This week On the Reading Rest I have an article:

Crumlin-Pedersen, Ole. 2011. Viking Age Iconography and the Square Sail. Maritime Archaeology Newsletter from Denmark, No 26, Summer 2011, pp. 12-16.

The porch of Nysätra Church. Bloom’s Day 2011. Photo Åsa Larsson.

The church porch at Nysätra, Uppland, reveals a Beowulfian detail that may or may not be relevant. From the poem we gather that King Hrothgar’s hall is kept together by an iron band preventing the walls of Heorot, the world’s most impressive mead hall, to fall down and out into Denmark when Beowulf and Grendel are fighting.  The staves of the curved wall are kept in place by the band in the same way as the staves of a barrel are kept together by a hoop[1]. Today, we like to think that supporting walls stand by themselves and consequently the Beowulfian solution appears primitive or ‘poetic’—a dream of Walter Mitty’s: a cooper’s apprentice who steps in to save the Iron Age master builder at a loss—or perhaps not. In theory one may infer that the band matches prehistoric ideas on the strength and mechanics of materials and it is thus a good idea if it works, but did it and could it? Is it symbolic and/or naturalistic? Can we trust prehistoric man to express himself in such a way that we understand him? Well, in Nysätra at least they did their best. The band is there. Ought we try it reconstructing Iron Age halls?

This question marks a classical stage in the art of archaeological reconstruction: To begin with we base ourselves on archaeological records, but quite soon the few descriptive prehistoric sources and possible historical echoes of a prehistoric reality must be taken into account – posing the above question marks this step. Surprisingly often we are prepared to combine the archaeological record and the historical echoes disregarding prehistoric descriptions. Or in the odd case, paying homage to Levi-Strauss’ concept of Inversion, to trust prehistoric descriptions blindly.

The psychology of the general situation is nothing but simple: As modern academics we are pleased to leave science and desktop, go practical and low-tech reviving among other things the ingenuity of techniques we thought were lost. Much to our satisfaction, we detect a number of marginalized craftsmen with a fund of sophisticated and helpful knowledge. Combining this knowledge and our strict interpretations, suggests that lost traditions were in reality not lost, but just a historical sequence of change, gradually falling into oblivion. And together we, academics and craftsmen, a brotherhood hitherto unknown to ourselves, have rescued technique and indeed History as palimpsest of events. Today the Landscape is our best beloved palimpsest metaphor because everything happens again and again in largely the same landscapes. To archaeologists, actions, the result of actions and painstaking documentation of actions, don’t lie, but other sources may indeed. In fact the loss of the ‘knowledge of the hand’ is at the heart of archaeological cultural criticism[2].

Nevertheless, aided by post-modern criticism, the ability of material culture, past and present, to err repeatedly and lie habitually and proceed rationally or irrationally as best it pleases, has become part and parcel of intellectual, if not popular insights.

Today, the past poses a problem since it has become post-modernized to fit the present society, and traditional archaeologists have lost their exclusive rights to point to the ingenuity of the practical, noble or savage past criticizing the present. Moreover, anti intellectualism, the vulgar companion escorting post modernism, has taken the lead and archaeologists who want their criticism of modern projects to succeed shall thus have to form alliances with moderate or nationalistic politicians, heritage management and journalists who defend traditional values.

In maritime archaeology, reconstruction is of paramount importance and public interest, and reconstructions a cardinal step forward in the late 20th century. Because building is such a technique-centred occupation it is based on the interaction between archaeological documentation and historically documented and traditional craftsmanship, in themselves difficult to value. Habitually disregarding the somewhat ambiguous near-contemporary descriptions is cardinal to the trade, but in maritime archaeology at the beginning of the new millennium, inspired by post-modern critique, exactly this material was introduced into the art of reconstruction (reconstructing houses it happened in the 1980s). The critique pointed out that during the Carolingian Iron Age (CIA) and Early Middle Ages (EMA) different sails and thus sailing techniques were in use, because different sails can be seen in a number very different of depictions of rigged ships[3].

