December in Early Medieval Archaeology

By Gareth Davies

Our head of archaeology starts a new occasional blog looking at the medieval world and how the latest research can help inform our own exciting work at YA

The last month or so has seen the publication of some important books and articles concerning how new approaches – particularly in archaeological science – are providing us with insight into pre-Viking trade and exchange networks and how this defined (at least in part) the character and status of early medieval communities.

The first article is Paul Blinkhorn’s survey of the origins of wheel-thrown pottery in Ninth century England, published in the Archaeological Journal. The introduction of new types of pottery production at this time, such as Thetford type wares, has sometimes been directly linked to the arrival of the Viking Great Army after AD 865. However, Blinkhorn convincingly argues that the introduction of wheel thrown pottery, heavily influenced by Carolingian wares, pre-dates the Viking Army by some time. Blinkhorn instead argues that the establishment of new pottery industries in England by immigrant potters in the mid ninth century simply illustrates a shift in North Sea trading patterns, away from the trading sites (emporia) that had already existed for some time.

A second article (Kershaw and Merkel) just published in the Medieval Archaeology Journal has used isotope analysis of 9th to 11th century lead items from the Coppergate excavations to demonstrate that this commodity was coming through York from the uplands of the North Pennines to be traded around the North Sea emporia; places such as Kaupang (Norway) and Hedeby (N. Germany). The authors argue that this commenced from the mid-8th century and is another example to add to a growing profile of non-precious resources, including tar, soapstone, iron, and antler, that were evidently extensively traded in the centuries prior to the Viking Age.

This impression is bolstered by the results of third article by Steve Ashby and others in the Internet Archaeology Journal which, for the first time in England, has identified, via the means of biogeographical sourcing of bone using mass spectrometry (ZooMs), a Viking Age comb made of reindeer antler, an actual Scandinavian object. This fascinating artifact, a stray find from the banks of the River Orwell, Suffolk, adds further weight to the notion of extensive trade, exchange and contact networks around the north sea littoral through to the mid Tenth century.

The importance of North Sea trade and exchange networks between the 7th and 9th century are also brilliantly highlighted by publication of the second volume of the Northern Emporia project, which provides a detailed and high-tech account of recent excavation work at the emporia site of Ribe, Denmark. Originally seen as a site founded under strict royal control, and perhaps seasonally inhabited, the new Ribe publications now argue that the site was established as a permanent settlement around 700 AD but that formal plot layout did not occur for another 20 or so years, giving more agency to merchants and traders as settlement founders.

This above work will be particularly invaluable for developing our thoughts and interpretations around one of our latest excavations at Fishergate, York. This year our field team has been excavating this site, which was certainly involved in long distance trade and exchange during the 8th and 9th centuries, but which also defies simple narratives. Perhaps it is through the addition of new insight from forthcoming scientific analysis on material recovered from the site that we might ascertain more of its character; watch this space in the coming year!

Sindbæk, S. M. (ed.) (2022): Northern Emporium: Vol. 1 The making of Viking-age Ribe, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Jane Kershaw & Stephen Merkel (2023) International Trade in Outland Resources: the Mining and Export of Lead in Early Medieval England in Light of New Isotope Data From York, Medieval Archaeology, 67:2, 249-282

Paul Blinkhorn & Seren Griffiths (2023) The Vikings and the origins of wheel-thrown pottery production in ninth century England, Archaeological Journal, 180:1, 104-136,

Ashby, S.P., Tomlinson, L., Presslee, S., Hendy, J., Bliss, A., Minter, F. and Brock, D. 2023 The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the potential of non-metallic finds: A Viking Comb from Shotley, Suffolk, Internet Archaeology