Guildford Museum: facts, fears, and the future

What follows is not a run-of-the-mill Surrey Medieval post, but something I’ve felt moved to write in the wake of some dramatic local news. Over the weekend, I learned that the Surrey Archaeological Society, of which I am a long-standing member (right back to fondly-remembered days as a YAC), has been given notice to quit the rooms and other spaces it occupies in Guildford Museum by Guildford Borough Council, the owners and operators, in preparation for a process considering future options for the building. The Society must vacate the museum premises, also known as Castle Arch thanks to the adjacent medieval gateway, by 29th January 2016, giving it roughly six and a half months to make arrangements to leave and find a new home. At the time of writing, what I know about this situation stems largely from two online articles I have read in the excellent Guildford Dragon NEWS online newspaper: one breaking the news about the notice being served, the other giving the Council’s response to and explanation of it.

Before I go any further, let me make it crystal clear that I have written the following in a personal capacity as a sort-of local blogger and what might be termed a stakeholder with an interest in the broader changes which seem to be afoot regarding Guildford Museum. I do not speak for the Surrey Archaeological Society on this or any other matter, and I most certainly do not want any of what follows to be taken as representing the official viewpoint of the Society or its membership. Nor am I party to what its official position is on the matter at the present time. This is simply me, offering a few facts and my own opinions about what I know so far.

The salient facts as reported in the Guildford Dragon NEWS articles are as follows:

  1. Notice to quit has been served on the Surrey Archaeological Society, which had paid ‘a peppercorn rent’ for the sections of the museum building it occupied for what seems to have been a considerable number of years.
  2. According to a quote from the Society’s spokesperson, Emma Corke, ‘We [i.e. the Society] will have to remove all our property from the museum including the numerous exhibits currently on show’ – it is not clear if the necessity of doing this is to meet a stipulation made by the Borough Council or a decision on the part of the Society, although the former party has expressed a hope that there is dialogue to be had about ‘access and use of the [Society’s] collection’.
  3. Guildford Borough Council offered to sell the building known as 48 Quarry Street to the Surrey Archaeological Society for ‘a guide price of £1 million’. This currently forms part of the Guildford Museum complex, but has been adjudged ‘not at all large enough’ by the Society to meet its present and future needs.
  4. Councillor Geoff Davis, Guildford Borough Council’s recently-appointed lead for economic development and a member of the Council’s Executive, has issued a written statement in which he underscores that the Council is ‘committed to Guildford Museum and providing a cultural offering in Guildford for residents and visitors’.
  5. It’s not something I’d picked up on before, but reportedly there has been debate about whether the Surrey-wide scope of Guildford Museum’s present displays is appropriate for an institution operated by a borough council (for those that don’t know, Guildford is the county town of Surrey, so there is something of a tension attendant to such status).

My purpose behind writing this post is not so much to do with the Surrey Archaeological Society, which very much sounds as if it has no chance of preserving the status quo and remaining headquartered at Castle Arch, but the future of Guildford Museum and the Castle Arch building. The news reports state Cllr Davis met with Museum staff early this month in order that they could be ‘briefed about developments’, though understandably the details of this meeting have not been made public. There is no reason to disbelieve Cllr Davis when he writes that Guildford Borough Council is ‘committed to Guildford Museum’, but is this as an institution, or the present museum in the present museum building?

I may not make myself universally popular when I say that Guildford Museum in its current form is a long way from being a perfect museum. Leaving aside sentimental attachment to a place where from a young age I have quenched my thirst for knowledge about the history and archaeology of the area in which I lived and still love, many of the gallery spaces have a tired and somewhat uninspiring air about them. Partly this must be attributed to the building in which it is housed. Castle Arch is a Grade 2* listed building incorporating fabric from the 13th, 17th and early-20th centuries; only the last was designed specifically for its role as a museum, and this was 100+ years ago. Plus, there is a considerable area of publicly-inaccessible and hence grossly under-used “garden” (mostly tatty rough grass) between the museum and some of the standing remains of the adjacent Guildford Castle.

I’ve often thought the Museum would do well to extend into this open space – or at least make much more of it – when looking out at it from the staircase up to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s excellent library. It seems I have not been alone in this, as better access between Museum and Castle Grounds (presumably using this pivotal open area) was at the heart of ambitious plans which were the subject of two failed bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF): one for £4.2 million at a national level in 2013, and a second for £1.9 million of regional cash earlier this year. Without any big external cash injection, this scheme could not go ahead giving the current public sector funding climate.

If the artefacts owned by Surrey Archaeological Society currently on display are removed from Guildford Museum, this would leave Guildford Borough Council with less to display but more rooms in Castle Arch to find a use for. The fifth response to the initial Guildford Dragon NEWS article mentions Guildford Borough Council’s art collection, most of which apparently languishes in storage and out of the site of the public. The town’s designated art gallery, Guildford House, has pottered along for years without a galvanising sense of purpose (or least that’s what it feels like to me – it compares unfavourably with Woking’s dynamic new(ish) Lightbox, for example). I wondered therefore if there might be a move to reconfigure Castle Arch as a museum-cum-art gallery in order to get more of the Borough collection on display.

But things may very well not be as straightforward as that. Many of the rooms in Castle Arch are small and low-ceilinged (especially the ones currently occupied by the Surrey Archaeological Society), or have too many windows and too little wall space, making them even more ill-suited to displaying art than Guildford House. Internal modifications to create up-to-date gallery spaces (if these were even possible within a listed building) would potentially cost a considerable amount of money, which again returns us to the issue of cost and who would foot the bill for such capital expenditure.

If ‘all the options’ for Guildford Museum are to be considered once Surrey Archaeological Society has left the building towards the end of January next year, as Cllr Davis indicates they will, then I would suggest there are three main possibilities for what happens next. The first, and dare I say it least likely, is that Guildford Borough Council stumps up an HLF-sized wad of cash to pay for the improvements needed to take Guildford Museum into the 21st century on its present site. I’m sure this would be an outcome preferable to many in Guildford or who have an interest in the Museum but, given the times we live in, I’d be surprised if a pot of money was found to achieve this.

The second is the polar opposite: Guildford Museum vacates its current premises for a new site, leading to the sale of its former home. In some ways this would make more sense. To turn a previously-outlined scenario on its head, Guildford Museum might be moved into some or all of Guildford House, which after all occupies a plum site on the High Street perfect for increasing footfall. Where this would leave its visual arts offering, meanwhile, I don’t know. Similarly, I have no idea about Guildford Borough Council’s town centre property portfolio and what capacity there is for rejigging current occupancies to accommodate Guildford Museum elsewhere (presuming the intention is/will be for it to remain in a central location).

Conceivably, a new space could be bought or leased for the purpose. In the 21st century, it’s worth asking what can or cannot act as a museum space. Most local town museums around Guildford (Farnham, Godalming, Haslemere) are repurposed old town houses, yet there is no overriding reason why Guildford Museum must operate in an historic building. Modern premises, purpose-built or otherwise, could offer better environments and greater flexibility. At least one letter writer to Guildford Dragon NEWS has articulated his own reasons for seeing a brand new building as a positive.

The third and final option is for Guildford Museum remains in its current home, but in reduced form (possibly reorientated towards being a true “town museum”), thereby freeing up space within the building to be converted into other uses. This would most likely require the injection of private capital, possibly via the sale of some of the Castle Arch site. Turning the site into a mixed-use “campus” could even realise the ambitions for connecting the Museum with the Castle Grounds which were thwarted by the rejection of the bids to the HLF. Of course, this would involve the conversion of part of the existing building – and perhaps insertion of new structures – for commercial premises (cafes/restaurants/shops/offices) and maybe even housing. Done well, a mixed-use redevelopment could bring many benefits to Guildford, its residents and visitors.

The willingness of Guildford Borough Council to sell 48 Quarry Street indicates a desire on its part to monetise some of its assets in this part of the town centre. This would tie in with the fact that back in September 2014 the Borough Council was planning to tackle a predicted budgetary shortfall of £6.5 million in part through ‘better use of property assets’. Earlier this summer, I visited The Novium, Chichester’s civic museum. It’s a whopping great contemporary building which cost a reported £7 million to construct (and that was a few years ago). The project has been (or will be) bankrolled by a spot of property speculation on the part of Chichester District Council; the scheme was designed with a block of apartments for private sale to the rear of the museum. I’m not the biggest fan of The Novium as a building (and even less so of the associated housing) but as a model for delivering a museum facility for a town in this day and age, it’s undoubtedly succeeded on several scores. The circumstances prevailing in the creation of a new Guildford Museum would be considerably different, however, unless the Borough Council has something big up its sleeve involving the development of an equivalent surface car-park (and at this stage who’s to say it doesn’t).

