Dressing Society

28 November, 2011

This week On the Reading Rest I have conference volume, papers presented at the Sachsensymposium in Haderslev, last year in Denmark:

Arkæologi i Slesvig/Archäologie in Schleswig. Sonderband „Det 61. Internationale Sachsensymposion 2010 “, Haderslev, Danmark. Wacholtz Verlag Neumünster 2011.

I read an article by Sarah Croix: Status, gender and space on high status settlement sites from the Viking Age. Pp. 113-122.

On the one hand we hope that once upon a time in a straightforward world long forgotten, working with textiles was something every household did in a harmonious way, clothing itself. It was not by accident that Augustus’ third wife, the Empress Livia, who (reportedly) made the clothes of her household herself, became a paragon of household virtue, nor is it by accident that it is still remembered. In fact, the design is so obviously installed to create a false front of equality in duty that we doubt it. To our mind Livia Matrona was cunning rather than virtuous.

On the other hand, we know that to a certain extent working with textiles is a matter of taste, art and craft. Giftedness, therefore, is an obvious quality, but if you aren’t gifted you can nevertheless learn the craft as a duty and part of your upbringing. Thus textile production can easily be constructed as freedom or serfdom, as a paragon of virtue as well as exploitation. The gender aspect, e.g., can easily nullify the value of skill and good quality otherwise supposed to be  rewarded and recompensed. But since we have allowed clothes to express all kinds of creative contradictions, they grow in importance and become one of the prime markers of wealth as well as poverty. Eventually we shall have to admit that if a society is not dressed to display itself, then it is not a society.

That is why laundering and starching a 17th c. ruff collar, shaping and fluting it by means of cone-shaped and heated tubes or goffering irons [1], must be a day’s work for a servant. And that is why King Philip III of Spain used elaborate ruff collars almost every day dutifully protecting the extravagant clothes he had to wear, from being stained. Care and maintenance is what we must see in the portrait – not his head on a plate that some may have wish for. And when we seek refuge in the innuendo of the expression ‘cartwheel ruff’, then it takes just a moment or two to understand that ‘cartwheel’, as a load, lends itself to becoming a metaphor for the laundress’ tiresome and time consuming toil.

In her article Sarah Croix (SC) enters this intricate sphere of social relations by means of an analysis of space on manors or elite estates where we may expect social order to be expressed also in the organisation of the farms themselves. With her example Aggersborg, the farm that preceded the ring fort, she can point to a situation where textile production falls either in the cramped sunken huts among the common farm houses or in the central room of the hall building. This building, by the way, is one of those defined by Mads Dengsø Jessen [2] as indeed typical of Jutland in the Carolingian Iron Age (750-1025 CE). It is the stable in the west end that signifies these halls and consequently a situation in which horsemanship is starting to become essential to those lords who feel the need to invest in a retinue on horseback, thus raising the social status of the horse.

SC goes on to describe the milieu of the hall in the end she can point to two different textile workers, one who we may call a Livia of the hall and another, What’sHerName, in the pit house. Her status on the manorial farm, it would seem, is below that of the horses in the stable. Owing to the character of the craft the Scandinavian Livia sometimes worked in a splendid ‘room of one’s own’ (weaving played an important role in the grave chamber life of the so called  Oseberg Queen) while What’sHerName  was stuck in the 2.5×2.5 m pit house mockery of the expression.

The essential difference between the two workplaces is a matter of having or lacking light and open space. We may expect that the good life belongs to the hall and the bad to the dark and damp quarters of the pit house. This means that SC’s analysis emphasize a society that takes care to point out the importance of textile production and to show us that this craft befits society because this production lends itself to illustrating the social gap that should  indeed characterize society. Since weaving must always be done, by rich as well as poor, there must be a loom in the hall as well as in the hut.

The ulterior motive behind the production in pit houses, mostly visible as weaving and metal working, is a wish to produce goods that are needed in urbanized economies, but still too difficult to produce in the towns themselves. Before urbanisation develops this capability, manors, or villages with access to food, wool charcoal and iron, can feed farmhands and workers and eventually make a profit on the market selling their products. When towns become more sophisticated, the pit house dweller goes to town.

In societies where on the one hand women are pointed out as equa,l inasmuch as the weaving is a craft that everybody is obliged to engage in, and on the other pointed out as non-equal when they do what they are supposed to do, we may expect double standards and prejudice to play an important role.  They do! and thus we can point to one of the most blatant expressions of contempt for the lower classes and a corresponding devotion for the upper ones. Suffice to to quote the Eddaic poem Rígsþula.

Then there came to the farm (a woman) with the wanderer’s stout legs, there was filth on the soles of her feet, the arm was sunburned, the nose was bent down. She was called Þír (i.e. ‘female servant’. The spelling is Anglo-Saxon to point out her outlandishness).

