Ralph Patrello, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department, used his 2016 Rothman Doctoral Fellowship to travel to Toulouse and Bordeaux to access archaeological site reports on cemeteries and ceramics relevant to his dissertation, “Power and Self-Representation in Southern Gaul, 395-600 AD.” Patrello’s work focuses on burial practices and grave goods from the area between the Loire River and the Pyrenees in what is today modern France. His analysis of belt buckle depositions in these early medieval graves serves to examine identity, social networking, and power structures in this period.
Fragmented belt buckles were circulated as tokens indicative of personhood and identity, and aided in creating continuity in social and power structures. Burial practices incorporating these symbols reinforced social bonds and helped in claiming allegiances when loyalties were ambiguous or power was contested. Patrello’s findings show a need for a new approach to analyzing grave deposits, particularly the elaborately adorned belt buckles found in the region during this time. He argues that the objects were intentionally fragmented, not deposited whole. Nearly one in four of these buckle sets recovered are incomplete; the apparently intentional fragmentation of these sets played an important part in burial rites and constructing personhood, especially for the elites of the sixth and seventh centuries. Contemporary textual sources from writers such as Gregory of Tours and Venantius Fortunatus confirm the role these material remains play in representing and constructing a person’s social status and political allegiance. The manner of exchange and circulation indicates that these pieces established political alliances through gift giving, and reinforced through the deposition of such objects in funerary contexts in a period where social rank was not automatically transmitted via inheritance.
cemeteries illustrate the ways people participated in factional
politics on an intimate and small scale in post-Roman southern Gaul.
The belt buckles found in these funerary contexts, often fragmented,
adapted, altered, and mismatched in composite sets, aided in
maintaining power and social relationships. In this way, these grave
goods can shed light on how medieval peoples understood their own
places within as well as the development of medieval society.
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