ARCHAEOLOGY is a popular pastime among non-specialists; almost anyone can pick up a trowel and scratch away in the dirt. Historical research, even for amateurs, requires a slightly more intellectual approach. I must make an exception of family history, which fascinates huge numbers of people. It is a very narrow kind of learning; the knowledge of the names and dates of your ancestors is better than a complete disregard of the past, but this kind of history has none of the wider interest that you find with archaeology.
What are the basic differences between the two disciplines? For one thing ,when you begin a dig you can never be quite sure what period any finds will belong to, so archaeologists tend not be so so restricted in their timescale as historians. The differences go much wider than that though. Each examines the past, and both must be aware of the other’s researches, but whereas the historian will go first to the written record, the archaeologist relies on the artefacts that the past has left behind. This reliance on finds in itself skews the nature of archaeological research; except in very rare circumstances, most of the relics of the past that lie in the ground soon rot and disappear. Clothing and foodstuffs leave scant evidence, and the little that can be gleaned about such things needs scientific skills. This is why the discovery of a bronze age settlement at Flag Fen near Peterborough caused such a stir; in the oxygen-free mud of the Fens even the threads that were being woven over 3000 years ago could still be plainly seen. Normally it is only the stonewares and metal goods that are preserved; only the flint head of a neolithic axe is left, and its wooden haft disappeared millennia ago.
In all but exceptional circumstances archaeology is anonymous. The names of the people who tilled the soil or fired the kilns that we speculate over hundreds of years later are unknowable. In extremely rare cases, such as the discovery of the body of Richard III in Leicester, the name is crucially important, but in the vast majority the names of the long vanished people who left their evidence behind are not only unknown but irrelevant.
This is all very different from history; here we are much more interested in individuals. As far as those who produced the evidence go the historian is mainly concerned with the literate, and even the subject matter tends to centre on the more significant occurrences in the past. The archaeologist will have a great time examining the contents of a rubbish tip – something that will hardly concern the historian.
Archaeological research may extend almost up to the present day; the archaeology of the Second World War is now a valid subject, although there are many people still living who can remember a time before the war broke out. History moves on too, and whole volumes are being written about periods I remember well – perhaps by historians who were but babes in arms when the events occurred. When I was a student I used to marvel how the older tutors could remember events that had become the stuff of history.
For me there is no contest as to which I prefer, history or archaeology. History wins hands down; but there is third kind of study which falls between history and archaeology, and that I love even more. This is a recent development, and hasn’t even got an accepted name yet. I call it historical geography; it is a study that combines historical resources with the evidence contained within the landscape. Unlike the archaeologist, the historical geographer does not have to get his hands dirty; and the documents he refers to are as likely to be maps as old chronicles.
If I may give you an example of the kind of research I mean, I have over the last 10 or 20 years traced what I am sure was the last journey undertaken by Edmund, king of East Anglia, in the year 869. This journey memorably led to his death at the hands of the invading Vikings. The history of this event is impossibly obscure to the conventional historian, and is quite beyond the scope of archaeologists. Yet, from the hints given in written documents, together with an intelligent awareness of physical features, navigable rivers, ancient churches and old field names, it is possible to pinpoint the place of Edmund’s death down to a few hundred yards; so at least I believe.
Interesting though this is, the location of St Edmund’s death is a relatively insignificant part history. This geographical approach reveals much more; it shows for example how the later spread of the cult of the saint was directly linked to continuing attacks by the Viking Army. This true not just in East Anglia, but across England. Although Wales and Scotland were equally at risk of attack by Vikings, the influence of this most English of saints did not extend beyond the Anglo-Saxon world. There is too much to explain in this post, but those who are interested may read the blogs referred to below, or apply to for a pdf of my booklet St Edmund’s Norfolk. I will supply it free to anyone who requests it via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), although if you wish to make a contribution to charity that would be great. For those who wish to obtain a physical copy it is still available on ebay.
The blog posts may be reached by clicking the following titles: St Edmund’s Norfolk, Viking Coins, St Edmund and the Wolf, Viking Names?, Caistor St Edmund, Whissonsett, The End of the Kingdom of EA, St Edmund King and Martyr, Caistor (3), Markshall Church, The Vikings, South Creake, Lyng.
As I said, my book is also available on ebay for anyone who would prefer a hard copy. It costs 99p plus postage.