BMCR 2009.05.12

Zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter: Archäologie des 4. bis 7. Jahrhunderts im Westen. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 57

, Zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter: Archäologie des 4. bis 7. Jahrhunderts im Westen. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 57. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. vii, 480. ISBN 9783110200492. $205.00.

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

This volume is an outcome of a symposium organized in 2005 at the Freiburg University for the purpose of having “an intensive exchange” among scholars belonging to different directions and traditions of research on the early Middle Ages, with the hope of building a bridge between the continental tradition of thorough “antiquarian analysis” and the theoretical models from the English-speaking archaeological world, in order to evaluate what was achieved by previous research and to formulate new perspectives for the archaeological research in an international environment (p. 4-5). Many of the 16 contributions (not all of the papers presented at the symposium are published in this volume), illustrate the orientations of archaeological research during what S. Brather (p. 1) declares to be a time of paradigm change in the historical and archaeological study of groups and identities, a move away from the questions of the origins and the attempts to strictly separate Germanic and Romance populations, towards a research for which ethnic groups are not the basic form of social organization, a research of social change, of the building and perception of new political and social structures.

The volume has five sections: “History and Archaeology,” “From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages,” “The Archaeology of the gentes,” “Burial and Identity,” and “Crafts and Exchange,” bookended by the editor’s introduction and a substantial conclusion.

In the first section, three historians evaluate aspects of the archaeological research, make critiques and offer suggestions. W. Pohl, who has played this role many times, begins with a cautionary tale about the burial of Pope John Paul II, imagining the limits of what archaeologists of the future could understand of it (p. 13-14). Nevertheless he remains optimistic about the possibilities of the archaeological research of ethnic phenomena, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive change in their understanding and arguing for research which would place ethnic identities in the context of other identities, topically for an examination of their relationship with Christian identities (p. 17-18). He identifies in the written sources eight types of “ethnic categorization”, from local groups to populations of huge territories, and believes that archaeologists should imagine a distinct methodology for each of them (18-19). He advises archaeologists to shift their focus from obtaining knowledge on the ethnic identity of specific persons towards a study of how ethnic communities were built, of ethnic processes and practices, of the internal structuring of ethnic groups (p. 23-26).

M. Kulikowski deplores the consequences of mixed argumentation on how the presence of the Visigoths in Spain is understood (p. 35) and offers a change of perspective, centered on the history of the Late Roman province. He finds no compelling written evidence for more than a limited Visigothic presence and royal control until the end of the 6th century (p. 30-31). Therefore the interpretation of cemeteries from the Meseta (late 5th century at the earliest), cannot assume Gothic presence and should rather favor local development, because of their links with the Duero type cemeteries from the 4th century (p. 40-41). Kulikowski prefers to understand those elements of the burial inventories from the Meseta cemeteries usually seen as consequences of a Visigothic migration as local interpretations of prestigious military barbarian Late Antique styles (p. 42). His argumentation is built more on a reaction to the Kossinna type of interpretation than on a fresh analysis of the archaeological record.

M. von Rummel questions the reliance of the archaeologists on the idea that costume (Tracht) expressed, first of all, ethnic identity (p. 45) and uses as an example of how they misinterpret the written sources a letter of Ambrose of Milan in which a bishop, Julianus Valens, is described as “Gothica profanatus impietate” because he dared to present himself to a Roman army with a torques and a brachiale, an appearance, according to Ambrose, appropriate for idololatrae sacerdotes appearing in front of the Goths. Although von Rummel does not consider in his archaeological discussion the possibility that armlets and neck-rings could have had other meanings outside the empire than those customary within it, his understanding of the situation is probably right: for Ambrose Julius Valens was a “barbarian” because he was a heretic priest and because he was trying to gain the attention of an army by wearing Roman military insignia. Therefore the letter cannot be used as an argument for the existence of a specifically Gothic costume.

In the second section, vaguely titled “From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages,” there are two contributions dedicated to the interpretation of the row-grave cemeteries and one which examines the activity of Camille de la Croix, a French priest and archaeologist who was active during the last third of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

H. Fehr questions the continuing interpretation of these cemeteries as being a Germanic phenomenon. His arguments start with the early beginning of the cemeteries from Bittenbrunn and Altenerding, a century before the first mention of the Baiuvarii, (p. 74) and then focus on four main characteristics of the row-grave cemeteries: the inhumation rite, the orientation, the deposition of weapons in men’s burials, especially of swords, and the costume decorated with fibulae found in women’s burials. He finds a Roman origin and no antecedents in Germania Magna for the first two (p. 78-81). The other two are presented as creations of late Roman environments (northern Gaul and Rhineland during the second half of the 5th century) in which the categories “Roman” and “Germanic” stopped designating basic cultural differences (p. 81-96). In the light of these arguments, the row-grave cemeteries appear as a result of the interaction between two cultural environments: the provincial culture and the strongly militarized and barbarized limes zone, with no significant participation from the Germania beyond the limes (p. 101). They are to be understood as an element in a new cultural orientation of the local population from the former border regions of the Roman Empire (p. 102).

