Early Middle Ages come to life at ‘Crossroads’ in Brussels

Until 29 March the Royal Museum of Art and History in the Brussels Jubel Park is staging ‘Crossroads’, an exhibition revealing the great connectivity of early medieval societies across clan, language and cultural barriers.

Curator Britt Claes: “The scope of the exhibition runs from the 4th to the 10th century.  In 476 CE Germanic mercenaries deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire and many people think this was the end of civilisation.  The term ‘Dark Ages’ used to describe this period doesn’t help! ‘Crossroads’ shows that civilisation didn’t end in 476 CE and we have thousands of artefacts to show how culture and trade prospered in this period.  It was an age of migrations.  The Huns were on the move pushing an array of Germanic tribes deeper and deeper into Western Europe. Later on the Arabs swept across North Africa and into southern Europe, but finds reveal that all these people were in contact with each other and goods were traded over great distances.”

The exhibition opens with the reconstruction of a Merovingian (early Frankish) homestead.  Here we see finds from a Merovingian cemetery excavated in Broechem in Antwerp Province.

Britt Claes: “The cemetery reveals the great wealth of the people of this time and the long journeys many of the luxury items with which people were buried had travelled.  There is amber from the Baltic, ceramics from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, gold from Byzantium and crystal rocks from the Alps”.

“Everything starts with Rome and the knowledge of the ancients was copied in scriptoria at medieval courts and abbeys. Roman justice, tax practices and the Latin language remain in force in the fledgling states that survive the Roman Empire, but we also see the start of a feudal system with a growing importance of the social ties between Germanic leaders and their warriors.  The centralised Roman army is gone.”

'The Embroideress Euphemia', with grave goods, Antinoë, RMAH

‘Crossroads’ is built around five themes that you can explore at your leisure. Identity and Memory is one such theme.   

Curator Alexandra Van Puyvelde: “The objects people were buried with reveal an awful lot: gender, whether people were rich or poor, etc.  The exhibition also allows us to show off one of the Royal Museum of Art and History’s most cherished possessions: the Euphemia mummy.  The mummy is that of an Egyptian woman from the 6th century.  She was buried with her organs intact, but wrapped in up to four different tunics and covered with salt to help preservation.  The textiles she was buried with reveal a higher social status.  She was excavated by the French archaeologist Albert Gayet at excavations in Antinoë (Egypt).  He later brought her and her grave goods to France where she was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. Later she was auctioned off by a museum and acquired by the RMAH."

"Grave goods belonging to the goldsmith Kolluthos and his wife are also on show.  These include textiles woven using a technique that originated in India.  There’s also half a linen tunic with finely woven decorations in wool.  Gayet simply cut the tunic in two so that he had two artefacts to sell.  The other half ended up in Manchester (England). The information we have about Kolluthos is gleaned from fragments of papyrus found in his grave including parts of his will.”

Another prize exhibit is a Jewish headstone with an inscription in Hebrew.   It was found in Tienen (Flemish Brabant) and dates from the 13th century.  It is the first tangible evidence of a Jewish presence in Flanders.   

An eye catcher is a reproduction of a Viking boat (photo top).  The ship was built by youngsters from the Flemish town of Genk (Limburg) as part of a one year project bringing people from different backgrounds together.  As part of the project the youngsters also travelled to Denmark to see genuine articles before building their smaller model.

The Vikings were a particularly mobile race and the exhibition also includes a Viking sword retrieved from the River Schelde as well as a reproduction of a ship’s figurehead from the same river.

Hoard from Muizen, with two fibulae, a belt strap end, a bead and 73 coins, end of 9th cent., silver, partially gilded, RMAH

Admire the Muizen Hoard including coins from the reign of Charles the Bald as well as an Arab dirham, brooches and a belt strap end. The hoard was discovered in 1906 not far from the city of Mechelen (Antwerp Province).

A display including an apse, a shape both common to Christian churches, synagogues and mosques, underlines the connectivity of the three monotheistic faiths of this age, while manuscripts emphasize how scriptoria remained centres of learning throughout this period.

Don’t forget to take a look at the ivory from the Church of St Martin in Genoels-Elderen outside Tongeren (Limburg).  It’s a prime example of early Carolingian art and was probably carved in Northumbria (England) in the 8th century.  

‘Crossroads’ runs at the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels until 29 March.  It is open Tuesday through Sunday and is part of the Connecting Early Medieval European Collections project and was co-ordinated by the Allard Pierson Museum of Amsterdam.

Try to plan your visit for a Wednesday or weekend afternoon when archaeologists are on hand to enlighten you about their trade.