York Festival of Ideas 2017

In June 2017, the Long Viking Age project hosted a stand as part of York’s Festival of Ideas, at the Science Out of the Lab tent. This year’s Festival of Ideas theme was ‘The Story of Things’ which couldn’t really have been better suited to our project.

FoI table setup

Our stand was entitled ‘Things in the Viking Age: travel and trade’ and we had several family-friendly activities to engage festival-goers in our research. The two star attractions were the ‘Match the Mint’ and ‘Map your Connections’ activities.

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Our banner at York’s 2017 Festival of Ideas

Match the Mint

‘Match the Mint’ was designed to encourage members of the public to gain confidence reading coin inscriptions — but also to sympathise with archaeologists and numismatists when they come across worn or otherwise illegible inscriptions. We selected nine coins found in England that we had come across during our research, each of which is believed to have been produced outside of England between the late 8th to 11th centuries. In other words, imported coins. Using laminated images of the coins inflated to many times the coins’ actual sizes, some Velcro, and a map of Europe with mint locations highlighted, we encouraged visitors to see how many coins they could correctly match to the appropriate mint.

FoI Match the Mint

Alison explaining the ‘Match the Mint’ activity to a visitor.

A number of the coins had Latin inscriptions that included the mint-name, the coin’s place of production. We provided a cheat-sheet of translations of Latin place-names to help with this part of the activity, sometimes listing several variations that might appear (e.g. MEDOLVS, METOLO, METVLLO all point to Melle). It was great to see how quickly children picked up the pattern: begin with the cross (+) before working clockwise around the coin to pick out letters. Unsurprisingly, the coins with legible inscriptions were always the first matched successfully to the mint.

Dorestad rev.

Can you  identify the mint name shown here? All images used at the Festival of Ideas were from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (finds.org.uk), and used under CC-BY license. This particular coin (reverse inscription shown here) is a silver Louis the Pious denier from the Dorestad mint, found buy metal-detector users in England in the county of Hertfordshire.

Other coins provided more of a challenge. The ‘Woden/Monster’ and the ‘Porcupine’ pennies (aka ‘sceatta’) acted as good talking points to explain how numismatists and archaeologists must often rely on coin typologies and distribution maps of single finds to home in on probable places of production. A corroded imitation Louis the Pious solidus, probably produced in Frisia (though possibly England), was also a difficult one because the ‘inscription’ imitated Latin letters, but was in fact nonsensical lines.

In addition to engaging audiences with numismatic details, the activity encouraged visitors to think about how and why coins were moved overseas, and the circumstances under which they might have been lost or deposited.

Map your Connections

The Long Viking Age project is all about connections. We are ultimately less concerned with the A to B of items that travelled over a distance in the Viking and pre-Viking periods as we are with the why, how, and with whom behind these connections. However, an artefact’s origin and its place of recovery are nevertheless crucial starting points for our research. The initial phases of our project have therefore necessarily focused on the ‘A to B’ of the artefacts in our dataset. With this in mind, we designed an activity that anyone could participate in: with a focus on travel and trade in the modern world, we were able to link questions and discoveries back to our research on travel and trade the Viking Age.

We asked individuals to tell us where in the world they currently lived — point ‘B’.  Then they chose one item in their pockets, in their handbag or wallet, or even an item of clothing they were wearing, and identified (or guessed) where it was made. This was point ‘A’, the item’s geographical origin. We put a yellow pin on a large map of the world at point ‘B’, where in the future, archaeologists would be most likely to find the selected item. We let visitors choose any other coloured pin to represent point ‘A’, and we tied a red thread between the two points. Over the weekend this built up a colourful map of modern connections.

FoI map2

Our map showing many connections from around the world to the UK, but also some connections from outside the UK. We had a well-connected and well-travelled group of visitors.

The activity prompted some good discussion with visitors. Many, for example, currently lived in York but were in fact from another country — what if the item was lost while working or travelling in York? How would archaeologists interpret the identity of the individual who had last owned that item? Would they simply conclude that someone from China had relocated to York, missing out the crucial fact that the individual was in fact actually from the US? We then talked about context and whether, if other items belonging to the individual were recovered along with it, they might help to clarify the picture — or complicate it further.

FoI Map Connections

 Helpful LVA assistant Ross pins a visitor’s ‘connections’ to the map.

Several items that visitors chose to map had been gifts from friends on vacation, or acquired by them directly during travel. But in many other cases, the item had been purchased in the UK, though it was certainly made elsewhere. How could archaeologists attempt to differentiate between direct travel and indirect trade as a means of acquisition? Of course globalisation in the modern world is many times more complex than it was over a thousand years ago, but some of the questions that this activity brought up remain relevant to our investigations into the movement of people and things in the Viking Age.

This was a fantastic opportunity to engage with bright and inquisitive families and individuals from York and beyond. Next year’s Festival of Ideas theme for York is ‘Imagining the Impossible’, which sounds like it will be just as exciting. More information on York’s Festival which will run from 5-17 June 2018 is available online, and I would strongly recommend checking out other Festivals of Ideas, such as Cambridge‘s, held in October.

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First Workshop, Brussels

A week ago LVA panellists and other early medieval experts convened at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB, Free University Brussels) for our first project workshop. The aims of the workshop were to ensure everyone was up to date on the new recording schemes (PAN, MEDEA, DIME), and to agree on the direction that the proof-of-method would take.

