The Affordances of Seascapes: (Re)situating Island Monasteries

Ryan Lash, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University
Dr Adrian Maldonado, Glenmorangie Research Fellow,  National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh
Dr David Petts, Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK

As focal points of settlement, worship, and imagination, islands played a crucial role in the early medieval North Atlantic world. Iona, Lindisfarne, Inishmurray, Skellig Michael, and a host of other lesser-known islands were home to early Christian communities varying in size and status. Emphasizing parallels between the Egyptian desert and the pathless sea, popular narratives often characterize these sites as remote eremitical communities fundamentally defined by their isolation. However, emerging research explores how islands were embedded within networks of knowledge, power, and materiality, linking lay and religious communities across early medieval seascapes. Inspired by new materialist/relational approaches in landscape studies, the purpose of this lab is to resituate island monasteries in terms of the particular affordances of seascapes, i.e. the interactive possibilities offered by maritime environments. Animated by ocean water that could serve as a medium of transport, source of food, and manifestation of divine agency, seascapes afforded distinctive opportunities for mobility, resource exploitation, and embodied experiences of devotion. We invite contributors working within archaeology, history, and other disciplines to explore how a seascape approach can enhance understandings of how North Atlantic maritime environments generated diverse forms of island monasticism.

Rather than a call for papers, this is a call for participants. A primary goal of this lab is to explore the utility of new theoretical and methodological approaches to seascapes in order to formulate - collaboratively - a research agenda for island monasticism in the 21st century. We have provisionally outlined a series of themes for the lab to address (see below). We invite participants to submit a proposal (300-600 words?) in which they outline their research interests and identify at least 3 themes to which they could positively contribute discussion. The organizers will tailor the lab to participants’ interests and ask participants to provide brief (strictly no more than 10 minutes) statements to initiate discussion on particular themes. Papers with relevant theoretical, methodological, or regional interests will be pre-circulated among participants to stimulate discussion - an indicative list is provided below.

Organisers: Ryan Lash, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University (ryanlash2012@u.northwestern.edu); Dr Adrian Maldonado, Glenmorangie Research Fellow,  National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh (a.maldonado@nms.ac.uk); Dr David Petts, Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK (d.a.petts@durham.ac.uk)

List of Possible Themes

Object mobility and networks: the circulation of physical objects (marine food sources; trade goods; prestige items, lithic materials; manuscripts) and their relationship to the social, political, economic, and intellectual networks. How might different forms of network modeling (ANT, computational archaeology, etc) contribute to studies of island monasticism?

Somatic seascapes: the sensory and symbolic impact of environmental forces on ritual practice. How did sensory encounters with sun, weather, stone, and tide shape ritual experiences?

Adventuring: the technological, experiential, emotional, legal, social and political context of sea-travel in the early medieval period. What technological and social infrastructure facilitated maritime travel and settlement?

Island Christianities: island pilgrimage as a unique and distinctive venue for liturgical practice, innovation and interaction between different monastic and lay groups. What (if any) are the distinct material correlates for asceticism and pilgrimage within seascapes?

Afterlife journeys: death and burial on islands as theological and eschatological practice. How did the physical remains or material commemoration of the dead structure perceptions of seascapes, categories of social difference, and the agency of the dead?

Edge places: affordances of coastal zones, landing places, crossing points; the materiality of sand and pebbles?

Time, tide and weather: the distinctive liminality, temporality and ‘weatherworlds’ of seascapes. How did the predictable yet unpredictable patterns of tide and weather impact human activity within seascapes?

(In)visibility: how do viewsheds and the visual connections of islands with other landmasses structure the location of settlement?

Other forms of life - island monasticism entailed interaction with and dependence upon various other-than-human forms of life. How did plants and animals serve as subsistence and symbolic resources for humans, but also active agents in the phenomenology and ecology of seascapes?”