Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Migration and ethnicity and why the 5th century matters today

Guy Halsall gave this paper --Archaeology and Migration: Rethinking the Debate -- at the conference on The Very Beginnings of Europe? Cultural and Social Dimensions of early Medieval Migration and Settlement (5th-8th centuries) that took place in Brussels on 17-19 May.

Obscure? Irrelevant?  See what Halsall has to say:
Moving from the demonstration of migration to the explanation of the downfall of the Roman Empire through appeal to migration can be highly irresponsible, at best.  Southern German newspapers have, for example, reviewed a museum exhibition set out in the traditional migrationist paradigm as showing how ‘the Roman Empire fell because it could not keep out the immigrants’ and that we can learn from this.  When a British historian places an argument that the Roman Empire fell because of the immigration of large numbers of barbarians next to arguments that the end of Rome was the end of civilisation and that we need to take care to preserve our own civilisation, when another British historian writes sentences saying ‘the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct’, and especially when the arguments of both involve considerable distortions of the evidence to fit their theories, one cannot help but wonder whether these authors are wicked, irresponsible or merely stupid.  Are they setting themselves up as ideologues of the xenophobic Right or have they simply not realised the uses to which such careless thinking and phrasing can be put?  I have already drawn attention to the worrying implications of the use of genetic data to study this period, and they do not stop with implications about monolithic ethnic identities based upon genetics.
If we accept that it is fundamentally misguided to start looking at the archaeological record primarily in terms of whether or not it demonstrates migration, broad new interpretative horizons are opened up for us.  In particular, new horizons are presented and, simultaneously, ways of contributing in more humane fashion to current debates about immigration, if we break down the set of binary oppositions that bedevil the study of the period: Romans against barbarians; Saxons against Britons; (especially importantly) the Roman empire against barbaricum; the Roman period against the Migration period; Britain versus the mainland of Europe; the Saxon migration moving simply from east to west.
You do want to read the rest now, don't you?

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