Southern Scandinavia is Weird
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval

Southern Scandinavia is Weird

the cover of Martin Rundkvist's book "Mead Halls of the Eastern Geats" with a photo of a reconstructed mead-hall on a snowy winter day

Martin Rundkvist, Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats: Elite Settlements and Political Geography AD 375–1000 in Östergötland, Sweden (Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien: Stockholm, Sweden, 2011)

The first time I read Martin Rundkvist’s book on early medieval southern Sweden, I realized that Sweden is weird. That is because for the past two or three thousand years, the area has never been conquered or occupied by foreigners bringing an alien language and culture. The closest things to that are the arrival of Christianity and whatever happened in northern Scandinavia between Indo-European speakers, Finno-Urgic speakers, and whoever was there before them. I struggle to think of anywhere else in the world which could say the same. Norway got invaded by outsiders once in 1940, and Denmark sometimes had trouble with (Latin Christian) Carolingians, British, or Prussians, but basically wars in southern Scandinavia were between Southern Scandinavians whom the proverbial Martian would have a hard time telling apart.

I suppose that the reason for this is that Norway and Sweden were poor and hard to access except by boat, and for most of this period people living in Norway and Sweden were at least as good at building boats and waging war as anyone else in the Baltic. The really big imperialists like the Romans and the Mongols could not get there or did not find it worth their while, and for 3,000 years nobody has showed up with a way of living which was so much better than what the locals already had that the newcomers could outbreed or assimilate the existing population. So for two or three thousand years, the omnipresent migrations of individuals and families and workforces within, into, and out of Southern Scandinavia have not fundamentally changed which community has power or what language it is executed in.

Lets compare this history to the history of another part of the old world that I know well:

  • 700s BCE: Assyrian armies raid deep into Iranian plateau, reduce parts of the western mountains to a province
  • 600s BCE: Assyrian armies devastate the lowlands around Susa with their large cities. Assyrian power collapses. Period of migration and ethnogenesis begins
  • 500s BCE: Rise of the Achaemenids. Unification of the Iranian plateau by Cyrus. Coup by Darius who starts to emphasize his Aryan nature and the difference between (highland, Iranian-speaking) Persians and (lowland, non-IE-speaking) Elamites
  • 400s BCE: Elamite ceases to be written
  • 300s BCE: Iran conquered by Alexander and his army of Greeks, Macedonians, and Thracians
  • 100s BCE: much of Iran conquered by Parni, a people from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea who quickly adopt a horsey way of life and come to be known as the Parthians
  • First century BCE, first century CE: Roman incursions into western Iran

And we could carry this forward to the institutionalization of Zoroastrianism under the Sasanids, the Arab conquest and Islamicization, the arrival of the first Turks in Iran, the renaissance of Iranian culture after the year 1000, the Mongol invasions, Timur’s invasions, Ottoman invasions, and even the Allied-Russian occupation during World War II (and I’m not going to try to get into where the Kurds come from, or how the ancestors of the Roma probably migrated from India through Iran into Europe). Most parts of the world were conquered, migrated through, or converted many many times in the past two or three thousand years, and these changes were often much more drastic than Danish and Swedish kings fighting over territory or Catholics and Lutherans struggling for control of the Church in Sweden.

Rundkvist focuses on a prosperous part of south-eastern Sweden which does not have a university with an archaeology department. In Sweden, most archaeology is either funded by developers (who try not to build over interesting archaeology, because excavating is expensive) or by universities (which focus on sites which their students can reach easily); metal-detecting is highly restricted and there is no equivalent of the British Portable Antiquities Scheme. Although East Gotland was probably the site of an early petty kingdom, few elite sites with luxurious mead-halls are known (p. 9). Large, decorated halls were markers of wealthy families elsewhere in the region in the early middle ages, so Rundkvist wanted to know where these families lived, at what period different sites were occupied, and how power was distributed in Östergötland at different periods (p. 10) He rejects the habit of retrojecting evidence from the 11th century and later into this earlier period, since the arrival of institutional Christianity, large kingdoms, and towns around the year 1000 caused especially rapid cultural change, and since low-tech societies are rarely as static and unchanging as their members or rulers sometimes claim they are (pp. 11, 12) In the absence of excavated mead-halls, Rundkvist looks for other material evidence:

