This week on the Reading Rest I have a short text by Hotrsvit of Gandersheim (cf. OtRR 9 juni 2014): Her 35 hexameters describing scenes related to the Apocalypse of St John.


Research concerning Hrotsvit and her plays is characterized by a remarkable reluctance to make head and tails of the 10th century dramatic texts that Hrotsvit included in the manuscript called Clm 14885 (1). Originally Codices latini monacenses 14885 was a book produced at the Gandersheim canoness abbey where Hrotsvit lived. The book was sent to St. Emmeram’s in Regensburg some time between 968 and 993 ce and sent to Regensburg where it is known to have been 993. Originally the book comprising 346 pages. It was divided into three parts, and it was a purposeful collection composed by the author. The first part of the book consists of eight saints’ legends, the second of eight dramatic texts and the last one is a long poem Gesta Ottonis describing the life of Otto the Great until 965 CE.

The origin of the scholarly ‘Hrotsvit problem’ is rooted in the question: how can a nun in a cloister write plays? And if she did how could they be staged in a nunnery, not least when prostitutes and their clients figure in the plays with very realistic and even ironic lines?

Today, seven of the plays are accepted as indeed plays and Hrotsvit’s very existence is no longer doubted, but most researches aren’t sure that the plays were ever staged. Some, moreover, are convinced that Hrotsvit never expected them to be staged because it would be technically impossible especially in a nunnery. During the last 150 years scholars have asymptotically resisted accepting her plays. Nevertheless, as Katherina Wilson pointed out in the introduction to her translation of the second part of Clm 14885: most Hrotsvit scholars now agree that they [i.e. the plays] were eminently performable. (2)

Performable or performed? One wonders, because looking into the research history from the mid-19th century and onwards, it stands to reason that this question – performed or performable? – would not have been an issue had Hrotsvit been a man. Typical of the Hrotsvit research, her works are dismissed as not being actual theatre if one can suspect that they do not fit or influence a common-place understanding of the development of drama or a common-place understanding of religious institution.

To complicate matters there is the Apocalypse of St John, which Hrotsvit included among the plays. Actually, the last of the seven dialogical plays comes to an end on folio 129 recto leaving the next page, folio 129 verso, empty before the Apocalypse of John commences at the top of folio 130 recto with a first line that is also a revealing title:

John, the male virgin, saw the Heavens disclosed


Instead of letting folio 129 verso be an empty page, a quotation from Bede, four elegiac distics, the very end of a hymn in which the first letters forms the word AMEN, has been inserted to fill the blank and otherwise wasted page. The hymn, moreover, points out female chastity which is a central theme in the plays. The added comment about those who walk the road to salvation points in the same direction – perhaps too pedagogically. As a way of making use of a superfluous page of parchment the solution and is nevertheless relatively elegant since someone – probably with an alert feminine mind – must immediately have understood what to do and advised the a canoness Gandersheim scribe to continue with ‘John’ on top of folio 130 recto – and something dramatic, albeit completely different.

The hexameters concerning the Apocalypse of St John stand out as comments that someone guiding a group of people could read aloud while pointing at a number of pictures with motives from the Book of Revelation. This text, therefore, is not an obvous play – for instance, there is not dialogue – and so one may wonder why it was included among the plays, i.e. the drama section. Guided by Helene Homeyer’s edition (3) and Katherina Wilson translation one could begin with establishing a text and its structure:

1 The virgin John saw the heavens openILLU00
and beheld the Father of all on His resplendent throne,
Surrounded by a row of twice twelve elder
Who glittered with gleaming crowns,
5 All dressed in robes of gleaming white;
He also saw at the enthroned King’s right hand
A book whose secret no man can learn.
This angel here, seeking a worthy man, finds none
Who could solve the seal of the secret book.
10 He consoles John who is weeping
As he explains that the lamb can solve the seals.
Behold the secrets of the book lay open for the slain lamb
Whose praise Heaven’s citizens soon sing;
Behold the Faith’s martyrs bearing witness near the altar with clear voices.
15  They receive robes glittering with gleaming whiteness.
The angel, arriving from the direction of the rosy sunrise,
Marks the Eternal King’s servants on their foreheads
Afterwards John beheld many standing there in white,
Praising the lamb, and carrying palm leaves in hand.
20 Behold Heaven’s citizens are silent for half an hour.
He stood at the sacred altar with a censer
And carried incense, symbolizing the faithful’s holy prayers.
Behold, a woman glitters surrounded by the splendid sun.
Adorned with a gleaming crown of twice twelve stars
25  A snake wants to devour her tender young son,
But the dragon is defeated, the boy is lifted to the Lord*
And the dragon has fallen from Heaven and is cast to earth.
Behold the lamb standing here on the Mount the Zion,
And the company of virgins singing new songs.
30  The beast attacks the saint with all the dragon’s might;
But Truth† has laid him low; arriving on a white steed,
He whips the ancient snake to savage Tartarus
Behold the books of life are held open to the dead
And alive they rise freed from the chains of death
35  Soon all receive their due according to their merits.

* I have supplied this line since it was lost in Wilson 1989:152.
† Actually Verax – i.e. truth personified.
‡ The line Iste ligat veterem sub Tartara saeva draconem or in plain
prose: Iste ligat sub Tartara veterem saeva draconem means:
‘He binds under Tartarus the ancient furious dragon’. As it says in
Relevation 20:2-3: ‘[2] And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent,
which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
[3] And cast him into the bottomless pit, ….’ Tartarus is a deep
mythological ancient Greek abyss.


The hexameters are a kind of stage directions and pedagogical information pointed out to listeners and spectators, descriptions and information that a guide will tell an audience when guiding it through a series of tableaus illustrating parts of the Apocalypse of John.

There are two elements in these hexameters: the tableaus and the action and movements referred to as happening in them. But there is one tableau without action and some action that doesn’t take place in a scene. These element constitute the beginning of the text – that is the first 11 hexameters. To begin with we see a tableau with no movement, then an angel walks out of it with a book looking for someone. The angel finds John who leads her to next tableau which consequently is a tableau more vivant.


The second tableau or scene is built around an altar in a church.


In the end of the second scene there is the 30 minute intermission, after the opening of the seventh seal, which in practice will allow the audience to leave the church while John is symbolizing payers.

The third scene is outdoors, but before we leave the church there is a point in imagining how the church scenes could be realized. If we look at the plan of a 9/10th c. church, these revelation will make sense.


What happens in the first 22 Hexameters is tied together by bringing a book from the throne of the Lord to a crucifix – or a representation of Christ – at the altar in the other end of the church and later to create a pause in which the audience can leave the church and go outside to the next tableau-vivant, which is a performance divided into two scenes. One is an ascension the other Judgement day.



It is the beast that binds together the last scenes. It may seem difficult to arrange these tableaus, such as illustrating the dead who rise on Judgement Day, but given that there are quite a number of prehistoric inhumation cemeteries next to settlements, it is not impossible to let the dead rise as individuated human being – and that would make quite an impression. Complications such as Christ standing at Mount Zion and at the same time slaying the beast are solved by introducing Verax on the white steed. The beast of course shall have to be masked and dressed up like a beast/dragon/snake and eventually thrown into a pit in order to disappear.

The Ganderheim Abbey, which was a very large estate and engaged in high-quality education of upper-class girls, would not have had any economic problems creating the tableaus. White, symbolically important in the tableaus, was the favourite colour of the church clothes in Gandersheim and a very good contrast to the beast.

The Apocalypse of John is not a theatre play. Instead its affinities with passion plays is obvious. The second part of Clm 14485 therefore blends plays with an affinity to pre-Christian Rome, the first 7 plays, with an example of the more orthodox performances usually seen as typically Medieval. Although the Apocalypse of John is extravagant, it may nevertheless have entertained the Imperial court on its visits to Gandersheim. A central educational institution in the Holy Roman Empire could very well afford the installation, not least why there was quite a lot of singing in the scenes and song education was central to the canoness abbeys.

There is absolutely no reason why these tableaus and small scenes should not have be staged and performed. The poetical value of these matter-of-fact hexameters is negligible since they have no other purpose than guiding and informing someone looking at the tableaus or wanting to build them. Because the performance puts the two sides of Christ – the valiant dragon slayed and the slain lamb – into a meaningful context, they are pedagogically essential in a transitional religious phase. The last scene, to which the others built up, starting with a visions in the church ending with the dead actually rising in the open on Judgement day, is genuinely theatrical and dramatic – that’s Hrotsvit for you, always acutely aware of a dramatic situation and its climax. The monster slayer arriving on the white horse is spectacular, and the idea of ‘holding the books of life open to the dead’, that is above their graves for them to see, rather than just opening them as it says in the Apocalypse (Rev 20:12) is a significant example, since it creates something as mundane a cause and effect situation to the belief that the dead will rise to receive their due. The emphasis on what it says in books — on knowledge and the reproduction of correct knowledge is central to the Apocalypse of John (4).

Even today, similarly to what Chasles did in the 1870s, one finds some very conscious compositions when studying Hrotsvit. Her consciousness must not be overlooked and she must be taken serious, since it is unlikely that we have detected structures and meanings that she never thought of.

Hrotsvit research has for quite a while managed to overlook significant details, and chosen actively to hide behind some suitable kind of doubt rather than accepting the greater pattern of her work and writings. The Apocalypse of St. John, therefore, is seldom mentioned or analyzed in an unprejudiced way. Nobody has though that Bede’s AMEN was a conscious part of the composition of Clm 14485. That book in its turn was not considered a literary work in its own right.

The scholarly treatment of Hrotsvit is one of a most impressive and naïvely unconscious downgrades of a very structured female authorship – even by most of those who see themselves as her advocates.


(0) This is an old quotation from Chasles (1876:306), who after having understood that Hrotsvit’s plays were rhymed concluded: Peut-on nommer cela de la prose? Evidemment la religieuse a écrit en vers sans le savoir—‘Can one call this prose? Apparently the religious (fem.) has written in verse without knowing it’. Evidently, Chasles was puzzled by the chimera that emerged when something, which he himself had cleverly figured out, albeit with some difficulty, might perhaps have been intended by a nun 900 years earlier. Chasles, Philarète 1876. Le Moyen Age. Paris. Charpentier et Cie.

(1) Today at WWW one can look at this manuscript from St. Emmeram’s monastery in Regensburg, kept in the collections of the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München
on the web at this address:

(2) See Wilson (1989:xxx) in Wilson, Katherina M. 1989. The plays of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim. New York. Garland Publishing.

(3) Homeyer (1970:376-80) is indispensable. See Homeyer, Helene. 1970. Hrotsvithae Opera. Mit Einleitung und Kommentar. München, Paderborn, Wien. Ferdinand Schöningh.

(4) Lately Julia Becker has discussed the importance of precise knowledge and its transfer in the 9th century – the library at Lorsch being her example.  Becker, Julia. 2015. Präsenz, Normierung und Transfer von Wissen: Lorsch als „patristische Zentralbibliothek“. In: Julia Becker, Tino Licht, and Stefan Weinfurter (eds). Karolingische Klöster: Wissenstransfer und Kulturelle Innovation. Walter De Gruyter. Berlin. Pp. 71-87.

This week On the Reading Rest I have a small report in Danish from an excavation in Jutland. This kind of report is called a developer’s report. It is a short description of an excavation partly paid for by the developer because prehistoric remains would have been damaged by the planned construction work. In this case the archaeologists responsible for the excavation and the report have chosen among other things to present a house from the period 400 to 550 CE, that is the Early Pre Carolingian Iron Age. The site is called ‘Domdalsgård’ or ‘Dooms dale Farm’ and although this direct translation is probably not correct I shall comment upon the house calling it Doomsdale.

