International Conference on Early Medieval Migrations, Rewley House

Post-Roman cemeteries of the fifth and sixth centuries have always posed questions about migration in England. Are these graves resplendent with weapons and fine jewels those of the Angles and Saxons recorded by the Venerable Bede? Or was Bede’s story an apocryphal fireside tale of dubious value when it comes to understanding the reality of migration and mobility?

Remains of early medieval cemeteries have been studied since the nineteenth century, and for more than 200 years archaeologists have wrestled with this question. The earliest studies focused on the relationship between artefact types and art styles across the North Sea. But although objects can travel, they do not necessarily relate to migration. One could wear a brooch or buckle, or heft a spear or sword identical to those being worn and brandished in Denmark, without necessarily being from that place. Although this research has much to tell us about cultural networks and senses of identity, it does not tell us much directly about population mobility.

In more recent decades, archaeologists have turned their focus to the molecular scale. The most recent and promising techniques have focused on DNA, particularly DNA extracted from ancient skeletal remains. Due to the expense and painstaking development of these techniques, it has taken years for DNA studies to gather steam, but just as similar techniques have started to unravel the true complexities of population movements in prehistoric Europe, the same kind of data are now primed to cause us to think once again about the early medieval period, and particularly relationships across the North Sea in the fifth and sixth centuries.

It has been a long wait for these data, but between 24-26 June 2022, Duncan Sayer from the Society for Early Medieval Archaeology in collaboration with Toby Martin from Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education will be hosting a conference at Rewley House in Oxford. The event will bring together an international group of scholars to present new data and discuss insight into this crucial subject, considering the new scientific data, but also how such data should be interpreted in terms of the wider cultural implications of migration and mobility. This question is not just about whether or not people moved, but the implications that population movement has for our deeper understanding of any society.

The conference is open to the public and scholars alike, who can attend in person or online via video link. Please visit the Society for Medieval Archaeology’s webpage to see the full programme and register for this event:

Published 26 May 2022