The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 16 (2015)

The Year in Medieval Archaeology

John SoderbergMailto: Icon

University of Minnesota

©2015 by John Soderberg. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2015 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1. The discovery of Richard the III's remains beneath a car park in Leicester stands as the most covered medieval archaeology event in the past year.1 Archaeologists from the University of Leicester discovered the burial beneath a parking lot that now occupies the location of the Greyfriars Priory. Enthusiasts funded the excavation in the hope that discovery of his grave would spur reappraisal of this much maligned monarch. Researchers initially identified the skeleton as Richard III's on the basis of spinal scoliosis and ten different weapon traumas inflicted around the time of death. Confirmation came with a DNA match between samples from the skeleton and known descendants. Other studies are on-going. The discovery certainly offers an opportunity to showcase the latest techniques in archaeological science. The cause of heritage preservation is well served by the publicity about "what lies beneath" even a modern cityscape. It also offers resolution to a long-standing historical puzzle and a useful spur to interrogate established narratives about fifteenth-century England.

§2. Yet, despite all these benefits, I wonder about the consequences of having Richard III be the poster child for archaeology. Archaeology has long struggled to shuffle off its handmaiden status. Not very long ago, a historian friend of mine remarked with a straight face that she loves learning about archaeology because it provides historians such vivid information to synthesize. Our intellectual aspirations generally exceed that goal. We need to ensure that such finds as King Richard's skeleton become gateways leading to an appreciation of the more distinctive contributions archaeology can make.

§3. Consider other burial related news from the past year. Danish archaeologists returned to Alken Enge to further investigate the hundreds of skeletons, weapons, and other items found across an estimated 40 hectare site in a bog in East Jutland.2 Past work has identified the remains as those of sacrificed warriors dating to circa AD 1. In England, archaeologists revealed a late fifth-century burial of a female interred with a cow: an evocative counterpart to the relatively common burial of males with horses.3 A village outside Cambridge yielded several seventh-century burials, one of which is a bed-burial of a teenage female wearing a pectoral cross in gold and garnet.4 She was also buried with an iron knife, a chatelaine, glass beads, and other items. The three other burials from the site were less elaborate and contained no explicitly Christian symbols among their grave goods. This unusual combination of burial styles testifies to the complexity of religious practices as Christianity was re-emerging in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Straightforward divisions between pagan and Christian seem less and less viable. St. Elmo's Fire may have descended on King Richard at last, but the crucial task before archaeologists is to use the opportunity to bring these other discoveries to wider attention.

§4. Several synthetic works on burial and religion appeared in the last year. Sayer published two reviews of Anglo-Saxon funerary practices (2013a, 2013b). Shapland and Armit (2012) discuss Iron Age and medieval burial in Scotland. Andrén (2013) examines how Christian settlements are placed relative to pre-Christian sites in Scandinavia. Lund (2013) also examines Scandinavian burial practices through the transition to Christianity, but focuses on changes in how personhood was expressed in the wholeness and fragmentation of bodies in burial.

§5. The impact of disease on human societies remains an area of substantial interest. Roffey (2012) presents results from recent excavations at a leper hospital in Winchester and reviews the state of knowledge about the more than 300 documented leper hospitals in England. One conclusion is that investigators need to better integrate multiple lines of evidence to achieve a fuller understanding of "one of medieval Britain's more important and enigmatic institutions" (229). A team of researchers working on the evolutionary history of plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis) has found new evidence that the Justinian plague was caused by the same pathogen as the Black Death of the fourteenth century (Bos et al. 2012).

§6. Recent research on the thousands of burials in mass graves at Spitalfields in London is revealing stark insights into conditions in mid-thirteenth-century London (Symonds 2012; Connell et al. 2012). Males suffered more fractures than women, but they were also more likely to have successful repairs than women, suggesting that males had better access to care. Researchers did notice one type of fracture was more common among females than males: a break to the forearm. Some see this type of fracture as resulting from raising arms to protect one's head from blows. Others see them as results of an occupational hazard.

§7. Detailed radiocarbon dating shows that most of the over two thousand burials in Spitalfields mass graves occurred during two periods in the mid-thirteenth century. The deaths are thought to result from disease and/or social turmoil. One theory for the later of the two groups is that a massive volcanic eruption in AD 1258 led to unseasonably cold weather, crop failure, and disease. Irrespective of the cause, the mass graves testify to how precariously balanced life was in these swelling urban settlements.

§8. The same AD 1258 volcanic eruption might also be one trigger for the Little Ice Age. Volcanic eruptions are commonly cited as factors, but explaining why the effects would have endured for centuries is difficult because the impact of any one eruption is measured only in years. Researchers studying a precisely dated record of ice cap growth in Canada and Iceland cite a fifty year period beginning in the mid-twelfth century containing four large eruptions. Each triggered growth in summer Arctic ice cover and glaciers. That process, they argue, affected the flow of the Gulf Stream, setting up an enduring pattern of cooler temperatures (Schwarzschild 2012). The article also identifies evidence for warmer summer conditions between AD 950 and AD 1170.

