Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XII: The Queen of May

Most publicity shots from Duel in the Sun feature Jane Russell's boobs against a backdrop of hay. Jennifer Jones is this blog's Queen of May for 2018. (Thanks to all the gals who came out: Also, if it comes up, the blog's choice is distinct from the author's.)

And this image of a British wildflower meadow is cheerfully scraped from a "How to" article in the Daily Telegraph explaining how to go about creating your own wildflower meadow on a few hectares of your land for which you can't think of any other use. But setting my clumsy attempt to start class warfare aside (we're all in this together, you know!), let's just stop and meditate on spring and flowers and fertility and the mysterious way in which they're connected, deep in the human psyche.  

Done? Enough meditation! What about scythes?
Er, yeah. No, I mean like this,

as it turns out that haymowing re-enactors are seriously a thing these days. The idea of dueling with scythes isn't completely preposterous, given that the fifty-centimeter-plus long scythe is the second largest Iron Age toolblade after the sword, and your typical scythe saw fan order of magnitude more use during its lifetime than your typical sword. That quietly and unobtrusively puts it in position to claim the title of apex technology for hand blacksmithing, which makes it all the more remarkable that its history is so obscure. I do have some results to report, or I would be talking about my recent correspondence with Dietrich Eckhardt, but I want to be brief, since, in pursuing the subject, I was sidetracked into buying Manning's "major new history of economic life in the Mediterranean in the Iron Age," and Marc van de Mierop's Philosophy before Greece, and may eventually have something to report. 

Before getting into it, a bit of a callback to the "feminine mystique." After all, it is the maying month.
The story goes that the high king of Ireland, Eochaid Mugmedón, had five sons by Mongfind, who might be the goddess Morgana, and one, Niall, by Cairenn Chasdub, daughter of the king of the Saxons. In later years, it was, logically enough, decided that the succession to the kingship should be determined as between the sons of the bad lady and the virtuous lady, by a weird and senseless quest. The boys were --I think manipulated will do, here?-- into seeking out a loathsome witch who guarded a magical well, and winning from her a draft of water with a kiss, in order to quench their thirst. Only Niall satisfied the loathly lady, as Chaucer dubs her in a parallel story, at which she is revealed to be a beautiful woman and the personification of the sovereignty of Ireland. 

There's lots of morals that can be taken away, but the one that I personally choose is that the woman in charge of the boiling cauldrons at mineral springs skip their makeup. It's actually a pretty good lesson for the future Niall of the Nine Hostages to learn, especially given that, if he existed, he was the man who led all those raids on Roman Britain that brought Christianity and many, many, soap(?) boilers to Ireland. (He might also have been the man who shattered the kingdom of the Ulaid that was so successful in winning Roman trade, and which might have been British speaking.) 

Ireland is not the subject here, because you take your detailed agrarian-historical investigations where you find them, but it is, like the actual subject (Sweden) an area just beyond the Roman periphery and subject to a paradoxical relationship with the Empire, in that it waxes as the Empire wanes.

With that awkward transition, here's the traditional read of lead content in Greenland ice cores, scraped from an old blog post that asks whether income inequality lead to "the collapse of ancient Rome," before defaulting to a discussion of the fall of the republic, which is, of course, when global lead contamination, largely a byproduct of silver production, peaked. 

. . . And here is a version of the noisier but more fine grained graph that Alex recently pointed us towards, here reproduced from archaeologist John Bedell's Bensozia blog.

This graphic is in the news this week because it apparently allows a much more fine-grained look at the Roman economy. Bedell is skeptical about the extent of annual variation shown (check out that 800BC spike!), and the scale of the Carolingian recovery climbing the wall on the right. So he goes to the appendices (and so can we! pdf) and finds this:

Three bog studies, from the Faeroes, Scotland and Spain, all showing the Republic-to-Crisis-of-the-Principate peak, but not the early medieval recovery, or at least not to the same implausible extent. The bizarre 800BC peak goes away in the Spanish bog study, the only one that goes so far back, but the trend line is showing its gentle climb. Silver refining really does begin around 1000BC, and really does begin to climb around 400BC. As for the anomalous data, Bedell concludes that the missing variable is weather, and presumably the Carolingian high reflects a change in weather patterns sometime around 700AD.  

I don't think that's right. Here is the Greenland wind rose.

Greenland is the weather factory of the North Atlantic, so a change in the prevalence and direction of winds over the ice caps sufficient to produce this deposit artefact would have enormous consequences for global climate. Oh, sure, we can wave our hands at the Medieval Warm Period, but I suspect that the change would have been significant enough, and long lasting enough, to change the coastal Atlantic ecosystems in an archaeologically detectable way. (There would be tree stumps everywhere.)