My sentiments about Surrey Archaeological Society being given notice and the implications for the future of Guildford Museum have developed over the past few days, from initial disbelief and instinctive opposition to partial acceptance and cautious optimism. (This is separate to the fate of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s collection of artefacts. I have had in mind to produce a piece of work involving at least one find from the Guildown Anglo-Saxon cemetery, but this assemblage has been specifically mentioned as one that will be withdrawn from display as things stand. If a deal cannot be struck, it will of course make my research a good deal harder to undertake, and I’m certain other researchers would be affected by the same issue.)

Allow me to explain why of all things I feel a modicum of optimism. Although I don’t understand quite why Guildford Museum (and Heritage in general) should fall within the portfolio of economic development, I do believe there is someone with relevant expertise heading up the initiative. According to the Guildford Borough Council register of interests, Cllr Davis has a professional background in quantity surveying and commercial property, so should be versed in making optimal use of buildings. To keep things more or less as they are may be one of the options countenanced by Cllr Davis and his team next year, but a half-empty museum will not benefit Guildford in the longer term. Something needs to change.

I’ve laid a few cards on the table, so let me show the rest of my hand. From West Sussex to Dorchester, there is no shortage of examples of public sector cuts at local government level having an impact on provisions for the historic environment. I don’t think the changes to Guildford Museum which seem to be in the offing should be grouped with them – not yet, anyway. Maybe it’s the innate optimist in me, and I’ll be let down in time when the options are announced, but I think whatever comes next should be viewed as an opportunity rather than something to be resisted at all costs.

To capitalise on this opportunity in a rounded way, three issues strike me as being important above all others. Firstly, Guildford Borough Council should do more than “closely liaise” with Surrey Archaeological Society regarding the future of those elements of the present Guildford Museum displays owned by the latter. It must offer practical help to the Society to find a new home for its offices, library and collections. For its part, I hope the Society can impress upon Guildford Borough Council the benefits of keeping Surrey’s foremost popular organisation for archaeology in the county town. To see it go elsewhere after being based in Guildford for so long would be a real shame.

The second is the town vs. county museum question. Present-day Surrey’s a funny beast: the County Council headquarters have been outside the administrative county since 1965, the main county cricket ground even longer. The county name may retain a certain cachet, at least for places long subsumed by London politically, but few would claim Surrey has an especially strong county identity. This being the case, the interests of the historic county can all too easily play second fiddle to more local concerns. It is quite understandable that Guildford Borough Council will always put the interests of town and borough first, and likewise that it wants to make more of its estate. But I would argue it is contingent on the Borough Council not just to do right by Guildford, but Surrey as well. I wouldn’t maintain a website named Surrey Medieval if the county’s history was not a rich and varied one, and Guildford is in many ways the best location for a museum to reflect this.

Thirdly and finally, I would urge Guildford Borough Council and all other interested parties to be bold and imaginative in drawing up and evaluating the options for the future of Guildford Museum. Guildford is a conservative kind of place, small c and large, but overcautiousness and a feeling that things should stay the same (or as good as) must not be allowed to prevail if this means Guildford Museum – with or without the Surrey Archaeological Society’s collection – emerges from the process little improved or even degraded, occupying a leftover space in a bigger Council building.

Cllr Davis’ statement mentions the Borough Council is committed to ‘providing a cultural offering’ for Guildford, and it would be indefensible were this to emerge worse off after the implementation of the chosen option other than in terms of a quantifiable cost saving. You may not think it from what you read and hear, but there is so much more to Guildford than the picturesque shopping destination that is its High Street. As several comments to the Guildford Dragon NEWS articles underline, matters of culture and heritage go beyond questions of cost efficiency or profit; their benefits cannot and should not be measured only in financial terms. It is to be hoped that Cllr Davis and his colleagues recognise this now and throughout their evaluation of the tabled options for Guildford Museum.

One letter to the Guildford Dragon NEWS on the subject, written by a correspondent who I know has been well-placed to see the build-up to the present situation, lends credence to the impression that Guildford Borough Council has up to now taken a less-than-unblinkered attitude towards the purpose and future of Guildford Museum. Whatever the extent to which the departure of Surrey Archaeological Society from Castle Arch goes against the assertion that Guildford Borough Council will be ‘looking at all the options’ in due course, for better or worse, things have happened or will happen which cannot be reversed. It’s where we go from here – and particularly from early 2016 – that is important now.

There are too many instances of major development projects in Guildford that have failed to make headway or look as if they will disfigure the urban environment rather than improve it. Arguably, the town centre has entered a period in which its fabric will undergo the most profound changes since the 1960s, and from my position as a casual observer, there are worryingly few reasons for optimism that it will emerge more beautiful than the place Eric Parker once commended. But G Live shows Guildford can get it right (eventually), while the renovation of Guildford Castle’s keep is a superb example of the careful treatment of one of the town’s main historic monuments. Whether together as a refurbished museum or separated, better futures for Guildford Museum, its current collection, and the Castle Arch building, must be secured. And, in the shorter term, I hope the Surrey Archaeological Society is able to make a successful transition to a new home.

(I’ll add some photographs to the above so it’s not so “texty” next time I’m in Guildford, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you probably read the rest of the post!) 

Posted in Guildford, Museum, News, Politics, Surrey | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Puttenham church: new research, and a new church guide

Puttenham church from the north-west, March 2015

Puttenham church from the north-west, March 2015

One thing I’ve been involved in over the past few months has been the production of a new visitor guide for Puttenham church. It’s been an educational experience knocking the first draft into shape over several revisions, and making sure the contents are not only accurate but easy for the non-specialist to understand as well. The new guide is now in its final version and the copy I have in front of me confirms that it has been worth all the effort put in behind the scenes. I don’t know when it will be available to buy from the church (it should be shortly if it isn’t on sale already) but now you have even more reason to pay a visit to Puttenham!

It’s looking like I’ll be able to spend more time in Puttenham this summer than I have in recent times, so I’m planning to use it as an opportunity to work up a few bits I’ve had in the pipeline related to the parish. Partly because of becoming involved in producing the new church guide, and partly for other reasons, I’ve found myself thinking about Puttenham church in new ways this year. It’s also led me to reexamine the fabric of the church more closely. There’s no escaping the medieval fabric of Puttenham church has taken one hell of a clobbering in the post-medieval period but, as with anything medieval, the longer you spend with it, the more that slowly emerges from unpromising circumstances.

I posted the first fruit of this initiative yesterday, in the form of a piece of medieval clerical prosopography setting out the evidence for three (well, two-and-a-half) previously unknown rectors of Puttenham in the fourteenth century. It also presents the best evidence I have come across so far for the Black Death striking the parish. And because I’m so good like that, I’ve included an updated list of all its known pre-Reformation rectors. I don’t think there’s anything unique or especially unusual about the evidence, but studying history at a parish level is so often about revealing the “ordinariness” of a place – I hope it may strike a chord with readers who have conducted (or thought about conducting) similar research elsewhere.

Posted in Books, Church, History, Puttenham | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Following up on Leeds

It took me several weeks to write up and publish a post on my time at the Kalamazoo International Congress of Medieval Studies, so I thought I’d do the opposite and set down my thoughts on the Leeds International Medieval Congress (spot the difference!) while they’re fresh in my mind. A week down the line, stand by for a marginally shorter summary of what I did at, and thought about, the conference, plus a little bit about what I got up to after it was over. Also, an unabashedly stereotypical array of photos of the sights of the IMC. Though not one of the dance – there was too much fun to be had, and perhaps for all parties concerned it’s better there are no photos…

I doubt there's ever been a write-up of an IMC that didn't feature a picture of the welcome banner near the start

I doubt there’s ever been a write-up of an IMC that didn’t feature a picture of the welcome banner at or near the start of the piece

An email from the IMC organisers was sent out a couple of days ago, in which it was mentioned a ‘record-breaking 2400 medievalists from 46 countries made it to the Congress’ this year. I can well believe it, the campus was heaving with people, bringing back memories of term-times when I was a Leeds student. Such numbers make it the second biggest medieval conference in the world, after Kalamazoo (I’m intrigued to know what takes bronze medal in the rankings – any idea?). 17 sets of sessions, plus keynotes, round-tables, receptions and more, across four days (and this is just the core of the programme!) make it a pretty gruelling event. The two days of holiday I took post-Leeds was a great idea it turns out.

