Swedish Archaeological Site Protection

Chris O’Brien at Northstate Science gave a speedy reply to my questions of this morning.

It seems that any evaluation of whether the US has strong or weak site protection depends upon what standards are actually followed when a site is considered for the National Register of Historic Places. I wonder what sort of sites fall through the safety net in practice. (As for the NAGPRA protection of graves, that doesn’t seem to be of much use to archaeology as it largely keeps my American colleagues from studying burial sites — for reasons of political correctness and belated post-colonial guilt.)

Chris asked,

“… are all sites in Sweden automatically registered with the Heritage Board once identified, or is there a similar ‘evaluation’ process to determine if a site is eligible for registration?”

The evaluation process takes place in the field when an archaeologist ponders the question “is this a site?”. If it’s a site, then it becomes registered and protected.

But the site concept is quite fluid in practice. Legally speaking, it’s simple: in Sweden, an archaeological site is a place with remains of people’s activities in the past that is permanently abandoned for these particular activities. This means that if I leave my crappy old car at the side of a forest road after a hike and take the bus home, without any intention of ever collecting the old clunker, then it is nominally an archaeological site. This is of course not how it works in practice.

Basically, anything before AD 1700 is seen as interesting and worth protecting in Sweden (take that, Monticello and Williamsburg!). But after that approximate date, cultural resource management practice becomes more and more patchy and inconsistent as we move toward the present.

More and more categories of site, and ever humbler categories of site, have become recognised by the State Board of National Antiquities through the decades. Currently we’re down to protecting clearance cairns, ancient fields, tar-burning pits, elk-trapping pits and settlement sites indicated by a single piece of knapped quartz. This means that people are forbidden to dig or dynamite the sites. But the decision whether a particular site must be professionally excavated in advance of land development — the developer pays — rests with the County Archaeologist. I’ve seen a 17th century farmstead bulldozed with the County Archaeologist’s permission while a 19th century one nearby was meticulously excavated because it had 17th century ancestry and sat on the remains of an Iron Age cemetery. So there’s a certain amount of leeway in the actual practice of a very simply phrased law. Anything Prehistoric or Medieval (pre-AD 1500) will, however, be excavated if threatened by land development. (Except churchyards where Medieval burials are routinely destroyed to make room for new ones.)

I’ve got to say, though, that most of the rescue-dug sites in Sweden bore me to tears. This is because of the Field-Archaeological Paradox.

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10 thoughts on “Swedish Archaeological Site Protection

  1. Wow, interesting…am I correct that Sweden sees AD1700 as somewhat of a “cut off” for historic preservation? Here we use the 50 year rule (anything over 50 years of age needs to be considered as an archaeological site – sounds somewhat like your abandoned car example – my concern is that in another 15 years we’re going to have to start treating all those pull-tab beer cans from the seventies as historic sites!). Although, like Sweden, that’s not always hard and fast…Interesting also is the variety of sites that would be considered “eligible” for the NHB; of the site types you mentioned the only thing that might be eligible for our NRHP would be the ancient field – possibly the clearance cairns if they could be shown to be associated with a particular cultural group and aren’t common on the landscape (they are in the Sacramento Valley – most made by Chinese laborers during the 19th century).

    One comment on NAGPRA – I generally feel the same way you do regarding our inability to excavate burials (we rag on Christian creationists a lot but often let Native American creationism slide without critique – an unfortunate situation). However, NAGPRA is itself complex and does not inherently prohibit burial excavation for research – it does promote standards for consultation with tribes).

    Thanks again for the great discussion!!


  2. Well, part of the definition of a Swedish protected site is that it should be the result of ancient practices and be abandoned or no longer be in it�s original use. Most churchyards are still used for burials and are not abandoned so they don�t really fit the definition all that well. That said the actual application of the law is inconsistent and open to interpretations.


  3. David, you’re right. But by the same logic, we should feel free to tear down large parts of Medieval churches and re-build them to current tastes every 50 years or so, because that’s what they used to do in the Middle Ages.

    I think rural congregations should be obliged to establish new churchyards on land cleared of archaeology beforehand.


