Fred Paxton

title.none: Karkov, Wickham-Crowley, and Young, eds., Spaces of the Living and the Dead (Paxton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0011.009 00.11.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fred Paxton , Connecticut College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Karkov, Catherine, Kelley Wickham-Crowley, Bailey Young, eds. Spaces of the Living and the Dead: An Archaeological Dialogue. American Early Medieval Studies, No. 3. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1999. Pp. vi, 162. $36.00. ISBN: 1-900-18881-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.11.09

Karkov, Catherine, Kelley Wickham-Crowley, Bailey Young, eds. Spaces of the Living and the Dead: An Archaeological Dialogue. American Early Medieval Studies, No. 3. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1999. Pp. vi, 162. $36.00. ISBN: 1-900-18881-3.

Reviewed by:

Fred Paxton
Connecticut College

It is always a pleasure to read archaeology that makes historical arguments with professional assurance. In the case of this volume of essays, the arguments are especially welcome because archaeological evidence is so critical to the issues they address. Five studies on early medieval cemeteries and four on towns move elegantly from the microcosms of particular burial grounds, church complexes and settlements to regional and international social and political structures. In so doing, they often self-consciously and self-critically discuss what archaeology has to offer early medieval history. A final essay by Kelley Wickham-Crowley and Catherine Karkov, on the dialogue archaeologists pursue with the dead, and each other, nicely rounds off the volume.

The cemetery studies begin with a discussion by Martin O. H. Carver of the most recent excavations at Sutton Hoo. The site still raises more questions than answers, but the questions are as rich as the finds. Carver rejects the notion that the Sutton Hoo remains are too fragmentary to support valid inferences about the meaning of the site. Nevertheless, he wants to keep a number of possible interpretations open. They could be the work of an intercontinental aristocracy, or even an extended family, attempting to establish their presence, and secure their future, through burial rituals. More probably, they are the result of the invention or re-invention of kingship, along with the wealth from "territorial taxation and the control of trade" that came with it. Most provocatively, Carver argues, they might be the work of "pro-Scandinavian, anti-Christian, and anti-French" nobles or kings, who aggressively pursued, and even invented, pagan funeral and burial rites in the face of alien cultural forces inexorably moving northwards. Whether or not this last hypothesis holds up, and Carver has much more to say on the subject in other recent publications, it is exhilarating to contemplate the potential range and complexity of the seventh-century North Sea world that this powerfully reasoned essay reveals.

In a similar exercise in historical archaeology, Catherine Hills brings the data from the fully excavated East Anglian cemetery at Spong Hill to bear on the perennial question of ethnicity in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. Thorough analysis of over 2000 cremation burials and 57 inhumations produces plenty of surprises. First, while cremations were clearly more common than inhumations, the same people seem to have participated in both forms of burial at the same time. Moreover, although most of the inhumations are arrayed around one large warrior's grave, why he was buried thus remains obscure. As Hills says, "He might have been a foreigner, with alien burial rites. But he might just as well, indeed more probably, have been a local leader, whose family made a public statement of his and their status through his burial, a small-scale precursor to Sutton Hoo." Second, the parallels between cemeteries in the "Anglian" areas of Northwestern Germany and Spong Hill suggest that, at least in this case, Bede was right. It looks as if a whole population migrated from Schleswig-Holstein to this part of East Anglia, displacing or absorbing the locals, who left nothing of their own in the cemetery. Unlike their continental counterparts, however, Spong Hill cremation pots are regularly stamped with designs most often seen on bracteates from central Denmark (though no one has posited a migration from central Denmark to East Anglia in the fifth or sixth centuries). Like Carver, Hill sketches a more complex picture of the age than Bede, or even most modern scholarship, has provided.

A nice feature of Spaces of the Living and the Dead is the inclusion of essays by French archaeologists who do not normally publish in English. Bailey Young's fine presentations of their work, together with his own contribution, shift the focus of the discussion from England and the North Sea to Gaul. First, Jean-Francois Reynaud argues the importance of continually checking textual evidence against archaeological data (and vice-versa). Drawing on many years of digging in Burgundy, he presents a series of scientific anecdotes on the value of reopening excavations to test old conclusions, and of experience, hypothesis testing and a team approach to the interpretation of remains. Next, Christian Sapin looks at the interplay between architecture and burial placement in early medieval churches. With the aid of numerous photographs and plans, he shows how burials help date phases of church construction, especially between the fifth and the ninth centuries. His research significantly strengthens the evidence that Carolingian builders rejected the style of the funerary basilicas of late antiquity, reducing them in size and limiting burials in new and reconstructed churches. He also notes that it was in the ninth century that the old prohibitions against intramural burial in towns like Rouen finally collapsed. Both phenomena clarify the central position of the Carolingian centuries in the history of the living and the dead in medieval Europe.

