IMG_5256‘What and when is medieval archaeology’?

This is a complicated question that can be tackled from many perspectives. ‘Medieval Archaeology’ in Britain is represented by (among others) the Society for Medieval Archaeology. Their definition is a broad one, stating that their society was established to study:

evidence of the past, whether standing buildings, landscapes, buried remains or artefacts in museums.

In terms of what and where the Middle Ages is, they cite no geographical bounds, but (from a UK perspective) make clear that their society:

exists to futher the study of the period from the 5th to the 16th century.

newark bird lid 2In my view, ‘medieval archaeology’ today embraces a range of theories, methods, material and scales of analysis from individual sites, buildings and monuments to the study of macro-scale processes and patterns. It shares far more with the archaeology of other periods than it pursues some exclusive set of research questions pertinent only to the study of ‘medieval people’ and ‘medieval times’. The Middle Ages is a false and bizarre chronological framing admittedly, and especially for material evidence.

Despite these challenges, it is still generally agreed that there are common research themes, exploring the complex, culturally diverse societies from their material evidence following the decline of the Western Roman Empire to the Reformation. It is essential that ‘medieval archaeology’ should actively seek dialogue with Roman-period archaeology/archaeologists in order to understand the period’s origins and development. Medieval archaeology also should incorporate themes and practices that extend way into the post-medieval period, embrace the reception of the Middle Ages in the modern world, including the birth and development of archaeology itself.

So at least we can agree when the Middle Ages was, right? Generally, the answer is ‘yes’. Now it must be said that in parts of Fennoscandia, the ‘Early Middle Ages’ begins at different dates from AD 1000-1150. In these areas, it is preceded by the ‘Migration Period’ (5th/early 6th centuries AD), ‘Vendel/Merovingian Period’ (late 6th to early 8th centuries AD) and ‘Viking Age’ (early 8th to 11th centuries), rather than c. AD 400. Yet for most of Europe, and in common parlance in Britain and Ireland, the Middle Ages spans from the end of the Roman period, or thereabouts, to the middle of the 16th century.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe medieval period is of course framed by false divides, and this has numerous theoretical and methodological problems attached to it. The ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period is commonly used in England for the 5th to early 11th centuries AD. A plethora of other terms exist elsewhere, including ‘Early Christian’ (Wales and Ireland), ‘Early Historic’ (Scotland). The ‘Viking Age’ is widely used, as is ‘Anglo-Norman’.

Yet talking of the ‘medieval period’ and ‘medieval archaeology’ to encapsulate the 5th-11th centuries is invaluable: it saves on using out-moded, culturally-loaded, politically and religiously moribund and problematic defintions still in irregular use in academic and popular contexts, such as ‘Dark Age‘ and ‘Anglo-Saxon‘.

There is a journal of the society – Medieval Archaeology – that reports the latest archaeological research and findings from this broad date range – 12 centuries – from the 5th to the 16th century. So it deserves calling out when major commercial publishers market ‘Medieval Archaeology’ in three books that only partially cover this chronological range…

Gerrard’s Medieval Archaeology

Chris Gerrard’s 2002 book Medieval Archaeology: Understanding Traditions and Contemporary Approaches is a valuable and distinctive review of the history and frameworks for interpreting the high and later Middle Ages (to use the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s own definitions of these terms), but does not cover the extensive, complex and rich evidence and ideas involved in the investigation of the 5th to 10th centuries AD, let alone the immediately preceding 3rd and 4th centuries AD. This is not a criticism of the book’s contents, but it is a stark criticism of how the book is marketed by its publisher and only covers a fraction of what it claims to incorporate. At least its subtitle is clear and content is properly defined.

IMG_7892Gilchrist and Reynolds’ Medieval Archaeology

In 2009 there emerged a Society for Medieval Archaeology celebratory volume that again prioritises authors and scholarship on the Later Middle Ages and has no dedicated discussions of fifth-tenth centuries AD, representing those active in the society at that time. Still, its retrospective, thematic and regional surveys do incorporate a range of early medieval evidence and issues. The book title makes clear its reflective and societal context, so this isn’t a gross misrepresentation, even if it is still a mild misrepresentation.

Gilchrist and Watson’s Medieval Archaeology

So to differing degrees, Gerrard’s and Gilchrist & Reynolds’ Medieval Archaeology books can be forgiven for their later medieval biases and misleading titles. However, I’ve learned of a third book just published: a ‘reader’ bringing together in 4 hardback volumes 77 chapters published elsewhere in selected medieval archaeological topics.

First, it is simply entitled Medieval Archaeology. From a British perspective, this would imply it was about the archaeological evidence, methods and theories for societies of the 5th-16th centuries. There is no subtitle to  clarify and explain its foci, although it is part of a series called ‘Critical Concepts on Archaeology’.

