A model fit of same same but different

14 April, 2014

ILU01This week On the Reading Rest I have an article in German (with a small summary in English and French) on an Early Medieval settlement, Gladbach, with long houses and pit houses on the right bank of the Middle Rhine in the Neuwied basin. Gladbach is not the most romantic of places on the Middle Rhine — Heine and Wagner had little to say about the village, but nevertheless at the border between the Lower and the Upper Middle Rhine.

It is a pity that the site is called Gladbach since it is obviously not today’s Gladbach, which may well be as old as the archaeological site.

ILU02Grunewald, Lutz & Schreg, Rainer. 2013. Frühmittelalterliche Siedlungen und Gräberfelder in der Gemarkung von Neuwied-Gladbach – Forschungsgeschichte, Quellenbestand und Auswertung einer Altgrabung—Early Medieval settlements and cemeteries in the area of Neuwied-Gladbach – history of research, sources and analysis of an old excavation. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt, Jahrg 43 4:2013:569-85. Acronym: LuGRaSch.

During excavations in 1937 dark features in the light pumice layers at Gladbach revealed themselves as pit houses. In fact the term Grubenhaus was coined here although it wasn’t the fist time one was excavated. The excavations were caused by the exploitation of the pumice resources and prior to the excavations, part of the settlement north of the excavated area had been destroyed. But not large parts since already in 1936 cemeteries surrounding the settlement had come to light as a result of the quarrying of pumice. To begin with when quarrying the pumice, machines remove the top soil and then the actual pumice layer. Afterwards the top soil is brought back and cultivation continues on a lower level.


Early excavations of settlements characterized by pit houses tend not to have been published and in that respect Gladbach resembles the first Danish excavation a decade later of the early Aggersborg settlement mixing long houses and pit houses (mentioned briefly OtRR 28 November, 2011). Even here the pit houses were recognized already during the excavation. Aggersborg, owing not least to the Late Carolingian Iron Age ring fort (10th c. CE) is about to be published and LuGRaSch’ article shows that the Gladbach excavations too deserve a publication.

LuGRaSch sketches the history of the settlement and its cemeteries in the light of new chronological analyses. Their discussion makes it clear that there was an overlap in time in the Carolingian Iron Age (750-1025 CE) for instance between Gladbach and Aggersborg, which LuGRaSch is obviously not discussing. Perhaps as a typical settlement expansion, Gladbach starts already in the 6th c. However, both settlements thrive in the 8th and 9th c. and come to an end in the 10th – Gladbach in the early part of the period and Aggersborg in the later part of the Century when it becomes the ring fort. Although they are sites far apart both are exponents of a specific kind of settlement characterizing large parts of northwest Europe: rural sites where long houses are matched by clusters of pit houses. I think there are economic as well as social reasons behind this kind of farm structure. In Scandinavia, the further north we go the later the examples of these mixed farms. This chronological trait suggests that general Middle Age economic change makes this kind of farms obsolete.

ILLU04Gladbach is situated just below alluvial depositions in a gentle slope towards the Southwest on the easily cultivated Bims (the light and well-drained soils, typical not least of the eastern Neuwied Basin. They are trachyte turfs and thus rich in pumice (0)). The situation at Gladbach – a loosely planned settlement surrounded by cemeteries is the expected Early Medieval settlement structure and the historical villages surrounding the site are exactly that, but the excavated settlement never becomes a historical village instead the site is abandoned in the early 10th century. Historically speaking its lands were swallowed up by historical and present-day Gladbach, a village c. 1.3 km to the East.

