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  • The Aberdeen Workshop: an overview

    The third and final network workshop took place last week at Aberdeen University. The workshop was entitled ‘Royal Residences and networks of power’ and was structured around four research questions:

    1. How are different axes of centrality – political, economic, religious – constituted in the archaeology of royal sites and their wider hinterlands?
    2. Can royal sites be perceived as components of local and regional settlement hierarchies and, if so, how developed were they?
    3. What role did royal sites play and the formation and maintenance of political territories?
    4. How well do existing models of political centralisation and kingdom formation explain the networks of interaction embodied by royal sites? Do such models need to be revised in the light of a better archaeological understanding of these archaeological phenomenon?

    The morning session consisted of contributions from the five network projects. These comprised papers by Gabor Thomas, Gordon Noble, Megan Gondek, Christopher Scull, Helena Hamerow and David Petts (read by Sarah Semple). Each endeavoured to reconstruct the networks of power in five different regions of early medieval Britain (Kent, Aberdeenshire, Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Northumberland).

    The papers emphasised the degree of regional variation in the articulation of power, and also highlighted a range of conceptual and evidence-based limitations. Despite these issues, the papers managed to reach a degree of consensus: early medieval power structures might be best understood as dynamic and largely unbounded entities – areas of ‘social gravity’, as Chris Scull put it.

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    The afternoon session consisted of a series of papers offering wider perspectives. Ewan Campbell began with a paper titled ‘Small Worlds? The dynamics of a developing royal power centre in Atlantic Scotland’. This focused on the excavations at Dunadd (Argyll), discussing the results within the context of the Kingdom of Dál Riata. He concluded that personal relationships were likely to have been of greater importance than wealth in the construction of political territories.

    In his ‘Central Places and Central-Place Complexes in Scandinavia c. 600-1100’, Stefan Brink reviewed the evidence from a number of important sites such as Skíringssalr in Norway, Jelling and Tissø in Denmark and Tjust, Gamla Uppsala, Vadsbo and Selaön in Sweden. From such a wide-ranging comparative approach we were reminded how early medieval power structures were fundamentally based around people, and were not necessarily tied to individual territories.

    Results from a range of investigations within the hinterland of Tara (County Meath) were then communicated by Edel Bhreathnach in a paper titled ‘Social inclusion and exclusion in the greater landscape of the ceremonial complex of Tara’. These exciting results were contextualised within the context of the Kingdom of Brega.

    Edel’s talk was followed by Andy Seaman’s paper titled ‘Political Units and Networks of Power in Post-Roman Western Britain’. In this he offered convincing critiques of two previous models of early medieval administration: the ‘multiple estates’ model and the continuist ‘Tribes – Civitas – Kingdom’ model. He concluded with a case study from south-west England, noting that the early medieval political landscape was likely to have been smaller in scale and more fragmented than is often envisaged.

    The final paper of the day was given by Simon Taylor, whose ‘Pictish Namescape and Power Centres’ offered a useful survey of place-name scholarship in the lands of the Picts, with a particular focus on elements associated with early centres of power.

    The workshop was then brought to a close with a wide-ranging discussion. This included lively debates on a number of issues such as: the nature and development of early kingdoms; antecedent phases and developmental trajectories; changing expressions of power throughout the period; and the need of a source critical approach.

    The second day involved a fieldtrip that took in the dramatic Aberdeenshire landscape and a plethora of important archaeological sites.

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    The first point on our tour was the Maiden Stone, a large and well-preserved Pictish symbol stone likely dating from the ninth century. Subsequently, we went off the beaten track to visit nearby Maiden Castle, which recent excavation has demonstrated to have been occupied during the fifth and sixth centuries. The team then proceeded to Rhynie, making a quick stop along the way to visit the Picardy Symbol Stone.

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    At Rhynie we had a guided tour of the main area of excavation, taking in the several symbol stones along the way and enjoying magnificent views of a snow-capped Tap O’Noth. We were also extremely grateful for the hospitality of Rhynie Woman, who prepared us a delicious meal.

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    En route to Dyce we made a brief visit to the Brandsbutt Symbol Stone which, in addition to being a stunning example of Pictish art, has the added benefit of being set within a modern housing estate!

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    The field trip ended at Dyce, where we looked around the ruined kirk of St Fergus and took in a pair of symbol stones set within it.

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