Illu 00

Terkildsen, Kamilla Fiedler and Boddum, Sanne 2011.Domdalsgård: gravplads fra ældre romersk jernalder, landsby fra ældre og yngre germansk jernalder (Domdalsgård: Cemetery from Early Roman Iron Age, Village from Early and Late Germanic Iron Age). Bygherrerapport nr. 61. Viborg Museum. ISBN 978-87-92778-11-6


Illu02On today’s farm the dwelling houses are small in comparison with dairy barns and manure basins because milk production at an industrious scale shapes the farm and its farmland, as well as and the agricultural firm called I/S Søndergaard that runs the estate. The relation employee:milk-cow is c. 1:75. It’s modern market-sensitive Denmark.


In the 5th century when Doomsdale was built, times were different and for the first time in centuries the byre or ‘the dairy barn’, in those days part of a main house, stated to become shorter than the dwelling quarters. This change was pointed out OtRR: 16 April, 2012, and exemplified by the St Darum village. In this regulated village the change was more marked and probably the result of a change in the agricultural economy favouring crops over cattle. The byres shrank and the dwelling quarters grew – the cattle became fewer and there were more people in the household. The number of heads would have balanced each other.

At Doomsdale which might be a somewhat earlier farm the proportions dwelling:byre are a little more balanced, but Doomsdale is still a typical EPCIA building because of its formalized planning, but also a little odd.


Usually in the PCIA the proportions between the lengths of the rooms were expressed in even numbers of feet. The central main room with the hearth was the largest room. The private quarters above the heath room were larger but divided into the gable room and the chamber. In most PCIA farms the outer room was not smaller than the chamber and frequently larger probably as a reflection of the number of farm hands in the household. In Doomsdale this is not the case although a minimal change from the proportions 8-12-17-11, 5 to 8-12-17-12 would have been a natural solution if proportions mattered as much as they usually did.

Other proportional solution such as:

A four room residence with lovely chambers and a capacious central room featuring 8-12-18-10 ft. proportions …


The classical balanced 48 ft. room solution: 8-12-16-12 ft., often favoured on better farms in Southern Jutland …

simply didn’t fit Doomsdale.

The size of the gable room is a consequence of the roof construction, but the three other rooms are there to express a social and practical balance. When we visit one of the evenly proportioned farm we understand that there are quite a number of farmhand and that the private quarters in the upper end of the house are capacious. The central room, therefore, may be a bit crowded, but that was probably just as it ought to be on a busy modern farm. Visiting Doomsdale, on the other hand, would give the impression that the farm hands were few or their living quarters crammed, the central room was large and the chambers capacious. This would have reminded one of a Late Roman Iron Age situation being an echo of the time when cattle were more important, and large farm owners larger.


In the byre part of the house there are no simple proportions other than the ones that were dependent upon the construction of the house. This is quite a modern trait compared to Southern Jutland where the post setting in this part of the house was functional, mirroring the construction of the cow’s compartments, dividing this part of the main farm house into byre and barn. At Doomsdale the post pairs were probably spread out evenly east of the entrance room in order to support the roof in a rational way. This solution probably involved measuring, but also small factions of the foot which cannot be measured on an excavation plan. The general impression of the main house would thus have been a mixture of rooms mirroring the social order of the household as well as rational and practical solutions to house construction. Compared to the RIA the byre part of the house would have lost a little of its ideologically inspired Early Iron Age design.


As mentioned, the technical construction of the building shows in the distance between the short end of the house and the nearest post pair – eight feet. In reality, however, this distance is linked to a relation between the wall plate in the corner of the house and the first roof-supporting trestle. Doomsdale was built according to a proportional system which starts with a rule of the thumb stating that if the distance from the short end to the first trestle is equal to 2 and the distance from the wall plate to the side ridge equals 1, then all the roof angles in the house will fit a thatch roof, if the height of the post in the trestle is 4, given that 2 equals the wall height. In this case the central ridge will be 5 units above the ground. Moreover, owing to the rounded corners, and supported by the first trestle and the side ridges, the rafters from the short end will meet with the rafters from the side roofs in one and the same point at the central top ridge. This will not happen if the wall height isn’t equal to the distance from the short end to the first trestle. Consequently, wall height at Doomsdale equals 8 feet, i.e. 2×4 feet. The total height of the house was thus 4×5 = 20 feet, i.e. 0.312×20 = 6.24 meter.

In the ever more open Early Iron Age landscape finding the necessary timber in order to build a house gets more and more difficult and there is thus a great point in being able beforehand to figure out the dimensions needed to build the house. In tandem it becomes all the more important to build large main houses as a symbol of the status of the owner. Social competition is in other words important and little by little architecture turns away from the functionalism of the Pre Roman Iron Age to the formality and rational technique of the Early Pre Carolingian Iron Age. There is a short revival of the functional ideal in the beginning of the Late Carolingian Iron Age, but Harold Bluetooth, who else, sees to it that formalism gets back in business (cf. OtRR 11 August, 2014).

This week On the Reading Rest I have a print-out of an article from the open access journal, JAAH

framsidaFischer, Svante & Lind, Lennart 2015. The Coins in the Grave of King Childeric. Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History 14. Pp. 1-36.

Fulltext:   Acronym: FiLi

In the end of the 1990s it was proposed that the time depth and distribution of coins in a hoard could be compared with that of the names of Kings used in a chronological series to give historical i.e. time depth to a certain context. The series consists of a few old and famous kings and many partly unknown younger ones. The example given was the first series of kings in the poem Widsith, which includes several of the kings mentioned in poetic texts – that is the Finnsburh Fragment and a section in Beowulf – about the hall called Finnsburg. The chronological distribution of coins in hoards could be read as kings’ names and linked to events in the past in similar way as name series. Ten years later is was suggested that a series of weapon could be viewed in the same perspective. When the small hall in Uppåkra, Scania (0) was smashed in the beginning of the 6th century it would seem that a series of weapons were deposited in a waterlogged depression just north of the house. In a traditional weapon offering after a victory this kind the weapons date the battles – each battle forming a chronological peak among the offered military equipment. At Uppåkra nevertheless, the series resembled a long chronological period with a few very old and several younger weapons. Since halls are known to have contained weapons it was thus conceivable that the weapons in the Uppåkra depression were the offered spoils taken from the walls of the hall when it was conquered and smashed.

The idea is simple enough: by collecting a series of objects or names one can create a network that will sustain a historical narrative. The point being that this was done consciously in the middle of the first century CE. Ideas may be interesting, but do the lend themselves to be proved? This is where FiLi comes in.

Ch's signetKing Childeric’s grave is a signed installation excavated in the 17th century and immediately understood to be Childeric’s grave because of the signet ring probably found on the finger of the buried person: childerici regis it says referring to what of his he signed with this the king’s ring while alive. The grave installation was soon understood to contain a message respecting the new Byzantine Empire created 476 CE when West Rome disappear. But as FiLi points out the installation is actually ‘signed’ by Childeric’s son Clovis, who used his right as a descendant to design the funeral and burial.

During later years earlier interpretations stressing the devout attitude of dependency to the new Byzantine Empire, thought to be symbolized by the Byzantine artefacts on display in the grave, have been questioned and now FiLi sets out to reinterpret the most outstanding objects in the grave: the two hoards (1) the 100 gold coins, 5th c. solidi, of which 89 were described and 12 depicted in the 1655 publication and (2) the 200 silver coins of which four were illustrated. It is FiLi’s combined and numismatic knowledge and overview of the period in question, the late 5th century that allows them incorporate the hoards into a much more rewarding reading of the burial context – the hoards being the most complex messages in the installation.

I’ll concentrate on the gold coins. FiLi shows that originally the coins were collected in the West Roman Empire foremost Italy during the chaotic decades leading up to the fall of Rome 476 CE and Childeric’s death 481/82. Contrary to what one might have expected this didn’t mean that the coins in the hoard were a mirror of the coins that circulated in the West during those years. On the contrary someone (read Clovis) have sorted out the coins that mirror the coinage of the last emperors in the West and opponents of the East Roman emperors. What the gold hoard signals is thus not just King Childeric’s and Clovis’ dependency of Byzantium, but all the more actively a wish to distance themselves from the former West and its last more or less dubious emperors. Clovis wanted to emphasize that the Franks had created the new West. To many, the message of the coins may have been obscure, but as FiLi argues not only Clovis could read the coins, many of the funeral guests would have been familiar with the coin legends.

en tabell

FiLi’s analysis discloses a sophisticated insight into the mind of Clovis adding a material statement to oral eulogy in what was probably a masterly directed lit de parade and funeral. Moreover, the statement delivered by the hoard is a historical statement summarizing the outcome of a number of turbulent and decisive decades in European history.

Since On the Reading Rest is free to develop analysis a little further, interpreting context in a textual way, it seem possible to add an interpretation to the gold hoard developing its perspective on the past. This interpretation falls within the frames established by FiLi.


One way of looking at the hoard is to consider of a mirror of Childeric’s life dividing it into phases such as before he became king 457 CE (a period of c. 20 yrs); between that date and the fall of Rome or Childeric’s alliance with Odovacer, i.e. 476 (a period of 19 yrs), and the rest of his life until 481, a period of 5 yrs).

If we divide the coins into these three periods the 89 coins are distributed 12 – 64 – 15, but since they amount to no more than 89% of the coins, the expected numbers are 13,48 – 71,91 – 16,85 respectively. Since 11 coins are missing it is likely that the original composition was (12+0) = 12 – (64+6) = 70 – (15+3) = 18.


The years covered by the periods are c. 20, 19 and 5 years respectively.

The periods covered by the coinage according to legends and types are 431-5 to 456 CE ; 457 to 476 CE and 474/5 to 491 CE.

The start of the last period is a result of the Emperor Zeno’s troubles in the beginning of his reign. That period is mirrored in the sample because it was a Constantinopolitan problem. After 476 CE we may confidently see him as a powerful ruler who died 491 CE. In practice therefore, the emperor who would have been told about the burial was Zeno. What Clovis describes is Childeric’s life in terms of gold coin success as a sign of general success as seen in the above success rate.

This is obviously not bad on the contrary it is a growing success and Clovis saw the life of his father as a period of success irrespective of whether the West Roman Empire existed or not. Since he is depicted as the King of the West and loyal to Byzantium, Childeric did better when he came into power and always well.

It was a success when Childeric became king, and the fall of Rome caused him no trouble.

In addition to the coins as measures of success the collection is also one of names and as FiLi has shown this is its most obvious expression of intent. This should worry the Southeast Scandinavians because some of their most historical coins from this period, collected by themselves in Italy, were issued by the very emperors excluded by Clovis. Everybody may not have been happy with what they when they examined the coins — or rather when they saw what was lacking. The importance of warfare, nevertheless, wasn’t doubted and among his contemporaries, the Gallo-Roman rulers in the domain of Soissons were probably among those who noticed the peculiar lack of western coins in the funeral hoard although these rulers were not defeated by Clovis until 486.

Honouring his father, Clovis sets a new agenda and he doesn’t keep his father’s signet ring as a sentimental object of veneration. Probably he would have explained he decision not to keep it with reference to his father needing in the next world, in which by his funeral definition he seems no more than his son’s father.


