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Women, Material Culture, and the History of Post-Roman Britain

Thursday Lecture Series, Materiality

dateApril 24, 2014 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
Variety of artifacts from Post-Roman Britain, including beads and jugs

Historians, taking their ideas from early medieval texts, generally argue that the startlingly new material culture regime establishing itself in fifth-century Britain was the handiwork of Germanic warriors, who were establishing themselves in lowland Britain in the generations after Rome’s withdrawal from the diocese. Thus, it is argued that the transformations we see in material culture and life ways were driven by the activities of men.

Given the male-centeredness of this period’s history, it is salutary to remind ourselves that the majority of our genuinely contemporary evidence––which is material, rather than textual––is associated not with men, but with late-adolescent girls and adult women. Most of our genuinely contemporary evidence comes from cemetery excavations, and many more women in this early period than men were buried with grave goods and dress fittings, those buried with objects are found with more of them, and women were buried with a greater variety of objects than men.

Because so much of the surviving material culture from this early period is associated with women, it behooves us to incorporate it and them into whatever narrative we stitch together, not only because they provide us with the bulk of our evidence, but because their evidence’s relative abundance hints at the central role women played in whatever it was that was going on in these years. One of the basic arguments of this paper is that it is not enough to study women separately or include them now and then in the stories we write. Rather, they (and the material culture associated with them) should sit at the heart of our histories of lowland Britain in the first hundred years after Rome’s collapse. Because they are the people we can see best, they are the ones we should be writing about.

A careful student of this evidence suggests that much of the hard work of building a new world, and much of the interesting material culture developing in this period was by or for women. In short, the transformations we see in material culture and life ways took place in the hall rather than the war band, no matter what our flawed and retroactive texts might tell us.