Migration and Identity during the Lombard Invasions

Thesis author: 
Irene Barbiera
Academic Area(s): 
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 1998 - Oct, 2003
Thesis supervisor: 
József Laszlovszky
Thesis abstract: 

According to the documentary sources, the Lombards rule in the Pannonian part of the Danube region lasted from the year AD 510. They extended their control up to the Drava river during the years AD 526-527, and later, from 535 onwards, they expanded until the Sava. Continuous conflicts with the neighboring Gepids, led the Lombards to ally themselves with the Avars. When the Avars moved towards Pannonia, the Lombards left the region and invaded Italy. In the year AD 568 they entered the Friuli region and occupied it. Their first settlement was Cividale.
Archaeological documentation, dating to the period of the Lombard occupation in the two areas, Hungary and Italy, has always been used, together with sources, to clarify some important questions about migration, identity and social construction of this Germanic group. In particular, starting from the years 20’s of the 19th century, research was mainly oriented towards matters of ethnic identity, as expressed through grave goods from cemeteries, which represent the most important archaeological source. Using categories of grave good types and styles, archaeologists tried to define the ethnic origins of the buried individuals, and attempted to answer question concerning integration between German invaders and local communities as well as social changes within the migrating community.
This approach presupposes that groups were coherent units and that this unity was express in funerary contexts through the deposition of grave goods, whose style reflected a precise cultural “entourage”.
Much historical literature has recently been devoted to reviewing the classical interpretation of migrating groups as coherent ethnic entities. Historians are currently debating the problem of how these groups perceived themselves and what was meant by the names ascribed to these peoples such as Avar, Lombard, Gepid and so on. The general idea which has emerged, is that they were not rigidly defined ethnic groups, maintaining an intact cohesion while migrating, but rather open micro-societies, whose identity was fluid and adapted to circumstances. It follows then, that there is a question about the role of material culture and style in the expression of group identity and whether the production or use of artifacts was meant to express any kind of inter-group identity. Since it is mainly artifacts, which have been found in cemeteries, there is also the question of the particular meaning behind artifact deposition in graves.
Another traditional approach to the archaeological finds from Early Medieval cemeteries is that of the social interpretation of grave goods. In particular, attempts have been made to interpret various levels of wealth represented by assemblages and the different types of artifacts’ deposition in graves as expressions of individual social status. A very well known example is that of the interpretation of graves with weapons as the burial of warriors, which has turned out to be over-simplistic.
Only very recently, archaeologists have begun to debate about the meaning of artifact type deposition in graves, and its relation to the expression of identity in funerary contexts. What has been pointed out is that traditional interpretations of grave assemblages, as an expression of ethnic identity or rank, are the result of modern mental schemes and do not necessarily reflect the way of thinking in the period under investigation. New attempts have been made to investigate which identities were being expressed through grave good deposition during the Migration Period with interesting results. In particular, it appears that gender and age constructions is at the basis of grave good selection so that in some cases, studies and research in this direction have yielded very interesting and promising results.
Within this premise, the research questions I raised in my dissertation revolved around trying to explain the meaning of multiple behaviors in funerary contexts. I looked at which types of funerary construction can be recorded and to which extent these data reflect the coeval perception of death and a conscious or unconscious mediation of social relations. From this a study followed of which identities were expressed in a funerary context and how gender, age and social status was symbolized in the graves. Also questions were raised about the relation of cemetery construction and migration, in particular, whether different funeral behaviors were found in different areas and if so, how this can be related to migration and integration between newcomers and natives, first in Pannonia and then in Italy?
For these purposes, the methodology used to answer these research questions has been to describe and compare cemeteries dated to the Lombard period in two areas significant to the Lombard question. These are Hungary and the region of Friuli in Italy. In particular, the Hungarian cemeteries of Hegykő, Szentendre and Tamási, excavated by Professor Istvan Bóna, and three cemeteries dated from the middle of the AD 6th – 7th century were investigated in the region of Friuli, S. Stafano in Cividale, Liariis near Ovaro and Romans d’Isonzo. Similar methods were applied to the analysis of all the cemeteries.
The starting point of the investigation was whether grave goods’ deposition in graves reflected gender and if so, what was its relation to age classes, cemetery organization, and body disposal. For this purpose, I used a method introduced by Guy Halsall in his analyses of Merovingian cemeteries in the Region of Metz.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, different types of cemetery construction were found in the two investigated areas. However, the model for the Metz region cemeteries did not work in all the investigated cemeteries.
The three Hungarian cemeteries display a very similar organization, corresponding to the distribution of artifacts in graves based on the gender and the age at death of the buried individuals, similarly to the situation in Metz. Women dying when they could be betrothed or married, or could still bear children were buried with a complete set of female artifacts. Males could receive a complete set of weapons and other male artifacts if they died at an adult and/or mature age. Also, individuals of the same sex and age were often buried in groups of graves. This attitude seems to indicate an age-based status, reflecting a quite egalitarian funerary community. Thus, inter-familiar social differentiation was not expressed in a funerary context, possibly because there was no marked differentiation between kin groups. Lack of settlement documentation did not allow this interpretation to be double checked for other social contexts.
