The Slave Queens of Merovingian France

I’m back in the States for a few weeks, which means I’m taking a break from bead research and excavations. Instead, I’ve resumed work on the textual sources for the early medieval slave trade. I’m working through some classic studies on medieval slavery, trying to hunt down the sources for understanding what slavery was like in France before the vikings arrived.

Around 660, the chronicler Fredegar recorded that the Merovingian family descended from an ancestor named Merovech, who was conceived when his mother was attacked by a sea beast with five horns. Merovech’s name translates loosely to “sea cow.” Sadly, no sketches of such a sea cow survive from the Merovingian period, but this sea pig of 1537 has a history all its own. (Antonio Blado, “Monstrum in Oceano,” 1537.)

The Frankish peoples were ruled at this time by a family known as the Merovingians (ca. 500-750 AD). The fragmentation of their kingdoms might have made things difficult for slave traders, but their frequent fighting ensured a steady crop of captives who could be sold as slaves. It seems that the general direction of this trade went from north to south, with many slaves being sold along the way before reaching the distant markets of Marseilles, Rome, and Naples. Right now, my interests lie with a specific group of this human traffic that never reached the Mediterranean: the slave queens of Merovingian France.

For early Merovingian kings, marriages were seen as a way to secure political alliances, but as they grew stronger, it became increasingly dangerous for them to tie rivals to the throne through marriage. Some began to experiment with ways of gaining heirs without making themselves vulnerable to in-laws: they married their slaves.

Although we lack substantial information for many of the Merovingian monarchs, we have evidence that a surprising number of them married their slaves. The most commonly cited examples include: Chilperic I of Soissons married the slave Fredegund (d. 597); Theudebert of Austrasia married his slave Bilichild (d. 610); Dagobert I of the Franks married Nanthild (d. 642), who was likely a slave, and he later fathered an heir with his concubine Ragnetrude (ca. 630); and Clovis II of Burgundy and Neustria married Balthild (d. 680), who was later venerated as a saint.

These are the most secure examples, and taken together, they testify that for almost a century, there was usually at least one prominent slave ruling as a queen. And since we lack so much information from this period, it’s worth comparing the better attested case of Charlemagne, who is known to have had at least four legitimate wives as well as five concubines. The Merovingian kings may have kept similar harems, meaning there might be a large number of concubines and slave queens who have left no trace in our surviving records.

Fredegund is a difficult character to sympathize with, in part because the elite men who wrote about her lacked all respect for slave queens. In one of their favorite anecdotes, Fredegund lost patience with her princess daughter who kept teasing her mother for her servile past. (Henriette De Witt, Vieilles Histoires de La Patrie, 1887; via Wikimedia Commons.)

So what did it mean to be a slave queen in Merovingian France? The best known slave queen is Fredegund, although her reputation is grim. The website Rejected Princesses rates her as “cartoonishly, overwhelmingly evil.” This image derives first and foremost from Gregory of Tours, who used Fredegund as a bête noire in his moralizing History of the Franks. Gregory had the chutzpah to publish his muckraking on Fredegund while the queen was still alive, sometime during the early 590s. Somehow he got away with it. Perhaps the aging Fredegund wasn’t so bad after all, or perhaps her deeds were so infamous that censuring Gregory would have confirmed rather than repudiated his claims.

Nevertheless, Gregory was circumspect about calling Fredegund a slave, and he doesn’t even give her a proper introduction. She seems to have been but one of many wives initially belonging to Chilperic I of Neustria (r. 561–584). Gregory notes that she rose to prominence through intrigue and murder, but he cautiously directs blame toward Chilperic, who was safely dead by the time he published his book. Without naming names, Gregory presents Chilperic as one of those petty kings who was “so worthless as to marry even slaves” (Greg., IV.27). And while Gregory himself never states that Fredegund was such a slave, he coyly allows her daughter to the levy the charge:

