The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 17 (2017)

Soderberg—The Year in Medieval Archaeology

John SoderbergMailto: Icon

©2017 by John Soderberg. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2017 by The Heroic Age. Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.

§1. 2014 and 2015 did not have a single discovery that galvanized press attention, as Richard III and the Staffordshire Hoard have done in past years. But, academic publications from these years do show important shifts in how archaeologists handle religion. In 1987, Ralph Merrifield recognized the value of material studies of religion in The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic . But, as Roberta Gilchrist noted recently, subsequent decades have shown mainly stubborn resistance to engaging with the topic (Gilchrist 2012). Resistance appears to be fading. 2015 saw the publication of two edited volumes on materiality and religion: The Materiality of Magic (Houlbrook and Armitage 2015) and Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain (Hutton 2015). As their titles suggest, both concentrate on non-ecclesiastical practices. Stephen Gordon (2015), for instance, uses documentary and archaeological evidence to discuss techniques for protecting the thresholds of houses from the walking dead. Refreshingly, the goal in this and other papers is not so much proving that "heterodox" practices existed. Rather, emphasis is on showing the entanglement of rituals with everyday concerns such as the maintenance of domestic and civic relationships.

§2. Other publications develop much the same perspective on a variety of religious experiences. Roberta Gilchrist (2014) reviews church and monastic archaeology since 1970 and concludes with a call for more holistic approaches to "performative rituals." Other notable studies discuss: oppida as spaces for ritual gathering (Fernández-Götz 2014a), ways non-elite Icelanders took part in discourse on becoming Christian (Kristjánsdóttir 2015), Viking Age weapons deposits as efforts by migrants to construct a recognizable landscape in Britain (Raffield 2014), the multiple layers of meanings found in grave goods (Härke 2015; Härke and Belinskij 2014), and the importance of congregational cult sites to the commercial surge in the early medieval period (Carver 2015).

§3. The value of these innovative approaches to religion is particularly evident in the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, a community archaeology project which documented 28,000 examples of medieval graffiti in the churches of eastern England. Matthew Champion emphasizes that the drawings are not furtive scratchings. They are often geometrically complex, carefully executed, and placed in highly visible locations, such as around baptismal fonts. Champion calls them "prayers made solid" (Champion 2015a, 36 and Champion 2015b). In previous decades, such views might have descended into simplistic discussion of hidden and official transcripts. But, by keeping in mind the full range of possibilities for performing religion, this research brings clarity to how deeply worshipers engaged with these buildings and how many different ways of inhabiting a church exist. Though press coverage was not at the level of Richard III, the graffiti study was among the better publicized stories in medieval archaeology for 2014–2015, with articles by the BBC, the BBC History Magazine, and The Guardian.

§4. Explorations of identity formation remain an area of strong interest in medieval archaeology. The papers collected in The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman, and Medieval Europe examine identity from the perspective of memory and the reuse of monuments (Díaz-Guardamino, Sanjuán, and Wheatley 2015). Magdalena Naum (2014) explores how both sameness and difference were maintained in multi-ethnic medieval Tallinn. Several works explore the convergence of identities and ecology. Fiona Beglane examines the Anglo-Norman colonial project and its encounter with indigenous Irish populations from the perspective of deer hunting and enclosure of parkland (Beglane 2014, 2015). Krish Seetah, et al. (2014) investigate cultural transformations in the eastern Baltic following Crusader colonization as manifest in animal butchery practices. Their article is one of five in a special volume of Archaeologia Baltica that examines different episodes of colonization in the eastern Baltic during the Middle Ages from an ecological perspective.

§5. The archaeology of childhood has been an area of interest for some time. The papers collected in Medieval Childhood (Hadley and Hemer 2014) broaden the focus from locating archaeological signatures of children to defining the roles childhood had for medieval societies. Mark Hall (2014), for example, approaches board and dice games not so much as evidence for children's activities but more as evidence for how "play" is a metaphor for all sorts of behaviors among adults. Sally Smith (2014) argues that villages themselves were maintained through the intersection of adults' and children's activities in the commons. Sally Crawford (2014) situates children in context of the family ("the child production and nurturing unit") with the aim of seeing changes in family practices as more than just a passive reflection of macro-economic developments. Domestic spheres are not just a reflection of wider cultural dynamics. People are building societies at home.