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VUB Etterbeek, Brussels. ©Vrije Universiteit Brussel

I’ll cover details about the various schemes in another post, so for now will focus on what emerged at the workshop regarding the pilot project.

Working with metal-detected data on an international scale

It is challenging enough to create a clean and coherent database with multiple artefact types when working with a well-established national scheme such as the PAS, as numerous researchers (including myself) can attest (and see a list of current research projects using PAS data here). Amassing such a dataset on an international scale will surely present exponentially more challenges. We can put a positive spin on this, however: by beginning to test and compare the data while the various recording schemes (apart from the PAS) are still in their nascent stages, we can hope to flag up and develop strategies for dealing with issues as they arise. Since the various scheme leaders are advisors on the LVA project, we are able to feed this back to them and benefit from their advice as we go. Furthermore, initiatives are well underway on behalf of those behind the PAS, MEDEA, PAN, DIME, and other interested parties, to ensure the future sustainability and compatibility of these schemes at an international level. It is this cooperation that will ultimately make big data projects such as this run smoothly. And face-to-face meetings like our recent workshop play a crucial part in this.

Proving the method

Our long-term plan is to develop a much bigger project, with the time and resources to map and analyse early medieval metal-detected artefacts from a number of different angles at an international scale. In order to do this, we need to demonstrate that such a study is feasible. We therefore outlined some parameters within which to trial a pilot project. This ‘proof-of-method’ should be achievable within a fairly short timeframe, and is expected to: a) highlight problem areas that will need to be addressed when it comes to future projects; b) demonstrate the research potential in a dataset of metal-detected artefacts at an international scale; and c) stand as a piece of convincing research in its own right. To do this, we needed to be realistic about the size of the project. We would identify regional case studies in areas around the North Sea where metal-detected data was being recorded rather than looking at northwestern Europe as a whole; and we would establish a set of ‘core’ artefact types to reduce time spent collecting and cleaning data, but which still provided a good breadth of coverage in terms of chronology, location, and associated use. We agreed to stick to our chronological parameter of c. AD 700-1100.

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Alison talking about the LVA database

To start the workshop off I presented our work to date on the pilot and asked for feedback and advice on a number of topics from the other panellists. Most of these were resolved in the discussion that followed. Then we heard about the other schemes and the state of metal-detecting in the Netherlands, Flanders, and Denmark, with Nelleke IJssennagger presenting on Stijn Heeren’s behalf on PAN, Pieterjan Deckers on MEDEA, and Andres Dobat on DIME. Michael Lewis of the PAS contributed as discussant. The primary outcomes of the workshop were as follows:

  • We want to do this! Yes, it will be challenging in a number of ways, and (unsurprisingly) there are differences in the current availability and types of data recorded with the schemes, but this should not deter us from undertaking this and future projects.
  • In light of data availability, it was determined that the continental case study regions should focus on areas where a backlog of metal-detected data is available. This means better compatibility with the select English case study regions. To this end we decided on the Ribe hinterland in southwest Jutland, and the Westergo region of Friesland, both of which have enjoyed a history of recording and reporting metal-detected finds prior to the introduction of the new schemes, in a similar way to pre-PAS Lincolnshire and Norfolk.
  • In terms of ‘core’ artefact types, we had already agreed upon coins (of course) and brooches. At a glance it appears that these two types will make up the vast majority of the data. Another logical choice was strap-ends/fittings. The final type took a bit more discussion, in part because of the various ways in which they are listed. In the end we decided to cite not an individual artefact type, but a category: ‘equestrian equipment’. This will include harness and bridle fittings, spurs, and harness and stirrup mounts. I will explore the core types in detail in later posts, so watch this space.
  • Other miscellaneous discussions ranged from what we should call the region under study (‘Northwestern Europe’ was deemed appropriate if slightly broader than the actual remit of the project, however we didn’t want to invent a new term), to how we would label the periods under study (we opted for dates (i.e. 700-1100; eighth to twelfth centuries) rather than any confusing combination of ‘pre-Viking’, ‘Late Iron Age’ and ‘Viking’), and to the unavoidable issue of reporting and recording biases, on which more later.

Overall this was a positive and constructive workshop; the project now really feels like it has legs. It was a great opportunity to learn first-hand about the running and implementation of each of the schemes with which I had been less familiar. Prior to the LVA workshop, Pieterjan Deckers and Dries Tys hosted another workshop on the Vikings in the Low Countries, where a number of scholars, including some of our panelists, presented their recent findings. Watch for more on this in the future, as there are some very exciting developments on this topic – and of course this is all complementary to our research.

In addition to discussing how best to approach the proof-of-method, we agreed that we want to share our project and related project (e.g. Vikings in the Low Countries) results in a number of ways: at conferences (definitely at SAA Vancouver in March/April; hopefully at EAA Maastricht in August/September), in published form, and through various local, regional, and national outputs. The schemes are working hard to generate awareness amongst metal-detecting, research, and heritage communities; the scheme coordinators are working hard as the ‘North Sea Finds Recording Group’ to ensure the future sustainability of these platforms and eventually establish a European portal to channel the diverse databases. And we’re working hard to demonstrate the research potential of the data.

Next step: a trip to Denmark to collect data on the metal-detected artefacts found around Ribe!

-AL