4.1 Identity

There is no entirely satisfactory way of addressing the question of identity, be it as perceived by others or by the individual (either singly or in a network of family and community). The recognition of its complexity and its rootedness in both an individual’s mind and in a series of inherited, learnt values, provides a starting point. The net result of such an equation will, on some scale, always lead to change. . Change can be incremental or immediate, resisted or complicit and, however engendered helps to build identity and personhood. Particularly at the social level, identity encompasses gender, ethnicity, class/status (whether ascribed or achieved) and spirituality.

It has become clear in recent years that the complexity of identity and ethnicity has been underestimated in previous studies[see note 18] (which often exhibited a simplistic understanding of ethnicity as directly reflected by material culture) and that nuanced, sophisticated demonstrations of nested identity should now be sought. Amongst the most cogent statements on the fluidity of identity and the dangers inherent in defining identity from too few objects are those by Halsall (1995) and Geary (1985, 48-9):

‘No one characteristic be it law, language, custom or birth, can be considered a sufficient index by which to assign ethnicity, nor was it any different for contemporaries. Self-perception and the perception of others represented a choice in a variety of somewhat arbitrary characteristics, which could be seen differently by different people. The real … barriers were between slave and free, free and noble. Within the elite a person or faction could be Burgundian by birth, roman by language and Frankish by dress. Likewise someone born of a father from Francia and a mother from Alamania could properly be termed a Frank or an Alamanian … from different perspectives. His own perception of himself might change during his lifetime depending on how he viewed his relationship to the Frankish King and his local faction.’

On a Europe-wide level the analysis of identity and ethnicity has generally risen to this challenge, including a fuller recognition of the gender element of the debate. Material culture has clearly demonstrated its effectiveness as a source of evidence for addressing the process of acculturation and how people used material culture to imagine or re-imagine, make and order their world and so to both define their place in that world and their network of relationships: social, natural and supernatural (Alkemade 1997). Whilst Scotland has made some significant contributions to these debates in recent years – notably in the analysis of Pictish/early medieval art (e.g. Henderson and Henderson 2004 , e.g. Foster and Cross 2005 ), and in the case-study analysis of later medieval artefacts (e.g. Hall 2001, e.g. Hall 2005) – there remains much still to do in testing the archaeological evidence, for example, with respect to ethno-political groupings (Pict, Briton, Gael, Scot, Anglo-Saxon, Viking) and their interactions, and in combining that evidence with other approaches[see note 19].

It has become clear that individuals or groups could readily seek to “buy into” a defined ethnic or other identity through the acquisition or use of appropriated material culture but this does not, however, mean that such behaviour was automatically accepted by the recipient group or community. Today, for example, an individual of non-Scottish origin might choose to wear full Highland dress to demonstrate their new-found affiliation but many Scots might reject such a person as in any sense Scottish – the clothes (or material culture) do not always make the man (or woman). It seems axiomatic that this rejection-reflex could have worked in the past and needs to be sought and placed alongside the enforcement of identity on others (e.g. slavery).

In recent years the archaeology of gender and sexuality has made great advances in the discipline (for example, Gilchrist 1994 and 1995), but these have not been substantially applied to Medieval Scotland. As one of the cornerstones of identity, gender will perhaps prove to be an especially productive point of entry to ethnic distinctions in early Scotland, and as a means of mapping personal relations at the level perhaps of households within a settlement, or individual graves (and thus individuals themselves) within cemeteries of various kinds. Religious concepts of gender and somatics, particularly with reference to early monasticism and the different branches of the Celtic and Scottish churches, must be incorporated. The gendered archaeology of power must form a major component of this, and gendered readings of situated material culture across the full spectrum of the data-sets should be attempted (following Gilchrist 1994, esp. 188-93, for example).Not least, some consideration could profitably be devoted to the engendering of the archaeological process itself and its implications for models of early Scottish societies.

The archaeological study of identity – including religion, belief, intellect and ideology – is a relatively new, and still exploratory, enterprise. Ways of recovering ideas from cultural material and creating a vocabulary for expressing the results are still being developed. The rationale has to begin with the idea of ‘agency’ – i.e. that cultural expression is a result of human thought, not (or not only) the ineluctable flow of the centuries. However ‘expression’ and ‘agency’ are not everywhere and in all material; both need to be precisely located. So far it has proved acceptable to believe it to be found in sites of high investment: rich burials and large ritual places – so-called ‘monuments’. The agency that motivates monument construction is fairly self-evident: trouble was taken to construct something in which the symbolic is subservient to the practical.

[Note 18] The revised edition of Megaw and Megaw’s Celtic Art (2001) has a rather pure and simplistic notion of a contained Celtic identity which in its early medieval dimension dismisses the Picts as ‘…to the north of the old Antonine Wall the Picts (the surviving pre-Celtic population) still remained… .’ (p. 246). If there was a Celtic culture much recent work has demonstrated how the Picts were fully engaged with it, particularly its Insular dimension (see for example Alcock 2003 and Henderson and Henderson 2004).

[Note 19] Certainly the historical evidence demonstrates a royal elite inter-mixing and fluidity of belonging across these ethnicities, something which appears to have done little to discourage political strife and violence.

See also the ScARF Case Study: Ethnicity in the Burghs


Figure 31: From the mid to late 14th century imported ceramic heating systems from Northern Germany became popular in Scotland, this photograph shows the only Scottish tile that is not from a monastery and comes from excavations on the Skinnergate in Perth ©SUAT Ltd.

Case Study: Ethnicity in the Burghs

Comments 1

  1. Medieval identity example

    Is there a suitable captioned image that could be used to illustrate this section?

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