This website is hosted by the Rural Riches Project at Leiden University (the Netherlands).
It is a platform on the archaeology of the Merovingian Period.
Information will be provided on ongoing research projects, new finds and excavations and datasets will be presented. You are invited to write contributions about your activities on this blog. If you want to get in touch, please use the contact form.
Question: what was the landscape like in Merovingian northern Gaul?
To have an idea of what the landscape was like in the early medieval period, I made the map below a while ago. It shows the main soil and paleo-geographical features of northwestern Europe in the Early Middle Ages. The supposition here being that most of the geology and geomorphology of northwestern Europe have not changed dramatically since the Early Middle Ages. At least, not on a scale that would be visible on a small-scale map like this. The major exception to this rule being, of course, the Netherlands. Fortunately the Atlas of the Holocene is available (downloadable from the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency) and can be plotted on top of the geological information of the rest of Europe as can be retrieved from the European Soil Database (downloadable from Eurostat).
Although this map looks very accurate and complete, a better map can be imagined to help with your archaeological interpretations. Yes, it does show what the soil consists of, but no, it is not a nice map to use as a background to plot your archaeological distributions on; the dots would simply get lost in all the different colors.
The solution would then be to simplify the map-legend. But to simplify the legend into something even more meaningful than just putting everything on display, is to ask a different question: What is it exactly in the landscape that matters? If the answer to that question is ‘geology’, then this is indeed the map for you. But it probably is not geology by itself, but geology as a proxy for ecology.
Knowledge of the geology and ecology in which local communities carved out a living is fundamental to the understanding of their day-to-day activities and social organization. But let me make two points about this very clear before we take this discussion any further. First, the landscape does not determine the way people make their living. Yes, the environment (vis-à-vis the available knowledge and technology) poses outer limits on what can be done in a locality, because of e.g. the amount of rain, average summer temperature, length of the growing season, daily or seasonal flooding, etc. But within these limits social aspects are often more decisive in the choice for livelihood strategies than environmental factors are. Second, at the other end of the spectrum, a precise ethnographic ecology is not attainable to us right now. I would assume that local communities had a knowledge of the ecology and geology far more precise than is visible in the above map. Or in any map we have, since probably a different science was used to classify things, according to different meanings and values.
The above map is thus too precise and not precise enough at the same time. The challenge then is to simplify the landscape in a way that it can function as a frame to interpret the archaeology of early medieval Europe. A simplified landscape is therefore presented in the map below. The main ecological settings are determined on the localities’ relationship with surface water (marine, fluvial and peat), natural agricultural productivity of the soil (not natural climax vegetation) and altitude.
These ecological settings will undoubtedly have had various meanings for local communities, but they most importantly serve as major agronomic conditions for growing crops regardless of the local cultural system. Again, nothing is completely determined by these ecological settings: with determination and technology any landscape can be brought under the plough successfully. So, this map does not serve as a frame to determine who was doing what and where, but it provides an indication of the amount of determination and ingenuity it takes to pursue certain livelihood strategies in certain localities.
After several years of adding data to the database (not full time!) we are writing a large series of queries based on questions formulated by team members. Now gradually the potential of the database becomes visible, especially when combining evidence from various parts of the database. We started, of course by asking very basic questions such as those which allow an assessment of the quality of the database and the quality of the data. A simple question is to show the recorded cemetery sites according to the number of graves excavated/recorded. This results in the map below. In spite of the flaws inherent in the cemetery data (incomplete cemeteries, many ‘unknown’) this allows a first analysis of the distribution of the population over Northern Gaul. We will do this in relation to landscape characteristics, the remaining Roman infrastructure, the presence of rivers etc.
The quality of the data
The database also allows to analyse the quality of the data. This varies considerably over the research area and we have to consider this constantly when interpreting distribution maps. Merovingian cemeteries have been discovered already from before AD 1800 especially in France and in areas where stone sarcophagi and stone built graves were discovered while reclaiming land or ploughing fields. Cemeteries discovered in the 19th century were usually ‘explored’ rather than ‘excavated’. The goals of the exploration (adding to museum collections or providing the antiques market) will have determined to a large extent what was collected. The map below shows the cemeteries discovered before the First World War. Most of them were subject to exploration and limited documentation.
