Early Medieval Europe is often viewed as a time of cultural stagnation, often given the misnomer "dark age". However, the analysis shows that new ideas can spread quickly when communities are connected and a surprisingly uniform culture emerges in Europe.
Dr. Emma Brownlee, Department of Archeology, Cambridge University, investigated how an important change in Western European burial practices spread across the continent faster than previously thought – between the 6th and 8th centuries AD was the burial of people with regionally specific grave goods largely abandoned in favor of a more standardized, unfurnished burial.
"Almost everyone from the 8th century onwards is simply buried in a simple grave with no accompanying objects, and this is a change that has been observed across Western Europe," said Dr Brownlee.
To investigate this change, Emma examined over 33,000 graves from this period in one of the largest studies of its kind. Statistical analysis was used to create a "heat map" of the practice, which tracked how the frequency has changed over time.
The results of this analysis were published in the journal Antiquityshow that changes in the use of grave goods decreased from the middle of the 6th century in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands and were completely abandoned by the beginning of the 8th century.
"The most important finding is that the move from burials with grave goods to burials without grave goods was timely across Western Europe," said Dr. Brownlee. "Although we knew beforehand that this was a widespread change, no one has yet been able to show how closely the change was in areas that are geographically very distant."
It is crucial that this contemporary transition is a strong indication that early medieval Europe was a well-connected place with regular contact and exchange of ideas across large areas.
During this period there is evidence of increased long-distance trade, which may have helped make these connections easier. As the idea spread between communities, social pressures drove more people to embrace it. As the number of people grew, that pressure increased – which explains why the spread of unfurnished burials seemed to accelerate over time.
With people sharing more similarities, this has likely strengthened the connections themselves as well.
"The change in burial practice will have further strengthened these links. If everyone buried their dead the same way, a medieval traveler could have gone anywhere in Europe and seen practices they were familiar with," said Dr. Brownlee.
A connected Europe with long-distance trade and travel that facilitates the diffusion of new ideas for creating a common culture may sound modern, but in reality Europe has been “global” for over a millennium.