(0) On Uppåkra in general, see for instance:

In visible silence

23 February, 2015

This week On the Reading Rest I have two essays from 1931 and 33 respectively. Next autumn a new series of banknotes is introduced in Sweden. The national bank – Riksbanken – takes the opportunity to link these notes with a Swede hopefully and probably recognizable in- and outside Sweden. On the 500 SEK note we see Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. This choice has been criticised, because one may always wonder whether it is possible to separate Wagner’s late operas from his anti-Semitism (1).

Birgit 500SEK

When I was a child my mother told me that one had to see or listen to one opera by Wagner and one by Richard Strauss, after that one could do as one pleased. I listen to Salome and Die Walküre on records because the local opera couldn’t stage them. By 1960 I had stopped listening to Wagner except to compare Wagner’s and Schumann’s setting (both 1840) of Heine’s poem Die beiden Grenadiere (1820). And although one could argue that Wagner’s pompous setting purposely destroys the irony that hides inside the grandiosity of Heine’s over-exaggerating grenadiers – Wagner taking grandiosity for granted – it doesn’t amount to anti-Semitism. It is just a measure of egocentric misinterpretation on Wagner’s part – a step in Wagner’s development, but not anti-Semitism. Schumann’s music and Heine’s text on the other hand complemented each other creating more where Wagner created less. The way Schumann ends Heine’s lied about the two French grenadiers, who are engaged in defeat, one dying of his wounds, as well as in creating a myth about Napoleon, is very much to the point.

Schuman kadans

Spotify will allow you to listen for yourself.

Thinking of the 1960s, of Wagner and Heine I remembered Anatoly Lunacharsky. In the 1960s subscribing to Sovjet Literature before I left school, I also bought a collection of his essays. Since I couldn’t read Russian my interest in modern Russian literature referred me to Sovjet publications in English although I see that my Danish copy of One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich was a Christmas present in 1963. I found my copy of Lunacharsky’s essays in a moving box in the outhouse.

Lunacharsky lit and art omslagLunacharsky, Anatoly Vasilyevich. (1965). On Literature and Art. Moscow. Progress Publishers. Acronym: OLA

When Lenin formed his first government in 1917 he chose Anatoly Lunacharsky for the post of the Commissar of Enlightenment (2). In the midst of revolution one might have thought that Lenin would have preferred a tougher man, not least while Lenin hadn’t always agreed with Lunacharsky’s ideas, to say the least. Nevertheless, he did appoint him in 1917, being of the opinion that in matters of culture, nothing is as harmful as hate, arrogance and fanaticism. In these matters great care and tolerance must be exercised. This is a very Lunacharskian opinion and not surprisingly, as told by Isaac Deutscher in a sketch of Lunacharsky’s life: After a few days in office he resigned (as Commissar) in order to protest against the alleged firing by the Red Guards at the Kremlin in Moscow, during the October insurrection, which had damaged the walls. He published a fierce Manifesto denouncing this ‘act of vandalism’, and appealed to the working class to take under its protection all architectural monuments and treasures of art. He resumed office only after he was reassured that the Kremlin had suffered no damage during the insurrection (3). Lunacharsky would have been proud of those who four years ago stopped the thugs in the Egyptian Museum next to Tahrir in Cairo.

Lunacharsky halvprofilThat Lunacharsky immediately stepped down when the revolution threatened Russian heritage, must also be seen as a reflection of the fact that he was content not to take a leading role among the top political leaders of Sovjet Russia. Culture and education were his fields and he had strong opinions about them. But he was cautious too. In 1919 he published a book called Revolutionary Silhouettes featuring Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Martov and Kamenev, all of whom he knew. He introduced the sketches with an account of his own ‘Party history’. In 1924 the book was enlarged and slightly altered. His party history and the silhouette of Kamenev had disappeared, but the silhouettes of Plekhanov, Sverdlov, Volodarsky and Uritsky were added together with silhouettes of F. Kalinin and Bessalko. However, there was no silhouette of Stalin, who was actually mentioned only once and en passant. It could be argued that Lunacharsky didn’t know Stalin as well as he knew the others and lacked the necessary personal reason write about him. Nevertheless, the absence was ostentatious.

Lunacharsky was a great revolutionary speaker and having cut out himself from the list of revolutionaries he could describe the others with an emphasis on their performance. His descriptions allow us to liken the revolutionaries to great composers, conductors and musicians, virtuosi, concertmasters, chamber musicians and members of the orchestra – competent and performative characters. They all participated to the revolution despite their individuality, political differences and capacities. Fyodor Kalinin and Pavel Bassalko at the very end of the book were members of the orchestra, but also the protégés of the Commissar of Enlightenment and silhouettes of exemplary new proletarian cultural workers, who developed the cultural identity of the proletariat without forgetting pre-revolutionary heritage or the contributions of its intellectual elite. Kalinin and Bassalko didn’t live to become great front figures (both died 1920), but in Revolutionary Silhouettes they signify the cultural and educational spirit of the future as well as Lunacharsky’s visions. Their fate could also be said to echo the difficulties of the Prolekult — Lunacharsky’s cultural project. Obviously, including them in Revolutionary Silhouettes says a lot about how Lunacharsky ranked Stalin.

Not surprisingly, Lunacharsky lost influence when Stalin came to power, but he didn’t rock the boat and although from 1929 he was no longer Commissar of Enlightenment, he was still used, for instance as delegate and diplomat. He was appointed ambassador to Spain in 1933, but died in Menton on his way to Madrid.

In the 1960s, when being a revolutionary, a close friend of Lenin’s and unable to remember Stalin, became politically correct, Revolutionary Silhouettes were published once again. The book was accompanied by a volume called On Literature and Art. Revolutionary Silhouettes had lost half of its revolutionaries and the editor of On Literature and Art felt obliged to end his ‘From the Compiler’ telling his readers that:

The compiler has never considered abbreviating any of the articles published here, or publishing extracts from these articles. This is not merely because Lunacharsky’s articles represent in themselves a unique manifestation of art: the ‘spirit of the times’ becomes organically revealed in Lunacharsky’s works, and very often some fleeting remark about some fact or other of the social life of those years turns out to be an essential detail which recreates in our minds the epoch which gave us Lunacharsky’s talent OLA:6.

This is more than reassuring. When an editor tells you that he hasn’t tampered with the text because it is difficult, then most readers will think that he is lamenting the difficulties he encountered in his work, rather than the reason why he didn’t consider making some changes. Let’s suggest that the concluding remarks are the compiler Cand. (Phil. Sc.) A. Lebedev’s way of telling us that, believe it or not, he actually had to make some corrections, not just a correct collection, and that Lunacharsky’s technique made it difficult – so, read between the lines.

In the years around 1930 Lunacharsky, who was a prolific writer, was able to write about complex questions and to die of natural causes. It stands to reason that he wrote about Heine as well as Wagner in a way that may be interesting today when double standards next to outspoken neo-fascism and nationalism is once again a public phenomenon.

Reading the essays on Heine and Wagner, which Lebedev conveniently puts next to each other, I will do it with reference to Lunacharsky’s method in Revolutionary silhouettes – look for his opinions in the unobtrusive formulations in the end of the essays.

The essay about Heine is actually a speech from 1931 a lecture is seems, to listeners who will understand the meaning of impressionism, be acquainted with a series of Marxist concepts and listen carefully to a number of quotations used to analyse Heine’s character and attitudes. On the other hand, the audience is supposed to be informed and educated when told the significant historical background of the expression ‘gallows humour’. Lunacharsky is probably wrong when he refers to the criminals in Old England, but this allows him to avoid the obvious references to Jewish humour developed in the late 19th century, that is, during a period of oppression.

Lunacharsky is educating an elite giving his listeners an overview. In the beginning he is quite critical of Heine, who after all wasn’t a communist, despite his acquaintance with Marx. The major part of the essay, therefore, gives the reader a large number of interesting and analytical facts about Heine pointing out a number of shortcomings not least concerning Heine’s ever-present wit. Two pages from the end of the essay Lunacharsky concludes that Heine lacked the real social perspective and will. The social will of an individualist (i.e. Heine’s) is equal to nothing (OLA:336). This is a bit harsh, but very politically correct, and needed in order for the essay to end in a coda that only a reader, who unlike the listener is not carried away by Lunacharsky the speaker, would notice. To introduce his coda Lunacharsky introduces an undogmatic Karl Marx, who at some point in time defended Heine. Then Lunacharsky jumps to Pushkin, something completely different and quotes him as a misunderstood author and then as a parallel he quotes Heine’s poem Enfant Perdu (all six strophes) in German (OLA:338f.) (4).

And then in the last lines of the essay he concludes:

This glorious poem shows how Heine – for all the variety of his lyrics and the tremendous place which a free attitude to his surroundings and his inner world occupied in his work – evaluated his social role; it shows the significance which he attached to himself as a political poet. And we have the right to say that, in praising Heine as one of the most outstanding poets of inner freedom, we are introducing him into the pantheon of the great precursors of the genuine revolution – the proletarian revolution which we have the great honour and fortune to be accomplishing (OLA:339).

This is not a necessary conclusion and not one we would necessarily have expected, but there it is in the last six lines. Formally speaking, Heine is not in the pantheon since we need to praise him before we invite him in and some may not do that. The speech is over and there is a minimal silence before the ovation. Comparing Pushkin in Russian with Heine in German is not straightforward and probably only a few would have heard the dissonance in the middle of Lunacharsky’s last sentence. A reader, nevertheless, gets his drift.


If we turn to the essay about Wagner, written at the 50th anniversary of his death, and jump directly to the end we may read the conclusion: Wagner could at times channel his exalted musical and dramatic force to serve ideas that were wrong and even harmful, thus making this great power poisonous, but he never demeaned it to become a reflection of the petty, he never debased it to the level of the trivial or the casual (OLA:354).

Wagner i Petersburg 1863Indeed, Wagner knew what he was doing, and Lunacharsky, who defines Wagner as a ‘thinker’ (OLA:343), goes on to say that Russian composers possess ‘Wagner’s ability in a very small measure’. This is lack of Wagner’s method, not a lack of music, but lack of an ‘exalted musical and dramatic force to serve ideas’, that is, method. Lunacharsky goes on to lament that although there is a need, there is no major opera about the revolutionary passion (OLA:354). Lunacharsky had appriciated Wagner’s method during the first decades of the 20th century and Wagner was staged in a futurist production 1918 (6). However, by 1933 during Stalins cultural revolution, lamenting this lack of Wagnerian method doesn’t ring true anymore (7). If we look at Revolutionary silhouettes (the 1924 edition) once again, we shall find that Lunacharsky’s revolution was no longer about Wagnerian Art and Revolution (8), passion and method cast as futuristic rather than nationalistic revolution and future. Nevertheless, in 1933 under Stalin and nationalism, there was still a need for Wagerian method, so great in fact that the lack of such an opera about revolutionary passion, stands out as a sign of intellectual reluctance or betrayal. Shostakovich didn’t and wouldn’t use the method nor the type of musical performance that goes with it. He wrote Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District instead (it’s on Spotify as Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk). In 1934 his opera was a great success, two years later it was officially condemned.

Lunacharsky, writing in the beginning of the Stalin era cannot risk pointiing out that Heine, one of the great German authors, was a Jew, and Wagner an outspoken nationalistic German anti-Semite. Instead, as in any period in which the obvious is reluctantly admitted to, he writes in a convoluted way. Indeed the confessing compiler, Phil. sc. Lebedev, in a similar period of insecure change, may have figured out that under such circumstances there could be a point in juxtaposing Heine and Wagner. Be this as it may, today, fifty years later, I still subscribe to Lunacharsky’s opinion that Wagner’s work is primarily method – musical and dramatic method. When Wagner applies this method as the powerful method of his Niebelungen theatre and drama, then, owing to this method, the result becomes an expression of his anti-Semitism. Music is not per se anti-Semitic, but methods may well be.