When one compares this image with the one of the distribution of cemeteries discovered only after 1980 that are larger than 100 graves, that is those which have been excavated (and published) in a modern way one can see how limited the availability of high quality data is.
The distribution of excavations of rural settlements shows also very interesting regional differences. Many excavations of Merovingian settlements, including large scale excavations took place in the Netherlands and France, much less in Belgium and Germany (the data for Westphalia are not yet up to date). This aspect has to be studied in greater detail for the evidence from France is often not easy to interpret. It is difficult to reconstruct houses and other buildings and date them to the Merovingian period in the southern part of the research area. That can be seen on the second map where the number of recorded houses is shown. It rather shows the state of research and the size of excavated areas than the actual presence of houses of course!
These are just a few (very basic) examples of using the data in the Rural Riches database. We are experimenting with more complicated questions regarding the distribution of many types of beads as proxies for exchange systems, the relation with other types of finds (brooches), the impact of concentrations of populations on the availability of certain goods, the development of population, the relation of the distribution of certain goods and infrastructural elements such as Roman roads, towns and major rivers, etc. etc. These are all in fact traditional qualitative research objectives. The database allows to quantify the data in terms of absolute numbers and relative numbers. Some experiments with the quantitative distribution (of glass vessels for instance) shows that a relative distribution can be quite different from the absolute distribution of glass vessels.
These analyses on a macro-scale form only part of the total project objectives. Research of the burial rites, the organisation of food production, the organisation of craft production, the whereabouts of Merovingian kings and aristocrats and the presence of the ‘Church’ are other aspects that will be reported on in upcoming blogs.
In many Merovingian graves, glass vessels can be found. Why were these placed into the grave? Are they for drinking, during a funerary feast? Or do they serve another function? Or multiple functions? One way to try and answer this question, is to carry out an archaeological experiment. This meant that a number of Merovingian glass vessels needed to be replicated. Together with the Nationaal Glasmuseum Leerdam and historical glassblower Marc Barreda, we organised a (corona-proof) glass blowing day. It was very interesting to see what techniques are applied to make these glass vessels, and the results are stunning as well!
The actual experiment was very insightful. We discovered that in principle, all replicated glass vessels could function as lamps. Considering lighting patterns, some work better than others. Especially the vertically ribbed glass vessels emitted bright and clear “sunlike” patterns. Another, perhaps even the most interesting, find is that these small glass vessels work especially well as lamps when hung low above the ground. This is when lighting patterns are most clearly cast onto the ground. One can imagine that such usage is especially relevant in the context of a grave lamp, or votive lamp, hung as a visual reminder of the deceased at its grave.
Photographs by Yvonne Bekkers and Erik Rijper. Reference: Van Winkelhoff, A.M., 2021. Light in the Dark Ages: a conceptual approach to the role of glass vessels in the Merovingian burial rite. RMA-thesis Universiteit Leiden.
From 2009 until 2014 the University of Leiden excavated a settlement dating to Merovingian times. Smaller parts of the settlement had already been excavated by ARCHOL and ADC-Archeoprojecten. The Oegstgeest settlement has been excavated almost completely. It existed between c 550 and 725 AD. It was of a modest size, counting c 5 or 6 contemporary farmsteads during its existence. Its population will not have been larger than c 60 persons. Nevertheless, the finds show it was intimately connected to regions far beyond its immediate horizon such as the middle Rhine valley from which products were brought to the settlement and England from which metal finds originate. An exceptional mind blowing find was a silver bowl decorated with gold leave images, found in a gully, which embellishes the cover of the book.