§9. Another recent climate study used dendrochronological data from living and sub-fossil pine trees in Scandinavia to reconstruct a climate record from 138 BC to AD 2006 (Esper et al. 2012). Researchers found the warmest 30 year period between AD 21 and AD 50. The coldest 30 year period was AD 1451 to 1480. Such reconstructions are not new. But, as they become increasingly common for different parts of the world, researchers become able to explore links between climate and culture with new precision. Büntgen (2013) found that records of plague outbreaks matched cold periods identified in a larch-based record from northern Slovakia spanning the period from AD 963 to AD 2011. Another study found that eighty-eight written medieval accounts of weather events correlated with the tree ring data and only sixteen did not (Büntgen 2011). The discovery of preserved wood in Mongolia is causing some scholars to rethink the view that Genghis Khan's empire was spurred by drought. Preliminary reports suggest that a period of plentiful rain in the thirteenth century made for lush Mongolian grassland.5 McMichael (2012) models how different temporal scales of climate change would affect human societies. He gives particular attention to the Justinian plague. McCormick and co-authors (2012) provide a comprehensive review of paleoclimate research for the period between 100 BC and AD 800. In addition to doing a great service by synthesizing a considerable amount of recent work, the article helpfully pays attention to navigating the choppy confluence of scientific and humanistic perspectives.

§10. The past year has seen a particularly large number of Viking-related discoveries. Researchers from the National Museum of Denmark found barley in the bottom layers of a midden from a Viking farm in Greenland, settling questions about whether or not it would have been possible to grow this grain in Greenland.6 The experiment was not an enduring success though. The grain was not present in any subsequent layers. Sharples (2012) reports results from long-term excavations on the Scottish island of South Uist. Sharples calls this site the largest known Norse settlement in Scotland outside an urban setting.7 Notably, excavators found floor deposits preserved under roof collapse. Archaeologists are particularly excited about intact floor deposits because they preserve an individual moment, unlike most deposits where objects are not found in the position they were used. Parker Pearson (2012) has also produced an edited volume devoted to the archaeology of South Uist. In addition to excavation summaries for nine different excavations dating from the Neolithic to the early modern period, the volume presents results of a broader landscape survey. Archaeologists elsewhere in Scotland have uncovered the first known Viking boat burial on mainland Scotland.8 A Viking-era "ship-yard" has emerged on Skye.9 Gardela (2012) reviews Norse documentary and archaeological evidence for games and other pastimes across the Viking world.

§11. Several studies in recent years have used mouse genetics as a proxy for trade and population movement around northwestern Europe. Assuming that mice would have tagged along with human travelers, researchers use both modern and archaeological samples to map "phylogeography" (the geographic distribution of genetic patterns). A 2009 study, for example, found the same genetic pattern in Norway as in northern and western parts of the British Isles. In contrast, samples from central Britain suggest connections to Germany (Searle et al. 2009). Jones et al. (2012) bring this perspective to questions about the intensity of contact in the western Viking settlements. The Norwegian pattern appears in both modern and archaeological Icelandic mice, but only in archaeological samples from Greenland. Modern Greenland mice show a different pattern, as do mice from Newfoundland.

§12. In addition to identifying where Vikings went, researchers are also making discoveries about what they did once they got there, or, more formally, how they interacted with "indigenous" groups. For some time, studies from Ireland have suggested that immigrants and indigenous people mixed thoroughly (e.g. O'Donnabhain and Hallgrímsson 2001). A new study approaches population mixing via dietary isotopes (Knudson et al. 2012). The authors sampled eleven human skeletons from Viking-era Dublin and found little evidence of immigrants, with the exception of one individual who appears to have spent early years elsewhere and final years locally. This individual is represented by a cranium thought to have been displayed on the town ramparts. This cranium is one of four in the sample that received similar treatment. All of the others have entirely local values.

§13. For those seeking a less empirical view of Norse folk, a new drama series, called Vikings, premiered in March. It is an Irish-Canadian production with Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lodbrok, Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha, and Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haralson. Episodes are available for streaming.

§14. As always, long-distance trade remains an important point of departure for understanding northern European social dynamics. Several new excavations are shedding additional light on emporia and the networks associated with early medieval trade. Excavations in northern Germany have revealed several hundred houses and substantial numbers of artifacts.10 The excavators believe the site to be a military center from which the area—which includes Hedeby and the Dannevirke—could have been controlled. Underwater research in Sweden near Birka has identified far more substantial underwater piers than expected.11 They extend 100 meters from the shore and to a depth of eight meters. In Northern Ireland's Strangford Lough, excavations have located imported pottery and other evidence for an early medieval trade center.12 Sindbæk (2012) considers the nature of post-ninth century trade networks around the North Sea. The study gathered data on ten different types of cooking pots from 152 North Sea settlements. Through formal network analysis, the study concludes that the tenth-century trade networks were considerably more than just fragmented versions of their Carolingian predecessors.

