Visiting the Archives

Boxes of excavator reports just waiting to be read! (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden.)

Historians work in archives. But since my work focuses on things, not texts, museums have become my archive. For many visitors, museums might seem like places where things interesting and obscure may be encountered, ready to give up their secrets about the past, but it takes a lot of work to get those things out there. And much of that work is inevitably paperwork—a historian’s best friend.

Paperwork tells us a lot about the past. It tells us what people thought was important (or unimportant), how they recorded it, and even how they preserved these records for the future. Archaeology generates its own particular kinds of paperwork: excavation permits, daily logs, context sheets, site sketches, specialist reports, interim reports, final reports, and publication drafts. Most museums give visitors about 150 words for each object on display, but behind those one-paragraph placards stand heaps and heaps of unpublished literature. And that’s where my research begins.

Publication draft and unpublished excavation records from a season of fieldwork at Åhus. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden.)

This week I visited the storage facility (Sw. “magasin”) for the Lund University Historical Museum in southern Sweden. And since I’m since I’m still very much in the process of research design (which continues all the way until the dissertation becomes a book, I’m told), I spent some time among the excavator archives. I already know the published literature for Viking-Age Sweden pretty well and I’ve corresponded and chatted with excavators and researchers for the region, so I came in with clear directions for my efforts: Uppåkra and Åhus.

I know Uppåkra well. It was an aristocratic settlement and one of the wealthiest sites in Scandinavia between 100 BC and 1000 AD. It’s well published and I know a number of the lead investigators. It’s also where I first learned to wield the trowel during a field school in 2012. Thanks to the advent of modern ploughing, however, heavy farming has mixed up the top 30 cm (1 ft), which includes any artifacts from the Viking Age. Since farmers have been inadvertently damaging and moving these things around for generations, archaeologists have little reason to record the circumstances of their discovery in great detail. For this site, at least, I already know that the archive holds little for me that I couldn’t more easily find elsewhere in a published book or article.

Surface finds of glass from the plough soil at Uppåkra. Although many of these items have been broken and moved from their specific sites due modern farming techniques, they may nevertheless hold valuable information about activities that were going on in the settlement site as a whole. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden.)

Åhus is completely different. Åhus was a small-scale settlement on the Baltic that enjoyed a brief heyday of trade sometime shortly after 700. It’s been known to archaeologists for much longer than Uppåkra, but it’s generated very little research and no major publications. Nevertheless, it seems to have been one of the earliest sites for bead making in Scandinavia, and the shift from importing finished goods to importing and working with raw materials strikes me as portentous. A new culture of consumption was beginning to form in Scandinavia, and although Åhus itself would soon fade away, similar trading sites would soon come to overshadow more traditional centers like Uppåkra. So the beads at Åhus seem to have been among the earliest traces of trading that would later go hand-in-hand with raiding at the height of the Viking Age.

This trip was, however, intended only to be a brief assessment. I worked through some of the surface finds from Uppåkra so I would know what tools to bring for a second visit. And I paged through several boxes of excavator reports from Åhus, taking note of things I’ll need to read more closely in the future. The artifacts from both sites remain locked within the vault, so knowing exactly what artifacts I’ll need and how long I’ll need them for are first steps toward beginning my research in earnest. I should have much more to say about these sites, then, when I return to Lund later this fall.

A blue segmented bead found in the plough soil at Uppåkra. When the raw glass was first melted and pulled into its bead shape, imperfections were stretched into thin lines which remain visible today. This technique was used only in the Near East, giving one indicator of Uppåkra’s long-distance connections during the Viking Age. (Lund University Historical Museum, Lund, Sweden.)

First Steps

A copy of Henri Chapu’s “Jeanne d’Arc à Domrémy” (1836–38), commissioned for the Ørstedsparken by Carl Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg Brewery. (Ørstedsparken, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

It’s been a busy first week in Copenhagen! Much of my time has been dedicated to sorting out my guest researcher residence permit, which will allow me to stay in the EU longer than the 90-day limit usually imposed on US citizens. Fortunately, the Copenhagen Citizen Service Center is separated from the nearest Metro station by Ørstedsparken, so every day that I’ve had to deal with the government has begun pleasantly with a walk through the park.

