Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Chthon: Terror, Night and Earth. Plus Vikings

These Viking raid re-enactors are I don't even.
It seems like I waited forever for the library to scare up a copy of Peter Hodges' Goodbye to the Vikings. I don't know what was keeping it. Maybe a staff had snagged it. Everybody loves Vikings, Sexy, sexy Vikings.

I have the outlines of a speculation, you see. I think we can all agree that the "Viking Age" was as at least as much about trade as it was about raiding. You don't have to dip into the new Mediterranean history and read about how piracy rises alongside trade, rather than pulling it down to see this thesis trotted out. It's been around for years. To read a mid/early medieval historian on the subject of the "feudal anarchy of the Year 1000," you might think that the sub-Roman Iron Age was going down for the third time as the Christian odometer clicked around to its first three-place zero; but it clearly wasn't. The arc of progress was trending up, and if we leave aside the idea that the Vikings were impeding it, the case is more plauisbly that they were part of the upward arc. 

As a matter of fact, that's part of the bullshit race-science recasting of British electoral politics way back in the Nineteenth Century. It's probably in Freeman somewhere, not that I can be troubled to look. Doesn't mean that it's not true, though. From Peter Hodges, or from his contemporaries, one gets an exciting picture of the world on the edge of a Viking Age: of the emporia of Dorestad on the big, natural levee thrown up between the branches of the lower Rhine to serve the trade of "Frisia," back when that label took in everything from northern Belgium to southern Denmark, trading with Danes from about a century before they come into the view of fourteenth century Danish and Norwegian court historians. You get a view of the genesis of the Viking Age, in an already-existing commercial relationship which draws Danish mercenaries into the fratricidal conflicts of the Carolingian successors in the 850s. The breakdown of the Carolingian state draws in the Danes. Again, this is one too many breakdowns-of-states. We have seen what actually happens when states break down in the Late Bronze Age or Roman collapse. One thing that does not happen is that the cities of London and Paris (or, even more pointedly, Viking-raided-conquered-pillaged York and Rouen) do not go on, merrily growing and putting down their first well-stratified layers of old household rubbish since Roman times. They put down... but that's getting ahead of myself. 

The problem with that is that you have an earlier phase of Viking activity, documented mainly in the fabled Lindisfarne raid of 792, but associated with some other attacks, on the church settlements of Tynemouth, on Iona, on a few bits of Ireland. For the speculative "strong interpretation" of the Hodges-emporia-"endogenous origins of the Viking Age" to work, we have to find a way to dismiss these premature Viking raids from the historiography. I, personally, think that the way is clear to do that, that there are clues to the internal politics of these ostensibly outsiders' raids written all over them. 

From Hodges, I was hoping for something more than intuition. I did not get it. Hodges' contribution to this discussion is his excavations at the emporia of Hamwic, near modern Southampton. From there his focus wanders off to the Mediterranean. If archaeology is to settle the matter, it has instead to look at the "lost Viking colony" on the Scottish outer isles that would have been the waystation or source of these raids, and therefore would have been conquered or settled in the mid-700s.  

Those Vikings? People have been looking for them since the day when you could make a "pillage, loot, rape and burn" joke in polite society. Without much luck, I would add. From an area with megalithic remains on a scale with Stonehenge, the outer isles have decatyed into a very rural backwater, and it looks like the immediate pre-Viking era was comfortably post-decay. Heck, it looks like the beginning of the Iron Age is comfortably post decay. We're left with saying that since we really, really want those Viking raids to have happened the way we imagine them, that the archaeology is just bloody well going to have to catch up. 

What subtext? I don't see any subtext.

Well, not so much. This is a post about manure, instead.

But I cannot stop myself. The link between "Vikings" and the Late Bronze Age collapse is simple. Ramesses III (1186--1155BC) built his Temple of a Million Years at Medinet Habu. The site he chose is the heartland of the Egyptian monarchy, in the great bend of the Nile, across from Luxor, If I had to guess, it would be the remoteness that explains how Medinet Habu comes to be so well preserved. 

This is an awesome picture. You can go to Google Maps and zoom out from an almost-equally good image. Search for "Medinet Habu." I recommend it.

