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”

9781843839934

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?


Painting the past in 19th-century Norway

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.

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Johan Christian Dahl’s Domen near Vordingbord in Winter (c.1825). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Johan Christian Dahl’s Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Slindebirken,_Vinter_(I.C._Dahl)

Johan Christian Dahl’s Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1838). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tessungdal

Johan Christian Dahl’s Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1841). Source: Project Muse.

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?

Bibliography

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.


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.


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 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.

Oseberg2

The Oseberg ship

Gokstad1

The robust hull of the Gokstad ship

Tune1

Grizzled remnants of the Tune ship

Oseberg1

Detail of the Oseberg stern

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Knobbly attachment (technical term) of the Oseberg rudder

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Leather bindings on the Oseberg rudder

Oseberg5

Detail of the Oseberg ship stern

Oseberg6

Detail of the Oseberg prow

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Internal detail of the Oseberg prow

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

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Detail of one of the four Oseberg sleighs

OsebergSled2

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.

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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.

notebook

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!