Where archaeology and history meet

Last week, where they met was at the first Institute of Historical Research seminar of the year, which was a joint meeting with the Institute of Archaeology. And the paper, by Richard Hodges on ‘Dark Age Economics in 2006’, was not a good example of how the disciplines might collaborate productively (although I wouldn’t go quite as far as the distinguished historian next to me, who commented ‘absolute tripe’ at the end).

One of the problems was that much of it was archaeology for the archaeologist, starting with a lot of discussion of theoretical spatial models of settlements and economies. This assumed that you were already well up on the debate, but it also wasn’t clear how well the models actually fitted what was on the ground. For example, Hodges was talking about the possibility of periodic trade at beach-heads, temporary coastal meeting points, but it wasn’t clear to me how you would recognise those in the archaeological record.

The bigger problem is the familiar disjunction between the disciplines: archaeology can tell you what’s happening, but not by whom or why. There is still a lot of redating of some of the key sites going on, but even when they are securely dated, twenty-five years here or there is not a lot for an archaeologist, but is crucial for a historian. In addition, Richard Hodges seems particularly prone to making unsubstantiated claims about how developments are due to rulers, even when there’s little evidence for that. For example, he’s excavated St Vincenzo al Volturno (a monastery on the fringes of the Carolingian empire) and was claiming its developments there are part of a scientific/technical revolution under Charlemagne.

What is frustrating is that there is a lot that archaeology can contribute to historical research, especially for the early Middle Ages. You shouldn’t now discuss the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ without looking at the archaeological evidence of trade collapse. Hodges made a couple of passing mentions of some very interesting work: his dig in Byzantine Albania and also evidence of assarting in early medieval Europe (for non-medievalists, this is clearing of woods/wastelands for farming, a key sign of more intensive agriculture and normally thought to have developed only post-1000). But if archaeological research wants to contribute more to history than a collection of site reports, then we need some archaeologists with a rather more sophisticated grasp of historical argument (to set alongside early medieval historians such as Chris Wickham, Guy Halsall and Ross Balzaretti who are taking the archaeological evidence very seriously). Otherwise historians are either going to ignore archaeology or just use archaeological data, not the wider implications drawn by archaeologists.

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One thought on “Where archaeology and history meet

  1. You are far more knowledgeable than me on this. But I thought historians (who often seem to have an agenda) and archaeologists had rather the same relationship as theoretical and applied physicists. As new discoveries are made, theories change (though often slowly) and there is a constant interplay between theories and evidence.

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