No less interesting and providing a window on the connections of the inhabitants of the settlement are the finds of grape pips, the oldest shoes with soles found in northwestern Europe made of vegetable tanned leather (a Mediterranean technique), horse gear with parallel finds in England only, sword fittings with direct parallels to those in the Staffordshire hoard, pottery from the Rhine valley and grain from löss areas, probably the Main area and wine (barrels) from the middle Rhine area as well. The inhabitants must have known a varied life style including keeping cattle in the floodplains, some agriculture on the river levees, fishing, and probably trading at short and long distances. They also practiced crafts such as smithing and above all casting of copper alloy objects. Small and unexpectedly large crucibles show that this must have taken place to satisfy the needs of themselves and those in other settlements.
Oesgtgeest is a truly riverine settlement, dependent on the river in the Rhine estuary, which was certainly a friend to the inhabitants. But it was a foe as well. There must have been a constant fight against the water to prevent flooding. Extensive dam building testifies to this struggle. Recent dendrochronological research allows now to even date these floodings exactly by year. 602 was a catastrophic year in the coastal areas of the Netherlands and northern Germany.
The Oegstgeest settlement will play a significant role in forthcoming discussions on the economy of northwestern Europe and the role of control of exchange values compared to control of production which dominates the discussion up til now.
The book design and lay out was in the experienced hands of Bregt Balk.
De Bruin, J./C. Bakels/F. Theuws (eds.), 2021: Oegstgeest. A riverine settlement in the early medieval world system, Bonn. Habelt Verlag (ISBN 978-3-7749-4291-2, 575 pp.)
This blog post will share some of the first preliminary results from the ‘attestation’ database. Although the Rural Riches database is primarily an archaeological database, we decided to also include evidence from written sources. Textual evidence often provides important topographical information, for example on towns, cult places and rural estates, which can help interpret the archaeological evidence. But texts also offer the possibility to trace the whereabouts of elite individuals, such as the Merovingian kings, so that we can investigate the extent to which elites were present in our research area.
As a part of the sub-project ‘Towns and Elites’, Jip Barreveld has been mapping the itineraries of Merovingian kings between 450 and 650. But texts come with a range of problems seperate from archaeological datasets. To map textual sources and compare them with the archaeology, it is important to be aware precisely what is being mapped and what problems are present behind the dataset.
Each record in the database consists of one attestation: a single piece of evidence (e.g. a few words, a line, or several lines) from a written source for a specific place that can be mapped in geographical space. With an archaeological excavation, we can usually pinpoint exactly where a spade entered the ground (especially with the help of modern GPS). In contrast, for written sources there is no direct relationship between the text and a location. Geospatial information can only be inferred from a toponym mentioned in a primary source (almost always in Latin). Philologists and historians have matched many ancient place names to modern ones with reasonable confidence, but the identification will always remain to some extent hypothetical. For this reason, attestations are kept strictly seperate from archaeological records in the Rural Riches database, although an attestation can be linked to the record of an archaeological site.
Attestations can come from all kind of written sources. Unfortunately, documentary sources for the Merovingian period are relatively rare, so we mainly rely on narrative texts, such as histories, saints’ lives or even poems.
Here is an example of an attestation, from Gregory of Tours’ Histories, 2.40:
“One day Sigibert went out of the city of Cologne and […] crossed the Rhine, for he wanted to walk in the forest of Buchau” (translation by Thorpe, p. 155).
Cumque ille egressus de Colonia civitate, transacto Rheno, per Buconiam silvam ambulare disponeret … (Krusch/Levison ed.).
Two locations are mentioned in this line for the whereabouts of ‘king’ Sigibert the Lame, providing us with two attestations (one for Cologne, one for ‘Buchau’). Next to place, the attestation also provides information on who (Sigibert), what (walking or hunting) and when (c. 509, from context).
Interpreting place names
The first attestation, civitas Colonia, refers (almost) certainly to the modern city of Cologne. In the second attestation, Sigibert is ‘walking’ (perhaps hunting) in the silva Buconia, but its modern location is less certain. We know the name otherwise only from later Carolingian sources, as a vast forest in Hesse (Germany). Is this the same forest mentioned by Gregory, and did it stretch all the way to eastern bank of the Rhine at Cologne, or did Sigibert travel much further into Germania? All this we can only speculate.