Contrary to Wagner, Lunacharsky prefers an indirect method. This approach makes it possible for his readers to discuss Wagner in such a way that they don’t need to judge Wagner the person, the composer or the anti-Semite; suffice it to discuss his method as that of a thinker. Indirectly, however, analysing his method rather than his work, that is, applying silence rather judgement, will make Wagner’s anti-Semitism ever present and inevitable. In  Stalin’s cultural revolution this way of reasoning, applying silence rather than judgement, is dated.

The Swedish banknote exhibits a result of Wagner’s seductive method pretending that the design of the note recalls a scene, which Birgit Nilsson would have been proud of as proof of her being a great singer. Riksbanken, the national bank, has been silent about all this, but having pushed forward a former chairman of a committee under its General Council (5), we understand that the bank will not change the design of the note, drawing for instance on Tosca instead of Die Walküre, in order to contextualize Birgit Nilsson. This means that again and again and again and again this banknote will demonstrate Lunacharsky’s point that Wagner’s method and its inherent anti-Semitism is powerful.


(1) The matter can be looked up at:

(2) Lunacharsky and the ‘The Commissariat of Enlightenment’ can be looked up on the www, e.g. Wikipedia. Presently, this article doesn’t mentioned that Lunacharsky wrote a two volume work Religion and Socialism (2 vols, 1908, 1911). It was immensely unpopular with Lenin, but important if we are to understand how Lunacharsky thought about socialism, cf. In this blog entry neither education nor socialism is in focus, but one could argue that writing essays about literature and art Lunacharsky continues his way of thinking about socialism, consciously steering clear of religion.

(3) Isaac Deutscher Introduction in Michael Glenny ed. Revolutionary Silhouettes — Anatoly Vasilievich Lunacharsky London 1967. Allen Lane The Pinguin Press. cf.

(4) The poem is on the web .

(5) Link to the council

(6) Cf. Carnegy, Patrick. 2006. Wagner and the Art of the Theatre. New Haven. Yale University Press. p.311f.

(7) O’Connnor, Thimothy Edward. 1983. The politcs of Soviet Culture. Ann Arbor, Michigan. UMI Research Press has a chapter on Lunacharsky and Stalin with a discussion of the Shakhty affair, the end of the NEP cultural politic and the beginning of Staöin’s cultural revolution 1928 (p. 89f.). See also Fitzpatrick, Shiela. 1967. A. V. Lunacharsky: Recent Soviet Interpretations and Republications Soviet Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jan., 1967), pp. 267-289.

(8) Cf.

This week On the Reading Rest I have a volume of Jean Jacques Rousseau, his dialogues, written in the 1770s. The reason is straightforward. I listened to a presentation of an ongoing project aiming at publish a Swedish translation of the dialogues that has been lying dormant in the archives of the Bonnier media group in Stockholm for almost a century. Both the translator and his foundered translation were intriguing, but since I, and the vast majority of the audience, new nothing whatsoever of the dialogues, they caught my interest because they themselves stood out as a foundered project overshadowing the translator and the translation they triggered (1).

bookmarksOn the web I bought an English copy, which turned out to be a present from one of the three translators of Dialogues to his brother. It showed in the bookmarks. The first was a package slip from the university press between page xxvi and xxvii (Conclusion in the introduction), the second, a folded ‘compliments of …’-card between page 54 and 55 in the later part of the first dialogue and the flawless jeremiads of its conversation. I began wondering whether oddities worthy a smily has had a special link to the dialogues in which Rousseau attempted to judge his career and oeuvre as if he was not himself the public person and writer of his own works.

OmslagRousseau, J-J. (1990). Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly (eds). Judith R. Bush, Christopher Kelly and Roger D. Masters (trans.) Hanover & London. University Press of New England. Acronym: RouDia

The quote from Ovid is central to Rousseau and translating it can be done more or less literally to capture its balance between meaning and metre. Written by Ovid when, exiled to Tomis – today’s Constanta in Romania by the Black Sea – he was as close to the Babarians, surrounded by them culturally and linguistically, as a Roman could be without leaving the empire. Translating the line: ‘I am the barbarian, understood by nobody out here’ imitates some of the rhythm. However, a literal translation: ‘Here I am the barbarian, because by them I am not understood’ captures more of the ridiculous situation in which some bearers of civilisation, Ovid among the Getae and Rousseau among the French, experience the self-sufficient barbarians – not least while speaking to them.

A pre-condition for reading Rousseau or Ovid is to accept the existence of barbarians as a cultural phenomenon and that is difficult. Alternatively, we disregard their use of the concept – considering it a metaphor for their deeply felt alienation and frustration, that is patronizing them from our postcolonial high grounds.

Bild 01In addition to the epigraph, each dialogue has a title: On the system of conduct with respect to J. J. adopted by the administration with the probation of the public; On the nature of J. J. and his habitus; On the spirits of his books and conclusions. It seems, therefore, that the saddening experience of the epigraph results in a systematic civilizational and educational defence project. This project was a failure.

Similar to Ovid who never returned to Rome, Rousseau as Rousseau in the dialogues is stuck with his interlocutor The Frenchmen – that is a representative of the ‘barbarians’ and the middleman between Rousseau and J.[ean] J.[acques]. The reasons why Ovid was exiled are obscure and kept so despite and because of the poet’s hints, and so are the wrongs of Jean Jacques as they are treated in the dialogues. To no avail Ovid sent off poems to Rome and the Emperor. Rousseau read aloud parts of his dialogues to influential persons, and imagined a Royal intervention that would restore his reputation – to no avail.

Since the dialogues between The Frenchman and Rousseau concerns, J.[ean] J.[acques], i.e., real life Rousseau, the author has divided himself into two: Rousseau and the non-present alter ego Jean-Jacques. Ovid in Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines) splits himself between the exiled poet, real life Ovid, and his alter ego, the heroines separated from their lovers (read: Ovid from the civilized Romans), but his touch is vastly more sophisticated than Rousseau’s rough systematic grip. In fact the parallels between the two are extremely simplistic. Ovid is unbelievably enjoyable compared to the 250 pages of an often rambling Rousseau – arguing, and assessing J. J. There is such a wealth of Absicht in the dialogues that any reader is repeatedly verstimmt (1). Leaving the last bookmark between page 54 and 55 intending to read the following 200 by swooping down on arbitrary pages, is not a bad idea. Not surprisingly, readers acting in this way were anticipated by the ever suspicious Rousseau, who was convinced that this kind of behaviour betrayed a member of the circle of conspiracy that surrounded him.

There is little doubt that Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis, must be translated literally ‘Here I am the barbarian, because by them I am not understood’.

The inability to see that one’s own thinking and conduct illustrates a flaw precisely in one’s thinking, springs to the reader’s mind when studying the prologue (On the subject and form of this writing) and epilogue (History of the preceding writing). They frame the dialogues. Although ‘the individual’ and one’s individual identity was cardinal to Rousseau he nevertheless believed that good individuals, in their capacity as citizen, shouldn’t put their private ambitions first. Yet it would seem that Rousseau himself demonstrates a patent lack of this virtue. The whole idea of the dialogue project was to compel others correctly to acquit J. J. – that is Jean-Jacques Rousseau – considering him to be innocent and virtuous, precisely as he himself had correctly judged himself after having put himself on trial in the dialogues. The point was not that the French should accept him with his qualities and faults, they should pronounce him ‘not guilty’ after a fair hearing. They should in other words follow in the footsteps of the The Frenhman who in the last dialogue, after he has been in the country to meet and talk to J. J., says: As for myself, I want to make my straightforward confession to you at this point. I believe that J. J. is innocent and virtuous, and this belief is such, deep in my soul, that it has no need for some other confirmation (RouDia:221).

From a modern point of view, Rousseau’s inability to be a good or ideal citizen, in effect his ability to put his private ambitions first, was partly caused by his mental state which might well have been diagnosed as paranoia. In the epilogue to the dialogues, History of the preceding writings, his description of the intricate circle of conspiracy building up around him is indeed paranoiac. He tries to break the vicious circle in different ways that he finds in concord with his social contract, and fails. In the end, therefore, he breaks the circle the only possible way he can, i.e. by believing himself to escape into complete solitude. He breaks the social contract in order to survive. In the epilogue Rousseau come close to understanding his own paranoiac perceptions of the world around him as a delusion.

In the prologue On the subject and form of this writing written during or after Rousseau had produced the transcription and fair copy of the manuscript, he writes about his lack of time which makes it impossible for him to edit or rewrite the manuscript although he sees its shortcomings: What I had to say was so clear and I felt it so deeply that I am amazed by the tediousness, repetitiousness, verbiage, and disorder of this writing RouDia:5. Before the reader can agree or disagree, Rousseau continues, elegantly turning his clear-sightedness upside down: What would have made it lively and vehement coming from another’s pen is precisely what has made it dull and slack coming from mine RouDia:5.

His self-defensive role is humiliating. Had he been a respected person the tediousness etc. would have been understandable, but now it stems from the method he must employ: I engaged in [writing] it for brief moments only, writing each idea as it came to my and then stopping, writing the same thing ten times if it came to me ten times, without ever recalling what I wrote previously and becoming aware of it only when reading the whole thing too late to make corrections as I shall explain shortly RouDia:5. In the given situation, he tells us that he must write the way he does because under the circumstances he cannot do otherwise – he cannot revise a sentence or compare two. Although Rousseau doesn’t say it, the sympathetic reader shall have to conclude that honesty is all that matters writing down what he feels and thinks as he thinks and feels it, unable ever to correct himself: In the excessive length of these dialogues, he has said nearly all there is to say although it is drowned in a chaos of disorder and repetition however it is there! And good minds will be able to find it RouDia:6. These good minds, to be sure, are the individuals who do not put their private ambitions first.

In the epilogue History of the preceding writings it turns out that Rousseau’s first reader, a learned and trusted man of letters, having actually read the manuscript, tries to suggest some improvements of the text. In so doing he betrays himself to Rousseau as a member of the all-encompassing conspiracy. If by now it hasn’t occurred to the modern reader that she or he belong to the same category, then it is high time to understand that reading the dialogues the way Rousseau wants his readers to read and understand, would deprive them of their individual identity.

Bild 02In the end, therefore, one can argue that the central theme in Rousseau’s work, the tension between the individual and society – in his case the ‘barbaric’ French – allows him to save himself into solitude as soon as he has convinced himself that the conspiracy is a fact. The key scene is the authors experience in Notre Dame, which convinces him that following God’s command, the church has mysteriously changed and produced a grill that prevents him from reaching the altar where he had intended to put his manuscript. By placing it there he thought Providence and the King (Louis XVI, sic!) would have taken care of it and saved from Rousseau from his conspiring enemies. This is such a pointless suggestion that Rousseau has added an explanatory note, which, by the way, shows that his inability to correct himself has ceased. In the note he explains: This idea (R wanted to entrust the manuscript to the above-mentioned man of letters) and that of the deposit on the altar (in order for the manuscript to reach the King) had occurred to me during the life of Louis XV, at which time it was a bit less ridiculous RouDia:249. Indeed, but nevertheless ridiculous. Louis XV died May 10 1774 and consequently Rousseau thought of the reception of the dialogues well before he had completed them. In other words, being humiliated didn’t prevent him from being strategic. Moreover, he tested extract from the dialogues on selected audiences during the years he wrote them.