In the CIA or EMA, ships could be rigged in ways that would have reminded us of Nordlandsbåtar, fishing in Lofoten c. 1900, with high and narrow sails on tall masts. But they could also be rigged similarly to the ships on the Hedeby coins, i.e. with lowly and broad sails on shorter masts.

In this summer’s Newsletter Ole Crumlin-Pedersen (OC-P) sets out to refute the value of CIA and EMA depictions of ships. His arguments are in part the same as in 2005, stating that the boats illustrate mythological phenomena such as Nagelfar, Skiðblaðnir or the ‘Ship of Luck’, i.e. phenomena as surreal or fantastic or poetic as Sleipner with his eight legs[4]. This is not much of an argument since similar sails are depicted in very different contexts and contexts made meaningful by means of subtle maritime differences. Moreover, representations of myth need not be fantastic, they may as well be naturalistic or an ideogrammatic (hieroglyphic) representation of the real world. Even if we argue, as it has been done, that the Oseberg ship was built for rituals only, why not the unlikely Ship of Funeral eventually buried in the mound, this seems not to deprive it of its real-ship qualities.

OC-P’s second argument concerns the relation between realism, iconography, and aesthetics. Both his arguments are constructed to nullify the arguments in the article De gotlandske billedsten og rekonstruktionen af vikingeskibenes sejl – The Gotlandic Picture Stones and the Reconstruction of the Sails of the Viking Ships, by Ole Thirup Kastholm (OTK).

This theoretical discussion concerning the above relation is difficult to follow, but both OTK’s and OC-P’s arguments are nevertheless based mainly upon the authors’ notion of common sense. Perhaps one might say that they share the same theoretical problem, i.e. understanding how the expression of a figurative pattern balances between naturalistic and symbolic dimensions. Their quest for clarity is such that both find it an epistemological problem and a dilemma that ‘in monumental art a form of conservatism may prevail’ (an opinion quoted by OTK and probably embraced also by OC-P). Prevail! Well, not only in art, not only in monumentality, not only conservatism, not only a form, and not simply prevail.

Ironically the material under discussion was introduced, by OTK in the most traditional of journals, Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie, 2005 (2009), and thus a fine proof that a framework befitting the backlash-return of traditional archaeology, which loves simple revealing pictures from prehistory, lent itself to criticizing the scientific archaeology of shipbuilding techniques (founded on the law of Rationality, Progress and Development) from a post-modern angle. Needless to say such criticism cannot be expressed overtly in Aarbøger and properly not ostentatiously in an academic thesis supervised by Ulla Lund Hansen. OTK’s Aarbøger–version is thus model: A good overview and an investigation, firmly located in maritime as well as traditional archaeological practice, blurring the theoretical discussion nicely (iconography isn’t really that important), wrapping up its primary discussion on the proportions of the sails in an analysis of picture stones, eventually revealing the important archaeological issue:

During the last 20 years, the reconstruction of the five ships from Skuldelev has created the stereotype Viking ship. This must not be taken to mean that they are all the same – the unmatched quality of the original Skuldelev ships is indeed that they are widely different when it comes to origin and type representing 11th century navigation in Scandinavia in a general way. On the contrary, it means that they have all been reconstructed based on the same fundamental idea, needless to say with regards to the growing competence among researchers at the drawing-table as well as the craftsmen involved. (OTK p 132, my translation)

This is classical post-modern critique, worthy of the 1970s, pointing out the self-fulfilling prophecies and the standardizing, simplifying and stereotype character of nomothetic research—and the Skuldelev ships are by no means the only stereotypes of contemporary Danish archaeology. This quotation is not a proper Aarbøger-preamble, not even forty years too late. In other journals, other countries or other disciplinary contexts voicing this critique may be of historical interest only, but in Maritime and Danish Archaeology OTK’s contribution, OC-P’s answer and the columns of Aarbøger and Newsletter make up the only possible road to emancipation and the end of traditional archaeology. Ninety percent of the contributions are ritual, covering-up their central messages.

