Slovenia: Alpine Slavs of the Migration Period

For my next contribution to the ABC of world history I’ve drawn S for Slovenia! For which I decided to take the chance to look into my favourite era of Slavic history: the migration period.

When compared with its other south Slavic neighbours, Slovenia definitely has some differences, most of which can perhaps be attributed to its geographical location and features. Being situated on the very eastern edge of the Alps is certainly a significant feature in Slovenian history, as is being on the very western edge of the Balkan region. Unlike the rest of their south Slavic cousins, who spent much of their history under the rule of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Slovenes instead found themselves within the Carolingian, and then the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the differences in history, Slovenia is certainly a south Slavic country, with a language very closely related to that of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and there are distinctly Slavic indigenous Slovenes in neighbouring regions of Italy and Austria.

So what is the story of the first Slavs that settled in the region that was to become Slovenia? To begin with let’s go back to the first Slavs in general. The original term used for Slavs in the region “Sclavenes” was used in sixth century Byzantine sources as an umbrella term for a multitude of groups living north of the Danube frontier which could not otherwise be classified as either Huns or Gepids. They were also mentioned as having appeared at the Byzantine borders along with the “Antes”, another Slavic group which would become known as East Slavs. To these Byantine, largely military authors the Sclavenes were essentially seen as a new kind of enemy to be aware of to the extent that their forms of warfare were different from other barbarians. This likely means that a general Sclavene or Slavic ethnicity was initially an invention of the early Byzantines. But invention does not mean pure fiction, as Byzantine authors seem to have used “Sclavene” to make sense of a process of group identification which was taking place under before their eyes on the frontier of the Empire. An identity did certainly seem to take form during this time, with evidence in distinct styles of material culture spreading amongst these communities north of the Danube. This was perhaps as a direct result of the isolation lack of movement that the fortified frontier caused, as political and military mobilization was the response to the conditions that various groups of proto-slavs took, and increased social competition led to the rise of leaders among them.

Continue reading “Slovenia: Alpine Slavs of the Migration Period”

The Evolution of European Sword Design – From the Romans to Normans

My aim with this topic is to examine the development of European swords through the Medieval period and into the Renaissance, along the way looking at all the details that change throughout that timeframe. I also intend to look at the possible reasons behind the gradual transformations of the sword, be they caused by changes in technology, society, combat styles, or even fashion.

Today I will tackle the first part of this period up until around the 11th to 12th century. Before we go straight into the Early Medieval period however, we do need to find where our starting point originates. Like many things in Medieval Europe, the influence of the Romans is never too far off, and in the case of swords it is no different. The Roman Empire is famous for its use of the ‘gladius’, a relatively short sword with an acute point optimized for stabbing. While this makes for a very deadly weapon when used in a well organised tight formation of troops, all of which would have used the very large ‘scutum’ shield, this sword isn’t incredibly well suited in other situations. A different type of sword started to enter Roman service that was particularly favoured by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries in the early Imperial period. This was the ‘Spatha’, a longer, narrower sword that is more optimised for cutting, and was seemingly inspired by long Celtic Iron Age swords. Initially the spatha was a cavalry sword, suited to the job due to the longer reach it afforded the wielder; up to 100cm as opposed to the 65-85cm of the gladius. Eventually however, in the later Imperial period from around the 3rd Century AD, and until the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the spatha became the primary sword of the infantry. There is still debate on the reasons for this change, with possible theories stemming from the shift in demographic of the Late Roman Army. It appears that more Germanic peoples made up a greater portion of the armies, many of whom even commanded whole legions of their own culture. This may have caused the fighting style to change, with looser formations, lighter more manoeuvrable shields, and these longer swords to take advantage of the greater freedom and space in the melee. Additionally, these Germanic people could have simply chosen to fight with weapons more familiar to them, as the spatha is more similar to Northern European swords of the time. Whatever the reasons, it is ultimately this change that would be the basis for the vast majority of European sword development through the medieval period.

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Examples of gladius and spatha hilts from the 1st to 3rd centry AD

Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire, and until around the 8th Century we have what is known as the Migration Period. Throughout these few hundred years we see very little change in the basic design of the sword from the spatha. The migration period sword is still somewhat different in that the guard and pommel shapes change slightly from the more rounded Roman styles. Initially the guard and pommel pieces seem to become more minimal, with some being simple flat bars, ovals or discs, resulting in swords that have almost no pommel and simply a bar to help retain grip. Early on in this period most of the hilt construction appears to consist of organic materials, generally wood, as well as perhaps some horn and bone elements, very similar to Roman swords. As we move closer to the early medieval period the guards and pommels seem to feature metal more prominently, especially on the more ornate examples that are also heavily jewelled. The metals are mostly gold, silver or copper alloys, although these metals survive much better than Iron, so this could be skewing our statistics. The metal on these swords is mostly in the form of ornate plates covering parts of the grip, or plates in the pommel and guard construction that from a sandwich around a core of organic material.

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Examples of Migration Period sword hilts from 300-400 AD

It is later in the migration period, more specifically going into the Vendel period and the time of the Merovingian dynasty, that these swords start to change again in subtle but significant ways. We start to see pommels changing in shape due to end caps being fitted over the flat bar piece that already exists. The reason for this change is fairly straightforward and is most likely to do with the way sword hilts are constructed. Every sword is made as a single piece in essence, with a thin bar section continuing from the bottom of the blade called the ‘tang’, which is where the sword is held. This keeps the whole sword from having any significant weak points where any joins could be. From there the hilt is basically just slotted onto the tang in order to make the sword more comfortable and easy to hold. With the previous migration period examples the tang was mostly fitted straight to the plate at the pommel end of the hilt, with the affixing method such as rivet or simply the exposed tang being peened. What we get in the later migration period is the appearance of larger end caps on top of this plate, which seemingly started to be used as a way of adding more decorative elements to the hilt without the fragile materials interfering with the strength of the construction. The prominent example of this pommel style is known as the ‘pyramid pommel’. These pommels, and the swords in general, are amazing examples of craftsmanship of the period, with gold elements holding finely shaped garnets in the cloisonné technique, and sometimes added filigree and different textures added under the stones to give different reflections. It is from these end caps that we start to see pommel design turn into the familiar shapes of the Viking age.