Chilperic’s daughter Rigunth often defamed her mother, saying that she would return her mother to slavery while she herself was a mistress. And sometimes they hit each other with hands and fists. Her mother said to her: “Why do you molest me, daughter? Behold the things of your father, which I have in my power. Take and do as you please.” And when she put her arm in to take things from the chest, her mother took hold of the lid and drove it against her neck. But those outside broke into the chamber, snatching the girl from imminent death. After this, the enmity between them grew ever more fierce, and there was no particular cause, unless it was that Rigunth pursued adultery. (Greg., IX.34)

Typical Fredegund, according to Gregory, and he suggests that Rigunth had no more honor than her low-born mother. These are, however, but hints and echoes of Fredegund’s rise from slavery. Gregory’s reluctance to describe Fredegund as a slave contrasts with his otherwise brutal picture of her, perhaps because he thought Fredegund would kill even her own daughter for daring to voice such a charge.

But this should not cause us to doubt that Fredegund was indeed a slave. Over a century later, an anonymous author reworked Gregory’s stories into a new Liber Historiae Francorum, and with Fredegund long dead, he had the freedom to be more explicit. Whereas Gregory attributed the rise of Fredegund to the indulgences of her then-dead husband Chilperic, the author of the LHF offers a much more elaborate account:

When Chilperic marched against the Saxons, his wife Audovera gave birth to a daughter. But Fredegund deceived her, saying: “Mistress, my master returns; how can he receive his daughter unbaptized?” The queen then called for a bishop to baptize the girl, but when the bishop arrived, there was no one available to be the girl’s godmother. So Fredegund said: “We can find no one equal to you—be bold and receive her yourself!” So she took the girl from the font.

When the king returned, Fredegund met him along the way. She said: “With whom will my master sleep tonight, since my mistress has become a godmother to your daughter and is now your spiritual sister?” And he said: “If it is forbidden for me to sleep with her, then let me sleep with you.” And when the king entered his hall, he said to his queen: “You have done a wicked thing in your simplemindedness, and you may no longer be my wife.” He made her put on the holy veil and become a nun along with her daughter, and he exiled the bishop. Fredegund then bound herself to him as the queen. (LHF, 31)

It’s hard to know how far we should trust this story, which offers new details for events from the early 560s even though it wasn’t written until after 727. Would a slave have known the minor points of church law that Fredegund uses against Audovera? And is this shrewd but unscrupulous Chilperic the same man as Gregory’s depraved and capricious king?

Regardless, this passage lets us know that Gregory’s indirect comments about Fredegund’s slave background seemed unambiguous to early readers. Fredegund had been a slave, she was considered a lesser person for that, and the Merovingian kings had weakened their ability to rule by bringing people like her into the family.

This later account also reveals some of what Gregory could or could not say while Fredegund still lived and breathed. His image of Fredegund as a fearsome queen and his reticence to talk about her history as a slave reflects an image that Fredegund herself sought to promote, or was at least one that she was willing to allow. In Gregory’s silences, we hear an echo of Fredegund’s voice.

Queen Fredegund issues orders to assassinate Chilperic’s brother Sigibert, king of Austrasia. Chilperic was similarly assassinated in 584, but Fredegund maintained power until her death, focusing many of her latter years on a feud with her fellow queen Brunhilda. (Sketch of Cathedral Window, Tournai, France; via Wikimedia Commons.)

Translations are my own, with some adaptations to accommodate online readers. I don’t think that early medieval authors would have minded these revisions, but if you’d like to get closer to their works, I’d recommend:

  • Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (London: Penguin, 1974).
  • Alexander Callander Murray, ed. and trans., From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
  • Erin T. Dailey, Queens, Consorts, Concubines: Gregory of Tours and Women of the Merovingian Elite (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

More on other Merovingian queens to come!


Raising the Viking Dead from Bornholm’s Graves

An archaeologist’s skills lie in uncovering the relics of the dead. But an archaeologist’s art rests in bringing these people—or at least their stories—back to life. Both aspects of the discipline require precision and insight, which is part of what makes archaeology so exciting. As a historian, I face the added challenge of getting an archaeologist’s fragments of the past—the stuff of settlements, cemeteries, and hoards—to speak to the textual traces that we call “primary sources.” It’s my assertion that archaeological finds have similar value, and that they give us opportunities to breathe fresh life into our stories about the past.