Presenting and networking

As trailed in my previous post, I gave a paper on the Wednesday afternoon – so just over halfway through the Congress – in Session 1202, ‘”Melior est subjecta servitus”: Looking for Slaves in the Early Medieval West’. Organised by Tom MacMaster, moderated by Marek Jankowiak, and kicked off with a brilliant paper by Janel Fontaine, everyone present agreed the session was a resounding success. I say everyone present, as the session room was so rammed to the gunnels with people that many who wanted to attend could not, or else were forced to stand with one foot in the corridor and no view of the speakers or screen. I salute those people for whom the latter applied for sticking around – I can’t say I would have had patience to linger when faced with the same limitations.

Yours truly introducing my paper. Grace Jones features as part of a

Yours truly a couple of minutes into giving my paper (photo c/o Emma Vosper @EmmaVosper). Grace Jones featured on the title slide and later on in the presentation as part of a Slave to the Rhythm-related “joke” which probably didn’t make sense to most of those present, and is certainly not worth repeating here!

It’s hard to legislate for the likely size of audience months in advance – not least when a session clashes with others concerning the same time period and/or geographical region – but it was a shame not everyone could stay for the papers and participate in the discussion at the end. The latter achieved just what I wanted it to do in respect of my own paper (a summary of which you can read over on my Academia profile), which was inter-disciplinary but fundamentally concerned with place-name evidence rather than historical or literary records of slavery. In reviewing past approaches to my topic, it’s clear previous scholars have focused on determining the meaning of the elements of the relevant place-names but given scant regard to the nature of the settlements to which they were attached and how these came into being, something I’m keen to overcome. My preference for a primarily slave-based interpretation of the settlements and names needs to grapple much more with how they would have operated – one thing I took from the session is quite how hard it is for us as Western medievalists to comprehend slavery as an everyday socio-economic institution.

The aftermath of Session 1202, i.e. many satisfied scholars (and maybe one or two who had spent the previous 90 minutes wondering what the inside of the room looked like)

The aftermath of Session 1202, i.e. many satisfied scholars (and maybe one or two who had spent the previous 90 minutes wondering what the inside of the room looked like)

I was particularly stoked to meet Leeds’ own Katherine Miller after the session. She completed a fantastic Ph.D thesis on Old English words for slaves last year, which I used and acknowledged a debt to in my paper. It proved very popular when I tweeted a link to it a couple of months ago, so if you didn’t take a look at it then I really do recommend you read/download this excellent piece of scholarship at White Rose eTheses Online.

My sense is that a lot of IMC attendees are there to give papers or else act as session moderators, respondents etc., but by no means everyone does so. Two things uniting everyone present are the opportunities for hearing about all manner of fresh research and for networking with fellow researchers in your chosen field. On the first count, the 2015 Congress more or less lived up to my expectations: plenty of interesting new information to take away and digest, but nothing truly revelatory, though the round table on Space and Place held on the Monday evening was incredibly stimulating (particularly for someone like myself with a keen interest in place-names, who has often pondered why there has been no meaningful discussion of the concept of space-names).

Congress Ale, famed lubricant for scholarly and not-so-scholarly interactions at the IMC

Congress Ale, famed lubricant for scholarly and not-so-scholarly interactions at the IMC

On the second count, however, I feel like my Leeds experience was not what it could have been. I attribute this in the main to my own uselessness, and recognise that I need to raise my networking game at future conferences. That said, the sheer size of the IMC (and likewise Kalamazoo) means a lot of people seem to go round in groups based on institution or research group affiliation, something which doesn’t happen at smaller, more focused conferences. Flying under the flag of an unaffiliated independent scholar left me feeling like a bit of a lone wolf at times. The positive thing I take from it is that next time I go to the IMC I’ll be underway with my doctoral research, and more than likely will be presenting on some aspect of it, rather than a subject area I’m essentially “passing through”. (For a nice intro to the IMC by someone who did get the important bits right first time, head over to Kim Curran’s blog – Kim is just the sort of person it would have neat to meet but, well, didn’t.)

The rather claustral passage outside the door to my Congress accommodation

The rather claustral passage outside the door to my Congress accommodation

Themes and trends

Every IMC has an overarching theme, which influences the content of the sessions and papers to varying extents (down to none whatsoever). This year’s was Reform and Renewal, two overlapping concepts which I think my paper could be said to have addressed at different points, even though I neither pitched the proposal nor wrote the paper with them in mind! Beyond this, I picked up on a number of “unofficial” themes and trends which surfaced at various points over the course of the Congress and I thought would be worth highlighting here, especially for readers who were present at Leeds to compare with their own take-away impressions of what felt important/current.

(1) To start by indulging in a spot of medievalist trend-forecasting, I predict you’ll be hearing a lot more about “trans-disciplinary” research, and frankly anything where “trans-” can supplant “inter-” or “multi-” as the prefix which best connotes complexity/dynamism/innovativeness. One particularly successful deployment of it was in the context of Catalin Taranu’s exploration of the “trans-ethnic” assertions of Gothic ancestries among peoples of who are considered to be “Germanic” (a problematic though not necessarily erroneous label culturally) in northern Europe from the ninth century. Place your bets on how many years it will be before the IMC theme is “Trans-disciplinarity” (presumably not before spell checkers accept it as a valid word!).

This is what your desk looks like when you stay up long past midnight writing what might be claimed to be a

This is what your desk looks like when you stay up long past midnight writing what might be claimed to be a “trans-disciplinary” conference paper

(2) Another theme that bubbled up repeatedly in the sessions I attended was ethnicity/ethnic identity: how it can be perceived looking back in time from today, and how it was perceived at the time in whatever part of the medieval period was under discussion. It’s probably no accident that certain trends current in politics the world over make this something of a hot topic. The overwhelming message coming from those who gave papers addressing the matter was that it’s hard to discern if ethnic identity was really a thing back in the day. So I heard James Harland, in an excellent and (for its early morning slot) uncompromisingly rigorous review of approaches to the burial record of fifth-century lowland Britain, cited a range of authors who have offered different opinions on the matter, including deconstructivist approaches which deny the very existence of historically-attested “ethnic” groups.

Broadly the same subject was covered from a very different angle in the final session I attended (subtitled ‘Methods to Reconstruct Migration – History, Archaeology and Genetics’), where the presenters appraised the contribution of genetics and other forms of bioscientific research. Again, I took from these contributions the inherent difficulties of isolating genuine evidence for ethnicity from genetic or artefactual assemblages, certainly now we are beyond the days of racially-driven research to serve nationalistic political purposes. I was also very taken with a closing remark (from Prof. Mark Jobling, I think) saying that there is an almost innate desire in humans, not just historically but still today, to have an ‘origin story’ with which to situate themselves in both past and present.

Geneticist Mark Jobling takes a room full of medievalists through the fundamentals of DNA analysis, and the successes and failures of high-profile projects conducted in recent years

Geneticist Mark Jobling takes a room full of medievalists through the fundamentals of DNA analysis, the successes and failures of high-profile projects conducted in recent years, and what the future has in store science-wise (*spoiler alert* the emergence of Ancient DNA extraction/sampling as a commonplace in archaeology)

The philosophical and scientific discourses brought to bear on issues of ethnic identity are ones I hope to become more familiar with as I proceed with my Ph.D research. Given my particular subject matter, I was very pleased to hear that group identity is not only more straightforward to discern and but equally seems to have been an important means of constructing identity in early medieval societies. When it comes to my own research, I’m particularly keen at the outset to define my terms on a social anthropological level; it will be interesting to see where (if at all) ethnicity features within this context. Those interested in matters of ethnic identity in the early medieval period may like to stash in the back of their minds notice of a conference that’ll be happening at the University of York next Spring. Details are scant but from what little I know about the event it sounds like it should be a corker.

Speaking of group identity...

Speaking of group identity…

(3) Perhaps the most important theme in this time of impact and relevance was the power of social media, especially Twitter, as a means of engagement with fellow medievalists as well as interested non-specialist audiences. Someone crunched the numbers at some point during the Congress and worked out this year’s IMC was the most tweeted about medieval conference ever on the basis of the hashtag #IMC2015 (I make it that I was responsible for 25 uses of it), and a lot of people got all excited when the hashtag for Session 1403 (‘The Twitterati’ – who thinks up these names?) started trending at a national level. Which are all well and good, but how can this all be harnessed so that it’s not just an inward-looking, potentially off-putting conversation between tweeting academics? And, in terms of aforementioned academics, how can the ideas being bounced about be taken out of Twitter and applied in more substantial, practical research collaborations? Maybe if I’d been in attendance at the relevant sessions I would have some answers to these questions for you!