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Modern reproduction of the Sutton Hoo sword featuring a typical pyramid pommel

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Gold pommel end caps from the Staffordshire hoard.

Overall it appears that the place of the sword shifted somewhat in the migration period, with it becoming a more high-class weapon that only the very elite could afford. Gone were the days of the large standardised army of the Roman Empire. Small groups and petty kingdoms could scarcely afford to outfit many of their troops with this expensive weapon. Instead we see the spear return to prominence, if it ever left. Much less Iron was required for spears, and they could be far more effective in a basic shieldwall of less disciplined troops than the sword. This could explain why so many examples from this period are so incredibly ornate, when earlier and later swords are generally far more utilitarian.

From the migration period we move into the early medieval period. Possibly also referred to as the ‘Viking age’ or the ‘Carolingian period’. Many of the examples of swords that we will see in this period are commonly known as ‘viking swords’, although very similar styles were used across Europe, such as in Francia and Britain prominently. Again the changes we see are rather minor in overall appearance, but they set some significant precedents that develop later into the medieval period. The first point to be made is that there certainly were the ornate styles of Migration period sword being used well into this time, just as these ‘viking swords’ could be seen after their time of prominence too.  The most striking change we see as we advance in time is that the guards and pommels of swords start to be made entirely of iron or steel. There would still have been many rich examples featuring precious metals and other decoration, but for the most part the organic elements are now confined to the grip alone, which is usually made of leather wrapped wood, or sometimes made of bone, horn, and even wrapped in wire. The hilt styles of these swords appear very similar in shape to earlier examples, with flat bars against the hand on both ends, resulting in a very secure grip on the sword. The pommels are also still made with an added end cap, often still hollow, covering the end of the tang. Although they do start to simplify, with less individual parts until they combine into a single piece as this period comes to a close.

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Wheeler’s typology of viking age sword hilts. The types are in roughly chronological order.

An important part of the development of swords is of course in the quality of the steel being used for the blade. While I couldn’t possibly go into all the details of the metallurgy and smithing processes that combine to make a good sword, now is a good point to mention the basic approach to swordsmithing in this period, as a big change is about to occur. Swords of this early medieval period are famous for having very intricately made ‘pattern welded’ blades. The term ‘damascus steel’ is commonly used for this style of blade construction, but in this case is a misnomer. From the Roman period, through the migration and early part of the Viking age, pattern welded sword blades, and those of other weapons, were very common. This method is essentially a way of making a high quality blade that is strong, flexes but does not bend, and has few weak spots. This was a necessary technique due to large quantities of quality iron not being readily available, as well as the ability to melt steel in order to homogenize it into a uniform structure not being prevalent. So what pattern welding does is it allows you to take pieces of steel of differing qualities and form them into bars or rods and twist them together into various patterns, some of which can be highly decorative as well as functional. The different steels are then ‘forge welded’ together, basically meaning they were heated to a high temperature and hammered into shape until they fuse together. Early forms of this technique had been done for hundreds of years, possibly even by early Celtic smiths, through a method known as ‘piling’ which is mostly just forge welding various pieces together at random or in simple lines. The point here is that by the early Medieval period, pattern welding techniques had been around for centuries and had essentially been perfected. A smith making these complex patterns had reached the peak of forging technology. The significant change that happens in this period is not to do with forging technology, but with smelting technology, which is the earlier stage where the metal is extracted from Iron ore and refined. What actually changed here is the type of furnace being used in this process, going from a type called a ‘bloomery’ to the new ‘blast furnace’, essentially allowing for higher temperatures. This change is commonly thought to have happened around 1000 AD, but it appears to being around 800 AD, so essentially the entirety of the ‘Viking age’ is covered by the slow process of pattern welded swords being replaced by new single steel swords. Many methods did carry on further however, such as the use of forge welding different steels together, notably done to have a softer or more flexible body to the sword, with harder steel on the edges. It is important to mention that the majority of this change comes out of the Carolingian or Frankish Empire, and frequently the high quality swords made there were sought after in surrounding regions, including Scandinavia. This continues to include the famous swords inscribed with the name ‘ULFBERHT’ that seemingly denoted the highly advanced steel being used.

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Excellent examples of pattern welded blades. Made by Patrick Bárta at templ.net

Having covered the material changes of the sword going through the early medieval period, we should finally look at some of the significant changes that occur in the shape of swords and their hilts again before we get to the High Middle Ages post 11th century. The development I mention here is most likely linked to changes in combat techniques that also come from the Carolingian Empire. The whole period I have covered here, from the Roman Empire, through the migration period and the early medieval, has always featured the sword alongside its best friend; the shield. Not just any shield however, but specifically the centre-gripped or boss held shield, a shield held in the middle in a single fist, protected by the metal dome of a ‘boss’, the Viking round shield and the Roman scutum are good examples. Eventually this type of shield gave way to the strapped shield in its various forms, with straps attaching the shield to the forearm. There are several reasons why this change of shield may have taken place, one being the ability to free the hand while still retaining the shield being more suitable for cavalry, an element of the Frankish army that became more prominent in this period, as they were credited with being the origin of the medieval knight. Also, although the centre-gripped shield was more manoeuvrable in certain ways, and more offensive and allowing for greater reach, it could be easily manipulated by the opponent by pivoting the shield around the wielder’s gripping hand. The first strapped shields of this period came in a dome shape which could glance off attacks rather than being pivoted, and the strapping to the arm also helped with this. Ultimately this type of shield would appear to be more useful and sturdy in tight formations of troops, as the face of the shield could more safely be pointed toward the enemy while giving greater cover to the formation from missiles.