However, what is particularly interesting is the completely different organization apparent at the cemetery of S. Stefano in Cividale. There, grave good selection did not reflect age at death. Graves were instead arranged in clusters possibly corresponding to family groups. Each group developed around the graves of founder ancestors, mainly a male buried with weapons. The selection of the grave goods as well as the position of the graves also seemed to stress the membership of the buried individuals within the kin groups. In addition, inter-group differentiation was marked, with one of the groups being particularly wealthy. Here in particular, richly decorated belt elements were displayed in male graves. It has been hypothesized that as new groups settled down, the acquisition of power by groups of newcomers, possibly the acquisition of land by the new ruling families, and the presence of a town like Cividale, might result in the kind of cemetery construction found at S. Stefano. New research in the area of Cividale is needed to better clarify this matter.
The cemeteries of Liariis and Romans lack documentation. What could be seen is that at Liariis there was no gender construction although grave goods were distributed on the basis of age classes. This cemetery is differentiated from the other two in the region. In general, the selection of the simple artifacts does not seem to reflect social competition.
The interpretation of Romans is still open. It seems possible that the cemetery was organized by groups. Possibly some graves with weapons also come from the first phases of cemetery use and may have served as the graves of founding ancestors, as at S. Stefano. However, in this cemetery grave goods were also distributed according to gender and age classes in the graves of the first generations, at least in the published part of the cemetery. Later on, graves tended to be neutral in terms of their grave goods. It might be that Romans represents a sort of intermediate passage from the three Hungarian cemeteries towards S. Stefano, but in any case, no conclusions can be drawn without the publication of the complete cemetery.
Not only did cemetery construction change, but also grave goods selection, type of graves and space concepts between the two areas. Differences were greater than similarities so that one must ask the question of whether the cemeteries from the two areas could actually belong to the same group given that new funerary strategies were adopted in such a short time. It seems more plausible that, as has been pointed out elsewhere, groups were more fluid and heterogeneous, so the way they reacted and adapted to new situations was also heterogeneous. Similarly, migration occurred in waves rather than in a single, sudden movement of people. The cemeteries in the two investigated areas possibly belonged to different groups, with different strategies for social differentiation as a response to different realities. It may indeed prove to be the case that the Lombards were quite a heterogeneous collection of groups and those communities burying their dead in the three cemeteries we investigated in Hungary were not the ancestors of those later found at Cividale. In fact, the material is definitely too limited to follow the great movements and changes which happened at that time. Pannonia was not empty when the Lombards arrived and did not remain empty when they left. The phase of Lombard occupation was, in any case, also quite short.
The method, introduced by Halsall and used here, produced very interesting results from a methodological point of view as well. It confirmed the debated matter that ethnic identity was not really expressed in funerary contexts. Grave goods were not displayed in graves to express the ethnic origins of groups, individuals or families. As we have seen, other kinds of social identities were negotiated in the cemeteries. The choice of grave goods in different contexts was also variable depending on different local realities. Therefore the research on ethnic groups based on funerary data really does not seem to be promising. If these kinds of data really reflected ethnic identity then a more homogeneous selection of types in the graves would have been found and differentiation of grave goods would not have been based primarily on the gender, age or family membership of the dead persons.
The study of grave good chronology shows us that clothing and weapons trends changed over time. Artifact selection in graves changed quite drastically between Hungary and Italy. New richly decorated belt fittings appeared in Italy, which are missing from Hungarian cemeteries. Bow brooches and weapons are much more common in Hungarian cemeteries, while in the cemeteries investigated from the Friuli region, they appeared to be the privilege of a few.
From this it follows that material culture was not perceived as a means of expressing a “conservative status” like ethnic origins, but rather its symbolic meaning was malleable and adapted to different contexts.
The sample we considered here displayed material culture heterogeneity in funerary contexts during the last phases of the Lombard migration. This, together with the fact that identities other than ethnicity, such as gender and kin status, were most directly displayed in a funerary context, indicates that expressing ethnic identity was not a goal manifested in the cemeteries. Object selection in graves was not consciously meant to reflect the ‘Lombardness’ of the dead persons but rather to mediate different kinds of identity in relation to different realities and needs.
This research has shed new light on and given new impetus to the study of the Lombard migration and settlement in Italy, from an archaeological perspective. Research should continue in this direction, including study of more cemeteries and settlements, to better clarify the steps in this migration, of identity formation and the ways – at least in a funerary context – of the ways Lombard groups mediated their identities within ever changing cultural landscapes.