So, can we trust prehistoric man? Trust him always to get it wrong drawing broad sails when she knows we know they are narrow? Or trust him deliberately to go for non-existing solutions, just to make this point, because people may otherwise believe the ships to be real. Believe her to draw a sharp divide between Myth and Reality. The answer is No! We can’t trust prehistoric man any longer. She has stopped being primitive and become us, writing meta-textual critical articles and critical answers[5].


[1] This point is discussed in The Idea of the Good in Late Iron Age Society, 1998:42f. In Beowulf, bands, iron bands and bindings are effective, high-tech and magic.

[2] There are well-known mantras to this end, such as: ‘Modern man can walk the moon, but never weave the linen of King Tut’.

[3] OTK doesn’t argue for a shift of paradigm, replacing one sail with another. In the festschrift to Arne Emil Christensen, 2006, Klink og sejl, Vegard Heide, Eldar Heide (http://eldar-heide.net/) and Terje Planke in a trilogy of articles, did just that.

[4] There are very many metaphorical ships: the ark of faith, the ship of Good Nature, ship of death, the ship of Jesus Christ, the rulers frail bark (holding on to) the ship of the people, the Ship of State and the (ever renewed and puzzling) Ship of Theseus and so on—in short, a ship for any kind of weather.

[5] A meta text is a text about a text.  In reality OTK and OC-P write about the question ‘can we trust prehistoric man (to express himself in such a way that I understand him)?’ OTK’s and OC-P’s texts are thus ‘meta-textual’ because they comment upon this question without explicitly posing it.

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This week on the reading rest I have an anthology:
Mary C. Beaudry & James Symonds: Interpreting the Early Modern World: Transatlantic Perspectives. [Contributions To Global Historical Archaeology] Springer Science+Business Media 2011. New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London.

I read a chapter by one of the editors, James Symonds:
Stooping to pick up stones: A Reflection on Urban Archaeology. Pp 63-84.

There are several, perhaps apocryphal, captions to this lithograph by Daumier, one of a number featuring a telescope, often seen on tripods or in the hands the more dignified Parisians observing the comet 1858 without bending over backwards. This man, a non-ground-penetrating archaeologist, has turned his gaze down into the early modern city and marvels at the wonders of the early modern: “Ah, I can see my street, there’s my house, there’s my garden and my wife, I can see Laurent – Oh, I have seen too much.”

In Doré’s scenes from his London Pilgrimage (1872) there is obviously much, though not too much to see and a tube focus and perspective to his views, but also a quantitative and systemic narrative to go with the city perspective. This perspective is embedded in the concept of the ‘City’. The tube view becomes a metaphor for naturalism and it is easy to see that life in the backyards is as systematic as the inanimate city architecture.

It is one of the points of archaeology that it lends itself to both views: (1) creating the story around the perspective and (2) making the perspective the story. Both ways we interact with the material past and detect something new or forgotten. James Symonds’ examples are the (1) abandoned Sheffield cutlery workshop, complete, probably with fingerprints and a story in itself (pp 65 ff.), and (2) the documantation in Inner Relief Road project. Among a lot of other things this project demonstrated the systematic way in which some towns create their own past by demolishing it and leaving only the odd end phase, perhaps an end before a shift, to be obvious (pp 76 ff.).

JS:s chapter is meant to be read together with the chapter preceding it, because the whole book is a matter of contrasting views, e.g. on early moderns urban archaeology, on each side of the Atlantic. The chapters are based on discussions along these lines at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology in 2005. With hindsight they seem partly to have belonged to the empirical turn inasmuch as theory seems now and then to be empirically driven. At the same time, we detect the echo of an archaeological backlash opting for systemic data quantification. Early modern urban archaeology is an obvious case because it is complex and in a more or less constant crisis finding its way through practice, based on approval: theoretical or public or antiquarian or economical or medial – you name it. Thus there is a methodological point in reading JS’s chapter as a freestanding contribution because it discloses the rambling path of a complex archaeology and indeed of Archaeology. Reading it as it ought to be read, i.e. as discussion, it is a most enjoyable series of well-placed and sharp comments set in a research-historical perspective.

