The significance of material culture, and the portable objects that are part of it, is dictated by people’s economic and social power, and their need to give physical expression to their status and aspirations. As in any society, the ability and wish to acquire, display, and use metals, glass, gems, or pots depended in the Middle Ages upon the supply of raw materials and finished products, and the demand that their availability might meet or create. The island of Britain had never been united by the Romans, and different reactions to their army’s withdrawal were only to be expected. Generally, however, power-seeking leaders establishing petty and impermanent fiefdoms relied largely upon being able to demonstrate their success by the acquisition of booty that could be profligately consumed, shown off, or distributed to families and supporters. Swords, brooches, or drinking-vessels symbolize how these social affinities were created and maintained, whether recorded in graves, hoards, and other deliberate deposits, or in accidental loss or intentional jettisoning of what was beyond reuse. The precise meanings that were given to gold and silver, glass and garnets, changed according to their contexts; some gave physical expression to an ambition to inherit the prestigious authority of Rome, others gave credence to stories of descent from far-travelling heroes, while others stressed a person’s place within their own immediate society. Yet artefacts such as pottery show that even people whose priority was subsistence were part of a wider network of contact. External factors influenced behaviour: no leader of a group in Britain could negotiate directly with the Byzantine emperor for the subsidies that brought gold into western Europe, so none could take action to ensure its continuing availability during the seventh century. Its relative value changed as it became rarer, so that it had to be used sparingly if at all; consequently, for some people the display of access to it became even more important. Contemporaneously, however, Christianity’s infiltration changed beliefs about what happened after death, and how people should use and dispose of their worldly goods. In bigger political units, using symbols to show origins and allegiances mattered less, but the large numbers of artefacts now known show that prosperity was not confined in the eighth and ninth centuries to the royal families.
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