BMCR 2008.06.38

Post-Roman Towns Volumes 1 and 2

, Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium. Vol. 1. The Heirs of the Roman West. Millennium-Studien, 5/1. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. xxiii, 568 pages. ISBN 9783110183563
, Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium. Vol. 2. Byzantium, Pliska, and the Balkans. Millennium-Studien, 5/2. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. xix, 707 pages. ISBN 9783110183580

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

These two hefty volumes have grown out of a five-day international conference held at Bad Homburg in late 2004, entitled ‘Post-Roman Towns and Trade in Europe, Byzantium and the Near-East: New Methods of Structural, Comparative and Scientific Analysis in Archaeology.’ The two volumes are subdivided into six sections (called ‘chapters’). The first four chapters include a wide range of individual contributions, broadly related to the subjects of ‘post-Roman towns, trade and settlement’ proposed in the title of the collection, which are grouped according to their geographical focus. Chapter 1 is devoted to ‘The Franks, Italy and Spain’; Chapter 2 to ‘Emporia of the North and the Carolingian East’; Chapter 3 to ‘Eastern Central Europe,’ and Chapter 4 to ‘Byzantium,’ here construed—with the exception of Hirschfeld on Tiberias in Israel—as the Anatolian and eastern European territories left to Constantinople following the Arab conquests of the mid-seventh century. The final two ‘chapters’ effectively constitute a book in their own right on the site of Pliska in northeast Bulgaria and its Balkan hinterland: they stem in part from a separate section of the 2004 conference designed to present the results of German-Bulgarian archaeological research conducted at Pliska from 1997 to 2003, and in part from another conference entirely, held in late 1999 and entitled ‘Zwischen Byzanz und Abendland: Pliska, der östliche Balkanraum und Europa im Spiegel der Frümittelalterarchäologie.’ There is, as a result, a good deal of thematic overlap between Chapter 5, ‘Pliska—Town and Hinterland,’ and Chapter 6, ‘Pliska and the Balkans.’ The distinction between the first four chapters and the final two is reprised linguistically: nearly all of the papers in the former are presented in English, translated from the original language (usually German) where necessary (the exceptions are T. Kind on the archaeology of the monastery of Fulda and G. Fusek on an early medieval Grubenhaus in Slovakia), while German predominates in the latter, particularly in Chapter 6.

The result is a heterogeneous assemblage of fully sixty chapters of widely varying length and complexity (from 7 pages on the provenience of Merovingian garnets [P. Périn et al.] to 53 on the archaeology of Fulda [Kind]), devoted to subjects ranging from synthetic overviews of urbanism, trade, and communications in regions stretching from the British Isles (H. Hamerow), to Poland (A. Buko), to Anatolia (P. Niewöhner); to site reports on central European castles and their associated settlements (P. Ettel on Karlburg am Main; C. Meiburg on Marburg Castle); to highly technical isotope analyses of Carolingian silver from the mines at Melle (F. Tereygeol), and soil micromorphology at London and Magdeburg (R. I. Macphail, J. Crowther and J. Cruise). As the number of contributions is too extensive to permit an individual treatment of each paper, I will confine myself to observations of a more general nature, and refer the reader to the list included at the end of this review for a complete accounting of authors and titles.

The task of the reader (and reviewer) faced with the prospect of making sense of the rich and diverse assemblage of topics and themes covered in these two sizeable volumes is significantly complicated by the lack of any introductory or concluding remarks. An outline of the general conceptual parameters of the volumes, together with an overview of some of the many themes and interpretive and methodological issues raised by the contributing authors, would have been welcome in the interest of clarifying some very basic issues, beginning with those raised by the title of the collection itself: ‘Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium.’ One might first wonder what is meant by ‘post-Roman,’ particularly as the ‘Roman’ period manifestly ended at different times over the vast arc of territory bookended by Britain and Syria. Several papers (e.g., those of C. Kirilov, and S. Angelova and I. Buchvarov on the Byzantine east) begin their coverage as early as the fourth century, in a milieu probably better defined as ‘late Roman,’ while the careful study of T. Weber on Magdeburg proceeds from the early Middle Ages to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries(!), thus implying a perhaps disconcertingly liberal interpretation of the ‘post-Roman.’ Most papers, however, focus on a period roughly spanning the seventh through the eleventh centuries. The choice of geographical coverage is another issue which might profitably have been explained. As it is, though the fourth-seventh centuries evidently fall within the scope of section 4 on ‘Byzantium,’ for example, late Roman and Byzantine Africa is conspicuously absent, as is the entirety of the Levant, with the exception of Tiberias.

