Jenny-Rita Næss Honoured On-Line

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Around the time when a senior academic retires, she will, if she’s lucky, receive a Festschrift. The word is German and means “celebration publication”: typically, it’s an anthology put together by her colleagues and students. The contents of a Festschrift often vary wildly in quality and level of ambition: solid research papers occur alongside humorous reminiscences of travels and travails endured while the august old professor was still a lanky undergrad.

Now, here’s something unusual from Norway: archaeologist Jenny-Rita Næss’s Festschrift is being published as a web site. So far, seven of twenty-eight papers in the table of contents are available on-line. Lots of really heavy names in Norwegian archaeology, including several friends of mine such as the charming opponent at my 2003 viva. I look forward to reading the remaining twenty-one contributions.

Thanks to Jan-Peder Lamm for the tip-off.

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Geophysics Locate Royal Halls at Borre

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I had a meeting with my geophysicist buddy Immo Trinks of the National heritage Board the other day, and he showed me an amazing Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey from Borre in Vestfold, Norway.

i-a804c839d34c1ee014043c0e70e41a57-R606.jpgBorre is Norway’s equivalent of Old Uppsala, with a large cemetery with huge barrows. One was obliterated by road workers in 1852, yielding a fairly well-preserved Viking Period ship burial of the Oseberg / Gokstad / Tune type, which sadly does not survive. Some copper-alloy metalwork from the grave gave the Borre Style its name, defined by knotwork with nicked ridges and Mickey Mouse heads.

The royal manor site that must accompany the graves at Borre has not been identified despite many decades’ attempts. Not until Immo came along, that is. Terje Gansum is head of the visitor centre at Borre, and he had a hunch that some barely visible earthworks on the edge of the mound cemetery might be a ploughed-out building terrace. Bjørn Myhre had cut a long narrow search trench across the spot in 1991, identifying a few post holes and radiocarbon-dating one to about AD 700. But his trench hadn’t been wide enough for him to be able to identify what kind of structure the post holes belonged to. The GPR solved that problem: the ground-plans of two large large hall buildings appeared! The animated plan loops a number of horizontal slices through the ground at successively greater depth: even the stones in the bottoms of the post holes are visible. The star-shaped black things in the eastern area are the roots of trees that spread wider in deeper slices.

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Immo is also directing a magnetometry survey at my site in Kaga parish, Östergötland. GPR would probably give me more useful (that is, more easily interpreted) data, but unfortunately that method is much slower and thus more expensive than motorised magnetometry. Basically, to identify a house plan like those at Borre with magnometry, we would have to find a house whose postholes were full of burnt material such as pottery or daub. But magnetometry is good for hearths and rubbish pits, and sometimes waste scatters that show up in magnetometry can preserve the outline of a building. Thus, such a survey can help me place my excavation trench (and use my fieldwork time & money) more fruitfully.

Update 16 January: Added Immo on 10 January:

Actually, the sample frequency of a georadar system is much higher than that of a magnetometer.

Georadar is more expensive than magnetometry for the following reasons:

  • Georadar data is recorded by measuring many parallel, closely spaced vertical radar sections, resulting in a 3D data volume and several hundreds of samples in depth per measured surface point.
  • Magnetometer data is one sample per measured surface point.

Therefore processing, analysis and the archaeological interpretation of georadar data are considerably more time consuming than magnetic data analysis.

While it is common to run several magnetometers in parallel at the same time (e.g. four probes with 50 cm horizontal spacing), only few multichannel georadar systems exist today for similar system configurations. In recent years three interesting, approximately 2 m wide antenna arrays have been developed by some of the main georadar system manufacturers. These systems are pulled or pushed by motorized vehicles while data positioning is implemented using highly accurate Real Time Kinematic GPS (+/-2 cm positioning accuracy) or robotic total stations. Such multi-channel systems will certainly in the not too far future become the tool of choice for large-scale archaeological prospection, despite their rather hefty price tag. We plan to test some of these systems on archaeological sites with known structures in the coming year.

