timeless period.
Francis Bacon’s paintings do something similar to their human subjects. To a greater or lesser extent they alienate the composed and comprehensible body into an ambiguous mass of fleshy clay. The psychological root of fragmentation and alienation most often cited in accounts of Bacon’s work are the horrors of the Second World War he lived through and his own turbulent life (e.g. see Hammer 2012). Tom Lubbock wrote that Bacon takes us “into strange regions of flesh and matter and flux” (Lubbock 2010). He also commented that Sand Dune (above) represents the transformation of flesh into undulating topography. In terms of genre, the picture is half nude, half landscape. It evokes the return of human clay into the geological clay from which it climbed, like the entropy that drives fragmenting or composting objects backwards into their raw, unworked states. There are fragments of body in the painting: perhaps a knee, a shoulder, a buttock, in approximate anatomical order. But they are all de-composing, they are dissociating, becoming lost and on the verge of meaninglessness. Perhaps that’s where the strange melancholy of Bacon’s paintings comes from, and perhaps there is some connection here with his fascination with ancient relics and the dissipating, dissolving processes of decay they embody.
Although ancient fragments are steeped in the melancholy of loss, there is beauty in the way they inspire creative thought. They force us to build a partial, selective, and edited story; partly edited by us (the narrators) and partly edited by the random ravages of time. We don’t have to deal with the whole ugly mess of human life, the enormity and ambiguity of which makes little sense even at the best of times, to the sharpest of minds. The partial nature of fragmented objects will only ever allow us to construct a partial, reimagined version of the past. The past is lost forever, and that’s why it fascinates us. In our scramble to recover it we wrestle with our own mortality, the fragmentation of our own bodies, possessions and relationships.
Fragmented archaeological objects are fetishised. They are set on podiums in museums, designated identities with labels, ordered carefully and obsessively in filing cabinets, databases and catalogues. Bacon’s subjects are often similarly laid out like specimens for our inspection: lonely figures against chromatic backgrounds. The soft, blending textures of his subjects risks their complete dissipation, and perhaps that’s why he sometimes gave them a cuboid frame to restrain them (his so-called ‘space frames’), like in Sand Dune (above). Martin Hammer (2013, 11) suggests that these frames, as well as the gilded literal frames in which Bacon often mounted his paintings imply a kind of pseudo-formalism – an at least partly sincere link between Bacon’s creations and works of the old masters. The frame provides an exhibition space, like a glass case in a museum.
But there’s a tension in this. Just as Bacon places his strikingly modern paintings in a restraining, traditional context, fragmented objects are placed on pedestals behind glass as if they were treasured works of art, rather than the often quite banal, everyday objects that most of them are. Bacon’s subjects are forced and restrained by similar contextualisations, just like the object in the museum is captured by its curator, no longer out in the cold and devoid of meaning, but guided or even forced into a particular set of meanings. Francis Bacon rejected the suggestion that his paintings had any specific intended meaning. But that cannot quite be true, the symbolism in his work is rampant, whether he was aware of it or not (and I suspect he probably was). Just as Bacon’s framing restrains the potential chaos of his subjects, the fragmentation of the object in the museum case is arrested, giving a false impression of timelessness. It is false because fragmentation has only been temporarily paused: things, inevitably, fall apart.
Hammer, R. 2012. Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda. London: Tate.
Hammer, R. 2013. Francis Bacon: Phaidon Focus. London: Phaidon.
Harrison, M. 2013. ‘Bacon and sculpture’, in Bacon/Moore, 31-47. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Lubbock, T. 2010. ‘Sand Dune’, in The Independent, 30th April 2010, read the article in full here.
Sylvester, D. 1987. Interviews with Francis Bacon: the Brutality of Fact. London: Thames and Hudson.
A few weeks ago the Portable Antiquities Scheme recorded an important new Quoit Brooch Style scabbard mount from Cheriton, Hampshire. I’ve been working on an illustration of the artefact (above), which I was going to upload here along with a short account of its significance. However, things didn’t quite go the way I’d planned.
I’ll be brutally honest. I really wasn’t happy with this drawing and could barely bring myself to bother finishing it. I’m a relatively inexperienced illustrator and when something isn’t quite right I often have to start again from scratch or give up. Usually this is to do with conventions. What works for one element has to be applied to all similar elements as you progress with the drawing. If you start out wrong you have to replicate that error again and again or start over. However, rather than moaning about about what it is I don’t like about this illustration, I thought it would be more interesting to explore why I found this a difficult object to draw.
Quoit Brooch Style, the family of objects to which this item belongs, is a big deal because lies somewhere between provincial Roman, Romano-British and Germanic styles. As such, it has the potential to tell us about the ever-elusive Roman to Anglo-Saxon transition. I had difficulty drawing it for precisely this reason: Quoit Brooch Style does not conform to the early Anglo-Saxon style that has formed the basis of my archaeological illustration training. Put simply, drawing this foreign style meant I had to make up conventions on the trot, hence a disappointing result.