The sequencing and placement of the studies included in the various sections of the book also leaves room for perplexity. Why, for example, are the towns and emporia of ‘the Franks’ included in Chapter I alongside Italy and Spain, and not in Chapter II: ‘Emporia of the North and the Carolingian East?’ The choice is the more striking in light of the inclusion of eastern Frankish sites in the latter section, and thus separately from the western Frankish sites examined in Chapter I. Why too are the contributions of M. McCormick on ‘Early medieval Venice and the northern emporia’ and S. Gelichi on towns and emporia in northeastern Italy (including Venice) separated by P. Périn et al. on Merovingian garnets, when they address so many common themes and concentrate on the same geographical region There may well have been good reasons for these and other editorial choices, but as they are not (at least to this reviewer) self-evident, a few explanatory remarks would have helped impart some order to an apparently (albeit gloriously) chaotic jumble. As it is, only after wading unguided through some 1200 pages of text will the individual reader be in a position to understand the many excellent studies assembled in these volumes as anything more than the sum of their disparate parts, and to draw his or her own conclusions about their broader implications for current thinking about towns, trade and commerce in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Some such possible thematic strands and conclusions might include the following:

Early-medieval trading entrepots and emporia feature prominently in the three sections of the first volume in particular, beginning with J. Henning’s opening survey of towns and economic networks in ‘the Frankish realm,’ where the author makes a strong case against the earlier scholarly tendency to see direct royal intervention in the founding and governing of Carolingian-era emporia such as Dorestad and Quentovic. To be sure, rulers profited from taxes and customs dues generated at such places, in addition to consuming the goods traded there, but these towns were ultimately more an organic outgrowth of interregional networks of communications and trade than ‘artificial’ foundations sponsored by self-serving potentates. A basically similar perspective is adopted by e.g. H. Hamerow on ‘Agrarian production and the emporia of mid Saxon England, ca. AD 650-850,’ J. Callmer on ‘Urbanization in Northern and Eastern Europe, ca. AD 700-1100,’ C. von Karnap-Bornheim and V. Hilberg on ‘Recent archaeological research in Haithabu,’ and M. McCormick on ‘Early medieval Venice and the northern emporia.’ Yet in the third section on ‘Eastern Central Europe,’ something approaching the opposite point of view is in the ascendant. In his study of ‘”Tribal societies” and the rise of early medieval trade’ in Poland, A. Buko maintains that the rise of a centralizing monarchy in the second half of the tenth century did lead to increasing ‘state’ control of markets, to the point that former centers of international trade turned into ‘service villages’ under the direct control of the Piast dynasty. For J. Machácek, the site of Pohansko (modern Czech Republic) was at once the munitio, emporium and palatium of an early-medieval Moravian magnate, in whose interests the site was built and maintained, likely in conscious emulation of the market-centers and royal palaces of the Carolingian territories to the west, which is to say the very ‘early medieval centers in…the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and the Viking world’ (p. 494) which Henning and the others authors cited above now see as largely free of direct royal supervision. In the following paper (‘Ninth-century Mikulcice: the “market of the Moravians”?’), J. Polácek likewise argues that Moravian markets were founded in association with fortified ‘centres of power,’ only to conclude that ‘nothing points to the idea that they could have been centres of long-distance trade, comparable for example with the early medieval emporia at the coast of the Baltic and the North Sea.’ (p. 513)

The independent points of view expressed by these individual contributors are thus one of the promising opportunities for dialogue that remain latent in the final publication of their texts. It may well be that North Sea and Baltic emporia were structurally different entities from the fluvial entrepôts of eastern Europe, and the conclusion may well hold that the former responded more to market conditions than to the prerogatives of local rulers, while the opposite was often true in the case of the latter; but surely these are points which deserve to be made explicit and explored in greater depth. As it is, we are simply presented with a number of disparate visions of early medieval markets and market economies, a situation that is further confused by the similarity of the eastern model of direct royal patronage to the traditional vision of the northern emporia, when it is precisely this older model to which Hamerow, Callmer, Henning and McCormick (etc.) oppose themselves.