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Book Review: Kroik, Hellre Mista sitt Huvud

This 88-page booklet by Åsa Virdi Kroik is named “You’d rather lose your head than turn in your drum”. The title refers to shamanic drums among the Saami. The book is based on an MA thesis in the history of religion defended at the University of Stockholm in 2006. Reading it, I soon realised that it can’t simply be evaluated from a scholarly point of view: this is at heart also an ethno-political tract. I’ll comment on the political aspects first and then on the scholarly ones.

For the non-Scandy reader, I should explain that the Saami are a sub-Arctic indigenous minority in Norway, Sweden, Finland and NW Russia. They speak a number of Fenno-Ugric dialects that are incomprehensible to the majority populations of the area. Historically, their presence has been documented about as far back as that of the area’s Indo-European speaking groups, to the early 1st Millennium AD. At that time the Saami were hunter-gatherer-fishers, and for the past millennium they have also been reindeer pastoralists. Since appearing on the historical radar, the Saami have steadily been driven into increasingly marginal areas by the agricultural majority populations. They were forcefully Christianised in the 18th century and their languages were suppressed into the 20th century. Today they are thoroughly modern people with a high general level of education. US readers will recognise the situation: the Saami are northern Fenno-Scandia’s First People, and they currently cultivate a nationalistic movement.

Kroik has been funded by the Swedish Saami Parliament, both while writing her thesis and in producing the book. Her publisher is Boska, “The Society for the Preservation of Saami Culture and Folk Medicine”. She grew up in a reindeer pastoralist family, she believes that reindeer pastoralism has gone on “since time immemorial” or “for ever”, she feels that three mountains visible from her childhood homes are “holy mountains with a special importance for the Saami people”, and she speaks nostalgically about “the old Saami gods”. All this is imparted in the book’s first few pages. Further into the book she keeps making statements about how Saami people are today, how important the landscape is to them all, what their goals and feelings are like. This is called ethnic essentialism, and it’s not a respectable position in modern academe, to say the least.

Now, I’m an anti-nationalist. I reject all claims to deep ancestral heritage, be it by Swedes, Saami, Finns, Germans or Native Americans. My Swedishness is not the Swedishness of my Medieval ancestors. Kroik’s Saaminess is not the Saaminess of her Medieval ancestors. And I’m quite sure she isn’t actually equipped to speak for all Saami of today.

I believe that all citizens of a secular democracy should enjoy equal rights and shoulder equal responsibilities. And I believe that ethnic guilt is not heritable: if my great-great-grandfather committed atrocities toward Kroik’s great-great-grandfather, then this is not my responsibility. What is important is that Kroik and I treat each other fairly now. Finally, I believe that the cultural heritage in all its diversity is aesthetically valuable regardless of ethnic labels.

Enough of politics. On to scholarship, to the fascinating study of the twilight of Saami ethnic religion! Kroik follows the lead of professor Håkan Rydving in studying micro-variation in Saami culture. Her area of study is Frostviken (where she grew up) and Namdalen, straddling the border between Norway and Sweden. Sadly, as I moved through the book’s drawn-out preliminaries, waiting for the actual study to begin, I finally realised that it contains no original research into Saami religion. It’s just a compilation of other scholars’ results, selected and held together by the geographical study area.

Many MA theses are of course not independent research projects, and the general level of independence varies from discipline to discipline. But this text would never have received a cum laude (“VG”) grade in my discipline for its contents, and formally speaking it’s an amateurish piece of work, the tense varying haphazardly etc. So it appears clear that the reason that the Saami Parliament funded the project can’t have been its academic or literary qualities. They liked it because of its politics.

Of course, when an ethnic Swede like myself criticises Saami nationalism, he invites angry comments about colonialism, fascism, even genocide. To try to avoid this knee-jerk response, just let me explain that I’m from Stockholm, far from the Saami area, and I have no stake in the land disputes over Saami reindeer herding. I have nothing against Saami people or Saami culture, just against nationalism and blood-and-soil politics. I’m not voicing this criticism as a representative of any “Swedish nation”, because I don’t accept that there is any such thing. In my view, myself and Kroik are simply both citizens of the secular democracy of Sweden, and I don’t like her book much.

Update 10 December: A historian of religion I know tells me that professionals in this discipline generally find Kroik’s New Age tendencies odd. Her mindset is not typical for scholars at the Stockholm department or elsewhere.


