Microstructural History: What Metallurgy Can Tell Us about Early Medieval Burial Practices
Paper by Andrew Welton
Given at the American Historical Association’s 2020 Annual Meeting in New York City, on January 3, 2020.
Abstract: The early medieval dead were often buried with weapons. Historians interpret this martial display as a consequence of the Roman Empire’s collapse into warring barbarian kingdoms. Nineteenth-century nationalism and chauvinism haunt this view: the early medieval dead are frequently identified as the “barbarian” ancestors of modern, “white” European nationalities. In recent years, the racial element of this equation has gained new force as white nationalists point to the early medieval dead to prove that their ancestors were vigorous warriors. These modern narratives have shaped how we interpret the artifacts; but the artifacts preserve evidence that allows us to push back against this presentism to rediscover the alterity of the premodern world.
Metallic microstructures inside weapon blades from early medieval cemeteries preserve rich, untapped histories of interactions between people and these objects. Microscopic traces of heat stress survives inside metal artifacts for centuries, and these microstructures can be recovered through laboratory analysis. Historians of technology have used these methods for decades, but this paper shows how social historians too can use metallurgical evidence to study historic life.
This paper examines metallurgical microstructures in spearheads from early medieval English graves of the sixth century CE, and demonstrates an aspect of medieval burial practices hitherto unrecognized. Microstructures in spearheads’ blades indicate that these weapons were burned before burial, a process that destroyed their utility. Contrary to prevailing interpretations of weapon burial as a chauvinistic theater of violence, this evidence indicates that early medieval communities sought to limit weapons’ capacity for harm through acts of public disarmament. These practices, however, were not a kind of medieval “gun control”; this paper contextualizes graveside weapon destruction against early medieval attitudes toward bloodfeud, and argues that medieval people destroyed weapons to cleanse the magical pollution these instruments of violence accrued during the lives of their owners.
Top Image – Early medieval Iron Spear – https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/583877