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Places, Monuments, and Objects: The Past in Ancient Scandinavia

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 267-281 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0034

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Memory clearly played an important role in ancient Scandinavian society, most evidently expressed in the approximately 2,300 rune stones raised from the mid-tenth century to the early twelfth century. All of these monuments were memorials over one or several dead persons, often commemorating their deeds and ways of death. The sponsors of the monuments and their relations with the dead are always mentioned in the runic texts, and sometimes relations with other persons are mentioned as well. Through the texts, the rune-stones created a memorial web of thousands of persons in the late Viking Age (Andrén 2000; Sawyer 2000).

Although rune stones have been studied for four hundred years, memory and the role of the past in the past have been seriously studied and discussed in Scandinavian and European archaeology only in the last three decades. It started in the 1980s, with a general critique of the archaeological focus on chronology (Chippendale 1983; Shanks and Tilley 1987; Burström 1989). Ever since archaeology was professionalized in the middle of the nineteenth century, chronology has been a central part of the discipline. In fact, the ordering of things in chronological sequences was the very means by which the first archaeologists distinguished themselves from earlier antiquarians, who possessed little or no idea about how objects should be dated (Trigger 2006, 121–38). During the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, most objects became more or less securely dated. Besides, the mid-twentieth-century dating methods from natural sciences, such as carbon-14 dating and dendrochronology, have made the chronological ordering of things less important in archaeology (Baudou 2004, 278–90). Still, the chronological heritage of the discipline meant that the past was overwhelmingly presented in clearly delimited periods, comprising only places, monuments, and objects constructed in these periods.


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Fig. 1. 

The Neolithic henge monument at Avebury, with a modern village and a medieval church (photo by the author).

The new critique of the “chronological mind” of archaeology was based on an emerging awareness of the complex multi-temporal character of the past, partly inspired by scholars such as Henri Bergson, Paul Ricoeur, Pierre Nora, Jan Assmann, Walter Ong, and Paul Connerton. In surveys of ancient monuments, remains from all periods were mapped. The monuments were usually neatly presented in different periods, but since they exist today, they must also have existed in all preceding periods since their very construction (Chippendale 1983; Burström 1989). For instance, Avebury is one of Britain’s famous henge monuments from the Neolithic (fig. 1); however, it is also a medieval parish, with its church placed just outside the ring of monolithic boulders, while at the same time a modern village is partly located within the Neolithic monument. Consequently, Avebury should not only be seen as a Neolithic henge monument but also understood as a monument from the past that existed and was re-used and re-interpreted through millennia (Pollard and Reynolds 2002). Although chronology is still important in archaeology, the awareness of the multi-temporal past has clearly challenged the chronological mentality of the discipline.

Since the 1980s, the general archaeological debate on the multi-temporal past has been broadened to many different aspects of how humans in the past related to their own past (Gosden 1994; Olivier 1999, 2011; Bradley 2002; Van Dyke and Alcock 2003; Williams 2006; Jones 2007). In this context, I only want to highlight a few aspects of this discussion. It is, in general, difficult to understand the intentions behind human actions in the past. Dealing with the past could have been a strategy for remembering, but also for re-inventing or forgetting. Memory in early cultures is usually regarded as being based on oral culture, but archaeologists have repeatedly emphasized the importance of material culture as a vehicle of memory. Oral culture was never only oral, since oral traditions were usually based on and interacting with the material world around humans, for instance, landscapes, monuments, settlements, and objects. It is also important to emphasize that different forms of memory existed. Some memories related to the recent past (e.g., genealogical memories), others to...



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