Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Into The Wheelhouse: Research Notes Towards Saying Goodbye to the Vikings

Lameen sends me a link to an interesting article suggesting that Malayo-Polynesian spread across Island south Asia and the Pacific much more recently than the standard model assumes, and by ethnogenesis rather than by demic advance at the leading edge of agriculture. I'd comment more on this in this post (it's a question of reconciling the supposedly radically earlier spread of settlement in the island Pacific to the island Atlantic), exccept that I'm still trying to assimilate it. 

On to today's throwing-it-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks.

The Pabbay Stone. The rights on this one are complicated. I scraped the photo from Canmore, where an obligatory copyright notice is posted, but it's a public website, and the original may come from a Nineteenth Century postcard.
Pabbay Island ("island of the papars") is one of the Barra Isles in the Outer Hebrides, on the Mingulay Trail. (Road to the IslesMingulay Boat Song). Abandoned by its crofters in the late Nineteenth Century, it's the property of romantics and ramblers, and the "Pictish picture stone" is a well-known feature of our long failure to explain the history of the Hebrides. The name suggests that Pabbay was once home of a "Scottish" anchorite community in the unfathomably ancient days before the Vikings, but it's not like we know that. We don't know anything.

It may also be explained by the stone itself. The Latin cross at the top seems to have been carved later than the "flower symbol" at the bottom and the "Pictish symbol" above it, per the National Trust of Scotland, a "Crescent-and-V-rod symbol of the 'dome-and-wing' type, ornamented with two small circles. The right terminal is effaced and the other is much worn, but appears to incorporate a circle." And now you know everything there is to know about the Pabbay Stone. Evidence that the Pictish kingdom extended to the Outer Hebrides, or an imitation? Att this point, one hands over to amateur historical linguists trying to find "British," "Gaelic" or"Norse" etymologies for place names, fairly certain that we're not going to get anywhere. Truth to tell, there are too few people on the Hebrides, then and now, to make literary history, no sense to be made, no grand narrative.

Which is a pity, because they are stepping stones to a grand narrative, the grandest, the Story of America. But what do you when all of your stepping stones are too small to bear history? We can turn to the stories we have. That seems safe. The stories, after all, give us a European-centred account. Had we not those stories, what would we be left with? Archaeology and extrapolation: and extrapolation tells us that the  Danish colonisation of the Eighteenth Century consisted of a small number of missionaries and a scarcely larger number of officials and traders creating a trading and agricultural society in Greenland out of the local population, which flocked in form around the North to participate in a small scale farm economy backing a larger, market-oriented hunting society. Archaeology tells us that the population of the European Atlantic was small, and that its surpluses were drawn inward, while the Eskimo population of the Eastern Arctic imploded at the very moment that the settlements of Greenland emerged, then vanished precisely as the Thule, a true Iron age culture, born of the North Pacific trading round, reached the sealing and whaling grounds of Greenland. The inference is . . . challenging. The North American native as noble victim of colonialist aggression is fine: as agent and participant in change. That's a problem.  

But what does archaeology make of the story? Can it save a substantial European migration to Greenland, salvage the key hypothesis? That's a trick question. The answers archaeology provide us are constantly changing. So if you suspect, reading this, that I've found another monograph that makes my crazy ideas sustainable, well, yes, that's the point of this "off week" post.


The ruins of Snizort Cathedral, on St. Columba's Isle, Skeabost, Skye. "Chapel on Saint Columba's Isle - geograph.org.uk - 311656" by John Allan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chapel_on_Saint_Columba%27s_Isle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_311656.jpg#/media/File:Chapel_on_Saint_Columba%27s_Isle_-_geograph.org.uk_-_311656.jpg

Narrative history can be like The Lord of the Rings. We start with preparations for a birthday party in the Shire, end with battles and strategems that aim to change the universe. Start small, get bigger: the camera pans back. The temptation is to write a book like that. And why not? America is a big subject, and it is fitting that the first chapter, where we read of the first mention of Vinland, in the pages of Adam of Bremen, be an appetiser, Start small. 