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9th Century manuscript image showing dome shields held close to the body.

So why is all this detail on shields relevant to the use of swords? Well the key point here is that these new shields being strapped to the arm were no longer held forward along with the sword hand in combat. Also previous shields would essentially do most of the work in creating openings in the opponent’s defences, and then the sword would be quickly used to exploit them. The strapped shield can no longer function this way, which both leaves the sword hand now more vulnerable, and the sword now being made to do more of the work in combat, rather than just waiting for the time to strike. Dealing with that last point first, the sword would now be more likely to encounter other swords and weapons, and result in opponents entering a ‘bind’, where swords are used to apply pressure on and manipulate each other. This is what you may think of when you imagine proper ‘swordfighting’. So how does the sword adapt to this? First of all we can see the shape of the pommel and guard changing. The pommel will start to become more rounded, and smaller in some cases, allowing the sword to be gripped more comfortably in a point forward position with the blade more in line with the forearm. This allows for the swordsman to exert greater pressure in the bind, as well as attack with the point more easily. The previous method of gripping the sword in more of a right angle to the arm, while seeming more secure in the hand, had a weak point at the grip itself when attempting to apply pressure rather than going for the quick chop. The grip will also change overall by becoming slightly longer, as well as both the pommel and guard starting to curve away from the hand in some examples, all of which gives the hand more room to grip the sword more comfortably in this more forward position. Lastly, to deal with the issue of vulnerability of the hand, the guard of the sword will now truly become a crossguard. Early examples begin to have slightly longer guard pieces, until they eventually become much longer, as well as thinner to help accommodate for the weight as they get larger.

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Examples of late 10th to 11th century swords. Made by albion-swords.com

It is these developments all together that start to bring us towards the ‘arming’ sword of the high middle ages, the most prominent of which we may know of at the period around 1000 AD would be those famously wielded by the Normans, such as in the Bayeux tapestry. The improvement in smelting technology gives the appearance of a single-steel sword, and the new requirements in combat and use of different shields start to lengthen the grip, change the pommel first into slightly rounded or ‘brazil nut’ shapes, before the iconic circular pommel, and then the true ‘crossguard’ comes into existence.

With this important transition taking place, I will stop there. Keep an eye out for my next post on this topic where swords start to evolve more drastically and rapidly throughout the rest of the medieval and following renaissance period, including changes to the overall shape and length of the swords, the first longswords and two-handed swords, and various blade types meant for specific purposes.

What Is The Migration Period? – Part 1: The Romans and The Goths

Before I studied history I didn’t know a lot about certain periods, one of which was the apparent gap between the time of the Romans and the beginning of the true Medieval period. Eventually I found out that this is known as ‘The Migration Period’. This period of history is often overlooked in many places, and is almost entirely absent from any form of popular culture or even popular history. It is often lumped in with most of the Early Medieval period and labelled ‘The Dark Ages’, a term used to depict Europe as having no advancement in the time following the end of the Roman Empire that is now disregarded by modern historians. So seeing as there seems to be such little common knowledge of the period I’m going to try and give an overview of what the Migration Period was, and which people were migrating where.

Depending on how you look at it the Migration Period could be defined either as a result or cause of the tragic collapse of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476), or defined by pressures from the East, most notably the Hunnic and Gothic peoples pushing their way west and causing further migration. You’ll get a different image of the period based on the viewpoint of the historian, Medieval or contemporary Roman writer you read from. However it is a difficult period in which to pin down many of the causes and effects, and which way around they were, but given that the period is generally considered to have lasted around 300 years from about AD 300 to 600, with possibility of going back further, it is likely that most theories of the factors that invoked the change and turbulence of the Migration Period all played a part.

In this first part I will cover the changes in the Roman Empire went through in the Migration period until the fall of the Western Empire in the late 5th Century, as well as the migrations of the Goths from their origins until their settlement and founding of two separate kingdoms in former Roman lands.

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Invasions of the Roman empire, shows most of the major migration paths of the period

The Romans

The Migration Period has a great deal of overlap with the period of Late Antiquity defined by the Roman Empire, and even though it isn’t always good to look at such a wide ranging historical period such as this solely from the point of view of the Mediterranean as some do, there is also no avoiding the influence of the Romans on much of Europe at this time.

It is common to see the end of the Roman Empire described as the ‘fall’ or ‘collapse’, which makes it seem as if they were defeated or destroyed outright, whereas it should really be seen as more of a gradual decline. The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent around AD 100. It entirely encompassed the Mediterranean Sea and stretched from The Atlantic to Mesopotamia. The Empire had a comprehensive civil administration based in thriving cities with effective control over public finances. The Empire’s power allowed it to maintain extreme differences of wealth and status and its wide-ranging trade networks permitted even modest households to use goods made by professionals far away. Its financial system allowed it to raise significant taxes which, despite some corruption, supported a large regular army of trained, supplied, and disciplined professional soldiers.

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The Roman Empire at its full extent of power

Moving onto the end of the 4th Century AD and onwards, the Roman Empire appears a very different place. After multiple defeats, civil wars, plague and other internal strife the Empire was split in two, into the Western and Eastern Empires. The effectiveness of the Roman military, financial and political machines greatly dwindled over time as a long series of Emperors were seen as incompetent. Military forces were largely defensive border forces made up of local recruits and ‘barbarians’ with limited training and supply, leading to them moving away from central control and becoming more independent. Corruption, in this context the diversion of public finance from the needs of the army, may have contributed greatly to the Fall. The rich senatorial aristocrats in Rome itself became increasingly influential during the 5th Century; they supported armed strength in theory, but did not wish to pay for it or to offer their own workers as army recruits. At a local level, from the early 4th Century, the town councils lost their property and their power, which often became concentrated in the hands of a few local despots beyond the reach of the law.

