Lombards: Latecomers to the Migration Period. A glimpse into archeological data and a risky trend

Gabriele Zorzi, Associazione La Fara

The first part of this contribution may sound pedantic to those who already are familiar with the Lombard theme, but, I think, due to the subject’s peculiarity, it is not as well known as others. In Italy, attention has only started being paid to Lombard history in the last few decades and, to this day, the Lombard period still suffers from the Roman-centered approach to Italian historiography. In fact, talking about Lombard history in Italy still means discussing “barbarian invasions” and not the “migration period”. We all know the weight words can have in these cases. Despite  this, from the second half of the twentieth century, Lombard studies, in particular the ones focusing on rich grave goods, have had their moments of fame and interest.

In this context, the peculiar provenance of our association, La Fara, was surely something we have benefitted from. Our association in fact, although it has members from several Italian regions, is based in Cividale del Friuli, the capital of the first Lombard dukedom. It was home to one of the oldest and most traditional reigns of Lombardy, and, most importantly, residence of the oldest and richest national archaeological museum on the subject which gave us access to first class sources from the beginning .

Before I start talking about archaeological finds and their relevance to the practice of reconstruction, allow me to take a step back and give some context to these “long-bearded people”. The year of the Lombard arrival in Italy is traditionally recognized as 568 C.E., as described by Paul the Deacon – the same Lombard historian who, in the eighth century, wrote the story of his people and placed their original native land in the (then almost mythical) Skåne. The migration was a relatively late one if compared to the Visigoths in Spain at the beginning of the fifth century and the Franks in Gaul, again in the fifth century. It is closer to what we know about the Bavarians, a population having a tight relationship with Lombards themselves.

Generally identifiable with a Germanic population with an eastern language (although scholars do not always agree on this point), the Lombards were known to the Roman world since the second century, becoming more and more involved in the affairs of the Eastern Roman Empire as time passed. The gradual tightening of their relations with Byzantium meant that the Lombard exercitus (i.e. troops) became part of the Byzantine army during the Greek-Gothic war that took place on Italian soil.

Lombardian relationships with Constantinople must not have been entirely consistent, and even today, analyses of the historiographical sources debate the real motivation of the Lombard descent into Italy and its legitimacy.

What is known is that the Lombard reign in Italy was never seen as legitimate either by the Pope or Byzantium. In 568, the Lombards descended into an Italy that was weakened by 30 years of Greek-Gothic war and the plague. They settled in the area without encountering a significant opposition and without the need of an armed confrontation with the local population.

Conquering the peninsula, although never completed, would keep Lombard kings and dukes busy for the next few decades. However, it seems like the creation of the first Reign in northern Italy did not require a largemilitary effort. The population which arrived in Italy from its last settlement in Pannonia (modern Hungary) brought its own mix of pagan tradition and an in fieri Christianization process, still very far from being completed and described in terms of Arian heresy.

Pre-Christian clothing, especially regarding burials, are now our main source of information regarding the material culture of this population. The grave goods, dated to the end of sixth and the beginning of the seventh century, provide us with plenty of information regarding metal working, textile culture, bone and wood working, eating habits and, along with the most recent DNA studies, a glimpse of what seemed to have been a cultural rupture with the preceding situation of Gothic Italy.

The context I briefly mentioned pushed what remained of the heart of the Roman Empire into a new kind of balance, most like what was already happening in the rest of Europe. In Italian history schoolbooks, this two century period, ending with the Franks beating the Lombards in 774 AD, has become a footnote in history, dismissed in a few lines of text. Despite the fact that it was a founding element for the subsequent political situation in the Peninsula and the foundation of the art commissions known as “Rinascenza Liutprandea” by which Carolingian art would be strongly influenced.

So we are looking at two centuries of deep and sometimes traumatic changes that involved everybody, both the locals and the newcomers.

Although, centuries after , some noble families would still define themselves as “Lombards” or “following the Lombard law”, it is important to note that already at the end of their reign, the Lombards that settled in Italy must have been much different from their close ancestors. An example is the abandoning of Germanic languages for Latin, both in official papers (for example the Rothari Edict (Edictum Rothari) in the seventh century) and possibly in the spoken language since modern Italian only preserves a few Lombard words in its otherwise strictly Neo-Latin structure.