Another theme tantalizingly bruited about in several papers is the function of some early-medieval monasteries as surrogate emporia, endowed with substantial facilities for the production and exchange of manufactured goods and agricultural commodities (Henning, ‘Early European Towns,’ pp. 17-21; Theuws on eighth-century towns in the Meuse Valley, pp. 161-62). In the case of the royal monasteries of the Carolingian empire, such centers may have served the commercial needs of the central administration in much the way that the northern emporia were once thought to have done. For Henning, monastic ‘markets’ subsidized and sponsored by Carolingian kings may indeed have operated in direct competition with true emporia, which went into a corresponding period of decline in the ninth century. (The scenario is, interestingly, remarkably similar to the one proposed by Buko for tenth-century Poland, where the creation of ‘royal’ markets patronized by the ruling establishment also radically curtailed the free movement of goods across interregional networks.) T. Kind’s excellent overview of the archaeological record at Fulda would have been a good place to explore Henning’s proposition in the context of a leading and archaeologically well-documented Carolingian royal monastery, but there is unfortunately little consideration of Fulda’s place in wider networks of patronage and commerce in Kind’s study.

A further valuable point to emerge from the studies of, e.g., McCormick on Venice, Hamerow on England and Buko on Poland is the importance of understanding and analyzing commercial centers, whether they be defined as emporia or otherwise, in relation both to the immediate hinterlands which sustained them and the long-distance trade routes which brought them into existence in the first place. Such centers were above all points of transit for goods produced and consumed across the known world, from the Muslim east to the interior of continental Europe, England and Scandinavia; their inception and evolution should thus be cast more in the light of ‘international’ developments than purely local or regional factors.

A related issue is the crucial importance of bodies of water in defining the geographical distribution of the new towns and trading centers which grew up across post-Roman Europe. While hardly surprising given the relative advantages of waterborne transport in the pre-industrial world, it is a point which deserves emphasis nonetheless. The commercial centers at Karlburg am Main, Frankfort and Marburg (see the contributions of Ettel, Wamers and Meiborg, respectively) all grew up on the banks of navigable rivers, as did the multiple settlements of the Loire and Meuse valleys (Burnouf and Theuws, respectively), and the Po estuary (Gelichi and McCormick); and the same is true for the markets of the eastern European interior (Buko on Poland; Polácek on Moravia).

‘Chapter’ 4 on Byzantium raises further issues of its own, perhaps the most significant of which relates to the point made by C. Kirilov in his compelling paper on ‘The reduction of the fortified city area in late antiquity.’ Kirilov adduces a number of convincing examples (Arykanda, Athens, Corinth, Justiniana Prima, etc.) to argue that the reduced wall circuits so common in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages often bear little or no relationship to the inhabited extent and general vitality of their associated urban centers. In many instances, such reduced enceintes served as military strongholds and places of refuge in times of invasion and strife, to be occupied only on an occasional basis by often much greater populations which continued to live and work (often in some style) in extensive residential and commercial neighborhoods outside the fortified circuits. As reduced walls have been a primary piece of evidence cited by proponents of urban ‘catastrophe’ in the post-Roman period, it is a methodological approach with important ramifications for the study of early medieval urbanism far beyond the confines of the reduced Byzantine Empire of the seventh century and beyond. Kirilov’s thesis receives further support from nearly all of the succeeding contributions, including E. A. Ivison on Amorium; S. Angelova and I. Buchvarov on Durostorum; C. Bakirtzis on Thessalonica; P. Niewöhner on Anatolia (Neiwöhner engages with Kirilov’s contribution); and Milinkovic on northern Illyricum.