  4. Yeah, this is one of those times when you can really tell which country is the newer of the two, Sweden or the US. I distinctly remember coming to my current home, Canada, and while on a tour bus being told that “We’re now going to see some REALLY oooold buildings. This hotel was built in the 1880’s!!” I almost choked on my morning tea at that point, seeing as how I grew up singing in a church that was built in the 1200’s, in a community that was first settled in the mesolithics. THAT’s old.(Mind you, I live in one of the “even for Canada” newer parts, BC.) When a building here has stood for 30 years we tear the “outdated shack” down, so 50 years is old for here. 50 years in Sweden is nothing, because there, things are built to stand for a century, to then be restored with love. Huge difference in culture there.
    As for NAGPRA, in this country we have a similar thing. While I was deciding whether I should be “just” an archaeologist or and osteoarchaeologist, I was told by more than one firm here in BC not to bother with osteo, because “we litterally won’t touch human remains” purely for political reasons – it’s not cost effective to dig someone up only to have them reburied within three days of the remains being taken up. The idea is to get them back into organic matter before we can run any tests that can possibly prove anything at all. It is a very terrible hot potato issue, as the First Nations People stand to loose fishing and hunting rights etc if we dig up the “wrong” thing. It’s very sad, because we could potentially tell them some very important things about their ancestors, which,as far as I am concerned, would bite off some of that “debt of guilt for the past”. I can see both sides of the coin very clearly, and I don’t particularly like how either side is choosing to abuse the system (now or in the past). I just really feel that we need to have a discussion on the issue, but both sides are too afraid to loose whatever ground they have now. In the end, everyone looses. -T


  5. IMHO, a secular society shouldn’t pay any attention to the ideas people have about ancestry more than a few generations back. Indigenous-minority Blut und Boden is just as ugly as the majority-population variety of ethnic chauvinism.


  6. Martin: “David, you’re right. But by the same logic, we should feel free to tear down large parts of Medieval churches and re-build them to current tastes every 50 years or so, because that’s what they used to do in the Middle Ages.”

    Not really – at least from a legal standpoint. There´s a separate paragraph in the Cultural Monuments Act protecting all churches built before 1940.

    But just to be provocative: Why shouldn´t a congregation be more free to rebuild their churches? Not a completely free hand but the same limitations given by municipalities on any other building? We are a secular society (since just a ferw years back pathetically enough) and the church is pretty much just a club for like-minded people.

    Tina: “50 years in Sweden is nothing, because there, things are built to stand for a century, to then be restored with love.”

    I wish that were so. Most Swedish town-centres were razed and rebuilt more completley in the 60s and 70s than central European town-centres ever were by WWII and the following rebuilding. And in the country-side most old buildings have no protection at all.

    BTW, Martin, I should mention that I really like your blog!


  7. Many thanks, David, warms my heart!

    As for the preservation of Medieval churches, the prehistorian in my heart wants to see them all torn down so we can get at the rune stones and picture stones hiddeen in their walls and the Viking Period wooden church foundations beneath them. (-;


  8. Hi again. David, yes, I realize that a lot of buildings were demolished over the past 50 or so years, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that here, things are built with the idea that they will be torn down soon. I don’t remember that being the mindset in the old country. And I think that it’s in urban areas that buildings have to be torn down to make room for new stuff because there are more people now than when the original buildings were put there. Here, they’re just ripped down for no reason, urban or rural, population or no population, just because that’s how it’s done. There’s nothing wrong with that, either, it works for this culture and this climate, but what I was getting at was the totally different mindset.
    Martin,I agree with your Blut und Boden reply, obviously. All I can say to that is “what do you expect of a country where my vote counts as one, but if I spoke Quebequois, it’d be worth more?” We’re still paying back the debt of “driving out the French – sort of” just as much as we’re paying for the First Nations abuse. The difference is that the sqeaky wheel gets the grease, and the Quebecers squeak more and so have gained more political power(“we” gave it to them). We have to placate them first, before we bother raising an eyebrow at ALL the aboriginal kids in one village killing themselves all at once by way of sniffing glue while their parents were too drunk to notice… When we’ve fixed that, then we might get a chance to look at archaeology, is the thinking. I sort of think that if we could look at the archaeology now, then maybe that would help towards restoring “their” feeling of worth. They are still embarrassed to say that they are native. I think that’s as good a startingpoint as any in opening up a dialogue so that we can get on with being a country. I truly am looking forwards to the day when there is no “we” and “them”, but just “us” and our Canadian ancestors, all of whom are worth as much to archaeology – and society – as the other guy. -T


  9. Ouch. And Canada’s the sane North American country. (-;

    I don’t think archaeology will do much for the reservation sitters’ sense of self-worth, though. I believe that archaeology should never be used for identity-political purposes at all. What disadvantaged groups need is education and jobs, not data on how people who may or may not count among their ancestors lived centuries and millennia ago.


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