Conference seasoned

A fortnight ago, as previously advertised, I spoke to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Medieval Studies Forum, my final medieval event of 2014 (‘cept for my graduation ceremony). It was a great way to wrap up the year. If I’m honest, I wasn’t holding out much hope for my performance, having done something I hate as a rule, namely throwing my presentation together at the last minute, then compounded this transgression by turning up very late and missing the morning session. From what I gathered, the morning had been a corker, with two academic speakers providing insights into the many shades of the day’s theme of belief and unbelief. So, when I stepped up to the plate mid-afternoon, I was facing an audience possessing a nuanced understanding of the basic subject matter of my talk.

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Fortunately, my mix of martial artefacts and choice quotations of Old English poetry (and a Latin chronicle, now I come to think of it) was met with a very positive response. It’s nice when you present on a topic that wasn’t on anyone’s radar beforehand and it leaves an impression, to judge from the conversations I had at the end of the day. The paper I gave was a bit of a cut-and-shut job, and more cut than shut – more on the thing I cannibalised in a minute. What is more, in the process of putting the thing together, my thinking on a few themes (e.g. levels of sword ownership in later Anglo-Saxon England as perceptible through wills and law codes) was transformed. It’s my intention to work up all of my research in this area into an article for publication – I just hoped I’ve at least identified the edges of all of the relevant strands of evidence, even if I’m still some way off exhausting the constituent material (thanks to Jeremy Harte for his subsequent email throwing a bag of folkloric spanners in the works).

PAMLA Annual Conference, Riverside, California

I went to two other conferences this autumn, very different from one another, but which are both worth reporting back about. Top billing of course has to go to the PAMLA Annual Conference in Riverside, California. It was great, or at least the majority of it until the jetlag caught up with me and I had to beat a retreat to bed and missed the Dia de los Muertos party (the conference was taking place across the Halloween weekend). I had to leave early the next day to make the bizarrely-timetabled Amtrak service back to LA (and ended up getting kicked off the train for thinking I could buy a ticket on board as in the rest of the known world – you can’t), so all in all my conference experience was more truncated than I’d have liked. A couple of weeks later, my phone fell into a mop bucket and was so thoroughly soaked that it stopped working, meaning the following paragraphs must go without the photos I took during the event (out of all of those I lost, the one of a panellist who looked EXACTLY like Kenneth from 30 Rock is a particular source of regret).


Even now, despite having done a Masters degree based in an English department, I don’t feel like much of a linguist, so I was a touch trepidatious at the prospect of finding things to do during a three-day languages conference. I shouldn’t have worried. Being outside my natural habitat made me approach things with an open mind. Thus, I ended up greatly enjoying papers – and making connections back to my own research – on topics I’d never given any prior thought to. Matthew James Bond‘s look at Timothy Leary and the use of psychedelics as sacred drugs – “a consumptive approach to the sacred” – was an early highlight, one that got me pondering whether mind-altering substances could have played a role in Anglo-Saxon pagan religious rites. The following day Paulina M. Gonzales (brief bio midway down this page) raised the idea, through reference to the writing of Thomas S. Whitecloud, of Native American reservations as “bad lands”, whose inhabitants are hamstrung by limited access to their traditional resource base and restricted ability to self-determine their future. This made me think of Old English w(e)ala place-names as indicators of “British” slave communities, albeit in a tangential way which I do not consider to be the best possible explanation of these names (here’s what I wrote about them in 2011; I’m returning to the topic for a big conference paper next year).

If I was to pick a stand-out paper from the sessions I attended, it would have to be Lydia Heberling‘s presentation on the Australian Aboriginal tradition of Songlines as reflected in the works of Doris Pilkington. The way it spoke to the idea of Old English charter boundary perambulations and descriptions as being episodes of building and/or reproducing communal identity and memory came too late to integrate into my own paper, but is a line of inquiry I want to pursue; I’m looking forward to getting Bruce Chatwin’s flawed-but-fundamental The Songlines for Christmas and exploring this further…

My Beowulf-themed session may not have been the best attended (though nor was it significantly under-populated compared to most of the others I attended across the two days), but the three papers were followed by a stimulating period of questions and discussion. If you need reminding about what I spoke about, consider yourself reminded. My co-panellists were Marijane Osborn, who spoke illuminatingly on the Franks Casket, and Brett Diaz, who looked at the “new” character of Selma in the 2005 film Beowulf and Grendel. Special thanks to Kristin Noone for arranging and chairing the session, as well as sharing her local knowledge of Riverside while I was still 1000s of miles away!

Surrey Archaeological Society Autumn Conference, Ashtead, Surrey

Two weeks later and, replacing the drought-parched hinterland of Los Angeles with that of drizzly London, I was back in my home county for the autumn conference of the SyAS. For all of my involvement with the Society over the years, previously I’d never been to the conference. This year was different, insofar as the bulk of the day was given over to broad period reviews associated with the ongoing work to draw up the new Surrey Historic Environment Research Framework. As mentioned before, I have been involved with the formulation of the updated Anglo-Saxon period chapter. Slightly strangely, it was divided into two on the day. Incoming SyAS president David Bird appended the Early Anglo-Saxon period to his overview of the “greater” Roman period in order to advance the proposition that the Surrey county area played host to a significant “Germanic” presence by the end of the fourth century. The rest was bundled with the Medieval (1086-1603) and summarised with customary aplomb by Richard Savage.