For centuries, people gathered on the east coast of Bornholm to bury their dead on this slope above the sea. They preferred digging into the hard clay near the top rather than in the looser sands below, suggesting that this view was a key factor in their decision to select this site. (Nørre Sandegård, Bornholm, Denmark.)

At Nørre Sandegård Vest, a small field on the east coast of Bornholm, I’ve been trying to do just that. Local farmers have been churning up artifacts for centuries, and the celebrated Danish antiquarian Emil Vedel started scouting the area back in 1884. In 1901, he excavated at Nørre Sandegård itself, finding eleven graves that spanned from the height of the Roman Empire to the cusp of the Viking Age. But Vedel didn’t get it all. In 1986, as the landowner was moving dirt for a garden, new artifacts began to appear. An initial investigation discovered three graves, and a large campaign the next year turned up 47 more. Most of these burials (and their beads!) date from the late Iron Age to the early Viking Age, or about 600-750, which is perfect for my research. And a published report of these finds (sponsored in part by Queen Margrethe of Denmark and the Carlsberg Breweries) has made the results accessible to researchers like myself.

Beads excavated at Nørre Sandegård during 2014 and 2016. All these beads were imported or made from imported materials, and their careful study can reveal how the people of Nørre Sandegård were connected to the wider worrld. Lots of work to do here! (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

But more farmwork has turned up more artifacts, so Bornholms Museum is digging again. The dig has been contracted to Christina Rein Seehusen, and it has become a thesis project for two doctoral students from the University of Gdansk: Karolina Czonstke (Baltic silver and jewelry) and Bartosz Świątkowski (ceramics). Together, they’ve discovered that the 1987 excavators explored only a few meters in each direction from the graves that they found. If they hit something, they excavated it, but when their test trenches turned dry, they stopped digging. The problem is that they occasionally shot their trenches between two graves without hitting either, so when they called an end to excavations, they left a number of undisturbed graves along the edges of the cemetery.

A section of the large areas cleared to reveal any graves missed by Vedel or the excavators of 1987. Modern ploughing has hopelessly mixed up the top 30 cm (1 ft), which has been removed. The lines across the soil were made by the plough. They might represent the marks from last season’s ploughing, but they could also be much, much older. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

The numbers aren’t final, but since excavations resumed in 2014, about thirty new graves have been found. The archaeologists aren’t relying on test trenches anymore. Instead, they’re opening up large sections of earth, sometimes assisted by a mechanical excavator that strips away the top layers of agricultural dirt. (The preferred technique—using ground-penetrating radar to look for magnetic anomalies—has proven ineffective at this site.) Unfortunately, this churned up farm soil often includes the top layers of graves. As ongoing erosion has carried topsoil to the sea, the ploughs have been digging deeper and deeper each year. In just a few more years, there may have been nothing left for archaeologists to find.

Modern excavations can be painstaking work. Here, Bartosz makes a plaster cast around a sword. The sword will be moved, together with the surrounding dirt and its plaster shell, so that it can be X-rayed and eventually excavated in the more controlled conditions of the laboratory. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

My own minor contributions to this project consisted mainly in removing surface dirt that covered archaeological layers. Modern plough soil has a uniform appearance from being repeatedly mixed together, but more ancient soils look mottled. Once the top layer is cleared away, we can study the underlying soil for signs of human activity. The people who used Nørre Sandegård as a cemetery liked burial mounds with the occasional cremation. Cremations leave a dark char in the soil, and the trenches that mourners dug around burials to build mounds on top of them were filled many years later by differently colored soils blown in from the sea. These dark patches tell archaeologists where they should focus their efforts.