The final two chapters on Pliska, the presumed capital of the Bulgarian Khanate from the later seventh century into the tenth, between them constitute a comprehensive and detailed overview of this remarkable site, which is surrounded by an earthen rampart and ditch enclosing over 20 square kilometers, or half again as much territory as the walls of Rome and Constantinople encircled at their maximum extent. A much smaller stone circuit inside the rampart enclosed the ‘royal quarter’ of the city, complete with a stone palace and service buildings. For all but the dedicated specialist, J. Henning’s opening chapter on ‘The Metropolis of Pliska’ will likely suffice to provide a working overview of the current state of knowledge on the site, as it stands following the recent field campaign of 1997-2003. Henning reinterprets the archaeological evidence to argue convincingly in favor of a tenth-century date for the sunken pit houses (grubenhäuser) characteristic of the residential quarters inside the earthen rampart, which he is likewise inclined to date to the tenth century, this in contravention of the preceding consensus which placed both the rampart and its internal settlement in the generations immediately following the Bulgar conquest of the Balkan Peninsula in 681. The original urban center of the Khanate, in other words, will originally have been limited to the smaller royal quarter, surrounded by a much more diffuse pattern of settlement, which only came to be concentrated inside the massive new earthen rampart in response to the Hungarian invasions which began in 895 and continued until 960. The great ‘planned’ royal metropolis of the emerging Bulgarian Khanate of the eighth and ninth centuries must therefore be conceptually re-dimensioned in accordance with its reduced physical dimensions.

There is, in sum, much to be praised in this collection of articles. The topic(s) of discussion are undoubtedly timely, given the extent to which questions of trade, economy and urbanism have come to the forefront of scholarship on the now-fashionable centuries which witnessed the transformation of the ‘Roman’ world into its medieval successors. The focus on archaeology is also very welcome, as material culture has enormous and still largely untapped potential to reconfigure current interpretive frameworks on the ‘fall’ (or ‘transformation’) of Roman society, which are often still shaped by a tradition of essentially literary studies stretching back to the days of Pirenne and even Gibbon. For all that the contributors to these volumes are often forced to concede the still-incomplete and anecdotal nature of the archaeological evidence, or otherwise to focus on specific sites with debatable relevance to the larger picture, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The work has the further merit of rendering a great amount of German scholarship accessible to an Anglophone audience in Volume I, and a similar quantity of eastern European scholarship to English- and German-speakers in Volume II. While the quality of the papers naturally varies to some extent, and is at times superficially (but distractingly) marred by matters of style and orthography in some papers produced by non-native speakers of the languages of publication, the standard is generally very high.

In the end, the decision to include such an eclectic assemblage of material in a single publication, coupled with the rather ‘reader-unfriendly’ layout of the contents, may prove to be the greatest obstacle to the wide diffusion that the numerous contributions in their various ways deserve. There are at least two separate, full-length books here on subjects only tangentially related: one on towns, trade and settlement from Europe to Byzantium (or even one on post-Roman Europe and a separate publication on Byzantium), and the other on Pliska. It seems unlikely that those interested in a comprehensive site-report on Pliska will wish to avail themselves of all the Western European material and vice versa; and it seems similarly unlikely that many individuals interested in either subject will be inclined to purchase such a large and costly work devoted to such a range of topics. As a result, this collection seems primarily destined for research libraries, where its many rich sections will be selectively mined by scholars interested in everything from North Sea emporia, to the cities of Byzantine Anatolia, to the archaeology of Bulgarian Pliska. It is to be hoped that many will find the prospect worth the effort, though one might suspect that others looking for more directed syntheses on post-Roman towns, trade and settlement may continue to turn primarily to the likes of Wickham, McCormick and Bauer.1

List of authors and titles:

VOL. 1, CHAPTER I: The Franks, Italy and Spain

J. Henning: Early European towns. The development of the economy in the Frankish realm between dynamism and deceleration AD 500-1100 (listed in table of contents as: ‘Early European towns: The way of the economy in the Frankish area between dynamism and deceleration 500-1000AD’)