Day 1 saw the official launch of the Dictionary of Medieval Names in European Sources (http://dmnes.org/). I got just the answer I was looking for when I tweeted the DMNES the week before while writing my paper, only to forget to so much as mention it on the big day! Fortunately, I was able to help out by letting this photo of mine be used as part of the write-up of the launch. So there you have it - Twitter breeds useful collaborations, but cannot always jog the forgetful mind of a grateful speaker!

Day 1 saw the official launch of the Dictionary of Medieval Names in European Sources (dmnes.org). I got just the answer I was looking for when I tweeted the DMNES the week before while writing my paper, only to forget to so much as mention it on the big day! Fortunately, I was able to help out by letting this photo of mine be used as part of the write-up of the launch on the DMNES blog. So there you have it – Twitter breeds useful collaborations, but cannot always jog the mind of a forgetful but truly grateful speaker!

Not that it’s the maximum 140 characters per tweet which is the only limitation to opening up new avenues. I spoke to one session organiser who felt there was a frustrating reticence on the part of people whose papers intersected, and in doing so pointed to important areas of future investigation, to acknowledge such opportunities and talk about ways of undertaking collaborative research. This benefits neither the specialist field within medieval studies, nor does it offer anything for wider audiences receptive to new information to become engaged by. Even so, there’s an obvious argument that most medievalists are quite busy enough with their own research and other responsibilities without having to take up each and every idea for a possible new direction. One hopes that balances can be struck and the best possibilities are recognised and seized upon.

The last full day of the IMC is all about nursing sore post-dance heads and marvelling at the birds of prey. Geoff the peregrine falcon rocked my world.

The last full day of the IMC is all about nursing sore post-dance heads and marvelling at the birds of prey. Geoff the peregrine falcon rocked my world.

Postscript

I made good my escape from Leeds on Friday morning, taking advantage of its wonderful Yorkshire location to take the train up to Wensleydale for a day of walking, swimming, and being chased by sheep. The day after, I left the Dales and visited Ripon cathedral (St Wilfrid’s crypt being my number one goal and clear highlight) and the quite astonishing remains of twelfth-century and later Fountains Abbey – in a different league to the Cistercian remains of Waverley Abbey I was raised on! The less said about my return to London through the loud, drunken streets of post-horse races York the better, other than to note I did walk past one of the Bishophill churches which was in a very pleasant and mercifully quiet corner of the city. I’ll leave you with photos of a rutted track and some of medieval Yorkshire’s finest ecclesiastical architecture.

Cam High Road, a Roman road running down into Wensleydale. Not sure if the present stony surface is what's left of Roman-era metalling, guess it could be?

Cam High Road, a Roman road running down into Wensleydale. Not sure if the present stony surface is what’s left of Roman-era metalling, guess it could be?

The west front of Ripon cathedral. Because there is no such thing as too many lancet windows.

The west front of Ripon cathedral. Because there is no such thing as too many lancet windows.

Being able to go down into the crypt beneath the crossing, very probably designed and built under the direction of St Wilfrid, was the main reason for my visit to Ripon cathedral. I've tweeted a couple more pictures of the interior here.

Being able to go down into the crypt beneath the crossing, very probably designed and built under the direction of St Wilfrid, was the main reason for my visit to Ripon cathedral. It was well worth the effort – I’ve tweeted a couple more pictures of the interior here.

The stunning east window of the choir of Ripon cathedral, a masterpiece of Geometric Gothic according to the guide on duty, and who am I to disagree?

The stunning east window of the choir of Ripon cathedral, a masterpiece of Geometric Gothic according to the guide on duty, and who am I to disagree?

This misericord (which I want to say is 15th century) depicts a griffin chasing a rabbit, or maybe a hare. The point is it's been claimed as the inspiration for ALICE IN WONDERLAND! I really want this to be true.

This misericord (which I want to say is 15th century) depicts a griffin chasing a rabbit, or maybe a hare. The point is it’s been claimed as the inspiration for ALICE IN WONDERLAND! I really want this to be true.

One thing I saw in Ripon cathedral that I've seen nowhere else is this very obviously incomplete late medieval replacement of the original 12th-century arch between crossing and nave. Methinks this improvement will never be completed.

One thing I saw in Ripon cathedral that I’ve seen nowhere else is this very obviously incomplete late medieval replacement of the original 12th-century arch between crossing and nave. Methinks this improvement will never be completed.

Fountains Abbey's reputation precedes it, yet many aspects of it still turned out to be surprise to me. Take the walk from the visitor centre to access the ruins; you think you're moving towards a gatehouse but it turns out to be the top of Abbot Huby's tower, because the path runs along the top of a cliff! Sorry for spoiling any equivalent surprise for you if you've yet to visit...

Fountains Abbey’s reputation precedes it, yet many aspects still turned out to be surprise to me. Take the walk from the visitor centre to access the ruins; you think you’re moving towards a gatehouse but it turns out to be the top of Abbot Huby’s tower, because the path runs along the top of a cliff! Sorry for spoiling any equivalent revelation for you if you’ve yet to visit…

Remains of an aisle vault on the south side of the Abbey church. The very definition of Romanesque, I felt like I was back among the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome.

Remains of an aisle vault on the south side of the Abbey church. The very definition of Romanesque, I felt like I was back among the ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome.

Amazing to find in situ glazed floor tiles amidst the ruins, albeit in the Muniment Room which has kept its vaulted roof to act as protection.

Delighted to find in situ glazed floor tiles amidst the ruins, albeit in the Muniment Room which has kept its vaulted roof to act as protection.

A real classic Fountains image to finish with, the interior of the west range. I'm presuming a 13th-century, to judge by its simplicity.

A real classic Fountains image to finish with, the interior of the west range. I’m presuming a 13th-century, to judge by its simplicity.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Conference, History, Landscape, Leeds, Place-Names, Slavery, Wessex | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kalamazoo and other stories

After a mad March, April was a quiet (or unmemorable?) month, which was probably for the best as I had to prepare myself for another 12-day trip to North America, built around the 50th edition of the International Congress of Medieval Studies, held at Western Michigan University in the small-ish city of Kalamazoo. It’s been a few weeks since the end of the Congress, in which time bloggers who are far more organised than me have written up their experiences (let me point you towards Medieval History Geek, Beoshewulf and Medievalist in Transit, to name three examples from WordPressland alone), but I thought I’d share my own thoughts on my first ‘Zoo. Furthermore, I didn’t want to truck several thousand miles and see little more of the Midwest than one college town in Michigan, so padded out my time across the Pond with several days in some cities I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. It was almost like a holiday. A tiring and at times intellectually-intense holiday.

Toronto and a date with a sword

The CN Tower from what probably bills itself as the best place in downtown Toronto to pick up some

The CN Tower from what probably bills itself as the best place in downtown Toronto to pick up some “medieval” clothing

I began my trip across the Canadian border in Toronto. I wanted to stay in the city primarily to go up the CN Tower which, by virtue of being so darned tall, has captured my imagination from a young age. As it turned out, like many of downtown Toronto’s loftier buildings, it was shrouded in thick cloud on the morning I wanted to visit (gallingly after three days which all did a very good impression of an Ontario summer). Luckily, I succeeded in my secondary objective, to visit the brilliant Royal Ontario Museum and see its collection of Viking-era swords. I was keen to inspect one in particular; its finest sword, dredged from the River Thames during the reconstruction of Vauxhall Bridge circa 1906. Thought to be of tenth-century date, it’s only by viewing the sword up close that the fineness of the copper and silver filament decoration on the hilt becomes apparent; hopefully the photo below gives you a flavour of the superlative craftsmanship. Though the exhibit text intimates these swords might have been the weapons of “Viking raiders” a little too often for my tastes, all in all it was great to see something of significance to Surrey given such prominence in an international museum.

The hilt of the Vauxhall sword; note the fine inlaid designs on pommel and guard

The hilt of the Vauxhall sword; note the fine inlaid designs on pommel and guard

Detroit to Kalamazoo

From Toronto it was on to Detroit for a couple of nights in what is not the avoid-at-all-costs post-industrial ground zero so many have it pegged as (among other things I went to a baseball game at the anything-but-ruinous Comerica Park – Let’s Go Tigers!). Detroit was and is so much more than the Motor City stereotype, and the Detroit Historical Museum really brings out its enduring capacity for innovation, industry, and knowing how to have a good time. By focusing on civic history rather than displaying collections culled from across the globe, it may well be the best of its kind I’ve been to. As for the Motown Museum, let’s just say the joyfulness of the music is matched by the enthusiasm of the in-house tour guides! I’d been nervous about staying in Detroit until a couple of people I met in Toronto said it’s really starting to go places, and they were right. The city may have declared itself bankrupt not all that long ago, but it felt like more and more ordinary people are investing in creating small businesses and renovating neighbourhoods. Part of me can’t wait to go back and see what further good work they’ve done.