I’ve nevertheless set aside some time to begin research, which began with an afternoon at the Nationalmuseet. The Viking collection is always in high demand, with some items on loan to different museums and other items pulled from display for researchers to examine. I was happy to find my favorite item still there—a necklace that had been buried around the year 900 with a hoard near the royal estate of Lejre, some 25 miles (40 km) from the modern center of Copenhagen. The beads and glass of this necklace traveled to Denmark along trade routes reaching through Russia to their sources in distant Iran, India, and Syria. Among other objects, the necklace was buried with a silver bowl from an Irish monastery and a large weight inscribed in an imitation (!) of Arabic script.

Necklace and select items found in a 10th-century silver hoard at Lejre in Denmark. The largest beads are rock crystal (quartz) imported from Iran or India; the silver bowl at center came from an Irish monastery; and the weight at top is inscribed with imitation Arabic script, suggesting manufacture in Russia or the Baltic. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

This necklace represents the florescence of trade routes established generations earlier at the dawn of the Viking Age. By tracing how these kinds of beads first started to appear in Scandinavia, I hope not only to better understand how these trade routes developed but also how they were connected to the spread of viking violence, which seems to have flourished at the very same time.

But aside from these old favorites, I was happy to see that the rotating displays included some exciting new hoard finds. These temporary displays give museum curators an opportunity to show off some of their much larger collections held in storage, as well as some items that have been freshly discovered. In particular, selections from a hoard from Lille Karleby caught my eye. This hoard was buried about seven miles north of the Lejre hoard, but presumably somewhat earlier. It was uncovered less than a year ago in August 2015.

Silver beads and pendants from a newly discovered hoard at Lille Karleby, Denmark. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)
Beads of amethyst and glass from a newly discovered hoard at Lille Karleby, Denmark. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

The purple bead of amethyst is perhaps most striking to me. It is, like rock crystal, a variant of quartz, and like the rock crystal beads of the Lejre hoard, it too would have been imported ultimately from Iran or India. But whereas the clear beads of rock crystal enjoyed recurring popularity throughout the Viking Age (ca. 800-1050), amethyst beads had their brief heyday back during the late 600s. These eastern beads would actually have been imported via Western Europe, based on the observation that they showed up in Sweden later than elsewhere in the north. So this bead would have been an old heirloom when it was buried alongside the work of contemporary beadmakers, such as the mosaic bead to its left.

The earliest Scandinavian beadmakers around 700 learned how to cobble these beads together from little squares of glass—often using a mixture of green checkerboards and blue tiles, like those found in this bead. This is an example of master craftsmanship depending on raw materials imported directly from the east, and it contrasts strongly with the earlier dependence on finished goods imported via the west, exemplified by the heirloom amethyst bead. So not only does this hoard capture in a snapshot one of the most important transformations of Viking-Age Scandinavia, but it also acts as a reminder that Viking-Age Scandinavians were complex individuals who could have similarly complex relationships with the beads that they carried and buried.

Welcome: An Inaugural Post

Welcome to my site! I’ll be using it to post regular updates on my doctoral research. My initial purpose is to provide family and friends with short sketches of what I do, but I also hope this may grow into a record of things done. As such, my focus will be on evidence newly found and provisional interpretations, rather than on finely honed arguments and conclusions. If I do my work right, I’ll be looking at things and asking questions that could interest a scholarly audience, but I’ll be writing with a more general audience in mind. I ask you, gentle reader, to help me in this task by letting me know if my thinking seems abstruse or my writing seems opaque.

For those who aren’t in the know, obtaining a PhD can be a long and grueling process, but it’s also liberating to pursue the leads discovered by one’s own research and meeting others similarly engaged in the pursuit of learning something new. My research focuses on the violence of early medieval slave raiding and trading—a grim topic, indeed, but one that seems to demand attention and may well carry lessons for our own violent world. My work is generously supported by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Medieval Academy of America, and Boston College. You can read more about my research (and I’d be grateful if you do!) under “Consuming Violence.”