Saturday, 21 July 2012

1066 and All That Illustrated by the Artefacts

Starting in October 2012, there will be a research project going on under the title: 'Conquest and Continuity: characterising portable metalwork in Late Saxon and Anglo-Norman England, AD 900-1250', supervised by the Dept of Archaeology, University of York (former FLO Dr Steve Ashby and Dr Aleks McClain) and the Dept of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum (Dr Michael Lewis). It will be addressing the problem of what seems to the research application's authors to be a "discontinuity" in the metalwork of Britain's archaeological record which is "marked by an apparent lack of metalwork dating to the 11th and 12th centuries". The research proposal goes on to say: "It is unclear whether this lacuna represents a historical reality, or if it is simply the result of an over-reliance on stylistic dating, coupled with simplistic assumptions about the relationship between cultural and material change". Taking bets? 
The project aims to characterise Late Saxon and Norman metalwork in time and space, through analysis of data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, together with material from archaeological excavation, and that held in museum collections [... this will entail] a close evaluation and comparison of metalwork dated to between AD 900 and 1200, a re-examination of the stylistic and temporal categories that have traditionally been assigned to these objects, and a reconsideration of whether sweeping socio-political change always affected portable material culture in the ways we might expect. This project will explore these techniques, using a dataset comprising specific classes of artefact (particularly dress accessories, mounts, and equestrian equipment). Through this approach, the project has the potential to fundamentally reshape the way both academics and the wider public understand processes of conquest, change, and continuity in one of the most well-known periods of British history. The findings will have significant implications, not least in contributing to a new, refined chronology for the period's portable material culture. The project will thus improve public and academic knowledge of both medieval artefacts and the story of the Norman Conquest

So here we come to the crux of the matter, seeking archaeological correlates for 1066. More ethnocentric 'kings and battles history' illustrated largely by the artefacts removed from an archaeological context by metal detector users. What I find astounding is that this fundamental reshaping is to come from the typological study of just three categories of artefact restricted to those made from one class of material. The pretty bits, dress accessories, mounts, and equestrian equipment.

What about the bone combs? What about the POTTERY? Glassware? Woodworking practices? Diet? Ummm, numismatic evidence anyone? No evidence of cultural change/continuity there? Coins are made of metal aren't they?

I wonder whether it is true that there is so "little" metalwork from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. If we take the massive excavations that have been taking place in urban sites with any continuity (York, Canterbury, London, Winchester, Ipswich, Oxford etc etc) since the 1960s, I imagine there is a vast amount of material - stratified material - to plough through, even if the student is to pick and mix, and separate out the less pretty metal artefacts. But then, why on earth do that? Surely selective treatment is not going to produce an understanding of the cultural processes, but the effects on a certain restricted range of artefacts. Note however that the research proposal selects those likely to be emblemic, and thus restricting the understanding to only one area of human behaviour. But then, as we have seen before,  emblemic behaviour is a keystone of much of the manner in which Britain's Portable Antiquities Scheme goes about interpreting the loose finds brought in by metal detectorists. They love attaching ethnic labels and trying to match them somehow to the written history, with very little reference to any of the work done in the area of these issues by British archaeologists since the 1960s.

What on earth do the authors mean by studying through archaeology "relationship between cultural and material change"?  What is meant by the word "culture" (a much misused term) here? Archaeology studies culture primarily through the prism of material culture, so this project aims to study changes in tenth to twelfth century [material] culture and their relationships to changes in material [culture]? Eh?

I note nobody is suggesting that the candidate should have knowledge of the continental material, or speak any of the furrin languages, and no mention is made of expenses for foreign museum trips. That's a bit odd given the fact that they are setting out to look at connections which the traditional historical narrative links with an elite migration  (and in which we know other elements took part, Scandinavians most probably, and possibly even people from Pomerania and deeper into Slav lands). So apparently this will be an insular look at just a restricted range of evidence, drawing heavily on that found by artefact hunters and collectors with their little metal detectors.

But whatever happened to the notion that allowing people to make their own personal collections of  hoiked out archaeological artefacts, we are going to allow these antiquitists the opportunity to do lots of home-grown scholarship (you know, the argument goes, that which professionals have no time to do). So if all this metal detecting and hoiking and collecting has been going on since the mid-1970s, where is the literature generated by all this avocational study of the artefacts? Thirty years of hoiking by ten thousand or more people, and not a thing to show for it but a loose "database" of some of their loose objects which now need a AHRC  grant to "characterise" to make any sense out of it? So, let's go back to the fundamental, artefact hunters are doing "research", or they are eroding the archaeological record and accumulating large amounts of undigested information somebody else has to work through so it makes some sort of sense? So what is the fundamental justification for the current form of artefact hunting in England and (for the moment) Wales?

Vignette: 1066 and all that.

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