The purpose of a Temple of a Million Years is to commemorate the fact that the Aten-Worshipper-in-Chief who built it was awesome. Maybe the pharoah in question accomplished his mission. Maybe his men tracked down some notorious enemy of the peace and double tapped the crazy old terrorist on to his final reward. Stuff like that. Sounds way better than "built a giant canal to the Fayyum." No-one's going to care about that crap in a million years. It's just about improving regular people's lives. 

Specifically, in Year 5, 8,11 and 12,  Ramesses beat these guys, or guys like them:

Like all exotic, foreign invaders, they wear funny hats. After excavating Medinet Habu for the Egyptian Antiquities Department, exquisitely well-born Parisian archaeologist Emmanuel de Rouge brought these ancient, barbarian invaders to the world's attention as "the Peoples of the Sea," and, on the basis of some winsome readings that they were western Mediterranean peoples from Sicily, Italy and Sardinia. (No.) You know. Small, dark, round-headed, talk with their hands, excitable?  If I told you that Nineteenth Century French politics presented you with some choice internal political disputes between North and South, which were inevitably racialised, you would know to expect the reply, which came from Italo-French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, who argued that, on the contrary, the People of the Sea were of Anatolian/Aegean origin, aligned with the Mycenaeans, well-known as Indo-European (i.e. Indo-Germanic) speakers with "flaxy hair," as Homer put it. Flaxen-haired, (Indo-)Germanic speaking, sea-raiding, horned-helmeted barbarians. None of this makes any sense, but look, see, horned helmets! So. Vikings, obviously. Prussians, really, so avant, citoyen, all of that.  

I have come to save the Republic! What do you mean, too soon?

While these persistent, chronogically-sliding floating referents are worth taking apart whenever the're run into, I wouldn't have taken up so much time repeating myself on the theme of timelost Vikings were it not that image search continues to show the disproportionate role of the "Peoples of the Sea" on our public consciousness. Look! Crazy people!(1, 2, 3). Vikings, Sea People, the collapse of the Late Bronze age political-social ecumene, the surprising not-fall of the Late Iron Age ecumene. Vikings and "Sea People" are, fundamentally, not the same thing at all. 

Here is a complex and specific problem: the Viking raids come as the state withdraws --we are told. And as soon as the monarchical state of France has retreated as far as it possibly can before the power of the local magnates --the western Christian world system acquires the ability it lost with Julian the Apostate-- the power to send the milites Gallae to intervene militarily in the Middle East. They even march down the same road! (It's left to anonymous English fleets to carry armies by sea to the Middle East, and if you don't think that it's amazing that that happened in 1099 AD ((although this link takes you to the 1147 siege of Lisbon, in which the men of the fleet are no longer anonymouos)), then I don't know you, man.) 

So much for establishing the stakes. Now it is time for facts that bear on the question. 

James Fraser, of the University of Sussex, identifies this as an "Amazonian Dark Earth" in Liberia. Wikipedia helps unpack this concept. Modern farmers in the Amazonian basin have long been aware of the existence of large areas of dark earth, "terra preta," created by human farmers working the soil to incorporate organic matter, potsherds and charcoal. Anthropologists and archaeologists working in an Amazonian context have been quick to announce that this very widespread phenomena indicates a massive agricultural civilisation of tens of millions of pre-Columbian Amazonian farmers, all conveniently swept from the stage of history by smallpox in the peri-Contact phase. Fraser, who discovered the same phenomena in the "wild" Liberian forests, does not issue the obvious corrective, that we should now take this as evidence of low-density swidden farming. 

The forests were burnt extensively, probably to provide better browse for prey animals, and the charcoal taken to enrich small garden plots, which, being switched frequently, over a thousand years left an archaeological presence across over a millions hectares. This is what we already thought that people were doing there, and while I went looking for something else, this PDF is pretty interesting. Swidden farming is pretty controversial as between old-fashioned ecological historians, who thought forest fires were bad, and new ones, who think that it was good. (Somewhere in the middle, there was a phase where good forest management included controlled burns as late as the early '60s, IIRC.) The corrective point that should be takne away here is that swidden farming is actually very efficient, in a labour-saving way. If you find massive amounts of terra preta in the Amazon, it is evidence of many centuries of a small population of shifting farmers, not of a just pre-Columbian empire of millions of people.  Alternative strategies are required for large populations.