History of the preceding writings was been written after he completed the manuscript and after a number of paranoiac experiences. The one with the grill preventing him from reaching the altar resulted in the following: At the moment I perceived that grill, I was overcome by dizziness like a man with apoplexy, and this dizziness was followed by an upheaval of my whole being such that I cannot recall suffering anything like this RouDia:248. This experience, which testifies to self-observation if not explicit self-analysis, made him flee the church and never come back. And why should he? It would have been as horrible to come back and find the grille missing, or it gates opened, as it would be to find it still there preventing people from entering. And, if the grill was still locked when he came back wouldn’t somebody slam the church gate, Porte Rouge, behind him trapping him in a cage? Using the main gates was obviously not an option for the haunted philosopher.


Given his paranoiac disposition thinking in the tension between the individual and society enabled Rousseau to think in radically new ways, but it didn’t help him cope with the tension in a coherent way – he was himself the flaw of his own philosophical system. In this way – thinking in new ways and being himself the flaw of his overarching understanding he reminds one of Heidegger whose personal life, double standards and anti-Semitism didn’t chime in with his systematic approach to philosophy. It didn’t bother Heidegger as it didn’t bother Rousseau, since they both subscribed to Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis. And they both maintained that they were unjustly persecuted. In their lifetime they were in all likelihood appalling, but having died we can agree with Hannah Arendt who pointed out that what Heidegger did with his social contract was not really important anymore in 1969 when he turned 80 because: Heidegger denkt nicht ‘über’ etwas; er denkt was—Heidegger doesn’t think ‘about’ something; he thinks something (Arendt 1969:894)(3). One suspects that to Arendt, whose relation to Heidegger should have made him acutely aware of the ‘Jewish question’ that he continuously refused to acknowledge — to Hannah Arendt, Heidegger was history and a philosopher unable completely to understand his own identity. Rousseau died 1778, Heidegger two hundred years later 1976, in each their period of transition. The centuries have made it easy to cope with Rousseau and the gap between the man and his thinking considering his oeuvre a historical source material. Probably the publication of the of Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks’, in which his anti-Semitism becomes apparent in the late 1930s (4), is a step in the same direction making his obfuscations easy to see through.

Making Heidegger history on par with Rousseau makes them similar instead of different – this similarity is almost a joke and had they known each other they probably wouldn’t have liked the comparison. But who cares? It is one of the great strengths of history to deconstruct difference, uncover irony, force parallels upon the past — not passing judgement.

(1) Jan Stolpe presented David M Sprengler and his project on , Sprengler’s translation and its background in “Rousseau, Judge of Jean Jacques” . scroll to 6. Other works and click c. Rousseau: Judge of Jean Jacques

(2) This is a quote from Goethe: Man merkt die Absicht, und ist verstimmt—‘Cognizing the intention, one feels disconcerted’

(3)This is a quote from Arendt, H. 1969. Martin Heidegger ist achtzig Jahre alt. Merkur 23:893-902.

(4) On Google, the phrase “Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks'”, returns 5,300 hits “heideggers schwarzen hefte” 659 and “les cahiers noirs de Heidegger” 250.

This week On the Reading Rest have the new Aggersborg publication

Illu00Roesdahl, Else et al. 2014. Else Roesdahl, Søren Michael Sindbæk, Anne Pedersen and David M. Wilson (eds). Aggersborg: The Viking-Age Settlement & Fortress. Jutland Archaeological Society Publications vol 82. Århus. Acronym A-SaF.

All Aggerborg illustrations in this entry are based on A-SaF.

I read the book not primarily because of the famous late 10th c. fortress, rather I want to learn more about the village demolished in the 970s in order to give room for one of Harold Bluetooth’s uniform ring forts. The fortress turned out to be short-lived and the village was reestablished presumably already in the 11th century. It is conceivable, therefore, that historical or post-fortress Aggerborg had its roots in the LIA settlement. The editors and the highly qualified research group behind the book have done a splendid job summarizing the essential facts concerning a material that lay dormant for half a century in the archives of the National Museum in Copenhagen. During recent years, metal detector surveys, limited new excavations and successful geophysical measurements have enhance the original excavation results. In a series of chapters, members of the research group contextualize the investigations in relation especially the fortress, to the Limfjord and to the other Harold Bluetooth fortresses.


Illu02If we paste an overview of the excavations at Aggersborg on the first cadastral map of the modern village, it appears that the ‘Aggersborg’, although we do not know its original name, was founded in the LIA and thrived at least from the 8th century CE and onwards. Its east-west layout suggests a social structure reminiscent the EIA – a number of smaller dependent farms in one end and a large dominant one in the other.

Illu03In this 8-10th century version, the large farm in the west-end stands out as a manor, unrestricted by boundaries and characterized by large buildings (House A, D and GS) as well as pit houses. By contrast, the smaller farms in the east-end seem regulated and crammed on their plots. The parallels to continental situations with farms and pit houses were exemplified OtRR 14 April, 2014 referring to the Gladbach excavations.

Historical Aggersborg is also characterized by this manor-and-farm structure.

Illu04Although the Aggersborg fortress looks like a rigid layout of barracks, the few artefacts contemporary with the fortress show that of the buildings were also the abode of rural households. Only a limited part of the settlement area has been excavated, but the artefact distribution nevertheless reveals the typical east-west pattern, albeit within the confines of the fortress – its courtyards squared off by Haroldian halls in quarters defined by axial streets and the circular rampart. In the west the artefacts are dispersed inside the West Gate and in the east condensed inside the East Gate. Despite the village being haussmannized by Harold’s planners and builders, the spatial division of its settlement seems intact if we focus on the permanent fortress households. Given the short fortress period, it stands to reason that owing to the necessity to look after a fortress presumably most often empty, rural production and maintenance were outsourced to local entrepreneurs, their agro-consultants and household technicians. When, and there are few clues as to exactly when, the village was reestablished this structure was retained in the historical village. The Royal manor was first mentioned in relation to events in 1086, long after the fortress period, and there was hardly a manor without a village. Despite the autocratic planning of the fortress there was in other word a kind of continuity in the social structure of the community. If the fortress had become a long-term royal success with a permanent garrison in the barracks, the traditional social structure would not have been visible as an artefact pattern mirroring densely and sparsely settled areas.

It may well have been traumatic when manor and village were pulled and perhaps burnt down in the 970s CE, but it is hard to imagine that the estate, the community’s economic base: fields, meadows and grassland, would not have been maintained and perhaps expanded when the fortress was built. Moreover, the social continuity suggests that the King controlled Aggersborg before the construction of the fortress in such a way that to his order he could settle the locals in his model architecture. This form of royal power need not exclude the unpopular King’s unfriendly takeover ousting his steward by force. Be this as it may, the basic social structure of the local society was maintained from the LIA and until today because it continued to be economically reasonable.

Illu05Belonging to the 8th – 11th century, the pit houses are an added settlement component, and they seem to cluster around the settlement’s main houses except the pre-fortress hall (Building D). There are two kinds of pit houses: the excavated ones and the ones detected by the geophysical survey. Both categories are described and discussed by Søren Sindbæk. The geophysical surveys were undertaken in order to compensate for the limited excavation areas and aimed at getting an overview of the whole settlement. The measurements were interpreted in a plan and pit houses were relatively easy to see not least while they are large enough not to fall between measuring points. The plan maps probable and possible pit houses and I have chosen to add ‘the probable’ to the excavated ones. ‘The possible’ ones are indeed possible, but I see them more as indications as to where future excavations should perhaps take place. Their distribution differs from that of the probable houses inasmuch as the easternmost part of southernmost cluster, which is made up of several ‘probable’ and two excavated houses, may well have been the western end of a row stretching east-west.

In the west-end of the settlement the pit houses have a north-south distribution probably linked to fewer and larger east-west orientated houses west of the manor building. The western pit houses dates to the whole of the Carolingian Iron Age. Some are earlier than, some contemporary with, and some later than the fortress.

Illu06The eastern part of the settlement is organized in rows of three-aisled houses seemingly surrounded by pit houses. If we check the way the pit houses overlap, the direction in which they move is southwards except in one or perhaps two cases. This indicated that the position of a pit houses is determined by a building situated north of the primary house. If we take this trait as significant of the settlement at large, then there may be a development from the north to the south in three rows. The northern one with few pit houses and two southern ones with many.

Illu07The constellation main house/pit house represents a production site linked to and protected by farms, situated on the shores of the Limfjord at a suitable landing site. Production was depended on a manor-and-farm based rural economy to provide for its workers. Few crafts except textile production can be traced in the floor layers of the pit houses. Farm hands, and fishermen perhaps engaged in herring fishery, may nevertheless have been an important workforce settled in the pit houses – permanently and seasonally. The excavations plans therefore seems to show us a socially stratified society with manor, farms and cabins. In this structure the dominant landowner, the dependent farmers and the free or unfree workforce, subsisted and produced goods that could be exported to urban communities.


Aggersborg was never a town, but opposite the village, the town of Løgstør became a fact in the early 16th century probably after the King had given up his estate at Aggersborg (1). It may be argued that the southern shore of the Limfjord was the more optimal if we wished to found a town, but in that case one may wonder why such a town didn’t exist until the 16th century. Given the way the private Aggersborg manor (Aggersborggård) tried to prevent the town from profiting from the local fishing waters, which were important to the town’s economy, it is conceivable that the interests of a manor, its farms and pit house production settlement tended to prevent the foundation of towns or at least the success of actual towns. All Haroldian fortresses on the other hand are town-situated and most of them in the vicinity of a rather insignificant modern towns except for Odense and the not impossible fortress in Helsingborg (2). This indicates that Harold in addition to his political ambitions viewed his strategic measures in the light of the communicative and demographic parameters of a densely settled place – in this case a garrison with access to water. In order to create his network of fortresses Harold seems nevertheless to need access to land, which in some cases meant that the Place he chose had historical roots. This is typical not least of the fortresses in Scania, but also of Trelleborg on Zealand and Aggersborg in Jutland. We knows little about the environment of Fyrkat and Nonnebakken, but the new site, Borgring, next to Køge, is situated only 500m from the village Lille Salby and the manor Lellingegård. This place-name situation indicates that Borgring was founded on the land of an existing manor (a sal) (3). Since a number of towns were also founded or recreated in the days of Harold Bluetooth we can defend the hypothesis that Harold, engaged in his nation-building, wanted to establish an urbanized as well as a fortified nation held together in a coastal network of urban and military nodes. Towns are characterized by their harbour situation, garrisons most often situated a little more inland no more than a few kilometres form a temporary landing site. Ribe is the exception among the towns since it is situated by a river slightly inland, i.e. like a fortress. Aggersborg is the fortress exception situated directly by the water, albeit without a harbour

In southern Denmark, in Hedeby, at Ravningenge, in Jelling and indirectly, be means of the rune stone DR 55 at Sønder Vissing, Harold didn’t forget inland manifestations.


(1) Painting by R.H. Kruse, Rasmus Henrik Kruse,  7.8.1796-30.5.1877, maler, antikvar. Født i Navtrup, Salling, begravet på Fur

(2) A number of facts about the early history of Løgstør, in Danish, can be found at Løgstørs ældre historie

(3) see



This week On the Reading Rest I have the collected textual fragments and quotations of a movement of philosophical thought. It wasn’t a school and none of its members, if they can be called so, stand out as great individual thinkers. They were and have continued to be important because they were the prime philosophical target of Plato and Aristotle (P&A). Since they were first criticized some of their fundamental ideas have reoccurred again and again – Cover01not least since the Enlightenment. Next to this collection I have an article by Richard Mulgan.

