Arriving in Durham

I’ve just been at Durham University attending and presenting at the second workshop of the AHRC-funded Royal Residences Network (8th/9th June 2016). Within the salubrious environs of the Institute for Advanced Study, with views over Durham Castle and cathedral, the workshop focused on the spatial and architectural characteristics of early medieval royal and elite residences. It was hot and stuffy – the entire city, the venue, and my hotel room. I used a bible to let some air in, but I didn’t get much sleep.

Trying to breathe in my hotel

The event hoped to move forward our thinking on architectural monumentality and sophisticated planning associated with these important early medieval sites, many known only as cropmarks, a handful now revealed through systematic archaeological excavation. This included thinking about the theatrical dimensions of these spaces and the visual and emotional impact of their internal and external features. The workshop also hoped to explore the interweaving of ritual with quotidian activities at these sites and through their architectures and spaces. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the discussion focused on Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavations of the Northumbrian royal palace at Yeavering; a site equated with Bede’s Ad Gefrin.

View from the venue

To this end, we got the ‘Yeavering team’ (Sarah Semple and David Petts) of the project and Helena Hamerow talking about ‘Plans and Buildings’; the focus was on Yeavering and Sutton Courtenay (Oxfordshire). They were followed by Christopher Scull and Gabor Thomas talked about ‘Activities and Zoning’ with particular attention to Lyminge and Yeavering, and the Yeavering team again with Gordon Noble talking about the intersection between ‘Secular and Ritual’ at elite residences with most attention given to northern British sites. Together, these papers set the agenda for the rest of the workshop.

Lunch was followed by three specialist studies of particular dimensions of early medieval elite residences. First up, John Blair mused on how timber architecture may have been elaborately ornamented in the Early Middle Ages: this was my favourite paper given its explicit allusions to ethnographies of vernacular architecture as well as interweaving evidence from visual, written and archaeological evidence. David Rollason provided a much-needed Continental dimension, exploring the Carolingian palatial complex at Aachen and who explored the careful control of these centres; he has reviewed the latest publications on Aachen in the Archaeological Journal. Brian Buchanan wrapped up the early afternoon session investigating the application of visibility graph analysis to explore early medieval elite centres’ structure and experience.

The first day ended with three ‘early career’ scholars: Adam McBride exploring cemetery data from the Upper Thames Valley as a way of identifying settlement hierarchy; Faye Minter outlining the various methods, including metal-detecting survey and trial excavation, to explore the early medieval elite settlement complex at Rendlesham; and Matt Austin on the hinterlands of great-hall complexes in Wessex.

That evening, I was forced to consume tapas and alcohol and got to talk to some old pals and new acquaintances.

Yeavering, from Yeavering Bell

The next day involved 6 papers, plus a final discussion which I missed since I had to get back to North Wales. Two perspectives came from Scandinavia. John Ljungqvist explored the archaeological evidence for Gamla Uppsala’s Vendel Period manorial complex and its parallels. This was followed by a broad-ranging exploration of halls as elite loci, by Torun Zachrisson; she focused on the possible ritual action of burning down halls at Uppakra, Scania. The awesome Patrick Gleeson took us to Ireland to explore the power of place and the experience of landscape associated with elite residences in early medieval Ireland.

The final session was opened by me, presenting work I’m doing for the Past in its Place project. I’ll blog about that separately. After me was Oliver O’Grady explored a wide range of new evidence for Scotland’s early medieval palaces, focusing on his new work at Scone and Fortingall. Finally we have Michael Shapland emphasising the importance of palace chapels in the significance and functions of early medieval elite residences.

Overall, it was a bit eclectic and like all these workshops, only those organising them and seeing multiple events, can really judge and discern whether they are working to bring out the required/aspired debates and directions required. Theoretical concepts and overtly defined theoretical frameworks were largely absent (as is typical of early medieval conferences). I can be most critical in terms of mortuary archaeology: I saw little evidence that participants were fully up-to-speed with debates in early medieval burial archaeology. Still, the broad geographical coverage and range of approaches was striking and rich. The desire to merge together ‘ritual’ and ‘prosaic’ interpretations was refreshing. In terms of concepts and approaches, there was lots of useful review and reappraisal of ‘type-sites’ and previous research. There was also some self-critique and self-reflection in evidence, as well as multiple moments of debate and disagreement.

I felt privileged to be at the workshop and I felt this was an incredibly useful and stimulating event. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that there is sufficient original material for a big monograph presenting both new evidence and ideas. I doubt this will take place, but were it so, it would make a far more coherent edited collection than many that do emerge about early medieval archaeology.