Medieval Archaeologists: An Endangered Species?

Today I came across this piece in the Times Higher entitled ‘European Universities Fight to Save Rare Subjects?‘. I clicked on it as I was intrigued to know what was considered a rare subject, and was further intrigued when I noticed medieval archaeology on the list. This list actually relates to German institutions and is derived from research undertaken at the Johannes Gutenburg Institute at the University of Mainz.

I didn’t quite know what to make of this – is medieval archaeology really in danger? My experience over the last decade or so has seen it to be in fairly good health. Since 2012 the Medieval Europe conference has been re-invigorated through its inclusion in the annual European Association of Archaeologists Conference. Both the Society for Medieval Archaeology student conference and the Early Medieval Archaeology Student Symposium (EMASS) are going strong. Recently the journal Medieval Archaeology has expanded to publish 2 volumes a year, suggesting a vibrant research field. So, I decided to drill down a little further to reflect on the state of this sub-discipline. These stats are very rough and ready, but should serve to give a general impression.

The Human Resource

I undertook a very rapid count of academic staff based un UK universities specialising in medieval archaeology. I limited this to institutions offering a single honours Archaeology programme and there are archaeologists based in history departments who have not been included (at least 4 professors and 3 senior lecturers). This identified 64 researchers, with there being notable clusters in some institutions (e.g. Durham, York, Reading and Sheffield). I included within the sample researchers employed as specialists in areas such as bioarchaeology, but whose research is principally concerned with the medieval period.

I was particularly interested in the career stage of researchers – perhaps the sign of an endangered discipline is one which is ‘top heavy’ with lots of professor and few early career researchers. The bulk of the sample are employed as mid-career researchers at Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor (20) or Reader level (9), with there being 20 professors (ie. most senior) and 15 lecturers (ie. most junior). This seems to be a fairly equitable and sustainable split, and it is noticeable that many of those in lecturer positions have benefited from the development of initiatives such as EMASS in building their careers over the last decade. One word of caution though, is that very few of these roles have the words ‘Medieval Archaeology’ in their job title as displayed on institutional websites. This means that they are considered interchangeable with archaeologists specialising in other areas and, should they move out of academia or retire, they may not be replaced like for like (if they are replaced at all). Therefore the sustainability of the discipline relies on us all making sure that there is a desire for medieval archaeologists within academic departments. My experience as admissions tutor has shown me that many applicants are interested in medieval archeology (as well as Classical and Egyptian archaeology) so there is certainly demand for the subject.

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Finally, I did a search for the key phrase “medieval archaeology” on the British Academy ETHOS website, which shows that since 2012, 143 PhD theses have been submitted on the subject, so there is clearly a pool of highly qualified early career researchers, many of whom are having to find employment as temporary lecturers, research assistants, overseas, or outside of academia (be that in other roles within a university or in areas such as commercial archaeology).

Publishing Medieval Archaeology

The premier English language venue for publishing archaeological research on the medieval period is Medieval Archaeology, the journal of the Society for Medieval Archaeology. However, if we are to demonstrate the importance and relevance of medieval archaeology more generally, it is surely necessary to publish elsewhere – in more general archaeology journals and in inter-disciplinary medieval journals. Indeed, this point was well made by Mark Horton at EMASS a couple of years ago and by Robin Fleming at the recent Archaeologies of the Norman Conquest workshop.

The number of publications in general archaeology journals is generally low. Antiquity, seen as the ‘Gold Standard’ archaeology journal, publishing multiple volumes per year, has published 20 papers since 2012 (based on a keyword search using the term ‘medieval’). There have been approximately 23 papers published in World Archaeology (largely thanks to special volumes on Archaeological Ivories and the Archaeology of Legal Culture) but much lower numbers in other journals: 5 in Archaeological Dialogues (excluding replies to Axel Christopherson’s paper on medieval towns) and 2 in The Cambridge Archaeological Journal and the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list (I have not looked at the European Journal of Archaeology for example as a change in publisher makes it difficult to do a quick search), but gives the impression that medieval archaeology is rarely being published in venues where it is likely to be encountered by non-specialists.

