Assembling the Living, Assembling the Dead

The last 15 years has seen the renaissance of the study of early medieval assembly places and practices. What’s going on?

Assembly places can be seen as communal activities that underpinned early medieval societies and their politics. They involved the administration of justice, debating and promulating laws, and legitimising and reproducing allegiances and. They might even have roles in the inauguration of kings. Other activities can take place at assemblies too, including markets and games, religious ceremonies and military musters.

A focus of antiquarian interest and 19th-century scholarship, for much of the 20th century the study of assembly saw little work fieldwork or syntheses, certainly among archaeologists. However, since the early 2000s, there was a resurgence, spearheaded in England by then-doctoral students of John Blair at Oxford – Aliki Pantos and Sarah Semple, and connecting with work taking places on early medieval assembly places and central places in Scotland, Ireland, Man and Scandinavia. I was honoured to take part on the 2000 Oxford conference, and the publication that followed, called Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe, edited by Aliki Pantos and Sarah Semple (Four Courts Press, 2004), which has proved to be a seminal work in this field.


This initial work has led to a resurgence of place-name, historical and archaeological research, drawing on new methods and techniques as well as new theoretical frameworks, and there has been growing interdisciplinary synergies and comparative perspectives. In short, this new research has come out of a mixture of new approaches to the early medieval landscape and society, and new perspectives on interdisciplinary research. It has also developed from newly formed connectivities between early medieval research themes, including archaeologies of judicial practice and governance, pioneered by Andrew Reynolds, the investigation of the ‘past in the past’ and investigations of the long-term biographies of prehistoric ceremonial centres and ancient monuments reused and reworked as early medieval gathering places and temporary settlements, as well as parts of long-running ‘central places’ of which assembly functions were an integral part (including work by Stephen Driscoll, Liz Fitzpatrick, Sarah Semple and others). Most recently, I attended the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s conference in temporary camps and seasonal sites and settlements, showing that studying the historical geography of early medieval societies through assembly places and practices is a vibrant interdisciplinary theme.

13 years since the publication of that book, the origins and significance of assembly places is now an integral part of teaching and researching early medieval Europe. Involving UK scholars, there are currently two big projects investigating assembly places. There is the UCL Landscapes of Governance project and The Assembly Places project involving Durham and UHI.  Together they are producing a range of investigations, comparative and interdisciplinary, into assembly places and practices and a series of publications looking at case studies and comparative themes, new methodologies and perspectives have been recently published and are forthcoming. There is also an incipient Assembly Sites of Wales project.

Early Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries and Assembly

My own work has repeated tackled dimensions of this research, although ‘assembly’ has been only an element of my research endeavours over this time. For instance, I publish a paper in the aforementioned Assembly Places and Practices… book that made an argument (taking forward earlier suggestions by Catherine Hills, Kevin Leahy and Jackie McKinley) that large early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemeteries in mid-/late 5th and early/mid- 6th-century eastern Britain, such as Spong Hill, Newark, Cleatham, Elsham and Sancton, might only look like ‘burial sites’ because the large numbers of cremation graves – hundreds, sometimes thousands – are the most discernible archaeological features. In addition to serving large territories as hitherto proposed, the cemeteries might actually be only the most visible dimensions of multi-zonal assembly places. At these places, the multi-staged ceremonies of burning the dead might be simply one of several activities going on at any time or place. I used Loveden Hill as a case study. Read it here. Another version of this idea was published in the proceedings of the Lund Sachsensympsion: you can download it here. In this second paper, although published first, I compared four cremation cemeteries in Lincolnshire in terms of what could be discerned at the time from HER data and their topographical situation.

The Pillar of Eliseg

Project Eliseg

Developed alongside these aforementioned bigger international projects, the study of assembly places is one of the dimensions to my work with Bangor University’s Professor Nancy Edwards and Dr Gary Robinson on the Pillar of Eliseg. Our Project Eliseg, is exploring the biography and landscape context of the early 9th-century sculpted stone cross (only a fragment of the shaft and the base of which remain), known as the Pillar of Eliseg and located on a mound now demonstrably regarded as a multi-phased Early Bronze Age kerbed cairn, near Valle Crucis, Llangollen. In doing so, we are tackling one of Wales’s few postulated assembly sites, most clearly articulated in the 2009 paper by Nancy Edwards, and engaging with its materialities, spatialities and temporalities. Our forthcoming monograph and a paper forthcoming in Medieval Archaeology (developed with Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores as part of the ERC-funded Past in its Place project) seek to explore this site in new ways. As well as developing new theories and methods that are pertinent to the study of assembly places elsewhere, we are refining and extending the interpretation of this still-enigmatic and distinctive multi-phase prehistoric and early medieval monument.


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