Theory and Medieval Archaeology

I spent some time over spring break reading John Moreland’s Archaeology, Theory, and the Middle Ages (London 2010).  My book and music guru Kostis Kourelis tipped me off to it at the very moment when I was looking for a way to distract myself from more pressing research and grading concerns.

The book is a collection of some of his important articles that situated Medieval archaeology amidst recent theoretical developments in the field of archaeology more broadly.  Like many of these kinds of works, Moreland did not mean the book to be an encyclopedic treatment of all possible theoretical approaches, but instead a practical guide to some of the concerns that have influenced his own work.

The book lacks a single unifying thread, but does return to one idea frequently enough to make it stand out as an important conceptual foundation for many of the author’s arguments.  Moreland contrasted perspective that conceptualized the Early Middle Ages as the same or as different (anOther in some places in his text) to our world today.  While this might seem like a fairly simple conceptual problem to resolve (after all, all societies share elements with our society today and at the same time show marked differences), Moreland suggests that the struggle to deal with the sameness or difference in how we read the archaeological and textual evidence from the Early Medieval has both shaped the kinds of questions that we ask, but also the models that we have used to understand these societies.

Rather than review the book, I’ll offer some fragmentary observations on some of the major themes that Moreland addresses and return, when possible, to how these themes intersect with his idea of same/other

1. The Economy.  Moreland’s most interesting contributions appear in his discussion of the economy. Here he is able to isolate arguments rooted in idea that artifacts were once commodities and juxtapose them to scholars who have viewed Medieval artifacts as gifts and evidence for the gift economy.  The view of artifacts as commodities assumes on some basic level that the ancient economy was the same as ours; views of the Medieval economy rooted in gift exchange practices (following the work of M. Mauss) tends to understand the Medieval economy as functioning with fundamentally different assumptions to our own.

While it is clear that Moreland favors an approach that takes into account the potential for a kind of gift economy, he makes the important observation that the gift economy might account for practices of exchange, but does not necessary inform how we understand production in the Middle Ages. It is possible for us, of course, to imagine production practices that undermine the value of goods as commodities (for example, monastic production regimens that separate the value of work from product… or, for example, my blog), but scholars have not necessarily explored the place or even existence of this way of viewing and organizing production.

I’ll offer very small observation here from my recent trip to Italy.  While in Aquileia and Grado on the Adriatic coast, I was able to check out first hand mosaic inscriptions on the floors of churches which noted the precise size of the mosaic panel given by an individual donor.  These inscriptions depended on a clear understanding of the cost of production by the audience as well as the economic position of the donor as panels that commemorate large gifts (sometimes over 100 square Roman feet) sat next to more modest gifts.  In the most simple way, these mosaic donations were gifts and represented parts of the Christian spiritual economy; on the other hand, they drew their meaning and significance, in part, from the audience’s understanding of the realities of the household economy and production.

2. Religion. Much of Moreland’s creative study of the Medieval economy – both in Northern Europe and in Italy – develops from his interest in religion in the archaeological record. Again, the notion of same and other emerge as central to how scholars have conceptualized the sacred landscapes. A tendency to isolate religious institutions from the mainstream of economic and social life belies the influence of modern ideas of the sacred. Moreland recommends that we not only attempt to understand religion as an important economic and social engine in the Early Middle Ages, but also as central to the biography of objects that constitute our evidentiary base. For example, Moreland suggests that churches and church land played a key role in the shift in settlement patterns in the Italian countryside of the 6th-8th century A.D. (p. 116-158).  I really liked his efforts to understand the large scale economic impact of churches across the Italian countryside and it will almost certainly inform my own recent speculations on the place of churches in the transformations of Greek landscape at around the same time. Elsewhere he shows how the history of objects like the numerous 8th century “Saxon” crosses set up across England can only be understood in the context of the English Reformation when so many of them were destroyed (p. 255-275).

3. Ethnicity. The emphasis on connections between religion, the settlement, and the economy is refreshing in a book on the Early Medieval West.  Chapters on ethnicity are not. While I understand why any archaeologist of the Medieval West (or the Medieval East, for that matter) has to delve into the issues of ethnicity and identity, I find that this debate has become fairly stagnant in recent years. Most scholars, it would seem to me, understand ethnicity as something that was performed, not intrinsic in an individual’s cultural DNA. Moreland makes these points well with good evidence. The real issue remains, of course, whether people in the ancient and Medieval worlds viewed their ethnicity in such an ironic way.  (My jaundiced view of discussions of ethnicity is undoubtedly the product of recent debates in my community…). Its a useful first step to recognize identity and ethnicity as performed, but this does not render ethnicity as any less an authentic force in pre-modern social relations.  Again, the notions of same and other are vital here.  In our irony-filled modern world, performance can too easily become a watchword for displays of social power laid bare by the critical eye of the subversive scholar.  The functioning of performative actions in pre-modern times, however, lack this etic count-point to frame their authenticity and legitimize their authority.  So, how did it work?

4. Continuity or Change. The elephant in any room where scholars come to discuss the Early Medieval and Late Ancient world. Moreland points out that these issues develop from long-standing periodization practices that exert a massive and relentless influence on the types of questions that we ask of our material. As Moreland points out, the emergence of the discipline of Late Antiquity, despite its name, has helped to challenge our need to reflect on continuity and change in the past.  At the same time, the need to identify the origins of our own society has pressed us to reflect on the historical limits of sameness and otherness.

Moreland’s book is a pretty nice point of departure for a consideration of theory and archaeology in the Early Middle Ages.  While many of the articles are a bit dated, his massive updating of the notes on the articles allows them both to remain important historical artifacts and contribute to more recent iterations of the same debates.

One Comment

  1. Useful summary – thanks for posting.


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