The corner of Michigan and Turnbull in Corktown, Detroit's oldest neighborhood

Sunset on the corner of Michigan and Turnbull in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood

I took the Greyhound to Kalamazoo, by way Jackson (but seemingly not the Jackson made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter), and roadkill raccoons and a live wild turkey alongside the interstate (American wildlife is much bigger IRL). Other than an entirely unnecessary walk from the bus station to campus of Western Michigan University, I didn’t see much of Kalamazoo, though I’m sure it has its charms. (I did visit Waldo’s tavern on the edge of campus which set me up for a particularly riotous time on the Friday night – beware the regulars at the bar and their offers of spiced vodka shots!)

The first sign I had that I was walking in the right direction

The first sign I had that I was walking in the right direction

An introduction to the International Congress of Medieval Studies (in more ways than one)

As you may or may not be aware, the ICMS is the largest annual gathering of medievalists in the world, with a tweet towards the end of the four days announcing that almost 3,000 delegates were in attendance this year (which would have been even more impressive had I not read on the plane over about a medical sciences convention in Washington which attracts more than ten times that number of participants). The accommodation’s not up to much, unless you’ve spent some time behind bars, in which case it’s pretty deluxe. But griping about the quality of your digs and the fear of your next-door neighbour walking in on you in the bathroom unites pretty much everyone in attendance. That, and the abundance of medieval things on offer.

This was actually on the last day; the guy behind the desk was really nice, just wasn't responsive to my suggestion he pretend to look like he was having the time of his life.

This was actually on the last day; the guy behind the desk was really nice, just wasn’t responsive to my suggestion he pretend to look like he was having the time of his life.

You know how music festivals like Glastonbury and Primavera (and I’m guessing Coachella in the US) generate fervent devotees who go year after year, and spend the intervening months telling you how their event of choice is the best thing ever? To me, Kalamazoo felt a bit like that (albeit a very sedate and largely music-free one), with scattered “stages” and places to get food and drink entailing a lot of walking if you weren’t prepared to hang around for one of the dinky little shuttle buses. Particularly among the North American medievalist community, the ‘Zoo is obviously A BIG THING – and I don’t mean simply in terms of the goodness-knows-how-many sessions and other events that make up the Congress, which are a formidable prospect no matter when you’re from. Many people clearly come every year, or else are seasoned veterans of numerous non-consecutive editions, and seem to recognise every other person in the dining hall or perusing the book fair.

As campus residents, these geese knew where they were going

As campus residents, these geese knew where they were going

For a newbie, it took a little time to adjust and get into the swing of things, although I ended up having a great time reconnecting with friends from my spells in the IMS at Leeds and IMR at Nottingham (the latter’s session on impact was an early highlight, and I’m not saying that because it’s my alma mater!). I also met a whole bunch of brilliant new people along the way, from fellow bloggers like the book-buying machine that is Curt Emmanuel, to the group from Central European University in Budapest who run Medieval Radio (special thanks to them for rescuing me from loitering by some bins while on my lonesome at one wine reception).

Click through to the Medieval Radio website!

Click through to the Medieval Radio website!

Sessions and papers roll of honour

To return to my music festival analogy, I adopted the same approach as I do at such events and, rather than keep it locked to one of the multi-session strands on a common theme, picked and mixed things that sounded relevant on some level to my research interests. Of course, there are the constraints imposed by timetabling and the general tenor of the Congress. Thus I ended up hearing a lot of papers about Old English literature, but not so much archaeology, and only a smattering of history. My own paper, in the ludicrously well-attended Anglo-Saxon England session, was quite historical by my standards (I try to avoid putting together solely names-based papers as I think they’re dull as the proverbial water in the ditch for non-specialists). I don’t feel like I came anywhere near knocking it out of the park in terms of how I presented (hot room + thick polyester shirt = a recipe for disaster) but from the comments I received from many people after made me think the content was solid. My gratitude to Hilary Fox for organising the session and giving me the opportunity for once to research and present something related to those old crowd pleasers, King Alfred and the Vikings.

Full details of Session 245 from the ICMS program

Full details of Session 245 as per my tatty copy of the ICMS program

Of the other sessions I attended, what stood out? The one that excited me the most was ‘Medieval Data: Prospects and Practices’ late on the first evening, because it gave me a taste of how scholars have used big data to investigate things spatially, which I’m determined to make a central strand of my upcoming PhD project. Brittany Rancour‘s presentation of her not-so-recent MA research into Anglo-Norman settlement patterns in Co. Wexford in Ireland grabbed me because of its interweaving of several types of map and techniques as a means to answer broader questions. Equally inspiring was Amanda Morton‘s paper ‘Fuzzy Maps and Fictionalized Geographies’, in which she discussed how uncertain spatial data is presented visually, and whether the shortcomings of using traditional involving methods involving distinct dots and lines can be overcome by ones that more accurately reflect inherent “fuzziness”. Both had me sold.

A session room, minus panellists and audience

A Kalamazoo session room, minus panellists, presider and audience

Another highlight was the Sunday morning session on ‘Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Europe’ organised by the University of Aberdeen in association with their potentially very important Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North research programme. (It was the first of two related sessions, but I had a lift to Chicago so missed the second.) Speakers presented on a range of regions within Scandinavia and Atlantic Europe, foregrounding archaeological evidence but drawing upon textual material as well. Oskar Sveinbjarnason‘s paper entitled ‘New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland’ shone brightest for me, reporting some astonishing excavation findings at sites like Rhynie in Aberdeenshire (whose name rather brilliantly means “a very royal place”). Showing pictures of wonderful Pictish symbol stones never hurts, either…

Sumptuous photograph by Cathy MacIver of the Craw Stane at Rhynie, with Tap o'Noth hillfort in the background, from the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project blog - click on the image to link through to the site)

Sumptuous photograph by Cathy MacIver of the Craw Stane at Rhynie, with Tap o’Noth hillfort in the background, from the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project blog – click on the image to link through to the site

Honorable mentions should go to a couple of excellent individual papers in sessions of more, er, variable quality. In the very first session I attended, in a paper entitled ‘The Vernacular Fenland’, Britton Brooks considered the degree to which the Old English translation of Felix’s Life of Guthlac incorporates vocabulary more consistent with toponymy than literature, which raised intriguing questions about audience and influence. The various tellings and retellings of Guthlac’s time in and around Crowland have been repeatedly mined for landscape details to the point where I wasn’t sure there was anything new to add to understanding of the Fens known to the saint (or the authors of his vitae), so credit to Britton for finding a novel angle. The OE translation is dated to a period (late-ninth to mid-tenth century) which was crucial to the evolution of vernacular boundary descriptions, the “classic” forms of which are contained in many Late Anglo-Saxon diplomas, and it dawned on me that more focused cross-referencing of the two sources might reveal further insights.

Thornhill 3, Face A, showing runic inscription; image taken from page 461 of Philip Charles Sidebottom, Schools of Anglo-Saxon School Sculpture in the North Midlands, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Sheffield (1994) - click through to read

Thornhill 3 (Face A), showing the runic inscription; grainy image taken from page 461 of pdf of Philip Charles Sidebottom, Schools of Anglo-Saxon School Sculpture in the North Midlands, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Sheffield (1994) – click through to read via the White Rose eTheses Online database

On the second day, Jill Hamilton Clements’ paper ‘A Tomb with a View’ stood out for its excellent punning title, but more importantly for shining a spotlight on short texts on Anglo-Saxon sculptural fragments which have echoes of the language of the passages in Beowulf concerning the hero’s funeral. As with Guthlac’s Fens, certain sculptures (e.g. Bewcastle) come up so frequently in discussions on this topic that they almost become trite, so it was exciting to learn of some more under-the-radar analogues. In particular, the ninth-century fragment known as Thornhill 3 – see above – bearing an OE runic inscription identifying it as having originally been part of a “bekun on bergi” (in the sense of “monument”, most likely a cross, on the “tomb” of a female named Berhtswith), was a revelation to me, for one thing because of the overlap with the vocabulary of place-names.

