I attended my 19th TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) conference in 24 years from 18th-20th December at Cardiff University: TAG 2017 Cardiff.

It was odd being back for 3 days at a university, and in a building, where I once worked (for one academic year from 2002-2003).

An efficiently and simply run archaeology conference transpired, attended by around 450 people. It was organised by a great team of staff and student volunteers, led by my former undergraduate student, now Lecturer in Medieval Archaeology, Dr Ben Jervis.

The theme of the conference was ‘Time’ and we got to experience temporal theory, debates and dimensions to many of the sessions as well as the Antiquity Lecture by Professor Gavin Lucas.

I thoroughly enjoyed a superb wine reception. Likewise, there was an enjoyable TAG party featuring DJ Hippocampus and a male voice choir: there was also Colin Renbrew beer on sale.

On the two evenings, I went with a group to a fab Indian restaurant and a less-fab but still necessary burger at a chain gastro pub.

I got through 5 academic sessions over the two-and-a-half days of the conference. Inevitably I missed some other great themes and papers given there was so much choice (9 parallel sessions). Still, the conference scheduled a lovely strand of medieval sessions across the 2 full-days, and so I have a coherent programme to enjoy for my interests.

So here’s a review of what I experienced.

Writing and rewriting the transitional body: the changing narratives of the ancient dead

Organised by the University of Manchester’s postgraduate students Michelle Scott and Emma Tollefsen, this was the only exclusively funerary session at TAG 2017.

The ‘transitional’ bodies in question are well-preserved – aka ‘mummified’/well-preserved – bodies. As a general ‘burial’ session, it didn’t serve or work, but that was not its point. Instead, it was about enduring cadavers and the narratives that wrap around them and are inscribed upon them.

The session had a range of fascinating papers on different aspects of textual practices, material practices, and storytelling relating to dead bodies. A highlight for me was to see an update on the project by Dr Karina Croucher and Dr Lindsey Buster of Bradford University engaging people today in themes of mortality through the archaeology of death. I also loved the topic of tattooed female mummies from ancient Egypt, presented by Savannah Ebpmu Fahmy-Fryer.

Unfortunately two cancellations made the session a little thin on the ground, despite the organisers chipping in with their excellent ‘space-fillers’ that offered context and perspectives of the theme and the presented papers.

Me? My contribution? I was going to discuss the archaeological practices that created stories of the medieval cathedral dead, but instead I sidetracked into discussing stone coffins. I’ll blog about that separately for this interested.

In summary, this was a diverse, distinctive and interesting session, although perhaps a more coherent discussion and debate at the end might have allowed key themes (perhaps with the help of a Discussant) to emerge from the different presentations.

Stuff and Nonsense? Theory and medieval material culture

This session by TAG conference organisers Dr Alice Forward and Dr Ben Jervis explored theoretical approaches in medieval archaeology. I considered it a rich and useful set of papers.

Chris Cumberpatch gave a necessary defence of critiques of his work by Jervis and others, and I found myself in close agreement with his take and resistance to a post-human direction for medieval studies.

Alice Forward gave a fascinating review of four south Glamorgan ram jugs and suggested their significance for elite identities in the 12th/13th centuries at manorial estate centres. I wonder if the seasonal, violent and sexual nature of these beasts, and perhaps the humour associated with their handling and use in pouring, might have informed their popularity.

Justine Biddle explored early medieval identity through considering the distribution of PAS data for early Anglo-Saxon artefacts in Suffolk. I would have liked to have learned more about the gestures involved in, and associated with, the wearing of wrist-clasps, since I suspect their social significance derived from these.

Next came a range of original contributions to the study of later medieval material culture. Gemma Watson looked at love and sex magic in medieval Europe and Charlotte Howsam reviewed her research on late medieval books and their fittings, but it was Jervis and Semple on the relationship between textual and material worlds was perhaps the most theoretically interesting. The session concluded with Annika Nordstrom on actors and social identities in medieval Scandinavian towns.

For me, the stand-out paper was by Ryan Lash on the materiality of stone during pilgrimage practices in western Ireland, applying Ingold’s taskscape to considering the transportation and deposition of water-worn quartz pebbles. I think his ideas dovetailed neatly with the ongoing work of Adrian Maldonao on stone-use in relation to the monastic complex of Iona.