My main criterion to identify the presence of the elite when processing the documented archaeological record has been to look for evidence of the control of resources: goods, skilled labour, unskilled labour, land and the right to unhindered symbolic ostentation. There is good reason to view political power and material wealth as interchangeable currencies in the period under study. … The slavery of the time, where many people were in fact goods, throws this equation into sharp relief. Slaves were one kind of good that could be deposited at the era’s funerals. (pp. 14, 15)

Lacking a university position and funds for yearly excavations, Rundkvist worked with amateur metal detectorists to identify sites for better funded archaeologists to excavate. He focused on gold, silver, glass, weapons (especially swords and helmets), monumental buildings and earthworks, and some unexpected finds such as small weights (in a world where few people used coins, small weights marked the people who frequently exchanged precious goods such as gold and silver). About half the book is an overview of elite indicators by period, and the other half is a gazeteer of sites with signs of elite presence from 375 to 1000 CE.

a colour map of southern Sweden with waterways, lakes, elevation, ground cover and settlements marked
The mp of of Ostergotland from the front matter of this book

Rundkvist is comfortable using philological analysis of names and archaeological dating of monuments to generalize that in the first millennium CE, settlements in Östergötland were in a plains belt running east to west with woodlands to its north and south (pp. 20, 21). Settlement apparently expanded into the woodlands in the second millennium CE with population growth and the intensification of agriculture. In recorded times, the rural population mostly lived in individual farmsteads and small hamlets. Rundkvist accepts that (for example) hamlet names ending in -inge probably date before 375 CE, whereas -säter and -boda are characteristic of sites founded after the year 1000. In contrast, Robin Flemming argues that most of the surviving Roman place names in England are the towns: rural sites were usually named or renamed in the sixth century and later by the elites which were emerging from a previously egalitarian population. (In 2007, Rundkvist expressed a much more pessimistic view about the power of historical lingustics to say anything before the first written sources, and I wonder if his view changed in the meantime). And it would obviously be much harder to use this method in normal places where there had been several radical changes in language and way of life over the past few thousand years. The spread of nomadism in Iron Age Iran, the arrival of Arabic, Turkic, and Mongol-speakers, and the devastations by Mongols and Timur drastically changed where people lived, what they called places, and what was worth naming.

Rundkvist steps through the archaeological record period by period. He emphasizes changes in customs which affect the archaeological record (such as the custom of burying the dead with rich goods or depositing weapons in waterways) and the possibility that a relatively egalitarian archaeological record from 260 to 540 CE hides inequality which was expressed in archaeologically invisible ways. Roman coins are especially rare, so perhaps few Östergötlanders fought for or against the struggling Roman empire (p. 38). The so-called hillforts are hard to date, show few signs of habitation, and often rather simple, so do they reflect aristocratic conspicuous consumption or gatherings of farmers worried about raids? (p. 32) Without systematic surveys of the region, do clusters of Bronze Age finds reflect where people lived in the past, or where large numbers of people live and break ground today (p. 21)? In general, Rundkvist objects to building big claims on limited archaeological or linguistic evidence. A good example of his methods is the following quote:

On a regional scale, the Migration Period evidence forms three distinct clusters with a few outliers. … I find it highly likely, though untestable, that each cluster does re­present a separate faction at some time during that period. But equally, I believe that we must assume that the situation was volatile, with shifting alliances, wars, negotiations and raids. … We should be open to an interpretation where for a few decades one petty king might rule a whole elite cluster, half of the next one over, the land between them where no elite indicators have been found, and the resources culled from the forests to either side of that particular stretch of the plains belt. Then he was killed in a raid and the situation changed. (pp. 35, 36)

Another is that a year after this book was published, a first mead hall in Östergötland was found, not in the 4% of the province which he had called out for further excavation but only one parish away.

I was intrigued that in Östergötland as in eastern England, the late 6th century was a time when it became fashionable to put lavish goods in graves. Whereas Robin Flemming attributes this to new elites trying to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, Rundkvist emphasizes the volcanic winter of 536 and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire reaching the point that there was nobody left to hire or bribe northerners with gold. This probably destabilized systems of power where families which sent soldiers south redistributed Roman materials and goods to their neighbours. The massacre at Sandby Borg may have something to do with this. Late in the sixth century, powerful families in western Europe had multiple reasons to show that they could deposit exotic goods with their dead and get others just as good.

