Can Prehistoric Man be Trusted?

25 July, 2011

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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