G. Halsall argues for a similar interpretation, in which the continuity of late Roman society is emphasized, and proposes a change of focus from identities to social structure: instead of looking for Germanic immigrants, we should investigate the consequences of high politics on the local communities (p. 106-107). The beginnings of the new burial ritual are identified in the burials with rich inventories from northern Gaul, Spain and Britain, seen as expressions of the local power of a small number of families, who intended to show relations with the traditional structures of Roman authority by their use of Roman artifacts and symbols after the retreat of the Roman administration (p. 110-112). Thus the row-grave cemeteries appear not as manifestations of ethnic traditions brought in the former empire, but as results of the situation created after 476, when people chose new identities and/or new means to symbolize authority.

This new orientation of the research on row-grave cemeteries, based on constructivist representations of society, is welcome and one can only hope that it will get an increased attention in the years to come. However, the new interpretations are so spectacularly opposed to previous research that one of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about paradigm change comes to mind, namely that ‘progress in science is “away from” past science, rather than ”toward” a right account of an aspect of the world’.1 After being accustomed for such a long time to the notion of peoples governed by ethnic traditions, we are faced now with accounts of Late Antiquity in which non-Roman traditions have stopped playing any significant role. Although the two authors stress their shift from identities to social processes, they still are looking for origins and their results amount to a reconsideration of the relations between the Empire and the barbarians, in which the traditions of the former are the only ones to survive.

The contribution of B. Effros is an effective reminder of what happens to the scholars who are not going with the tide by telling the story of Camille de la Croix, an archaeologist who was also a Jesuit priest, whose interpretations were subjected to heavy criticism, mainly because of his commitment to the Catholic Church. A combination of scholarship and religious commitment was unwelcome in the France of the late 19th century, when the progress of professionalization was accompanied by anti-clerical attitudes, directed especially against the Jesuits (p. 133). The author makes an illuminating comparison between the work of de la Croix and that of Abbé Cochet, better received because suited to the growing interest for ethnic and racial distinctions.

In the section titled “The archaeology of the gentes”, two contributions use the old ways of interpreting archaeologically ethnic phenomena and one draws attention to the frailty of the documentary basis commonly used for the analysis of the cemeteries from late Roman and early medieval Spain, usually assigned to the Visigoths.

M. Kazanski and his collaborators still believe in the existence of stable associations of particular dress accessories with ethnic groups, allowing archaeologists to follow their movements across great spaces and considerable time spans. Here their aim is to prove that the “Gothic” finds from northern Gaul should not be assigned to the Visigoths from Spain but to Danube Goths, and they do that by comparing categories of brooches and buckles and by discussing the origin of the female dress with two brooches on the shoulders. The archaeological analysis is followed by a historical interpretation which identifies Danube Goths in the armies of Syagrius and Arbogast. It would have been interesting to see in the volume the reactions of Brather, Fehr and Halsall to this contribution and the answers of the authors to them.

Even more puzzling is the contribution of C. Theune, an introduction to the history of research and the current interpretations of ethnic phenomena from early medieval Thuringia. She criticizes the use of single artifact types and that of the written sources and bases her methodology on the spread of combinations of archaeological traits. This old style of thinking is presented as something fresh, inspired by what archaeologists have recently taken from the social sciences, namely the understanding of ethnic groups as changing and developing “we-groups.” However important, this is for the author just one trait. Common culture, language, religion, origin or a “unitary territory” (ein einheitliches Territorium) are other traits, important but not decisive. Her analysis leads to the identification of ethnically distinctive burials, belonging to a local population which has maintained its group identity by preserving its funerary rituals.

In his contribution A. Jepure raises doubts about the global attribution of the post-Roman cemeteries from central Castille to the Visigoths, signaling the unwelcome dependence of the archaeological chronology on the historical mentions of the Visigothic migration, the mistaken assumption that they were all rural cemeteries, the simplifications which have led to the construction of typically Visigothic dress habits and the influence of the Franco dictatorship on the interpretation. His main focus is on the problems of the documentation, problems which invalidate the conclusions of those archaeologists who have assumed the existence of closed finds without a proper analysis of the records preserved for excavations which are, for the greater part, more than half a century old. The author bases his observations on archival research on the documentation available for the cemeteries from Madrona, Duraton and Espirdo-Veladiez (he has recently published a monograph on the last one) and concludes by advocating for a suspension of the attempts to make ethnic interpretations until a purely archaeological interpretation is done. Unfortunately there is no such thing, as Reinhard Wenskus convincingly argued a long time ago.2

The next section, “Burial and Identity,” contributes to the outlining of the full range of social identities visible in burial contexts.

S. Brather examines what can be said about how the buried were clothed, about the significance of the rituals and about the variability generated in the burial record by social differences other than ethnicity, such as age and occupation. He offers a complex image of the social reality, an alternative to the schematic one used by most culture history archaeologists. Particularly appropriate are his critique of the notion of “Tracht” (p. 249-251), frequently used by such archaeologists, and his circumstantiated views on the social context of the burial ritual (p. 255-257). Brather seems sometimes to embrace a uniformitarian view of society, in which each burial is a “performative expression of affiliation and delimitation” (p. 237) and everybody is more attentive to the general shape of the brooches and less so to the fine stylistic differences between them (p. 244), although he is aware that not all burials indicate social status (254-255). His emphasis on the study of groups3 makes him accept the statement of a social scientist that clothes have two functions: to protect from the weather and to indicate affiliation to groups (p. 238), although he pays attention to other sources of variability in his discussion of regional differentiation (p. 242-243). He ignores the existence of personal styles.

The need for a more complex representation of society, in which social hierarchies are multidimensional systems, made of intersecting horizontal and vertical differentiations, is convincingly defended in the E Stauch’s contribution. She studies the importance of age differentiation in the burial record, usually neglected by archaeologists or reduced to the difference between adults and children. She distinguishes between biological age and social age and, since the written evidence which might be relevant to this subject is scarce in the early Middle Ages, envisions research on the social definition of age with archaeological means. Stauch has chosen four cemeteries (Marktoberdorf, Weingarten, Wenigumstadt and Altenerding), all well researched and published, from which 1685 burials have an age determination precise enough to be useful for analysis. Her methodology starts with the chronology of the artifact types, then continues with an examination of the variability of their presence in burials belonging to different age classes, and with an inquiry on the possibility that certain variants or materials were preferred and that dress items were worn or deposed differently (p. 282). The analyses show positive correlation between most details of the burials and of their inventory and the age classes. E. Stauch detects a preference for the golden color of the artifacts in the burials of young and adult women and an increasingly frequent presence of the silver color in those of older women.

The next two contributions from this section are dedicated to princely burials.

Karen Højlund Nielsen examines the social importance of Animal Styles I and II in the British Isles. Her interpretation of Animal Style I as symbolizing in Anglia and Kent “the ‘genealogical’ line through women as tradition carriers back to the [Scandinavian] regions of origin” (p. 308) is built on a weak basis. She infers the number of households from that of the burials and comes to the conclusion that in Kent brooches decorated in Style I were worn exclusively by wives of the patres familias while in Anglia they were worn also by other women of child-bearing age. Nevertheless, in both cases these women are viewed as “carriers of tradition,” usually wives of the patres familias, who were heads of the descent groups. Animal Style II is less widespread (basically in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in East Anglia, and in Kent). Its beginning is interpreted as a consequence of direct contact which took place in the context of continuing Scandinavian traditions expressed by the use of Animal Style I. The author supposes that the Animal Style II artefacts from Sutton Hoo, where no such antecedents were identified, were gifts made by a Scandinavian king. Animal Style II was short lived, used only by a small political elite, probably the royal family of the Wuffings, and it was quickly replaced with Christian symbols (p. 316).

In her contribution Lynn Blackmore offers a preliminary report on the spectacular chamber tomb of Prittlewell, discovered in 2003 in Essex. Unlike the similar discoveries dated in the first half of the 7th century from Sutton Hoo, Taplow and Broomfield, this burial was found close to an Anglo-Saxon cemetery and probably was a part of it. Although most of its construction and inventory indicate a pagan burial, the author thinks that some of the findings indicate links with the Christian world and that this could well be the tomb of Sabert, the nephew of Aethelbert I, who died in 616.

The last section, titled “Crafts and Commerce,” groups two valuable contributions on how products and technologies from Roman Empire have influenced or are present in the material culture outside its borders, in present-day Germany.