So. I know that the question that you are now going to ask me: do seals shit on the beach? Yes, it turns out, they do. I first asked this question a few years ago in connection with something that remains a bit of a mystery to me. Why were the Shetlands, Orkneys and Outer Hebrides such a big deal so early? Why do they recede later? Why do they reappear in the midst of the (supposed?) crisis of the year 1000? Take it away, Stompin' Tom. 

"For every man with a callused hand, there's a blessing from the sea." It's not exactly poettry, but it's catchy. It's actually about harvesting Irish moss for processing to make careegnan gum, but it could just as easily be about West Coast gardeners gathering on the beach during the herring spawn to collect the bulbous leaves, with the decaying roe still attached, for fertiliser, or about old days in Vancouver, fondly recalled by my Dad, when the wagons of the Chinese truck gardeners still brought fish offal up from the docks on the wide boulevard of Cambie Street to fertilise the farms of South Vancouver. To a man with barely a mother, the vegetables that went into the chop suey and chow mein, and all the other old staples of  the Kingsway restaurants selling "Canadian and Chinese Food" were substitutes for the maternal bond life never quite gave him. The blessings of the sea take many forms. Well manured, they give "deep, anthropogenic soil." 

Given that seals shit on the beach, it is not surprising that archaeologists found "deep, anthropogenic soils" in the Outer Isles. It was part of a surge in interest in soils that began, not with the Amazonian "dark earth," but with the well-established existence of a layer of "dark earth" separating clear strata of alternating midden deposits and building in the Roman and Medieval era cities of Britain. R. I. MacPhail of the University of London has been kind enough to post a 2003 article in Antiquity on the subject, in which you will discover that "dark earth" has gone through a series of histriographic permutations. First, it was straightforwardly physical evidence of a period of abandonment and disuse of former Roman city sites prior to a medieval reurbanisation. Then, it was found on the Continent, in French and Belgian cities not understood to have been abandoned in the sub-Roman period. Then it was deconstructed as a distinct ontological quantity and seen as an artefact of the excavation process. Finally, MacPhail argues, it has been reconstructed as a suitable object of inquiry.

"Dark Earth" is, essentially, earth darkened by organic matter, and by charcoal which has been intermixed with the earth, as opposed to being present in a burning layer. There are many ways in which this could happen, but soil analysis can often show us how. Sometimes, as has been supposed, it marks the use of the area within an enceinte to hold animals. Other times, it reflects constant fertilising and digging of garden patches. I do not know if Peter Wells' thesis of it marking a phase of mud-and-wattle building in a putative sub-Roman urban phase has held up, but I suppose that can be left to the soil scientists. Whether as renewed evidence of sub-Roman "decline," or of a new model of reduced-surplus-extraction in a stateless society, in which peasants have as much more manure as they have milk, dark earth isn't going anywhere.

"Deep, anthropogenic soil" is another matter. Using this as a Google search term will take you to the tireless work of Ian Simpson, of the Department of Enviromental Sciences of the University of Stirling. If you are provoked to the search by the work of James H. Barrett, a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, you may be a little disappointed by his relative lack of prominence.

Especially considering, oh, say, James H. Barrett, "The Pirate Fishermen: The Political Economy of a Medieval Maritime Society," 299--340, in West Over Seas: Studies in Scandinavian Sea-borne Expansion and Settlement before 1300 ed. B. B. Smith, et al (Leiden: Brill, 2007).* Ah ha, you say. Ah ha! Here's a pdf summary of the excavations at Quoygrew, Orkney, to go with the evocative title. It will go nicely with Simpson's excavations of an abandoned croft on Shetland, and Jo McKenzie's review of deep anthropogenic soils documented in the First Scottish Satistical Survey, also in West Over Seas (401--18.)  It looks like Dr. McKenzie is on the job market, incidentally. Hint, hint.

So Barrett's point is that an increasing reliance on marine resources marks the "Pict-Viking" transition. The "deep, anthropogenic soils" can then come in in either of two ways. Directly, through the use of marine refuse to manure adjacent soils, or indirectly by creating a local market for provisions, thereby encouraging a labour-intensive manuring practice. Dr. Simpson's surprising discovery of pig markers in the soils he is studying, indicating pig herds undocumented in traditional feudal renders, and thus unnoticed by old-line local, rural history, indicate that we have an imperfect idea of what was going on up there, anyway. 

