Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Merovingian Queen's Seal Found in Norfolk? Unlikely.

Detector find from Norfolk
A gold seal matrix, originally attached on a swivel to a seal-ring, was found in 1999 by a metal detector in a field in Postwick, 7.2 km east of Norwich, in Norfolk. One side shows a woman's face and her name BALDAHILDIS in Frankish lettering. The other side portrays two figures embracing one another beneath a cross.

This ring has been narrativised by supporters of metal detecting by associating it with a known historical person, Queen Balthild, the wife of Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria (639-658). She was thought to have been an Anglo-Saxon of elite birth, perhaps a relative of King Ricberht of East Anglia (see  BBC 'Personal seal matrix of Queen Balthild'; David Keys, 'Erotic royal seal shows Anglo-French entente was once extremely cordiale', Independent Sunday 15 June 2003). The item featured on the controversial TV programme  "Britain's Secret Treasures". The seal matrix was acquired by the Norwich Castle Museum but it seems that this is another object which (though they do record Treasure finds there these days) seems not to be in the PAS database. Curator Tim Pestell is quoted as saying that if the seal belonged to the person they thought, "it is the most important object in the museum, because it is the seal of a queen and a saint".

Paul Fouracre, professor of medieval history at the University of Manchester discusses this find ('Unravelling the mystery of Queen Balthild: Professor Paul Fouracre on a ring that sparked a lot of head-scratching...' History@Manchester February 15, 2016) 
East Anglia is a good place to find things.  Since metal detectorists came on side, as it we[re], we have lots of what are called ‘singleton-finds’, that is, object seemingly found at random without archaeological context [...] East Anglia [...] has big open arable fields which turn up stuff through ploughing, and it is sparsely populated, so that objects have not been buried under urban settlement.  I have been told (though I may have been being teased here) that literally busloads of people from round here go on metal-detecting trips to East Anglia
Fouracre is sceptical about the association of this loose object with the queen
Firstly, I think we came on too strong in 1996; there were circumstantial connections between Francia and England but no concrete correspondence between the two.  Although Balthild’s ‘Life’ said she was a ‘Saxon from beyond the sea’ this could be from anywhere.  No other source says she was English. Although the ring is for sealing, no-one sealed documents without a title (king, queen, count, bishop etc.) [...] the man is bald and bearded, and Frankish kings always had long hair and generally no beards.  [...]  the execution of the design is very crude for a figure depicting authority [...] we simply can’t know that there weren’t other Balthilds, even though the name is unique to us.  [...]  So I think I will have to stick with the odds and say that the ring is very unlikely to have been our Balthild’s ; all the pieces of the jigsaw don’t quite fit around it.  And there is a very serious lesson here, in that we tend to manufacture contexts to fit artefacts, and are often in danger of then using the artefact to confirm the context.  So we must stick with hard forensic reasoning and not be to over speculative when we meet a weird and wonderful object. 
And that is the real problem with trying to use the loose finds selected by collectors to 'write history'. Too often the supporters of collecting indulge in uncritical text-driven 'artefactology'. As Pestell unwittingly says in the context of the portrayal of the object on Britain's Secret Treasures:
One of the points of the programme is to tell the stories of the significance of these finds [...] It is about what these objects tell us about ourselves and our past. That’s why the Balthild matrix is so important. When you look at an object like that it may seem mute but you have to put yourself in a position to understand that someone commissioned that item, because it was worth such a lot of money, and they wore it in everyday life.
It is worth reflecting on what the way this item has been treated tells us about ourselves. The easy association with a notable lady of the past is nothing more than a dumbdown reflection of our own fixation on celebrity society. In fact, this loose item tells us very little about 'our past' - and certainly nothing about land ownership and social relations in Postwick or the Norwich region whenever the item was dropped or deposited. The object is indeed mute, it has some pictures and writing on it, but they mean virtually nothing without somebody "putting themselves in a position to understand them". I do not see how one can actually do that and not fall into the trap of speculation, as was done here.

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