Archaeology Blogging Carnival- Grand Challenges Part 1

Anglo-Saxon burial from West Heslerton
This blog entry is in responses to the blog carnival set by Doug’s Archaeology on The Grand Challenges for Archaeology, which asks  “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”
The first thing to say is that I’m glad that we are being encouraged to home in on our own personal domains within archaeology- the days when scholars like Gordon Childe could be personally familiar with more or less the entire prehistoric archaeology of Eurasia are long gone, and I suspect that we all struggle to keep on top of the literature within our own little disciplinary nests. I’m quite sceptical of the notion of pan-disciplinary grand challenges- they are either so vague as to be meaningless (e.g. social inequality; globalism etc.) or actually not really that pan-disciplinary at all (e.g. the origins of agriculture). I much prefer more localised, specific challenges which have the potential to shed more light on a smaller area.
In the UK we have an established tradition of Research Agendas – such as the Research Agendafor the North-East of England which I’ve been closely involved with or the excellent on-line Scottish ArchaeologicalResearch Framework (ScARF). These to some extent flag up the perceived priorities for the archaeology of local areas- and they are extremely useful and valuable tools. But they are often written from the perspective of what is possible and realistic in terms of future avenues for research – I want in my blogs to be a little more ambitious and think about the question from a slightly more blue sky perspective assuming (of course, incorrectly) that money / time is no object.
I am going to do two entries because my work straddles several chronological periods; in this entry I am going to focus in on the early medieval period which is perhaps my main stamping ground
From my perspective the big challenge is for early medievalists to get to grips with the potential of archaeological science related to population mobility.
For researchers on early medieval England, the twin issues of the Anglo-Saxon ‘migrations’ and the construction of ethnic identity continue to be a contested and lively subject for debate. Put very crudely, there is an ongoing debate about how England became Anglo-Saxon- was it a result of mass Anglo-Saxon immigration and population replacement or small-scale Anglo-Saxon immigration and acculturation of aspects of Anglo-Saxon society by the indigenous British population? Of course, within those two sides of the argument are a wide number of alternative perspectives and the debate is far more subtle and complex than my crude characterisation would suggest.
Over the last 10-15 years we have seen the increased intervention into this debate  by scholars using a range of scientific techniques , particularly bone chemistry (which has the potential to help identify where an individual spent time as a child) and DNA which has the potential to identify relationships between individuals and groups at a variety of scales – this can be done using modern populations and projecting inferences back into the past or increasingly using ancient DNA.  There was a hope that these techniques might have been a magic bullet which could clearly and unproblematically identify the extent of migration into England. However, inevitably the results have not been as clear-cut as everyone originally hoped. As a result there has sometimes been a dismissal of such techniques as unsatisfactory or pointless
My grand challenge is to see a massive increase in the use of these techniques and  crucially a major change in the questions we are trying to ask with them.
The first problem is that when we actually look at the number of sites where these techniques have been used, the figure is tiny- for early medieval England (5th-7thcentury AD) for example, bone chemistry has been used on a handful of sites – West Heslerton, Berinsfield and Wasperton with occasional work on individual burials. This work is very useful in telling us about population movement in individual cemeteries, but of very little use in unpicking the national picture. In early medieval England, the patterns of population movement and the shifting social dynamics across the country are likely to have been massively regionally variables and locally nuanced. The work of archaologists such as Sam Lucy has shown how cemetery rituals could vary widely between local cemeteries- there is no reason to assume the process of population movement would not be as equally as variable. Why should the pattern of population movement in North Northumberland be the same as that in Suffolk, or Herefordshire or the Upper Thames. Equally, variability may be reflected at a very local level too. The only way to address this is to have a large-scale campaign of bone isotope analysis rolled out across tens, maybe hundreds of early medieval cemeteries – allowing us to properly compare and contrast the variation in population patterns across England rather than extrapolate national patterns from a tiny, tiny, handful of sites.
A related challenge is to re-configure the way we talk about the movement of people within early medieval England (and Britain as a whole). Almost the entire debate is couched in terms of Germanic migrations – but there are two problems with this- first, it assumes that all probably population movement was Germanic- yet one of the key things that has out of the isotopic analyses of sites such as West Heslerton and Bowl Hole, Bamburgh, is that people were moving in other directions, including moving west to east as well as east to west. For example, the isotopic analysis of West Heslerton shows as many if not more individuals ending up in the cemetery who had their origins west of the Pennines as east of the North Sea. Yet, because ultimately we take our narratives and hypotheses from Bede and Gildas (quite understandably) we never really address the extent of this alternative direction of travel.
A second problem is we tend to assume all population movement is some form of ‘migration’ and is (a) deliberate (b) long-distance and large-scale. Yet there are lots of other ways in which people might move from their place of origin. For example, there is forced movement through the slavery (for example Patrick’s initial visit to Ireland) and also both local and long-distance movement through other social mechanism such as marriage, internal colonisation or fostering.
It would be great to see for example, a focused campaign of both Ancient DNA and bone chemistry on a regional group of cemeteries, such as those from the Upper Thames valley. This would obviously have the scope to tell us about the extent of population movement from the Anglo-Saxon homelands, but it would also have the potential to tell us as much about the movement of individuals from other parts of Britain (Cotswolds, Midlands, East Anglia) into the area, and also drilling down more closely allow us to address issues about kinship and marriage patterns. Attempts have previously been made to identify related individuals within a cemetery through non-metrical trades, but think of the potential to identify family groups over several generations- identifying individuals marrying in and potentially the movement and budding off of elements of the kin group through fostering elsewhere or marrying into nearby families. Looking at a slightly later period, wouldn’t be great to look at an early medieval monastic cemetery for example and be able to pick up not just whether the monks were local or not, but the extent of inter-relationships between them- were they being drawn from the same family groups or was there far wider recruitment?
Combining this with other elements of grave analysis, this would allow us also to radically increase the subtlety of our understanding of burial rites, the representation of individuals in death and even social mobility. So, rather than obsessively chewing over Germanic Migration let’s try and think about population mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the very local to the international.
Of course there are immense practical challenges- the cost would be astronomical and time / lab resources would be significant. So much of the funding of archaeological science focuses on what is innovative and new at the expense of consolidation and wider application of an existing, effective techniques. Also, we would need to be very careful in couching the questions and interpreting the answers. In the past, some scientific studies were great at identifying patterns but far less effective in providing the contextual analysis, as there was often a lack of archaeologists involved at all stages of the project, although this tendency is improving.  Equally, it is axiomatic that there is clear distinction between biological relationships, geographic origin and ethnic identity. This new data certainly would not be a short cut or magic bullet answering all our underlying questions about early medieval England, but what it would do is open up a lot more very very interesting debates.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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