It is generally agreed that the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 when Odoacer deposed the Emperor Romulus. the Western Roman Emperor wielded minimal military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman, and was probably past the point of no return long before 476. Invaders had established their own power in most of the area of the Western Empire, many of which were still portrayed as ‘clients’ of the Empire, when in reality they ruled in their own right. While its legitimacy lasted for far longer than any real power, the Western Roman Empire never had the strength to rise again.

The Goths

The Gothic people played a large part in the Migration Period, after fighting on behalf of and against both the Romans and the Huns in different circumstances, they eventually settled into two separate kingdoms in former Roman lands towards the end of the Migration Period.

The Goths were an East Germanic people who are thought to have originated in Southern Sweden from where they migrated to Gothiscandza in present day Poland in the 1st Century AD. They then eventually migrated East all the way to the Pontic Steppe where they adopted the ways of the Eurasian nomads. The first Greek references to the Goths lump them in with the local Scythians despite them being unrelated.

By the 4th century, the Goths had divided into two main branches, the Visigoths, who became foederati of the Roman Empire, and the Ostrogoths, who joined the Huns. The Goths became heavily Romanized during the 4th Century. This came about through trade with the Romans, as well as through Gothic membership of a military covenant, which was based in Byzantium and involved pledges of military assistance. Reportedly, 40,000 Goths were brought by Constantine to defend Constantinople in his later reign, and the Palace Guard was mostly composed of Germanic soldiers, as the quality and quantity of the native Romans troops kept declining.

The Visigoths, despite previously having fought on the side of the Romans again attacked them. From AD 401 they were led by Alaric I in an invasion of Italy and in AD 410 they successfully besieged Rome and sacked it. The Visigothic leaders wanted influence over the Roman Empire and supported the usurper Attalus against Emperor Honorius. After this they moved on to Hispania and Gaul and spent the next few years diplomatically playing competing factions of Germanic and Roman commanders against one another to skilful effect, and taking over cities such as Narbonne and Toulouse . Emperor Honorius eventually enlisted them to provide Visigothic assistance in regaining nominal Roman control of Hispania from the Vandals, Alans and Suevi.

In 418, Honorius rewarded his Visigothic federates under King Wallia (reigned 415-419) by giving them land in the Garonne valley of Gallia Aquitania on which to settle, from which formed the Visigothic Kingdom. In 507, the Visigoths were pushed into Hispania by the Frankish Kingdom following the Battle of Vouillé in 507. By the late 6th century, the Visigoths had converted to Christianity. They were conquered in 711 when the Muslim Moors defeated Roderic during the Umayyad conquest of Hispania, but they founded the Kingdom of Asturias in 718 and began to regain control under the leadership of the Visigothic nobleman Pelagius of Asturias, whose victory at the Battle of Covadonga began the centuries long Reconquista. It was from the Asturian kingdom that modern Spain and Portugal evolved.

As for the other half of the Gothic people, In the 4th Century, the Ostrogothic king Ermanaric became the most powerful Gothic ruler, coming to dominate a vast area of the Pontic Steppe which possibly stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as far eastwards as the Ural Mountains.

In 454 AD, the Ostrogoths successfully revolted against the Huns at the Battle of Nedao and their leader Theoderic the Great invaded what is now Italy in 488 and settled his people there, founding an Ostrogothic Kingdom which eventually gained control of the whole Italian peninsula. The Goths were briefly reunited under one crown in the early 6th century under Theodoric the Great, who became regent of the Visigothic kingdom following the death of Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé in 507. The Ostrogothic kingdom persisted until 553, when Italy returned briefly to Byzantine control.

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The maximum extent of Gothic territory under Theoderic in 523


Come back soon for part 2 of my run through of the lead players of the Migration period where I will take a look at some of the other Germanic tribes, the Saxons, the Franks, the Slavs and the Huns.

Burial Practices in Early Medieval Northern Europe

Today we are going to talk about something that my archaeology friends find fascinating, and most other humanist consider as particularly gross – the dead. Death is a key moment in anyones existence – dare I say The Most Crucial? But it can be quite a nasty and blunt topic to discuss. Nevertheless, in the medieval period, the dead were still important for their societies, in a way or another. And burials could create a great deal of tension in certain communities. After all, we have to consider these people were far more influenced by religion and belief than perhaps our modern society – or so we think…Anyway, strap on your seatbelts and jump on the cart…(trying really hard not to make a Monty Python joke here…too late!).

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The world of the early middle ages was one of religious diversity. Both pagans and Christians coexisted for some centuries, each of them with different practices related to the veneration of their deities and the rituals this implicated. Like in many other cultures, just like nowadays, death was another step in life. However, death involved the reunion of the deceased with his ancestors and even with the Gods, therefore it is understandable that burials and other practices related with death represent religious connotations of these individuals.

Starting with a classic the account of Ibn Fadlan on Viking burials on the other hand provides details of the actual Scandinavian rites of death; from the moment in which the corpse was temporarily buried to the burning of the funerary ship. If you have seen The 13th Warrior , you probably get the idea: human sacrifice, chanting, party, the Angel of Death and her spooky predicaments…Nonetheless, there is a major problem in relying on this type of sources – Fadlan I mean, not the movie – religious bias, judgement and exaggeration.

The situation is slightly different once the archaeological records are approached. Think of the Ogam stones from Ireland or the Pictish Class I stones. Even though they provide us with key information about the practice of burials (the disposal of the bodies, the grave-goods they used, etc.) there are still problems in understanding the religious convictions of the different individuals interred. It is usually assumed that if the orientation of the grave is east-west and has no grave-goods then the burial is Christian, while if it is flexed and presents irregularities it is most likely to be pagan, but it does not always work like that. In addition, it has to be considered that throughout time graves have been re-used or even robbed, leaving both archaeologists and historians without their original context – and as you know I am a fan of context, because contact is crucial.

