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22.01.24 Ashby/Sindbæk (eds.), Crafts and Social Networks in Viking Towns

22.01.24 Ashby/Sindbæk (eds.), Crafts and Social Networks in Viking Towns

From an editorial perspective, this is an anomalous book, however welcome. It is organized as twelve studies of medieval crafts in a variety of geographical locations. After two pragmatic and methodological essays, it consists of regular-length articles interspersed with what might be called theory-driven position papers by the editors. In all, the editors, singly or jointly, are responsible for five of the papers in the volume. One wonders why they did not simply opt for a joint monograph and also include leather, amber, glass, and wood working among their main topics, which now favor non-ferrous metallurgy and comb-making. This said, the principal topics as listed in the book's title--crafts, networks, and towns--are well served under the aegis of an overriding method of placing emphasis on the evidence for, and study of, artisans and craft production, rather than simply on the preserved artefacts and imagined end-users. Here, workshop debris is central. Innovative conclusions about the organization of proto-urban craft activity and networks of suppliers and practitioners are convincingly presented. Yet the networks by which raw materials reached workshops, and finished artefacts then reached markets and buyers, remain to be thoroughly explained. Even such basic marketing questions as whether artefacts moved singly or in lots are still unanswered.

The introductory essay, by the editors, addresses "Crafting the urban network." The thesis of the collection, that "the history of crafts is intimately connected with that of urbanism" (1), is amply supported by the succeeding studies. The term "assemblage" is here used for material recovered from the floors of workshops, generally a daunting challenge for analysis on a site-by-site basis. New methods of material analysis, such as metallographic, isotopic, and biomolecular techniques, permit previously gathered evidence, including raw materials, to be revisited. The interpretative focus of artefact studies has shifted from the functional treatment of objects to the processes of production and the social agency of technology. These developments are accompanied by the advent of social network theory, with towns viewed as centers for cultural exchange, including evolving technologies. The editors disavow any grander narrative of historical change, favoring the study of social action on the micro-scale, which may amount to no more than a single season's workshop output but, conversely, activity on a greater than hitherto imagined scale and level of complexity, particularly evident in metal-work and textiles. Revealed are networks not only of supply and distribution but also of the exchange of technologies among early urban sites, which date to the end of the seventh century, justifying the term "spatially anchored persistence" (2) in craft activity. The image of the itinerant craftsperson is in retreat in current research, the settled community to the fore. Kin-based production units are less in evidence than the first manifestations of guilds. The actions of the church and secular elites, however, were determinative for the success of towns, which is striking after about the year 1000. Maritime trade routes were essential but the longer distances favored the emergence of distinctive town identities. Concurrently, "crafts are often carried out in subtly different ways across time and space; choices were driven by far more than an aspiration to some sort of objectively determined efficiency" (13). Best practices differed, town to town, often in response to local social values rather than technical skills. The "gripping beast" motif offers a compelling example of the complex of factors at work, more exactly, of the casting techniques employed with fresh brass ingots. This introductory essay concludes with a survey of the state of our knowledge about non-ferrous metal-working, textile production, leather-working, black-smithing, even tar production, with emphasis on these crafts as cultural knowledge.

Pride of place in the body of the volume is accorded one of the first researchers to address crafts in towns, Johan Callmer, who offers a set of pragmatic notes in Chapter 2, beginning with five foci for the study of craft production: material, tools, activities, specific knowledge, and society. He observes how much of non-ferrous craft production is related to elements of dress, especially female, that is, practical only so far as status is a practical consideration. Callmer notes how little of the evidence in, say, Denmark shows any Slavic influence. Nonetheless, the types of artefacts recovered exhibit a generally uniform character from Russia to Ireland. Knives, and their welding of steel inserts along the blade edge, are a good case in point; the diffusion of the relevant technology appears to have been from west to east. The discovery of complete sets of tools is rare but invaluable. Another amalgamation is waste piles and pits used by several craftspeople. Demand suggests that workshops maintained substantial stocks of ingots of bronze and similar alloys (e.g., copper alloy from the Alps), and antler for combs, whose tooth-plates and connecting plates were produced in series. Strikingly, decorative art styles, even mythological motifs, in addition to the very presence of certain kinds of artefacts, seem more determined by the makers of the artefacts than by either common or elite buyers. This said, the wealthy island of Gotland exhibits its own distinctive characteristics, as it does in other social dimensions. Major artefact categories are weapons, dress, and knives for personal use. Merchants who supplied craftspeople with raw materials or distributed their finished wares are an even more elusive social category, but seem to have had residences close to workshops. Much still remains to be done to acquire a complete vision of the trade and exchange system. Callmer summarizes: "In my opinion the craft production of northern Europe is a cultural phenomenon without close contemporary or later parallels" (14). The basic organizational unit was the family, and its house and outbuildings. At many sites, the term "collective" may be justified. There was an abrupt down-turn in this activity in the late tenth century.

