Exhibition “Early Middle Ages” at the RMO

The Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Dutch National Museum of Antiquities) at Leiden has a temporary exhibition on the “dark” early middle ages. This temporary exhibition concerns archaeological finds from the Merovingian era. The exhibition runs till the end of October 2014. Apart from local finds, loans from museums from Belgium, Germany, and even the British Museum can be admired.

Many still call the early middle ages, running from roughly 400 till 800, the dark ages. But though the Western Roman Empire had collapsed, civilisation had not. The darkness has more to do with our lack of knowledge about these centuries. A visit to this temporary exhibition will prove quite enlightening.

This exhibition, which includes activities for children, covers many facets of life after the collapse of the late Western Roman Empire, during the Merovingian era, right up to the early years of Charlemagne. From the very first show cases, artefacts, illustrations and explanations, it is clear that the aristocracy, warriors, tradesmen, farmers, serfs and others which made up society at the time, enjoyed an impressive standard of living.

In general, people were healthier than in the preceding Roman Empire or following Middle Ages? Not that life was easy. The Anglo Saxon and other chronicles are of course full of wars, atrocities, bloodshed.

There are plenty weapons on show. The German gilt helmet is quite impressive, as is King Childeric’s sword. This sword may have been ceremonious. Other weapons were not. These may have been used in the many wars among family members, tribes, war lords, power-brokers. They may also have been used against Irish and other Christian missionaries. For this was also the era of Columbanus, Willibrordus and others, who brought Christianity to England and then ventured among Frankish, Frisian, and other pagan European tribes.

The exhibition gives a very good overview of all aspects of live. My friends and I were surprised to recognise many tools which have barely changed throughout the ages. Quite a few had to do with life stock like sheep. But there were also tools found in archaeological digs, which are still used by shoemakers and carpenters today.

From finds it is clear that affluent customers in Western Europe owned not only Scandinavian amber, precious stones, gold and locally made “bling-bling” and other status stuff. Personal belongings which ended up in graves, hoards, or were perhaps even just lost, came also from the Mediterranean, Middle East, India. Trade certainly had not collapsed with the Roman Empire.

The craftsmanship of what is on show is often fabulous. A precious ceremonial bowl found locally in 2013, necklaces, filigree and enamelled fibulas, and especially Merovingian glass are all of a high standard. The film of the recreation of a so-called “bell” glass was stunning and kept us wondering. How did they do it in say 600? How did they manage to control the heat? How many people were involved? It is very humbling to realise what people during this so-called dark, early middle ages were capable of – without the use of our present day machine and robot controlled procedures.

A visit to this temporary “Golden Middle Ages” exhibition can only be strongly recommended. Especially during the Dutch autumn school holidays this month. But should you be unable to visit this temporary exhibition, the museum’s permanent exhibitions on Pre-historic, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art are also well worth a visit.

Exhibition “The Golden Middle Ages”, RMO Leiden runs till 26th of October 2014


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