I'm also a critic of over-reliance on exogenous forcing event. The Ars Technica article burbles on about the Antonine Plague, and the original data finds the "Plague of Cyprian" equally fascinating. The absence of that perennial whipping boy, the Plague of Justinian, can, of course, be justified by reasons. Everywhere else, transient lows are determined to be the result of disruption due to war. God forbid that human decisions about how much money to emit affect the human economy, or we might have to hold policy makers responsible for poverty. Going a little further into the question of the relationship between money and economy, what these charts show isn't the pace the Roman economy, but the rate at which the Roman state (mainly) chose to emit money. In the same way, the recovery in the early Medieval period is only indirectly related to the medieval economy in the same way in which the public issuance of money is related to economic growth in general. What it tells us is that silver is being remonetised. Whether that is a response to economic growth, a driver of it, or orthogonal to it, directs our attention the relationship between circulating money and the economy. 

For what it's worth, my theory is that, given that I accept the theory of others, that there is a relationship, and another claim, that the monetary authority may in some circumstances be tempted to reduce the rate at which money is issued in order to raise the value of the existing stock; is that this chart shows the Romans successfully throttling the economy of western Europe. Having dilated on that subject before, I shan't again, and rather will do something more suited to the season, such as run barefoot through the flowery meadows. Figuratively speaking. 

Once again to the Yorkshire dales, because that's where Google Images sent me. James Greig, on the other hand, sends us to Silchester. As part of his 1988 blitz of paper publications on paleoecology, Greig offered two major findings. The first was a way to assess pollen samples for evidence of the deliberate cultivation of "flowery" hay meadows in the deep English past. This work doesn't seem to have gone very far in the British context, although it has been taken up in Sweden. The second was his identification of the material plugging wells in the Late Iron Age/early Roman oppidum of Silchester as hay residue. 

Given the importance of hay in mixed farming, and confident assertions about its wide use along the Atlantic littoral, it would be nice to have more than this, but it really seems as though this is what we are stuck with. Lisa Lodwick surveys the literature in her "Agricultural innovations at a Late Iron Age oppidum: Archaeobotanical evidence for flax, food and fodder from Calleva Atrebatum," available here as a pdf, although you might have to back up and jump through some hoops to get (free) access. Accepting the risks of over-reliance on a literature review in a single paper, it looks as though archaeology hasn't much improved its ability to identify hay in a pre-Roman Iron Age context. Instead, Lodwick is interested in evidence of multi-product exploitation of flax. 

Flax is the source of linen (at least, in the old days, before the word turned into a vague descriptor for various textile products and grades) and of linseed oil. It is also one of the three grains in that old breakfast staple, Red River Cereal; and as an old Canada Bread man once pointed out to me, you really need to rotate your flax loaf in particular, because it smells fishy past its due date.  

Leaving such precious bougie concerns aside, flax is associated with rotten smells and loathly ladies for another and more important reason. Flax linen is a bast fibre that runs through the stems of the plant, and must be separated from the other matter in the stem by controlled rotting, or "retting." A lacrustine plant at the best of times, the retting of flax is accomplished by letting it lie in ponds until "soft and slimy," and very, very smelly. At this point, the fibres can be separated from the vegetable mass by "breaking, scutching, and heckling," and if the words sound like colourful Irish English, it's because I've planted the idea as an awkward segue to the fact that flax turns out to be the emblem of Northern Ireland (although also, as Wikipedia also says, the national flower of Belarus.)

(Sorry not sorry.)

The food use of flax is less important historically (except in Greenland, where it turns up in fossil "Viking" poop) than its fodder use. The residue after oil is expressed from flaxseed is fed to animals as seedcake. Lodwick's conclusions about the use of flax at old Silchester turn on the seeds, which turn up in the well-blocking deposits and thus imply their use as fodder. 

Lodwick argues that the localised evidence of flax shows that the particular agricultural economy of the capital of the Atrebates is a consequence of its incipient urbanisation. That is, at least for the moment, we can imagine the stall feeding of livestock as part of an urban industry which might have been devoted to feeding elites meat-rich diets, but which presumably also produced surpluses of linen and animal byproducts such as tallow and hides, presumably for export. I don't know how close we want to skate to a "centre-periphery" model here vis-a-vis the relationship between late Iron Age Britain and Roman Gaul, but I do have to throw in claims gleaned from recent reading that Ireland exported most of its copper in the Bronze Age, and that Denmark imported both linen and wool (the latter from insular Scandinavia) during its Iron Age. 

With all of this out of the way, I can talk about Morell and Myrdall, eds., Agrarian History of Sweden, because at least this one academic community has found a way of periodising the production of hay in one country,providing the means to correlate it with the waxing and waning of the Roman economy. 

Periodicity in western Europe normally begins with the three ages and then gets more complicated: Neolithic; Bronze; Iron; Roman;Sub-Roman; (Early) Medieval. There is always the temptation to interpolate phases. This very blog talks about a "Late Bronze Age collapse," not the end of the Bronze Age per se. Yet Nigel Sharples reminds us of the gravity of that collapse by pointing to the essential unity of the Bronze Age. It was a lifeway that had persisted for a thousand years that crashed in Britain between 800 and 700BC.