But it may also be the case that I have become attuned to the early Anglo-Saxon aesthetic. Perhaps any result was going to be disappointing. The drawing above, after all, isn’t that terrible. But because this is an essentially late Roman object, it does not have the blend of form and decoration to which I have become accustomed. Either way, it seems I have come to look at late Roman art through Anglo-Saxon eyes. Not only am I less capable of reproducing it, but I also make involuntary subjective value judgements that impinge upon the intellectual objectivity I am supposed to hold so dear.
Over the course of my self-tuition in archaeological illustration, I have found that drawing can provide a means of furthering my understanding and knowledge of the subject. Betty Edwards wrote a famous drawing course called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which outlines some links between learning how to draw and psychological development. The book is a mixture of popular psychology and drawing instruction and I’m really not qualified to comment intelligently on either. Nevertheless, I fully subscribe to Edwards’ core idea that drawing for an extended duration causes the mind to slip into a meditative state. I certainly experience this, which is why I draw partly as a form of relaxation. Anyone who draws or paints probably knows precisely what I’m talking about. When drawing an artefect, my usually over-riding awareness of typology, chronology and archaeological theory goes out the window as I become entirely immersed in the task and absorbed by the object. During this process I think it is probably easier to build an intuitive aesthetic sense of an entirely different nature than reading about the object would impart. Not only does the object come to reside in a visual memory, but it becomes part of a motor memory as the hand depicts its detail with a pencil or other instrument.
By now I have drawn enough Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches to have commited parts of the corpus to memory. Not only could I sketch many of them without visual aid (yes, I have my favourites), but I believe I could also probably make up imaginary items from the style set that I’ve absorbed, without having to think too much about it. I could never do the same for Roman items.
The interesting thing about this learning process is that it is non-verbal and subliminal. Archaeologists have become accustomed to converting physical, real objects into abstract texts. A combination of this language and the particular form of knowledge it entails imparts authority and disciplinary structure. By intellectualising this material archaeologists control it. But we also lose something of its essence. Visual or perhaps even material senses defy verbal explanation. This is why artists often have considerable difficulty explaining their art. Naive demands of “what does it mean?”, “what does it do?”, or “what is it for?” often dominate popular criticism of modern art. Not wholly by coincidence, exactly the same questions tend to dominate archaeological enquiry, perhaps because we are schooled to believe that narrative or verbal knowledge outranks visual, material or experiential knowledge.¹ A few months ago, in my debut post, I wrote about W. G. Sebald and alternative means of reflecting on the past. I believe this visual sense of objects may represent one of them. It is creative, personal and introspective but it also contributes to a sense of knowing about the past. This is why, in my opinion, even in this age of photography and 3D printing, re-interpreting objects creatively by eye and by hand still holds a valuable place in the archaeological toolbox.
A few years ago I picked up a little booklet in Hull Museum called A Victorian Boyhood in the Wolds. It seemed a suitable purchase because I was at the museum to examine some of the Anglo-Saxon artefacts the author, one John Robert Mortimer, had excavated from the barrows of Driffield in the 19th century. Holding these doubly ancient objects had compelled me to find out more about this man, who seems to loom out of his portrait (below) with about as much eery inscrutability as the barrows he opened.
A Victorian Boyhood in the Wolds is a wonderfully rambling account of Mortimer’s upbringing in rural East Yorkshire. His boyhood contained such episodes as pitched battles between villagers over scarce water in times of draught, as well as scavenging for dung to be used as fuel. Slightly worryingly, little John Mortimer seems to have spent an inordinate amount of his childhood terrorising the local wildlife. He recollects with some relish an episode in which he literally caught a rabbit with his teeth. When he wasn’t capturing songbirds with a stick coated in birdlime, he was blasting them out of trees with an antique six-foot flint and steel rifle. The animal inhabitants of the Wolds must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when in 1851 Mortimer was inspired by a visit to the Great Exhibition to take up archaeology as a somewhat less maniacal hobby.
Mortimer spent the rest of life excavating the tumuli of the Wolds. He published this work in 1904 in a massive volume called Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire. Thanks to the immaculate records Mortimer kept of his excavations, this book was way ahead of its time. Surprisingly however, Mortimer’s idiosyncratic and erratic autobiography was originally intended to be included in this volume of pioneering scientific archaeology. That these two things should ever have been put together in such a dramatic juxtaposition seems unconceivable to the modern archaeologist.
The editorial action that removed this bizarre autobiographical preamble fascinates me because it seems to capture an awkward moment between antiquarianism and modern archaeology. In one sweep of the red pen Mortimer edited out the final remnants of his own antiquarianism, which had maybe been as much about the triumphs of the collector as it had been about deductive study.
It seems fitting that Mortimer should have been the one to make this final cut, given his characterisation as a northern outsider looking in on the privileged group of formally educated and wealthy gentleman scholars (see here). His initial proposal of including extracts from his childhood may have been Mortimer’s way of staking his claim to the heritage he excavated. It showed just how tightly he was bound to the soil of the Wolds. However, in the end, he excised these last remnants of the old school. Mortimer spent his childhood picking up dung, as well as flints, from the fields of the Wolds, and I’d like to believe that perhaps he had little truck with the antiquarian cult of personality.