The dance in full flow

The dance in full flow

Most Kalamazoo summaries I’ve read culminate with the Saturday night dance. It isn’t the end of the Congress, but does mark the point where delegates (save for those unlucky ones who have papers to present the following morning) ease off the intellectual throttle after the best part of three days of sustained academic activity. Moreover, it’s the stuff of salacious legend, or at least it was among many people who in the run up to the night told me about it, most of whom subsequently pronounced this year’s one a disappointment (the consensus is the one at Leeds is reliably better). I kept a lid on it (and, unlike some, my top on) that night, to make sure I was fit for my mid-morning ride away from K’zoo, but it was pretty good fun nonetheless and I got to thank the person who generously loaned her laptop (well, a USB port-less Chromebook – why?!) to our session so that we could run PowerPoints to accompany our papers.

On to Chicago – and Leeds

Our little slice of Chicago by night

Our little slice of Chicago by night

The trip to Chicago was uneventful save for more roadkill and it being an unusual combination of car, monorail, and alarmingly wobbly metro. What a city Chicago is – the above was the view from our budget hotel room! It’s a monster, both horizontally and vertically, dimensions that are best appreciated from on high, in my case the bar near the top of the Hancock Tower, from where I took the following photo after saying goodbye to the Nottingham IMR high command:

Hell of a town

80+ floors and still only the fourth tallest building in Chicago

We weren’t in Chicago for long enough to appreciate anything more than a tiny fraction of what it has to offer. Dedicated one afternoon to the Field Museum which, like the ROM, is a vast, multi-themed beast of an institution. Its main exhibition at the moment (and through to 4th October 2015) is simply titled Vikings. This isn’t the same one as people went so nuts for in London last year – apparently that’s in China right now – but organised by the Swedish History Museum and Austria’s Museum Partner (because the Vikings loved the Alps…). The majority of the artefacts on display, a significant proportion of which seemed to have been culled from excavations in Scandinavia (with Swedish finds unsurprisingly to the fore), were small and of decidedly non-martial character. I’d had my fill of swords from the period back in Toronto, so really enjoyed this subtle approach to creating a narrative of the Vikings being so much more than bloodthirsty raiders in horned helmets and ships with stripy sails.

Between the Royal Ontario and Field Museums, I developed quite a thing for button-on-bow brooches. Didn't think to jot down the provenance of this particularly fine example in the Vikings exhibition

Between the Royal Ontario and Field Museums, I developed quite a thing for button-on-bow brooches. Didn’t think to jot down the provenance of this particularly fine example in the Vikings exhibition

I doubt I’ll make the trip to the 2016 ICMS – though maybe I’ve inspired you to give it a whirl. This year was a little bit of an adventure that I was fortunate enough to be able to fund myself, but there’s no avoiding the fact it’s a right old schlep from the UK to the middle of Michigan. Plus I’d rather knuckle down and concentrate on the initial phases of my PhD! However, as part of my ongoing adventures in medieval conferences, I am going to this year’s International Medieval Congress at my beloved Leeds, where I will be giving a paper as part of a session on slavery organised by the ever-industrious Tom MacMaster. Do come along for what promises to be – if the poster is anything to go by – a really varied and vibrant session. Otherwise, see you at the dance!

Save the date!

Save the date!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Lisi Oliver, whose untimely death in a road accident was announced at the start of this week. I met Lisi for the first time at Kalamazoo, and like so many before me was immediately won over by her personality, knowledge and enthusiasm for her subject area. Medieval studies would be a better discipline if there were more practitioners of Lisi’s mindset involved, and is certainly the poorer for having lost her. When we spoke, she told me about her ongoing involvement in the Early English Laws project – if you’re unfamiliar with it, please check out the website for more information including Lisi’s important work on some of the early Kentish law codes.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Canada, Conference, History, Kalamazoo, Literature, Old English, Place-Names, Talk, Viking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

London to Norwich express

I’ve come to realise there are essentially two types of blog post. The first is the sort that is true to the name, whereby the author(s) log(s) on the web what they have been/are/will be doing. The second exists out of time (though often it is commenced by something that sets it in the context of a particular event or activity), a piece produced to address a topic in brief or at length. Personally, I much prefer writing the latter sort, but this Spring has been so full of significant goings on that I thought some housekeeping was in order, capturing what I’ve been up to this past three months. However, I also realise there’s nothing more off-putting for the casual reader than paragraph after autobiographical paragraph with no unifying thread beyond yours truly. Therefore I have split things into two (and upped the image quota) for what I hope will be a more palatable report of what I’ve been up to lately.

IoA

As good a place as any to start is with the news that I’ve been accepted to commence a PhD based in the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. Kicking off at the end of September, it’s going to be a part-time endeavour at first, with the view to go full-time (and funded!) in the not too distant future. The admission process was surprisingly lengthy (I think one element of my application was accidentally becalmed in someone’s inbox for several weeks) but it’s really exciting to have made good on a long-held ambition and to know that my project is about to get going finally. Well, I’ve been nibbling away at the topic for a good few years so have a firm foundation already, but the academic guidance and resources I will be able to access as part of the IoA will transform it into something much bigger and better.

And what is my project? Embarrassingly, I can’t remember the title I gave my proposal (nor my password to get back into the online portal to find it out!) but in essence it will look at place-names in Old English -ingas in two areas of England: the South-East, and East Anglia. I consider -ingas to be of enormous interest because, in place-name formations, it points to the existence of a group of people (or things) with a significant association with the place and surrounding space to which such names are attached – here’s a summary of some of its occurrences inside and outside of toponymy I put together a few years ago.

My PhD research will hopefully take me to many more places like Tooting in (over)optimistic attempts to determine the original derivation of the place-name from a site visit. (In this case Totterdown Street recalls a field-name which might stem from Old English *tōtærndūn,

My PhD research will take me to many more places like Tooting in (?over)optimistic attempts to determine the original derivation of the place-name from a site visit. (In this case Totterdown Street recalls a field-name which might stem from Old English *tōtærndūn, “look-out building hill”;*tōt has been suggested as the first element in the name Tooting, though other explanations are available and may I add no less credible.)

OE -ingas is one of the great recurrent topics of place-name studies, with a lineage of scholarship stretching back to the great J. M. Kemble in the middle of the nineteenth century. The problem is that, for a generation at least, the question of the identities of these shadowy -ingas groups, that is to say their place or places in time and Anglo-Saxon society, has not been considered in any great detail, despite the major developments in thinking about the Roman to Anglo-Saxon transition. I aim to correct this by going on beyond looking at -ingas simply in terms of its presence or otherwise in name formations and give much more consideration to the topography, archaeology, and history of the places and spaces which are so-named.

Trying to condense a raw PhD project into a couple of short paragraphs ain’t easy, but keep checking back in the coming months and years and you’ll find more detailed explanations of elements of my research (as well as all the usual random off-topic crap). First of these will be a spruced-up version of my Nottingham MA thesis, the scope of which I’ve summarised previously, which has acted as a pilot for the first major segment of my PhD project, the collection and new philological analysis of all possible relevant place-names in the study areas. I was lucky enough to be able to present the results of my dissertation research to the Spring Conference of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland at the end of March, held at the UEA on the outskirts of Norwich. Many people said many positive things about my presentation, which was even more gratifying given it was one of those conferences where virtually every delegate was someone whose research you admire. I’ll admit the onomastic fanboy in me came out once or twice over the course of the day I was there…

The picture is of Eashing Bridge (well, one of them), and made the front page because Eashing is another name of the -ingas-but-can't-say-for-certain-which-sort sort

The picture is of Eashing Bridge (well, one of them), and made the front page of my presentation because, like Tooting, Eashing is another name of the -ingas-but-can’t-say-for-certain-which-sort sort

At the conference that I was told I’d won the SNSBI essay prize for 2015, for an essay I wrote during my Master’s last year on early-recorded place-names containing OE tun. With a good deal more work to smooth its more iconoclastic edges – though I’m quietly chuffed that I could still cut it as an angry young student with a point to prove/axe to grind – this may be published as a journal article one day. Sometime this century, anyway. My thanks to the anonymous reviewers for their extensive and perceptive comments on my essay, which will greatly assist the process of redrafting, and to those in SNSBI who organise and award the essay prize. I’ve heard on the grapevine that next year’s Spring Conference is being held at Maynooth in Ireland, so why don’t you submit something for the prize and perhaps next year you will find out you won it while on the Emerald Isle?