Identifying the toponym presents the first challenge, and we must hope that the editor has correctly transcribed the medieval manuscripts, and that the manuscripts faithfully copied the ‘original’ text. Even when we are reasonably sure about the toponym, we usually do not have precise geographic information. For example, in this case Gregory does not tell us where in Cologne Sigibert was. Perhaps Gregory might even have used Cologne as the name for the whole district.
Topographic logic of the text
Archaeologists know that there are problems and gaps behind a distribution map of material culture; formation processes and excavation techniques can skew the archaeological dataset. The same is true for texts, where the surviving texts may represent only the tip of the iceberg. After all, only a fraction of what was written in the Merovingian period has survived the centuries.
On top of that, texts present a very partial picture, since the author wrote with a specific mindset, intent and for a specific audience. For example, Gregory’s narrative choices are informed by his rhetorical purpose of advancing the concept of a catholic Gaul united by the Merovingian kings . He also more frequently wrote about places that personally mattered to him, his family members and network of friends and readers. It follows that we should pay close attention to the social and historical context that shaped the topographic framework of our sources, which we could call the ‘topographic logic of the text’ (after Gabrielle Spiegel’s ‘social logic of the text’).
Using the database, it is possible to filter the recorded attestations by source. When we do a side by side comparison with the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar, a totally different distribution map appears. Fredegar’s narrative is more focused on the north and east of Gaul: the areas around Paris, Burgundy and Austrasia.
We can also zoom in on specific individuals. Using the database to plot all attestations of King Childebert’s II whereabouts, we can map his presence all over northern Gaul split by source. Gregory’s Histories (blue) give the widest distribution. His contemporary Venantius Fortunatus (green) gives a much more detailed picture of the Moselle and the Rhine valley, recorded in two poems describing a royal boat trip. Finally, the chance survival of three edicts by Childebert II as additions to the Lex Salica (pink) place the “Austrasian” king in the triangle Andernach-Cologne-Maastricht.
Without this fortuitous survival of Childebert’s decrees, we would not have had a single attestation of royal presence in sixth-century Maastricht!
What’s next: analysis and interpretation
The examples above show that textual sources give only a partial image. The scholar of Merovingian historical geography needs to carefully weigh the evidence and be aware of the possible gaps in the dataset. So what, then, can we learn from attestations? And how does textual evidence compare to the archaeology in our database? That will have to be the subject of another blog! Stay tuned for part 2.
 Following Breukelaar, A.H.B., 1994: Historiography and episcopal authority in sixth-century Gaul: the Histories of Gregory of Tours interpreed in their historical context, Göttingen, 207-225.
The hoard consists mainly of the gold and garnet decorated parts of the hilts of swords. This suggests that a conscious selection of objects determined the composition of the hoard. It is suggested that the fragmented objects were part of the spoils of a battle. Some liturgical objects, one of which is considered a part of a bishop’s head dress, another is part of a cross, were considered to represent members of the clergy present at such a battle. The day after this vivid picture of battling bishops colored the pages of the Times.
The hoard, consisting of fragmented and destroyed objects, may however be removed several steps from the collection of complete objects on a battle field. In the discussion Frans Theuws suggested that the fragmentation and destruction of objects could be considered an important act in the transformation of the original enchanted objects to just bullion reducing them to their material value only, so they could be melted and recycled. For the Rural Riches project the conference was an important experience of great help in the reflection on the circulation of gold (including recycling) and the distribution of wealth in Merovingian times.
The journey continued to Oxford where we were warmly received by Professor Helena Hamerow and her team of the ERC funded project FeedSax. The FeedSax project uses highly sophisticated and innovative scientific methods offered by the laboratories of the Oxford Archaeological Institute, to study the expansion of cereal cultivation in early medieval England. Papers were presented by members of both projects. This highly productive exchange of information between two simultaneously funded ERC projects was very stimulating.