Second, there’s no point in waiting to review this before commenting on it. This massive set of books is simply unaffordable to me or anyone sane. At a £900 retail price, it is pitched at wealthy academic libraries, and even then only a handful worldwide will buy this collection. I won’t comment further on the price or the merits of individual chapters. I also won’t comment about the fact that there is nothing original – it is all recycled material. Moreover, my chapter was reused here with neither my permission nor notification (although see below: I have subsequently found out that my publishers were paid by the volume’s publisher for permissions, with no one contacting me).

What I will talk about is that there is a collection of 6 chapters at the end on the heritage and representation of the Middle Ages in the 20th/21st centuries. I’d commend their inclusion but for the purposes of discussion, let’s remove them from the analysis.

Of the remaining 71 chapters which focus on the investigation of the ‘Middle Ages’, there are only 6 that principally focus on the Early Middle Ages (based on prior knowledge of contents and titles, although I concede I might have missed a few) as follows:

  • Barrett et al – Chapter 16 on fish bones
  • Reynolds – Chapter 22 on crime and punishment
  • Sindbaek – Chapter 24 on Viking trade and exchange
  • Graslund and Price – Chapter 36 on 6th-century environmental change
  • Jasinski and Soreide – Chapter 38 on Norse settlement in Greenland
  • Price – Chapter 66 on Viking mortuary drama

Up to 9 further chapters seem to look at long-term practices and patterns incorporating the Early Middle Ages and the Later Middle Ages (and again, I’m happy to concede if I’ve missed 1 or 2 from this list, but I don’t think I have).

  • Gilchrist  – Chapter 7 on monastic and church archaeology
  • Andren – Chapter 8 on utopian space
  • O’Connor – Chapter 15 on zooarchaeology
  • Turner and Crow – Chapter 19 on historic landscape characterisation
  • Stocker and Everson – Chapter 33 on the Witham Valley landscape
  • Vroom – Chapter 47 on Byzantine-Ottoman dining habits
  • Hall – Chapter 58 on gaming practices
  • Curta – Chapter 61 on ethnicity
  • Fitzpatrick – Chapter 65 on assembly places

Furthermore, the book is fronted by 3 chapters that seem to focus on the Later Middle Ages.

In other words, of the 77 chapters on the archaeology of the Middle Ages, no less than 55 focus their attention primarily or exclusively on the later 6 centuries of the period covered by ‘Medieval Archaeology’ in both its agreed popular and scholarly definitions, while no more than 15 embrace the Early Middle Ages in their contents.

I would contend that this doesn’t fully make sense intellectually or in regards honest marketing. It also means that many key issues are not addressed which are significant for understanding the 5th-10th centuries, including issues of early medieval migration, Christian conversion, kingdom formation, warfare and raiding, maritime and overland communications, urban origins, rural settlement, civil defence, and the interdisciplinary study of early medieval carved stone monuments.

Concluding Thoughts

So what’s going on here? Is it ok to use ‘medieval archaeology’ as a shorthand for the 11th-16th centuries without qualification? Can 11th-16th-century material evidence be used to debate all the themes and debates in medieval archaeology as a whole? Is the neglect of the scholarship of the first 6 centuries of the Middle Ages because few good research articles could be found to represent this time period? Does it simply reflect the bias of the editors? What does it tell us about the current field of research defined as ‘medieval archaeology’? I’ll leave those questions hanging for discussion.

One thing is sure:  readers won’t learn about the full range and character of ‘medieval archaeology’ by buying expensive books with ‘medieval archaeology’ in the title. Why not subscribe to the journal Medieval Archaeology instead?

Addendum: 27/02/17

Professor Roberta Gilchrist has been in touch and we remain on good terms despite the behaviour of publishers. Roberta investigated the matter of permissions (mentioned at the start of the post) as soon as she became aware that some authors weren’t contacted directly. We agreed that I should post her response to my comments above. Here they are:

‘We were extremely concerned to hear that some authors were not contacted by Routledge to gain permission to republish their articles.  We have contacted Routledge and asked for urgent action to remedy this.


The concept of the Major Works series is well established in other disciplines but new to Archaeology.   It is not intended to be a handbook or companion of new material.  The series reprints significant articles to show the development of a discipline over time, and to provide core material for those new to the subject.  The volumes are aimed principally at markets where medieval archaeology is not taught at UG degree level (e.g. Japan, USA, etc), and where libraries would not have the stock of journals and volumes standard to a UK library.   The later medieval focus is designed to complement degrees in Medieval Studies, where students may want to gain a background in archaeology and material culture.  Our aim is to extend the discipline to new international audiences.’