Sprague, Rosamond Kent. 1972. The Older Sophists. Hackett Publishing Company Acronym: TOS

cover 02 Mulgan, Richard G. 1979. Lycophron and Greek Theories of Social Contract. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1979), pp. 121-128.

Stable URL: Acronym: RiMul


To P&A the sophists of the 400s BCE who very partly contemporary with Socrates, in effect older than P&A themselves and almost dead, were examples of intellectuals, who were fundamentally wrong and dangerous. P&A on the other hand were right and Plato constructed TOS as a fixed historical situation, in effect a background rather than a time span, prior to his own lifetime. Against this fond and partly entangled in it Socrates was depicted as the beginning of Plato’s critique of TOS. As exempla of a failed course, the members of this movement as well as Socrates were not historical persons, but mouthpieces of the past. Socrates, the forerunner of the present was a de facto victim of the past. If one feels the need to build a philosophical system, then this is a way of depicting the past as a two-dimensional background, is model. It implies that since the past is a backdrop of differing meanings, in essence confusion, we may safely put it behind us.

Lycophron was one of TOS and we know almost nothing about him – a very common sophist fate indicating that they were many more than we will ever know. Formally RiMul is a critique of W. K. C. Guthrie, who in A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 3 The Sophists, Cambridge, Chapter 5:140 1971 wrote that Lycophron: would have agreed with J[ohn] S[tuart] Mill that the only purpose for which law could rightly be enforced against a member of a community was to prevent harm to others; his own good, physical or moral, was not sufficient warrant. If this is true, then Lycophron applied a very specific meaning to the concept ‘social contract’.

About Lycophron and indirectly social contract, Aristotle, Politics III 5, said: … ‘the community becomes an alliance, differing only in location from the other sorts of alliance where the members live at a distance. And the laws become a convention and, as Lycophron said: a guarantor of mutual rights, but not such as to make the citizen good or just.’ (TOS:69)

To begin with RiMul sums up what 5th and 4th century BCE Greeks thought about political contract theory. This allows him convincingly to show that neither Lycophron, nor any other older sophist, inasmuch as they were not 19th c CE. liberals, thought so narrowly about the significance of law in relation to social contracts. Convincingly RiMul argues that Aristotle was not at all interested in discussing what Lycophron actually meant because his exact words, a striking preamble, yet void of specific intention – law is the guarantor of mutual rights – were enough to disqualify him. As far as Aristotle was concerned, law was a means in the hands of the virtuous intended to ‘make the citizens good and just’. Lycophron didn’t think so.

The Journal of the History of Ideas in its turn thought that this unobjectionable critique of Guthrie’s casual name dropping, used by Mulgan as a hook baited with “social contract”, to say something interesting, couldn’t be printed without a reply from Guthrie. Because of the attached reply, and unintendedly, RiMul became a post-structural critique of an older school of researchers. Today, wise in the event, the arrogant and arrogantly short reply from Guthrie stand out as typical of the way an older generation of researchers thought they could rely on their own authority, and the straightforward unquestionable authority they ascribed to giants such as Aristotle, to snub a new generation of researchers. Together, article and comment make up a snapshot of the 1970s turned yellow.

Looking up Lycophron in TOS it would seem that he took an interest in concepts such as communion or reciprosity. Again, according to Aristotle, Metaphysics VIII 6, Lycophron is supposed to have said that ‘knowledge is a communion of knowing and of soul’. Seemingly fond of playing with words Lycophron, when asked, at least according to a comment by Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200 CE), what was the cause of the unity of knowledge [sic! not ‘of knowing’] and the soul he replied: ‘the communion.’ Knowledge obviously wasn’t something Lycophron thought was caused, in an Aristotelian sense. Instead his answer indicates that when it comes to knowledge, complementarity is what matters – knowledge is a state of communion in any conscious human being. Neither Knowing nor soul alone qualify as knowledge.

In the individual, knowledge is a condition or simply part of one’s identity and awareness of oneself. But if people live in a community, then we must ask ourselves: how can our individuality, which among other things, according to Lycophron, comprises knowing and soul make knowledge part of their mutual identity? I.e., how does social knowledge come about when people must experience mutual communion?

Since it is an academic sport to guess what Lycophron would have said had he not been prevented by Aristotle, one may suggest that Lycophron, in a fit of modesty, would not have had an answer to this question. He would, nevertheless, have said that a precondition for finding an answer depended on laws that guarantee mutual, that is, communal rights – e.g. the right within a community to be knowledgeable. To a sophist such as Lycophron the knowledgeable: possessing or showing knowledge; well-informed, well-read; sagacious, wise, educated (according to OED), would have been virtue he would have loved to hold up to Aristotle – if only to irritate him.

Lycophron was probably good at that. For instance, Aristotle, who else, illustrates one of four types of insipid expression by quoting Lycophron: ‘the narrow-passaged promontory’ or ‘the many-visaged sky of the mighty-peaked earth’ (Rhetoric III 3). Perhaps playing with words wasn’t Aristotle’s thing.


Of six quotations referring to Lycophron (TOS:68-9) five are by Aristotle. In the outstanding one Lycophron managed to express himself in a most subtle way when pointing at nobility he said: ‘Now the nobility of good birth is obscure, and its grandeur a matter of words’. This may first be seen as audacious, but given that Lycophron’s grandeur too was a matter of words it simply confirms the importance of words for those who want grandeur – the Lycophrons as well as royal tutors such as Aristotle. It may be significant that Aristotle didn’t offer a comment.

Judging from what he was remembered for, Lycophron’s most successful contribution was his ability to coin phrases. There is no point of accusing him of having constructed a philosophical system. Like many sophists his point of departure was contextual, understanding context to change significantly with time and space. We might have called him a post-structuralist except for the fact that, historically speaking, he and other older sophists were pre-structuralists. Post- or pre-, his legacy rested with his ability to irritate Aristotle enough to be quoted so often that the quotes can be read as a critique of Aristotle.

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article that discusses the reburial of indigenous people once exhumed for the benefit mainly of race biology. The article focuses on the ethics of complex situations, questionable already when they occurred. Today, more or less by definition, the roots of the problems belong to a relatively remote past that we are able to judge without too much ado. Thus I too, wise in the event, read:

NAR nummerSvestad, Asgeir. 2013. What Happened in Neiden? On the Question of Reburial ethics. Norwegian Archaeological Review. Vol. 46, No. 2, 194-242. Acronym: ASve.

To most readers Neiden, if anything, is geography, a point on a map of Northernmost Norway and a river where we do not live. The actual place, nevertheless, is a settlement called ‘Skoltebyn’—a place where Skolt Sámi people live, although there are very few left. This place name suggests that non-Skolts, the very great majority, needed to define the place. Skoltebyn is probably full of living traditions with little historical evidence to corroborate or question and reconstruct the past and the present. ASve’s approach is straightforward geographical and historical. He defines the place on a map and in relation to two precisely dated historical events. In essence, his approach is based on facts and the individual opinion of some of those who took part in 1915 and 2011. Wider aspects, the more we know about them, are brought in when necessary, but in principle everything pivots on what happened in July 1915 and September 2011. ASve’s analysis of the two situations is revealing and cautious.

It turns out that history allows itself to play a trick on everyone involved in the two events. Notwithstanding, the central question is simple enough: what, if anything, should be done with the bones from Neiden? Needless to say we know very little about the bones too.

To the physician and odontologist of 1915, Johan Brun, bones and even skeletons were a source material worth describing because without anatomical knowledge there would have been no physicians. Anatomical description wherever possible is thus above the individual physician – ideally speaking. It is difficult, therefore, to accept a physician who for ethical reasons would not be prepared to use the human body as a source material, nor use the evidence-based knowledge about broken bones, often obtained without ethical considerations, to help us. Still today a large number of corpses are anatomized. This doesn’t give Johan Brun the right to go to Neiden and loot a cemetery it just creates an everlasting ethical problem.

The still unsettled cemetery

The reason is simple – we think of our forefathers as our heritage and thus as ours by right! Except of course if we are landowners. If that is the case, we may think that we own what is on our land exploiting it is as best we wish. Landownership as opposed to communal rights is a cornerstone of practical colonialism and the relatively rich Johan Brun took advantage of a relatively poor landowner Ondre Jakobovitsj, who knew that there were inhumation graves on his land. Since his land was not on the early colonial monument still in use, i.e. the Orthodox chapel and churchyard in Neiden, he sold Brun the right or a concession to dig on his land and take skeletons back to Oslo – payment per skeleton. To buy and sell in this way may be seen as unethical and condemned, accepted, pardoned or hailed. Irrespective of our point of view it may in time repeatedly be condemned, accepted, pardoned or hailed.

Only oblivion can save us from heritage and ethical problems, and that is the reason why much heritage legislation is built on oblivion. When something material is no longer used or when it has been forgotten, i.e. when it has fallen into oblivion while still existing, i.e. when its role as meaningful in a living culture has come to an end, then it becomes accepted as everybody’s heritage and protected by law despite the fact that we lack knowledge about it. If it comes to our knowledge it must be treated with respect and preserved as best we can. Since preservation is impossible in the long run, and since knowledge can be reproduced, respecting the past as our heritage is knowledge driven. The more we know, the more will become our heritage and revived material culture. In a democratic society this may solve a lot of ethical problems, but obviously not all.

Brun's excavationBoth Johan Brun and Ondre Jakobovitsj acted unethically because they should have understood that the existing churchyard was no more than a part of a larger burial ground – in all probability its pre-Christian parts, which had fallen into oblivion and thus become part of our common heritage. The ideological colonialism of Christianity, which denounced indigenous culture and faith, is to blame for the oblivion. At least Johan Brun ought to have understood this. Needless to say, in this situation the obvious cannot be proved. Most of what we know about what happened in 1915 is what Johan Brun told us in his report and he steered clear of ethics, context and any wider perspective. The skeletons exhumed were his objective, the living his problem. Bargaining with the locals, Brun spend money, but ASve doesn’t mention whether Brun was compensated for his expenses. It stands to reason, nevertheless, that he was, and if so his description of the way he haggled with Jakobovitsj makes sense inasmuch as it demonstrates that he did not waste money.


True to his approach, which is based on Heidegger’s view upon the disclosure of the hidden and the care and being that characterizes humans, ASve goes beyond describing what happened in 1915 and 2011 respectively, and his Heideggerian discussion works quite well. Nevertheless, being and care didn’t characterize the agents when they took part in the disclosed events. Moreover, I don’t think it is possible to lay bare or disclose the 1915 and 2011 events, because there is nothing specific – no essence – to lay bare. Contrary to Heidegger I don’t think that nur ein Gott kann uns retten – only a god can save us – because such an entity cannot be disclosed. Inventing a god or seeing oneself as one, jeopardizes the human, i.e. the agents now and again bothered by ethics. I find enlightenment and emancipation a better approach to ethics.

No ethics will solve ethical problems. Oblivion will erase them, but we learn nothing from oblivion because knowledge in a historical situation, be it past or present, is the only way to come to terms with ethical problems. Knowledge often fails, even if it concerns disclosure, because it is easily disputed by those who take only a limited interest in the obvious. Care and being are roads to ethical shortcomings and Heidegger’s life is a case in point. Being, moreover, is hard to avoid and care is a cornerstone in reproduction – caring for those who cannot survive without it.

