Mats P. Malmer 100 Years

Mats Peterson Malmer (1921-2007) would have been 100 years old on 18 October. If I had to pick just one archaeological hero, I’d pick Mats. It’s his clarity of thinking and writing. It’s his insistence on objective observation. It’s his uncompromising willingness to process enormously large volumes of material. It’s his wide thematic range. Mats’s 1984 debate piece “Arkeologisk positivism” was enormously important to me in grad school ten years later when I was surrounded by an evangelising post-modernist relativist orthodoxy.

In the Malmer retrospective reader volume Archaeology as Fact and Fiction (in English, 2016), Stig Welinder comments on Mats’s radically stringent and explicit typological methodology from 1962. It never become the subject of much debate: archaeology simply recognised it as sound and adopted it wholesale. The 2016 volume is an excellent entry point into Malmer’s wide-ranging work. It’s available on-line for free.

Mats has been proven wrong in some of his interpretations, most importantly regarding the arrival of agriculture in Sweden. Archaeogenetics have recently documented a large immigration wave at the time that would have surprised Mats if he had lived. But as a lifelong friend of the natural sciences, he would calmly have accepted the evidence.

In Tim Murray’s big 1999 collection of archaeologist’s biographies, there are only two Swedish names. One is Oscar Montelius, our most fruitful thinker and writer of the 19th century. The other is his 20th century counterpart, Mats P. Malmer.


Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

3 thoughts on “Mats P. Malmer 100 Years”

  1. His 1963 essay on typologies is interesting and I have added it to Mt. Tsundoku, but I can tell its by a prehistoric archaeologist. At first glance his ideas don’t seem to have much room for classifying artefacts best known through iconography or artefacts which you only have access to through photos.


  2. Malmer would reply that if the typological elements used in your type definition are visible on the photo, then no problem. As for iconography, he would classify the image, not that which it depicts.


    1. One case I am thinking of is the two main typologies of the two-edged European sword of the early 2nd millennium CE. The one by the late Ewart Oakeshott would make Malmer sad because its not precise or clear or quantitative (arms and armour studies in the English-speaking world never made the transition from a community of antiquarians to a discipline based at universities). But its immensely useful! The one by Alfred Geibig is carefully defined and quantitive and the product of his PhD thesis, but its very hard to use it unless you have physical access to the sword and plenty of time, and I don’t see it used much even in scholarly literature.


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