How do you tell the story of a silent era? Historians usually work from documents and archives, but huge swaths of history unfolded with barely any written records surviving at all. This is the problem that Boston College historian Robin Fleming faced in looking at the first centuries of British life after Roman rule, an era of poverty, illiteracy, and tumult.
Last month, Fleming became the first-ever Boston College scholar to receive a MacArthur fellowship—the so-called genius grant—for her innovative illumination of a nearly impenetrable time. Her solution to the problem: Rather than relying on the written evidence, which amounts to scattered accounts of the exploits of kings and bishops, she trains a historian’s eye on what archeologists are turning up. She analyzes reports from digs, pores over photographs, and travels to examine excavated objects herself, then weaves the story of a society from the things people left behind.