Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland

Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland

Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland

Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland

Excerpt

Too often historical archaeologists see artefacts through the fragile veil of surviving documentary sources without critically assessing how this influences their vision of the past. Whether it be Schliemann viewing Hissarlik through Homer's eyes, the broch digger's contemplation of the Tain, or any excavator drawing upon contemporary historical literature, the relationship is the same: the text intercedes. Thus at the heart of the practice of historical archaeology lies an ambivalent relationship between the archaeologist and the artefact. On the one hand, we expect richer, deeper interpretations from historical archaeologists than we do from prehistorians, yet such interpretative efforts are not likely to satisfy the criteria historians establish for historical knowledge: archaeological events are imprecisely dated and the identification of an individual's actions nearly impossible. So it would seem that artefacts provide the archaeologist with material for composing glosses on the historian's text. This marginal activity is the result of accepting traditional history and its definition of the archaeologist's role. Neither of these things ought to go unchallenged, especially if archaeologists are to make meaningful contributions to historical knowledge.

In collecting these paper we hope to encourage archaeologists to recognise their assets and to embrace the difficulties presented by the task of integrating historical and archaeological knowledge. These difficulties, as they pertain to the early medieval period, form the subject of this book. As is evident from their papers, the contributors, while not by any means following a single approach, do share an awareness of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in historical archaeology. For the most part the papers avoid abstract argument, but consider the problems of working with artefacts and documents through the discussion of specific groups of archaeological material. This is by design, for we feel that any consideration of historical archaeology should adhere to the undisputed strength of the discipline: the ability to discover new information about the past through excavation and analysis. Lurking within any discussion of the practice of historical archaeology there is the question of how valuable even these discoveries are to the study of history. Does archaeology make a meaningful contribution to the study of the Middle Ages?

We believe that medieval archaeology has matured to the point where to refute in detail Peter Sawyer's dictum, that archaeology is an expensive way of telling us what we already know, would be superfluous if not regressive. But if the importance of archaeology is beyond question, the nature of its contribution remains an open issue. Judging from written histories, archaeology . . .

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