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This is part of a series of posts commissioned by History Matters in response to the award of the MacArthur ‘genius’ prize to the historian Robin Fleming for her work on archaeological sources. All of the blogs in this series will appear here as they are posted.

In September, the early medieval historian Robin Fleming was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called ‘genius grant’. The MacArthur Foundation’s website praised Fleming for supplementing “the fragmentary and elite-focused written record with comprehensive consideration of material evidence unearthed by archaeologists” in her recent book, Britain after Rome.

For some archaeologists, though, there was something faintly scandalous about the award.[1] The issue was not whether Fleming personally deserved the prize or not. Rather, what riled was the implication in the reporting that archaeologists need historians to interpret their finds for them, and that a historian was apparently being lauded for innovation, just for doing what archaeologists did in their day-job. Underlying this controversy is the relationship, in other words, between the two disciplines of archaeology and history.

There’s no denying that the relations between these two disciplines have sometimes been fraught in the past. Some archaeologists have angrily denounced the ‘tyranny of the historical record’, suggesting that the mere use of written sources subordinates the material to the textual;  others have even attempted to turn that subordination on its head, claiming that history is really a subdiscipline of archaeology, since all written documents (till recently, anyway) have had physical forms (parchment, paper, etc).[2] Historians have responded with what seems like a supercilious indifference, or perhaps worse, condescension, briefly dipping into the material record to “illustrate” a textual argument. These tensions have often been at their most intense over the early Middle Ages (Fleming’s specialism, and mine), when the textual record is thin, and material evidence abundant.

In more recent years, though, the tensions have faded. Now there are few archaeologists who would object on intellectual grounds to reading the works of the Venerable Bede, and few in history departments who do not take the material record seriously, and respect the expertise of its excavators. And rightly so, given that much of the evidence makes a nonsense of the notion of dividing disciplines according to the nature of their preferred source. Manuscripts are indeed physical objects as well as text, but the same is true of many coins. And what should we do with objects like the one shown above, an early medieval stylus, used for writing on wax tablets? Arguments for the absolute priority of text over object, or object over text, break down when confronted with this kind of material. Anyway, specialists in the early Middle Ages – the so-called Dark Ages – just can’t really afford to be picky over their evidence.

So, does this mean all sources equally important and valid in their own way? In absolute terms, yes, of course. But – it’s also equally true that for certain questions, some forms of evidence are more useful than others. For instance, it would be pointlessly self-limiting to study patterns of trade in the early Middle Ages from texts alone, just as it would be self-defeatingly narrow to seek to understand concepts of time using only the material record.[3] And of course, the questions one asks are products of the discipline in which one works, in a process of engagement with both peers and predecessors. In reality, then, the division between archaeology and history is only superficially between two different forms of evidence: it’s actually between two intellectual traditions developed and refined over decades.

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Is this a problem? No, actually – or at least, I don’t think it has to be. And this is where we come back to Fleming’s book. What’s important about Britain after Rome wasn’t that it used archaeological sources. As has been pointed out, that was hardly in itself a novelty. It was that it brought archaeological material (and interpretations) into debates conducted within the discipline of history, in ways which archaeologists hadn’t done before, simply because they work within the field of archaeology, not history. What this illustrates is not that archaeologists need historians as interpreters: but that those interested in the early medieval past are blessed, not cursed, to have two vibrant intellectual traditions working on the same period of time.

Provided experts keep the channels of communication clear, and read each other’s work with open minds, the interplay between two approaches over the same topic has the potential for fruitful ‘cross-fertilisation’, as archaeologists engage with the latest work of historians, and vice versa. It’s a recipe for debate and argument, of course. But when conducted respectfully, debates and arguments aren’t intrinsically bad things. They’re what drives forward our collective understanding of the past.

Charles West is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. You can read his other History Matters blogs here and find him on twitter @pseudo_isidore.

Image: an early medieval stylus, found near Scarborough. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.


[1] See for instance the thread at https://twitter.com/alisonatkin/status/387267883010494464

[2] For instance, Timothy Champion, ‘Medieval archaeology and the tyranny of the historical record’, in  From the Baltic to the Black Sea. Studies in Medieval Archaeology, ed. David Austin and Leslie Alcock (London, 1990), 79-95; Ian Hodder, Reading the past: current approaches to interpretation in archaeology (Cambridge, 1986), who pointed out that in a sense, “history is part of archaeology”.

[3] Excellent studies along these lines include Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, and Derby’s Bede and the End of Time.

Tags : archaeologyarchaeology and historyhistoryinterdisciplinaryMacArthur Grant
Charles West

The author Charles West

4 Comments

  1. I do so agree that interdisciplinary collaboration can only be fruitful and educational for all concerned. Nowadays the sciences are also getting involved with history and archaeology, as genetics and physics help to substantiate speculation regarding the origins of populations and individuals,(a question which much exercises students of the early-medieval and even has relevance for contemporary politics!).This is why it is so short-sighted of the present administration to focus on the sciences at the expense of the humanities, which can only lead to a narrowed understanding of vital issues. As a rather irrelevant example of the benefits of cross-disciplinary inspiration, the man who designed the London Underground map was originally an electrician and so he designed it as a circuit, ignoring all unnecessary detail.

  2. I do agree with you Felicity, but we in the arts have to be careful in our handling of scientific techniques we don’t understand as much as we’d like to think we do. A good case in point (and one I’ll be returning to in a future History Matters blog) is the body of Richard III. In a flurry of headline grabbing announcements, mitochondrial aDNA analysis was heralded to ‘prove’ the body was his. Almost immediately these claims were challenged by established experts (the results had not gone to peer review) such as the New Scientist’s Douglas Haven (who had no personal axe to grind). They rightly pointed out that the original aDNA sequences would have degraded to a sufficient degree that making a direct 500 year link to just two modern relatives was impossible. In truth a great many of us if tested might well show positive to being a Plantagenet! But the archaeologists actually knew this, and given that good old fashioned historical and archaeological research had already proved beyond reasonable doubt that the body was his, why was this dodgy research made so much of? The truth we all know is that the veneer of pseudo-science adds much more credence, and importantly press time, to any discovery within the arts.

  3. I do get your point but I was trying to say that although collaboration between the sciences and humanities can be fruitful for all concerned there there needs to be more balance; the humanities deserve to be given more credence.

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