12.10.34, Hyer and Owen-Crocker, eds., The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World

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Sally Crawford

The Medieval Review 12.10.34

Clegg Hyer, Maren and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 386. ISBN: 978-0-85989-843-0.

Reviewed by:
Sally Crawford
Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University

Papers in this volume combine to give the reader a detailed picture of what things were made of in Anglo-Saxon England, how they were made, where they were made, and (where known) who made them.

In their introduction, the editors make that case that material culture--in this context with the specific meaning of "the creation and use of objects" (2), both everyday items and symbolic or ritual items--is critical to an understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world. Archaeology is at the heart of a study of material culture, but the editors place an appropriate emphasis on putting archaeology in a documentary context.

Following the editors' introduction, David Hill discusses agriculture through the year, followed by Carole Biggam on the role of plants for food, fuel, fibre, and medicine. She also takes into account the use of wood in the Anglo-Saxon world. The wood theme is continued in a chapter on water transport by Katrin Thier, followed by Christopher Grocock on the use of sheep and cattle in the economy. Esther Cameron and Quita Mould discuss leatherwork, while Ian Riddler and Nicola Trazaska-Nartowski discuss the processes for working bone, including antler, ivory and horn, and the range of products made from bone. Christina Lee draws together the evidence for food and drink in a wide-ranging essay taking in food production, food rituals, and food as a unit of economic exchange. She also assesses recent data from isotopic analysis of bone.

David Hinton provides a scholarly chapter on Anglo-Saxon metalwork, followed by a chapter from Gale Owen-Crocker on weapons and armour. This chapter, like many in this volume, draws on a repertoire of Anglo-Saxon objects made familiar through coverage in many other works on Anglo-Saxon England. By contrast, Michael Lewis, Andrew Richardson and David Williams bring a refreshing and new suite of objects forward when they present the ways in which the Portable Antiquities Scheme has widened understanding of Anglo-Saxon material culture. Of all the papers, this one on the Portable Antiquities Scheme perhaps offered the most new information, arguing that metal-detected finds have the possibility of showing what people were normally wearing (as opposed to what they took to the grave), and how everyday activities could lead to the loss of brooches through wear or damage. Just for a moment we have a glimpse of unconscious everyday activities having an impact on object and deposition. The Portable Antiquities Scheme also opens up the unusual possibility of tracking, through brooch loss, places of early Anglo-Saxon female activity away from the village--and possibly also child activity, since children, even more than adults, are prone to lose fasteners in the course of their daily activities.

Elizabeth Coatsworth and Michael Pinder return to a well-known prestige object in their chapter on the Fuller Brooch, but they bring a new perspective by offering a detailed technical analysis of its construction. Winifred Stephens updates D.B. Harden's 1956 analysis of early Anglo-Saxon glass types, particularly focussing on newer examples found in Kent. Christina Lee concludes the volume with a chapter on the impact of disease and impairment on everyday life in Anglo-Saxon England, drawing on archaeological and documentary sources.

For any student new to Anglo-Saxon archaeology, this volume provides a helpful, clear, and practical overview of the key sites and objects in the Anglo-Saxon repertoire. It will be a valuable introductory textbook to the ways in which a knowledge of the physical evidence can enhance literary and historical readings of the period.

While the papers presented in this volume provide detailed descriptions of what Anglo-Saxon artefacts looked like, there is little in these papers on the ways in which the material culture of daily life impacted on other senses, which would have added an extra dimension to this volume to differentiate it from other published works which also discuss Anglo-Saxon crafts. There is a suggestion that cloth-working and metalworking, for example, were noisy and noxious activities, but more consideration of what these activities would have meant for the people who had to live near them would have been very interesting. How did craft activities shape and alter the ways in which space and time were used? Were there times of the year, or day, when villages were unspeakably noisy or smelly because metal was being worked or cloth was being dyed? And how did such activities impact on the physical body, in terms of muscle development, bone reconstruction, and industrial trauma or illness, not least from exposure to the chemicals used in making metals or dyes for cloths and books? And in terms of daily life--what would it be like to wear clothes with dyes fixed in urine?

A comprehensive index would have made this volume more useful, allowing a reader to cross-reference between papers (something that the contributors rarely do). The index, as it stands, only lists people and places. Given that some writers focussed on a single type of material, while others focussed on a type of object which might be made out of several different substances, there is inevitably some repetition between papers.

Function, form, social structures, and maintenance activities--the repetitious tasks of daily life--are intimately linked. People shape objects, and objects shape people: both have biographies. The sense of biography--of objects interacting and evolving in form and function--could have been given much greater consideration in the papers in this volume: the extent to which objects were curated, reused, engendered, valued, individualised, and ultimately deposited in the ground required more attention. Objects in the context of recent theoretical advances in envisioning gendered, hierarchical and evolving ways in which material culture is used to negotiate and enforce social structures and change would have been a fruitful area of enquiry. Anglo-Saxon glass vessels, for example, are, as Win Stephens noted, "impractical" because all of them required the glass to be emptied before it could be put down. But the form suggests that daily living included a cultural approach to eating and drinking that was very different to ours and one which made vessel shapes suitable, not impractical: tables were not used to park a personal drink through the meal, and it may be that eating and drinking did not take place in the same order as they do today. Cups may have been passed from person to person. If glasses were personal to the drinker, their form also implies a social distinction between those who drank, and those who stood by the drinkers to hold the vessel when it was not being used. Daily interaction with glass vessels for many house slaves and servants may have been entirely about holding and cleaning the vessel while waiting in attendance on the lord who drank from it.

Old English literature illustrates that the Anglo-Saxon world supported an acute sense of an object both as itself and as a representative of a greater range of meanings, and this extended into the physical world. The Ruthwell Cross, for example, can be read in many ways. These include viewing it as a stone cross, but also as representative of the wooden cross of Christ. It carries both pictures and text, and the text itself re-emphasises the mutability of substance and object. The Anglo-Saxon world was full of visual and tactile surprises--there was a deliberate and conscious attempt to transmogrify, translate and tease. Things were playfully pretending to be made of what they are not--horns were made of glass, pottery pretended to be leather, faces, as in the Sutton Hoo helmet, were made of metal (or animals, depending on your perspective), and stone buildings were made to look as though they were made of wood. A number of skeuomorphs are illustrated in this book. The outstanding one is the Fuller Brooch. A diagram illustrates how its rivets were made, but why is the brooch made with rivets? Nothing, in practice, was being riveted together. So what was the brooch pretending to be made out of? Wood, perhaps, like a shield or a wooden cross?

A sense of the overlapping of substance and object in the Anglo- Saxon world is missing in the papers in this volume, which is a shame because modern concepts of material and object, in which substance and object fit into clear and bounded categories or typologies, do not necessarily map onto Anglo-Saxon ideas of material and object. Society and ideology are linked, for example, in the many horse trappings found by metal detectorists. Why did Anglo-Saxons invest in metalwork that often fell off? Jingling harnesses are not very useful for sneaking up on deer in a hunt, but contemporary law-codes demanded that travellers had to make their movements very obvious if they were not to be taken for thieves. Horse pendants were decorated with serpent designs-- horses, with their glittering scales of metal pendants, were themselves transformed into the dragons whose forms embellished their gear. The physical objects of Anglo-Saxon life confirmed the constructs of society, embodied the imagined and acted as material metaphors.

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Author Biography

Sally Crawford

Institute of Archaeology, Oxford University