The editors devote a briefer third chapter to domestic circles, and urban networks, with estate production in between. Analytic terms here are collective manufactories, nucleated workshops, individual workshops, and household production. Pottery and textiles were always features of the last-named. Generally speaking, pottery-making never achieved the high degree of technical competence (use of the wheel, high-fired kilns) of other crafts in Scandinavia until after the Viking Age. Ceramics were then often imported ware and reflective of new social and culinary mores. Textile production, on other hand, was relatively homogeneous and the single medieval craft pursued from the narrower home environment and by women, although its best specialized work was accorded high status. Sail-making is an important example of a value-added operation that began with standardized bolts of woolen goods, woven by women and by female slaves.It appears that patterns traveled, while technological advances did not. The authors conclude: "Patterns of communication are not independent of the organization of production" (57).

A series of fine-grained studies begins with Chapter 4 and Ailsa Mainman's essay "The emergence of professional pottery production: York, a case study." These essays are less readily summarized but are rich in detail. Pottery shards are often the most prolific form of material culture at archaeological sites and reveal a wide range of applications in food production and storage, and transportation, as well as offering unparalleled insights into the networks of makers and traders. The recurrent topic of networks informs Penelope Walton Rogers's lengthy and wide-ranging discussion of the domestic production of textiles in Britain and Ireland. Raw material tended to be local, as was much of consumption. Luxury produce, smaller items of female dress, moved in larger networks. The craft as a whole was at a transitional stage that laid the foundations for the late medieval cloth trade. Chapter 6, "Constructing specialism," is again by the editors and on a higher level of abstraction and hypothesis. The production of glass beads illustrates the case of specialities developing in urban settings and close to potential markets. But this is also true of comb-making with its reliance on antler as raw material, a resource from the hinterland and not from farther abroad. In the latter case, specialism did not develop on manorial estates. Evidence points away from the long-favored idea of itinerant craftspeople. Comb-making is also the subject of Callmer's second essay, with a focus on southern and eastern Scandinavia and the Baltic region. After an exhaustive review and classification of comb models, he considers comb-making to be the most revealing of the medieval crafts in terms of richness of evidence at emporia, demand, supply, volume of production, and resultant insight into networking. Yet, curiously, in all this descriptive detail we miss the the key and risk-filled moment of the actual sawing of the teeth of combs. Technologies and styles appear to have radiated out from the North Sea zone to Scandinavia. Steven Ashbury's complementary but more theoretical study examines innovations in comb-making in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia, while underlining the importance of the social and economic contexts in which innovation occurs. This might be said to be the theme of the entire volume.

Chapter 9 offers Patrick Ottaway's "The archaeology of blacksmithing and the rise of urbanism in England and northern Europe c. 700-1100." The limits of medieval technology prevented heating iron to a pure molten state that might have permitted casting and the use of molds. As a consequence, iron artefacts were forged by hand. This study points up the general absence in this volume of weapons as primary and prestigious products of the blacksmith's art. The close attention to knives, locks, keys, and other increasingly specialized but standardized instruments produced not on farms or estates but in towns does not quite dispel a sense of disappointment, given the cultural importance attached to the tools of war. Weaponry seems to have been a production sphere in which the aristocracy commissioned work that was carried out on their estates.

The editors return in the following brief chapter to discuss collaboration and expert knowledge. Non-ferrous metalwork, among the crafts reviewed here, was most dependent on imported sources for raw materials, metals, minerals, and clays, and involved a much wider selection of tools and techniques. Processes and products were also more dependent on the skills of other craftspeople, as might be gathered in a nucleated workshop, e.g., for the production of molded copper keys and forged iron locks. Sword sheaths are another example of composite products and artisan collaboration, which may have been facilitated by urban residence. And it is in the working of copper-alloy metalwork for fittings and ornaments that such workplaces begin to resemble what the authors call "manufactories." Tens of thousands of scraps of crucibles, ingots, waste materials, and fragments of clay molds have been recovered at Birka and Ribe. Long-distance trade in raw materials was centered on Birka, Hedeby, Kaupang, and Åhus. On the basis of clear instances of design copying, the authors judge non-ferrous metal-working to be the sphere of craft activity most likely to advance our understanding of communications among individual artisans and traders. The development from bronze-casting (too narrow and simple a categorizing term) to non-ferrous metal-working is the subject of Unn Pedersen's essay tracing "complexity, choices, and cooperation" in Viking-age Scandinavia. Here too the workshop evidence in the form of debris is striking testimony to networking and cross-fertilization. The range of artefacts reflects the growing variety and complexity of early towns and their economies and social make-up. This penultimate essay is complemented by Penelope Walton Rogers's consideration of the same complex of questions in relation to non-ferrous metalworking in the towns of Britain and Ireland. Rogers concludes that within a single craft may be found a variety of social, commercial, and knowledge-based networks. Networks can change rapidly; systems vary from region to region; interchange may be one-way or reciprocal.

This is an unbalanced but very dense and fully referenced book of studies. Both the range of the authors over twelve essays and the choice of crafts for comment (much on comb-making and non-ferrous metallurgy but little consideration of work in wood, stone, wicker, amber, jet) tends to skew the line of argument, as does, inadvertently, the shifts between research hypotheses and desiderata, and the minute analysis of workshop assemblages of debris. Although the study of such scraps is an exciting way forward, broader, less concrete questions at the far end of the scale--cooperation, inter-shop communications, networking, long-distance trade in raw materials--are only just beginning to come into focus. Nonetheless, these are now best addressed through the forensic efforts to understand the myriad bits of concrete reality that are the byproducts of the finished artefacts, long the near-exclusive focus of scholarly attention.