Only that's not how the world works. Adam, we'll recall, is writing about Archbishop Liemar of Hamburg-Bremen, who is in turn seeking to deal with the overwhelming shadow of his predecessor, Archbishop Adalbert, the man who did not scruple to kidnap a boy-emperor in order to impose his vision of Church-state relations, and thereby set the Investitute Crisis in motion. Sometime ally, sometime rival to Anno of Cologne, Adalbert worked on an mperial scale, in an age when the German emperors took the idea of eastern and western emperor very seriously. Adalbert thus had to measure himself against the Patriarchs of Consantinople and of Jerusalem, while at the same time avoiding the allegation that his very see was a fraud, that he had illegitimately absorbed the tradition of Willehad's Bremen. 

Nor did the suggestion that fraud and forgery lay at the root of "Hamburg-Bremen" exhaust the vulnerabilities on this flank. On the contrary, England, with its own archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, lay long under the rule of Denmark's Knut The bishops, missions and anchorites of the north are obscure to us for many reasons, but among them is the fact that they offered their loyalty to the English bishops originally, and most of York's records are lost. Romantic, inexpressible, wildbishop-pirates: bishops of the Isles, of Sodor and of Man, of Galloway with its White House, built of stone, Bede evasively admits, some time in the distant past before his cheished Augustinian Mission was supposed to have restored that prestigious art to the four-cornered island of Britain. Why not? History is too large, and has too many corners for Bede as it is. If he gave full attention to doings in the far west, at Iona, acknowledged Adomnan's claim that Columba was the battle-saint who gave victory to Dalriada, Pictland and Northumbria, he might be outflanked by the adherents of Wilfrid, in a battle over haircuts and the true dating of Easter that stretched right across Christian Europe, thanks to whatever processes had made Columbanus so successful in establishing . . . monasteries. . . throughout the Frankish zone of influence. 

And so old Dalriada floats out there, shadowed by Iona, and Iona a romantic island in a Celtic Ocean. We want to write the history of a little kingdom of the Isles at the turn of the 600s, when our sources are to be located in the heart of a politico-religious controversy a century later. Why does it even matter? Because if we prune the romance back to the nub, we get a few, precious, hard facts: that there were . . . monasteries . . . at Lismore,  ApplecrossKingarth and Armoy. Without Adomnan's life of Columba, we would have little of this. Nor should we think of Adomnan's book as accidental to the success of Columba's cult, or of the long run success of Iona itself. Ultimately, our preferred sources for the early medieval history of Ireland are a set of chronicles (chronicles being far more scientific than saint's lives) probably derived from a master chronicle kept at Iona --and continued in no small part because of the prestige of that origin.  

In other words, although survival can be serendipitous, the stories are not accidental, and what we get from them might be at a tangent to its point. At this point, I am just going to point at all these . . . monasteries. . ., the accidental way in which their names are transmitted to us, and go, "See! See!" There could be more!" And just because there don't seem to have been any on the Outer Hebrides (work with me here) doesn't mean that there wasn't one on . . . Greenland. 

Okay, that's crazy. Well, crazy if it's as early as Adomnan and Bede, anyway. Archaeology is having enough trouble pushing people on Iceland back before 870. (If it ever does, though, it's straight to Planet X!) But, well, it's not so entirely crazy that it doesn't motivate a discussion of Christopher Loveluck'Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, c. AD 600--1150: A Comparative Archaeology (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).*

Although Loveluck is treating a large region, he is treating it as one drawn together by common trends. The linking vectors pass through the littorals, and that is where my focus is going to be --and, for that matter, his. That means that we are engaging Richard Hodgesemporia, and, while God forbid that I put a word in Doctor Loveluck's mouth, he seems to be suggesting that Hodge's research programme has reached a point of exhaustion --it's kind of like the letdown I felt when I finally got hold of a copy of Hodges' Goodbye to the Vikings. A long generation of work has carried us as far as it will go. 

The emporia, recall, are a network of trading centres around the North Sea and Channel, predating the high Viking era. They are evidence in themselves that trade flourished in northwest Europe in this period, but, according to the theory, of a  limited kind. Hodges sees the emporia as apart from the organic development of society in northwestern Europe, created by royal elites for the long-distance exchange of luxury goods, and crippled in their ability to function economically by the need to remain "legible" (to talk like James Scott) to the limited and weak monarchies of the day. Focussing on Dorestad in the Rhine, clearly an artificial centre, and only secondarily on Hamwic, near Southampton, Lundunwic, near but not quite equivalent to London, and a trading area outside the walls of Roman York, we get the sense of places which could not quite make the transition to being high medieval towns. 