ReburialASve is cautious when he describes the events that led up to the reburial in September 2011. One might say that he discloses the events in an unbiased manner rather than he exposes them. While the reader reads between the lines, ASve is true to his sober method – almost. The comment on the Orthodox tradition that governed the reburial is an exception (ASve:211, col. 2).

Actually there is no need to be cautious because the events leading up to September 2011 make up a textbook example of how a majority marginalizes a minority. In this case the Sámi community, the majority among the indigenous people in northern Scandinavia, and organized around Sametinget (the Sámi Parliament), has turned a place central to a minority, the almost extinct Neiden Skolts, into a memorial of its own and a protected heritage area. The Neiden Skolts have been sqeezed into heritage. In this process, as we would expect from a textbook example, the 10 odd Skolts involved have been divided into a larger group of people who find themselves excluded and alienated and a few who back-up the powerful Sámi majority.

Njauddâm sijddAt least since 1826 Skolt identity has been threatened (1). In this year the border between Finland (Russia) and Norway (Sweden) was closed and the Skolt community and its settlement area – both referred to as Njauddâm sijdd lost its land, and began losing its identity, being unable to live in the sijdd in the intended yearly cycle. While the sijdd used to be orientated towards Russia the frontier delimination meant that Spring and Summer was incorporated in Norway, while Autumn and Winter and most of the population stayed in Finland. In Norway the population was concentrated to Njauddâm (Now: Neiden), the summer site of the sijdd, in a permanent settlement called Skoltebyn. For more than a millennium the sijdd’s cemetery and since the 16th c. the orthodox St George chapel and its churchyard were already situated at Neiden. Soon a protestant chapel marked Norwegian colonization and the ideological consequences of the closed border.

neidenkapellkartaThe marginalization of the Skolts and their loss of identity has continued. Their language is no longer spoken in Norway, they are not represented in Sametinget. In effect, Neiden rather than being part of the Skolt Njauddâm sijdd has been culturally annexed by the Sámi and become a site where this people demonstrates its unified heritage and ideology at the expense of the identity of the Skolts. Neiden has become a protected heritage area and a museum site dedicated to Skolt culture. Ironically, as if the authorities awaited Skolt culture and the last Skolt to pass away, the museum building has been left empty and leaking through the roof since 2008.

the burial siteThe reburial fits the cultural demise of the Njauddâm sijdd. As ASve shows Johan Brun excavated more than a sample of Sámi skeletons. He found an unknown cemetery older than the Christianization of the Skolts with a potential of reviving an unknown Skolt history with a potential to illustrate the Skolt interaction with other people. Moreover, given that Neiden was the millennia old summer site of the Njauddâm sijdd it is by no means certain that all the human remains were Skolts. The Neiden Skolts understood this and that was obviously their reason to place the skeletons in a respectful context without destroying them as a source material. In view of losing their history or recovering it, they opted for knowledge. It is obvious from ASve’s analysis that destructing the source material and keeping Skolt history in the firm grip of decay and oblivion to benefit their own ideas of essentialist colonial and Christian ethics guided the representatives of the Sámi establishment. The representatives of the Church of Norway and the representatives of the Orthodox Church, moreover, were supported by the Norwegian Government and its institutions.

There may be utilitarian reasons to destroy remains of the past, mainly the resent past, and the representatives of a society may judge it to be necessary and have the power to act accordingly. In the Neiden case it is difficult to find any reason for anybody except Skolts to destroy Skolt history. An ossuary would have been an alternative to the slow destruction in the burial mound – echoing a distinctly South Scandinavian past – in which the 94 small wooden coffins are now decaying. This mound can be appreciated only as a monument of the colonialist oppression that the Scandinavian majority societies have subjected their minorities to. While doing so, they effectively taught the tame majority groups within the minorities to act likewise against their minorities. Since this is a never-ending process it is important that the Neiden reburial story split the Neiden Skolts. Divide et impera is at the heart of the matter. ASve lets his quotations speak for themselves rather than pointing the reader in the right direction. This is quite an effective strategy not least given the context in which representatives of those in power speak. Here they are at Neiden, literally burying the history of the Neiden Skolts in a mound letting it moulder away, and the Minister for Reform, Administration and Church Affairs says:
‘ – I hope this will remind us of the importance of reconciliation. We should lift our eyes and use this opportunity to look at the need to protect Skolt Sámi language and culture’—Jeg håper dette kan minne oss på betydningen av forsoning. Vi bør løfte blikket og bruke anledningen til å se på behovet for å ivareta skoltesamenesspråk og kultur,

the newspaper adds: ’she thinks.’—mener hun.

Indeed, and she is right, of course! This need to protect Skolt language and culture is visible in the sky only, i.e. above the grey September clouds over Neiden. Moreover, as Minister of Church Affairs it is appropriate in this solemn context to express a pious hope echoing a biblical phrase. In fact, almost anything one could say as an official representative will add to the unintended but nevertheless carefully constructed irony of the occasion.

Only knowledge can save us – nur eine Erkenntnis kann uns retten.



(1) The history of the Skolts and the injustices done to them is outlined (in Nowegian) in an official governmental commission 1997

This week On the Reading Rest I continue discovering the Gulli-Langåker publications (OtRR 17 March, 2014) and read about the grave in the burnt-down house at the Sem prison in Vestfold, Norway. The publications are in Norwegian.

Ölfvin ölversikt 01

Illu00Grindkåsa, Line. 2012. Boplatsspor og grav fra romertid-merovingertid på Jarlsberg og Tem (lok. 8, 9 och 10)—[Settlement remains and grave from RIA-MP at Jarlsberg and Tem (sites 8-10)] In: Axel Mjærum and Lars Erik Gjerpe (eds). 2012. E18 prosjektet Gulli-Långåker. Dyrking, bosetninger og graver i Stokke og Sandefjord.  E18 prosjektet Gulli-Långåker, bind 1. Oslo Fagbokforlaget. In Norwegian. Acronym: LiGri

Jarlsberg is not just a cheese. Much more importantly, and as LiGri points out in her introduction to the historical context of her sites, it was the King’s manor Sæheimer – ‘the homestead by the sea’ and according to Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga (13th c. CE) an important place in the old Kingdom of Vestfold already in the late 8th c. CE, i.e. in the beginning of the Carolingian Iron Age (CIA). The Gulli-Langåker sites 8-10 were not part of the King’s manor, but part of a farm c. 3 km to the west at the bottom of Byfjorden, the Town Fjord, the ‘town’ being today’s Tønsberg.

Illu01Circa 500 CE the shortest path from the farm to the sea, but probably not to a suitable landing site, was already 600 m long running towards the southeast. Owing to the shore displacement caused by the isostatic uplift, the present-day farm Auli 600 m east of sites 8-10, became the prolific farm site either in the Early CIA, or in the beginning of the Late CIA. LiGri points out that the meaning of the name Auli – Ölfvin = alfr+vin, which means ‘gravel pasture’ doesn’t match today’s Auli, but well the farm at the sites 8-10, suggesting that sites 8-10 could have been the original Auli. Being a –vin name, the date of a farm once called Ölfvin would correspond to the chronology of the farm at sites 8-10.

Since, today, there is no farm called Ölfvin we may as well use the name for the sites 8-10. There was probably at least one more farm east of Aulielva, the Auli river, along the northern side of the fjord between Ölfvin and Sæheimer, that is today’s Jarlsberg, whose situation was the better.

Illu02Archaeologically speaking, the site Ölfvin has EIA roots, but the excavated sites represent the northern outskirts of a farm site used mainly after 500 CE. Sites 8 and 10 are almost empty indicating that more intensive EIA activities took place south of and above Site 9 and House 1. Ölfvin is situated at a crossroad where the north-south road coming from higher grounds south of the farm crosses the Auli river further north on its way to Jarlsberg. The east-west road passes from higher grounds in the west, south of Byfjorden and further east. The agricultural landscape of the Ölfvin farm stretches northwards between the Auli- and Merkedamselva.


Probably the excavation covers the northern part of the farm and its main building. Seen as a series of events, what has been excavated is a site that was to begin with a farm. The farm house which was designed as a South Scandinavian house and as far as it can be measured from the plan, the measuring rod, divided into feet, was used when the post holes were set out.

Ölfvin House 1 measures

When the house was burnt down, an inhumation grave was immediately dug down into the scene of the fire in what had been the dwelling part of the house more precisely in the center of its chamber, i.e. the southernmost room of the dwelling quarters. In the centuries that followed a small cemetery of grave mounds clustered around the inhumation grave and the house. The inhumation grave is in other words a founder’s grave and a rather peculiar one. The way the context builds up around the house-grave meets the eye and suggests that Ölfvin became a place with a history.


Situated 7 km west-southwest of the Oseberg grave as the crow flies from Ölfvin, we are in an area where the symbolic link between house and grave was exploited, inasmuch as the Oseberg ship in its capacity as a grave was organized as three rooms in one end the hall – the kitchen, the chamber, where the two women were buried – and the storage. The Oseberg grave is grave, ship and house in one. We may thus venture to look at the Ölfvin house and its inhumation in the chamber, similar for instance, to the male boat grave Valsgärde 8, as indeed both a house and a grave – a paired monument surrounded in its upper end by later grave mounds and a context explained by its development. Eventually the memorial scene would have stood out as an arena in front of, and slightly below the mounds.

As LiGri has stressed the inhumation grave was in all probability dug down into the remains of the house shortly after the fire that ruined the building, and she sees a possible connection between the house, the fire and the dead. This seems to be a plausible interpretation and since the context is so unusual it is difficult to see the scene as an example of a regular procedure in connection with someone’s death. On the contrary, it would seem more reasonable to reconstruct a series of related events eventually creating the context: (1) the fire, (2) the death, (3) the burial and (4) the subsequent construction of the scene commemorating the dead.

If we ask ourselves when this happened the possibilities to give a precise date are exceptionally good because the grave and not least the house has been so meticulously excavated and dated by means of no less that 23 14C tests.


The 14C dates from House 1 and 2 capture the sporadic presence on the site up and until c. 500 CE when House 1 was built. There is a small time gap between the first house dates and the last four, which dates the fire. The samples behind the dates were taken from the shallow ditch, which drained the water falling off the roof towards the north – hence the opening in the northwest corner of the house. The ditch nevertheless was also a temporary garbage heap. The time gap among the 14C dates represents the fact that the farm was continuously kept tidy allowing only a few charred fragments – that is a very small part of the garbage – to be trapped in the ditch. However, when the house burnt down it was impossible and pointless to clean out all the charred remains which also filled the ditch together with fragments of its wattle and daub walls. LiGri thinks that the latest 14C dates associated with the house were part of the wattle in the daub wall, but some indications speaks against this interpretation: (1) a small twig of Salix was found in a post hole; (2) the wall was burnt at very high temperatures, 850-1000 degrees Celsius, which no wattle in the wall would have survived;(3) the sample consist of Juniperus, alnus and salix. The two fist species are not particularly well-suited for wattle; (4) the most significant indication speaking against the samples representing a late reparation of the wall is the time gap, the frequency of the late dates – they are relatively speaking many – and the very similar dates of the four youngest samples. Moreover, they and the gap belong to a period when the calibration curve falls relatively steep and thus there ought not to be very many dates belonging to this section of the curve and certainly not either none or several.

