Peter S. Wells

 

On his book Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (now in paperback

Cover Interview of October 28, 2009

The wide angle

I have always been interested in applying the techniques of archaeology to understand peoples who were described by others but who left no written record themselves.  Julius Caesar’s descriptions of the people the Romans called “Gauls” is one prime example, Tacitus’s accounts of the “Germans” is another.  My training in anthropology helps me to understand societies on their own terms, rather than interpreting them through the eyes of others.  The rich archaeological evidence from Late Roman and early medieval Europe makes such an approach possible.

That evidence enables us to look in detail at how people in the period AD 400-800 built their houses and organized their settlements; how they fashioned their tools, weapons, and personal ornaments; how they practiced religious rituals; and how they expressed status relationships in their social systems through funerary ritual.

Archaeological study of workshops indicates both the kinds of crafts that people practiced and the scale of production.  Study of imported objects shows us that, contrary to the image some people have of small, isolated communities during the Dark Ages, communities of that time had access to goods not only from all over Europe, but from Africa and Asia as well.

My approach in this book is informed to a large extent by my experience conducting fieldwork—archaeological excavations—on settlements in late prehistoric Europe.  One of the sites at which I have excavated, at Kelheim on the Danube River in Bavaria, Germany, was the location of a substantial town at the time that Julius Caesar was campaigning in what is now France in the course of his conquest of Gaul (middle of the last century BC).

The experience of excavating and recovering the direct physical remains of the daily activities of people who lived 2000 years ago gives one a deep appreciation for the ways that material culture links past and present.  For example, we recovered charred grain from the meals people prepared, pottery out of which they ate their meals, iron tools that they used to build their houses, and debris from the smelting of ore to make the iron with which they fashioned those tools.  Materials such as decorated fine ceramics, figural images on the coins they minted, and brightly colorful glass bracelets and beads allow us to see not only the economic aspects of their daily lives, but also the ways in which they expressed their aesthetic sensibilities.  Working directly with such objects provides a feeling for how material culture relates to peoples’ lives and values, both in the past and in the present.