To the Connections of the Late Avar Culture of the 8th Century Carpathian Basin and the Surrounding World: Technology, Form and Structure Cover Image

A késő avar kori Kárpát-medence és a külvilág kapcsolatai: technológia, forma és kulturális rendszer
To the Connections of the Late Avar Culture of the 8th Century Carpathian Basin and the Surrounding World: Technology, Form and Structure

Author(s): Gergely Szenthe
Subject(s): Archaeology, Cultural history
Published by: Erdélyi Múzeum-Egyesület
Keywords: technological recession; technological and social history; late Avar period; mountornamented belt; cast copper-alloy small finds; transition period (8th century)

Summary/Abstract: The present study examines the technological background of the material culture of the late Avar period in the Carpathian Basin, citing non-ferrous and precious metal small objects as an example. The metal small finds of the late Avar period, of the “long eighth century”, lasting from the late seventh to the early ninth century, represent a distinctive element in the material culture of the Carpathian Basin. The comparison of these finds with the similar articles of contemporaneous cultures and of the local culture of the preceding period from a technological perspective is most instructive in terms of both cultural and social history. A research focus on the interaction between technology and culture in the early Middle Ages is fairly recent elsewhere in Europe too. The present study has adopted this research perspective and follows the broader socio-historical trend characterising mainly Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon archaeology, with the goal of contextualising a phenomenon that is, at first glance, purely technological, but is in fact firmly rooted in complex socio-cultural dynamics. Similarly to the Mediterranean and its peripheral regions, the fairly uniform material culture distributed across an immense territory essentially determined by Byzantium through central workshops, left a highly visible imprint on the Carpathian Basin too up to the mid-seventh century. In contrast, every single surviving costume accessory of the ensuing late Avar period reflects a shrinking range of metalworking techniques and the drastic decrease or downright disappearance of more sophisticated techniques calling for special skills, in other words, of the “uppermost technological shelf”. Very few of the period’s metal articles could be described as composite metalwork. Given the region’s continued links with the Mediterranean, the striking differences between the quality of seventh-century and eighth-century metalwork could reasonably be interpreted in the context of the political, cultural and social transformation shaking the Mediterranean at the same time. However, some elements of the archaeological culture of the Carpathian Basin – especially the mass production of copper-alloy cast articles – cannot be explained by invoking external circumstances, at least according to the current record. One peculiar aspect of the technological impoverishment in the Carpathian Basin is that the various elements of the belt sets were almost without exception cast in one peice from copper alloys from the very beginning of the late Avar period (from cca. 700). Thus, the elements of the decorative ornament combined with the technological recession became the qualitative traits of a new visual style. This direct association of casting and a specific formal repertoire in a single class of objects specific to a socio-cultural group points beyond the symptoms of decline of a troubled period and can be seen as a sign of the emergence of a new quality and as a particular element of a complex transformation. The 7th–8th century transformation of the material culture of the Carpathian Basin can be fitted into the broader context of the technological recession accompanying the regionalisation and social changes in the wake of the political crisis in the Mediterranean. Among the regions lying closest to the Carpathian Basin, indications of a similar, well-datable contemporaneous process can be noted in the Balkans. The assemblages typologically falling between the Vrap and Velino hoards, although produced mostly from precious metals, are practically made up of pieces representing the same quality as the specimens from the Carpathian Basin both regarding the range of objects (predominantly belt mounts) and their technology and quality. In a wider context, a probably early Byzantine gilded strap-end bearing a tendril pattern set against a punched background that matches the above mentioned pieces has been recently found at Bogazköy in Byzantine Anatolia. Substantial numbers of cast copper-alloy articles with a lavish ornamentation have been published from the Kama region, from the northern Black Sea coast, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Central Asia, but also from Hispania. The diminishing range of connections from the later 7th century and the simplification of social hierarchies in the Mediterranean and the world around it was followed by the regionalisation of material culture. Set within this context, casting was a coarser and, more importantly, simpler procedure for imitating the artistic effects created by the more sophisticated craft techniques used in a broader spectrum of material culture during late antiquity. Lost-wax casting, the period’s most widely used procedure, which in principle could also have been used for mass production, was employed for producing a single series only (usually a set) in the testimony of the finds. As a complementary component for the communication breakdown in the period, the growing importance of simple metal-working techniques, especially of the casting (almost) every article separately, resulting in the segmentation of the material culture into regional units, is a sure indication of the weakening impact of the Mediterranean centre and of the partial separation of the peripheries. While the “Dark Age” or “transition period” recession of the Mediterranean-centred model does offer an explanation for the technological decline in late Avar material culture and for its regionalisation (in terms of both artefact types and the employed materials), it fails to explain why the use of objects produced using the simplest technology had attained such an exclusive position in the social display of a particular social group. Based on the findspots of the largest body of relics, the origins of casting en masse could be sought on the fringes of the Mediterranean according to another model. In this context, the periphery can be perceived as a parallel centre, which, with the fading of the Mediterranean cultural irradiation, found its own voice. Rephrasing Joachim Werner’s remark quoted at the beginning of the study, casting was a technology preferred above all in the “Barbarian” cultures of the periphery. The most salient feature of the late Avar variant – the case study analysed here selected from the emerging fringe cultures – is not (or not only) the technological mediocrity compared to earlier periods. The technological recession was so pervasive and certain elements (the absolutisation of casting) appear in such a concentration in the social display of male society that it seems to be central to the period’s material culture and its very existence can be regarded as a reflection of a paradigm shift in the late Avar society. Compared to the Byzantine elite culture of the preceding period, the small objects functioning as the mediums of the social display of male society barely reflect any kind of qualitative and formal hierarchy. It would be tempting to correlate the seemingly egalitarian nature of cast articles with the political splintering of the khaganate during the late Avar period as suggested by the literary sources. However, it could be equally persuasively explained by a cultural and economic consolidation, a (relative) prosperity, and another social explanation could be cited for the elite’s seemingly diminishing status as reflected in the archaeological record, namely the transformation of funerary and/or social display.

  • Issue Year: 2014
  • Issue No: IX
  • Page Range: 109-130
  • Page Count: 22
  • Language: Hungarian