Then she sat down in the midst of the floor, the son of the house next to her. They bargained and whispered, made themselves a bed. Þræll and Þír crowded together (for the rest of) the day. (þryngva/þringan, i.e., to press, is the same word as throng and since it is used postpositively i.e. placed after the word(s) it modifies, we may take it to mean (more than ordinarily) busy as in Yorkshire dialect. In fact we may understand the whole expression ‘þrungin dœgr’ as indeed postpositive – ‘Þræll and Þír busy the day’. The infamous contemptuous character of the expression is obvious even in today’s Scandinavian usage: Þræll och Þír trängdes dagen lång.

Þír tours the country. She is a potential pit house dweller and the prejudice of the lines describing her is massive, building up to the ironic description of the copulation comparing it to a busy day’s work in the lives of serfs. Þræll and Þír are meant to work and Þír’s is to produce children, 21 according to the poem, who will grow up and start working. Cows are used in animal husbandry, Þírs in human husbandry.

When we approach the upper classes in their better houses, things change:

And the housewife looked at her arms, stroked her clothes, stretched her sleeves and wimple. The brooch was at her bosom, her train was wide, her gown was blue, her brows bright, her bosom more shining and neck whiter than pure new-fallen snow.

True to his male gaze the author starts by observing a demure woman who doesn’t look at him, her name is Moðir≈Matrona, Then little by little her appealing manners, dress and sensuality become apparent to him. He likes what he sees because he things he was meant to see it this way. When he observed Þír the appalling filthiness, the whispering and bargaining, and the far from sensual endeavour on the floor stared him in the eyes. His fantasies are male too.

A cartoon by Fritz Jürgensen. Transformed to bigotry the Eddaic understanding of social behavior passed on into modern times : ’I have removed the kitchen chair, but now she has him sitting on the chopping block. And the other day, while my husband and I are out, my daughter and her fiancé sit on the sofa in the nightfall. – They are sitting quite still – of course – and then they hear that the maid drags him into the kitchen and has him hanging around for more than one and a half hour! My God that is more than one should tolerate in a decent house!’—Jeg har taget Kjøkkenstolen fra hende, men nu har hun ham siddende paa Huggeblokken. Forleden, mens jeg og min Mand er ude, sidder min Datter i Mørkningen i Sofaen med sin Forlovede. — De sidder ganske stille — naturligviis — og saa hører de at Pigen trækker Kjeresten ind i Kjøkkenet, og har ham drivende der i over halvanden Time! Det er dog ved Gud mere end man bør taale i et ordentligt Huus!

Because most Scandinavian archaeologists are reasonably broad-minded and liberal, we do not subscribe to the prejudice of the poem and in fact we have for a long time been prepared to look at pit houses as rational workhouses where is was actually nice to be weaving or hammer away as a blacksmith. But our view upon pit houses started to change when some 10-15 years ago the odd historian suggested that pit houses were in fact the dwellings of thralls[3]. And nowadays it seems that Rígsþula and archaeology alike reflect society.

SC is on to something important in her case study: a disgusting society that chooses ostentatiously to construct itself by means of blunt and significant material metaphors, taking for granted the following: since we happen to live in a society with huge gaps in social status we shall have to introduce a concept of ‘overarching necessity’, such as the necessity to produce textiles, on all levels of society. ‘Necessity’ works as a social glue. This means that although it is irrational and difficult to set up the loom in the pit house, it must be done because that is where the lowest stratum in society lives. And their conditions for doing the necessary, as well as those experienced by everybody else, must be obvious. We cannot blur the basic social division: ‘main house dwellers’ vs. ‘pit house dwellers’. On the contrary we must endeavour to strengthen it and show it to be fundamental. We must never forget the difference between Mother and female servant.


[1] See e.g. http://www.oldandinteresting.com/fluting-goffering-irons.aspx

[2] Mads Dengsø Jessen has published most of his research on this and other topics in his dissertation. The relevant published and forthcoming papers can be checked at http://www.forskningsdatabase.dk/Search.external?operation=search&search-query=au:%2Jessen+Mads%20Dengs%C3%B8%22

[3] See Annette Hoff 1997:58ff; 81, i.e. Hoff, Annette. 1997. Lov og landskab. Landskabslovenes bidrag til
forståelse af landbrugs- og landskapsudvikling i Danmark ca. 900-1250
. Aarhus universitetsforlag.
or Mats Olsson 1999:24, i.e. Olsson, Mats. 1999. Vikingatida träldom. Om slaveriets plats i Skandinaviens ekonomiska historia. Lund Papers in Economic History. No 67. Department of Economic History. Lund university. Lund.