With no weak papers, this was a very strong session and a good effort all round by the individual researchers and the session organisers.

Dykes through Time: Rethinking Early Medieval Linear Earthworks

This was the session I organised as the second event of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory. I was very proud of how it went: 8 very different papers were presented on aspects of linear earthworks from later prehistory and early history. I will blog about it separately.

Periodization Time and Fault Lines: The Fifth Century AD

Organised by Dr James Gerrard and Elliot Chaplin this was a stimulating session focusing on challenging perceptions regarding the 5th century in Britain and NW Europe set against the background of the end of the Western Roman Empire.

James Gerrard and Elliot Chaplin introduced the session with the key concepts, and they were followed by an intense double act by James Harland and Katherine Fliegel asking us to rethink rupture and the discourses behind it.

Susan Oosthuisen then presented her argument that there was no 5th-century fault-line and asserted that the fifth-century change was an hallucination.

Paul Gorton then considered how different (or similar) late Roman settlement and burial evidence really was from ‘early Anglo-Saxon’ equivalents. He had the best slide of all and with his permission I reproduce it here.

For me, the most interesting paper was by Vince Van Thienen regarding the challenges of understanding the archaeology of Flanders in terms of migration, where a ‘Roman’ presence is actually a broader challenge of discerning 3rd/4th= as well as 5th-century archaeological evidence.

I also liked the paper by Peter Guest, not least because he incorporated some modern political analogies in thinking about the end of Rome and the Brexit debacle.

The consensus was that we are mistaken in our narratives about the 5th century and risk over-stating its disruptive nature and the scale and impact of Germanic immigration upon south-east Britain. While migration and ethnogenesis are features of the period, various authors attempted critiques of the archaeology of the fifth century and the nature of the Roman-medieval transition as traditionally characterised.

What remains frustrating in this session is a sense of where we go next, given we remain faced with a stark and dramatic shift in material culture and contexts between the 4th and 6th centuries in parts of lowland Britain. Also, I felt the supposedly more nuanced discourses of fragmentation and a turn towards martial masculinity in the 5th century might also promote a model of system collapse and a reversion to ‘barbarian’ frontier societies.

I also raised the issue that – despite Peter Guest’s allusions to Brexit – the session pulled too many political punches and didn’t explore the importance of our fantasies of 5th-century collapse in contemporary anxieties about the future of ‘civilization’ and apocalypse fears in popular culture. We still see the fifth century in terms of Mad Max and Rick Grimes…

Finally, thanks to Peter Guest for bringing up the Pillar of Eliseg as an example of post-Roman imaginings of the Roman past!

A More Central Place: Theorising Early Medieval Wales

The final session that I attended was on the period and region that interests me most at the moment. The organisers were Dr Andy Seaman and Marion Shiner.

There was merit in a session with both a regional and chronological focus at TAG, especially when the conference is in the region in question. I also thought the range and structure of the session was valid and the individual papers, introduced by an expert in early medieval Wales, and chaired by another, made an appropriate arrangement. The session was also very well attended.

Nancy Edwards introduction paper provided historical context on the study of early medieval Wales, and some methodological concerns for the present. She particularly foregrounded the potential of biographical perspectives on early medieval stone monuments.

Rhiannon Comeau’s case study critiquing the multiple estate model was solid and coherent, but a theoretical framework needed further exploration. The same points apply to Tudur Davies’ s offering which considered the concept of the ‘long eighth century’ from an environmental perspective.

Marion Shiner’s paper was an interesting critique of emotional interpretations of flexed/sided burial of infants and younger children, set in the context of interpretations promoted from elsewhere in the medieval world.

Rose Hedley’s paper on the Vikings in Wales was a review but unhelpfully did not identify what the Viking enigma of her title actually is/was.

The final paper – by Andy Seaman – was fascinating, providing a masterful deconstruction of arguments for continuity of Iron Age tribal territories into the Early Middle Ages.

Despite many valid and informative presentations, the session struggled to address its own remit. Particularly, one left without a sense of the shifting place of Wales in the early medieval world between the 5th and 11th centuries.