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant on the way home (at least until my phone battery died), questioning the validity of the research framework model as the vehicle for presenting the fruits of past research and the areas in need of investigation in the future. Having had time to reflect, I still don’t believe it can successfully accommodate both big-ticket research questions and the realistic goals that can be achieved given the limited capacity of Surrey’s archaeological infrastructure (SHERF’s predecessor, SARF, is perhaps most notable for how few of its identified aims were addressed to any meaningful extent). Even so, there’s nothing so fundamentally wrong with the research framework that I’d advocate its abandonment, nor am I aware of any alternative model which could be used a ready substitute.

Much more important is what the final research framework contains. As I commented at one point in the day, we need to get a much better understanding of the material that is published or otherwise recorded before we start claiming there are big gaps in our knowledge that need investigation (and no less a figure than John Hines, who was in attendance for the duration of the conference, backed me up on this later). For example, it’s all very well postulating a “Germanic” presence in fourth-century Surrey, but if this is on the strength of JNL Myres’ interpretation of “Romano-Saxon Ware”, it cannot be sustained as his dating and interpretation are no longer accepted in the present-day scholarly consensus. Ultimately, so long as the content of the new research framework is carefully considered and formulated with a view to achieving a good number of objectives within its lifetime, the future of archaeological and historical research in the county should be a bright one.

Ashtead Church, photo via Wikipedia Commons

(Aforesaid drowning of phone means I have nothing to show for a quick lunchtime trip to Ashtead church – hence the above linked photo – which is a shame as it’s a very interesting building. For starters, it’s sited within the still-substantial earthworks of a Roman-era enclosure. The core of the building can be dated to the early decades of the twelfth century, and represents a single-celled structure of very similar dimensions to the nave of Puttenham church, possible grounds for positing the two are approximately contemporaneous. The church was locked, so I can’t speak of its internal features, but did spot a fragment of Norman zig-zag carving built into the north wall of the tower. I hope to return to Ashtead some day, older and wiser to the fact to backup my phone and the photos it contains on a regular basis…)

Rob’s final thoughts

So, what pearls of wisdom fished from the oysters of my recent conference experiences are worth imparting here? For starters, never write something as ridiculous as that last sentence, let alone say it out loud in front of an audience – don’t worry, I kept a lid on such bullshit in both of my recent papers. Much more important is the need to resist being disciplinarily blinkered and try different things. If I’d kept it medieval(ist) as far as I could at the PAMLA conference, I’d have been bored out of my tree in sessions all about Chaucer and Malory. Instead, I listened to and enjoyed all sorts of different things, and even ended up recounting still-vivid childhood memories of the BBC adaptation of the Chronicles of Narnia at the end of a session on Pacific island literature.

The Surrey conference(s) reinforced a very different truth, one I adhere to as much as I can, that it’s important to question everything. Even if it soon becomes clear nothing will be found wanting, it has to be an integral part of any decent research endeavour. To be able to do this effectively, however, requires the prior possession of a firm base of knowledge. I get a bit nervous about calls in archaeological circles to resort to digging in order to answer certain questions when it is clear there isn’t a full awareness and understanding of what is available already. There are too many excavated assemblages which are yet to be properly recorded, let alone published, and I feel there may be no harm in striving to limit the amount of non-commercial excavation that goes on during the lifetime of SHERF in order to focus on other ways of acquiring the foundation of understanding about a given period or theme.

To illustrate this point, let me instance my work on trade in Middle and Later Anglo-Saxon Surrey. I started down this particular road because Surrey is a blank on most published artefact distribution maps and almost entirely absent from writings on the topic. It would have been easy enough to make some speculations about trading and exchange patterns within the historic county area, though most of these would have probably tended towards the little evidence = little activity line. By assembling the numismatic and other data (hold tight for an updated version of my provisional list of coins, hopefully this side of the new year), clear concentrations of material can be identified, and from this an economic geography of early medieval Surrey can begin to be sketched out. The bulk of the material is in the public domain, just little known and rarely viewed outside the context of particular sites or artefact types.

Next year I’ll be giving papers at Kalamazoo, Leeds International Medieval Congress, the SNSBI annual conference in Norwich, and more besides. I’ve reached a point where I seem to be pretty adept at pitching proposals in response to CFPs and delivering the presentations too (at this point, I must thank Richard Savage for his very kind words in this regard, and for giving me my first opportunity to present my research in front of an audience way back in 2008). But this is only one means of disseminating research, and an inherently limited one at that. As my girlfriend commented to me the other day, it would be good to get a proper publication or two under my belt. She’s a diehard fan of print media, much more so than early medieval matters, but she makes a good point. Fortunately for me, there are a few pieces I am working on that should serve to realise this goal before too long, and for me 2015 will be primarily about working to see that this happens sooner rather than later.


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Archaeology, Battersea, Being organised, Conference, History, Soapbox, Surrey, Talk, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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