Everything starts where it ought to start; with the former Swedish Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gunnar Sträng (in office 1955-76), in his 21st century Sheffield Construction Manager outfit, wondering: What’s the point? Don’t archaeologists, and we – the taxpayers – know enough already? Can’t we just go and read about it if we are interested?  And since we all know that illustrating historical facts is the anti-intellectual temptation of historical archaeology, he had/has a point.

 This temptation is especially enchanting when we dive down into the mermaids’ world finding the silent wrecks, wonderfully preserved and eerie, from which we emerge in order to plunge into the systematic waters of archives where luckily we find the captain’s protest and all kinds of highly interesting information, such as the position of the wreck, which we already knew, and the name of the ship which we didn’t, and the cargo, and the crew, and the date, and so on. It is pure National Discovery Geographic Channel material – nothing but oddly-odd and fascinating facts.

The preoccupation with archaeology illustrating known facts covers a theoretical insecurity hinting that perhaps material sources and contexts are not real proof. Perhaps the intuitive insight when you uncover the skeletal remains of an Infans I below the byre floor on the Iron Age farm is just a trick you play on yourself.

JS is far from doubting the significance of the archaeological material in its own right and far from being bothered by the fact that archaeological as well as written sources do not per se give a fair picture of the past.

Given second thoughts, the past as we know it, was never intended be a fair representation of itself. It is a fabric and palimpsest meant to impress the future, sometimes intentionally blurring past and present, irrespective of the source material. The unlikely and odd material illustration to what we already know is there just to accompany the illustrations to a complexity and context of which we know nothing.

The car has just passed Kroppkakan. The grave is in front to the barn

The grave monument on the Folkeslunda cemetery, Öland, known as Kroppkakan illustrates this point[1]. Kroppkakan dominates the cemetery, a monument to the prosperous Late Roman Iron Age and to a cemetery then already centuries old. But this could not be known for sure if the stone had not been removed and the grave beneath it excavated. Surprisingly, there were protest against doing just that, but as usual the local opinion wasn’t able to argue against the antiquarians. To begin with, the community, playing by the rules, tried the protection-and-preservation argument. But restoration, protection and preservation, when leading the new and safer road respectfully (and expensively) past the grave, were never questioned by the authorities. Then the villagers argued that the stone may fall to pieces if moved. But taking future contracts and goodwill into account a building company hastened to sponsor the perfect solution, a ‘cradle’ guaranteeing the safety of the stone. And there was more heritage management, such as the re-erections of an impressive line of standing stones that had fallen down. In fact, the benevolent colonial officers, representing the heritage authorities, would spare no effort trying to point out the genuine past of (the by now obviously more and more) backward Ölanders on the far side of the island.

And the stone was cradled and lifted without any technical problems whatsoever, and the excavation began – the very last square metres of the whole site, i.e., the only totally excavated cemetery on Öland – and the expected central grave was there. First, almost at once, there were the skeletal remains of 14 newborns shoved under the bulging sides of the stone, barely hidden under thin layers of crushed lime stone.

Thus forced to see too much too modern when focusing, and knowing surprisingly little, the excavation was carried on, and because of the premeditated Roman Iron Age structural meaning of the cemetery, which actually proved itself already in covered up babies, the antiquarians, much to their satisfaction, because they knew it would be there, found their grave. And sentiments turned early modern:

Everybody from the dejected Baronet to the sullen adept, now caught the spirit of curiosity, crowded round the grave, and would have jumped into it could its space have contained them.[2]

Lime stone and good preservation conditions have secured a number of surprising human skeleton remains on Öland among other thing illustrating the perpetual need to care for children now and then breaking the chain of reproduction.


[1] A Kroppkaka is a large potato dumpling stuffed with chopped pork – there are who-can-eat-the-most competitions. Kiki Lundh excavated and published the cemetery where Kroppkakan was the outstanding central monument. See Lundh, Kiki. 1991. V. Långlöts socken. In: Ulf Erik Hagberg, Berta Stjernquist & Monika Rasch (eds). Öländska järnåldersgravfält, vol 2. Riksantikvarieämbetet. Stockholm. Pp. 263–338.

[2] Walter Scott: The Antiquary. Everyman’s edition (reprint 1976) p. 224. Or http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7005