In order to explain this gap LiGri suggests that the wall was completely rebuilt shortly before the fire broke out, but that is not likely. A wattle and daub wall is built in relatively short sections – panels c. 1 metre wide between vertical posts below a horizontal wall beam – and there is no need to wait for the whole wall to collapse before starting to repair it. On the contrary, the wall construction makes continuous reparations the most probable. It would seem more likely, therefore, that the four last contemporary dates represents the fire and that the gap mirrors the general character of depositions on settlements. That the ditch was relatively empty, that is, open when the fire broke out is suggested by the presence in the ditch of the burnt remains of the wall.

The distribution of the dates therefore allows us to model the time of the fire in two ways:

Illu06(1) we may take the four dates to represent one date in which case they theoretically represent bp 1466 +/- 15 or


(2) we may wiggle match the four dates to the calibration curve. In both cases their likely date is slightly before 600 CE. Given the fact that the samples are young branches, on average less than 20 years old, the fire at Ölfvin House 1 would seem to have taken place circa 615 CE. This is some decades earlier than suggested by at LiGri, but well within the chronological frames of the artefacts that equipped the grave.

Since it was not possible to excavate the whole farm at Ölfvin, villas and prison surrounding it to the south, we cannot know when a place name such as Ölfvin could have been given to a farm on the site. It may have been prior to 500 CE, that is, the time when House 1 was erected. Since the 6th c. is characterized by a number of new large farms and settlements, such as Old Uppsala (after a settlement hiatus), Lejre, Tissø, Stavnsager, as well as slightly less impressive places such as Valsgärde or Mørup (0) it is not inconceivable that the excavation has dated a -vin name to c. 500 CE.

Illu08Although we do not know, who was buried in the grave it would seem that the house and the human being in the grave came to an end simultaneous. We may, however, argue that the dead man wasn’t killed in the flames and high temperatures that would have acted upon his body as a pyre. Although the grave is a weapon grave, it hardly belonged to a grown-up man because the body, probably in a supine position, was confined to a narrow and short pit, 0.7×1.5 m. The weapons were arranged on top of the body partly below the shield, i.e. not next to it or in positions that would imitate the way weapons were supposed to be worn. The sword was 90 cm long and would have been difficult to handle for anyone short enough to fit a narrow grave length of 1.5 m. It is thus not a warrior’s grave. On the contrary, it is a symbolic installation of a martially equipped man – probably a young person of rank. Rather than preserving the warrior the installation exhibits social norms.

The link between house and grave would seem to indicate that the deceased belonged to the house, living in the chamber where he was buried, but instead of doing the usual, letting a grave imitate a chamber or a house, the remains of the building itself make up the memorial scene. We are entitled to say that instead of being rebuilt, the house and perhaps the farm site too, came to an end. Needless to say the events that led up to the fire and the burial may have been so traumatic that they in themselves stood out as a reason to create the memorial.

In the centuries that followed, it became important to attach grave monuments to the memorial and thus in all probability also to the person in the primary grave. The vi-character of the layout, that is the V-shaped design of an Old Norse sanctuary, meets the eye although the symmetry isn’t perfect.

Similar to the horn blower at Ellekilde (OtRR 6 February, 2012) the man or boy at Ölfvin attracted a flock of graves, and we may argue that he probably had attractive social or other qualities. He may not have had them to begin with, but in that case they developed over the years creating a legend about him and making him one of those who went before the rest of us and from whom we may benefit in death. It doesn’t take an installation such as Ellekilde or Ölfvin to commemorate or create such a person. A founder’s grave or in principle any grave in a cemetery may be considered to contain a person valuable to descendants and linked to legend. Nevertheless, it is interesting that as late as 600 CE a material narrative about an individual can be employed to create an outstanding dead, who eventually came to represent a growing group of dead. This group may consist of a limited number of kinsmen and the man’s fame of an accordingly a limited saintliness, but kinship groups will vary in size and popularity attracting and adopting larger and smaller numbers.

A devil’s advocate may have gormandized in ‘de-hallowing’ South Scandinavian Iron Age paragons of virtue, but that is of little importance because contexts such as Ellekilde and Ölfvin already suggest that even in Scandinavia a saint could be more or less outstanding, and his otherworldly abode – in Norse terms his ‘helgafell’ – thus more or less capacious (1). The answer to ‘Not Another Saintly Chap?’ therefore, is: Yes! The man at Ölfvin is yet another outstanding saintly Iron Age chap from South Scandinavia! And there may be many more. And they may be part of a tradition already 350 years long from Ellekilde to Ölfvin. If so, I suggest they be called ‘hallows’ commemorating an archaic word and usage with roots in Old English hálga—saint.



(0) These sites are well-known on the www or mentioned in

(1) there is a book chapter on helgafell by Odd Nordland on the net:,%20Valhall%20and%20Helgafell.pdf

This week On the Reading Rest I have a Festschrift:

Hellström fig 00ΛΑΒΡΥΖ. Studies presented to Pontus Hellström. Lars Karlsson, Susanne Carlsson and Jesper Blid Kullberg (eds). Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near East Civilizations 35, Uppsala 2014. 533 pp. with 231 ills. ISBN 978-91-554-8831-4

It is typical inasmuch as it is not a Festschrift, but a studies-presented-to and it might as well have been a “vänbok”, which sounds much more relaxed that its Latin original liber amicorum—“book of friends”, had it been in Swedish. It is also an essays-in-honour-of book.

Hellström fig 01Labrys in the title refers to the site Labranda in the southeastern corner of modern Turkey. Labranda is a prominent place in an impressive landscape and the site was held sacred, and at times constructed as a sanctuary, from nobody knows when until Byzantine times, but Ottoman coins from the late 14th c. CE have also been unearth during excavations. As a sanctuary signified by the name Labraunda the place was understood to be connected to the double bladed axe – the labrys.

Pontus Hellström has devouted a large part of his research to Labraunda and more than half the contributions to Labrys concerns Labraunda and surrounding sites in Caria, i.e., the region in which Labranda is situated. Since the contributions are many this means that there is room for a large and varied smorgasbord stacked with ancient Greece, Etruscans and Rome.

There are many good reasons for reading a Festschrift. For instance, being sufficiently old, one may compare the contributions one reads to one’s own papers in different Festschrifts. This kind of comparison makes it apparent that Labrys, like many other studies-presented-to, represents a typical research career spread out among several researchers at different points in their career, rather than collected in the end of the individual career. One would perhaps have thought that the outcome and structure of the individual career would differ from the cross section of the collective, but given that disciplines and their research themes vary the classification of the two sets are most similar: your student approach writing about an interesting detail; your serious post doc contributions when your demonstrated depth and breadth within new and old fields (there are several of those); your joint contribution which actually point to something new; your contribution to a friend, and the then the contributions you wrote because you thought they would interest your colleague too – some probably did. Trying to recall your contributions you will discover the last category, the one or ones you have forgotten.

The contents and composition of a Festschrift therefore looks very much like a cross section of a discipline, or a sub discipline, or a school, or a research group. Labrys is no exception and although not everyone in Swedish classical archaeology and studies took part in the volume many did and the result has quite a lot to do with the character of the discipline which is marked by disciplinary interaction between departments and research institutes. When this kind of cross section becomes visible it is one of the great advantages of the Festschrift, because it is not filtered by the academic publishing market, the policy of journals or anonymous peer reviewers, but primarily by the more or less open invitation sent out by the editors and secondarily by that which researchers felt they wanted to write about given the circumstances, that is, given their affiliation with the discipline.

Although many contributions stand out in Labrys I have chosen to comment upon one that I think stands out in a significant way. I read:

Siapkas, Johannes. 2014. Karian theories: seeking the origins of ancient Greece. In: L. Karlsson, S. Carlsson and J. Blid Kullberg (eds). ΛΑΒΡΥΖ. Studies presented to Pontus Hellström. Boreas. Uppsala Studies in Ancient Mediterranean and Near East Civilizations 35, Uppsala 2014. Pp. 301-314.

And refer to author and contribution as JoSiKa.

Karians were one of the great number of prehistoric peoples that were thought to populate the past. Mentioned by Classical authors, such a people may be employed in different ancient and modern and discourses. Needless to say many may have felt that they were Carian. JoSiKa gives us the background in ancient sources and place names to this relatively nondescript people which could nevertheless be employed to describe the origin of different cultural phenomena, when archaeology in the late 1800s started to produce a source material completely unmarked by classical authors, with few of the qualities later recognized in Greek culture. Although researcher debated the importance of Karians in Bronze and Iron Age in and around the Aegean Sea, they did not question that there was once a people called Karian and that such a people, as indeed a specific people, could be the origin of Mycenean civilization or not; could be inferior as a people or not; could be a migrating people or not; could be the same people as the Leleges or not. As JoSiKa points out it was the need to find a specific origin for what was called the Mycenean civilization, which, being a civilization and specific, needed a specific origin, that gave the Karians a historic identity. In the end of the 19th century there were three competing models of Mycenean origins: 1) the Mycenean civilization had northern origins, c. 1890 and onwards. 2) the Myenean civilization was indigenous c. 1900 and onwards . 3) the Mycenean civilization had eastern origins, c. 1880 and onwards (JoSiKa:310). The Karians fitted all scenarios, actively 1 and 3, or passively 2.

JoSiKa concludes that
1) the Karian theory was employed in a discourse trying to establish the rank of aesthetical and historical explanations, in the struggle for ideal or contextualized analysis. Aesthetic ideal analysis ranked higher than the contextualized historical analysis (JoSiKA:308).
2) The Karian fitted the two-race model in which researchers agreed that one people was more civilized than the other, which accordingly was the more primitive. Karians were primitive because their art was not refined.
3) In (Karian) theory therefore the Karians were a perfect origin.

It is one of the great advantages of archaeology that when excavations start to produce a source material, classical analyses of the past as well as interpretations based on classical authors or aesthetic ideals cannot survive. To begin with archaeology is disappointing because it doesn’t support prevailing explanation, later on this inability to support becomes a critical asset forcing some kind of historical contextualization upon ideals and aesthetics.

Labraunda is a case in point. When JoSiKa discusses the beginning of the Swedish excavations in Labraunda, the fact that the place is situated in Caria was though to make exvacations at the site promising as a means to solve problems of the Karian theory. It didn’t and there may be several reasons for that such as 1) there is nothing to prove when it comes to the Karian theory. 2) Archaeology revealed a complexity that had nothing to do with the simplified explanations that the Karia theory was meant to support. 3) Right after WW2, the excavations started 1948, two-race theories and ethnic groups keeping up a superior culture among primitive or decadent groups, may have been difficult to argue for, except privately.

The contributions on Labraunda and the surroundings suggests that the research has become thoroughly explorative, however, with a preparedness once again for combining material culture with ancient people, such as the Leleges, who were once perhaps Karian (cf. Benoit, Labrys:467:note2 with references).

In my opinion, the importance of JoSiKa:s discussion links-in with the development of humanistic research disciplines, laying bare the roots of the concept of ethnicity and pointing out its methodological shortcomings. There is nothing wrong studying ethnicity, since it was a common enough analysis in the past, as it was common in 19th and 20th century history and archaeology. The problem in humanistic research rests with the belief that ethnicity, emphasizing a cultural simplicity that enables researchers to point out a homogenous people of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive culture, is indeed the correct way of looking at complex cultural phenomena where heterogeneity seems always to accompany homogeneity. There are strong norms in any culture, but they continue to exist and to change not because they define an ethnic society, but because they are regularly questioned. Ethnicity as an explanation is the outcome of a flawed historical analysis. Nevertheless, studying prehistoric norms is rewarding.