Archaeology is part guesswork. Christina, the lead excavator, has traced a circle around this dark patch of soil, which she thinks might be a new cremation grave. A less experienced hand, such as my own, might trace these lines differently or even miss the subtle soil changes altogether. But there’s no going back in archaeology—every dig is a controlled experiment in destroying the past. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

For many graves at Nørre Sandegård, soil discoloration is all that’s left. Ploughing has stripped some artifacts away, and chemicals and microbes in the soil have consumed others. But sometimes soil colors are enough. Take, for example, graves K99 and K100. A large dark ring surrounds these graves—the telltale sign that once a burial mound was here. A few surviving artifacts let us deduce that K99 was male and K100 female. His grave is deeper, nearer the center of the surrounding trench. Hers is more shallow, but still well within the trench’s perimeter. Perhaps K99 was buried first, the mound built above him. When they laid K100 beside him, they dug deep, but not much deeper than the original surface. Either the mound had been built large enough in anticipation of K100’s burial, or K99’s funeral was recent enough that filling the old trench and digging a new one left no noticeable changes in the soil patterns.

Two recently discovered graves: K99 (foreground) and K100 (background). Mourners dug a trench around these graves—now visible as a dark ring—and heaped the earth into a mound on top. The burials overlook the east coast of Bornholm. Far beyond the horizon lie Sweden and the Baltic states. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

The people who buried K100 were able to respect K99’s grave—there’s no overlap, and the two burials are closely aligned. Although the mound disappeared centuries ago, this is a good sign that K99’s burial was marked and tended in the years after his death. Many of the ring trenches at Nørre Sandegård include small round rocks that were carried there from the sea. These must have been placed atop the mounds, with some tumbling into the trenches for archaeologists to find, and the rest being scattered by ploughs. Karolina Czonstke, who excavated these graves, reminds us that the grave can be a doorway to the afterlife, and she suggests that these sea-worn pebbles might have carried a special ritual meaning, perhaps signifying a sense of eternity.

Nørre Sandegård Vest is a cemetery dug into clay and sand at the top of a hill, but pebbles like this belong near the sea or along running water. They seem to have been placed atop the burial mounds and later tumbled into the surrounding trenches. Why were they carried there? What did they mean? (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

These ideas seem well suited for the people buried in K99 and K100. We can imagine what must have been the grief of a moment—a prosperous and well-respected man laid to rest, his grave carefully marked out, a beloved companion following him soon into death, and a grieving community that respected her wishes to be buried alongside him, placing her in the same mound overlooking the sea for centuries to come. And now, although the mound is gone, the graves themselves unearthed in a last-ditch effort to save them from erosion and the plough, K99 and K100 remain with us through the traces they left in the soil, touching us in life and death across the centuries.

Activity at Nørre Sandegård Vest didn’t stop with the last burials. Centuries of farming have dug deeper and deeper into the cemetery, as erosion has carried the topsoil away. Three plough marks run in three directions right along the edge of K99, traces of changing seasons and a stark reminder that we need archaeologists to help us recover these stories before they’re forever lost. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

Bornholms Museum will be hosting an open house at the site on September 16, and a selection of artifacts will be on display at the museum on September 19.

The Frankenstein Bead of Bornholm

I’ve spent the past week at Bornholms Museum (no apostrophe needed). It’s the local museum for the Danish municipality and Baltic island of Bornholm, a stout rock of granite and rolling fields, forests, and sandy beaches. During the early middle ages, travelers and traders often sought refuge along Bornholm’s open shores—they could see what they were getting into before they approached, and they could scatter for safety at the first sign of danger. The island prospered as a result, with what seems to have been a major cult site springing up at Sorte Muld near the island’s east coast. Although archaeologists haven’t identified any particular cemetery with the Sorte Muld community, there were plenty of lavish cemeteries in the surrounding countryside. An enthusiastic Danish administrator discovered many of these cemeteries during his assignment to Bornholm in the 1880s, and more recent metal detecting and archaeological excavations have greatly added to this number.