§6. The attention to daily experience noted in several publications is part of a growing engagement in medieval archaeology with theories of material culture, the entanglements of people and things. Such concerns are increasingly expressed in terms of objects having agency or being alive (e.g. Hodder 2012; Fogelin and Schiffer 2015). With their bipartite status as both animate agent and material culture, animals continue to be a useful point of entry into the topic. For example, Kristopher Poole (2015) examines Anglo-Saxon society from the perspective of cat/human engagements. In wrestling with such issues, we would do well to engage with concerns Torill Lindstrøm (2015) has about prevailing conceptions of non-human agency. She is broadly sympathetic with the project of symmetrical archaeology—the notion that everything (every thing) and everybody (every body) has agency—but, she takes the provocative position that the term agency is meaningless if applied to everything that has effects on its surroundings. Her stance becomes all that much more interesting when juxtaposed with Nanouschka Burström's assertion that object-biography approaches to artifacts suffer from inadequate attention to humanistic debates about the nature of biography (Burström 2014). These calls for more circumspection seem increasingly worthwhile cautions about equating, as Lindstrøm puts it, "pebbles, peanuts, ponies and people."

§7. For those easily fatigued by such ruminations on ontological complexities, fortunately, much medieval archaeology proceeds along different avenues. Daniel Melleno (2014) examines the North Sea as a cultural interaction sphere in which peoples were bound together by commercial links. Francis Morris (2015) takes a similar view of the region in the early medieval period, but also examines why the ocean seems to have been a barrier to contact prior to the late fourth century AD. The availability of excavation databases continues to afford possibilities for synthetic studies that would have been overwhelming tasks in an earlier era. For example, based on numismatic data, Rory Naismith (2014) points out that evidence for coins is far more common than decades ago when Grierson defined perspectives on monetized exchange in the early medieval period. David Orton et al. (2014) examine fish bone assemblages from 95 London excavations and identify a sudden surge in the supply of imported cod into London in the thirteenth century (probably from the far North Atlantic).

§8. Studies of human skeletal remains continue to shed light on a variety of questions. Maryanne Kowaleski (2014) reflects on the value of bioarchaeological and paleodemographic data for reconceptualizing rural/urban relationships in the Middle Ages. Brittany Walter et al. (2016) finds higher frequency of dental caries in females than males in two populations from medieval London. Annina Krüttli et al. (2014) investigate the prevalence of lactose tolerance via genetic analysis of remains in a German cemetery from circa 1200. Sarah Inskip et al. (2015) suggest that one strain of leprosy spread from Scandinavia to Britain. Incidentally, the same strain is also found in the United States today. Clifford Sofield (2015) examines why certain individuals in Anglo-Saxon England were buried in domestic settings when the overwhelming majority of interments occurred in cemeteries.

§9. Gary King and Charlotte Henderson (2014) bring together environmental and skeletal data to reconstruct the pathoecology of medieval York. Pathoecology examines the intersection of abiotic, biotic, and cultural factors for disease. Microscopic studies of parasite remains are an important source of data for pathoecology. Sandra Pichler et al. (2014) used an innovative technique that involved cutting thin sections of soil samples so that intestinal parasites could be studied according to their depositional location. The researchers used the technique to study the prevalence of fecal contamination of food and possible routes of parasite transmission between livestock and humans at the late Iron Age settlement of Basel-Gasfabrik (Switzerland). As residents of Flint, Michigan know, acidic solutions can leach lead out of materials. Kaare Rasmussen et al. (2015) examined the prevalence of lead and mercury in several hundred medieval skeletons from Denmark and Germany. Lead contamination is thought to derive primarily from pottery glazes and secondarily from lead in roofs and other parts of the urban environment. Mercury would primarily have been introduced as medicine. The researchers found significantly higher concentrations of both in urban populations than in rural ones.