Another research tadition is challenged less centrally (and less severely): that of John Blair.  It's in his honour (or, rather, that of one of his students, Sarah Foot, that I have been using ". . .monasteries. . .", above. The Blairite term of art is "minster," but that's a very Anglo-Saxon term, and I started in Celtic waters, and largely intend to stay there. In Ireland, the idea of a "monastery" as a complicated sort of polyfocal centre with, perhaps, a bishop, and certainly a larger community of artisans, is well-established. Why aren't there towns in early medieval Ireland? Because . . . monasteries . . . are doing the work. Blair's argument extends this idea to Anglo-Saxon England. Loveluck doesn't want to be rid of these monastic counterparts to emporia. He just wants to compare the old Roman towns of "Francia," where bishops survived and present a rival ecclesastical model to these minsters, to the surviving Roman towns of England. We are, once again, dancing around the idea that there the Roman towns of England kinda sorta survived. Although you'll notice that Loveluck puts his beginning point in 600, thereby excluding a priori the drawing of any such conclusion, even if it seems to be implied. I don't think he wants to get drawn into "dark age Britain." 

Too bad, although I see his point. But there's another way that this cross-regional comparison of "minsters" matter: the problem of halls. 

Gerard Butler, being Heroic Aged. Source

The problem? Beowulf the Dane came to guest at Hrothgar's hall of Heorot, and found it beset by a monster out of the moors, and how he killed that monster, and then its even more monstrous mother, in order that the hall could serve its function: of hosting a lord of men's retinue in feasting and gift-giving. So it was in the Heroic Age of the Voelkerwangerung. 

Only --where are the halls? We've been looking for a while, and haven't had much luck finding them. For the Blairites, tentatively, and now Loveluck, certainly, the search needs to be over. Halls are a Carolingian thing, further ramified in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Perhaps our problem is that, once again, we want things to be older than they are. Instead of seeing Beowulf  as a lucky survival out of the most ancient past, why not see it as what it might more plausibly be interpreted as: the product of Anglo-Danish royal patronage at the time that it was written down? It would explain why the hero is a Dane, and place the Age of Heroes in Halls to the period when they're attested archaeologically, after all. And, incidentally, it brings us back to the middle of the Eleventh Century, to Adam of Bremen and our first attestation of Vinland. This does mean that we have to get rid of heroes and halls as an archaic stage, though. (The counter-evidence is, sigh, historical-linguistic. Apparently, the language of the Beowulf-poem is scientifically datable to the Seventh Century.)

So, now, back to the emporia: what's the problem? In part, it is that Loveluck wants to bring "market-based exchange" back into the picture, and remove "elites" as the sole long-distance-exchanging class. He wants merchants back. He also wants "peasants on horseback." Which, taken in itself, I might suspect to be a bit, well, ideological. But, now there's archaelogy. Loveluck starts with a paradigm site, of course, and that site is Flixborough, a littoral site in a coastal marsh. Waxing poetically, and returning to some of the same evidence that has been troubling people for a while (mainly lists of apparently not-terribly-hierarchic Fenland tribes, and not, unfortunately, my favourite, admittedly anachronistic, example, the Dittmarsch republic), he conjures up a world of under-documented and mobile coastal peoples, utilising the rich resources of the seaside, and, importantly, engaging in an overseas trade which can be attested by pottery remains, but not coin scatters. 

The upshot, Loveluck argues, is that there are two maritime trade interfaces in the North Sea world. One of them is the emporia, which he insists are sometimes towns to start with ("polyfocal ecclesiastical and other centres): the other is on a band of marshland to seaward (in the east) and in the multiple small harbours to the west. In the former, royal power is interested in maintaining and extending the emporia so that it can tax the trade. In the latter, royal power is absent, and so, therefore are tariffs, and so, it follows, is money. Trade needs this lower-order, more dispersed and less wealthy interface because it is short-distance and coastwise. Unless the boats that carry it can land frequently to provision, water and just stretch their legs, they will be unable to connect the actual emporia. 