Finally, Bailey K. Young discusses the "myth of the pagan cemetery" in Merovingian archaeology, sketching in some of the interpretive space opened up by its demise. Young's point is that the founders of medieval archaeology in France mistakenly assumed that certain cemeteries could be identified as pagan and others as Christian. Recent research has exploded that myth. Even setting aside the fact that the Burgundians and the Goths who settled in Gaul were already Arian Christians, there is no evidence that they brought distinctive burial practices with them from their homelands. As for the Franks, their burial traditions "derived from an indigenous cultural evolution that took place among Germans settled within the Roman Empire, generating a prestigious burial model identified with the Frankish elite by the time of Clovis." Frankish customs spread, but haphazardly, and the resulting picture of sixth and seventh-century Gaul is, like the North Sea world of Carver and Hills, both more complex and more interesting than before. Christianity may have been the only religious option in Frankish Gaul, but its people seem to have found, like their northern neighbors, numerous ways of using the burial of the dead to assure their own and their family's position in the world both around and beyond the grave. Such findings illustrate once again the energy and creativity of Dark Age Europeans. They also suggest that changes in death culture can occur not just over the longue duree, as Philippe Ariès believed, but within one of two generations, especially when social and political circumstances are themselves undergoing rapid change.

The second half of the volume begins with a survey of the urban history of Tours from its inception to the tenth century, by Henri Galinie. Tours was a first-century Roman foundation of only local significance until the later fourth century, when it became a provincial capital and the see of a metropolitan bishop. The city was much smaller then than it had been before the troubles of the third century. Its amphitheater had been incorporated into a fortified castrum, replete with baths and a cathedral, but that was the extent of it. The fact that the cathedral was built at the same time as the castrum, however, suggests that the late fourth-century bishops were "playing a dominant role in municipal politics." There were three cemeteries: one just outside the walls and two at the western edge of the old Roman town, over a kilometer away. Of these, the one in which St. Martin was laid to rest in the year 397 became, over the course of the next two centuries, the core of a vicus christianorum. First there, and then later in the old castrum itself, the ancient barriers between the living and the dead eroded, and they began to occupy a single urban space. In spite of its unique features, the history of Tours mirrors that of many other early medieval towns in Gaul. Barely more than administrative centers in the fourth and fifth centuries, their exploitation of the cult of the saints formed the basis both for later growth and the precise directions it took.

Two essays by Axel Christopherson and Henrik Jansen shift the focus once again northwards, to Norway and Denmark between the eighth and the twelfth centuries. In certain ways, the Norwegian situation as Christopherson lays it out mirrors that of late antique Gaul. Like Tours, towns first emerged in Norway when a new constellation of power between kings and churchmen replaced old market centers with "multifunctional urban centers" at the service of a "Christian royal supremacy". In Denmark, on the other hand, where continental connections made for earlier developments, kings were promoting trade and urban settlement before the coming of Christianity. But just when it might seem that markets, kings, and administrators are sufficient to explain the emergence of northern urban centers, John Bradley insists that we not forget that "holy perversions" led to the first towns in Ireland. The desire of Irish monks to flee the world had the unintended consequence of creating thriving centers in a previously rural landscape. These monastic towns interacted later with Viking settlements to produce a characteristic pattern of urban growth and development. And with that we return to the peculiarities of religious life that determined the distinctive urban topography of places like Tours.

The concluding essay highlights the relations among the different studies in a variety of interesting ways, focussing on the notion of dialogue--with the past, with other researchers, and among the people who left the cemeteries, burial goods, and human settlements that constitute the data of the field. Archaeology has always provided the texture of past worlds, but it can do more. To Wickham-Crowley and Karkov, archaeological data can contain the shards of past conversations and debates over power and status in this world and the next. The dialogue with each other helps uncover dialogues from the past. Wickham-Crowley and Karkov do not particularly stress the need for dialogue between archaeologists and historians, but they are being unnecessarily cautious, or modest. Historians need to work with archaeologists not just because they restore a tangible dimension to the past that no text can provide, but also because the sign making activities of human beings extend into the rituals and constructions whose remains archaeologists study. Because of this, both groups have much to learn from the successes and failures of the other in reading the traces of the past, and from theorists of textuality. Bakhtin is, not surprisingly, particularly important to Wickham-Crowley and Karkov, who have so richly contributed to interdisciplinary dialogue themselves.

Spaces of the Living and the Dead has an unpretentious design, modeled after the series British Archaeological Reports, which funnels savings on typesetting and production frills into high-quality illustrations. As a result, it is as affordable as it is valuable. The authors convey the excitement of working in a field that is settling long-standing questions while at the same time generating new ones, both historical and methodological. Any number of medievalists and archaeologists, and all academic libraries, should have a copy.