The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 14 (November 2010)  |   Issue Editors: Eileen A. Joy & Andrew Rabin

The Year in Medieval Archaeology

John Soderberg

University of Minnesota

© 2010 by John Soderberg. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  This column is the first in an annual series of brief reviews of medieval archaeology in Northernwestern Europe. Rather than providing a summary of publications or excavations, my plan is to select a trend or two for each review and to consider how it is reflected in recent work. My aim is to isolate those trends with the most substantial implications for medieval studies at large. Graham-Campbell and Valor (2007) provide a full-throated review of medieval archaeology.

§2.  Before turning to recent work, a few words about my perspective on medieval archaeology are in order. My research focuses on Ireland in the medieval period, with particular emphasis on the ways people use animals to mediate relationships with others. In addition to teaching anthropology courses, I am the Managing Director of the Evolutionary Anthropology Lab at the University of Minnesota. I began working on early medieval Ireland while in Boston College's Irish Studies Program. As with most cultural studies programs, the curriculum was interdisciplinary but firmly rooted in the humanities, as was I, with my B.A. in English. I chose to focus on archaeology for my Ph.D. in an effort to develop a broader understanding of the lived experience of monasteries in Ireland than I could find in texts and art alone. But, I made that shift without fully appreciating the size of the jump to be made in moving to an anthropology department. Many portions of anthropology rest quite close to the humanities, but other parts are based in biological sciences and draw from a distinct intellectual heritage. My colleagues study two-million-year-old hominids and twenty-million-year-old primates. Theoretically driven inquiry is often referred to as "theory first" work that offers no new data. While working the locality certainly has its challenges, for me, the most engaging opportunities in medieval archaeology lie at the intersections anthropology creates between sciences and humanities.

§3.  Literature of the last year or so provides ample evidence for engagement with research techniques from biological sciences. Isotope studies have been a particularly notable area. One study that received substantial press coverage concerned the study of bones found in a lead box in Magdeburg Cathedral (e.g. While the lead box had an inscription indicating that it held the remains of Queen Eadgyth, they were known to have been moved several times. Questions existed as to the identity of the skeleton. Samples of teeth were brought to University of Bristol for analysis of strontium and oxygen. Both elements have isotopes that are found in different concentrations depending on local climate and geology. Researchers obtained a ratio of both strontium and oxygen isotopes in the Magdeburg sample. Then those ratios were compared to ratios from samples from different areas in an effort to match the 'signature' from the sample. For a detailed review of the methodology, see Evans, et al. (2010) and Bentley (2006). In the case of Eadgyth, researchers at Bristol found a close match with the chalk lands of southern England, which in turn matches what is known of Eadgyth's biography.

§4.  While such results are evocative and give remarkably detailed insights into the lives of dry bones, one could also legitimately ask what crucial questions are resolved. Herein lies a problem when the contact of medieval studies with complex scientific methods is limited to marquee studies that make good press releases. The crucial background for the Magdeburg study is the research on other skeletons from the area that produced a signature matching local conditions very well. With this wider scope, such studies have much to contribute to our understanding of identity and belonging in early medieval Europe. For example, as Moreland (2010) observes, isotope research has been layered with studies of Anglo-Saxon-era weapon burials, which are thought to be ethnic and status markers. Isotope studies show that weapon burials are found with both 'local' and 'non-local' skeletons, providing an opportunity to investigate tactical use of identity marking (e.g. Budd, et al. 2004 and Montgomery, et al. 2005). It is in this mode that isotope and other such techniques make substantial contributions to important issues such as the nature of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain.