As re-creators we are mostly interested in the first immigrate generation and their first descendants. This focus is due to the Lombard’s still highly relevant tradition of burying their dead with rich grave goods, with the radical change in building techniques and the appearance of housing structures of a more “barbarian” tradition, such as partially interred houses known in field literature as grubenhauser. So, we are facing elements that break preexisting traditions and new techniques that are not going to disappear and will contribute in the formation of a new, fast changing landscape (img. 1).

Image 1 – Necropolis around a “little Capital”, Cividale del Friuli (This and all images by La Fara)

But what are we talking about when we mention Lombard grave goods?

We are talking of elements that can widely vary from grave to grave, as the ethnic make-up of the Gens Langobardorum seems to have done, due to its constant contact with continental Europe’s populations. To make things more manageable, we can simplify and divide grave goods based on gender and social status. Male graves are frequently dominated by the military element: we find swords – usually pattern welded (img. 2), scramasax, spears, shields (some of them heavily decorated), axes, arrows, bow components and, most of all, belt fittings.

Image 2 – Pattern-welded sword

Based on wealth, the number and quality of these elements varies significantly. It also does this based on the time frame. Graves from the late sixth and seventh centuries show differences in decoration style and features. Along with the aforementioned elements, we can also find everyday objects such as fire steels, flint, tweezers, horse-riding related elements, game pieces and glass (img 3).

Image 3 – Finds from the grave of “Gisulfo”

In female graves, we find a large number of belt hangings such as amulets, scissors, some sea shells, amber and glass bead necklaces, and of course radiated head fibulae (img. 4), as well as the famous “S” brooches (img. 5). Bone combs and small knives are common regardless of gender and social status.

Image 4 – Radiated Head Fibula
Image 5 – “S” Brooches

This is, of course, a rough simplification – a glimpse that can help us contextualize the main archaeological sources that we can refer to in the re-creation field. However, there are, of course, cases that do not fit the description. One of the best examples of this is the so-called “Goldsmith’s grave” in Grupignano, which has no military element but just a silver belt buckle and three small anvils (img. 6). These exceptions give us the chance to ponder about living history and storytelling in relation with these peculiar figures that, for now, do not seem to belong in this context.

Image 6 – Silver belt buckle and 3 small anvils

Alongside the single pieces, especially at the end of twentieth century and in the beginning of twenty-first, organic elements that escaped corruption are gaining relevance and becoming irreplaceable reference points. Here, I am talking about wood fragments of sheaths, handles and shields that provide interesting data about what kind of wood was used for each task. For example, when professor Rottoli studied tomb 40 from the “Ferrovia” burial site in Cividale del Friuli (a grave dated to the first quarter of the seventh century that La Fara is currently reconstructing), he identified the woods as willow for the shield, ash for the spear, and alder for the sheath.

Similarly, the textile elements preserved by mineralization in contact with metal components of the belt give us valuable information in terms of fiber (wool or linen) and weave-pattern. In grave 40, for example, we have diamond twill, which you can read about in  Irene Barbina’s blopost.

Having now roughly contextualized the Lombard theme, we can discuss the re-enacting and re-creation aspect.

In Italy, the Lombard and early medieval scene is relatively young. In 2010 when our group was officially founded, there was only one other Lombard group who mostly focused on historical fencing rather than grave recreation. Over the next three years the situation did not change much, but a couple of other groups focusing on fighting had formed. From 2013 to the present day, we have witnessed an explosion and, to my knowledge, there are now more than 15 “Lombard” groups.

Such a quick increase, along with the mistakes every young group is bound to make, creates two dangerous tendencies: 1) mixing recreation and ideology and 2) perhaps more worryingly, the unquestioning involvement of supposed re-creation groups in contexts related to museums or the academy.

I will try to explain myself a little better.

