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Re-imagining Periphery: Archaeology and Text in Northern Europe from Iron Age to Viking and Early Medieval Periods

Re-imagining Periphery: Archaeology and Text in Northern Europe from Iron Age to Viking and Early Medieval Periods

Edited by Charlotta Hillerdal and Kristin Ilves. Oxford: Oxbow 2020. Pp. 200. $59.99. ISBN 9781789254501 (cloth).

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The archaeology of Iron Age (400 BCE–800 CE) and Early Medieval (800–1200 CE) Scandinavia continues to attract considerable attention, with novel approaches and data challenging previous interpretations about the far north of Europe. This is illustrated by the present volume, which has two main aims as outlined by the editors in the introduction: to reimagine the concept of periphery and to honor the work of Frands Herschend, professor emeritus at Uppsala University. The new perspectives introduced in the volume illustrate how innovative methodologies and theoretical frameworks can be applied in order to interpret data, both old and new. By including both academic and professional archaeologists in the publication, the book presents a more holistic understanding of the state of the field in northern Europe. The volume has a clear, easily navigable structure, with 17 chapters divided among four sections: “Settlement and Spatiality,” “Field and Methodology,” “Text and Translation,” and “Interaction and Impact.” Each of these sections represents a prominent aspect of Herschend’s research throughout his career.

The section “Settlement and Spatiality” begins with discussions of houses in Iron Age Scandinavia and their social significance. In the first chapter, Marianne Hem-Eriksen connects the modern perception of the house as a location where “childhood development, earliest memories and identity formation” take place (1) with ancient dreams about houses from the Legendary and Icelandic sagas and the Poetic Edda. She goes on to connect the dreams portrayed in the literature with archaeological evidence, such as with links between the rebuilding of houses and the social meaning of this practice. Chapter 2, by Marte Spangen and Johan Arntzen, looks at the social role of longhouses in northern Norway, further elaborating on the importance of the house in the Iron Age. They begin by exploring the methods used in the discovery and exploration of longhouse sites in northern Norway. The authors see the adoption of the longhouse in this area as related to the development of a Norse identity and a new social organization with relationships maintained through exchange practices, interwoven with social and cultic aspects. This is especially evident in the varied names given to the longhouse, which differed by the social class of the inhabitants. In chapter 3, Susanna Eklund and Anneli Sundkvist discuss the mysterious role of “tuna-sites” (a toponym derived from Old Norse tun, meaning enclosure) in Iron Age Sweden, many of which are associated with socially significant sites, such as Thing sites (for political assemblies) and boat graves. Based on a comparison of three sites, Ultuna, Gilltuna, and Tortuna, they highlight the diversity of tuna-sites, likely linked to the different purposes of the gatherings that were held at them. In the next chapter (ch. 4), Helena Hulth expands on the discussion of Ultuna from the previous contribution, with a more in-depth assessment of the archaeological investigations carried out there. The religious significance of the site is found both etymologically (Ullr, a winter hunting god) and archaeologically. The site itself seems to have been of martial and maritime importance with an expansive settlement area that developed between the fifth and 11th centuries CE.

Åsa M. Larsson and Daniel Löwenborg (ch. 5) begin the “Field and Methodology” section with a discussion of the use of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) ways of recording archaeological data. Due to the array of technologies and platforms used in archaeology, digitally stored data have become a seeming quagmire; however, Larsson and Löwenborg put forward ways in which a more accessible formatting of data could improve future research. In chapter 6, Anders Andrén explores methods for identifying Late Iron Age central places, using Skåne (Sweden) as a case study. This region contains five sites that have been labeled central places and Andrén proposes two additional candidates, Alstad and Vemmenhög, based on correlations between features found at other central places in the region, such as a record of royal ownership and place-name evidence.

In the following chapter (ch. 7), Ilves and Kim Darmark continue the discussion of archaeological methodology, exploring the potential of plow layers for interpreting Iron Age sites in the Åland Islands. While agricultural work can leave sites destroyed or at the very least disturbed, Ilves and Darmark were able to identify a Late Iron Age hall farm in Kvarnbo based almost entirely on finds from the plow layer. In chapter 8, John Ljungkvist and Andreas Hennius evaluate dating evidence for Ottarshögen, located in Uppland, Sweden. Using radiocarbon and finds analysis, the authors bring into question the established chronologies for the Middle Iron Age in Sweden, redating Ottarshögen to 520–530 CE, earlier than previously believed. In chapter 9, Stefan Brink explores the terminology for cooking pits and their potential social importance in the Iron Age. As case studies, he uses the sites of Lunde (Vestfold, Norway) and Stretered (Västergötland, Sweden), where large numbers of cooking pits have been found, leading Brink to suggest that these sites and others like them be seen as communal, and perhaps ritual, gathering sites.

