Pond of the Plywood Vikings

Re-run from 25 December 2005 (no, Swedes pay no attention to Christmas Day, preferring to get worked up about Christmas Eve).


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In Skive, Denmark, there’s a pond dug to accommodate a plywood Viking ship that was never set afloat.

My friend Rud Kjems tells the story in local-history annual Skiveegnens jul 2005. Skive museum was incorporated in 1910, but only in 1942 did it get premises of its own. When the museum building was finally becoming a reality, the organisation received some unusual corporate sponsorship.

Danish brewery Tuborg financed a film set in the Viking Period for the universal exhibition of 1937 in Paris. The brewery ended up with a warehouse full of props, costumes and set decorations, including a 19 metre Viking ship replica. It offered all this, along with a sizeable sum of money, to the thrilled trustees of Skive museum. They envisioned a Viking re-enactment centre in the town park, with a re-constructed Iron Age house, people in period costumes, and a pond with a boat house and a proud Viking ship. For a time, Skive was the envy of neighbouring town councils. Plans were laid out for the park, and the pond was dug.

But when the gear arrived from Tuborg, it turned out that the latter-day Vikings of the Danish film industry weren’t quite up to the standards of their ancestors.

“Using cardboard, plaster and paint, they have created an illusion of thick oak boards, but it is all hollow. Only a few pieces may be massive. The general impression of the materials is not good, even if there may be a few things … you might have hopes for, but otherwise it looks like a pile of firewood.”

Skive museum has much to offer the visitor, but no re-enactment centre from the 1930s, and no Viking ship. It turned out to be made of plywood. But the pond is still there, the imprint of a dream of a beer-sodden replica of a golden past.

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Work or Play? An Unusual Stone Object

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Here’s a funny find. My buddy Tobias Bondesson sent me these pics of a gneiss or granite object he’s found, measuring 30 by 28 mm in diameter and 20 mm high. The find spot is near Lee church in northern Jutland (the current stone structure there goes back to shortly after AD 1100), and the metal detector finds go back at least to the 8th century. What do you think it is?

As Tobias points out, the shape and dimensions are exactly what you’d expect from a Viking Period gaming piece. But it’s the wrong material. Those are almost exclusively made of bone, antler or horse teeth.

I have an idea what this may be. I think it’s an unfinished spindlewhorl, where it remains to drill it through for the shaft before it can be used. It’s a little on the small side, but to spin thin sewing thread, this would be the right sort of diameter and weight. Stone spindlewhorls are common finds.

Thanks to Tobias for permission to publish his photographs.

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Two Queenly Careers

Through my reading I was reminded of two Scandinavian early-12th century queens whose careers are pretty amazing. Though originally probably unrelated, they became kin by marriage in several ways.

~1085. Margareta Ingesdotter born, daughter of King Inge I of Sweden. (Birth year unrecorded.)

~1100. Ulvhild HÃ¥konsdotter born, daughter of the Norwegian nobleman HÃ¥kon Finnsson of the Thjotta family. (Birth year likewise unrecorded.)

1101. As part of a peace agreement between the Kings of Sweden and Norway, Margareta marries King Magnus III “Barefoot” Olavsson of Norway. Thus her cognomen Fredkulla, “peace wench”.

1105. Margareta marries King Niels Svensson of Denmark. (Magnus having died two years previously).

~1115. Ulvhild marries King Inge II of Sweden, first cousin of Margareta and nephew of Inge I.

1130. Margareta dies. Ulvhild marries King Niels. (Inge II having died c. seven years previously).

1134. Niels dies. Ulvhild marries King Sverker I Cornubesson of Sweden. Ulvhild and Sverker have at least five children over the following years, of whom their son Karl eventually also becomes King of Sweden.

1143. Ulvhild and Sverker support the foundation of Alvastra monastery, one of Scandinavia’s first Cistercian foundations.

1148. Ulvhild dies.

Early Scandy historians tended to describe these women as a kind of prestigious fecund statuary that was traded to and fro among the era’s elite-male lineages. In modern scholarship, they are seen more as political agents in their own right, though the source material for their lives and actions is extremely sparse.

Ulvhild is particularly remarkable as she managed to become queen of Sweden, Denmark and then Sweden again. Her contacts, influence, wealth and experience were in all likelihood instrumental in making Sverker a successful king and the first member of a (not very long-lived) royal dynasty.