M. McCormick: Where do trading towns come from? Early medieval Venice and the northern emporia

P. Périn et al.: Provenancing Merovingian garnets by PIXE and μ -Raman spectrometry

S. Gelichi: Flourishing places in North-Eastern Italy: towns and emporia between late antiquity and the Carolingian age

P. Delogu: Rome in the ninth century: the economic system

F. Tereygeol: Production and circulation of silver and secondary products (lead and glass) from Frankish royal silver mines at Melle (eighth to tenth century)

R. Francovich: The hinterlands of early medieval towns: the transformation of the countryside in Tuscany

F. Theuws: Where is the eighth century in the towns of the Meuse valley?

J. Burnouf: Towns and rivers, river towns: environmental archaeology and the archaeological evaluation of urban activities and trade

L. Olmo Enciso: The royal foundation of Recópolis and the urban renewal in Iberia during the second half of the sixth century

VOL. 1, CHAPTER II: Emporia of the North and the Carolingian East

C. von Carnap-Bornheim and V. Hilberg: Recent archaeological research in Haithabu

H. Hamerow: Agrarian production and the emporia of mid Saxon England, ca. AD 650-850

J. Callmer: Urbanisation in Northern and Eastern Europe, ca. AD 700-1100

T. Weber: Urban archaeology in Magdeburg: results and prospects

R. I. Macphail, J. Crowther and J. Cruise: Micromorphology and post-Roman towm research: the examples of London and Magdeburg

P. Ettel: Karlburg am Main (Bavaria) and its role as a local centre in the late Merovingian and Ottonian periods

E. Wamers: Some remarks on the topography of Franconoford

C. Meiborg: Marburg Castle: the cradle of the province Hesse, from Carolingian to Ottonian times

T. Kind: Das karolingerzeitliche Kloster Fulda — ein ” monasterium in solitudine.” Seine Strukturen und Handwerksproduktion nach den seit 1898 gewonnenen archäologischen Daten

B. Miklós Szöke: New findings of the excavations in Mosaburg -Zalavár (Western Hungary)

VOL. 1, CHAPTER III: Eastern Central Europe

A. Buko: “Tribal” societies and the rise of early medieval trade: archaeological evidence from Polish territories (eighth-tenth centuries)

S. Brather: Counted and weighted silver: the fragmentation of coins in early medieval East Central Europe

J. Machácek: Early medieval centre in Pohansko near Breclav/Lundeburg: munitio, emporium or palatium of the rulers of Moravia?

L. Polácek: Ninth-century Mikul269;ice: the “market of the Moravians”? The archaeological evidence of trade in Great Moravia69;ice: the “market of the Moravians”? The archaeological evidence of trade in Great Moravia

G. Fusek: Ein frühmittelalterliches Grubenhaus von Bielovce (Slowakei): Befund und Rekonstruktion

C. Bálint: On “Orient-preference” in archaeological research on the Avars, proto-Bulgarians and conquering Hungarians

VOL 2, CHAPTER IV: Byzantium

C. Kirilov: The reduction of the fortified city area in late antiquity: some reflections on the end of the ‘antique city’ in the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire

E. A. Ivison: Amorium in the Byzantine Dark Ages (seventh to ninth centuries)

S. Angelova and I. Buchvarov: Durostorum in late antiquity (fourth to seventh centuries)

C. Bakirtzis: Imports, exports and autarky in Byzantine Thessalonike from the seventh to the tenth century

P. Niewöhner: Archäologie und die “Dunkeln Jahrhunderte” im byzantinischen Anatolien

M. Milinkovic: Stadt oder “Stadt”: Frühbyzantinische Siedlungsstrukturen im nördlichen Illyricum

Y. Hirschfeld: Post-Roman Tiberias: between East and West

VOL. 2, CHAPTER V: Pliska — Town and Hinterland

J. Henning: The Metropolis of Pliska or, how large does an early medieval settlement have to be in order to be called a city?

