On the road again: Beginning my year as a CLIR Mellon Fellow

My wife Rachel and I started our ten-month journey around the North Sea, today! We’ll be visiting dozens of museums, libraries, and archaeological sites in the coming months, and I’m excited to share my experiences with you, here.

I’ve written a few paragraphs, below, for those of you who are curious to know what I’ll be doing on this trip, why I’ve chosen to live out of a suitcase for a year, and what I hope to accomplish before I return to the University of Florida next fall.

My travels are sponsored by the Council on Library and Information Resources, who have awarded me one of this year’s Mellon doctoral fellowships. CLIR funds a lot of exciting information technology projects, like digitizing hard-to-access library collections. But CLIR is also curious about the limitations of digitization, and wants to know what kinds of library and archival research have to be done on site and in person. Their dissertation fellowships, which they’ve been awarding for the past 14 years, fund about 15 PhD students each year to travel wherever we need to go to find our sources. It’s a fantastic program, and my fellow awardees this year are doing some really exciting things with their grants, like studying Chinese zombies – corpses that refuse to decompose – and untangling the archaeology of the Caucasus from Soviet-eva politics and propaganda.


CLIR Mellon fellows work in a variety of fields within the humanities, and research in all parts of the world.


My own goal is to examine 500 spearheads in English museums (adding to the 300+ I’ve seen on previous visits), and to then cross the North Sea to see several hundred contemporary weapons in France, Germany, and Scandinavia. I’ll also be reading through a lot of archaeological reports. Many of these are published and can be tracked down in the US by a good ILL librarian (and UF’s librarians are amazing!), but I’m most excited to see how many unpublished papers I can access. These papers (which are often little more than handwritten notes or heavily annotated, loose sheets of typewritten observations) are often full of important details, debates, and disagreements about the dig that don’t appear in the final published reports. Archaeology is a messy science, and even the best publications sometimes struggle to communicate the uncertainties and contradictions that result from working in the less-than-ideal conditions in which most archaeology has to be done.


Reality is often much messier - and rustier - than the tidy line drawings found in published site reports.


What do I hope to accomplish by studying these objects in person?

Historians and archaeologists have long depended on burial archaeology – people’s graves – to tell us how people lived in the early middle ages. This might seem backwards to someone who studies other periods of history (why not study the archaeology of the places people lived to understand their lives, why dig up dead bodies?); but until quite recently we had discovered very few settlements and living spaces from England’s Early Anglo-Saxon period (roughly 450-650 CE). While the excavation of several major Early Anglo-Saxon settlement sites, and the explosion of new discoveries that has resulted from archaeological teams doing ‘rescue’ digs on sites that are being commercially developed, has given us a much better understanding of settlement and social organization among the living, burial archaeology remains one of the most information-dense sources of knowledge for the individual people who lived in the early middle ages. This is especially true for the early Anglo-Saxon period, because many people were buried with grave goods: objects like jewelry and weapons which, archaeologists have long understood, can tell us much about the values and social systems that these people (and the people who buried them) lived and expressed.


Cruciform brooches, Toby Martin argues, only make sense as grave goods when we consider their production, use, and distribution alongside their use in burials.
The problem with this approach, and this is where my research begins, is that we have tended to focus almost exclusively on how these grave goods (like spears) were used in the context of burials; but we know much less about how they were used among the living. As a result, we can recognize (for example) that spears were usually buried with men in the early sixth century, but that a growing number of women began to be buried with spears a century later. This suggests that the relationship between gender and spears shifted during these hundred years, but just what that change in burial practice meant for the living community is hard to describe unless we also know how spears were used by the living, and how changes in living society outside the cemetery may have influenced the burials that we’ve found. We need to understand what grave goods were before they became grave goods. Several other recent PhD projects have tackled these questions for two of the more impressive kinds of grave goods (swords and cruciform brooches), but spears – which were buried in almost half the male graves from the early Anglo-Saxon period, proving their importance – have been hitherto neglected. My dissertation aims to tell their story.

So over the next ten months, I’ll be visiting museums to look at spearheads in person to search for evidence that can help me recover their histories from before they ended up in the ground. I hope to compliment the information in published reports of the digs where they were discovered, filling in gaps and looking for traces (such as evidence of use and wear) that sometimes survive on the spearheads without being described in the report. In previous trips I have found hand-scratched early medieval doodles on a spear socket, unrecorded silver inlay, and clear evidence of use and wear on many spearheads that was very difficult to identify (or simply not recorded) on the 2-dimentional sketches of the artifacts that are included in site reports. I’m eager to see what I can discover in the coming year as I see many more of these artifacts in person!

I’ll be updating this blog regularly as I travel with photographs of the artifacts I examine (when permitted), museum displays I tour, and archaeological sites my wife and I explore. I’ll also be sharing some of my thoughts about spears, grave goods, and burial archaeology as the story I’m telling becomes clearer, and I’ll do my best to share any interesting archaeology discussions,  exciting articles, and new archaeological discoveries that come through my newsfeeds during the next year. Stay tuned!


Spearheads from the City Museum in Winchester.