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the barbarians

5 november 2017

I'm fascinated by barbarians, just as I'm fascinated by Greeks and Romans and Egyptians – though I'm fascinated with the latter because they were literate and we know so much about them. With barbarians the attraction is equal and opposite: they fascinate because they wrote nothing, and we know so little about them.

Or rather, what we know must be inferred from the material remains of these prehistoric Europeans. Archeologist Peter Bogucki is thus an ideal candidate to write a general-interest book about "barbarians" for the Reaktion Lost Civilizations series. He starts way back. The eras known now as the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages grew out of the study of Northern European antiquities, which could be roughly dated by the appearance of these technologies. They've since been applied worldwide, but remain the basis for interpreting archeological sites in the barbarian world (roughly all of Europe except for the Greek colonies – until the rise of Rome, when that barbarian sphere shrinks to Ireland, Scandinavia, and the northeast quadrant of the continent).

Barbarians didn't write, but they participated in very complex networks of trade and travel, and they apparently arranged sophisticated ritual activities across large regions as far back as Stone-Age Stonehenge. I wonder how they arranged such things. Without writing, how do you get people who can travel no faster than "shipboard, camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back" arrange to meet for festivals at precise locations, hundreds of miles away, at specific times of the year? It's hard enough for me to schedule faculty committee meetings. The "barbarian" system seems to have demanded professionals, a priesthood of sorts that specialized in memory and oral tradition, people who got their tribes where they needed to go in both cosmic and physical senses.

But like so much about early Europeans, that inference remains an inference. We know few things for sure. We know, from Ötzi the Iceman and other preserved people, that barbarians made long journeys and were well-equipped. We know that they built elaborate dwellings and settlements – mostly out of wood, and thus mostly fragmentary now; wood was basically a free resource across the vast forests of Northern Europe. We think they were drawn to water – lakefronts, bogs, marshes, riverine areas – for both dwelling and ritual purposes; but perhaps we think this because cold water preserves wood and other organic remains so well.

Inevitably, we begin to know more for sure once barbarians made regular contact with Greeks and Romans. After the Greeks established the colony that would become Marseilles, about 2,600 years ago, trade goods flowed up and down the Rhône. We know little of what the barbarians sent south, and presume it was largely raw materials, agricultural produce, and (dismally enough) slaves. But archeologists have found Greek ceramics and other durable goods associated with burials and other settlements, well up into the hinterlands.

In fact, many of the magnificent objects of prehistoric Europe came from the literate realms of the south. The Gundestrup cauldron, found way the heck north in Jutland, probably traveled there from Thrace. Further from trade routes, however, in places like Ireland, native metalworkers produced masterpieces in gold that rival anything from "civilized" world. In some ways the world produced by cross-cultural contact in these early centuries was more complicated than our own, which now tends to a homogenized global sameness. In contact zones like Roman Britain and the Rhineland, you might have experienced a welter of material traditions and cultural diversity irrecoverable in the days of Starbucks and McDonalds.

Bogucki stresses the violence of barbarian times. Not that the civilized peoples were any better; corporal and capital punishment, captivity and chattel slavery, disease and warfare were the order of the day everywhere. Here too, much of our archeological impression of this violence comes because our data is so largely in the form of dead bodies. We infer from the Moorleichen, the preserved bog bodies of Denmark and Britain, that human sacrifice was a big part of being a barbarian; but perhaps these bodies were only a tiny and tangential part of their lives, one that happens to have been best-preserved.

In archeology, interpretation is always necessary (as it is with written sources, come to think of it). Bogucki describes the Iron Age site of Biskupin in Poland. Biskupin consists of a hundred 8x9-meter houses arranged in long rows. "Surrounding the settlement was a rampart of timber boxes filled with earth and stones … Sharpened wooden stakes along the shore of the lake on three sides of the site served as a breakwater to protect the rampart" (93). Biskupin is interpreted as a fortified village, but as reconstructed (95) it looks for all the world like a prison camp. Chillingly, some of the excavation of Biskupin was conducted during the Second World War by the SS-Ahnenerbe, Hitler's crack archeologists, intent on discovering Aryan heritage. Perhaps they helped unearth the Ur-Konzentrationslager.

Bogucki, Peter. The Barbarians. London: Reaktion, 2017. [Lost Civilizations]