Norwich was my first SNSBI conference, I hope the catering is always to the same level of fanciness

Norwich was my first SNSBI conference, I hope the catering is always to the same level of fanciness – as exemplified by this pyramidal dessert

Posted in Archaeology, PhD, Place-Names | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Berries and Beans: William Gill’s estate book and the site of the Eashing burh

Eashing (or more accurately the two hamlets of Lower and Upper Eashing), just off the southbound carriageway of the A3 heading towards the Hindhead tunnel and on to the south coast, can stake a claim to be well known in medieval circles for two reasons. First, the pair of thirteenth-century bridges across two channels of the River Wey (now in the custody of the National Trust, who created a dedicated WordPress blog to document their recent restoration). Second, for being named in the so-called Burghal Hidage as the site of a Viking-Age fortification. My title’s a giveaway for which one I’m interested in here, and stems from my chancing upon a piece of evidence last weekend which may help to confirm the site of the Eashing burh.

Trees along the north-west edge of the postulated burh...

Not the most insightful photo, what you see here are ash-trees along the north-west edge of the postulated Eashing burh. I mention the species of tree because it may be pertinent to the meaning of the place-name Eashing, but that’s another story…

The first detailed argument for locating the burh at Eashing was authored by Fred Aldsworth and David Hill, and appeared in Volume 68 of the Surrey Archaeological Collections (they reference this 1964 article by Nicholas Brooks in which Eashing gets a mention [page 78], though doesn’t receive an extended discussion encompassing an attempt to locate its site on the ground). In it, they put forward the case for the burh being sited on an area of high, flattish ground between Lower and Upper Eashing, bounded on the north-west by the valley of the River Wey, on the north-east and south west by dry side valleys, and on the south-east by Eashing Lane. The hypothesis has gained general acceptance, in spite of it never being tested archaeologically.

I first became aware of Aldsworth and Hill’s argument through the reproduction of their plan of the postulated burh in Rob Poulton’s ‘Saxon Surrey’ chapter in The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540. One of the many little reasons why I embarked on this funny old journey which led to Surrey Medieval and a whole lot more besides, I remember persuading my mother to walk with me up and down Eashing Lane looking for signs of the “spread bank” which Aldsworth and Hill held up as one of the main pieces of diagnostic evidence for this being the site of the fortification. For those tempted to pay a visit to look for themselves, be aware that an optimistic eye is needed…

The main problem I have with accepting what I’ll admit is a perfectly-credible suggestion is the fact that casting one’s net a little wider in the Eashing locality turns up at least two other candidate sites: a crop mark on the other side of the River Wey from Lower Eashing, centred on OS grid reference SU4942914389, described in its Historic Environment Record entry as ‘possibly a rectangular double-ditched enclosure of about 1 hectare’, and a trio of mid-nineteenth-century field-names (Castle Field, Castle Field Mead, Castlefield Row – see pages S29 and 31 of this appendix to a 2011 article by Mark Service) a short distance south of Oxenford Grange about a mile south-west of Eashing. Until these are subjected to at least the same level of scrutiny as Aldsworth and Hill gave to their candidate site, these will remain possibilities, albeit outside ones.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s another issue to contend with; the poor fit between the circumference of the supposed defensive perimeter and the figure of 600 hides attributed to Eashing in the Nowell transcript, considered the most reliable versions of the Burghal Hidage text. I’m not the first to query this – it was the subject of a short and at first sight scientific 1983 article by Marion Gower, who accepted the basic identification but queried how the hidage attributed to Eashing matched up with the hypothesised defences. Using the formula of eighty hides to maintain twenty poles of defensive wall, at 600 hides Eashing burh would have had a circumference of 150 poles. With a pole being 16.5 feet (or in metric money a smidge over five metres), this produces a length of approximately 2475 feet or around 755 metres. Aldsworth and Hill, Gower and myself all arrive at this figure independently.

Towards the end of their article, Aldsworth and Hill (1971, 201) entered a second calculation into the debate; 2130 feet (or 649 metres), the length of the burghal perimeter which they believed would have required artificial reinforcement rather than relying on the natural topography to deter attack. This excluded the stretch along the top of a very steep slope overlooking the Wey (incidentally, round about where the trees in the above photo stand). For reasons which are unclear to me, Gower (1983, 225) adopted this distance as the best yardstick for checking the hidage figure assigned to Eashing, and duly ends up arguing for an emendation of Eashing’s assessment to 500 hides, a figure found in most other versions of the Burghal Hidage text (Gower 1983, 226, using Hill 1969, 87 Table 2).

Gower may have taken a detour from the most common sensical approach to interpreting the numerical and topographical evidence, but was right on the money when it came to querying particular aspects of Aldsworth and Hill’s maths skills. Regarding the assessment of Eashing’s hidage, they admitted a “medieval” margin of error of fifty hides (equivalent to 12.5 poles, or about 63 metres) either way, but came up with resultant defensive circuits that were wildly different from the correct figures of 2269 feet/692 metres for 550 hides, and 2682 feet/817 metres for 650 hides (see Gower 1983, 225 for comparison). Thus doubt is cast on their contention that the topography of their suggested site ‘comfortably’ accommodated all possibilities deriving from these figures (Aldsworth and Hill 1971, 200). But should we go the other way and accept Gower’s following reading of the situation?

‘If the length of the natural defences is included, the total circuit of the site is about 3300 feet [1006 metres] requiring 800 hides, which is clearly far in excess of the hideage recorded in any version of the Burghal Hidage.’ (Gower 1983, 225)

The authors of both articles cited the possibility that there was not a full circuit of artificial ramparts, with part of the river-facing side being sufficiently naturally defensible as to not warrant additional fortification. My own knowledge of the lie of the land leaves me a little uncomfortable with what is included and excluded in such contentions. I don’t recognise the 1000+ metre length Gower claimed for a full circuit; I arrived at 2965 feet (approximately 904 metres) by doing a quick tracing of the approximate course of a complete defensive circuit. This works out as a shade under 180 poles in length, equivalent to 719 hides – a full fifth greater than the Nowell figure of 600 hides and likewise well outside the 50-hide margin of error admitted by Aldsworth and Hill. For what it’s worth (which may well be nothing at all), this “maximum” hidage for Eashing is very close to those attributed to Burpham in Sussex (720 hides) and Exeter (734 hides).

No further detailed research on the topic of the Eashing burh has been published in over a generation. That said, it has long been recognised as ripe for a proper research project to be carried out on it, but the combination of a lack of any local academic archaeology department and reportedly less-than-keen landowners of the postulated burghal site means it’s never got further than the wish-list stage. I am firmly of the belief that there’s so much imperfectly-understood archaeological data in circulation that breaking the turf to uncover new artefacts in the hope of answering particular research questions should be a last resort. With this in mind, I’m interested in how other, already available indices might be used to inch closer towards proving or disproving the hypothesis of Eashing burh having been on the site suggested by Aldsworth and Hill.

I happened upon the nugget of evidence I wish to add into the mix on the excellent village website of Shackleford, the nineteenth-century parish in which Eashing lies. It boasts many pages of local historical interest, including one about the Eashing burh consisting of Aldsworth and Hill’s 1971 article reproduced verbatim save for the original footnote and references (and due authorial attribution – naughty!) Another page presents high-quality photographic images of the pages of a facsimile of a 1773 survey of the lands and other property of William Gill (I’m unclear if the manuscript is privately owned or lodged in a publicly-accessible archive). Beginning with the wonderfully-named patriarch Ezra, the Gills accumulated more or less all the land around Eashing and many of the buildings in the two hamlets by the end of the eighteenth century, and the so-called estate book captures a snapshot of this process in an advanced stage.

The digitised manuscript is a fantastic source of early field-name spellings, and combing through these in fact reaped its rewards for me not once but twice. By far the more remarkable discovery is the name of the field which coincides with almost the entirety of the interior of the postulated burh was The Berries, which could be of apposite Old English origin and implication in terms of Aldsworth and Hill’s proposition. Here is the field-name written in the estate book…

From Shackleford.org

Copyright Shackleford.org, not mine – click on the picture to go through to the full zoomable image

…and here is the field itself shown (but not named) on the accompanying map, in combination with Aldsworth and Hill’s plan of the site produced almost 200 years later:

The Berries is the field numbered 72 at the top of the image, which is copyright of Shackleford.org - click through for the precise URL

The Berries is the field numbered 72 at the top of the image, again copyright Shackleford.org – click through for the zoomable image etc.

Plan of the postulated Eashing burh site from Aldsworth and Hill 1971, 199 Fig. 1. The earlier map is not the best fit but orientation is easy enough using the T-junction of Eashing Lane and The Hollow leading down to Lower Eashing and Eashing Bridges; it lies just beyond the southermost tip of The Berries and the postulated burh.