Bornholms Museum has an entire wall filled with these tiny leaves of gold, each imprinted with the image of a man or a woman. Although we can’t be sure why people made these “guldgubber” and deposited them at the site of Sorte Muld, they testify to an impressive accumulation of wealth as Bornholm flourished amid the depths of the Dark Ages. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

Although that administrator—a jurist named Emil Vedel—produced publications that still get referenced in scholarly work today, I’m more interested in sites that have been excavated over the last few decades. Vedel lived at a time when he could be cavalier with his discoveries, and some of his finds disappeared as a result. The artifacts that he did hand over to the public trust ended up with the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen. Today, professional archaeologists working for Bornholms Museum oversee the digs, and all but a few artifacts remain on Bornholm. From a scholarly perspective, this means that recent digs are more thoroughly documented, and the finds are carefully collected and curated at the museum’s storage facility in Rønne. And since Bornholm stands somewhat apart from the rest of Denmark and Scandinavia, some of these sites are ripe for studies that will open them up for wider audiences.

Bornholm is seen today as an isolated, get-away vacation spot, but it was once at the intersection of major waterways reaching north into the Baltic, east into the North Sea, and south along the Danube. This beautiful bead isn’t painted—it’s a mosaic made from hundreds of tiny pieces of glass. And sometime around the age of Constantine, it traveled all the way from the heart of the Roman Empire to its final resting place in a Bornholm grave. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

This week, I’ve focused especially on two cemeteries that were used during the late Iron Age and into the first generations of the Viking Age: Nørre Sandegård Vest and Snekkebjerg. Nørre Sandegård overlooks the island’s northern shore, while Snekkebjerg is a bit more inland. Nørre Sandegård has been known since the earliest surveys by Vedel, but Snekkebjerg remains relatively unknown—its publicity remains limited to a single display in the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen. In short, these are two sites rich in comparisons and contrasts, and I plan to use their beads to tell the story about how long-distance contacts and local social patterns underwent drastic change at the dawn of the Viking Age—changes that would redirect the European slave trade from the west (down to Marseilles and Rome) to the east (outward to Venice, Constantinople, Baghdad, and Khwarazm).

Snekkebjerg, still unpublished, is generally known only from this display at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen. The large rock crystal (quartz) beads are far-travelers, but the associated mosaic beads may have been made locally. This impressive woman was buried during the early 700s with three broaches, two arm rings, two knives, and probably an equally lavish set of organic materials (like linens, furs, and leather) that haven’t survived. (Note that I took this mediocre photo before I learned how to take better photos.) (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

My work at the museum has centered around assessing research opportunities, getting to know the right people, and testing my own procedures. I’ve also had the opportunity to help (a little) at the ongoing excavations at Nørre Sandegård. More about that later. For now, I’d like to focus on what might be my new favorite bead. I’ve dubbed it the Frankenstein Bead, because it’s a bit of a monster. It’s made from tidbits of things that just don’t seem to go together. But someone in the past put them together, and although this hodgepodge seems out of place amid many other beads I’ve seen—each with its own coherent shape and design laid out upon a single piece of glass—someone thought it had its own sense of unity. The Frankenstein Bead was included as but one bead of many, falling in at bead number 36 of 46 in the necklace buried at A36 at Snekkebjerg.

“The Frankenstein Bead.” The complex design on the left (which covers about a third of the bead) abruptly stops, after which the maker left some blank space, and then there seems to be some haphazard experiments with red and white appliqués. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Bornholm.)

This bead may not strike the casual observer for anything other than its imperfect design, which is indeed what made it stand out initially. The bead’s inconsistencies stand in stark contrast to the skill that went into its decorative designs, which show that it was made by an experienced hand. The yellow stripes were made by twisting two rods of yellow and blue glass together, then melting them onto a premade blue bead. The wavy line down the center of the left side was similarly made, probably by melting white-red-white together so that a red stripe would appear in the middle, although the red has left only the faintest trace after a thousand years in the soil. The design on the right is less orderly, but it likewise demonstrates the use of an appliqué made from rods of red and white glass fused together. No glass was wasted. All the appliqués were laid so thin and flat that the bead maintained a consistent shape without any bulging where the extra glass was applied. Things get really exciting, however, when the bead is held up to the light.

