Periodization, Time and Fault Lines: The Fifth Century AD

Posted on March 18, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Most archaeologists and historians would agree that the fifth century AD is a fundamental time in the history of Britain and Western Europe. It marks the break between Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. As such it is a fundamental fault-line, a rupture that divides both material culture and people. Collingwood (1927, 324) argued that ‘a “period” of history is an arbitrary fabrication, a mere part torn from its context, given a fictitious unity, and set into fictitious isolation, yet by being so treated, it acquires a beginning, and a middle and an end’. The fifth century stands both as an end (of the Roman period) and a beginning (of the early Middle Ages). It lacks an identity and coherence, falling between its academic parents in a lacklustre divorce, condemned as a difficult and uninteresting child. Much of the research on this period is focussed on empirical concerns: if only we had more sites, radiocarbon dates, objects or texts this time would somehow resolve itself and the scales would fall from our collective eyes. In this session we hope to explore how linear time and nineteenth-century periodizations have constrained our understanding of the ‘long fifth century’. For instance, Lucas (2005, 100) has dismissed the fifth century and its sometimes acrimonious debates as ‘a largely fictitious problem’, the result of our failure to reconcile an ordinal system of chronology with an interval system. We hope to build on this perspective and develop theoretical discussions that allow us to look anew at the fifth century as a time worthy of analysis in its own right.

Organisers: James Gerrard (Newcastle University) and Elliot Chaplin (Newcastle University)

Time and the Fifth Century

The over-arching concern of early archaeologists and antiquarians was chronology: the correct temporal sequential ordering of the physical remains of the distant and not-so-distant past. For those archaeologists objects and monuments became proxies for periods that divided up humanity’s linear past. Today we continue to reap the benefits of this scholarship and refine the detail. The fifth century AD/CE is often presented as a fissure that separates the world of Classical Antiquity from the early Medieval period. Between AD 400/410 (the end of the Roman system) and c. AD 470 (the widespread adoption of Salin’s Style I in lowland Britain) there is almost nothing. Some see this as a consequence of the catastrophe that was the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, others perceive this gap as an empirical problem: one to be solved by the application of better methods, or the recovery of more data. In this paper (and session), we argue – following the approaches of Collingwood, Lucas, Witmore and others – that just as important are our views of periods, time and how ordinal and interval chronologies are reconciled with the residues of the past.

James Gerrard (Newcastle University) and Elliot Chaplin (Newcastle University)

Britain and the Transformation of the Roman World: Rethinking rupture, ideology, and time

The treatment of the fifth century in lowland Britain as a rupture, rather than a period worthy of its own analysis, is a consequence of unique material conditions derived from the end of Roman rule over the diocese, and opens a gap in our interpretive framework for its material culture. This gap privileges high-status Roman material and leads us to identify a bipolar set of visible `elite’ material cultural groups, separated by both putative cultural and chronological boundaries. Yet this interpretive framework relies entirely on frameworks questionable in terms of both historiography and epistemology. This paper combines Harland’s challenge to the ability to infer ethnic identity from material culture and Fliegel’s reconsideration of the gendering of fifth-century grave kits. It calls for interpreting fifth-century lowland Britain as a region not isolated from the former Western Empire by the end of formal Roman rule, but rather undergoing transformations of authority, ideology, and normative values that tie it inextricably to continental trends. Through reconsidering the material conditions responsible for Britain’s regional idiosyncrasies, we show that changes in burial costume need not be signs of ‘rupture’, but show Britain’s inhabitants to be participants in questions about status, belonging, and civilization that troubled the entire Roman West.

James Harland (University of York) and Katherine Fliegel (University of Manchester)

Romans, Britons or Anglo-Saxons in Fifth Century Britain: How do we know, why should we care?