Plan of the postulated Eashing burh site from Aldsworth and Hill 1971, 199 Fig. 1. The earlier map is not the best fit but orientation is easy enough using the T-junction of Eashing Lane and The Hollow leading down to Lower Eashing and Eashing Bridges; it lies just beyond the southermost tip of The Berries and the postulated burh.

I must underscore that the name The Berries cannot be etymologised conclusively on the basis of a single late eighteenth-century spelling. But beyond that, and putting archaeological conjecture to one side for the present moment, one of the most credible explanations is that it derives from Old English burh, ‘stronghold’, in the genitive or dative singular form byrig (Parsons and Styles 2000, 79). The Gills owned more or less all of the surrounding land, yet none of the field-names outside the postulated burghal enceinte duplicates the theme in a way which might suggest it had broader relevance and thus possibly an alternative origin (animal burrows, for example, from ME burghParsons and Styles 2000, 74).

The plural form may be an inorganic addition with no genuine semantic relevance, or else stem from the late eighteenth-century field being a composite of two or more earlier plots known by names based on singular *Berry or *Bury. I have encountered several instances of this phenomenon when comparing the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century forms of certain Puttenham field-names, and in this regard it’s interesting to note the sliver of ‘Mr Thomas Halls Land’ on the north-western margin of The Berries in the 1773 map excerpt above. The inclusion of the definite article might be a hangover from an Old English eliptical phrase like æt þære byrig, but could just as easily be a particular tick of the Gills when it came to referring to their own lands; the next field listed, The Goars, need not derive from anything more than a singular form of OE gāra or ME gōr(e), “triangular piece of land”, which is a pretty accurate description of its 1773 shape.

As if coming across The Berries wasn’t enough cause for excitement, a second field-name in Gills’ estate lists lends valuable support to a suggestion I made at the start of the year about Middle English *purtok, *portuka dialect term which seems to have been used in field-name coinages locally. The name is ‘Bean puttick’, and it appears in the manuscript twice on the same page. Located towards the foot of the river cliff to the north of The Berries, it is classified as coppice in 1773 and is now mature woodland (through which a public footpath runs, in case I’ve inspired you to pay Eashing a visit).

I don’t think too much should be read into the initial of the second element not being capitalised, since the same page features ‘Acre field’, ‘Hill field’ and ‘Mill moor'; if anything this hints at ‘puttick’ being a commonplace in the local agricultural vernacular. Judging by the preceding element, legumes were cultivated here before the 1770s. It would be interesting to discover if the field-name was recorded in earlier (ideally medieval) sources, which might reinforce the idea of a *purtok, *portuk being an enclosure sat upon less-than-great soils, made in the later thirteenth or early fourteenth century when there was demographic and economic pressures for new land to be brought into cultivation.

Identifying any forms of The Berries and Bean puttick in the mid-nineenth-century tithe award for Godalming (of which Eashing was a tithing) would be a considerably easier task, one that would certainly help to provide more clarity around the etymologies I have suggested above. For the time being, the case first set out by Aldsworth and Hill for locating the burh of Eashing on a promontory site between the two hamlets which now bear the name does seem to have a significant new piece of toponymical evidence in its favour.

REFERENCES

Aldsworth, Fred, & David Hill, ‘The Burghal Hidage-Eashing’, Surrey Archaeological Collections [SyAC], 68 (1971), 198-201

Gower, Marion, ‘The Late Saxon Burh at Eashing’, SyAC, 74 (1983), 225-26

Hill, David, ‘The Burghal Hidage: The Establishment of a Text’, Medieval Archaeology, 13 (1969), 84-92

Parsons, David N., and Tania Styles, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names (Brace-Cæster) (Nottingham: Centre for English Name Studies, 2000)

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Field-names, King Alfred, Landscape, Middle English, Place-Names, Topography, Wessex | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Richard III’s back in the ground, let’s look at some Anglo-Saxon coins

Ugh. I hate leaving so long between posts – and then reviving part-drafted pieces which no longer have the same degree of relevance as when commenced (but more about that presently). Not exactly an earth-shattering admission, but I’ve had my hands full with the day job, conferences, turning a year older, celebrating others turn a year older, and something else… now what was it… oh, that’s right, applying to start a PhD (to be discussed soon in a separate post)! Now we’re in April and things are looking less hectic for the time being, so I’m determined to make the time to catch up on my backlog of posts. I’ll begin by dusting off one that was quite far along the drafting process when I last paid it some attention a good few weeks ago.

The selected highlights of the Lenborough Hoard on display in the British Museum

The selected highlights of the Lenborough Hoard on display in the British Museum

Though not attended by anywhere near the same levels of hysteria surrounding the medieval stories du jour about Richard III or Magna Carta, Anglo-Saxon coins are (or were) enjoying a greater share of the limelight than they are usually accustomed to. The reason for this is the discovery towards the end of last year of a huge hoard of Late Anglo-Saxon silver coins wrapped in a lead sheet in rural Buckinghamshire. You may remember it making the headlines at the time and, despite a modicum of misdirected online bleating about the circumstances of its recovery, it represents a triumphant demonstration of what can be achieved through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (take note, Government purse-string tighteners).

Everyone agrees that the true significance of the hoard will only become clear once it’s been the subject of sustained research prefatory to full publication, but a few things are more or less certain. First, that the contents of the hoard consist of around 5,200 coins, which makes it MASSIVE by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. Exact numbers vary from 5,190 to 5,251 coins (with further ambiguity arising from whether references to fractions of coins mean half a penny or half a halfpenny – any advice?) but, whatever the final figure, it cannot fail provide a unique fillip to the study of minting places, moneyers’ names and so forth. Second, everyone seems to have settled on the name the Lenborough Hoard to refer to it, and this is what I searched for to pull up these accounts of its discovery and preliminary analysis. Third, it’s surely got Murray of Medieval Bayton fame working overtime given its immense relevance to his PhD research…

The Stamford-minted Agnus Dei penny of 1009, with explanatory blurb (Anglo-Saxon coins aren't big!)

The Stamford-minted Agnus Dei penny of 1009, with explanatory blurb (Anglo-Saxon coins aren’t big!)

The good news is that, after recording, a portion of the hoard was quickly put on display at the British Museum. I have it in my head that there are 300 or so coins on show, which by my reckoning would make up not even 6.5% of the total components of the hoard, reinforcing the sense of just what a vast assemblage the Lenborough Hoard is. Of those which made the cut, an Agnus Dei issue of Aethelred II minted in the year 1009 at Stamford in Lincolnshire receives special attention by virtue of being rare-as-hens-teeth (although the collection of North African gold coins and other artefacts displayed underneath it in the same case vie for your attention). I must hold my hands up and confess that I’m guessing when I say the coins are still on show; if they are, then I’m not sure for how long this will be the case – perhaps until the next major discovery reported through PAS?! Whatever their current status, I recommend you pay a visit to the setting for the display, the excellent Citi Money Gallery (a.k.a. Room 68).

Copyright Surrey County Council and/or Portable Antiquities Scheme

Copyright Surrey County Council and/or Portable Antiquities Scheme

Back in February, Surrey muscled in on the vogue for Anglo-Saxon numismatics act in a much more modest – but in some quarters scarcely less significant – way. For the Surrey History Centre’s long-running Marvels of the Month strand, the county’s Finds Liaison Officer David Williams wrote about the above coin brooch, discovered by a metal detectorist close to Headley church on the mid-Surrey Downs. It began life as a silver penny minted in the reign of the infamously “Unready” king, Æthelred II (978-1016), before its obverse was gilded and perforated for reuse as a brooch. The design of the obverse has no known parallel, and that of the reverse is likewise very rare; this may tie in with why I cannot find a moneyer named Æthelmaer (you may be able to discern the letters ÐELM on the above image representing the middle portion of the otherwise truncated moneyer’s name) minting at Shaftesbury (hence SCEFT) on the PASE database. This combination of factors underlie why the object is said to be “the subject of much discussion at the moment between coin specialists”; I hope at least one of the aforesaid specialists will kick on and publish a detailed analysis of it in the near future.

The amount of time it’s taken me to complete writing this post has convinced me to stick with this topic for now and complete my long-planned revisions to my provisional list of coins of the period circa 450-1100 found in Surrey. There are a large amounts of coins to be added to the list (including the Headley coin brooch) and a few corrections to be made as well. I’m a couple of British Numismatic Journal articles away from having these licked, so look out for the end result in the coming weeks!

Posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Coins, Dating, News, Numismatics, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Surrey, Viking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment