Defining Medieval Archaeology
The European Middle Ages or Medieval period begins with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE and ends with the European voyages of discovery in the 15th century CE. The millennium-long era starts with the Migration period (ca. 400600 CE), sometimes known as the “Dark Ages” due to the paucity of written historical sources from this time. During the Migration period, barbarian Germanic tribes overran much of the Western Roman Empire. Roman towns and cities declined, and many Roman industries, such as the pottery industry in Britain, ceased to function. Roman imperial rule was replaced by a series of smaller successor kingdoms. These early successor kingdoms should probably be viewed as chiefdoms rather than small states. Outside the former Western Roman Empire, in regions such as Poland and Scandinavia, an Iron Age way of life continued until about 800 CE. Beginning around the 8th century CE, many regions of medieval Europe underwent substantial social, political, and economic transformations. Both local and long-distance trade networks expanded; new towns and cities were established; and by about 1000 CE, early states were founded in many parts of northern Europe. The study of these processes is of particular interest to anthropologists, since they parallel the processes by which complex societies developed in other parts of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.
The History of Medieval Archaeology
Unlike European prehistory, whose roots can be traced back to the early antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries, the modern discipline of European medieval archaeology did not develop until the years immediately following World War II. Many European cities, including London, England, and Cologne, Germany, are built on medieval foundations. The destruction caused by bombing during the Second World War made it possible to explore the medieval cores of many modern cities for the first time.
Medieval archaeology in Europe developed from two very distinct and different scholarly traditions. Early medieval archaeologists who worked on the Migration period and other early medieval sites were generally trained as prehistorians. Since written records for the early Middle Ages are often quite limited, Dark Age archaeologists rely almost exclusively on the analysis of material remains, such as artifacts, ecofacts, and features, to reconstruct the lifeway’s and culture history of the early medieval inhabitants of Europe. For example, the early medieval (ca. 420-650 CE) village of West Stow in eastern England was discovered by a local archaeologist in 1940. The site does not appear in any historical records. Large-scale excavations, which were carried out at the site by Stanley West between 1965 and 1972, were designed to reconstruct the settlement patterns, subsistence practices, and day-to-day lives of the early post-Roman inhabitants of southeastern Britain. Spatial analysis of the houses, outbuildings, ditches, and pits was used to reconstruct the settlement pattern of the village, and studies of the agricultural and animal husbandry practices carried out there were based on detailed analyses of the floral and faunal remains. The methods and techniques used in the excavation and analysis of the West Stow village were those of European prehistory.
By contrast, the early archaeologists who worked in the later Middle Ages were often trained as historians or art historians. In the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologists working in the later Middle Ages sought to use archaeological data to answer what were essentially historical questions. For example, the initial studies of deserted medieval villages (DMVs) tried to determine whether these villages were depopulated as a result of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in the 14th century or whether their desertion was the result of other late medieval economic and agricultural changes. These questions led Maurice Beresford, an economic historian, to begin excavation of the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in northern England. Excavations at the site were conducted over a period of 40 years, and the goals of the project changed through time. Today, studies of DMVs, including Wharram Percy, have moved beyond their historical origins. Studies of deserted medieval villages have examined the evolution of the medieval village landscape through time, drawing on archaeological, historical, and ecological data.
Modern medieval archaeologists try to integrate both historical and archaeological methods to address multidisciplinary questions of urban origins, state formation, and the transformation of the agrarian landscape through time. However, the position of medieval archaeology in the academy reflects its historical roots. Only a few European universities have stand-alone programs in medieval archaeology. In Europe, most medieval archaeologists are attached either to departments of history or to archaeology programs. A similar situation exists in North America. Medieval archaeologists, especially those working in the Migration period and the early Middle Ages, are generally attached to archaeology faculties within anthropology departments. However, some North American medieval archaeologists can also be found in departments of history and art history.
Medieval Archaeology Today
Medieval archaeologists are playing an increasingly important role in modern anthropology. Anthropologically trained archaeologists recognize that the rich archaeological and historical records from the European Middle Ages can be used to address important questions about the processes of cultural change. Large-scale, long-term excavation projects conducted in a number of European cities have traced the origins and growth of urbanism in the European Middle Ages. The 1961 to 1971 excavations at Winchester in southern England paved the way for many other urban excavation projects. Working with volunteer excavators from British and American universities, Martin Biddle, the director of the Winchester Excavations, explored the history of the city from pre-Roman to postmedieval times. Until the 1960s, scholars thought that modern Winchester retained a Roman street plan. Biddle and his colleagues were able to use archaeological data from a number of sites throughout the town to demonstrate conclusively that Winchester was replanned in the late 9th century in response to the Viking control of much of eastern England. Similar 9th- and 10th-century planned towns have since been identified from other parts of southern Britain. This systematic town planning can be related to the political consolidation of the Anglo-Saxon state under Kind Alfred the Great.
Since the beginnings of the Winchester project, major excavation projects have been carried out at a number of other important medieval cities throughout northern Europe. Excavations at Novgorod in Russia have revealed a corpus of previously unknown documents written on birchbark, as well as many musical instruments and other examples of fine woodworking. The documents contribute to our understanding of the linguistic history of the Slavic languages, and the instruments shed new light on craft specialization in medieval Russia. Excavations at Trondheim in Norway and Lübeck in eastern Germany have provided new information on the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of medieval cities, as well as shedding light on the roles played by trade, craft specialization, and political consolidation in the growth of medieval towns and cities. Archaeologists working at sites such as Ipswich, in England, and Dorstad, in the Netherlands, have also examined the role that long-distance and regional trade may have played in the reestablishment of towns in northern Europe between 750 and 1050 CE. Ipswich and Dorstad were two of a number of emporia or trading towns along the North Sea and the Baltic that served as centers of both manufacturing and trade in the time of Charlemagne.
Long-term survey and excavation projects have also examined the process of state formation in many parts of northern Europe. Archaeological and historical data indicate that beginning in the 8th century CE, early Danish kings began to accumulate a social surplus through tax collection. These early kings minted coins and used their accumulated wealth to support the construction of large public works projects, such as the massive earthwork known as the Danevirke that served as a boundary between Denmark and Germany. Through a comprehensive project of archaeological survey and selected excavations, Tina Thurston of Binghamton University is currently examining the techniques used by the nascent Danish state to incorporate the region of Thy in northern Jutland. Similar projects have been carried out in Scotland and Poland.
One of the most interesting areas of contemporary archaeological research is the study of the Viking colonization of the North Atlantic, beginning about 800 CE. Major excavation projects in York, England, and Dublin, Ireland have uncovered the towns that were established by the Vikings in the British Isles. While the town of Dublin was established by the Vikings, York was a Roman and Anglo-Saxon town that fell to the Viking army in 866 CE. Long-term excavations at the site of Coppergate in York have shown that York’s Viking inhabitants were engaged in a number of crafts including woodworking, metalsmithing, and textile production. Detailed environmental studies have also shed light on diet and disease in Viking York. The results of these excavations are presented to the public at the Yorvik Viking Center, which uses archaeological information to re-create York’s Viking past.
Archaeologists have also studied the Viking colonization of Iceland and Greenland. Before the 1970s, research on the Viking colonization of these islands was based primarily on the study of the sagas, a series of documents that were written in the mid-12th century and later, long after the initial Viking settlement of Iceland around 874 CE and Greenland about 975 CE. Archaeological research has identified many early sites in Iceland. These sites are located along the north and south coasts of the island, as well as in the northern interior of Iceland. These initial settlements led to massive deforestation in Iceland, as woodlands were cleared for animal pastures and for firewood. In many regions of Iceland, the deforestation was followed by substantial soil erosion, rendering many parts of the interior unsuitable for animal husbandry and agriculture.
Archaeological survey and excavation in Greenland have shown that two Viking settlements were established in the late 10th century CE, a larger eastern settlement and a smaller western settlement. Norse settlers in Greenland combined animal husbandry based on herding cattle, sheep, and goats with seal and caribou hunting. The Norse in Greenland were unable to grow grain, and they relied on trade with Europe for both staples and luxury goods. The Norse settlements in Greenland were ultimately unsuccessfully; the smaller, western settlement appears to have been abandoned by 1350 CE, and the eastern settlement failed by the middle of the 15th century. These studies are important because they reveal the limits of the northern European patterns of animal husbandry and agriculture. Farming practices that were established in northern Europe for millennia proved unsustainable in the more fragile, arctic environments of Iceland and Greenland. This research shows how archaeological and environmental data can be combined to provide a well-rounded picture of medieval settlement and subsistence.
- Beresford, M. W., & Hurst, J. (1991). Wharram Percy: Deserted medieval village. New Haven, CT: YaleUniversity Press.
- Biddle, M. (2004). Winchester. In P. Bogucki & J. Crabtree (Eds.), Ancient Europe 8000 B.C.-A.D.1000: Encyclopedia of the barbarian world (Vol. 2,pp. 501-507). New York: Scribners.
- Crabtree, P. J. (Ed.). (2000). Medieval archaeology: An New York: Garland.
- McGovern, T. H., & Perdikaris, S. (2000, October).The Vikings’ silent saga: What went wrong with the Scandinavian westward expansion. NaturalHistory, 109, 50-56.
- Thurston, T. L. (2001). Landscapes of power, landscapes ofconflict: State formation in the South Scandinavian Iron Age. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.