G. Prinzing: Pliska in the view of Protobulgarian inscriptions and Byzantine written sources

J. Dimitrov: Zur historischen Topographie Pliskas einhundert Jahre nach den ersten Ausgrabungen

U. Fiedler: Eine Hauptstadt ohne Gräber? Pliska und das heidnische Bulgarenreich an der unteren Donau im Lichte der Grabfunde

L. Donceva-Petkova: Eighth- and ninth-century pottery from the industrial quarter of Pliska, capital of the early medieval Bulgarian kingdom

V. Petrova: The early medieval yellow pottery from Pliska, Bulgaria: the question of its provenance and the problem of its origin

N. Schleifer: Geophysical prospecting in Pliska (Bulgaria): applied methods and results

K. Hans Wedepohl: Soda-Kalk-Glas des 8. und 9. Jahrhunderts vom Asar-dere in Pliska (Bulgarien) im Vergleich mit frühmittelalterlichem Glas in Westeuropa

P. Georgiev: Periodisierung und Chronologie der Besiedlung und des Baugeschehens im Gebiet um die Grosse Basilika von Pliska

R. Vasilev: Ergänzende Angaben zur frümittelalterlichen Siedlung auf dem Gebiet der Grossen Basilika

S. Vitljanov: Ein Herrenhof des 10.-11. Jahrhunderts in der Äusseren Stadt von Pliska

S. Vitljanov: Ein Hortfund mit Eisengegenständen aus Pliska und das Problem der frümittelalterlichen Agrartechnik in Bulgarien

S. Stanilov and J. Dimitrov: Ein früher Haustypus in der Siedlung südöstlich der Inneren Stadt von Pliska

I. Marzouf and J. Henning: A virtual view of Pliska: Integrating remote sensing, geophysical and archaeological survey data into a geographical information system

J. Henning and E. F. Eyup: Kabiyuk: another Pliska?

J. Henning et al.: Khan Omurtag’s stone palace of AD 822: a “modernized” eighth century timber fort

J. Henning and P. Milo: The early medieval boyar courtyard of Strumba near Shumen

VOL. 2, CHAPTER VI: Pliska and the Balkans

R. Rasev: Der Beginn von Pliska und der bulgarischen Landnahmezeit

V. I. Kozlov: Zur Siedlungsstruktur der Nordostprovinz des Ersten Bulgarenreiches

S. Angelova and R. Koleva: Archäologische Zeugnisse frühslawischer Besiedlung in Bulgarien

M. Wendel: Die Ausgrabungen in Iatrus und Karasura: Zu einigen Aspekten der Frümittelalterforschung in Bulgarien

Z. Kurnatowska and H. Mamzer: Ergebnisse und Erfahrungen aus den polnischen Untersuchungen in Starmen und Odarci

T. Kind: Westliche Einflüsse auf der östlichen Balkanhalbinsel im Spiegel der früh- und hochmittelalterlichen Reitausrüstung

D. Ziemann: The rebellion of the nobles against the baptism of Khan Boris (865-866)

S. Angelova: Die Ausgrabungen in der Kirche Nr. 2 des Erzbischofsitzes von Drastar (1993-1999)

L. Donceva-Petkova: Zur ethnischen Zugehörigkeit einiger Nekropolen des 11. Jahrhunderts in Bulgarien

J. Henning: Catalogue of archaeological finds from Pliska: Introduction / Katalog archäologischer Funde aus Pliska: Einführung

L. Donceva-Petkova et al.: Katalog.


1. See C. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages. Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800, Oxford, 2005; M. McCormick, Origins of the European Economy. Communications and Commerce A.D. 300-900, Cambridge, 2001; F. A. Bauer, Stadt, Plätze und Denkmal in der Spätantike. Untersuchungen zur Ausstattung des öffentlichen Raums in den spätantiken Städten Rom, Konstantinopel und Ephesos, Maintz, 1996. A number of the edited volumes stemming from the Transformation of the Roman World project organized under the aegis of the European Science Foundation also offer focused syntheses on many of the subjects covered in the work under review: on urbanism, see G. P. Brogiolo, N. Christie and N. Gauthier (eds.) Towns and their territories between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, Leiden and Boston, 2000; G. P. Brogiolo and B. Ward-Perkins (eds.) The idea and ideal of the town between late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, Leiden and Boston, 1999; on trade and the economy, see e.g. I. L. Hansen and C. Wickham (eds.) The Long Eighth Century, Leiden, Boston and Köln, 2000.