One thing that really gets me about these people is how briefly they lived, how little education they had and how young they were when they did the deeds that wrote them into history. Margareta and Ulvhild were younger than many history undergrads when each of them married her second king.

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Three New Halls at Jelling

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One of the most beloved novels in the Swedish language is Frans G. Bengtsson’s Viking story Röde Orm (1941), transl. Red Orm / The Long Ships (1943). And one of the most beloved scenes in the novel are the Yuletide celebrations at the court of King Harold Bluetooth at Jelling in Jutland toward the end of the 10th century. It’s got the lines “There’s thyme in it, said Toki in a cracked voice” and “He’s done pissing now”, and a duel that ends in a man’s severed head landing in a tub of mead. (You can see why Bengtsson is one of my favourite writers.)

I recently complained about Skalk running a lot of rather uninteresting material about Jelling’s archaeology. But now something really cool has once more been unearthed there: the foundations of three large buildings of the Trelleborg type, dating from the reign of Harold or his son, Sven Forkbeard. Maybe that’s where the Yuletide feast was? The palisaded enclosure at Jelling with the buildings inside is enormous: the excavators compare it to Amalienborg, placing the 10th century enclosure’s area at six times that of the 18th century palace in Copenhagen.

Via Åsa of Ting & Tankar.

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Lejre Excavator Publishes His Views on the Figurine

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Tom Christensen, who heads excavations at storied Lejre on Zealand, Denmark, has a paper about the lovely Lejre figurine in ROMU 2009 (full text on-line) and another one in the new issue of Skalk. Here he offers some well-chosen comparative material and presents his arguments for the figurine’s gender and identity. Everybody agrees that the figurine’s throne, with its wolf heads and pair of ravens, must depict Odin’s high seat Hlidskjalf. Everybody also agrees that the piece dates from the 10th century. But Denmark’s foremost experts on 1st Millennium dress (and myself) classify the person on the throne as unequivocally dressed in female garb. Christensen thinks it’s a male – most likely Odin. Here are his main arguments.

1.The upper ridge of what I call a collar or neck-ring is actually a moustache. Only the lower identical ridge is according to Christensen a neck ring.

2.The hanging arcs covering the person’s chest and belly are not, as I have suggested, four bead strings, but a gold collar from c. AD 500.

3.Only a man would wear a brimless hat / helmet.

Christensen then presents a figurine from Højby near Odense to support his case. This figurine has a prominent beard, a moustache and a brimless hat, but is otherwise completely nude, affording us a view of its petite penis. Everyone agrees that the Højby figurine is male. But it dates from before AD 500 and is thus irrelevant here.

My reply to Christensen’s arguments are that

1. Yes, it is funny that the Lejre figurine’s mouth and chin are covered by its neck ring. But it really doesn’t look the way moustaches are depicted in the era’s art. It’s a single object with two parallel ridges that continue round onto the back of the person’s neck, as shown by the eminent photographs published by Christensen.

2. Multiple bead strings were common in the 10th century. Migration Period gold collars are completely unknown from that time.

3. Brimless hats may be somewhat male-gendered today, but they were not in the Viking Period. And nothing suggests that it’s a helmet.

So I am still convinced that the figurine is a female. Christensen gracefully points out that even in the Medieval Icelandic version of the mythology that has come down to us, goddesses are sometimes allowed to use Odin’s high seat. And that’s the sort of scene the Lejre figurine depicts.

Tom Christensen commented here two weeks ago that the debate about the figurine has given him some insights about Swedish archaeologists’ selvforstÃ¥else. This term is difficult to translate exactly, but I think I’m not too far off the mark with “high opinion of their own importance”. I assume that I am one (or all) of the Swedes he refers to. The best reply is probably to quote something I wrote back in January: “What I said here on Aard wasn’t controversial. I just happened to be the first to say something that every specialist in the field of Late Iron Age gender studies realises immediately.”

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Lukewarm Normative Scandy Atheism

i-d06cda766f646baae81ee7eab7b18794-society_without_god.pngBecause of blogging and my involvement in the skeptical pro-science movement, in recent years I have come into close contact with Americans as never before in my adult life. More than half of Aard’s readers are in the US. It’s almost like when I met my wife and suddenly learned lots about China.

A couple of things recur in people’s commentary here, largely on religious and political issues. My outlook is clearly quite exotic to many Americans. I view mainstream US politics as half of a full political spectrum, where voters really only get to choose between two different brands of conservative. And I can’t quite understand the passionate relationship Americans have to religion, regardless of their individual beliefs. Because most Scandinavians don’t care about religion.

