World Arch: Early Medieval Towns


Module Leader:  Martin Carver


People began to live together in increasingly large numbers after the end of the last Ice Age. Why?  Archaeologists are busy rewriting the reasons. For Gordon Childe it was agriculture and craft that got them started. The new thinking is that it was feasting and ritual. The discovery of Göbeckli Tepe (14000 ya) and Wadi Faynan 16 (11500 ya) has shown the way.  The beginnings of famous early towns - Ur in Mesopotamia (8000 ya), Harappa on the Indus (5000 ya) and Erlitou on the Yellow River (4000 ya) - all are now seen have a religious dimension.  Athens and Rome (8th century BC) are each thought to have been created from an annual religious get-together, providing an opportunity to settle scores and arrange marriages, all in the name of the gods.  Yes – we humans are a superstitious lot.  But of course it was not only religion that encouraged congregation. Driven by wealth and conquest, Rome spawned a mighty empire based on cities, which encompassed the Mediterranean and covered half of Europe.  By 400 AD it was wilting badly – and this is where we come in.

This course studies how the town was re-invented after Rome, its varied forms and life-styles and the social structures these imply. It is primarily a voyage of exploration, but each session will have its themes and touchpoints.  In the post-Roman period some of the drivers were still religious – Christianity and Islam – but the new towns were also born from more down-to-earth imperatives – conquest, control and the need to make money. This resulted in a wonderful variety of ‘urban solutions’ from the hilltop villas of Tuscany, royal seats of the Burgundians and Vandals, the cult-centres of Scandinavia, to the monastic towns of Ireland, the emporia, the medinas of Syria and Spain, the Viking trading towns and back to the burhs of early England. These will form our case studies, and the social, economic and ideological imperatives that drove the making of towns will be our themes. Naturally, the rival interpretations are hotly debated, because the forces that recreated the town are still with us in Europe today. 

In our last session we will try our hands at rival explanations of our own, taking a town each as a case study.


  • To familiarise students with a key research area in early medieval historical archaeology.
  • To understand its relevance for Europe today
  • To enable students to critically examine the archaeological data from complex urban sites.
  • To develop skills and understanding in dealing with the methodological problems of relating archaeology and written evidence.

Learning outcomes

  • By the end of this module, students should be able to:
  • Outline the main cultural developments of Early Medeval Europe, as so far known 
  • Discuss and explain the principal archaeological evidence in the area of study and demonstrate a critical appreciation of the potential biases and problems in the interpretation of the evidence and modern political discourses
  • Evaluate and contextualise different types of archaeological source material
  • Critically appraise other people’s studies and produce logical and structured arguments supported by relevant evidence


No success can be achieved in modern life without an understanding of towns, the hub of politics, business, religion and art. This course is about how towns started and is thus a primer for understanding Europe and its neighbours today.

The World Archaeology modules provide a range of important employability skills including:

  • Self management: because this is a lecture course you will need to manage your time carefully and should be spending about 10 hours a week reading the literature suggested for each topic- this will help you when writing your essay and preparing for the exam
  • Communication: you will really need to develop your writing communication skills in this module - writing a clear argument based on evidence from your reading is key to your assessment and you get the chance to practice this in your formative essay in preparation for the exam
  • Problem solving: you need to be able to retrieve, analyse and evaluate information from different sources
  • Social, cultural and global awareness: you will gain a strong knowledge of other cultures and customs in other countries and should appreciate the diversity of issues

Medieval Towns (218)

Early medieval towns were the points of intersection of cross-cultural interaction, and a locus for the innovation of social forms and roles. ...Yet most early urban sites were shabby, unimposing, violence-ridden settlements of tricksters and cobblers, slave-traders, holy mystics, prostitutes, outcasts and misfits.