One could easily assume that interments within a churchyard with no grave-goods are most likely Christian burials, as the members of the Church would not let a non-Christian disturb their eternal place of rest. Moreover, we have the reassurance that certain type of graves and markers are most certainly Christian, due to a prolonged and consistent use of these. For example, head box graves at least from the 7th century onwards seem to have a clear Christian connotation. These and similar types of graves would be decorated or marked by the sign of the cross, or the chi-rho symbol which is the most explicit  form of identifying Christian iconography. In addition, it seems likely that the Ogam stones of Cork and Kerry with the ANM inscription are related to Christian individuals as well, as the language used in them is Latin, or Latin influenced, and usually contain the depiction of the cross. The same could be said about the stones marked in their wider face with Maltese crosses, which have been dated from sometime between the 6th and the 8th century from Ireland to the Hebrides and that have clear parallels in the continent.

In the same way, certain practices could be considered, and have been considered pagan per se. Cremations have been regarded as pure pagan practice and have not been questioned by historians for a long time. Primary Frankish sources refer to this burning of dead men´s bodies as pagan rites and such practice was retaliated by capital punishment. In addition, the burials with grave-goods, especially horses, or horse related artefact, are usually considered a pagan practice which was particularly prominent in the Germanic speaking areas. In Frisia unlike anywhere else both cremation and horse burial practice carried on as late as the 9th century. There are other odd burials that are commonly regarded as non-Christian: human sacrifices. This seems quite prominent in Scandinavian and Germanic lands – remember Ibn Fadlan and the 13th Warrior? We even references to human sacrifice in the Carolingian capillary regarding Saxony. It states that “if anyone shall have sacrificed a man to a devil, and after the manner of the pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death” (in P.E.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, p. 67). These sort of practices would be unacceptable for the Christian Church as only God has rights on someone else’s life and therefore they should be regarded as purely pagan, with certainly no room to even consider malpractice.

But what seems non sensical, is the fact that we seem to want to establish this very clear-cut between what was pagan and was not. The idea that both religious beliefs shared time and ground with no interaction or exchange of any kind might seem reasonable to some, but highly unlikely. Approaches by imitation might have taken place before the conversion of these people, and for sure once Christianity installed itself in these new lands, lending and borrowing would have happened in order to provide the lay population with an easier transition. In Ireland, for example, there was an old pre-Christian custom to make lamentations or ‘keening’ for the deceased. There are reference to such practice in both the Bigotian and the Old Irish penitential. The first one seems sympathetic towards the subject as long as the lament is made for a good person, imitating therefore practices of Jacob from the Old Testament.The other, on the other hand, condemns such a practice by fifty nights of penance. Possibly the reason why this source is more strict, without totally prohibiting such a ritual, is to promote proper praying for the soul in religious mannerism rather than folk practice. These weird ideas and performances regarding the dead and religious ritual, reach their peak with generally considered to deviant burials: those in which the ritual has been altered as due to the unorthodoxy of the burial itself.  S.L.Fry suggests that usually this deviation is caused in order to dishonour the dead. However there seems to be a pattern: murderers, suicides, unbaptised children, women who died during or shortly after childbirth, as well as strangers. In any of these cases Christian burial was denied, and so it is possible that many deviant burials might have been identified as pagans when they were not such a thing. A similar case can be appreciated especially in the Cillin burials in Carrowkeel from the 9th to the 11th century, which present even more issues as the orientation of the graves was east-west, but the corpses were flexed and in odd positions. Nonetheless, this coincides with a well-spread tradition performed by Anglo-Saxons – to have a separated area for the disposal of child burials, like in Rands Furnells, Northamptonshire, and even other place in Northern Europe such as Norway during the 9th and 11th century like in the cathedrals of Trondheim and Hamar.

So what can be said about these practices? Where they Christian or pagan, or none? If one looks at Scandinavian rune-stones it could be argued that these memorials were mainly used for Christian purposes, in the same way a grave-slab would be, however they were developed from a pre-Christian practice and contained pagan elements. Even when their use was purely Christian, especially in Denmark, odd inscriptions can be found in these stones in the shape of curses, spells, and even invocations of Thor. The same sort of thing could be said about both Ogam and Pictish stones; all of them most likely started being a pagan symbol, changed slightly, but carried out with pejoratively the same purpose throughout the Christian era. It is true that certain aspects of burial practices and their associated rituals can be identified as being from Christian faith or pagan belief but unfortunately the matter cannot be answered in too a simplistic manner. There are issues like the nature of certain deviant burials that religion cannot explain. The fact that more than one person was interred in the same grave does not necessarily mean pagan. Maybe the grave was simply re-used, as it commonly happened, or it was rather a cultural marker for multiple deaths that would have seem exceptional for such small populations and therefore was reflected in the odd features of their death rituals. However, and leaving on the side all the scepticism this subject might cause, one could definitely argue that there was a level of religious consciousness that affected people’s choices when proceeding to death rites. And perhaps it was selfishness, and the reassurance that life after death was obtainable. It is quite possible that the desire for saving the soul of the deceased – as well as that of those performing the ritual –  made them incorporate elements from both Christian and pre-Christian traditions so they could have all the guidance needed in death in the same way it would have been when they were alive.

 

Nationalmuseet: A Walk Around the Danish Prehistory Gallery at National Museum of Denmark

Hello everybody! I was very recently in Denmark exploring the land, trying to be a Viking and all that. Me being museum girl, I obviously ended in the Nationalmuseet…And I didn’t want to leave! This place holds the Best (and I meant that, truly) collection of pre-historic finds I have ever seen. Yes, I have been in the British Museum. Yes, I have travelled through France countless times, and yes the Altamira Caves are in my home land…Yet, I was blown away by this exhibition. The displays were fantastic. The information was neat, clear and well put together. There were handouts for those who wanted them, and the items were just amazing –  we are talking of things I had even study and seen in Powerpoint slides in my Undergraduate and Masters lectures. And I tell you, the pictures do not make them justice. So, with the information I gathered, some pictures I took (apologies if the quality is not at its very best) i will give you a walk about of why going to the Nationalmuseet is a must!…And you know the best part of this particular site? Yeah, It IS Free.