“The Frankenstein Bead” held up to the light. I discern three different shades of transmitted light. A bright blue shines through from 12 o’clock to 5 o’clock, a medium blue shines from 5 o’clock to 8 o’clock, and a dark almost opaque blue is under my index finger from 8 o’clock back to the 12. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

Although the bead looks like a consistent dark blue when it’s laid on an opaque surface, it allows three distinct shades to shine through when it’s held up to light. This means either that the raw glass had a highly uneven chemical distribution (glass is, after all, a fluid—or at least an amorphous solid). Or it means that the beadmaker used at least three different pieces of blue glass and fused them together, plus the appliqués on top. Either way, this would have been an extremely tricky endeavor. Glasses cool differently, depending on the chemical compounds that they’re made of, so the one or possibly three seams of this bead were all potential breaking points. And yet this bead somehow made it. This bead—this messy hodgepodge of a bead—must certainly have been the work of a maestro, someone for whom fluid mechanics made intuitive sense, despite living in a world that lacked the (now) common-sense assumptions enshrined as Newtonian physics.

The Frankenstein Bead’s more comely cousin. Here the candy-cane rod of wrapped reticella glass is allowed to bulge at the center, and the red-and-white appliqué at either end has been combed into graceful waves. This bead comes from Snekkebjerg’s sister cemetery at Nørre Sandegård, where it was excavated just a few weeks ago. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

I’m not entirely sure what this all means. I’d tentatively date this bead’s necklace to the early 700s, since it shares some commonalities with other necklaces from the period. But the Frankenstein Bead is certainly unique. The constituent pieces are common enough, so perhaps this was a training bead, maybe even the surviving trace of a parent teaching a child the finer points of working with amorphous solids. This kind of work would have been unthinkable in Scandinavia before the 700s, and it helps signal the changes in crafts and trade that helped make way for the urbanization and long-distance exchange that characterized the Viking Age—and everything else that came with it.

Taking Better Museum Photos

I’ve done some light research and experiment to improve my photography in museums. Most of my subjects are small, finely detailed, harshly lit in otherwise dark rooms, and obscured by the glare reflected off their oversize display cases. I’ve got a Nikon Coolpix L830 and an iPhone 5s. My iPhone seems to do better automatically selecting settings, but my Nikon achieves the better photos when I use it adroitly. This long-ish post gave me a way to take notes as I experimented, and I hope that others might use it to learn from some of my mistakes. And the casual visitor need not worry; there’s lots of pictures.

As Rome was burning during the fifth and sixth centuries, Scandinavian warlords collected gold neck rings and arm bands, perhaps gathering their wealth from serving Rome either as her invaders or as her mercenaries. Now, these rings are protected by highly reflective glass under harsh lights in a dim room, challenging the prospective photographer but also multiplying their wealth into ghostly reflections stretching in every direction. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Choosing the Right Settings

Turn off the flash. Not only will flash photography reflect off display cases and spoil a shot, it’s also potentially damaging to the objects on display. Most museums prohibit flash anyway, so it’s best to turn off the flash and get to know the other options for overcoming museum displays.

Adjust exposure time. In a dim museum, there’s two ways to brighten a shot without resorting to flash. The first is increasing exposure time, which may also be called exposure value (EV) or exposure compensation. This means the shutter will stay open longer and allow more light to enter. But the longer an exposure is, the greater the chance that minor shakes will cause it to blur. Although upping the EV is often recommended, my shots start to turn fuzzy at about EV + 1. In fact, I often need to turn my EV down. My Nikon senses the dim environment of a museum and sets a high EV, but this makes reflective objects like metal and glass wash out of the shot. For most cameras I’ve owned, EV is the easiest setting to access and adjust.