Some may think that Scandinavians are hostile to religion. That’s actually not true: we’re indifferent to it. What my countrymen tend to be hostile against is passionate views on religious issues. A Swede will typically react with great discomfort if you tell him you really believe in Jesus – and equally so if you tell him you really disbelieve in Jesus. It is considered bad manners and/or a little crazy to even bring the subject up.

This disorientating meeting between religiously charged US culture and quietly secular Scandinavian culture is beautifully captured in Californian sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s 2008 book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. He spent 14 months in Scandinavia, mainly in Aarhus, Denmark, interviewing people about their religious attitudes and family history. And although Zuckerman is a secular Jew with no supernatural beliefs of his own, he was clearly blown away by the complete indifference to religion that he encountered. The typical attitudes he met with were, according to his own descriptions,

  • Reluctance or reticence to talk about religion
  • Benign indifference
  • Utter obliviousness

One story told to Zuckerman is particularly illuminating. Upon being asked if any of his friends were “real Christians”, a man who works as a prosecutor in the city court of Aarhus first said no, but then added:

“…actually one of our friends up there, and that surprised me a lot, we’ve known them for some years and suddenly one night we had a few drinks and then he said to me, ‘I have a confession to make.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, and then he told me that he believed in God. And I was quite surprised. I never thought in my whole life that … well, he was getting pretty loaded, you know, and then he had this urge to tell me. … I never expected anybody to tell me something like that. That was – I almost fell down off the chair. I said – [pantomimes an expression of shock] – and I didn’t know how to react, and then he said to me, ‘I hope you don’t feel I’m a bad person.’ So he said that to me and I said, ‘Oh, of course, you can believe whatever you want as long as you respect me,’ I said to him. But it was something he had kept for a long time, and finally he got the mood, you know, and it was after a few bottles of red wine, you know. It was a confession … ‘Now we are so good friends, I can tell you this because this is my inner secret’, you know.” (pp. 53-54)

This cultural context explains why I’m not very interested in the fire-and-brimstone atheist writings of e.g. Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. I agree with them about almost everything. I would never grant religious truth-claims any special status above and apart from issues like whether there’s milk in the fridge. It’s just that where I am, their mode of expression is completely out of proportion as their issues are non-issues here. I have many US contacts on Facebook that have added me to their rosters because of the blog and my modest visibility in skeptical media, and I’m just amazed at how focused their attention is on atheism. Some of them post several public items a day on the subject. And of course, if I was feeling daily pressure from society to believe in the invisible pink unicorn or be damned and shunned, then it would be a much bigger deal to me that I don’t believe that such a beast exists. But really, a denial of the divinity of Jesus is about as novel and interesting to me as pointing out that the Pope has a funny hat.

Zuckerman’s book held few surprises to me as a Scandy native. I’m not really part of the target audience. But to any American with an interest in secularism, I highly recommend it. It’s short, solidly researched and referenced, well-written and engaging. People without my professional bias are unlikely to be bothered by the somewhat weak historical section. Regardless of your personal religious or irreligious orientation, as an American you’re likely to find the picture Zuckerman paints quite fascinating: an image of the world’s safest, most affluent and most democratic societies where freedom from religion is the norm.

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Recent Archaeomags

Skalk‘s February issue was not up to the Danish pop-arch journal’s usual excellent standard. I am always keen to read interesting news from Jelling and Lejre, the country’s proto-historic centres. But in this case the editors have devoted 17 of the issue’s 30 pages to articles about Harold Bluetooth’s Jelling despite the fact that nothing of interest has come up there recently. One reports on humdrum trial excavations and the other on the state of erosion on the hamlet’s rune stones. Denmark’s archaeology is extremely rich and there’s no reason to go on and on about early royal sites just because they were once royal. That only makes Danish archaeology look stupidly nationalistic. To me, the highlights of the issue were instead a piece on the drastic fate of 19th century German war memorials on Danish soil, and another one reporting that execution burials at a river crossing near the Vendel/Viking Period magnate farm of Tissø have been re-dated to the 13th century.

Populär Arkeologi’s first issue for 2010 offers thematically mixed fare as usual, much of it about northernmost Sweden. The pieces I like best are a summary of my old grad-school buddy Peter Bratt’s PhD thesis on great barrows and my old thesis supervisor Gustaf Trotzig’s opinion piece against the suggested new history curriculum for children aged 7-16, where everything before AD 800 is disregarded.

The Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology for March/April also ranges widely. My interest was mainly caught by a feature piece on the state of research into the Indus script. Is it a script? Or just a kind of heraldry? The inscriptions are extremely few and short, and since no archives of longer texts have been forthcoming, it looks like we may never know.

Magazines like Populär Arkeologi and Archaeology, not to mention global-scope academic journals like Antiquity and Europan Journal of Archaeology, always remind me of how different my perspective on archaeology is from that of the general reader. My curiosity about ancient cultures worldwide certainly isn’t limitless. While, for instance, the 12th century Salado pottery of southwestern US and northern Mexico is lovely to look at in the pages of Archaeology, I can’t really be bothered to learn much about that far-off world unless somebody pays me. Fishermen don’t go fishing in their spare time.


And don’t miss the latest Skeptics’ Circle!

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Beautiful Vendel Period Jewellery

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I’m happy and relieved. A 73-page paper that I put a lot of work and travel into and submitted almost five years ago has finally been published. In his essays, Stephen Jay Gould often refers to his “technical work”, which largely concerns Cerion land snails and is most likely not read by very many people. Aard is my attempt to do the essay side of what Gould did. The new paper “Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandinavia. Ørsnes types N & O and similar brooches, including transitional types surviving into the Early Viking Period”, though, is definitely a piece of my technical work.

The most iconic Viking Period jewellery type is the tortoise brooch. They’re big clunky things worn pairwise on your clavicles, fastening a dress with built-in suspenders over your shoulders. A number of standardised types were mass-produced during the 9th and 10th centuries, reflecting Viking Period Scandinavia’s beginning urbanisation and the concomitant changes in how craft and trade was organised. The standard work on tortoise brooches is Ingmar Jansson’s 1985 PhD thesis Ovala spännbucklor.

Far less well known are the 8th century ancestors of the tortoise brooches, belonging to the Late Vendel Period. Much smaller domed oblong brooches in fact show up already about AD 700 and develop a bewildering variety of styles and design that lasts a few decades into the 9th century before standardisation takes over completely. They’re lovely, almost every one of them unique. There has been no concerted study of them – until now.

I finished my own PhD thesis on social symbolism in Gotlandic burials of the 1st Millennium AD toward the end of 2002. The preceding year I had been to the Sachsensymposium in Lund and seen the amazing metal detector finds from UppÃ¥kra. That project’s leaders were handing out artefact categories for study to various scholars, and I signed up for two brooch groups: the 6th-7th century snake-shaped ones and the 8th century domed oblong ones. I did this for two main reasons: I wanted to get into the metal-detectors & elite-settlement field of research and I hoped to establish a new university affiliation in Lund after my viva. Note the sociology of science aspect.

I began data collection on the two brooch groups in September 2002. My 25-page paper on the snake brooches was swiftly completed and published in late 2003. But the domed oblong ones took more time: there’s a greater number of them and they’re spread over a much larger area. For the second paper I ended up travelling to Lund, Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø, Uppsala, Helsinki, Mariehamn and Ribe. I photographed and measured hundreds of brooches and read reams of obscure literature.

I have mixed feelings about this paper now. From a scientific point of view, I’m very proud of it. It is solidly empirical work with good statistics, I think my arguments are clear, there are two properly done seriation chronologies in it, and at the end is a detailed catalogue that will be useful to students of 8th century Scandinavia indefinitely. Rundkvist 2010 will be the one-stop-shopping reference for this kind of jewellery. I wish more research archaeologists were doing this sort of thing with their research time instead of being such… humanities writers.

From a career-strategical point of view, however, I have to say that it was a failure. The two brooch papers took 2½ years to write and were for all intents and purposes my post-doc project. I chose a type of investigation that is not common or fashionable these days, because it suited my scholarly ideals and it was encouraged by a well-funded research project with friendly directors at another university. But as it turned out, the longer paper took five years to appear because one of the directors fell gravely ill for a time. And the work did not open doors for me as I had hoped. I still have no affiliation with a Scandy university. Instead Exeter and then Chester in England have taken me on as visiting researcher.

Anyway. I never counted on writing an entire book on Östergötland’s elite settlements of the 1st Millennium before the domed oblong brooch paper was published. I had no idea that by the time the paper appeared, I would have finished up my 1st Millennium projects and turned to Bronze Age studies. But now it’s out, on paper and on-line, and I am much relieved.