ILLU05LuGRaSch shows that the settlement is expanding a little within its settlement area beginning in the Northeast. The 8th century may be the zenith and in the 10th century it seems to have become a relatively small settlement. Whether it is a village or not, it is organized along a road that can probably be seen today. ILLU06If we allow ourselves to think of its Eastside as the earliest part of the settlement and its Westside as the later expansion, then it meets the eye that the eastern part of the settlement is more orderly and indeed more spread-out than the two units on the westside. LuGRaSch writes very informative about the site, but also cautiously in such a way that the reader is not allowed to draw any conclusions since when conclusions may be reached readers are immediately told that nothing can be known for sure. If, e.g. we want to interpret the plan we are told that preservation varied, but how, where and to what extent is not discussed. In principle therefore we cannot know whether there are fewer pit houses in the southwestern part of the settlement and whether the freestanding building is not surrounded by pit houses. The reader, therefore, shall have to draw a number of very basic conclusions in order to make this article more than an announcement of the authors’ claim to the Gladbach site. One might even venture to say that owing to the character of the article one has a duty to interpret the site.

To begin with it would seem that the settlement east of the road is occupied by a large farm with a reasonable main house, c. 7 x 14m, in the south in some sort of ‘splendid isolation’. This might be a small manor and needless to say it may have been short-lived because the economy of the farm is the northern part of the Eastside, where pit houses cluster around a number of long houses that are probably no contemporary. ILLU07 The easternmost and the westernmost long house on the settlement have (not yet?) been interpreted as buildings, but if they are, it means that the Westside consists of two settlement units characterized by one long house and a cluster of pit houses. These clusters are of the same kind as the ones next to the freestanding houses in the Northeast. The relation between long house and pit houses is relatively exceptional since there are many pit houses – on average 8 pit houses in one freestanding building, if we count all possible freestanding ones. The pattern with clusters next to farm houses and areas characterized by sparsely distributed pit houses and no long houses, as if the pit houses were situated on the common is not unique to Gladbach (1). It is characteristic on the other hand that the settlement planning is more orderly on the Westside than on the Eastside. The orientation of the houses testifies to this. On the Eastside the extremes of the pit houses, which are not very extreme compared to the pit houses on the Westside, actually constitutes a small group of diverging houses. On the late Westside order simply doesn’t seem to be equally important. Spatial order is characteristic of those who can afford to invest in it. In that case the heyday of the settlement seems to have been the 8th century CE, before order was allowed to deteriorate. Gladbach is a miniature Aggersborg inasmuch as it may be a manor investing in production and handicraft in the pit houses to a degree more than usual on its dependent farms. Basically, pit houses are multi-purpose building characterized, when compared to freestanding post buildings, by their uniformly moderate size and the moderate costs involved in constructing them. They are not high standard housing and those who live in them will understand the difference between living in a pit house and a large capacious building. On a rainy day in the Neuwied basin when the pumice layers drain the water swiftly down the gentle slope and through the pit house at Gladbach, one feels the difference and thanks God that the subsoil isn’t clay. Settlement such as Gladbach or Aggersborg fit a society where there are a number of workers and craftsmen who are not landowners, but live from what they produce on farms that feed them, inasmuch as they are linked to or associated with the household. Seventh or eighth century Northwest European rural settlements with a pit house:long house ratio higher than 5 – pit houses to one Long house – are probably production settlements producing goods such as cloths or other relatively expensive commodities for towns as well as royal or religious institutions. That a rural household engaged solely in agriculture and husbandry, that is, in subsistence would be in need of more than one or two pit houses is unlikely. It is impossible to know whether looking into the Gladbach excavations will result in any socio-economic interpretations, but it is worth trying and worth suggesting that the Late Iron Age in Scandinavia or the Early Middle Ages in northwest Europe would seem to allow us to benefit from a rather crude socio-economic model befitting the rural settlement landscape as well as breaking up the usual internal interpretation of pit house-infested settlements: ILLU08 NOTES

(0) On the Geography of the Ndeuwied Basin see Elkins, Thomas. H. and YATES, Edward. M. 1960. The Neuwied Basin. Geography, Vol. 45, No. 1/2 (January-April 1960), pp. 39-51 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40565106 .

(1) See Fig. 3 in: Schreg, Rainer. 2012. Farmsteads in early medieval Germany – architecture and organization. ARQUEOLOGÍA DE LA ARQUITECTURA, 9, enero-diciembre 2012, págs. 247-265. ISSN: 1695-2731. Pit houses situated on the common exists in Scandiavia too, e.g. at St Darum OtRR 16 April, 2012.

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