§15. Isotope studies are beginning to provide a new avenue for accessing the social dynamics associated with trade. In part, such research is gaining traction on this topic because the sample of individuals studied is becoming large enough, and drawn from a sufficiently diverse range of locales, that regional patterns are becoming clear, allowing researchers parse results with increasing specificity (e.g. Evans 2012). The authors of a study on Welsh skeletons gathered samples from thirty-three individuals in four different cemeteries located near sites with imported pottery (Hemer et al. 2013). The researchers found, not surprisingly, that the majority of individuals had origins nearby or somewhat further afield in the British Isles; however, nearly a quarter of the individuals were substantially outside values for even northern Europe. The authors cite the most likely origin for these individuals as the Mediterranean, although other localities cannot be fully excluded. Questions about what caused these people to be buried in Wales abound.

§16. Emporia have such an important place in archaeological conceptions of social dynamics in the North Sea region that they can seem to be inevitable features of the medieval landscape. Herold (2012) offers a reminder of the value of looking at other regions. The author reviews fortification along the southwest border of the Carolingian empire. The article is valuable for that review alone. But, I am also struck that, while the period discussed is the same as that associated with Hedeby/Haithabu and York, no emporia have yet been identified. Curta also reminds those of us working in northwestern Europe that we must engage with a wider area (Curta and Gândila 2011–2012, 2013).

§17. Another challenge for medieval archaeology is engagement with theoretical perspectives. McClain (2012) contends that archaeologists working in the post-twelfth century period—in England at least—have not engaged as fully as archaeologists working in other periods. She reviews current views in the field and considers what value they might offer. Two new studies focusing on earlier centuries reassert the value of numismatics for understanding the social dynamics. Kemmers and Myrberg (2011) call for a new approach that reintegrates coins into material culture studies. Hall (2012) makes a related argument in his paper on the non-monetary use of coins in medieval Perth.

§18. The ever increasing availability of high quality digital elevation models, particularly LiDAR derived models,13 is fostering adoption of spatial analysis in more and more regions of medieval archaeology. Štular and co-authors present a review of visualization techniques and provide helpful suggestions about the applicability of different techniques for identifying archaeological sites in different types of terrain (Štular et al. 2012). Korobov (2012) provides a very helpful review of medieval settlement studies in southern Russia and presents results from applying different spatial analysis techniques to a series of field surveys in the late 1990s.

§19. Scholars have recognized for some time that 3D technologies such as LiDAR have the potential to revolutionize landscape studies. But, developing the analytical techniques that harness that potential remains a challenge. An interdisciplinary team of GIS specialists has created 3D models of Shawbak crusader castle and the associated medieval rural settlement in Jordan (Drap et al. 2012). The most notable portion of this study is the technique they have developed for assessing wall stratigraphy via the 3D model. Such approaches turn the 3D technology from a visualization tool into an analytical tool.

§20. The financial crisis in Europe continues to challenge heritage preservation efforts. Speedy action and skillful use of media has garnered extended time for excavating a well-preserved crannog near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.14 Archaeologists are increasingly framing preservation efforts in terms of "community archaeology," which casts archaeological work as a cooperative effort between professional archaeologists and a wider community. The approach seeks to build a sense of identity and investment through public participation in both project design and fieldwork. Its growing importance is marked by the creation of a grant program for community archaeology funded by lottery funds and heritage organizations in England, Wales, and Scotland.15 Moshenska and Dhanjal (2011) have edited a volume of cooperative efforts between professional and non-professional archaeologists. Such efforts bring crucial support to archaeological endeavors at a time when austerities impinge on funding.

§21. I will close with a call to reflect on the Syrian city of Aleppo. Over the past two decades, it has benefited from international preservation efforts. Since last summer, shelling and other attacks have taken a huge toll. Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund, observed that, while the escalating human suffering in the city might seem to render damage to structures extraneous, heritage is a touchstone.16 Sadly, events there remind us again that attacks on the vitality of human communities are often played out through the destruction of heritage.

§22. Please do alert me to notable publications or events in medieval archaeology over the coming months.


1. E.g. When I have been able to consult publications, those references are given as in text citations. In cases where only press reports are available or in cases where I am only citing the information from media reports, the web link for citations are placed in footnotes to minimize disruption in the text. [Back]

2. [Back]

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5. and [Back]

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13. Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) creates topographic maps by analyzing the backscattered light from lasers passing along a surface. [Back]

14. Crannog is an Irish term for artificial island habitations., and [Back]

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Works Cited

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