The first of these tendencies does not need much explanation, I think, since I suppose it is a common problem in every re-enacted era and at every latitude. If we want to describe its aspects we can still say that some of the younger groups use cultural identity, antidemocratic and macho ambition to inspire cohesion among the members.

The legitimacy of those theories is not the subject of this discussion, but you can easily imagine how the presence of these ideologized contexts has a negative influence on the quality of the re-creation work and the authenticity of information that reaches the public, as materials and sources are cherry-picked and manipulated in order to support ethnical and spiritual belonging feelings of the groups. Members of the public involved in these groups’ events are usually at risk of being taught historical and archaeological facts that are bent to support, not actual data, but the political wave of the day.

The second of the aforementioned tendencies is, possibly, the most dangerous for the whole scenario and implicitly allows the first to prosper. If in the first 10 years of the twenty-first century entering a museum was almost a utopia for a re-enacting group, the scenario has witnessed in the past few years an inversion powered by trends and the necessity of some institutions to gain visibility in the field.

The beginning of this change in an early medieval context began with a few virtuous cases in which La Fara played a role. Our event, “Anno Domini 568” (img. 7), is organized with the direct involvement of the Cividale National Museum and has been hosted on the museum’s premises for the past 5 events, placing archaologists and recreators side by side with the purpose of bringing Lombard history and archaology to a wider public.

Image 7 – La Fara’s event, “Anno Domini 568”

In this very context we met Marco Valenti (img. 8): an archaeology professor, expert in open-air museums and a re-creator himself who might be the most active and motivated builder of connections between the re-creation world and academia. Valenti is in fact the mind behind the only early medieval open-air museum in Italy: the Archaeodrome in Poggibonsi (img. 9).

Image 8 – Marco Valenti
Image 9 – Italian open-air museum Poggibonsi Archaeodrome

The Archaeodrome is a Carolingian village built just a few steps away from the original site, on which a Lombard village used to exist, by the same archaeologists who dug the site. This makes it an excellent example of how re-creation and communication can be done based on solid academic data.

In the past few years professor Valenti invested in connecting universities and re-creators, for example organizing seminars and editing books about the subject, also with the contribution of La Fara members. At the same time others moved in a similar direction, like Valentino Nizzo, manager of the Etruscan Museum in Villa Giulia. Over the past few years, he has tried to create this kind of opportunity and, as museology professor at Udine University, has allowed us to teach alongside Dr Borzacconi, manager of the Cividale National Museum, using our event as an example of museum communication.

Up to this point, the trend seemed positive, strengthened by other similar experiences involving re-enactors of different ages but, as usually happens in Italy, the trend has become popular and in a very short time it became important to involve re-enactors in museum activities in order to increase visibility on media platforms without really evaluating their preparation and suitability for this prestigious context.

I suppose it is clear how responsibilities lie on both sides in this situation. On one side, re-enactors, who are longing to prove themselves worthy of the context, re-invented themselves as re-creators by changing their group’s description (but not their approach to the subject) and proposing their group as a resource for museums and institutions. On the other side, some of these institutions, following the ones that did it first but with greater care and after rigorous evaluations, uncritically opened their doors to groups who had nothing to do with re-creation.

Recently, La Fara was requested to be a part of the opening of a very prestigious international exposition but, while we were invited by one of the scientific managers, a local group that did not even re-create the same era found its way in, by proposing they be “extras” and management approved their participation in the event. The result was an embarrassing jumble of precise recreations, materials from a different age, and fantasy elements.

I am not using this as an example for personal purposes but to show how the consequences of this kind of behavior can be deeply negative. The public, unfamiliar with the context, is often unable to tell the difference between the groups and is consequently “educated by sight” and getting the wrong information. Secondly, these “extras” are usually incompetent about history and end up either giving the wrong information or playing the part of the silent mannequin, often making it more difficult for the competent ones to be considered as reliable by the public.

Moving towards the conclusion of this glimpse into the early medieval re-construction context in Italy, I will say that historiography and archaeological sources for this era are rich, stimulating and only partially explored by re-creators. The scene is lively and rapidly evolving, and often gives us the chance to participate in international discussion and exchange. The early middle ages and its Germanic graves are becoming the common thread linking nations and individuals, in how to better approach re-creations and better communicate with the public. However, the combination of potential and the relatively young age of the scene puts it at risk of being manipulated and degraded even in an official context.