Rundkvist, M. 2010. Domed oblong brooches of Vendel Period Scandinavia Ørsnes types N & O and similar brooches, including transitional types surviving into the Early Viking Period. Hårdh, B. (ed.). Från romartida skalpeller till senvikingatida urnesspännen. Nya materialstudier från Uppåkra. Uppåkrastudier 11. Dept of Archaeology, University of Lund.

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Tripartite Names in Denmark and China

Danes often have tripartite names, like famous Roman Iron Age scholar Ulla Lund Hansen or NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And I’ve been wondering how these names are inherited. Specifically, which names get dropped and which ones get passed on to the kids. So I wrote my erudite buddy, osteologist Helene Agerskov Madsen, and asked her to explain.

I learned that the system is not very old (~100 yrs?) and has already started to fall apart. But in its idealised form here’s how it works. The middle name tracks a matrilineage and the last name a patrilineage. When a child is born it inherits its mother’s middle name and its father’s last name. When a woman marries, she keeps her middle name and takes her hubby’s last name. So if the aforementioned Ulla and Anders married, she would change to Ulla Lund Rasmussen, and any children would be named likewise. Yes, Danish children will ideally share both middle and last name with mom and only their last name with dad. His middle name comes down to him from his maternal grandmothers.

Then there are niceties to the system. For instance, double patronymics are avoided, so you won’t see anybody named Svend Nielsen Jensen. And lately it has become common among women to drop the middle name at marriage and instead join their own last name and their hubby’s with a hyphen, e.g. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats.

Through my rather intimate Chinese contacts, I’ve learned about another tripartite naming system. Most Chinese have names consisting of three ideograms / syllables: “Mao Ze Dong”. Ideally, the first is the name of the patrilineage, the second is shared within a generation of that lineage, and the third identifies the individual. All first cousins on the male line are thus supposed to have the same first two ideograms. My wife and her three sibs for instance share “Cycle” and “Space”. But in the following generation, the system has been applied patchily, so that our daughter only shares her second ideogram (“Family”) with a few of her cousins. Of course, traditionally her name wouldn’t be expected to fit the Chinese system at all since her mother married out into an illiterate Swedish patrilineage.

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The Lejre Freya Miniature

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Apparently the Lejre excavators still haven’t realised that the lovely silver miniature they found depicts an aristocratic woman who can’t be Odin, regardless of who may be the owner of the throne she sits on. A Danish news site contacted me today and asked me about the issue. Here’s what I said (and I translate).

In the art of the Vendel and Viking Periods, just as in today’s art, there’s a set of conventions for how men and women are depicted. Largely it’s a question of clothing and jewellery that real people used as well. The main difference is that Iron Age art only depicts aristocrats, so it doesn’t show us all kinds of attire used at the time. The Lejre miniature is dressed in a) a floor-length dress, b) with an apron, and c) with four bead strings on the chest. A, B and C are stereotypically female attributes that never occur on depictions of men. The figure has no male attributes. Ergo, it’s a woman.

The issue is already quite settled among scholars who study the period’s gendered imagery, Danes as well as Norwegians and Swedes. Just ask, for instance, Margrethe Watt, Lise Bender Jørgensen and Ulla Mannering. What I said here on Aard wasn’t controversial. I just happened to be the first to say something that every specialist in the field of Late Iron Age gender studies realises immediately.

Update 28 January: And here’s the story on Videnskab.dk, the Danish science news site.

Update 29 January: Ulla Mannering has written about the figurine in Weekendavisen and classified it as female. Lise Bender Jørgensen has told me in e-mail that she agrees. And just now Margrethe Watt wrote me (and I translate),

I’m 100% certain that it’s a lady. It is similar to a figurine from Trønninge in Denmark that you are no doubt familiar with. It has been illustrated repeatedly, for instance in Brøndsted’s Danmarks oldtid. I am convinced that the dress copies the “Byzantine” empresses’ dress with the hanging frontal piece (which can be seen in other elite female representations such as St. Agnes (also commonly illustrated, such as in Herman Hinz 1978, Zur Frauentracht der Völkerwanderungszeit und Vendelzeit im Norden. Bonner Jahrbücher 178)). The same combination of an “apron” and several bead strings is also seen in gold foil figures (a few of them actually illustrated in the pop-sci book about Sorte Muld).

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