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Archaeological Heritage Management—Part One: The Reformed Heritage Conservation Act

14 November, 2011

This week on the reading rest I have a governmental report in the Departmental Series (Ds):

Ökad konkurrens på det uppdragsarkeologiska området – vissa ändringar i kulturminneslagen. Ds 2011:6 62 pp. Regeringskansliet, Kulturdepartementet. Stockholm. (Increased Competition in the Field of Contract Archaeology—Some Changes in the Heritage Conservation Act)

Publications in the Ds aren’t exactly blockbusters. That too goes for the report presently on the rest, Ds 2011:6, which can nevertheless be studies, albeit in Swedish only, at:


The Heritage Conservation Act can be studied, in English, at:


In connection with Operation Desert Storm, American archaeologists drew up a list of sites that must not be targeted because of their cultural, historical value — their value for civilization as it were. This was a decent thing to do and the list became a means to protect these monuments from collateral damage during the operation. Although the exact number of listed sites is unknown it was hardly more than a thousand and that, consequently, makes the compilation a slightly naïve endeavour.

If namely the aim of the list was to protect the ancient monuments and remains in Iraq, then it ought to have contained c. one hundred thousand known sites or more, since in reality there are many more. Because the list was so short, it was in effect a list of something else, i.e. a shortlist of unique and completely indispensable sites when it comes to cultural heritage.  When collateral damage was nevertheless registered, it came as no surprise that the damage-winning monuments were highlights such as the Ziggurat in Ur. What else could they be?

This meant that the real problem with the list was the grading of monuments that followed from its very compilation: if a site is on the list, then it must be protected. If it is not on the list, we can do as we please. In effect, therefore, the list became a carte blanche for anyone who wanted to forget about all the everyday monuments that describe the long-term history of any country. The list therefore was the very first triumph of the victorious colonialism behind Operation Desert Storm, a victory that reduced the ancient monuments of Iraq to exactly the fraction deemed indispensable by the united colours of Pentagon and American Archaeology. Since ‘Mesopotamia’, the land currently occupied by Iraq, is ‘the cradle of civilization’ according to American experience, and since a lot of us consider ourselves civilized, the list was potentially a list of world heritage monuments, i.e. a list of the visible remains of our cradle. Don’t touch my Ziggurat, my Acropolis, my Forum or my Capitol hill.

According to the Department of Defense, Iraq under Saddam Hussein started to neglect the cradle and brought on everything that followed, since:

‘Until August 2, 1990 — the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, thus precipitating the 12-nation response in 1991 known as Operation Desert Storm — Iraq’s cultural property and cultural heritage resources (its museums, monuments, archives, religious sites and archaeological heritage) were among the most well managed in the world.’

Not everybody could agree completely with the Department of Defense:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=978050
In 2003 a list of 5000 ‘non-strikes’ list was suggested: http://www.meforum.org/609/museum-madness-in-baghdad
And in the event there was a report on the inevitable damages caused by the operations of the Second Gulf War on places such as Babylon, Uruk … … .

In 2005 The Guardian published a leader (Saturday 15 January 2005 at 16.19 GMT) and a map on ’The damage wrought by the construction of an American military base in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon ... ‘ http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jan/15/iraq.guardianleaders

In Scandinavia we were not surprised because hundreds of years ago we invented governmental protection of ancient monuments, and the archaeology to go with it. We have already seen lists – arranging monuments in classes according to their heritage value – turned up-side down to become lists of demolition, protecting the most valuable classes only. The legislation behind this invention, i.e. a series of heritage conservation acts, is always built on the same principles: Because they are proof of our history and thus valuable to all of us, ancient monuments and remains, which are nevertheless threatened by different kinds of marauders, must be protected by law, and if necessary the law must be enforced. Because ancient monuments and remains are seen to have a value, and because some are more valuable, i.e. more memorable, than others, and because ancient monument and remains are more or less well-preserved, they must be defined and ranked accordingly.

Despite being protected, ancient monuments and remains may therefore become dispensable because of the greater good of the Nation such as building roads or invading Iraq. And rightly so, since building roads and fighting wars are significant cultural affairs that must ‘take place’, and the place they take and the remains they create and the monuments they erect must be preserved as our heritage – at least to a certain point.

In Scandinavian we have in other words prioritized for centuries and most people within the trade know that prioritizing is a matter of supporting some parts of the past and suppressing others. We understand this to be an expression of a political and ideological power once uniting the nation. Today priotitizing express of our freedom and democracy. And this doesn’t come as a surprise because archaeology, the discipline, has always been a matter of demonstrating power for the benefit of those who argue that the good heritage is theirs, as we do in Iraq or did in Sápmi. Archaeology as an academic discipline and profession was formalized and consequently financed on these grounds. Still, in many cases archaeology as a research topic works against the selfsame principle, trying to make the whole past and all monuments and remains interesting in their own right.


