Sparlösa runestone with traced depiction of what is perhaps a viking temple

Viking Worlds. Things, Spaces and Movement

Viking halls, regional judicial places, oath rings, door keys, leadworking and much more figures in a fascinating new book on Viking Worlds

Viking Worlds. Things, Spaces and Movement
By Irmelin Axelsen, Marianne Hem Eriksen, Heidi Lund Berg, Unn Pedersen, Bernt Rundberget et al
Oxbow Books 2015
ISBN-10: 1782977279
ISBN-13: 978-1782977278
ISBN: 9781782977308 (eBook)

REVIEW:

Viking worlds things spaces and movements coverIn this book fourteen papers explore a variety of inter-disciplinary approaches to understanding the Viking past, both in Scandinavia and in the Viking diaspora. Contributions employ both traditional inter- or multi-disciplinarian perspectives using archaeological finds, historical sources, Icelandic sagas and Eddic poetry. But they also bring into play place-name research, the history of religion and technological advancements, such as isotope analysis. Each case-study is thus in itself an example of how juggling different approaches in a inter-disciplinary context can yield really new insights into the World of the Vikings.

Geographically, contributions range from Iceland through Scandinavia and to the Continent. Scandinavian, British and Continental Viking scholars come together to challenge established truths, present new definitions and discuss old themes from new angles.

Topics discussed include personal and communal identity; gender relations between people, artefacts such as oath rings, and hegemonic places/spaces in wider regions; rules and regulations within different social arenas; processes of production, trade and exchange, and transmission of knowledge within both past Viking-age societies and present-day research.

Displaying thematic breadth as well as geographic and academic diversity, the articles seem to foreshadow up-and-coming themes for Viking Age research. Rooted in different traditions, using diverse methods and exploring eclectic material – Viking Worlds will provide the reader with a sense of current and forthcoming issues, debates and topics in Viking studies, and give insight into a new generation of ideas and approaches which will mark the years to come.

The articles represent a series of papers presented at an international conference, “Viking Worlds”, which was held at the University of Oslo in 2013. The conference was particularly focused upon the work of postgraduates and early career researchers, in the realisation that there are few open and international forums for a new generation of Viking scholars. The scope of the present book fully redeems this expectation. The introduction written by Neil Price nicely envelops the collection, lending a generous aura to it

Girl from Birka - Source- Historiska Museet- web
The Girl from Birka and her life-world was reconstructed as part of a children’s programme at Svenska Historiska Museet. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonsson tells the story. Photo: Svenska Hustoriska Museet

The first part focuses on architecture, settlements and landscapes. Here we get a first glimpse of the on-going work of Lydia Carstens, who is working on a comprehensive catalogue of existing Viking Halls in order to understand the physical characteristics and practical and symbolic functionalities of which is in fact a rather vague phenomena. This is followed by Joanne Shortt Butler, who discusses the complicated connection between the skaldic poem, Húsdrápa, allegedly from the 10th century and the story behind its genesis, found in the Laxdæla Saga from the 13th century (in which we are famously told that the poem was composed by Ulf Uggason in order to celebrate the carvings of a great Viking Hall). From here we move on to Asle Bruen Olsen’s article on courtyard sites in Western Norway, which expands upon his work on central assembly places and judicial institutions and explores the connection between these regional meeting places and the mythical foundation of the Thingvellir in Iceland in AD 874. Next follows a study of yet another “assembly place”, this time in Denmark. The magnate farm at Tissø, which continues to yield new information, is thought to have hosted seasonal assemblies – markets and religious feasts over a long period, from AD 550 – 1050. Sofie Laurine Albris explores changes in place-names in the wider region in order to understand the development of the site. From here we move on to one of the absolute highlights of the collection, the article by Marianne Hem Eriksen on powerful rings – more specifically the use of large door rings and small votive oath rings found in sacral places in Sweden.

The second part of the collection focuses on Gendered things and gendered spaces. In this part Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonsson tells us about the complex information, which can be gathered from the intimate study of a single individual, a five-year old girl from Birka, while a number of other articles explore the Viking worlds of women taking part in transhumance (Patrycja Kupiec and Karen Milek) and (perhaps) carrying around the keys to the fence-in farms (Heidi Lund Berg).

In the third part the theme is production, exchange and movement. Here Bjarne Gaut discusses the finds from Kaupang in a broad continental context, while Ben Cartwright lifts the veil on his on-going PhD-project on textile production as part of the Viking Identity. Here he focuses on the excavations at Bjørkum in Lærdal. To this is added an article on lead-working in Norway by Unn Pedersen. In a very fine overview by Leszek Gardela, we get a much needed presentation of recent finds of Viking Poland. Here we get a series of tantalizing glimpses of exactly what the title of the books promises to offer us: yet another one of the many Viking Worlds – with a stress on the plural.

Finally a group of scientists and archaeologists offer us a highly interesting presentation of istotopic analysis of silver from Hedeby and some nearby hoards. This article promises no more than a first presentation of the preliminary results. Lead isotope analysis is a relatively untapped resource, but can be used to measure where the metal in the coins and hoards were sourced. As such it can present a diachronic profile of the shifting geographic regions, which a place like Haithabu traded with. One important – albeit tentative – conclusion is that a shift from trade with Asia takes place in the mid 10th century when a steady influx of silver from the newly opened mines in Harzen can be detected. “In the 11th century no trace of Samanid silver could be found” writes the Stephen Merkel, Andreas Hauptmann, Volker Hilbert and Robert Lehmann.

This is a very interesting collection of new insights into the inner workings of the different Viking Worlds, which continue to dissolve the monolithic impressions, which old and less interdisciplinary monographs used to divert us with.

Karen Schousboe

FEATURED PHOTO:

Sparlösa Runestone. Source: Wikipedia. The detail shows the building depicted on the stone with the accentuated door ring hanging on the portal of what is probably a “Hov” (a sacred building or “temple”). Marianne Hem Eriksen deals extensively with this depiction in her article on “The Powerful Ring”.