Increase the ISO setting. The other option for combatting dim light is increasing the ISO setting. This increases a camera’s sensitivity to light, allowing it to collect light more quickly. But if the ISO is set too high (and especially if there’s a lot of distance between the foreground and background of a shot), the light collection will be uneven, leading to a grainy image with a lot of unwanted noise. Lower ISO settings are truer to light and color, so the lowest effective setting is the best one. Typically, somewhere between 200 and 1600 should do. I rarely play with ISO.

Glass and gold beads from various locations in Denmark, first and second century A.D. These objects may have begun their trip north as diplomatic gifts from officials of the Roman empire. The balance in the photo is decent, with more than enough light, but some detail has been lost. Perhaps a shorter EV or higher ISO would help. Reflections on the glass don’t obstruct the objects, but they may distract some viewers. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Try HDR. There are times when a low-EV setting captures detail but looks too dark, a high-EV setting washes out the details with too much light, and a high ISO strikes the right balance but turns out grainy and pixellated. Many cameras have a high-dynamic range (HDR) option that takes a number of photographs at these different settings and then combines the sharpest bits of them into one high-quality image. Because HDR relies on stitching multiple photos together, it’s important that both camera and subject are still. So HDR is great for museum display cases and stained-glass windows, but it’s no good for cathedrals scenes with people moving through.

Experiment with macro. If available, macro mode may be useful for taking very close-up shots. Some cameras automatically select it when they sense a short focal length, and others need it to be manually turned on. It’s not always clear what macro mode does, or when it’s best to use. Some trial and error may be needed. When my Nikon has difficulty selecting the right focus, turning on macro often clears things up.

Adjust the white balance. If a photos seems yellow or blue, the white balance needs to be adjusted. Yellow-tinted photos are being saturated by light from incandescent or tungsten light bulbs (like most of us have at home). Bluish photos are picking up florescent lighting (like at the office or at school). I usually forget which is which and need to experiment to see which setting works best. If all else fails, most basic photo programs can edit balance after the shots have been taken. (For Mac users with Photos, it’s under Image > Show Edit Tools.) Note that everyone has their own unique sensitivity to color and their own aesthetic preferences as well. It’s okay not to see eye-to-eye with whoever calibrated the auto functions on a camera.

This tiny foil of gold, smaller than a finger nail and weighing a fraction of a gram, was abandoned at what seems to have been a cult site of Sorte Muld on the island of Bornholm in the south Baltic. It’s a unique image of a bear from the same period that the Beowulf legend may have been beginning to take shape. I got this closeup using my Nikon’s Museum and macro modes, combined with my Moleskine notebook to block reflections off the glass. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

Museum Mode. My Nikon has a Museum Mode, which seems to take shots using a number of settings effective for low-light conditions and then select the best one. Generally, it does a pretty good job, although I often end up still needing to adjust EV when using Museum Mode.

Take the Right Shot

Shoot from an angle. Don’t stand in front of display cases when you’re taking photos—you’re bound to get your own reflection if you do. And if you’re taking photos of something beneath you, it’s likely that you’ll see your feet reflected back. I have hundreds of photographs where the museum displays seem to be growing my feet. An oblique angle is often best.

Shoot from against the glass. This is probably the best and easiest way to minimize glare, although it’s by no means foolproof. Leaning the camera lens against the glass has the added advantage of stabilizing the shot, allowing you to use a higher EV and/or a lower ISO setting. Of course, this only applies if you’re allowed to touch display cases.

Silver hoard with arm rings and a necklace. Silver replaced gold as the favorite precious metal of the Viking Age. This hoard was buried in Denmark in the tenth century. The shot strikes a good balance of light and detail, with the focal length somewhat better fitted to the necklace than the arm rings. An oblique angle prevents reflections and makes the glass seem almost completely transparent. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Use the widest shot possible. Try to avoid zooming in, especially if you’re using a high ISO. It will increase the likelihood that your picture will end up grainy. In some circumstances, however, the only way to beat glare may be to step back from the display cases and take a zoomed-in photo.