So much, then, for that: but there is more. The coastal settlements show evidence of a marine diet, four centuries ahead of the Medieval Fishing Horizon, which we are still putting at 1000AD in a great explosion --the explosion that matters. He even toys with the idea of early whaling, as opposed to strandings, as the source of whalebone. (A problem in the Canadian Arctic, and, for that matter, the Neolithic Hebrides.) 

So, back to the Hebrides we go. The archaeological excitement here is the "Wheelhouse." An extrapolation of the "Atlantic roundhouse," the wheelhouse appears, basically in the Hebrides, in "the last centuries BC, or the first centuries AD." (Precision!) The "coincidence, or not" of the wheelhouse's contemporaneity with the Roman presence in Scotland is a currently a matter of some controversy in the research community.

If you're wondering, this is a wheelhouse detail:

In a traditional roundhouse, you pile up stones so that they lean in and support each other, put in enough internal buttressing that they don't fall over, and, when you've got about as far as you can, you throw a timber roof over the top, saving on precious wood. The result is very tall and impressive on the permanent pasture land of the Atlantic littoral, which might be why roundhouses are common all over England, Scotland and Ireland. Or it might be a consequence of working with stone, as archaeologists studying Thule houses say: or it might be some kid of cosmological statement we can't even begin to grasp, which is as good a moment as any to once again link to Geoff Carter, the, er, visionary, who thinks that Stonehenge (you know, the big stone ring thingie) was once completely enclosed by a timber geodesic dome as the ultimate statement of the whole roundhouse cosmology. 

In a wheelhouse, you bury the whole shmear as deep as you can, and then put these big piers on the inside, so that you can get the roof even higher. The result is probably semi-buried and not impressive to look at, but, inside, you've got twenty feet or more of headroom, which is impressive. 

So as far as we get what the architects are up to, sometime around when the Romans came, or just long enough before that the Romans are irrelevant to the story, the people of the Hebrides took the common Atlantic roundhouse, and turned it from a monumental bit of "political landscape" and turned into an internal landscape. I wish we had the timing nailed down --it would make it a bit more historical, as it were. At the moment, all we can say is that we've got a conjuncture in which the material culture of the far northwest of Scotland diverged in a big way from neighbouring areas. The roundhouses of the Orkneys look a lot like the roundhouses of the Hebrides, but there are no wheelhouses on the Orkneys. 

So wheelhouses are a transient phase, and we don't know when they transited. They're not, however, the last stage of a particular kind of land usage in the Hebrides. They are located in the macair, a sandy landscape on the coast of these low-lying islands, where drift sand is constantly threatening to overwhelm settlements, but where, on the other hand, a loamy/sandy soil is easily made. Hebrideans lived on the macair sands, leaving the inland peats to their animals, from the Neolithic to 1300AD. It would be nice if this had something to do with wheelhouses, in that my title would make more sense, but alas. All we know is that we have an archaeologically attested date for a significant change in landscape use: 1300ADish. That this coincides with the emergence of written history referring to the Hebrides isn't necessarily anything more than coincidence. But it does tell us that life in the Hebrides was radically different for the entire prehistoric period than the life experienced by its first historians: more reason to suspect their account of the Hebridean past. If one existed. Sigh. 

So where are we, at the end? A little closer to a vision of the prehistoric Atlantic past as one which recalls the age of the Greenland Mission, and not one which recalls the Viking Age. Indeed, a little more reason to doubt the Viking Age in its own right: no halls, no heroes, traders before barbarians, sources and circumstances circling back around the grand politics of the eleventh century. If we are being misled by a polemic of the glorious, exploding, eleventn century, what actually did come before? Presumably, the story that our Eighth century polemicists are trying to tell: a monk-centred story, even a slight intimation that monks come before Christianity, that wheelhouses are doing the work of  minsters. --I guess I'm pulling that interpretation of the wheelhouse phenomena out of my ass, but it fits the evidence as we have it, as well as anything. Trade in small boats, conducted between communities of contemplatives functioning in lieu of towns as centres of artisanal reproduction: lifeways spreading by missionising rather than by conquest --not that these people aren't belligerent as all heck. We just have to stop thinking of them as racist raiders. 

*(It would appear that Doctor Loveluck is still in search of a real job, if anyone has one to hand, hint, hint.)   

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