Entrance to the exhibition - clear and illustrative display pannels. Very well done in my modest opinion!
Entrance to the exhibition – clear and illustrative display panels. Very well done in my modest opinion!

The exhibition looks to walk through the highlights of Danish Prehistory, from the 13000 BC to the 1050AD. That means, technically from our point of view, that the include the Viking Age into their “prehistory”. This makes sense if we consider the lack of written sources, and the fact that there is a prolonged and sustained continuation of traditions and cultural patterns in the Old Norse, stretching from dare I say the Stone Age, up to our concept of the Early Middle Ages. Scandinavia was relatively isolated from the rest of Europe and that allowed for this status quo to continue for as long as possible…Some would argue that this changed with the appearance of the ruling dynasties of Northern Europe. However, my stand point is that the actual cutting point of old/ancient/whatever you want to call it Scandinavia is represented by the official adoption of Christianity as their religion – this is really what shook their world. Therefore, I am happy with this category and approach that the Nationalmuseet provides. In any case, the whole exhibition is composed of 24 rooms. I do not have pictures that necessarily follow this pattern, but I did a walk through the entire thing, so it should be well enough represented – if not room by room, nearly.

Starting in the Stone Age, the most striking and important archaeological find in the museum is the burial below.

The Vedbaek burial of a woman with her child. She must have been around 40 years old, and the child around 3. The flint knives on the child's body suggest it may have been a male.
The Vedbaek burial of a woman with her child. She must have been around 40 years old, and the child around 3. The flint knives on the child’s body suggest it may have been a male.

It has been dated from around 7000 years ago. The reasons of their deaths are unknown. However the skull of the woman presents and earlier injury on her neck – but it is difficult to determine if this actually killed her or not. She is also buried with a hair pin and the beak of a grebe.

More examples of the display pannels
More examples of the display panels

The following polished flints really grabbed my attention. If you have been in the Museum of London, you’d have seen similar things to this display. However the sheer quantity and clearly amazing craftsmanship sets them aside. The ones of the left of the picture were found in Maglehojs Vange, at the west of Copenhagen in 2001 during a drainage dig. The set on the right comes from Hagelbjerrggard near Ringsted. They were found in the 70s, while ploughing.

Hoard of flint finds 3700-3500 BC
Hoard of flint finds 3700-3500 BC

All the amber in the world: there were 5 display layers in total with amber found in Denmark
All the amber in the world: there were 5 display layers in total with amber found in Denmark

The next item is a beautiful piece of pottery (I could have photographed every vase in that case, because they were all brilliant, but this one is special).

Funnel bowl from Skarpalling, Himmerland c. 3100 BC
Funnel bowl from Skarpalling, Himmerland c. 3100 BC

The Skarpsalling Vessel, is one of the finest example of complex pottery design from the Neolithic. It was discovered in a burial mound, and its decoration is believed to have had ritual significance for the interment or the trip into the afterlife.

Moving on to the Bronze Age now – This picture was taken particularly for Alex! 🙂

2 swords from either Romania or Hungary. Dated from c.1600 BC, and found in Stendsgard and Torupgarde
2 swords from either Romania or Hungary. Dated from c.1600 BC, and found in Stendsgard and Torupgarde

The Egtved Girl is out next stop. This was a very important find for the understanding of textiles in pre-historic times. I am sure the picture I took shows why!

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The Egtved Girl Burial

The oak coffin contained the remains of a young woman, aged between 16-18. It is believed that she was buried during the summer of 1370 BC. The archaeologists even found some skin, hair and teeth. Her dress was composed of a knee-length skirt made of cords and a short woollen bodice (very “modern” in current fashion terms). She was buried with some yarrow plant too, which is one of the factors that determined her burial must have taken place during the summer season. She was also accompanied by the charred boned of a young boy, aged 5-6. Recently, she had been subject of controversy as it seem that the analysis of strontium of her hair and teeth, the experts have determined she was born in the area of the Black Forest (Germany). So we could be looking at the burial of someone special. She had would have travelled to get to Denmark, but for what reasons? Was she a slave? Perhaps a young bride? Or maybe some sort of seer or healer? The interment of yarrow may be indicating that this woman had some sort of otherworldly connection.

Now the next item is one of the reasons why I went to the museum. And you should too! I have studied this piece, and now that I have seen it close, I can confirm it is the symbol of an era.

Solvognen - The Sun Chariot
Solvognen – The Sun Chariot

The Sun Chariot. I remember a cold Winter afternoon, sitting in a lecture room hearing Dr. Nick Thorpe talking about the Bronze Age and bringing this up on the screen. There is no wonder this item has instigated curiosity in the heart of archaeologists, as there is no other like it in the world. The bronze, gold-plated disk dates from around 1400 BC. It is the epitome of Celtic believe: the Sun being pulled by a horse. These were the two biggest cults through the Bronze Age and that have been found all over Europe.

Moving on, the following is another controversial find. And one that clearly influenced the Viking myth of horned helmets.

Horned helmet from the bog Vikso Mose, near Ballerup (Northern Zealand). c. 900 BC
Horned helmet from the bog Vikso Mose, near Ballerup (Northern Zealand). c. 900 BC

No. I know what you are thinking, and no, these were not taken into battle! They were rather ritualistic items! In fact, it is believed that as they represent they horns of the bull (another important cult animal within Bronze Age believe), these would have been worn by a priest for ceremonial purposes. It is likely they would have been adorned by feathers at the ends of the horns, and perhaps horsehair in the middle like a crest. Also, consider how inconvenient horned helmets would have been while fighting! Particularly when made out of Bronze! – If you do not believe me, speak with Alex, and he will tell you everything you need to know about them.

