At this year’s EAA Istanbul conference I attended the Friday afternoon Medieval Open Forum: New Agendas and Directions in Medieval Archaeology. This meeting has inspired me to write some personal thoughts on the relationship between ‘medieval archaeology’ and the EAA.

I consider myself a close colleague of many of those involved and do not wish to appear rude or offensive. I respect their work and endeavours to promote medieval archaeology. However, I went into the meeting indifferent but curious about MERC and left feeling somewhat in opposition to it. Therefore, this blog entry outlines my current view and preliminary impression that MERC is not very relevant for the EAA (at least not for me). Moreover, I fear it is out of touch with what the EAA has already achieved and can offer medieval archaeologists (or perhaps it is simply me who is out of touch).

About MERC

In his introduction to the round table, Martin Carver (not Dries Tys who was in the programme as chair of the meeting) explained the background to the meeting and MERC. The Medieval Europe Research Congress was four conferences, each held 5 years apart in different European cities (York, Bruges, Basel and Paris, the Paris one being the last in 2007).

Personally, only two of these fell within my career duration: Basel and Paris. At the time, I couldn’t afford to attend any of these as a young career scholar. Sadly, these congresses are now defunct. Instead, Martin explained that it has been reformed as a round table and series of ‘approved’ sessions within the annual conference of the European Association for Archaeologists and hence it has finally hit my radar. They have the basis of a committee and organisation and they have a Facebook page here.

The MERC aspiration is to promote medieval archaeology and other historical archaeologies within the structure of EAA meetings into the future. In this new reformed version, it joined the EAA in Helsinki in 2012. Rather than a 5-year congress, the aim is now for an annual event attached to the EAA. Certainly it is a logical development for MERC to attach itself to the EAA, since the EAA has long been a forum for medieval archaeology through hundreds of papers each year and many medieval sessions (partially or predominantly).

Medieval Archaeology and My EAA Experience

Like many active researching medieval archaeologists, I have attended the EAA conferences a number of times over the years. I have found frustrations with the EAA in a number of regards (including the way it is treated as an excuse for a holiday by some archaeologists), but a key strength of this venue is the ability of medieval archaeology to organise sessions on medieval themes, but also to integrate themselves into broad regional studies and cross-period (and sometimes cross-disciplinary) debates using the EAA platform. Not only does this involve regular conversations with medieval and other archaeologists from across Europe (albeit from some regions more than others) but also from farther afield including archaeologists from North America.

By way of illustration, let me give you a list of my EAA contributions at each event and where (in many but not all cases) the papers and sessions have reached publication. As you will see, I can hardly claim to be a die-hard EAA obsessive, but I have found it a very useful venue over the long term, more than medieval congresses, from my student days to the present:

  • Gothenburg 1998 – paper presented on Anglo-Saxon barrow burial in session on early medieval burial (subsequently published in a book edited by Martin Rundkvist: Grave Matters, 1999)
  • Bournemouth 1999 – paper presented on cremation in early Anglo-Saxon England in session on shamanism (subsequently published in a book edited by Neil Price: The Archaeology of Shamanism, 2001);.
  • Cork 2005 – paper presented on Pictish burial as part of a session on barrow-burial (subsequently published as 2007 article in Cambridge Archaeological Journal). 
  • Krakow 2006 – paper on community archaeology in a session on public archaeology (subsequently published in Public Archaeology journal, 2007) and paper on hair and the body in early medieval Europe in a session on head/skull modification in Europe and the Near East (subsequently submitted for publication but declined and reworked and expanded into other articles submitted elsewhere, including my contribution to the book edited by Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz: The Oxford Handbook for the Archaeology of Death and Burial, 2013)
  • Malta 2008 – organised session on the historiography of barbarians in European archaeology and presented paper on the Victorian origins of Anglo-Saxon archaeology (subsequently published in the Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 2013).
  • Helsinki 2012 – co-organised session on cremation in European archaeology (with Finnish archaeologist Anna Wessman and American archaeologist Jessica Cerezo-Roman) and co-presented a paper (with Anna Wessman) on ephemeral architectures in early medieval cremation practices (book in press)
  • Pilsen 2013 – co-organised a session on material citation in the Viking world (with Swedish archaeologist Nanouschka Myrberg Burstrom) and presented a paper on hogback stones (currently in press as special issue of the European Journal of Archaeology I am editing).
  • Istanbul 2014 – co-organised session on archaeologies of mortuary disasters (with my doctoral student Ruth Nugent and Austrian archaeologist Estella Weiss-Krejci) and presented an introduction and paper on this theme applied to hogback stones and evidence for early medieval grave re-opening.

Escaping the Medieval Ghetto

My point would be that in most cases (with the exception of Pilsen 2013), my papers has been presented alongside others dealing with topics from a range of chronological periods from prehistory to the modern world. Furthermore, the other sessions I attend at the EAA regularly contain papers presented on other periods and regions to those I am interested in and some of the best sessions are those that straddle multiple time-frames and regions. Even when I organised a session on the Viking period, it had a pan-European focus and had significant input from medievalists but also those from other perspectives and backgrounds. It wasn’t because the session was exclusively relevant to ‘medieval archaeology’ that made it fruitful, but because it addressed a theme, using the Viking Age as a case study, that spoke to archaeological data-sets from many periods and regions of Europe and beyond. Presumably the EAA think so, since they have agreed to publish the session in their journal: the European Journal of Archaeology.

