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Rural Riches. The bottom-up development of Post-Roman Northwestern Europe (450-640)

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Rural Riches (Rural Riches. The bottom-up development of Post-Roman Northwestern Europe (450-640))

Reporting period: 2020-09-01 to 2022-02-28

The Rural Riches Project addresses the question as to how Europe economically emerged from the collapse of the Roman state in the West. This problem has been the subject of academic debate for over a century. Most modern authors agree on the idea that the post-Roman economic development was the result of the initiatives and the demand of the elite. This paradigm of elite control of production and (long-distance) trade seems to be at odds with the vast amounts of objects, often precious and of exotic origin, that are found in the thousands of richly furnished cemeteries of even the smallest rural communities.
This project analyses the importance of the rural population as consumers with access to global trade networks to the post-Roman economic development in northwestern Europe.

It is of great importance to analyse the early economic development of this region because it became ever more important in the economic development of Europe as a whole in the Middle Ages and the Modern Period. With this ambitious archaeological project we aim to contribute substantially to the age-old debate on the origins of the European economy and to a general debate on the role of the mass of the population in economic processes in the past. Moreover, while analysing a non-modern economy we are confronted with the, according to modern standards, non-economic aspects of economic practices, such as cultural values, ritual demands and religious influences. In this way this research contributes to modern economic thinking in which recently a growing interest has developed in the behavioural aspects of economic aspects, pluriform economic thinking or in short ‘non-economic economics’.
The overall objective of the project is to create new models on the early post-Roman economic development of (northwestern) Europe in which there is a special place for the agency of subaltern groups (the rural population, crafts people) based on models of economic development which include culturally specific values, social dimensions and Christian religious values. An important product of the project will also be a large database on the archaeology and history of Merovingian Northern Gaul which will be a very welcomed instrument for future research into this formative period in European history.
In the first part of the project period most attention was devoted to creating and filling a database on Merovingian northern Gaul. This database will contain evidence on all archaeological sites in the research area (see image 1), a large number of inscriptions, and a large number of attestations in written (literary) sources of elite presence, elite property and Christian cult places. We decided to create one database only, custom-made, which needed intensive reflections on how to organize the data, what to include and what not, how to present the data, what queries should be written etc. A trial and error phase helped to improve the database which is now a working instrument of great value not only to the project, but to the scholarly community interested in early medieval Northwestern Europe. Moreover, it will contain a lot of data on a selected series of finds such as beads, glass vessels and sixth century brooches for the entire research area. Next it will contain a lot of data of a selected number of cemeteries (c. 20-30) that are well-excavated, well-published and well-sequenced in a chronological sense. Time was also spent on creating a GIS environment to carry out spatial analyses, developing theoretical insights into non-modern economies, contacting colleagues and presenting the project abroad and to the wider public (see image 2).
It is not easy to define the state of the art for Merovingian archaeology in Northwestern Europe. A large body of work has been done on individual sites (cemeteries, settlements) and in some fields overviews were created such as the French project on the ‘Topographies Chrétiennes’ with its magnificent update in 2014. German scholars have prepared synthetic studies of individual find categories such as bow brooches and some types of glass vessels. The settlement archaeology of northern France was analyzed is a synthetic way. What Merovingian archaeology however lacked are synthetic studies combining all this evidence. Up till now it has remained to some extent particularistic, fragmented and locked up in national research traditions. It also remains theoretically underdeveloped in comparison for instance with analyses of the economy of the Roman Empire or the European Bronze Age. Such synthetic studies are only possible when all this evidence is included in one database, combing it with the results of early Christian archaeology, analyses of textual sources allowing (in principle) to combine every dataset with any other (see image 3). Finally, such synthetic studies need to be theoretically informed using new insights into the relations between economy, culture, religion, social organization and the value of material culture. Our database provides this research environment which for that reason is a truly ‘beyond the state-of-the-art investment’ in time and finances.
3. The distribution of glass vessels in graves (red) and Christian cult places
1. The research area of the Rural Riches project (Merovingian Northern Gaul)
2. An example of our outreach to the public using Twitter