Visiting the Archives

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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visitors about 150 words for each object on display, but behind those one-paragraph placards stand heaps and heaps of unpublished literature.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.

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Publication draft and unpublished excavation records from a season of fieldwork at Åhus.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.

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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.

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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.)
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