I do not believe it is possible to stop these negative tendencies from happening and, on the contrary, I think their chances to manifest are increasing. What I want to believe, though, is that there will be a chance to educate the public, giving the right tools to chose which events are worthy of taking part in and further chances for re-creators and institutions to cooperate as we did in Malmö during the conference and event: Medievalism, Public History, and Academia: the Re-creation of Early Medieval Europe, c. 400-1000.

Re-imagining Medieval Dublin and the role of the Guide in Public History

Laura Fitzachary, Dublin Castle


Fig. 1 – Dublin Castle (image provided by OPW – Dublin Castle)

It is of interest to those who examine the public’s experience with medieval history to acknowledge the role of the tour guide. Their position can generate an interest in medieval history, establish historical authority through the authenticity of their information and deliver it effectively to an audience. This study focuses on working in public history to identify an establishment of historical authority and validity, defined by the interaction of the general public and the guide within a museum setting. Drawing from working as a guide at Dublin Castle, this study attempts to debunk the idea of ‘publish or perish’ and highlights how museum professionals are entrusted with deciding what information is presented to the general public outside of an academic setting. By doing so, the guide must also recognize important developments in the field of medieval history.

Re-imagining Medieval Dublin

The role of the guide ranges from generating an initial interest in history to creating an atmosphere where history becomes more relatable to the visitors. This can be a challenge where in certain cases the subject of medieval history on site must be almost entirely re-imagined. In my case, Dublin Castle is a former Viking settlement which subsequently from 1204 until 1922 served as the seat of English, and later British rule in Ireland. Though currently a remnant of a 17th and 18th century Georgian palace, due to a fire destroying the medieval bastion, only a Viking defence wall remains beneath the foundations of a powder tower.[i] The guide in this case must reveal the layers of the site and educate those visiting on what originally stood. A typical tour at Dublin Castle begins with the medieval section to introduce a visitor to the former Viking settlement that once stood there, and then the later Anglo-Norman castle, designed under a mandate by John I in 1204. With one small cross section of a Viking wall, the guide creates, through their narrative, an image of the former settlement and how it fitted into Viking Dublin as a whole. This area is on show as to a result of extensive archaeological excavations which were carried out at Dublin Castle between 1985 and 1987 in connection with a major rebuilding programme.[ii]  Beneath a rebuilt tax office, visitors are brought down to what is referred to as the Undercroft, in order to show the level of defence an Anglo-Norman structure can offer and to begin the narrative of the site. The pre-castle deposits found from the Hiberno-Norse town were excavated outside the north-west corner of the moat, within the Powder Tower of the castle itself and just inside the adjacent north curtain wall.[iii] According to Manning & Lynch the defensive bank within the Powder Tower is the only in situ Viking-age monument in the city of Dublin which is on display to the public.[iv] The outer face of a north/south stone-face bank was built on the shelving rocky shore of the Poddle Estuary, made of clay, stone and without mortar with a short stretch of post-and-wattle fencing found in front of the southern section of the bank which probably served as a breakwater.[v]

Figure 2 – The Undercroft (image provided by OPW – Dublin Castle)

From this sliver of a bank, the guide generates a sense of the Viking settlement through their narrative, discussing how they lived and how they settled in this area. An insight into pre-Norman Dublin sets a precedence for what is to follow, another 1200 years of history condensed into a 60 to 70-minute tour. By starting in the medieval section, the guide then also stresses the importance of the medieval history of the site in order to talk about later structures. Highlighting the importance of the site’s medieval roots has generated a keen interest in the era. This result has been noted through a continuous hike in visitor numbers with an interest in the field of medieval history at Dublin Castle.[i] I suggest that a continued focus on medieval history be applied at other sites where this compartmentalisation of eras occurs, or where medieval history forms the basis of a site serving a different function today. The role of the guide is then to present a tangible sense of the past, by striking correlations with the site as it is at present.

