Archaeologies of the Norman Conquest

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Archaeology


The Norman Conquest is rightfully regarded as a momentous event in English history. It ushered in profound social, political, and cultural shifts, including changes in the ruling regime, language, trade and economy, art and architectural style, and the country's religious and secular infrastructure. However, the common understanding of the changes wrought by the Conquest is predicated on what happened to the elite social classes, and on narratives that have been produced primarily from documentary history, often without reference to the abundant archaeological evidence that survives from the period, and which can give us unparalleled insight into everyday life. Archaeology as a discipline has been complicit in this problem, as in comparison to documentary historians, comparatively few archaeologists have used 11th and 12th-century evidence from artefacts, buildings, landscape, diet/cuisine, and skeletal and environmental data to ask probing questions about how and why the Conquest happened, or to interrogate why the material dimensions of this socio-cultural transition were important. This lack of a coherent research framework has prevented archaeologists from playing a key role in either scholarly debates on the Norman Conquest or the public understanding of the process.

Archaeologies of the Norman Conquest is a new research network which seeks to redress this balance by examining the cultural, social, and political implications of the Norman Conquest through an explicit focus on archaeology and material culture. Its chief aims are to highlight the new insights and nuanced interpretations that archaeology can bring to this fundamental turning point in British history, and to articulate an inclusive research framework for the 11th and 12th centuries that brings together the scientific, humanistic, academic, professional, and public engagement arms of archaeology. A lack of communication and collaboration between these branches in the past has prevented archaeological approaches to the Norman Conquest from reaching their full potential. The network participants have thus been specifically chosen to break down boundaries between these branches of archaeology, creating a dynamic research community of academic scholars, professional archaeologists, and heritage practitioners.

This network is based around a series of three workshops, focusing on the themes of interpretative agendas, methodologies, and heritage and public impacts. Current research is beginning demonstrate that not only is the Norman Conquest visible in the archaeological record at a wide range of social levels and in many aspects of life, but also that if the right questions are asked of the data, the conclusions we can draw from the archaeology often contradict or add considerable nuance to the story of the Conquest told in the documentary record. By providing a forum for the presentation of innovative scholarship and the discussion of new questions, agendas, and research directions, the network will contribute to re-evaluating the long-standing narratives of the Conquest, its process, and its aftermath -- both in Britain and in Europe, in urban and rural areas, in different regions and localities, and at elite and common social levels. The network follows on from commemorations of the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest that will begin in late 2016, taking advantage of this synergy to highlight the significance of the archaeology of the Norman Conquest to an interdisciplinary audience, as well as to raise public awareness of the important role archaeology has to play in understanding this cultural touchstone.

Planned Impact

The project will make a defined and measurable contribution to British heritage and culture by illuminating the material dimensions of the Norman Conquest and its aftermath -- one of the most significant eras in the nation's cultural and political development, and the most iconic event of medieval British history. The network will deliver benefits to specific stakeholders beyond the academic community, including:

1) Heritage professionals: The network will directly facilitate interaction between heritage bodies/practitioners and academics. Network participants have been secured from many of the country's chief heritage bodies, as well as from a range of museums, heritage sites, and private companies. The network will enable participants to highlight relevant but often under-utilized national, regional, and local heritage collections, properties, and field projects to both academic archaeologists and the public. These collections and sites have the potential to form the basis of new research on the Norman Conquest, and attendees at the workshops will benefit from access to new avenues for cross-sector collaborative research and funding applications with academic archaeologists. The workshops will facilitate the exchange of ideas between heritage practitioners, as well as between heritage practitioners and academic scholars, about ways to better communicate Norman Conquest archaeology to the public. They will help practitioners generate innovative ideas on how to effectively and engagingly present their 11th and 12th-century sites and material culture, and participation in the network will help raise the profile of their own collections and properties through their mobile app contributions and features on the network website and social media.

The organizations represented by particular network participants will receive specific benefits, including:

a) Portable Antiquities Scheme - PAS participants will benefit from using workshop discussion to identify key artefact groups relevant to the Anglo-Norman period, some of which may benefit from increased research, recalibrated chronologies, typologies and interpretations, and refined entries in the PAS database; participation will help them improve dissemination of Anglo-Norman artefact research to academic, public, and detectorist communities
b) English Heritage/Historic England - participants will benefit from discussion focusing on better articulating research agendas, conservation and interpretation of Norman-period sites, architecture, and landscapes
c) Church of England Cathedrals and Church Buildings division - CCB participants will be able to take workshop discussions back to the parish communities of Norman-era churches, to improve visitor information and statements of significance
d) Museums/historic sites - participants can translate network discussions into new and revised interpretations for panels, booklets, and displays, and new ideas for exhibitions focused on the Norman Conquest
e) Professional units - participation will expand their knowledge of current agendas and interpretations for 11th/12th-c. sites and finds, and highlight the value of their datasets to academic researchers

2) General public: The Norman Conquest has excellent name recognition in comparison to other historic events, but there is little public knowledge of its archaeological dimensions, nor of the socio-cultural complexities which lie behind the popular historical narrative of military and political conquest. The network's outreach and public engagement activities will concentrate on the dissemination of nuanced and innovative interpretations unique to archaeological material and methods, improving public understanding and revitalizing interest in this well-known event and period--one that is fundamental to British national identity and the story of how Britain came to be, and also emblematic of the country's long and complex history of multiculturalism and amalgamation.


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