The next section, “Text and Translation,” combines the studies of archaeology and texts in an interesting fashion. Lotte Hedeager (ch. 10) conducts a comparative analysis of poetry and imagery in the deep past, comparing aspects of the Hindu Rig Veda with Bronze Age artifacts, including the Trundholm chariot and the Nebra Disk. She also uses the Poetic and Prose Eddas to interpret Germanic and Scandinavian animal-style art and finishes by discussing how the coming of Christianity led to a shift in the artistic styles of the North. In chapter 11, Anne-Sofie Gräslund looks at the use of kumbl and stafR in runic inscriptions found in Sweden. These words are used to indicate the social significance of the stone on which they are inscribed, marking them as either a monument (kumbl) or a boundary marker (stafR). The specific word used in the text, Gräslund suggests, reveals “information about the location of the rune stones and their local environments” when they were first placed (123). Bo Gräslund provides the Scandinavian context for Beowulf in chapter 12, arguing that the poem was not composed in England, but rather in East Scandinavia. In chapter 13, Jhonny Therus presents examples of how Heliand (the Old Saxon Gospel) is an example of interculturation, “the deliberate merging of two world views or religions” (135). According to him, Heliand combines Germanic and Christian cosmologies, with Christ as a Germanic hero, akin to Beowulf or Sigurd, and heir to Odin.

In the final section of the volume, “Interaction and Impact,” Olof Sundqvist (ch. 14) begins by dismantling the binary gender distinction that has been established by scholars with regard to cult and religious roles in Iron Age Scandinavia. Many researchers have come to the conclusion that women only partook in private cult practices. However, Sundqvist, in his blending of archaeology and texts, shows these boundaries were more blurred, with some females (e.g., queens and other elite women) taking part in rites performed within the public sphere. In chapter 15, Hillerdal delivers a new perspective on the Norse reuse of monuments in the Scottish Isles, particularly Orkney. While previous authors, such as Eva S. Thäte (Monuments and Minds: Monument Re-use in Scandinavia in the Second Half of the First Millennium AD, Lund University Press 2007), have argued that reuse was a method of legitimizing claims to the land, Hillerdal proposes that this reuse—or rather continuation of use, as she suggests for Westness cemetery—is a way of linking the past to the present and creating memories for the future. In the following chapter (ch. 16), Jan-Henrik Fallgren explores medieval settlement on the Åland Islands, primarily with the aim of establishing whether there was continuity in settlement from the Iron Age to the Medieval period. By using archaeological and place-name evidence, he arrives at the conclusion that the 13th century likely saw an influx of Swedish settlers to the islands, leading to the distinctly younger toponyms seen today. In the final chapter (ch. 17), Svante Fischer examines a gold solidus (a Roman coin) from the Slättäng hoard in Sweden. Fischer begins with a discussion of gold solidi found in Sweden more generally, then examines the Slättäng solidus. His presentation of the coin’s history, imported to Scandinavia in the fifth century and discovered by 19th-century antiquarians, represents a fascinating example of an object biography.

The book overall is composed of 17 intriguing chapters that lead the reader to think outside the normal paradigms in archaeological research. While the topics vary greatly, they are held together by their centering of Scandinavia and their connections with the works of Herschend. There are numerous images of good quality. Several of the chapters (e.g., chs. 2–4) show the importance of commercial archaeology and its contribution to archaeological research as a whole. The only criticism I have of the book would be the lack of cross-referencing, which would have made the volume feel more cohesive. In any case, this is a welcome contribution to the archaeology of Iron Age and Early Medieval Scandinavia, with many thought-provoking approaches that can be of interest also for scholars working on other periods and regions.

Rachel Cartwright
Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota

Book Review of Re-imagining Periphery: Archaeology and Text in Northern Europe from Iron Age to Viking and Early Medieval Periods, edited by Charlotta Hillerdal and Kristin Ilves
Reviewed by Rachel Cartwright
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Cartwright

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