The basic line here is a two-fold transformation. The first falls involves a shift from inshore fisheries to extensive cod detritus in the middens. It seems to conicide with the grave-goods attested period of the "Pict-Viking" transition, which I find aggressively argued for the 850--950 period by Alex Woolf in his recent, critically acclaimed New Edinburgh History of Scotland: From Pictland to Alba, 789--1070 (2007). a long century, in which the early church-settlements of the Outer Isles, poorly-linked (rivals?) to the Church of Iona and its descendants at Kell and Dunkeld, decay away, and in which Norse replaces Gaelic on the Outer Isles. 

I am now going to dive a little deeper Woolf. This will probably be enraging to people who love Vikings, because he is going to say some mean, mean things about the scaldic historians of thirteenth century Iceland. (And if you think that's bad, you should see what's left of "Norse religion" once the critics are done with the skalds. Don't tell any Neo-Pagans of your acquaintance. It will break their hearts. Or do tell 'em, if they're wankers.) Woolf does away with the "early Viking kingdom" in the Outer Isles, the "Laithlind Hypothesis," if we need a label. Not done with that bit of deconstruction, he turns on the Earldom of Orkney, demoting it from an establishment of Harald Fairhair in the mid-800s to a creation of Harald Hardrada (1015-1066), or, better yet, Harald Bluetooth, with all the prior history (Wiki link) nothing but mythical back-formation. (Woolf drops the shoe, p. 307. Watch it, because if the damage isn't contained, we may lose Normandy!

Harald Bluetooth didn't just invent the main wireless communication protocol. He was also the builder of the Jelling Monument, the man who converted Denmark to Christianity, the man who evicted the Eriksons from Norway, the man in whose reign the Irish chronicles first notice "Danes," as opposed to all of the vague and uncertain ethnonyms that seem to refer to Vikings in earlier periods. It's going to be a really sad day in Romantic circles if the first Viking was the first Scandiavian Christian king!

It is in this same period that we see the transition to "specialised" middens of marine detritus. The growth, in other words, of an intensive marine industry, presumably for export. (The cited Barrett paper in West Over Seas rustles up an assortment of economic data indicating that the Earldom of Orkney is implicated in the larger European economy, presumably as an exporter of train oil, but with preserved fish and Arctic maritime exotica such as seal pelts, walrus tusks and even the fabled peregrine falcons as derived goods. 

So there you go: three deep, dark, well-manured soils, three conclusions. Amazon swidden farmers are intelligent users of their resources; sub-Roman cities saw urban blocks taken over by gardeners and herdsfolk; and in the Outer Isles, we have scientific evidence that the Viking Age embraces two phases of intensification of exploitation of marine resources. 

To bring this back to the ongoing inquiry, I want to clearl point in the direction of sailcloth. This is not a trend that can happen by itself. There must be industry behind it. Historians of the Viking Age think that this explosion of maritime traffic must reflect the development of an endogenous Scandinavian textiles industry. Verhulst, in his well-received economic history of the Carolingian Age, wants to have a premature Dutch textile industry, perched on the terps and berms of Old Frisia. Frankly, I cannot see plentiful sailcloth produced anywhere except cities.  Textiles are what cities are for. You might not see any models dressed in duck in Milan this season, but I am perfectly willing to forgive the industry that makes civilisation possible for preferring to highlight its glamorous side. 

Buy on Amazon, unfortunately. Mountain Equipment Co-op, but red. This year's colour, I guess?

Anyway, point is, I think that we're going to find that the Carolingian-era recovery of the European cityscape was earlier and more powerful than we have tended to give it credit for being, and that these stirrings at the edge of Europe are a response to that. As Doctor Simpson says when he finds his pigshit, we don't know half of what was going on until we get in and dig it out.

*This is not remotely the correct bibliographic record, which would either involve me typing for about half an hour, or about the same time spent deformatting a copy-paste from an online library catalogue. Thanks for making citation easier, everybody. (Sarcasm, BTW.)

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