In the same time period, the multi-disciplinary journal Early Medieval Europe has published approximately 9 papers which principally use archaeological evidence and I counted 2 among the pages of Speculum. Therefore, the value of archaeology is not being demonstrated to a wide and interested interdisciplinary audience. There are, of course exceptions, such as contributions to the Journal of Medieval history by Keith Lilley & Gareth Dean on GIS and urban history and Magdalena Naum on material culture and identity. However, I have recently been made aware of the new interdisciplinary e-journal Fragments, the last 2 volumes of which include some interesting looking collaborative papers drawing together historical and archaeological evidence. A further opportunity is the focus on the 2019 International Medieval Congress on materiality, a theme that should surely speak to archaeologists.

Avoiding Extinction

Overall, it seems that medieval archaeology in the UK is in good health, but that we could help to shape and protect its future through integrating more fully with medieval studies and other areas of archaeology. The buzz created by the discovery of Richard III well demonstrates the public interest in the stories that we have to tell. Prehistorian colleagues often comment to me about how they wish they had the resolution and quantity of data that medieval archaeologists do – we are well equipped to develop theoretical and methodological innovations of relevance to archaeology as a whole. The ‘impact agenda’ has been much derided, but work such as that undertaken by Carenza Lewis with local communities shows how our research practices can have tangible social benefit. Furthermore, events such as the British Academy Making the Medieval Relevant workshop, run a couple of years ago, show that we can explore the implications of our research in a whole range of directions, such as understanding climate change.

As with any species, if we fail to adapt to our surroundings then extinction could be an inevitability. There are simple steps we can take to make sure that medieval archaeology doesn’t become ‘endangered’ – publishing widely, broadcasting our stories to diverse audiences and tackling questions which resonate with contemporary society. Many of us already do this, particularly through public engagement, but the value of our work can be easily enhanced through being more outward looking in our relationship with medieval studies and archaeology more widely.

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6 comments

  1. I fully agree regarding your points on publication strategies. Three thoughts:

    I’d be interested in seeing a further analysis of multi-period journals. For example, I suspect the Archaeological Journal and the European Journal of Archaeology are regular venues for medieval archaeological research. I really don’t think Antiquity and World Archaeology are useful touchstones at all for different reasons which I won’t go into here.

    In terms of searching for ‘medieval topics’, I wonder whether ‘medieval’ isn’t a particularly useful search term in isolation, since often more specific period terms are utilised (for early medieval subjects in particular).

    A further point you don’t address, and I’m not sure what the answer might be, is the high or low popularity among medieval archaeologists, compared to other period specialisms, of edited books as profiles for publications?

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    • Hi Howard – thanks for your comments! Of course, the survey was far from extensive – I wanted to focus on international journals (hence the exclusion of Arch J) and veered towards those which I have published in (I also found ones published by certain publishers very difficult to search!). There is certainly scope for a bigger scale study (I did something similar in my thesis you may remember trying to track patterning in the publication of papers about medieval pottery). As you might have seen, with the support of the MERC network we are going to roll out a broader study of different European countries, and we are including publication in edited books (and also monographs) within this.

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  2. Hi ben. Really interesting blog. I was wondering if you thought there was scope for thinking about medieval archaeologists in commercial archaeology too. Not sure how best to do this: publishing archaeologists against cifa profiling the profession data? A good analysis here might give a sense of contributions outside the university sector

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    • Hi Gareth – definitely, although I’m not sure how you would capture that (I just went through uni staff pages!). I wonder how many commercial archaeologists would self identify specifically as medieval archaeologists, or whether the nature of the job forces you to become a generalist? Obviously a survey of publications should capture researchers from outside of universities. I think there could be scope for this within the MERC survey, which is initially focussed on where medieval archaeology is being taught, but could be scaled up to look at the bigger picture in the future.

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