ICMS Session Report V: Session 346 – The Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe

26 May
Friday, May 14, 2010
Session 346
The Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe II: Early Medieval Hillforts in Central Europe: Strongholds or Central Places?

Last year I attended two of the Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe sessions – organized by Florin Curta – and enjoyed them. This was the only one of the 2010 Sessions I attended but as was the case last year, when the focus was largely further east, in the Balkans, it was quite good.

The First Paper was by Jiri Machacek of the Masaryk University Institute of Archaeology and Musology, “Great Moravian Central Places and Their Practical Function, Social Significance and Symbolic Meaning.”

This paper covers sites located in what is now the Southwestern Czech Republic, what was once Greater Moravia. Machacek opened by discussing Carolingian terms for slavic strongholds. One of the characteristics of this region is similar to the study of Germanic (sorry Goffart) society during the Roman Empire – the view is through the eyes of others. In this case, the textual evidence is Carolingian. Slavic strongholds are termed civitas, urb, castrum and castellum in the sources. Machacek stressed that these terms should not be considered synonyms and that civitates should be considered no more than small forts. The Annals of Fulda discusses civitates and urbs in Moravia in the context of the 9th century Frankish invasions but it is difficult to match physical locations today with what’s mentioned in the sources.

Machacek then proceeded to look at settlement patterns. He divided the settlements into three categories – high, middle and low-level central places. He then explained how he categorized these based on finds – and this is where my note taking failed me (amazingly – I have 6 pages). I wrote the description off the powerpoint slide for high, but he’d flipped through by the time I got to the others.

For a high level settlement they must have all of the following; armor, protection (fortifications usually), craft, trade and worship. These high-level places had a relatively dense population pattern and an elite presence.

While I regrettably missed the descriptions of the other two levels this didn’t seem to matter much as Machacek proceeded to discuss the relatively well known site of Pohansko, near Breclav. This is a large, 9-11 c. hilltop site which served as a magnate court. It was fortified with a stone wall and timber rampart. It housed a concentration of military troops, as evidenced by graves. There wasn’t evidence of extensive craft production however there was substantial evidence of metal working for military purposes.

There was a mix of Christian and pagan ritual evidenced by two churches as well as horse burials.

There was evidence of trade but at a low intensity compared with coastal regions. Finds include Frankish metal and horsegear, Rhine glass and weapons and textiles from the East.

Mochacek also discussed networks. There were 122 early medieval settlements within 2 hours distance (I didn’t include it in my notes but surely this would be contemporary? Within 6-8 miles/10-12 km?). Their purpose was to support the large settlement by providing food and agricultural production and building supplies including wood and stone.

The next paper was “Early Medieval (Ninth to Tenth Centuries AD) Fortified Settlements in Central Europe” by Hajnalka Herold of the Vienna Institute of Archeological Science.

In this paper we traveled to Northeast Austria, in what was the Eastern Carolingian region in the 9th and 10th centuries as Herold examines the site of Gars-Thunau.

Gars-Thunau sits on an elongated hilltop site at 420-450m elevation (1400-1500ft). A small river, the Kamp runs through the valley to the East and North and there is evidence from sources (not archaeology) of a medieval road to the West, on an upslope.

Gars-Thunau is a large site with a 65,000 sq meter fortified area. There was a central area within an 80x100m enclosure which also contained a cemetery and she believes may have had a church as there is a space within the cemetery without graves. There were also eastern and western sections of the site however it’s unclear what the functions were of this division.

The fortification was a wall which was originally of wood. Dendochronology of 77 wood samples shows these date from 829-894. It’s likely the wall was constructed late in that time as some wood may have been re-used, dating construction likely to 880-890. Thereafter the wood was gradually replaced with or enhanced by stone.

There is evidence of a wide variety of craft activities however these were relatively small-scale – likely sufficient only to supply Gars-Thunau, not to use in trade. There is no evidence of large scale imports or exports. Artifacts and accessories show military inhabitants with the vast majority of accessories for men.

There is evidence of substantial agricultural activity within the compound. Crops and gardens were cultivated and seed storage facilities were found. The vast majority – 88% – of animal bones were from domestic animals and all wild animal skeletal remains were from what she termed “prestigious” species – deer and elk. Large amounts of farm tools were also found, including what she described as a hoard of tools.