Found in 1926, in Fardal (central Jutland). Supposedly women's ornaments: horses heads, bird figurine, kneeling woman and a snake. Dated from c. 800 BC
Found in 1926, in Fardal (central Jutland). Supposedly women’s ornaments: horses heads, bird figurine, kneeling woman and a snake. Dated from c. 800 BC

More displays of Celtic/Bronze Age believe. The Sun always leading the way. These two stones found in Zealand and dating from around 1100-700 BC, are an indicator of the long-lasting practice of this cult. The one of the left is from Jaegersborg Dyrehave, depicting the sun on a boat. The one of the right is portraying a dance in honour of the sun, and was found in Engelstrup.

Sun images

Display indicating the journey of the sun and its symbolism
Display indicating the journey of the sun and its symbolism. It was very nicely done, and never seen something so neat for this explanation, so I thought it may be appreciated.

Still in the Bronze Age, another epic (for the lack of other word) display in room 13.

Lurerne - Bronze Age Lurs c. 1700-500 BC
Lurerne – Bronze Age Lurs c. 1700-500 BC

These musical instruments are from the later end of the Bronze Age. They may not seem like much in this section of the picture, but the entire display case was as big as my bathroom – honestly, there was loads of them and in top condition. Their shape is probably modelled after an ox horn. It seems that in Danish finds, these instruments come in pairs, and are always found in bogs, where they were probably interred as sacrificial offerings. We know from Swedish rock carvings that lur players took part in processions, and it is likely their music was fundamental for ceremonial purposes.

Bronze-Age display of shields - almost perfect state of conservation!
Bronze-Age display of shields – perfect state of conservation!

Rune stones : they had a collectiong or like 4 or 5 of them. All dating from Pre-history up to the Viking Age.
Rune stones : they had a collection or like 4 or 5 of them. All dating from Pre-history up to the Viking Age.

Another big player in the Celtic world – The Dejbjerg Wagon. Again, in a lecture with Dr. Thorpe we had a vivid discussion about these artefacts. There have been several burials across Europe involving wagons. Therefore one can assume their sacrificial purpose is obvious, and in fact this one was dismantled and buried in a peat bog for that purpose. However, these items could be indicating more than just ritual. These would have been genuine methods of transport, even if locally – and this comes across as a certainty after having visited Trelleborg (I’ll talk about that in another post), where the settlement had a cross of wooden paths used to transport goods from side to side and out into the surrounding villages! I believe there are further studies relating to this concerning some wagon findings in Yorkshire that would suggest the same hypothesis. Moreover, these are great displays of power by the magnates of the settlements. So it is likely they may have been used in rituals of gift giving, carrying their master across the settlement while giving away treasure. In any case, they are truly remarkable.

The Dejbjerg Wagon
The Dejbjerg Wagon

Next, and jumping into the Iron Age, we have a fantastic piece, of international renown, and one of the master pieces of the museum. The Gundestrup Cauldron.

The Gundestrup Cauldron
The Gundestrup Cauldron

It weights nine kilos! And it was made c.100 BC in the Balkans, and then exported to Denmark. It was found once again in a bog burial, as a sacrificial item. Due to the great craftsmanship and incredible wealth, it is supposed this was offered to the gods rather than just buried with its owner. It is a pity I could not take a picture of the inside of the item (it is protected by a very thick glass), but the carvings are simply mind-blowing. It is decorated with all sorts of animals, mythical creatures, and deities.

Skin shoes found in the Ronbjerg Mose bog. In western Jutland, c.2-1 century BC
Skin shoes found in the Ronbjerg Mose bog. In western Jutland, c.2-1 century BC

Continuing with our Iron Age trip, we encounter this!

The Warship from Hjortspring
The Warship from Hjortspring

The vessel was unearthed in the 1920s out of the bog known as Hjortspring Mose, on the island of Als (Sonderjylland, south Denmark). It was built between 400-300 BC, and it is 18 meters long. It is the oldest find of wooden plank ship in Scandinavia. It contained several weapons, armours and war gear, indicating that its sinking may have been for ceremonial purposes (notice a trend?). A boat of these dimensions would have required a crew of at least 20 men, and it is supported that before it was sunk, it would have been in battle. The interpretation of the museum is that an army of around 80-100 men would have come to the island on a fleet of 4-5 of these boats. the launched the attacked but they failed, thus the victorious native population buried the ship with the belongings of their defeated enemies.

Finally, my last stop in the Danish Iron Age – the burial of a clearly wealthy lady.

The Woman of Himlingoje
The Woman of Himlingoje

It has been estimated that the deceased was around 40-50 when her life came to end. She was buried with a brooch inscribed with the name widuhudaR, which is male. So it is contested whether this is the signature of the smith that made the fine item, or a gift from a man to this female. Interestingly this burials presents a clear sign of Roman influence: a Charon’s coin was found in her mouth, as a way to pay for her passage into the afterlife. There are several pieces that are of Roman made in her grave: drinking vessels, beads and arms rings. The question remains whether she was of Norse or Mediterranean origin. Perhaps she was a native with clear connections with the empire, and that may have been the source of her power and wealth.

Ok so we are nearly finished now. I would just like to incorporate, and end this post as the museum does: with the Viking Age. To my surprise, there was a considerable lack of Viking artefacts on display. However, these is a legitimate reason for this. Many of you may know that currently there is an exhibition about the Vikings organised by the Nationalmuseet going around. It stopped at the British Museum in 2014 under the name Vikings: Life and Legend. So a few of these items are currently on loan elsewhere for different displays. Nevertheless, I captured a few things… These are of importance to me. Why these and no others. Well first for the lack of certain items as I just explained. Secondly, because they relate to my research! 😉

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Explanation panels of the Vikings

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Recreation of a typical Old Norse woman dress

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Yet another wonderful panel explaining the different art styles of the Viking Age. Nice and easy point of reference.