The Swedish case is even more extreme. A unity is asserted lasting through the introduction of farming, perhaps as early as 4000BC, and certainly complete by 3000BC, to the beginning of the Iron Age, usually dated to a slightly delayed 500BC on the basis of tool finds, and continuing, there being no Roman incursion, to the Viking Age.

And yet such is the nature of the collaborative survey that we are promptly marched back to the more crucial 800BC. Sweden, apparently, underwent revolutionary social/everyday economic change three centuries ahead of the clear technical signature of the onset of the Iron Age. The narrative goes like this: Neolithic to Bronze Age Sweden is characterised by a landscape of shifting agriculture based on mattock working and pig-rooting, set in coppiced forests wandered by livestock all year round. Domesticity is defined by the longhouse, and social order by the extended family that occupies that large building. Change is defined by a gradual transition from axe sacrifices (indicating the centrality of forest management, including tree fodder?) to sickles, and by the rise of the three-aisled longhouse, with room under roof for some of the livestock. This is probably intended to facilitate milking, but also manure collection. 

It is at the 800BC mark that the transition from longhouse to individual house (or to the three-aisled longhouse) is detected, and thus from the extended to nuclear family, and perhaps the inheritability of the family farm, facilitating intergenerational capital accumulation. In the landscape, manured, permanent, enclosed fields replace shifting cultivation. The woodlands retreat, and the infield/outfield distinction characteristic of Scandinavian mixed farming is indicated by the appearance of droveways. It is interesting that the linear barriers of the Scandinavian landscape are taken as unproblematically indicating infield/outfield agriculture and local transhumance, while mystery still surrounds the addmittedly fragmentary and relict linear works of England. 

So iron is not a prerequisite to the transition, although it is bound up in its completion: Now, about hay.  Using pollen and botanical sampling, and above all evidence of a substantial decline in the number of alders, a wetland scrubwood, Swedish agrarian historians have established that haymaking was an Iron Age phenomena. Towards 800BC, hay is being collected from cleared wetlands. The comparatively thick marsh vegetation is harvested with sickles, probably by women, and used to feed a comparatively small proportion of the total available livestock. Between about 1000BC and 1, dispersed hearths in open settings indicate shepherds overwintering with, and supporting, out-wintering livestock. I think the tentative inference is an emphasis on wool and other animal products export. 

Dry meadow emerges in the pollen record about 200BC. At the same time, bronze sickles are replaced by iron --yet another datum in the endless discussion over the extent to which bronze use had a utilitarian dimension. Found alongside leaf knives, iron sickles point weakly towards dryland hay meadows being exploited along with marsh hay. The appearance, by 200/300AD, of longer sickles (probably indicating males are now bringing in the hay), short scythes, and hay rakes, unambiguously indicate that the onset of crisis in Roman Europe is not holding back the further intensification of Swedish mixed agriculture. 

The crisis of local site abandonment that marks the 500/600 transition to the Swedish Late Iron, or pre-Viking Age, does not show any technical change in haymaking. It is after the last farm is abandoned, and reoccupation begins, perhaps around 800AD, that the long scythe appears. It has been estimated that the long scythe is four times as efficient as the short, but the enormous amounts of metallurgical work that stand behind it are not being taken into account here. 

It is clear that we are not talking about "invention" here. Early long scythes remain elusive archaeological finds, but there is no particular reason not to speculate about a sub-Roman transition to the long scythe in Ireland. After all, the mouldboad plough waits until the Early Modern period, perhaps around 1700, to jump the Baltic and arrive in Sweden. The transition from flint sickle>bronze sickle>iron sickle>long sickle>short scythe>long scythe is plausibly driven by the increasing organisation of the Swedish landscape for agricultural production; and this, in turn, by changes in social organisation. I would, personally, prefer to put it as a feedback loop between improving technique and increased social complexity, but I will cop to that being an ideological prejudice. It could, in the end, all be down to "culture." 

For the purposes of this blog, it suffices to point out that the agriculture that came to Greenland was anything but rude, self-reliant, and robust. Without long scythe blades, it was simply impractical and the necessary tools could not be made in Greenland --much less "Vinland."

Having made the points I want to make, I'm going to circle back around to the Greenland ice core data. Never mind this Roman stuff. Is that "800BC" spike real? And, if it is, what the heck is happening? The authors think that we are seeing "an increase coeval with Phoenician expansion," but the spike is transient. Given the documented use of lead-silver as a semi-bullion, there is room for a transient spike as someone gets down to business refining a stockpile into metal silver. I've previously speculated that the famous cache of pharaonic mummies found in the family tomb of Pinedjem II might be an indicator of an episode of mass de-hoarding. That's a century too early, and I'm pulling this entire idea of a mass of deposited lead-silver out of my ass, anyway. So I guess what I'm going to weakly say is that it is something that could happen. 

So, from this. . .
To this:

(It was this or Robert Plant.) 

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