Overall, Herold believes this site had primarily a residential function. She believes it is not what we would consider urban development however there is the possibility of a military function. While the site may have served a local or regional economic function she does not believe it was involved in long distance trade. She believes this was the seat of an elite or noble family and represents the beginning of a feudal nobility in the 9th century as there are no comparable sites known from the 8th century.

One of her interesting thoughts is that while routes have commonly been believed to carry Byzantine goods to central Europe by a “Byzantine-Italy-Frankish-Fortification” route she believes it likely that this shows a direct “Byzantine-Fortification” connection. She was toward the end of her time and didn’t go into detail on the evidence for this. She hopes to expand her research of sites such as this to explore connections with Carolingian and Mediterranean sites.

The final paper for this session was by Slawomir Mozdzioch of the Wroclaw Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology titled, “Early Medieval Strongholds in Poland as Centers of Power in the Light of Recent Archaeological Research.”

This paper was more of an overview discussing general observations rather than specific sites. Most of the strongholds seem to have dated from when the Polish state first started developing and may have been constructed by families taking power. Dendochronology has dated most to the 9th and 10th centuries.

The smaller strongholds resembled ring forts and appear to have had a primarily residential function. The larger strongholds with longer walls have not had sufficient work done on them but so far there has not been any evidence of craft functions.

Mozdzioch explained that around the middle of the 20th century conventional belief hypothesized urban centers with military, social and trading functions and complex social structures that had been established in the 6th through 10th centuries. He considers this to be a case of wishful thinking.

Instead archaeology has shown that these were established in the 9th through 11th centuries. They did not have very complex social structures – though they did have churches – and no crafts beyond what was utilized for local needs. He believes they appeared in connection with an elite, militarized, privileged social class.

In essence, he believed what happened was the formation of what he termed “service settlements.” These were places created to meet the needs of the wealthy and powerful. Higher level or larger settlements networked with smaller “satellite” settlements and vice-versa.

He did spend a few minutes discussing a site but it didn’t add anything not already covered by the previous speakers – livestock, evidence of a living space for elites, little evidence of widespread trade, etc. so for the sake of brevity I’ll leave that out.

I’ll provide a brief summary of the entire session. First, as with last year, Curta’s session impressed me. Now I don’t know a lot about this region so I won’t provide a critical analysis but the speakers all had command of their respective topics and they each provided a great deal of evidence in support of their general theory. Among the presenters the general theory was universal, simple, and surprising (to me anyway). These Central European fortified settlements were constructed as dwelling places of feudal elites. They were not built on existing settlements but were started from scratch beginning in the 9th century. I almost have to think that there were remnants of earlier fortifications – however primitive – at least at some of these sites. A hilltop protected by a river is a strong place whatever the era and surely earlier people needed strong places as well. But this wasn’t discussed in the session.

 I was prepared to hear something similar to what seems to be the case in Western Europe, such as in Northern Italy with the Lombards – that fortified sites were built on existing settlement sites. However the speakers were unanimous that this wasn’t the case here. They were also unanimous that these were not hubs of trade activity, either importing or exporting and that while the elites may have bought a few items, for the most part they depended on local production to meet their needs. Interesting and not what I expected.

During the question period there was some discussion over the function of the fortifications. While there is evidence for a military presence, the speakers believe it very possible that what appear to be fortifications were primarily for boundary purposes – fencing in of livestock – and in some cases possibly similar to the “prestige walls” seen in many late Roman cities. There is some evidence of violence at one site with arrowheads found near a church, likely from Hungarian raids.

Ultimately, these fortified settlements appear to largely be an outgrowth of Carolingian power. As Carolingian influence expanded, elites moved to these outlying regions and established settlements. They were largely self-sufficient with little specialization – while a few specialty items might be acquired through trade, pretty much everything the settlement needed was produced locally, either on site or in smaller nearby settlements. The impression I left the session with is that this was a new frontier inspired by a growth in numbers of elites who had to move further from the Carolingian center to carve out their piece of the world. As more information comes to light on Central Europe, it will be interesting to see if additional textual evidence in support of this appears or if this was a more deliberate Carolingian strategy – sending someone to settle in the East to help project power and influence. It would seem to me if this second scenario was the case that there would be more physical evidence of a Carolingian connection through trade networks – this session didn’t indicate there was much of that.

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Posted by on May 26, 2010 in Conferences


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