§10. Hui-Yuan Yeh et al. (2015) propose a striking means of studying pilgrimage and other long-distance travel to Mamluk period Jerusalem (fifteenth to sixteenth century AD): soils from a latrine in the Christian Quarter. Researchers identified parasites associated with fecal contamination of food in all the coprolites (preserved feces) they recovered. Most notably, a few had a type of tapeworm common in Northern Europe but rare in the Middle East outside of Crusader contexts. Their presence in the Mamluk period suggests either that the parasites became established over time or that travelers continued to introduce them.

§11. Fiona Shapland et al. (2015) examine the lives of over 300 young English women from different cemetery excavations in England. Catriona McKenzie, et al. (2015) provide an account of the cross-border research collaboration around the Ballyhanna excavation (Co. Donegal, Ireland), which produced more than 1200 medieval burials. Tierney and Bird (2015) demonstrate the potential of ancient DNA analysis for sex identification with juvenile remains from Ballyhanna.

§12. Archaeologists from France's National Institute of Preventative Archaeological Research (INRAP) uncovered two well preserved "princely" burials dating to the Iron Age. The best published is from Lavau (Aube). It dates to the fifth century BC and includes an ornate bronze cauldron, Mediterranean wine vessels, and a chariot (Urbanus 2015). The second burial is from Warcq (Ardennes) and contains a chariot with well-preserved decorations, the remains of four horses and a pig, a bent scabbard, and a gold neck-ring. The opulence of these burials and their state of preservation make significant additions to the corpus of Late Iron Age "princely" burials, such as Vix and Hochdorf. Two additional studies reassess how such burials fit within their larger social landscapes. Garstki, et al. (2015) developed a 3D visualization of a burials and artifacts surrounding high-status burials adjacent to the Hohmichele "princely" burials (Germany). The aim is to facilitate understanding of the wider mortuary landscape. Fernández-Götz (2014b) places "princely" burial in the context of social change in these Iron Age societies.

§13. Elsewhere in France, archaeologists discovered the earliest evidence in Northern Europe for a dental implant (third century BC). Given the pain associated with inserting such a device, Guillaume Seguin et al. (2014) consider that the implant may have been installed post-mortem. INRAP archaeologists excavated a complete Merovingian necropolis with over 300 burials in Calvados. They also excavated a mass burial of more than 300 carefully deposited individuals associated with the fourteenth century Hôpital de la Trinité.

§14. In my last review, I reported on excavations at Alken Enge, a Danish site containing hundreds of sacrificed warriors. Ongoing research identified a wooden stick with the pelvic bones of four men and human bones bearing cut and scrape marks. The project head interprets the finds in the context of rituals marking battle victories.

§15. Finally in burial news, Russian archaeologists have returned to Zeleniy Yar, a medieval Siberian site known for accidentally mummified bodies, some wearing copper masks. The best preserved body is from a red-headed adult male fully shrouded in copper and placed in a wooden sarcophagus with an iron hatchet, furs, and a bronze buckle depicting a bear. Excavations also identified Persian bowls dating to the tenth or eleventh century.

§16. 2014–2015 produced a notable cluster of articles relating to medieval Poland. The studies of Iron Age "princely" burials discussed earlier are nicely bookended by the discovery in Poland of an eleventh century burial furnished with ceramic vessels, a silver neck ornament, and a knife. Excavators consider it an example of a "chamber tomb," a burial form common in Scandinavia, north Germany, and Rus areas, but infrequent in Central Europe. In addition to evidence of funeral rites (scatters of pottery sherds and patches of burning), excavators located several other surrounding graves, including one with a clasp commonly found in Rus. Two publications discuss excavations at Biała Góra, a colony founded in the tenth century by an expansionist Christian state that survived through a subsequent period of non-Christian resurgence, a thirteenth-century Crusade, and additional colonial efforts (Pluskowski et al. 2014 and Sawicki et al. 2015). Iwaszczuk (2014) synthesizes data on animal husbandry in Poland from 248 assemblages dating between the fifth and thirteenth century.