There is precisely one rural site from Persis in Iran dated to the Achaemenid period. So the state of archaeology which frustrates Rundkvist impresses me. But reading this survey of Scandinavian prehistory, I was struck by the region’s cultural continuity from at least the year 1 and probably centuries earlier. When you combine this remarkable history with the fact that Scandinavia has a cold, wet climate and cold and wet preserve artifacts, I am no longer surprised that scientific archaeology began in Scandinavia. I’m not sure what Rundkvist will say about this review and I certainly agree that identities such as “Geat” or “Swede” can hide differences which any outsider can see, and differences which an outsider can’t see can be very important to people at the time.

I don’t have a ring-lord rewarding my words, just generous supporters on Patreon and other sites

(scheduled 4 January 2022, based on an idea and first reading several years earlier)

Further Reading: Ricardo Rodriguez-Varela et al., “The genetic history of Scandinavia from the Roman Iron Age to the present,” Cell Vol. 186 Issue 1 (2023)

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5 thoughts on “Southern Scandinavia is Weird

  1. dearieme says:

    The Romans held a census (maybe I should say “at least one”) where I grew up. Nothing survives, of course. I am, however, impressed that even the record of their having been a census survives.

    But suppose that the census record had survived. What would it mean to us today? No name would mean anything, no patch of land would have had any continuity of ownership, no early religion has survived.

    Since the Romans, the local ploughmen and aristocrats would have spoken Cumbric then perhaps Northumbrian, then maybe the aristocrats would speak Cumbric again. After that the aristocrats would presumably have spoken Scots Gaelic for a while. Place names show Danish and Norse settlements. Eventually the ploughmen speak Southern Scots finally replaced by English. The aristocrats speak – well who knows? Some would speak Norman French for a while, some perhaps Gaelic for some time, some would speak Scots. too, maybe.

    Heavens, nobody knows which languages Robert the Bruce spoke. They guess, but no one knows.

    Not much like Sweden, is it?

    1. Sean says:

      And I think the original Scoti were from northern Ireland weren’t they? They came across to the Isles and Highlands sometime after the Roman empire left and eventually most of the people in northern Britain used that name. I think people have to work with Old Norse as well as English and French to understand Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

      Sweden got a French king once but England has had English and Norse and Normans and Scots and Dutch and Hessians (and there were French armies roaming around England in the 13th century, and a Dutch army landed and changed the regime (or altered the times) in 1688).

  2. Martin Rundkvist says:

    I am happy and honoured that you have read my book so attentively!

    Our place names don’t actually say anything before the oldest written source — the Germania of Tacitus. One thing that has changed though since 2007 is that archaeo-geneticists and historical linguists (not archaeologists) have agreed that the Indo-European language arrives in Scandinavia with a major immigration wave from c. 2800 cal BC. This certainly doesn’t prove ethnic or political continuity up until today. But it shows that the rock art after 1700 cal BC in agricultural Scandinavia was made by people who spoke IE, not Fenno-Ugric.

    1. Sean says:

      Nice to have one more guess for the arrival of PIE in Southern Sweden!

      If I could find my copy of Robin Flemming’s book I would give the page numbers where she talks about how British archaeologists use place names.

      It seems like there might have been other language groups which got displaced or assimilated by the proto-Sami and proto-Norse, like Eteocretan and Lemnian in the Aegean, but I don’t know any evidence and Southern Swedish place names sound pretty Swedish.

      I’ve seen archaeologists who think that future-Denmark was an early centre of iron technology for the Baltic region, so that technology had a local base too.

  3. dearieme says:

    “They came across to the Isles and Highlands sometime after the Roman empire left”

    So we were taught at school. Recently I’ve seen it said that there are scholars who speculate that there might have been some Scoti in Western Scotland earlier than usually supposed. I don’t know if they are right, nor what their evidence is. I don’t suppose it matters much anyway, save for a natural preference for “history” being right rather than wrong.

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