Historical authority and the authenticity of that history

In order to promote an interest in medieval history, the narrative must be factual. Thus, a problem faced by the guide includes establishing historical authenticity without being based in an academic setting. However, the question is posed, are academic settings based solely in universities and research centres, or can such a setting be produced at a historical site where professionals engage daily with the public and history? This study will propose that the latter is the case, and that a guide can engage with the immediate public and use their position to highlight aspects of medieval history relative to the site. This is not confined to the site itself but allows the guide to discuss the importance of the site in terms of time-frame and location, expanding the net wider to Dublin, Ireland and Europe. The visitors on tour also rely solely on the guides’ information in tandem with any written resources available, thus creating a sense of historical authority for the guide. The academic field surrounding the subject is absolutely not ignored; it forms the basis for narrative and, as noted previously, a lot of narrative at Dublin Castle comes from the publications of the archaeological reports by both Manning and Lynch.

It is also the case that by engaging daily with the public, the guide can retain recurring questions on specific elements of medieval history and incorporate them into their own narrative. This practice in turn creates an authentic tour based on their experience with the public and the public’s interests. This level of authenticity can thrive at a site that does not use a script – like Dublin Castle. This also creates an atmosphere amongst the guides of conducting research, whether that is utilizing that which has already been published in the field or in the case of Dublin Castle, generating their own publications based on primary sources available on site. It is necessary to note that not every site has archaeological reports or letters to hand; however, a publication developed from the site itself and not through a university or research centre can hold just as much merit in the field of medieval history.

Thus another question is posed, is it actually necessary to publish aspects of a tour that are deemed authentic by being new pieces of information? I argue that it is not absolutely necessary to create a plethora of publications whilst working with the public daily. The idea of ‘publish or perish’ is only to validate the role of an historian. However, that can be someone who interprets a site, conducts research and develops public interest in history – in this case medieval history. By reinventing the role of an historian then a guide can be viewed as one; in that 60 to 70-minute tour, they are the figures establishing historical authority. It is not the intention of this study to diminish the importance of publishing as it is absolutely necessary to the field of history. However, by working as a tour guide, enough validity as an historian should be generated to ensure one does not ‘perish’.

The guide as an educator

The role of the tour guide at Dublin Castle is not just restricted to daily tours. This is the result of another restriction: the medieval section within a wider timeline. The guides at Dublin Castle are also museum educators, which is beneficial to a site with no education department. As a museum educator, the guide can focus aspects of their tour into researched and specific tours or workshops to expand on personal interest or from the interests of the general public. These focused tours are made available to the public, educational institutions and other organisations. By creating specialised public events, the guide must also break down the information to not just suit their own interests but to ensure that anyone, at any age, could learn about the site and engage with the information. Thus, the role of educator becomes a bridge between the site and the public. There are two aspects of interacting with the public; selecting information suitable to the audience, and determining how that information is shared.[ii]

This interaction with the public is where the guide as an educator holds an important role on site. As all research is carried out by the guides at Dublin Castle, the deliverance is also based on their ability to communicate and this in turn is also based on the audience. The role of the guide is also to provide a learning experience for any visitor who decided to attend the tour that day.[iii] This role involves not just supplying information about the site but ensuring that the audience understands what is being said. The importance of communicating information is an attribute of an effective tour guide. Thus, the public gains a greater understanding of medieval history by being taught about what has been published in the field, in a way that is more accessible.      

As an example, I have created a workshop focused on Norse mythology, after a request was made by a primary school teacher to incorporate ‘Dublin and the Vikings’ into a workshop geared towards nine year olds.  The result was a Viking raven workshop that introduced the pupils to the initial arrival of the Vikings to Dublin and the subsequent assimilation of some of these Vikings into Irish society. In order to create a level of understanding, I linked Norse assimilation into Irish society with a classroom-like scenario in the present day, by comparing diversity in the classroom to shifts in cultural identity. The correlation created tangibility of the subject and was delivered to a young audience in language they understood. Thus, this method would allow a guide to convert an historian’s (or indeed their own) theories into more accessible pieces of information to be understood by their audience – in this case, 9 year olds

