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What Is Involved in Medieval Archaeology?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2016
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Medieval archaeology is the study of the human culture from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, to the rise of the Renaissance in the late 15th century. The study of this period is a broad field, including the examination of artifacts and medieval settlements, the development of a cohesive history through ancient documents, and the understanding of how trade and technology progressed through this era. Medieval archaeology often refers to cultural development throughout Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East, though studies of Asian and early American culture may also be included.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the entire European subcontinent was thrown from a period of relative piece into a chaotic struggle. Warring tribes throughout the region conquered and re-conquered one another, leading to the blending of formerly distinct cultures and the destruction of many earlier societies. Simultaneously, the rise of Christianity throughout Europe led to vast shifts in cultural practice, the advent of the Crusades, and great changes in governmental relationships with the church. As strong nations coalesced, powerful kings and queens began a heady period of exploration, leading to new discoveries, cultural adaptations, and the search for the New World. The astounding chaos of this period forms the bulk of medieval archaeology, as archaeologists attempt to create some sort of accurate timeline for a highly fragmented millennium.

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Some medieval archaeology is done through the excavation and analysis of artifacts. Commonly found medieval items include metal objects, such as coins, jewelry, and pendants. Some excavations also focus on digging up the bones of medieval villages, such as the 7th century village of Sutton Hoo in England. These excavations give archaeologists important clues about the past, including what technology, how burial rituals changed over time, and how townspeople lived their daily lives.

Medieval archaeology is also undertaken through the study of ancient books and manuscripts. Though literacy was at an extremely low rate for the general population throughout the medieval era, monks, court officials and scholars often devoted their lives to the creation of histories and legends, as well as religious texts and official documents. By sifting through these precious relics, archaeologists can help create a chronology of events throughout the period, as well as learn about the legal codes and contracts of the time.

The importance of medieval archaeology lies in its ability to give insight into the development of modern human culture. The discoveries, conquests, and culture of the medieval period gave rise to the great era of exploration, the cultural revolution of the Renaissance, the development of democracy, and the creation of modern economics. Continuing the search for understanding of the medieval period can potentially unlock new concepts or explain old mysteries, even hundreds of years after the event. Medieval archaeologists serve as detectives of the ancient world, whose every discovery has the potential to change the future of humanity.

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