H. U. Voss keeps in his agenda the traditional concern of distinguishing between Roman and Germanic products, declaring himself aware of the problems involved (p. 346) and shifting the burden of proof from the formal similarities between the artifacts towards the materials, the manufacturing and decoration techniques used for their production. He concludes that only iron was available locally, while gold, silver, copper, lead and tin had to come from elsewhere, mainly from the Empire. In part these materials were obtained from Roman artifacts, as shown by deposits such as that from Neupotz and by the relation between the weight of the Germanic brooches and the Roman weight system (p. 349, fig. 2). Then he discusses the fabrication and decoration techniques, concluding that many of them were of Roman origin, being adopted during a process which lasted centuries, in which the tastes and necessities of distinction of the Germanic elites played a decisive role.

J. Drauschke starts from a similar concern, but concentrates on the vague notion of “Byzantine imports.” The author attempts to achieve a more precise determination of their origins, which would justify other notions, such as “East-Mediterranean or “West-Mediterranean,” or “Italo-Byzantine”, “Afro-Byzantine” etc., and also to understand how they were disseminated. He proposes a separation of the typological and stylistic classification from the determination of where production took place (p. 373) and evokes the case of the Crypta Balbi finds, now believed to be produced in the same workshop (p. 375), among which archaeologists previously distinguished “Byzantine” from “Germanic” artifacts. The author presents the current state of the research on the provenance of the main categories of “Byzantine imports” found in the area of the row-grave cemeteries, which suggests the conclusion that they originate mainly from Italy and the Balkans, thus making such items less supportive of direct links between Constantinople and the Germanic elites (p. 392). A chronological analysis of these imports shows a growing volume until AD 700 (p. 415) and a change in their structure: during the early Merovingian Age few prestigious items, of great value, found in princely burials; later, beginning in the first half of the sixth century, a wider spectrum of artifacts with prestigious significance but no longer associated with persons of the highest rank (p. 415). J. Drauschke believes that a prevalence of different mechanisms of dissemination corresponds to these two phases: the artifacts were brought mainly by personal mobility during the first period (with exceptions), and mainly through commercial relations during the second, although some artifacts were probably personal gifts (p. 419-422). The small-scale itinerant commerce seems to him far less important than the commercial enterprises aimed at power centers, ancient cities and the newly organized marketplaces.

In his concluding chapter, Sebastian Brather reviews the main themes of the aforementioned contributions and of those which were not included in it (those of Frans Theuws, p. 436, Reto Marti, p. 445, Ursula Wittwer-Backhofen, p. 449 and Falko Daim, p. 456-457) and expresses his views on how the archaeological research on the early Middle Ages should develop. The author declares that the historical character of the discipline is beyond question, its main task being to compare what can be understood from the written and the archaeological sources in order to obtain “a more convincing and comprehensive image of the past” (p. 426). This reduced autonomy is further stressed when only historiographical models are mentioned as inspiring archaeological debates (p. 426-427). This may reflect the rarely expressed but widespread apprehensions of other culture history archaeologists towards the social sciences.

There are in this contribution new ways of thinking and interesting ideas: an appropriate stress on the importance of the study of materials and technologies, until now insufficiently stimulated and used by culture history archaeologists (p. 460), a shift from the goal of making texts, images and material culture all say the same thing towards learning from the differences (460-461), and an accurate assessment of the previous function of the interpretation of ethnic phenomena: “[archaeological] ethnic interpretations do not say much, they just confirm the image gained from the written sources” (p. 461). However the preference for identity as an analytical tool (p. 446, 462) is questionable 4 and the great confidence in the future of interdisciplinary research, based on an increased awareness of the methodological problems of each discipline (p. 465), is not accompanied by any consideration of the many kinds of problems which appear when different disciplines enter in contact. There is here a lack of reflexivity, a lack of sensitivity towards the problems of the relations between disciplines, academic power and the political present, which makes the author miss the message present in the contribution of B. Effros and lead him to conclude that Camille de la Croix enjoyed nevertheless recognition and influence (p. 437).

For those who know Brather’s previous work where he was skeptical about the possibility of an archaeological research of ethnic phenomena 5, the big surprise is that he believes now that this should not be impossible for archaeologists, especially for those who would accept his opinion that “ethnic groups are in their own understanding not homogenous populations, but certain politically active parts of it” (p. 428; see also p. 431, on the advantages of learning from historians to associate ethnic concepts with elites rather than with populations). Unfortunately he does not explain this change of mind.