Fig. 3 – A ‘viking’ raven (author’s own image)

The human aspect of the guide and the digital nemesis

Although I have proposed that the benefits of a human guide can generate greater interest in medieval history and maintain it by creating specialized workshops or tours to encourage returning visits, there is a problem facing the tour guide. A guide can identify a visitor’s connection with a site and can provide more focused information of interest, whereas a written or even digital resource produced for mass consumption cannot. Thus, this speaker would also argue that the value of the guide is to observe and promote a connection between interest and the site itself.  However, there is the threat of a ‘virtual’ replacement. The virtual tour guide could provide information but not necessarily gauge the level of understanding amongst the audience or mould any narrative around specific interests or personal links a visitor has with the site. It is worth noting that technology in the museum space is not going to cease, and guides should not necessarily fear the development of the ‘interactive experience’ at museums. Currently, I am incorporating advancements in technology into my narrative by developing a virtual reality tour to enhance audience experience whilst using my own narrative.

As mentioned above, a guide must promote the re-imagining of Dublin Castle when discussing the former Viking site, but of course this is to reflect the ‘ideal tour guide,’ not every guide wants to deliver an eruditely written lecture which they can convert and tailor to specific audiences. There is also the entertainment factor associated with tour guiding. As mentioned previously, to generate interest and hold it depends on the credulity of information and its deliverance. This combination does require some sort of flare stemming from the guide’s own interest in the history they are relaying, in turn educating the audience. Therefore, the entertainment aspect could cause a sense of a lack of validity on the part of the guide. Instead of interpreting this as damaging the guide’s historical authority, it should be reinterpreted as an alternative way of relaying history by promoting the constant relevance of the theoretical development of medieval history. Thus, even the potential to hold historical authority is enough to not ignore the role of the tour guide.


Although digital recreations of the site are available online, I argue for the benefit of being walked through a heritage site. The guide recreates the past through their ability to hold interest, provide historical authenticity and strike some tangibility of a past when little visual reminders remain. The guides at Dublin Castle are also all museum educators, designing their own scripts and developing a setting which encourages new research to support any claim of authenticity. The responsibility to educate visitors and provide site interpretation is also challenged daily with a varied audience and a diverse general public. The guide must consider who is visiting and strike a balance between accommodating local, national and international visitors and bridging any gap between an interest in public history and an understanding of it.

In conclusion, the guide can provide historical authenticity and generate the words,

‘You know I never knew that, and I’ve lived down the road all my life.’

By interacting with local, national, international, elementary, high school and university level visitors the ‘general public’ net could not be any wider. By generating their own historical authority, the guide’s role is not to solely catch interest in medieval history but to promote and develop it. The role of the guide should be representative of and more interactive with the experts in the field of Irish medieval history as they maintain an authority of their own. By being the front line in a museum setting they are the border between information and the public whilst having knowledge of their questions and interests. Thus, it is important when discussing public history that the guide’s role must be considered.


[i] As museum educators, the guides as Dublin Castle record the amount of people in attendance of any specialised tours or workshops in order to determine interest in the subject of medieval history.

[ii] Laura Fitzachary, “Working in Public Archaeology.” Trowel, Volume XVI (2015): 84.

[iii] Ibid., 84.

[i] “History |Dublin Castle,” Dublin Castle, Last modified October 30, 2018, http://www.dublincastle.ie/history/

[ii] Ann Lynch & Conleth Manning, “Excavations at Dublin Castle, 1985-7,” in Medieval Dublin II, ed. Seán Duffy (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), 169.

[iii] Ibid., 172.

[iv] Ibid., 202.

[v] Ibid., 182.


Fitzachary, Laura. “Working in Public Archaeology.” Trowel, Volume XVI. (2015): 83-87.

Lynch, A., Manning, C. “Excavations at Dublin Castle, 1985-7.” In Medieval Dublin II, edited by Seán Duffy, 169-205. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001.

“History |Dublin Castle.” Dublin Castle, Last modified October 30, 2018. http://www.dublincastle.ie/history/