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The Assembly Project
A research project of the Department of Archaeology.
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. Assembly places and practices are fundamental to our understanding of how medieval society in Northern Europe was transformed from a network of smallscale local power structures to a competing system of large kingdoms with royally driven administrative infrastructures. Assembly was an institution present in a variety of shapes and forms in different parts of the North Sea zone in the first millennium AD and provided an arena within which authority and power could be negotiated, consolidated and extended. Assemblies varied in size and purpose. Some facilitated powerful royal theatre, some enabled dialogue between different tiers of authority; others gave voice to all individuals permitted to attend. Some took place regularly and others were one-off events, but all were intrinsic to peace-keeping and the regulation and maintenance of the laws in medieval society.
The Assembly Project (2010-13), a consortium funded by the Humanities in the European Research Area, brought together: Frode Iversen, University of Oslo (PL and IP1); Sarah Semple, Durham University (IP2); Natascha Mehler, University of Vienna (IP3); and Alexandra Sanmark, Centre for Nordic Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands (IP4) to explore and establish a critical understanding of the assembly institution in northern Europe and its role in the consolidation and maintenance of collective identities and emergent polities and kingdoms. Three funded PhD studentships were also completed by Alexis Tudor Skinner (Durham University), Marie Ødegaard (University of Oslo) and Halldis Hobæk (University of Bergen).
Our team collaborated on three broad objectives:
- To understand how authority was articulated in landscape terms in the medieval North, and to explore the bottom-up and top-down processes that resulted in local mechanisms for consensus and control,
- To create a cohesive account of the development of administrative systems within early- and late-medieval Britain and Europe, taking account of the impacts and effects of Norse colonisation in several regions,
- To assess how assemblies were valorised in European perceptions in the early modern and modern era, and how certain viewpoints were promoted then and now.
Using a combination of desk-based and field research across parts of Scotland, North East England, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Shetland and Faro, the project explored the archaeological diversity of assembly and administration in northern European societies from AD 400-1500 and examined how places of assembly and administrative systems and divisions were created and how they changed over time.
The research, now published in a series of articles and a project monograph, questions how modes of consensus arose alongside emerging complex societal organization and what social mechanisms for collective discussion and agreement facilitated the transition between locally driven organization to the emergence and consolidation of large-scale territories and states.
Sarah Semple led on a research strand centred on Landscape, Authority and Power that contributed in particular, a new critical understanding of the treatment of assembly as a research theme and how assembly has been valorised in differing strands of scholarship over time to support ideas of nationhood and legitimate authority. Together with Tudor Skinner, a PhD student on the project, an advanced understanding was also achieved of the dynamics of assembly and political organization in areas of impact, colonization and social flux, with a case study completed on the changing administrative frameworks of the Danelaw, with a close focus on Yorkshire.
A full list of publications is available on the main project webpage: The Assembly Project
The final project monograph, Negotiating the North: Meeting-Places in the Middle Ages in the North Sea Zone, has now been published with Routledge and is available in full open access.
- Semple, S., Sanmark, A., Iversen, F. & Mehler, N. (2020). Negotiating the North. Meeting-Places in the Middle Ages in the North Sea Zone. Routledge.
- Pantos, A. & Semple, S. J. (2004). Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
- Semple, S.J (2018). Temporary Places, Gatherings and Assemblies: Editorial. World Archaeology 50(1): 1-6.
- Skinner, A. T. & Semple, S. (2015). Assembly Mounds in the Danelaw: Place-name and Archaeological Evidence in the Historic Landscape. Journal of the North Atlantic 8(sp8): 115-133.
- 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.
- 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.