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Durham University

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The Assembly Project

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.

Background

The evocative idea of public assembly as an early arena for political debate has engaged constitutional historians, place-name specialists, landscape archaeologists and historians alike, and whilst the existence of assembly as a means of government is not in question in the early medieval era; the actual locations of the assembly and the processes that took place there, remain unexplored.

The Assembly Project (2010-13) is a consortium funded by the Humanities in the European Research Area. It brings together four Principle Researchers: Dr. Frode Iversen, University of Oslo (PL and IP1); Dr Sarah Semple, Durham University (IP2); Dr. Natascha Mehler, University of Vienna (IP3); and Dr Alexandra Sanmark, Centre for Nordic Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands (IP4).

The project evolved from a program of research started in 2002 by Alexandra Sanmark and Sarah Semple that undertook comparative field work on assembly sites and ‘landscapes’ in England and Sweden, including Scutchmer Knob, Berkshire, England and Aspa Löt, Södermanland and Anundshög, Västmanland, Sweden. This chain of projects was funded by the Harold Wingate Foundation; Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis; Berit Wallenbergs Stiftelse and Helge Axson Johnsons Stiftelse and the British Academy. Research and fieldwork revealed that although previously linked to long term cultic activity and pre-Christian religious sites and cemeteries, in contrast, some political assembly sites were developed de novo as part of planned administrative systems sometime in the 8th to 10th centuries AD.

The new consortium project is far more ambitious in scope. Together we have been exploring the archaeological diversity of assembly and administration in north-western European societies after the collapse of the Roman Empire (AD 400-1500). Using a combination of desk-based and field research across parts of Scotland, North East England, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Faro, we are examining how places of assembly and administrative systems and divisions were created and how they changed over time. We are using our research to address one of the most challenging global questions: how did complex societal organization develop and what social mechanisms facilitated the transition between locally driven organization to the emergence and consolidation of large-scale territories and states?

Sarah Semple heads the second strand of research at Durham, IP2 Landscape, Authority and Power, which is establishing a new critical understanding, by means of selective, historiographic research on the treatment of assembly as a research theme, exploring how assembly has been valorized in differing strands of scholarship and used as evidence to support ideas of nationhood, legitimate authority, migratory patterns and shared ethnic descents.

Building on this critical base of knowledge, and interlocking with the project core research themes, a PhD project undertaken by Tudor Skinner is advancing our understanding of the dynamics of assembly and political organization in areas of impact, colonization and social flux. By studying the changing administrative frameworks of the Danelaw, with a close focus on Yorkshire, new insights are being achieved on early governance in England.

Published Results

Edited book

  • Pantos, A. & Semple, S. J. (2004). Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Journal Article

  • Semple, S. J. & Sanmark, A. (2013). Assembly in North West Europe: collective concerns for early societies? Journal of European Archaeology 16(3): 518-542.
  • Sanmark, A. & Semple, S. J. (2008). Places of Assembly: New Discoveries in Sweden and England. Fornvännen 103(4): 245-259.

Newspaper/Magazine Article

  • Sanmark, A. & Semple, S. J. (2009). tingsplatsen vid anundshog. Popular Arkeologi 4: 13-14.

Chapter in book

  • Sanmark, A. & Semple, S. J. (2010). The topography of outdoor assembly sites in Europe with reference to recent field results from Sweden. In Perspectives in Landscape Archaeology. Lewis, H. & Semple, S. J. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. BAR International Series 2103: 107-119.

Staff

From the Department of Archaeology