For the Rural Riches team it was highly rewarding because one of our goals is to analyse the possible early agricultural specialization in parts of northern Gaul where regions might concentrate on either wine production or grain cultivation already in Merovingian times. The next day our team was offered a very informative tour through the Oxford Archaeological Institute laboratories. Dr. Liz Strout showed us her isotope research on animals and plants, while professor Thomas Higham demonstrated the latest developments on radiocarbon dating and the complicated process of sample preparation.
An ‘empty shell’, ‘ghost town’, or even a ‘field for pigs’. The prevailing image of the early medieval town in northern Gaul just after the collapse of Roman authority in the fifth century is one of crumbling ruins. For a long time, preconceived notions of what an early medieval town ought to look like have cast their shadow over the evidence. But new archaeological discoveries and a fresh perspective on the written sources is starting to change this picture. Here, I will zoom in on one such town: Cologne around the year five hundred.
The blog post is written by Jip Barreveld for the Leiden Medievalist Blog, based on ongoing research for his dissertation on ‘Towns and elites in Merovingian northern Gaul’ as part of the Rural Riches project.
Rural Riches can now be found on Twitter! Although we love to be with our minds deep in the Merovingian past, we also recognize that sometimes it is important to catch up with modernity. With Twitter we hope to increase our public outreach and contribute to the valorization of knowledge.
We will use Twitter to bring attention to new blog articles on this website, but we will also use it independently to report on the project, the team, and the world of Merovingian archaeology at large. It should be interesting both for specialists and interested lay(wo)men alike. So, if you are on Twitter and like Merovingian archaeology, make sure to to follow @RichesRural.
If you have news pertaining to Merovingian archaeology or history that you would like to share to the world, please contact us! Both our website and Twitter are meant as a platform for research on the Merovingian world.
As published by R. Legoux, Merovingian pots with the same decoration can be found in distant places. In 2017, M. Kars and F. Theuws noticed that pots with identical roulette stamp impressions are known from the cemetery of Sittard (grave 86), Obbicht (grave 43) and Rhenen (grave 159). Six fragments with a similar impression were also found in the potters’ kiln n°4 excavated in Maastricht-Wyck. The sites of Obbicht, Sittard and Maastricht are 20 km apart, but the distance between them and Rhenen is about 125 km. It is certain that the roulette stamp was used in Maastricht-Wyck and that this workshop produced pots with this decoration. So, the pot from Rhenen might have come from this place.
In order to
prove it, this week, we proceed to macroscopic exams and to chemical analyses by
PIXE-PIGE in order to know if the techniques and materials were the same and in
order to check if the pot found in Rhenen was “made in Maastrich”.
The first results
show that the clay is different and that the pot from Rhenen was not produced
at the same place that those found in Limburg. If they still need to be controlled,
they might be the proof of artisans’ movements.
On February 28th and March 21st the entire Rural Riches team attended a conference in the town of Huy (Belgium), located along the river Meuse. Several excavations in Huy have uncovered evidence for craft activities, indicating that the town was a significant center for early medieval production. Over the course of the Merovingian period, all major artisanal crafts were practiced here, including the production of pottery, glass, iron, copper alloy, bone and antler.
The conference was organised by Catherine Péters and Sophie de Bernardy de Sigoyer from the AWaP (l’Agence wallonne du Patrimoine), in cooperation with Line van Wersch from the Rural Riches project. It was attended by archaeologists, material specialists, historians and other researchers from Wallonia and beyond. Rural Riches team members Frans Theuws and Martine van Haperen presented a general introduction to the RR project and an inter-regional perspective on the production from Huy. Line van Wersch presented the results of her studies on the pottery production sites from Huy.
The craft center in Huy will be a central case study for the Rural Riches project, in our research on the modus operandi of Merovingian artisans. We are grateful for the generous spirit of the AWaP in allowing us to work with this material, which is currently still partially unpublished.