Whereas in centuries past our understanding of the crusades was largely based on written records of the period, modern archaeology increasingly provides hard evidence of crusader lifestyle that challenges or refutes many common assumptions. Today we look at an excellent summary of some of the most important evidence uncovered by archaeologists and art historians.
Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East by Adrian J. Boas is a well-organized and comprehensive summary of key archaeological finds from the crusader period in the Holy Land. It provides the layman with an overview of the archaeological evidence from the crusader states uncovered to date and the bibliography provides the reader with a large number of sources that can be consulted for greater detail about any specific topic. Boas writes in a fluid and clear style that makes his often highly specialized subject matter comprehensible even for those not familiar with archeological and architectural jargon. This is a good starting point for anyone interested in the archeology of the crusader states.
As Boas demonstrates, modern archeology increasingly provides evidence to challenge many presumptions and prejudices about crusader “barbarity” — or decadence. The exquisite quality of crusader sculpture, frescoes, manuscripts, and glass-work, the evidence of glass-panes in sacred and secular buildings, the bright and wide-range of colors of the textiles, paintings and glass are all evidence of a culture that was anything but primitive. Equally important, the artifacts that have come to light demonstrate the unique and distinctive nature of crusader arts, crafts and, indeed, lifestyle. As Boas underlines with respect to a variety of fields, far from simply adopting the allegedly more civilized life-style of their enemies or predecessors, the crusaders blended familiar styles, particularly Romanesque art and architecture, with Byzantine traditions in mosaics, wall-painting and sculpture. On a more mundane level, textiles in the crusader states were not simply made of the wide range of materials from goat’s and sheep’s wool and linen to cotton and silk, they also included hybrid fabrics using silk and one of the other kinds of thread.
For the historical novelist, this is a gold-mine of useful information! Boas provides photos, sketches and descriptions that enable a novelist to picture the rural and urban dwellings of both rich and poor. His descriptions and photos of objections in daily use such as pottery, lamps, and textiles are equally valuable. The book is also filled with gems of information which can be used to give a novel greater color — such as the street in Jerusalem known as the “Street of Evil Cooking,” which was lined with the crusader equivalent of “fast-food” stands catering to pilgrims. Now that’s the kind of fact that any novelist can use to enliven a description of the Holy City in the age of the Leper King!