emassWhat’s new in early medieval archaeology? Last month (20th to 22nd May 2013), I participated in my second EMASS – the Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium – and I found out. This is the seventh of a series of annual conferences aimed at creating a forum for new researchers in early medieval archaeology. I attended the first in Cardiff in 2007 and I wrote some critical comments on the event so it was nice to catch up with familiar faces and bright new minds.

The conference was superbly organised by two of my PhD students and two of the most disciplined and hard-working archaeologists I know – Joanne Kirton and Ruth Nugent. Together they picked up the baton from the UCL EMASS of last year and brought together a superb event ably assisted by PhD student Karen Gavin.

A rich range of topics were presented by postgraduate students and researchers, with delegates from across the UK as well as from Spain, Estonia and Norway. In addition to the papers, there were posters and plenty of time to chat over lunch and refreshments (including cakes) in the inspiring venue of the chapter house of Chester Cathedral. The keynote lecture was on landscape archaeology by our very own Visiting Professor, Stewart Ainsworth in the equally medieval surroundings of St John’s Priory. There was also a brief walking tour of Chester led by me and evening booze up. On the third day, I led a field trip to the Vale of Llangollen to see Valle Crucis Abbey, ably assisted and guided by David Crane and Suzanne Evans of Llangollen Museum. We also stopped by the Pillar of Eliseg where I have been digging as part of a research project with colleagues at Chester and Bangor. After lunch in Llangollen, we drove to the Wirral where we visited early medieval stone sculpture in the churches at Neston and West Kirby, at the latter site we also visited the West Kirby Museum.

There were plenty of great papers, 22 all told with topics as varied as Pictish symbol stones in the landscape (Bethan Morris, University of Edinburgh), pollen analysis in early medieval Wales (Tudor Davies, University of Sheffield), geophysical survey in Sussex (Scott Chaussée, University of Exeter), castles in Anglo-Norman Cheshire (Rachel Swallow, University of Chester), the museum display of stone sculpture (Liz Royles, Grosvenor Museum), and place-names in Mercia (Graham Aldred, University of Leicester).

Sam Dickinson’s (UCLan) presentation on obstetric death in Anglo-Saxon England dismissed recent suggestions that children buried with adults in early Anglo-Saxon graves were child sacrifices. Javier Martinez (University of Oxford) and Carlos Tejerizo (Universidad del Pais Vasco) presented on sixth-century Spain with superb breadth and vision. Darrell Rohl (Durham University) on the post-Roman and medieval perceptions of the Antonine Wall illustrated the application of the biographical approach to monuments during the Middle Ages. Lisa Brundle (also Durham University) identified a rare group of lupine imagery on early Anglo-Saxon artefacts from East Anglia and showed theoretical sophistication in foregrounding the relationship between dress and the human body when interpreting animal-human transformations. Perhaps the slickest presentation in terms of visuals and delivery was Alison Leonard (University of York) on her work with PAS data in Lincolnshire. Meanwhile Matt Nicholas (Cardiff University) on the application of portable XRF in the study of recycling of metalwork at the Eriswell early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries was not only original and informative but also entertaining and self-deprecating.

There was something good about every paper and it was a superb showcase on the latest research. It appears that early medieval archaeology students are still reluctant to indulge in the pompous pseudo-philosophy of some of their archaeological peers investigating prehistory and the post-medieval and contemporary pasts. Yet this remains a problem because the lack of clear theoretical underpinnings was apparent in many papers, and being honest and explicit about where ideas are coming from and engaging with current archaeological debates head-on is still something early medievalists are reluctant to do.