§5.  Significantly, the Moreland article noted above is published in a new journal (postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies) specifically dedicated to cross-disciplinary studies of the Middle Ages. See other sections of this issue for collaborations between postmedieval and The Heroic Age. Calls for breaking through disciplinary boundaries are certainly not new, but (pace Halsall 2010) we may have arrived at a moment when archaeology is engaging with the various disciplines of medieval studies more fruitfully than has at times been the case. Successful work has been particularly evident in research on animal bones from archaeological sites. Archaeologists have long used animal bones to consider herd management strategies, but recently a growing number of researchers consider human-animal relationships not only in terms of physical ecology and economic strategies but also in terms of what Pluskowski calls physical and conceptual ecology (2010, 210). Sykes (2005 and 2007), for example, explores how animals were used to elaborate a Norman identity in post-conquest England and how the 'unmaking' of deer was a sufficiently potent metaphor for society that it can still be traced in the distribution of skeletal elements on certain sites. Pluskowski (2010) expands on that project by considering how human-animal relationships shaped the emergence of medieval Christianity itself. One can certainly quibble with the conclusions and assumptions of these works; however, it is difficult to avoid agreeing that they represent refreshing and innovative attempts at bringing together disparate methods of inquiry. Lab coat meets tweed coat, one might say.

§6.  No review of recent archaeology can go without commenting on, first, the rise of development-led archaeology over the last decade—which led to an astonishing surge in the production of archaeological data—and the economic collapse—which halted much of the development fueling excavation. This boom and bust cycle has tremendous implications for the production and stewardship of archaeological knowledge. Development-led archaeology now accounts for the vast majority of archaeology done in many areas. Ford (2010) gives a figure of 93% in the UK. Developing structures for archiving and disseminating the results of this work are profound challenges facing archaeology. The financial crisis of the past several years makes developing effective structures all that much more challenging, as archaeology companies are shuttered and government institutions work with ever tighter budgets. Schlanger and Aitchison (2010) have assembled a series of papers on the impact of the financial crisis on archaeology in different countries in Europe and elsewhere.

§7.  To end on a cheerier note, work is still continuing on Guedelon castle, a project in Burgundy that has been using period techniques to build a castle complex for the last thirteen years. This year's work included completion of the great hall and construction of a limestone ribbed vault in the lord's chamber. General information and a link to a newsletter are available at

Works Cited

Bentley, R. Alexander. 2006. Strontium isotopes from the earth to the archaeological skeleton: a review. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13:135–187.  [Back]

Budd, P., A. Millard, C. Chenery, S. Lucy and C. Roberts. 2004. Investigating population movement by stable isotope analysis: a report from Britain. Antiquity 78:127–141.  [Back]

Evans, J., J. Montgomery, G. Wildman, and N. Boulton. 2010. Spatial variations in biosphere 87Sr/86Sr in Britain. Journal of the Geological Society 167:1–4.  [Back]

Ford, Matt. 2010. Archaeology: hidden treasure. Nature 464:826–827 (7 April 2010).  [Back]

Graham-Campbell, James. and M. Valor, eds. 2007. The archaeology of medieval Europe, vol 1: eighth to twelfth cnturies. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.  [Back]

Halsall, Guy. 2010. Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992–2009. Brill's Series on the Early Middle Ages, 18. Boston: Brill.  [Back]

Montgomery, John, J. Evans, D. Powlesland and C. Roberts. 2005. Continuity or colonisation in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 126:123–138.  [Back]

Moreland, John. 2010. Going native, becoming German: isotopes and identities in late Roman and early medieval England. postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 1:142–149.  [Back]

Pluskowski, Aleks. 2010. The zooarchaeology of medieval 'Christendom': ideology, the treatment of animals and the making of medieval Europe. World Archaeology 42:201–214.  [Back]

Schlanger, Nathan and Kenneth Aitchison. 2010. Archaeology and the global economic crisis. Multiple impacts, possible solutions. Culture Lab Editions: Tervuren, Belgium. PDF file available at  [Back]

Sykes, Naomi. 2005. Hunting for the Anglo-Normans: zooarchaeological evidence for medieval identity. In Just skin and bones? New perspectives on human-animal relations in the historical past, ed. A. Pluskowski. Oxford: Archaeopress.  [Back]

———. 2007. Taking sides: the social life of venison in medieval England. In Breaking and shaping beastly bodies, ed. A. Pluskowski. Oxford: Oxbow Books.  [Back]