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.
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?
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.
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.
These Fragments have been a little quiet of late. That’s because in September I was fortunate enough to commence a new research project and have been rather busy settling into a new city and a new place of work. This also means a slight change of direction for this blog, which will from now on be broadening its horizons from Anglo-Saxon England to the wider European Migration Period.
The new project I started in September 2013 is a three-year postdoctoral junior research fellowship generously funded by the British Academy, during which I will be based at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. The title of the project is Origins of a European Community: Creating Identity and Networks with Dress in Post-Roman Europe. It’s all about looking at the role of women’s jewellery and dress in the context of the Roman-Medieval transition. Here’s the ‘official’ abstract of my project:
The 5th and 6th centuries AD saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and the origins of many of the European nations we know today. During this period, particular women, from an area that stretched from the North Sea and the Baltic all the way to the Black Sea, began to dress with large, elaborately decorated brooches. This phenomenon lasted little more than a century, but because many of these women were buried wearing this jewellery, thousands of brooches survive and provide one of the richest sources of information for the period.
Archaeologists have studied these brooches since the 19th century, but up until recently their investigation has been limited to the technical aspects of classification and chronology and the outmoded concerns of culture-history. This project examines the social context of these items for the first time in an holistic international perspective. My key questions are about who wore these brooches, why they became so popular, how they were used to demonstrate power at a local level, and how they demonstrate the rise of a trans-European community.
Obviously, I’m extraordinarily excited by the prospect of this new research. Though I’m sure I will continue to write more of the same miniature articles I’ve been offering here so far, I’m also going to be using this space to record my research progress, as a personal record for myself, but also to provide insight into what actually happens during an archaeology postdoc and the development of ideas and methods therein.
I shan’t be leaving the Anglo-Saxons behind. Far from it. A major aspect of my task now is to assess the expertise I’ve gained in Anglo-Saxon studies from a European perspective. I’d like to explore what an in-depth understanding of 5th and 6th century England can offer our understanding of Europe during the same period, as well reveal the shortcomings and limitations of my previously essentially insular approach.
Wish me luck!