What is a rural settlement? A contribution from an archaeological perspective on the early and the high Middle Ages
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The term „medieval rural settlement” is often linked with the idea of a self-sustaining community of peasants, where non-agricultural activities supply exclusively local needs and where access to markets or trade is scarce or non-existent. Archaeological excavations of the last decades in Northwest Switzerland suggest a revision of this opinion. The archaeological material, place names and the language border stand for persisting roman tradition (and population) in several settlements; in mid 6th and 7th century Frankish immigrants start to colonize the areas which had been partly abandoned in late Roman times. The finds in both settlements and graveyards show a society of different standards of living, from very poor to wealthy, which means that at least a part of the population was able to purchase things which were not produced locally – from damascened belt buckles and necklaces of glass and amber beads to luxury goods such as glass or bronze vessels. This requires a surplus production, ranging from agricultural goods to specialized crafts such as pottery (Oberwil) or iron smelting. The widespread introduction of the horizontal weaving loom in the 12th century stands for a considerable increase of productivity which suggests a participation in the trade with linen cloth (“tela de Alemania”). The evidence for the access to markets and trade is provided with the importation of pottery from the regions north of Strasbourg or of Chalon-sur-Saône which means an itinerary of up to 200 km, and of soapstone vessels from the southern alpine valleys respectively the regions of Chiavenna or Aosta in Italy, which had to be transported across the mountains of the Alps. All these aspects show a much more complex economy than the point of view mentioned at the beginning..
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