Obviously given my research interests,  I seek out medieval presentations and those on funerary topics in the EAA programme, but not exclusively. I also confess that I gravitate towards papers addressing the regions of my interest relating to the British Isles, north-west Europe and Scandinavia when at the EAA, but again not exclusively. Like any delegate, I can freely search the programme for things that interest me, medieval or no. Furthermore, I would say though that the repeated exposure to presentations and themes outside of my existing interests is part of the broader educational experience of the EAA. Because my aim is to grow as an archaeologist by engagement with theoretical, methodological and thematic connections within and beyond medieval archaeology, I find EAA a superb venue. The great thing about the EAA is escaping a medieval ghetto and engaging with young and established academics on an equal footing from across Europe.

The Istanbul Meeting

So attending ‘medieval sessions’ is so far down my priority list in attending EAA conferences that, for me, attributing specific sessions to an imaginary ‘medieval congress’ is close to irrelevant. Still, I was verbally encouraged by colleagues to attend the MERC meeting and even encouraged to speak from the floor at it. I didn’t want to be blinkered to the possibility that I may have simply missed the point about MERC so I attended.

Sadly, I now find myself actively critical rather than indifferent to MERC. Consequently, I fear the recreation of a medieval ghetto (and one that seemed particularly self-deprecating and theoretically backward), or at the very least, celebrating medieval sessions over those sessions that incorporate themes of wider application and importance whilst including the Middle Ages.

What also struck me about the meeting (beyond the fact that it certainly wasn’t a ’round table’ and it certainly didn’t involve a discussion of future research directions and agenda) was that the unscheduled papers presented addressed issues about the rural landscape and European towns that were not particularly, and certainly not exclusively, ‘medieval’ but were relevant to other proto-historical and historical archaeologies. This made my only point very well for me: why should the Middle Ages be singled out for dedicated discussions when the neglect and challenges for archaeological theories and methods applies (for example) as much to the Ottoman period as the Byzantine? Why should the medieval period warrant specific attention when historic landscapes are being neglected which evolved from the medieval period and persist to the present day?

Worse still, I am sure not intentionally, the discussion at the round table was something of a kick in the teeth to those that have been actively organising sessions with core medieval themes and approaches to be told that medieval archaeology is not adequately addressed at the EAA and requires a special strand of branded sessions. This was especially the case when many of them were going on whilst the MERC meeting took place. To my mind, the meeting did not recognise that inter-period and inter-disciplinary debate involving medieval archaeology is already at the heart of many EAA sessions.

I also found that the MERC people did not recognise as valid comments made from the floor about how sessions were selected and merged for the EAA Istanbul conference. This affected the visibility and presence of medieval archaeology and the integrity of both medieval and cross-period themes proposed.

Finally, I was disturbed by the near-colonial mentality of the British archaeologists present in their desire to impose a model onto other parts of Europe for studying the Middle Ages. There are surely examples of best practice that can be transferred across Europe in the study of the Middle Ages, and this was what was presumably meant. However, it all cam across badly and I sensed (and was explicitly told by some afterwards) annoyance at the British presence and I haven’t felt that in a long time. It was particularly rich since some of those presenting were brand new to the EAA whilst most in the audience, British and from other countries, students and established scholars, were long-term attendees.

The Future

I wanted to air these views here openly rather than witter my thoughts to a few individuals and have them misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t really know what else to do with them!

I think that MERC could make a positive contribution, creating a support network for scholars working wholly or in part on medieval topics through the EAA. This is unquestionably positive. Still, I struggle to see how creating a ghetto of medieval-focused sessions will improve the situation. Surely research outputs, dialogues and debates are more important than dedicated sessions. I propose some kind of effort in advising archaeologists on possible collaborations for grant applications, session organisation, debates over key controversies and helping to guide research outputs are ways forward. Particularly, promoting cross-regional, cross-period and cross-disciplinary projects is the priority.

Unfortunately, it remained opaque to me following the meeting what is the precise situation with the EAA that needs improving. Why are more medieval sessions required? Why does medieval archaeology need special attention and support compared with other prehistoric, proto-historical and historical archaeologies (e.g. Roman, post-medieval, industrial and contemporary archaeologies), public archaeology, the history of archaeology and heritage? Personally, I’d like to see more medieval archaeology at the EAA, but also more post-medieval and contemporary archaeology as well. There can never be enough burial archaeology and the Istanbul EAA had more than enough of this to keep me happy.

In summary, sorry friends and colleagues, but for the moment I am going to steer clear of supporting MERC until it works out precisely what it wants to do. I will of course continue to participate with the EAA as and when I am able. I hope that I am able to continue dialogue with medieval and other archaeologists at the EAA to the full, despite my clear reservations about MERC as it now operates.