Get the right focus. Taking oblique shots in high contrast lighting through reflective glass can confound even the best camera’s auto settings. Most cameras show their focus when the shutter button is pressed only slightly. I’ve often found that if my camera isn’t finding the right focal length or light balance, the quickest fix is to focus on a nearby object that gets the right settings and then redirecting my camera toward the object I want to capture.

Brace yourself. Use your body to help stabilize the camera. If you’re standing, tuck your elbows into your ribs. Try leaning against a wall or display case. If you crouch or kneel, put your elbow on your thigh or seat your upper arm against your knee; meat-to-bone contact will give the greatest stability. Exhale before you shoot, press and hold the shutter release until the shot is done, and don’t inhale until your finger is off the trigger.

Be bold. When I take pictures in a museum, it’s generally so that I can document what I’ve seen. But it’s also because I’m excited about encountering rare artifacts from the past. I try to capture some of this excitement by choosing unexpected angles, placing my foreground off center, or looking for opportunities to use contrast and depth. The photos that capture your interest are most likely to capture the interest of others.

A viking god? This object confounded my efforts to photograph it for the past two years, but with the right angle and my lens pressed to the glass, I captured this handsome shot. Unfortunately, it seems that the photograph I took of accompanying text turned out blurry, so I need to go back to get more details. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Don’t forget the text! Museums tend to be full of rare and exciting stuff, but it’s easy to forget why an obscure object is important or how a mundane object might actually be part of a larger human story. Taking a photo of the museum placard is the easiest way to document what you’ve seen. It’s also worth considering taking photos of entire rooms, doorways that mark transitions in the collections, and the wall text that introduces a new room or section. Museum curators work hard to make stories about the past come alive. Take note of the stories that they’ve chosen to tell. Remember that these stories guide which objects museums showcase and which ones they leave in storage. Your best bet is to think about (and photograph) the complete context: room, case, text, object.

Bring the Right Equipment

The comments above should be enough to help take satisfactory shots of most museum displays, but a few other things might help. As someone who travels a lot, I keep my extra equipment to a minimum.

A microfiber cloth. The small ones used for a regular pair of glasses are fine; just something to wipe smudges off the display cases with, so someone’s fingerprints don’t spoil a shot.

Something black. Draping a black cloth as a hood between the lens and a display case will help cut out reflections. Or if one particular light is causing glare, use something black to block the incoming light. In a pinch, I’ve used the back of my black messenger bag or my pocket-sized Moleskine to help minimize reflections.

Half of my photos look like this—a poor angle with bad balance and a better image of my own reflection than the objects in the case. But this quick shot captured enough information for me to quickly identify the surrounding photos as belonging to a famous magnate’s grave from Bjerringhøj on Jutland. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

A small tripod. I’m a fan of flexible tripods like the GorillaPod. They’re not great for stabilizing a shot, but they let you geek out as a tourist and take photos of yourself pretty much anywhere. You never know when you might get a photo op with an exquisite display or artifact. Note that some museums prohibit selfie sticks so patrons don’t risk hitting something on accident.

Gee-whiz equipment. More serious photographers justifiably recommend specialized equipment, such as a wide-aperture lens or a gee-whiz tripod. But that’s not me, and I’m happy with the shots I can get with minimal gear.

Some Final Thoughts

It’s important not to be a nuisance to other visitors. Sure, a researcher might see a photographing excursion as work, but pleasing patrons is the work of the museum and it’s what keeps  artifacts out for display and study. So get out of the way, turn your camera to silent, give it a break if the shutter seem to be annoying fellow patrons, and be willing to spend a lot longer in the museum than a tourist passing through. On a more positive note, remember that visitors come to museums to learn, and they often sense what’s important based on what other visitors are looking at when they enter a room. Seeing your enthusiasm may well help spark an enduring interest in your field of study.

My iPhone camera glitched as I took this shot of a tombstone in Copenhagen, and it left me this strange image. It shows how modern cameras can cycle through filters and settings to produce a better image, and it has a nice effect of its own. Don’t blink! (Vestre Cemetery, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

A Few Resources