Early medieval communities around the North Sea: a 'maritime culture'?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


It stands without doubt that the populations around the Channel and North
Sea coasts during the early Middle Ages were in close contact. This is reflected,
amongst others, in the material record. Pottery, domestic architecture, metalwork
and even funerary customs of the period all have features that recur along
the coasts of both the Continent and England. Terms like 'Saxon' and 'Anglo-
Frisian' are frequently used to describe these traditions.
Thus, the study of these stylistic, typological, technical and other similarities is
embedded in an explicitly ethnic discourse. In this paper, we contend that such
ethnic affiliations are largely irrelevant as far as the later 6th to 8th centuries are
concerned. It is argued that they are confusing at best and the remainders of an
out-dated culture model at worst.
Inspired by recent sociological studies (in the field of transnationalism, amongst
others), an alternative model is developed to help understand the nature and
intensity of contact across the North Sea. The mobile, maritime aspect of these
societies is placed at the centre of this approach. In this way the concept of a
'North Sea culture', first proposed in the 1970s (e.g. Hallewas e.a. 1975), is revived.
This 'culture' is characterized by an intensive interaction and exchange of goods and ideas, resulting in a highly diverse material culture with associations
in various geographical regions (Loveluck and Tys 2006). Crucially, these associations
need not be regarded as meaningful emic indicators of ethnic identity.In addition to exploring the problems with the approach currently prevailing
and setting out the theoretical foundations of the alternative perspective, a few
examples will be provided in this paper of how the material culture of communities
around the North Sea may be examined in this light.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe very beginning of Europe? Cultural and Social Dimensions of Early-Medieval Migration and Colonisation (5th - 8th century)
EditorsRica Annaert, Koen De Groote, Yann Hollevoet, Frans Theuws, Dries Tys, Laurent Verslype
Place of PublicationBrussels
PublisherAgentschap Onroerend Erfgoed
Number of pages6
ISBN (Print)978-90-75230-34-5
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Publication series

NameRelicta Monografieën
ISSN (Print)2030-9910


  • maritime identity
  • Medieval Archaeology
  • identity
  • North Sea


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