The ongoing deconstruction of Anglo-Saxon typology in metalwork and the identification of local variations in pottery representing intermediate points between Roman and Anglo-Saxon types present the possibility of a chronological spectrum rather than the definitive end or the absolute genesis of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods respectively. If we step away from notions of the fifth century representing the end of one period and the beginning of another and historiographically derived ideas of who the actors involved in each locality were, their ethnicity and the culture they ascribed to, what does the evidence actually show us? Taken from a purely economic point of view, are the changes we see merely local responses to new economic circumstances and are they part of the ebb and flow of urban life in Britain in the middle of the first millennium? These questions will be considered using a series of case studies to highlight the potential of seeing general trends in action if we move away from our attachment to periodisation, ethnicity and the notion that there was a fault line at the beginning of the fifth century.

Paul Gorton (University of Leeds)

Hopes, Fears and Eating Cake: Brexit in the fifth century?

One of the most enduring legacies of nineteenth century historical scholarship is the linear narrative that drives almost all historical thinking – familiar as the popular ‘Timeline’ that explains what happened and when. Key personalities and events populate history and compartmentalise time into different periods and themes (attracting specialists whose expertise does not necessarily extend beyond their particular box). The unfortunate fifth century, a ‘dark age’ of myths and legends, falls between Roman Britain and the early Medieval period and, traditionally, has been seen as the end of the former and the beginning of the latter. If we abandon, however, the primacy of the linear historical account, the fifth century does not have to be only an End or a Beginning and can ‘exist’ in its own right. Archaeologists study real people, their societies and cultures, so the absence of historical events in the fifth century should not be a problem for archaeologists. In reality, the fifth century is seen as largely devoid of evidence for occupation or material culture, but is this a consequence of how archaeological thinking has been bound to a particular linear narrative rather than contemporary social and cultural realities?

Peter Guest (Cardiff University)

Is the Fifth-century Fault-line a Hallucination?

The role of migration as the stimulus for catastrophic changes in material culture, language, and political organisation in fifth-century England has a long historiography reaching into the early nineteenth century. It remains a fundamental premise for contemporary models and explanations for the emergence of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England including the replacement of a Romano-British aristocracy by a Germanic warrior elite, and the development of cultural identities from a core of imported beliefs (ethnogenesis). This paper takes an alternative view, framed by the work of Braudel, Ostrom, Bourdieu, and Holling. Its premise is that all aspects of a stable, sustainable, farming economy depend on rights of property over land: they enable an individual to make a reasonably predictable living, provide opportunities to generate a surplus or acquire goods, and allow personal interaction with elites through tribute, gift-giving or taxation. Focusing in particular on shared property rights, the paper explores the development of new models for explaining the fifth century. It suggests that stabilities in underlying social-economic systems, visible in the landscape, provided a safe foundation for post-imperial invention and experimentation with new political forms and social relationships; and that migration, material culture and language may be less significant than previously supposed.

Susan Oosthuisen (University of Cambridge)

Human Nature Plus Bias Persistence Equals an Obscure Fifth Century

Many of the general issues of the fifth century are present in Northern Gaul: it lacks a clear understanding of how people lived, what materials they used, who they were and where they came from. Pressing issues are no longer the absence of evidence as much, but rather its identification and interpretation, beyond pointing to barbarians. This paper wishes to focus on why undifferentiated and outdated notions still are able to persist after four decades since the development of the Romanization debate, emphasizing local agency, and the transformation approach in Late Antiquity, studying continuity across the fourth to sixth century ‘gap’. In part, the nineteenth century periodization and the twentieth century ethnic discourse are responsible, but they alone do not explain the persistence of these issues until today. This paper aims to argue that more basic human principles, such as regarding time as a linear progression or the need for classification to process and understand information, are as responsible for obscuring the fifth century as the scholarly biases following Gibbon’s work in the eighteenth century. Finally, a consideration on how to address ‘invisible materials’ would be suggested as a constructive experiment for the archaeology of the fifth century.

Vince Van Thienen (Yale University)

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