Kroik, Åsa Virdi. 2007. Hellre mista sitt huvud än lämna sin trumma. Boska. Hönö. 88 pp. ISBN 978-91-633-1020-1.


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A Century of Fornvännen Free On-Line

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Fornvännen is one of Scandinavia’s main scholarly journals about archaeology, Medieval art and adjacent disciplines. Its first volume appeared in 1906, and for the past several decades it’s been issued quarterly. I’ve been an avid reader since 1990 and one of the journal’s editors since 1999.

I’m very proud to announce that the first 100 volumes of Fornvännen are now available freely on the web! Roughly 3000 PDF files including complete scans, illustrations and all, and searchable text! The site has an excellent search & browse engine.

Most papers in the journal are in Scandinavian languages, but for decades each one has had an English abstract, summary and figure captions. Also, papers are increasingly being written entirely in English.

My warmest thanks to Kerstin Assarsson-Rizzi and Gun Larsson of the Library of the Academy of Letters for making this happen, and to the Academy itself for funding the project!

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Medieval Soapstone Quarry

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On the excursion during the Sachsensymposium in Trondheim last month we visited Slipsteinsberget (“Grindstone Hill”). Not only did we visit the place, but the entire conference (some of whose participants were in their 70s) climbed around the whole hill (rain-sodden, wooded and steep) like mountain goats. Our guide was the charming Bodil Østerås, head of Egge Museum. Her 2002 Augmented Master’s Thesis (No. hovedoppgave) Slipsteinsberget i Sparbu : kva eit klebersteinsbrot kan fortelje om gamle steinhoggartradisjonar deals mainly with the site we visited.

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The hill consists mainly of soapstone, talcum and serpentine. Indeed, there is no mineral in it that is actually useful for grindstones. So then, why the name? Probably because an entire hillside untouched by later quarries is covered by curious circular scars where people have obviously extracted stone. There are also mine tunnels whose insides are covered with the scars. They look like they may have something to do with wheel-shaped grindstones. But in fact, they’re from Late Iron Age and Medieval soapstone pot production.

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Soapstone pots are ubiquitous on Norwegian Viking Period settlement sites and coeval sites elsewhere connected to Norway by trade. The material (which is partly talcum) is soft enough to be carved with woodworking tools, and it has excellent thermal properties. To make a pot, a stone carver would carve a pot-sized little dome out of the hillside and then lop the dome off before hollowing its inside out. This left a characteristic round scar. There are also a few surfaces with rectangular scarring where building stone has probably been taken. Much of the hillside is hidden by enormous spoil dumps from the quarrying, so there is most likely much evidence for how the work was done to be found underneath. Bodil has trial-trenched a house foundation on top of a dump and got a 15th-century radiocarbon date.

Update 6 October: Dear Reader Brian points out that there’s a remarkably similar 1st Millennium soapstone vessel quarry in Newfoundland, belonging to the Dorset Culture.

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Oseberg Skeletons Exhumed

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The Oseberg ship burial of Norway is a mind-blowing find, full of Early Viking Period carved woodwork and textiles of unparalelled quality. Dated by dendrochronology to AD 834, the long ship and its contents were sealed under a clay barrow, perfectly preserved when excavated in 1904. I consider myself a stakeholder in the Oseberg find, as it was excavated by Gotlander Gabriel Gustafson. In 1881-82 G.G. had performed the first excavations with useful documentation at the Barshalder cemetery on which I wrote my dissertation some 110 years later.

The Oseberg barrow was opened during the Viking Period, maybe by robbers, more likely by descendants of the buried who wished to collect relics. Most of the metalwork was removed at this time. Parts of two skeletons were found in the collapsed robber’s tunnel, belonging to an older woman and a younger one. They are usually interpreted as one main character of the burial and one murdered thrall, but ideas diverge about who was who. Also, my buddy Fedir Androshchuk has pointed out (in Fornvännen 2005) that the burial contains three sets of many things, and that the remaining bronze metalwork is parts of ostentatious riding gear that is otherwise only found in male graves. His daring re-interpretation is that the Oseberg burial was actually a male grave with two murdered women, from which the male skeleton and weaponry were removed by relic hunters. This would explain why the female bodies were dropped unceremoniously in the tunnel. Ibn Fadlan reports that Scandinavians (most likely Swedes, I’m very sorry) in Russia murdered a thrall girl for her master’s funeral in AD 921.