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An entire display showing the image of the Vikings in popular culture…Were you expecting me to miss it?

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2 traditional gilt bronze brooches. Interesting find this one from Lerchenborg, as they found inside the brooches beads of silver, glass and rock crystal, a Frankish costume brooch made of silver, another silver pendant with silver chain, as well as Frankish, Scandinavian and two Arab coins!

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More jewellery from the Viking Age – featuring more common pendants, and coloured beads. These would be part of anyones attire.

Well, this is all for me now. But there are more reviews and travel posts from my trip to Denmark coming up, so…Keep an eye out! Hope you enjoyed it, perhaps even as much as I did!

A Visigoth Interview: Daniel Gómez Aragonés

I met Daniel some years ago, as my parents were living in Toledo (Spain). He happened to frequent their workplace, and moreover, it would seem we were involved in the same Spanish medieval history magazine! What are the chances? Yet, it happened, and by chance I got to meet a formidable Spanish scholar, who is madly in love with the Visigoths! Daniel’s enthusiasm for the Visigoth culture is fueled with passion, and the fantastic atmosphere from where he lives: Toledo, the ancient Spanish capital. So I dared asked him if he would be so kind of sharing his research and true love with us and- although I had to do some translation- here it is. I hope you enjoy it!!!

Tell us about your Research

I was already interested in the Visigoth Hispanic past by the time I stated university and, in fact, as soon as I finished my degree, I started working towards my PhD in this period of history. So, I began my work for the DEA diploma (diploma of advanced studies) regarding the Visigoth and neo-Visigoth movement in Toledo from the 16th to the 17th Centuries, so I could investigate the actual image there was of the culture of Visigoth Toledo a thousand years after its apogee. This involved working with a lot of historiographical material and the earliest type of local histories produced in Toledo regarding every aspect that had anything to do with its culture, religion, identity and ideology. At the same time I started working in some of my first articles and sharing my knowledge about my specialty.

Once my DEA was approved, I jumped into my thesis, however this is currently work in progress-actually more in stand-by than anything else, as I was given the chance to publish my first book! This one was more focused on the actual Visigoths from a military and political point of view. And once I thought I was done with the book and could get back to the thesis, turns out that the editorial decided they wanted a second book, and then a third book…And so on and so forth until today, where I am in means of producing said third volume. All of this work is on the political/military subject- I do feel pretty confident about it and I do actually enjoy working on this area and sharing it with other people this distant but otherwise deeply fascinating time period. I am of the opinion that the dissemination of history is extremely important and necessary nowadays, so i have decided to follow this path, to provide exceptional and quality research for the public as well as good historiographical work.

So Why the Visigoths?

That’s an excellent question Lillian, and even though some may consider it rude to answer a question with yet another question, I say to you: and why not?! Certainly, this is something a lot of people ask me and have asked in the past when we have been in open discussions, interviews or forums, and my answer is always the same. I am quite fond of epic history (yes, epic), and I quickly found myself all tangled up with everything linked with the Visigoths. So I decided this was going to be my path- Plus, living in Toledo, it seemed natural to pursue this route. After all, it was during the Visigoth period that the pillars of the nation were settled, and I believe in these turbulent times we live in, it is important to know where we come from; return to the roots, to our identity and historic ancestry.

Now, tells us about your book success!

Well, I am obviously very, very happy with the success of my first two books. The first book was only published in 2013 under the title “La invasión bizantina de Hispania 533-625. El Reino Visigodo frente a la expasión imperial” (Ed. Almena) – trans. as The Byzantine invasion of Hispania 533-625. The Visigoth Kingdom against the imperial expansion- and then in 2014 I published “El esplendor del Reino Visigodo de Toledo” (Ed. Covarrubias) – trans. as The Splendour of the Visigoth Kingdom of Toledo. I am always thrilled when I get word that someone has read any of them, as I am aware they talk about subjects not entirely familiar to most. However, my exciting and entertaining way of approaching the time frame is helping to remove this barrier. In addition, the great reception of these two volumes has contributed to further dissemination as I have taken part in radio programs, press publications, all sorts, even activities such as tourism routes in Toledo and surroundings. Now, I am working hard on the third book, which I hope will be just as good as the other two, and I hope the audience enjoys just as much or even more. More importantly, I hope the readers will get my enthusiasm and will get imbued with a deep desire for historic knowledge.

What can you tell us about the current state of this field and its historiography in Spain, as well as in Europe?? I am ware, like you said, that it is not a particularly popular subject.

Hmmm, that is a tricky question. In case you didn’t know, the Visigoth period has suffered, and I think still suffers, from an acute stigma within Spanish culture. I think this is mainly due to the educational system in Spain, and how polarised history is within this system. Effectively, the Goth and Visigoth period of Spanish history is barely mentioned in school texts books, nor even in high-school or college, were the knowledge should be in more depth. And this is very sad, considering that many of the aspects that built our society, sparked from the Visigoth period. On the other hand, we do count with some of the best experts in the subject, such as Garcia Moreno, or Orlandis whose works are simply spectacular. However, in Europe the period of Migration after the fall of the Roman Empire is in good shape. There is a lot of work invested in the Germanic tribes. I think as we are finally moving away from the concept of the Dark Ages, we are eventually obtaining good results regarding this area- although with and after a lot of work and effort, that goes without mention. It is true however, that little by little this discipline is become more widely available in Spain, not only from an academic point of view, but for the everyday consumer too. But there is a lot of work to do, especially in what regards the education of our own youngsters, and within my area of influence- the dissemination press. There is still a long road ahead of the Visigoth Hispania, to put it back in the books and on the spotlight it so well deserves. Therefore, I’ll take this opportunity to invite everyone to have a look and get into our long but interesting Visigoth king list!

Thanks a lot for this opportunity and for your attention.

A Visigoth Hug!

We would like to thank Daniel for a fantastic interview and the best of luck with his next book!!!