Owing to the usual procedure, Ds 2011:6 was referred to consideration according to a long list of interested parties and easily turned down by an overwhelming majority. Probably the Heritage Conservation Act will not be changed because of Ds 2011:6 [1].

That is a great pity! The act needs to be reformed. There are two reasons for this: (1) the Heritage Conservation Act has drifted away from its legislative foundation and (2) on average the archaeological competence in the County Administrative Boards (CABs) is too low. So, lets us sketch some points in a reformed act and a new administration:

(1) The reformed act aims at protection, but opens up for demolition based on scientific methods of documentation and interpretation described in public scientific reports and summaries. Part of the materiality of the ancient monument is kept and protected in stores houses, documentation and reports in archives at the expense of the community.

(2) Knowledge of ancient monuments and remains stems from ground-penetrating and non-ground-penetrating methods. On a number of national monuments and sites, specified as a national map of plots, ground-penetrating methods are prohibited, because the existence and spatial definition of these monuments and remains have already been demonstrated.

(3) On all other lands non-ground-penetrating survey and scientific needle-stick/test-pit  sampling may be carried out by authorized excavation companies with the permission of the landowner after the CAB has been notified. Within one month of the termination of the survey, and every month during a longer survey, a report must be sent in to the CAB. The purpose of the survey must be to establish the presence of ancient monuments and remains in the surveyed area. The life length of the report is ten years.

(4) Having established the presence of ancient monuments and remains, a limited use of ground penetrating methods may be employed by authorized companies with the permission of the landowner after the CAB has been notified. The purpose is twofold: (4:1) to delimit monuments and remains and (4:2) to give a preliminary description and interpretation of monuments and remains by means of a limited number of test pits. (4:3) Two month after the pre-investigation or every second month in connections with long-term pre-investigations, a report must be sent in to the CAB. Based on these ground-penetrating pre-investigations it must be described how the ancient monuments and remains in question should be completely excavated, documented, described and published in a scientifically correct way as well as summarized in a way accessible to the public. The purpose of the pre-investigation is to define the presence and absence of ancient monuments and remains. The life length of the report is ten years. (4:4) Based on documentation and reports the CAB will establish the presence and absence of ancient monuments and remains in need of protection or demand supplementary information in order to take this step.

(5) Based on these reports from survey and pre-investigation anyone with the necessary permissions and funds to develop an area containing delimited ancient monuments and remains may approach the CAB asking permission to excavate and document these monuments and remains in accordance with the description made in the report from the pre-investigation.

(6) The CAB may refuse, grant and/or negotiate and redefine the proposal demanding more information. If the proposal is granted the CAB must specify its cost for supervising the final excavations as well as the archival material, the reports and the publications. The costs for doing the job must be covered by the developer. The permission to carry out the final excavation according to the approved plan will be granted an authorized archaeological company contracted by the developer. Thus the developer pays the firm for excavations etc and the CAB for its official duties supervising the project.

This torso of a reformed heritage conservation act for the management of ancient monuments and remains, gives back two cardinal roles to the CAB. (1) The responsibility to judge the value of ancients monuments and remains in terms of cultural heritage; (2) the duty to judge the scientific and antiquarian qualities of the proposal for the removal of monuments and remains. The CAB should not be involved in estimating cost except for its own supervision which is part of its official duties.

In Sweden we spend between c. 250 billion SEK per year documenting surveying and excavating ancient monuments and remains that may lose their protection. We do so in order to keep society well-working and developing [2]. Each year the CABs resolve c. 1100 cases. Nine hundred of those concern survey and pre-investigations.

Cases resolved by the CABs. From the left to the right: surveys, pre-investigations, final investigations and 'combined decisions.'

With a reformed act, the CABs will instead resolve 200 cases concerning final excavations and work with supervision which will automatically update and educate its civil servants. The CAB will also have to consider the authorization of archaeological companies engaged in survey and/or pre-investigation and/or final investigation. They must, moreover, establish the map that shows presence and absence of ancient monuments and remains in need of protection. The greatest advantage to the CABs is lifting the economic decisions off their shoulders and allowing them to concentrate on the fundamental questions, i.e. those concerning protection and responsible removal of ancient monuments and remains.

For the developer the benefit will be measured in market-defined prices of the archaeological standard, in time saved and in the advantage of a planning process that will allow the developer more often to steer clear of ancient monuments and remains. Local authorities will be able to survey and pre-investigate development areas years in advance and save money from a closer and more rational cooperation with excavation firms.

There is just one problem left: What can be done when it comes to the under-staffed CABs? But that problem is so great that it shall have to wait at least a fortnight and appear as a blog entry in its own right.


[1] A laconic summary may be found at http://www.regeringen.se/sb/d/14082/a/177241

[2] Relevant statistics can be found at:

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