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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Attila the Fraud and the Politics of Burial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New European Horizons

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.

Europe. Unfortunately missing an important bit.

Europe. Unfortunately missing an important bit (taken from here)

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!