Much change is underway in culture history archaeological research on the early Middle Ages, and this volume presents some of its most valuable directions. There are openings towards other ways of thinking and of doing archaeology, made in the spirit of scholarly fraternity, and based on a belief in the unity of scientific knowledge. Amicable confrontation might be better at bringing substantial change and culture history archaeologists could benefit more from recognizing the limitations imposed by their own paradigm than from imagining that it allows an unbridled access to knowledge produced in other traditions of research. The views held within the social sciences are sometimes incompatible with what culture history archaeologists aim to do, and such views have prompted Sebastian Brather’s previous skepticism of about an archaeological study of ethnicity. His new position seems inspired by the imperatives of culture history archaeology, which has to continue contributing to the writing of ethnic histories.

Table of Contents: Sebastian Brather. Archäologie des 4. bis 7. Jahrhunderts im Westen. Einführung, p. 1-9.
Walter Pohl. Spuren, Texten, Identitäten. Methodische Überlegungen zur interdisziplinären Erforschung frühmittelalterlicher Identitätsbildung, p. 13-26.
Michael Kulikowski. Wie Spanien gotisch wurde. Der Historiker und der archäologische Befund, p. 27-43.
Philipp von Rummel. Ambrosius, Julianus Valens und die “gotische Kleidung”. Eine Schlüsselstelle historisch-archäologischer Interpretation, p. 45-64.
Hubert Fehr. Germanische Einwanderung oder kultuelle Neuorientierung? Zu den Anfängen des Reihengräberhorizontes, p. 67-102.
Guy Halsall. Gräberfelderuntersuchungen und das Ende des römischen Reichs, p. 103-117.
Bonnie Effros. Auf der Suche nach Frankreichs ersten Christen. Camille de la Croix und die Schwierigkeiten eines Klerikers als Archäologe im späten 19. Jahrhundert, p. 119-146.
Michel Kazanski, Anna Mastykova and Patrick Périn. Die Archäologie der Westgoten in Nordgallien. Zum Stand der Forschung, 149-192. [This is the title given on the first page of the contribution. The title given in the table of contents is different: Westgoten in Nordgallien aus Sicht der Archäologie. Zum Stand der Forschung]
Antonel Jepure. Interpretationsprobleme der Westgotenarchäologie. Zurück zu den Altgrabungen anhand bisher unausgewerteter Dokumentationen, p. 193-209.
Claudia Theune. Methodik der ethnischen Deutung. Überlegungen zur Interpretation der Grabfunde aus dem thüringischen Siedlungsgebiet, p. 211-233.
Sebastian Brather. Kleidung, Bestattung, Identität. Die Präsentation sozialer Rollen im frühen Mittelalter, p. 237-273. [This is the title given on the first page of the contribution. The title given in the table of contents is slightly different: Kleidung, Bestattung, Ritual. Die Präsentation sozialer Rollen im frühen Mittelalter]
Eva Stauch. Alter is Silber, Jugend ist Gold! Zur altersdifferenzierten Analyse frühgeschichtlicher Bestattungen, p. 275-295.
Karen Højlund Nielsen. Stil II als Spiegel einer Elitenidentität? Der Tierstil von der Herkunftsmythologie bis zum Königssymbolik und Kirchenkunst im angelsächsischen Britannien, p. 297-321.
Lynn Blackmore. Schätze eines angelsächischen Königs von Essex. Die Funde aus einem Prunkgrab von Prittlewell und ihr Kontext, p. 323-340.
Hans-Ulrich Voss. Fremd – nützlich – machbar. Römische Einflüsse im germanischen Feinschmiedhandwerk, p. 343-365.
Jörg Drauschke. Zur Herkunft und Vermittlung “byzantinischer Importe” der Merowingerzeit in Nordwesteuropa, p. 367-423.
Sebastian Brather. Zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter. Zusammenfassung, p. 425-465.


1.. Ian Hacking. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press (1999), p. 97.

2.. Reinhard Wenskus. “Randbemerkungen zum Verhältnis von Historie und Archäologie, insbesondere mittelalterliche Geschichte und Mittealterarchäologie.” In Herbert Jankuhn and Reinhard Wenskus (eds), Geschichtswissenschaft und Archäologie, p. 637-657. Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag (1979).

3.. For his belief that individuals are inaccessible for archaeological research, see Sebastian Brather, “Ethnische Identitäten als Konstrukte der frühgeschichtlichen Archäologie,” Germania 78, 2000, p. 159 and 173.

4.. See Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper. “Beyond Identity,” Theory and Society 29(1), 2000, p. 1-47.

5.. Sebastian Brather. Ethnische Interpretationen in der frühgeschichtlichen Archäologie, Grundlagen und Alternativen. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter (2004), esp. p. 628-630.