Shared cultures in the medieval Mediterranean

View to the Mediterranean from Bari, Apulia

View to the Mediterranean from Bari, Apulia

I am currently writing up a paper based on two pieces of research which compares material culture from southern Italy with that of its central and eastern Mediterranean neighbours (e.g. Sicily, Greece, Egypt, North Africa). It is based on a conference paper I gave last July, at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference at the University of Exeter, on the shared cultures of dress and textiles in the eleventh to tweflth century, and on a research paper I most recently gave on earrings in the Mediterranean, mainly dating to the seventh to eighth centuries, to the Islamic Art and Archaeology seminar at SOAS. Both papers problematised the idea of using the Mediterranean as an heuristic device (a framework for investigation) for studying material culture and both attempted to use basic anthropological techniques to question whether the elements of description and style we identify as being similar would have been recognised by those who made and wore these items. Do our typologies and philological designations do justice to the variety of experience and taste that objects held for their contemporaries?

Of particular inspiration has been the work of anthropologist Michael Herzfeld and the conceptual masterpiece, The Corrupting Sea by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell. Whether or not you agree with the latter’s approaches to Mediterranean history, there is no doubting its importance in making scholars question their own disciplinary boundaries. From a medieval southern Italian viewpoint, it has been quite liberating to centralise the region in this geo-historical space, rather than fight against its peripheral situation in the wider historiographies of medieval Europe, Byzantium and even the early Islamic world.

I am thinking of calling it ‘Material Girls in their Material Worlds: The Shared Cultures of Southern Italy and its Mediterranean Neighbours’. You’ll just have to read the paper when it is out, for more.

Some loose thoughts on the Staffordshire Hoard

Sword hilt collar from the Staffordshire Hoard / www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/

Courtesy of www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/

The reaction to the news of the recent discovery of an immense hoard, rich in gold and silver, has been predictably varied, both from the academic and museum communities and the general public. The Staffordshire hoard was announced on 24 September 2009. The story of its discovery by metal detectorist Terry Herbert and its subsequent reporting to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and recovery archaeology at the understandably secret site is well covered in the press and can be read in the press statement on the hoard’s website. Here is a brief reflection I recently left on the Early Medieval Forum mailing list and the full thread with reactions from other medievalists can be accessed in September’s archives and October’s archives.

I read Alex Burghart’s review with great interest. As demonstrated in the article, the questions such exceptional finds raise are as important for the understanding of the past (whether ‘history’ or ‘archaeology’) as any answers that might be yet be put forward. Rather than the rather tired debate about whether such things inform history, or whether history informs them, I found the last sentence of most interest:

Not much certainty is likely to come of this, but when faced with this collection of strange, undiminished beauty, certainty is hardly the point.

What makes this find so intriguing, to me, above all the detail and analysis, whether of the inscription or the workmanship or the materials, is the effect it has already had upon a the popular consciousness of the early Middle Ages. If any of you followed the story on twitter, or indeed take a look at some of the comments left on its flickr pages, you would see what I mean (even overlooking the odd and downright bizarre).

I wish I had had the chance to go up to Birmingham and hear what others were saying, what they were expecting and what indeed it made them think about. The hoard will now be studied by (hopefully) a large cohort of scholars of all persuasions and will enter into lectures and seminar discussions, even if it might start on the legendary ‘booty of Penda’ question. This is only to be encouraged, even before any consensus might be reached about why and how.

We have to give a voice to our texts to get answers, and so do we to our objects. I hope that discussion on the hoard doesn’t get stuck on this issue, nor, I hope does its study become too fragmented between specialist scholars who will all find their own areas of interest in it but not readily come together or share. These finds could be used to create a museum in their own right, in the landscape in which it was found, and with the myriad other finds, texts and images from here. Perhaps if they were all put together, we might feel more certain about its role in the past, and its role today.
/ends

Since then, I have discussed the hoard with other people and kept half an eye on the hoard’s website, still trying to digest it all. What went into that work on the millefiori stud? How long would it have taken? And so on. Of particular interest is Emeritus Professor Nicholas Brook’s first impressions which raise the important issue of such objects having been heirlooms in their own time. I look forward to hearing more from Dr Kevin Leahy in his lecture to be given at the British Museum on 26 November (Tickets £5 and £3 concessions). His outwardly facing agenda for the hoard and its interpretation, in other words, working to put as much ‘raw’ information out to tender as it were, is something to be commended as I have alluded to above. I know of at least one undergraduate student who has already chosen this as his dissertation subject. British Archaeology Magazine’s recent coverage (issue 109 November/December 2009) of the hoard and its discovery is to be similarly commended. Its pure and simple descriptive analysis just states things as they are and doesn’t seek to make comment in order to appropriate some position on it or another or to make pointlessly bold statements about the how the hoard will irrevocably change our understanding of the ‘Dark Ages’… (of course it will only do so through a completely new mode of collaboration, debate, assimilation and dissemination of information).

I now come to a point where I feel that I want to understand better the relationship of one object to another in the haul, more than say, workmanship, techniques, dating, kingdoms and associated historic events. Something about this feels deeply personal. Can’t quite put my finger on it. In the meantime I can only look forward to its imminent arrive in London.

Medieval Material Culture session at TAG 2006

The Theoretical Archaeology Conference 2006 is shortly to be upon us. The session I have organised to debate a future for medieval material culture studies, across disciplines and professions, ‘The spade cannot lie: fresh perspectives on medieval material culture’ will take place on Satuday 16 December at 2pm in room Newman D. I am delighted with the response to the session, both from the speakers and chair who have contributed their papers and ideas, and those who wish to know more about the MMCCn (Medieval Material Culture Communication Network). The session is supported by the Centre for Antiquity and the Middle Ages, University of Southampton. Session details… Continue reading

Call for Papers: The Spade Cannot Lie*

This year the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) is holding its annual conference in Exeter (X-TAG) on 15-17 December 2006. I am organising a session called ‘ ‘The spade cannot lie’ – fresh perspectives on medieval material culture’. The session abstract is reproduced below. Please email me if you would like to give a paper, participate in the discussion afterwards or are interested in the creation of a Medieval Material Culture Communication Network.

The deadline for paper proposals is 30 September 2006 (no more than 300 words). Continue reading

Material Culture conference

Next week, Birkbeck College (University of London) will be hosting an exciting conference called: Past Presented: Uses of the Past in Medieval European, Byzantine and Islamic Material Culture on 23 – 24 March 2006. The themes of the confernce are: ‘Identification’, ‘Topography’, ‘Constructing’ and ‘Inventing’. See the preliminary programme for details of the papers that will be given.

Following the publication of Y. Hen and M. Innes (eds.) 2000, The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: CUP) which primarily deals with the evidence from documentary sources, this conference will hopefully fill many ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of the uses and understanding of the past and demonstrate the crucial value of material culture (in all its various guises) in all aspects of medieval studies.

The medieval ‘southern Italian’ collections of the British Museum

Where did they come from? The medieval ‘southern Italian’ collections of the British Museum

Disk brooch, Canosa di PugliaOn 15 February 2005, I delivered a short paper to the Associazione Internazionale di Archeologia Classica (AIAC) at the Swedish Institute of Rome. The paper was largely based on my research at the British Museum where I was examining artefacts with a southern Italian provenance. My aim is to test and demonstrate methods with which museum objects can be interrogated as historical evidence.
Continue reading