Anyway, the Oseberg bones were reinterred in the barrow in 1948: silly and sad but true. Yesterday they were exhumed for laboratory analyses. Egil Mikkelsen and his team hope to establish by DNA analysis whether the two women were related to each other, what kind of diet they had, and whether they had eaten the same kind of things. The latter data might decide once and for all who’s the servant. Or show that both were.

Next in turn is the Gokstad barrow, where bones from an AD 910ish ship burial were reinterred in 1928. Neither that assemblage nor the Oseberg one will be reinterred after the analyses.

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Thanks to Dear Reader Tegumai Bopsulai for the link.

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Professor Steve Steve Studies Norwegian Archaeology

I spent most of the past week with Professor Steve Steve at the Internationales Sachsensymposion in Trondheim, Norway. We had two and a half days of paper sessions and one day’s bus excursion in the vicinity, all pertaining to post-Roman archaeology.

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Here the professor is studying a Roman/Migration Period large-scale iron production site at Heglesvollen, a shieling in the mountains east of Trondheim. He’s in animated conversation with two of his admirers, Oslo PhD students Ingunn Røstad and Gry Wiker.

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Here’s a piece of production slag that the professor found eroding out of the hillside at Heglesvollen.

Norway’s patron saint, St Olaf, died on the battlefield at Stiklestad in AD 1030. Having been killed by troops commanded by pagan leaders that the christian pretender Olaf Haraldsson was trying to beat into political submission, there was a tenuous case for seeing him as a martyr. Sure enough, someone swore that Olaf’s blood had cured his blindness, and the old Viking became canonised in record time. His cult became exceptionally popular e.g. in Sweden, and he is recognisable in church art from the instrument of martyrdom he carries: a battle axe. Look for him on the right-hand side of the nave’s front wall next time you visit a Medieval Swedish church.

St Olaf’s bones were kept in the Cathedral of Trondheim/Nidaros, where they proved a great boon to the town throughout the catholic Middle Ages as they attracted pilgrims from all of northern Europe. But the field at Stiklestad where he bit the grass was celebrated too: a century and a half after Olaf’s demise a church was erected with its altar right on the spot were the lethal axe blow was supposed to have been dealt. In our final picture, Prof. Steve is sitting on that altar and studying the tasteless 1930s murals that cover the walls and ceiling of the chancel.

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Prof. Steve tells me he’s planning to join in the blogmeet on Tuesday before moving on to the next conference, where he will no doubt deliver a keynote adress and chair a few sessions while tripping on peyote.

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Going to Trondheim

Almost half of Aard‘s Dear Readers are based in the US, nearly a fourth are in Sweden, and the remaining fourth is dominated by people in the UK, Canada and Australia. Alas, the citizens of my Scandy neighbouring countries show very little interest in the blog, and so I don’t know if I have any readers in the Norwegian city of Trondheim.

I’m going to be in Trondheim from 1 to 6 September for this year’s Sachsensymposium. It’s the main conference for archaeologists working with post-Roman, pre-Viking Northern Europe, and I will be accompanied by Professor Steve Steve. If you’re in Trondheim and feel like meeting me or Prof. Steve over a cup or glass or flagon of something or other, then please drop me a line!

Beachcombing the Shores of Time

Over at my buddy Frans-Arne’s blog Arkeologi i Nord I found a great quotation from Norwegian archaeologist and anti-Nazi politician Anton Wilhelm Brøgger (1884-1951):

“Det vi vet er så uendelig lite mot det som er hendt. Arkeologen er som den som går langs en strand og finner småtterier, skyllet i land fra et forsvunnet skib. Men selve skibet som gikk i dypet med menneskene får han aldri se.”

“What we know is infinitely little compared to what once happened. The archaeologist is like one who walks along the shore and finds little bits and pieces, flotsam from a lost ship. But the ship that sank with all the people, he never gets to see that.”