§17. A synthetic mood is running strong in medieval archaeology. A host of topical syntheses appeared in the last two years, including: archaeoentomological research in the North Atlantic (Forbes et al. 2014) and in Dublin (Reilly 2014); livestock management in Spain (Grau-Sologestoa 2015), early medieval England (O'Connor 2014), East Anglia (Crabtree 2014), eastern Romania (Stanc 2014), and Basque country (Sirignano 2014); agrarian archaeology in northern Italy (Rottoli 2014), northern Iberia (Castillo et al. 2014), al-Andalus (Alonso, et al. 2014), and early medieval Ireland (McCormick 2014, McCormick et al. 2014); assembly sites in Scotland (O'Grady 2014), a critique of earlier syntheses that distinguish Late Roman and early medieval cemeteries in Britain (Gerrard 2015); and urbanization in the transalpine "Celtic" lands (Filet 2014). Regional surveys appeared for: al-Andalus (Carvajal 2014), Gibralter (Lane et al. 2014), and early medieval Ireland (O'Sullivan, et al. 2014). The Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (Smith 2014) has numerous entries for medieval topics (e.g. medieval urbanism and urban dark earth) and specific areas (e.g. Italy, Iberia, British Isles, France, Scandinavia/the Baltic, and Russia/Rus). Notable festschrifts include a collection of essays on early medieval Italy and Spain edited by Sauro Gelichi and Richard Hodges (2015) and another collection of studies in honor of James Graham-Campbell edited by Andrew Reynolds and Leslie Webster (2013). The Journal of the North Atlantic (Special Volume 8, 2015) has provided a second volume of papers from The Assembly Project, a consortium which examined the role of assembly or "things" in creating collective identities in Northern Europe.

§18. Viking archaeology remains a productive area of research. Davide Zori and Jesse Byock (2014) present results from the multidisciplinary Mosfell Archaeology Project, which has been reconstructing settlement and environment in southwest Iceland since the 1990s. Archaeologists from the Danish Castle Center and Aarhus University announced the discovery of a new circular fortress of the Trelleborg type. Swedish archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to identify a feasting hall in Aska, a locale already known for the discovery of a rich tenth-century burial (Rundkvist and Viberg 2015). The remains have much the same layout as the recently discovered hall at Old Uppsala near Stockholm (Ljungkvist and Frölund 2015). In reassessing what spurred overseas raiding, Steven Ashby (2015) calls for more attention to raiding as an initiation experience for both elites and commoners. His aim is to balance past emphasis on structural economic motivations. Frei et al. (2015) examine the importance of walrus ivory for Norse settlement in Iceland and Greenland. Arneborg (2015) advocates for a combination of internal and external factors driving the abandonment of Norse Greenland.

§19. While news media may not have focused on medieval archaeology as intently as in recent years, plenty of alternative media encounters with the Middle Ages sprouted during 2014–2015. The University of Texas, Austin released a digital platform called MappaMundi ( The project grew out of efforts to globalize study of the Middle Ages. Its aim is to aid both teaching and research. Two websites aggregate information about famous medieval battles and the commemoration of their anniversaries: Agincourt ( and Clontarf (

§20. If you are seeking diversion, don't miss the recreation of medieval Oslo that students from the University of Oslo created with the educational edition of the video game Minecraft. ITV has created a mini-series called Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, to be released in early 2016. Without question the pinnacle of medieval media exposure came with the end of The Force Awakens, when Luke Skywalker is discovered at Skellig Michael, a monastery off the coast of Ireland. Presumably, I am not alone in struggling with the urge to become pedantic about this choice for depicting retreat from galactic turmoil. For those wishing to follow that urge, Terry O'Hagan provides useful fodder, including links to primary sources.

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Last Modified: 18-Apr-2017