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A Historical Archaeology of Early Medieval Europe

Module leader: Steve Ashby




This module will examine the post-Roman re-emergence of towns across Europe and the Near East, perhaps medieval archaeology’s most momentous contribution to Dark Age history. Early medieval towns were the points of intersection of cross-cultural interaction, and a locus for the innovation of social forms and roles. They catalysed far-reaching changes in society, including the emergence of specialist craftsmen and market-type exchange. They were containers of power and hubs of communication. Yet most early urban sites were shabby, unimposing, violence-ridden settlements of tricksters and cobblers, slave-traders, holy mystics, prostitutes, outcasts and misfits. The module will explore the paradoxes of early urban community and culture, and the complexity of bringing together archaeology and written evidence. The focus on towns will serve as a prism through which to approach essential aspects of early medieval archaeology, and the societal transformation it charts. Through the course, we will seek to define new approaches to urbanism, evading structural or teleological reasoning, and seeking to analyse early medieval towns as “Actor Networks” – constellations of people, things and ideas which enabled surprising connections to be realised.



  • To enable students to critically examine the archaeological data from complex urban sites in Europe and the Near East.
  • To familiarise students with a key research area in early medieval historical archaeology.
  • 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, and their geographical and chronological frameworks of Early Medieval Towns
  • 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


During this module you will be building on the skills you have learnt in the first and second years. The Special Topic will particularly help you develop:
  • Self management: you have learnt to plan your time and work autonomously in the last couple of years, but it is now even more important that you take the initiative this term and manage your time effectively to cope with the demands of this module (for which you should be dedicating about 3-4 days of your time per week) against the demands of the dissertation, and your other committments
  • Communication: this is the last chance to practice your verbal communication skills and take account of your feedback before you do presentations in Assessed Seminars, which will count towards your final degree. You also need to make sure you have really understood how to write a strong academic argument which is required in the summative essay, but you will have the chance to practice this further in the formative essay for the module - make sure you attend feedback sessions so that you understand how to improve
  • Team working: it may be of benefit to form your own study groups and work together with others in the class in order to cover all the reading you have been set
  • Problem solving: you will be developing your skills in retrieving, analysing and evaluating information from a range of different sources
  • Social, cultural and global awareness: you should be developing your awareness of international issues and particularly ethical issues
  • Application of IT: you will be developing your word processing skills and should concentrate on presentation of your work, both in essays, but also the Powerpoints you create
Special topic Early Medieval Towns