An interview for “Medieval Herald”

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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?


The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England

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Free replica cruciform brooch not included.

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.


Re-Dating Early England (Seminar Review)

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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.


In Praise of Pedantry

Île de St-Pierre, Lake Biel in Switzerland, borrowed from here.

A new essay by W. G. Sebald was published in the Guardian Review (20.04.2013) a few months ago, entitled On the occasion of a visit to the Ile Saint-Pierre (since then it’s been published in A Place in the Country, a new collection of translated essays). It describes Sebald’s visit to the Swiss lake peninsula in 1996 and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile and residence in the same place more than 200 years earlier.  As regular readers may have grasped by now, I’m a bit of a fan of Sebald’s writing and particularly enjoy pondering its relevance to how we think about archaeology.

In an introduction to the essay, James Wood comments “Sebald was always asking us to reflect on how we access the past, how we rescue the dead, and how the writer performs that real, but necessarily fictional, reclamation”.  To my ears, this desire to retreive and even re-animate lives long extinguished is also a profound statement of  archaeology’s purpose.

Some of the beauty of Sebald’s writing lies in his fussy descriptive details.  It is these details he seems to regard as the most valuable.  One particularly telling passage in Sebald’s essay is his observations of the lack of attentiveness among fellow visitors to Rousseau’s preserved house:

[N]ot one of them bent down to look at the glass display case to try to decipher Rousseau’s handwriting, nor noticed the way that the bleached deal floorboards, almost two feet wide, are so worn down in the middle of the room, nor that in places the knots in the wood protrude by almost an inch. No one ran a hand over the stone basin worn smooth by age in the antechamber, or noticed the smell of soot which still lingers in the fireplace, nor paused to look out of the window with its view across the orchard and a meadow to the island’s southern shore.

The past comes to life in Sebald’s imagination and the whole experience is sensory: by sight, by touch and by smell.  The past is insuppressable.  It rises up to smother the senses of those who give it their attention.  Much of the emotive nature of Sebald’s experience, however, is down to the detail.  The floorboards are “two feet wide”, the knots in them “almost an inch” high, the boards are worn only in the middle of the room.  It’s in these details – I’d rather call them phenomenal or substantial (in the most literal senses of the terms) than pedantic – that shadows of the past linger.  Without these details, the house is nothing but a shell through which the less observant visitor drifts unaffected, unmoved, unimpressed.

Incidentally, this all reminded me of a wooden floor in a house I grew up in.  The boards were marked by hundreds of tiny, circular dents, in a gradually emanating concentration focused in the centre of the room.  They were caused by the repeated practicing of a cello, whose spike had been driven into the floor (perhaps unwittingly through a carpet?) for years.  Their permanence left a residue of music in the room.   Consequently, that space was always somehow inhabited by those past residents whose presence still lingered, fossilized in those entirely mundane scratches and dips.

The same processes create the archaeological sites we excavate.  Repeated daily actions of past people are made permanent through their material consequences.  But the same is true of individual objects, especially things like jewellery and dress items whose emotive potency lies in their details of wear and repair, use and eventual discard.  Each scratch, each knock, each worn surface tells a story.  A story only visible to inquistive eyes, intent on the detail.

Though his own pedantry is not overtly self-conscious, Sebald proceeds to admire Rousseau’s compulsion, as a strange relief from the burden of his writing labours, to catalogue in exhaustive detail every aspect of every plant on the Isle St-Pierre:

Thus the apparently innocent occupation – the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature – becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices and catalogues…

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me, looking at my shelf with its generous metre of Anglo-Saxon brooch catalogues. I get a similar pleasure from merely cataloguing these items.  Not only does it work towards a greater purpose, but it is enjoyable work in itself.  Observing these items of ancient jewellery in all their beauty and detail is, after all, what attracted me to their study in the first place.

Hence, there is a link, albeit a romanticised one (though there is nothing wrong with that), between Sebald’s valuation of knowledge, Rousseau’s insuppressable pursuit of it, and the interests and methods of archaeologists.  One might say that the link lies simply in scientific thought.  All these things are after all broadly products of the Enlightenment.  But I think there is more to it than that.  There is something more valuable and more emotive about those direct links between the past and present that the smallest details of the mundane material world evoke.  Some of the most emotionally and intellectually profound fragments of the past inhere in the smallest details that only the sharpest, most curious, dedicated and educated eye can reveal. It’s the intimacy with which we ‘rescue’ something of the dead that makes the practice of archaeology so beguiling.


The Joy of Typology

Typology is about as crucial to archaeology as taxonomy is to zoology, and it plays the same role.  It’s actually typology that defines who was an Anglo-Saxon, because in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, we do not know how the people of post-Roman Britain referred to themselves.  In this early period “Anglo-Saxon” is simply a label applied to a related group of artefacts, architecture and burial practices found in the southeast portion of our island.  In our terminology, the people that lived in this region weren’t necessary “Anglo-Saxon”, but the things they made and used certainly were.  Typology informs our understanding of the past at the most elementary level.

Yet, should your conversation ever turn to typology (I’ll admit, you have to be among a pretty specific group of people for this to occur), the most positive reaction you can expect is for your unfortunate audience to feign interest before politely, if firmly, changing the subject.  I don’t blame them – there are few subjects that have become quite so esoteric and of less inherent interest to anyone but the specialist.  However, there are few subjects that are quite so fundamental to archaeological knowledge, and that also encapsulate most of the big theoretical debates in archaeology.  Culture history, functionalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, actor network theory – the ordering of objects by their style and function is embedded in all of them.

So what happened, why is typology so tedious for most archaeologists? I think the main reason is that theoretical debates about typology have been so interminably based on the banal flip-flop between subjectivity and objectivity, that most of us, at some point, lose patience, and also lose sight of our purpose.  It isn’t, dare I say it, very interesting.

There are exactly 58 beans in this picture.

There are exactly 58 beans of 6 different varities in this picture. Lentils do not count.

However, the actual practice of classifiying objects certainly is. My not-so-guilty admission is that when I am actually ‘doing’ typology, I rather enjoy it.  Maybe I’m just one of those people who loves putting things in labelled boxes, but when you’re dealing with ancient objects that define whole units of the human past, what you’re doing, bit by bit and piece by piece, is actually quite important.  You are bringing order to a world that would otherwise be chaotic and ill-understood.  There is also a feeling that you are finally sharing something with the people who made and used this material, rather than blindly accepting the categories handed down by past authorities. There is some communication across the gulf concerning aesthetic taste, or the merits of constructing a tool in a particular manner.

Ultimately, of course, typology is frustrating, because there is no such thing as a perfect way of ordering material culture.  The classification systems we create today will be rewritten tomorrow.  But that’s where the beauty lies: typology is a creative, imaginative exercise more than it is about deduction or finding answers.