In this part, Aksel and Eirik get into the actual timeline of Scandinavian prehistory with an emphasis on the Bronze and Iron Ages, including the Viking Age. We talk about the materiality of these periods, the language, and regional variation, before we segway drunkenly into our own snobbery.
Tick tock, friends and foes. In the next few episodes we're tackling time itself, or rather our tendency to divide the fourth dimension into eras!
Aksel joins the podcast once again to help unravel the dense issue of Scandinavian chronology. We start off softly with a primer on the origin and development of the ages themselves, from the Greek concept of the Golden Age, to the timeline of modern archaeology, before we get into how the Norsemen developed their own system of ages based on surprisingly scientific criteria.
In this Halloween special, we tackle the weird and mysterious case of the Oseberg ship, and the lesser known, but true, story of how a Brooklyn clairvoyant may have caused the discovery of the most extravagant Viking Age burial ever found.
The episode is available from all podcast apps worthy of praise. If you like my stuff, feel free to rate, review or subscribe. Or better yet; pledge your support over at Patreon.com/brutenorse!
In 2013, I published a piece in Haugesunds Avis - my hometown's local newspaper, where I urged people to ask critical questions about the sincerity behind certain claims and intentions of a viking themed amusement park, which is planned to be built outside the village of Sveio in the Haugaland region, Southwest Norway. It was a futile attempt: Though I accused them of being opportunistic, and even dangerous profiteers posing as being genuinely interested in furthering local historical identity, none of the involved parties answered my calls.
Later, this park was named Thor's (sic) Rike, "Thor's Realm", which is an extremely awkward title insofar it contains no less than two typos (Tor is the name of the thundergod in Norwegian, and the apostrophe is not used like it is in English). Anyway, the debate died before it even began. Some people supported my critique, others saw no problem - though generally people seemed to think it was an ill-advised business idea overall. Seeing that West Norway hardly is a summer paradise, the stakes are pretty high.
Proponents of the theme park, which is simply referred to as "Vikingland" locally, claim that it will create much needed jobs in the region. Sure, manual labor is needed at least until it's finished. I bet guest workers will be queuing up for the opportunity to lay every single brick that comes after the mayor's customary first - as their privilege is. Besides, no carnival can do without two or three dozen teenagers to sell tickets and cotton candy for three or four months in the summer. Lastly, a handful of people who've studied something whimsical like, say, "leadership studies" are probably needed as well.
What do I worry about, people sometimes ask. Well, I do tend to worry about a whole lot of things, but I shall try to keep it snappy: Firstly, I'm not convinced that Tho'rs Rike is going to be the blessing they're promising. They'll have to live with my negativity, but after all, it's their duty to communicate with the public and explain to them, earnestly, what their intents are. Consequently I expect us - the public - to poke around ask some questions, as this is arguably of local community interest. As we should, wherever someone is hustling for coin. Especially, perhaps, when it's trying to get a piggy back ride from local history, and poses as an ally of ancient monuments.
I am worried about the long-term results, I'm gonna hide it. If this park ends up as a total fiasco, we don't go back to square one, but minus ten. As much as I love my native region, I would be lying if I didn't say that I believe it is a wretched hive of hollow materialism, profiteering and suspicious, nepotistic in-trading. A gang of fairly well to do folks shaking each others' dicks on a leased boat, pretending to be regional saints. But it's gotten better, it's getting somewhere.
Anyway, as I was saying: If the park is a fiasco, I don't think people will have the clarity to see this as a failure of bad business decision, but a confirmation that, ahem, "cultural heritage" isn't worth spending a dime on. When I gaze into my crystal ball of pessimism, I think that patrons will say: If we can't make this Disneyland wannabe work, then we sure as hell ain't going to bother investing in any more of his viking horseshit. I think, that when the theme park goes, it's gonna suck any monetary willingness in with it, like a black hole.
Yeah, I do believe that Th'ors Rike will be a burden - not a supplement - to the rich cultural heritage of the region. A Viking Age burial mound to the people behind it, is only really worth something to these people if they can squeeze a dollar out of it. If not, there's no reason this shouldn't be a car park as far as these people are concerned.
This region served as the main seat of Harold Fairhair, the national unifier of Norway back in the 9th century. Where no less than two viking ships have been found, which contains an unprecedented continuity and number of ancient monuments from all ages of our nation's history.
So I do believe that the park will do more harm than good. I struggle to see what it has to offer the soul of locals, who should be inspired to look to their heritage with admiration and pride. All the talk about of "infotainment" is hollow and baseless, judging from what we've seen so far. A disguise used to get through the door and sell us their ice cream and rides, making a soulless mockery of our intangible and invaluable cultural history. Killed by this ridiculous commercialization.
I'm telling you, friends, that if you wish to see a vision of the future of infotainment, then imagine a plush mascot stomping on a museum educator's face - forever.
The worst part is the fact that the committee behind T'hors Rike pretend to be genuinely interested in celebrating and fronting our cultural history, by publishing a bizarre series of local historical articles and fact sheets about the area, probably to serve as some sort of cultural alibi, though that hardly serves to explain why a theme park is a fitting supplement to the local landscape. "Get to know ancient Sviða!", "Did you know we're building it right up the road from Norways only national monument?". And if that wasn't perverse enough, the park is due to be wedged in between several ancient monuments, around the banks of Vidgarvatnet, meaning "the hallowed lake". One of them being the mysterious "Bridal Altar" (bruraalteret) tied in with local legends about a couple who drowned during their wedding procession. The park will also be right in the sight of the Iron Age burial mounds at Apeland.
Now, I am not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to build within proximity of ancient monuments. If so, the whole region would have been more or less uninhabitable. However, we may wonder what our ancestors would think about crumbling in their graves in the shadow of an amusement park.
Somebody's got to speak for the dead, a wise soul once said. This wouldn't be the first violation against Norwegian heritage in the region, or for that matter in the municipality of Sveio. When the 23 meters wide mound at Tjernagel was destroyed in 1983, it was already beyond 3000 years old. When it was around 2000 years old, in 1028, Þórarinn loftunga - who was one of the court poets of king Canute the Great - even described and named the mound in a skaldic poem. It is totally unique that a Viking Age source names a landmark of this kind. Nor can there be any doubt that the mound of Tjernagel served as a waypoint and beacon for seafarers over three millennia. And what a beautiful name it is: Tjernagel means "sword-nail", probably because its 400 cubic meters of rock shone brilliantly in the distances when viewed from the sea. Then, in 1983, some bureaucratic dwarves obliterated it. Why? To make room for a radio tower, a shortwave transmitter that was obsolete twenty years later. Twenty years it loomed in the crater of the 3000 year old Tjernagel mound, before they tore it down and turned it into nails. It's the sort of story that makes me wish ghosts exist, for the sole purpose of haunting the guilty parties.
Anyway. Short-sighted decisions leave permanent marks. If local moneymakers and the municipal council genuinely cares about the heritage they claim to celebrate, they can prove it by restoring the monumental burial mound at Tjernagel first, then they can go for rides.
This article is an extrapolated translation of an article I submitted to the regional newspaper, Haugesunds Avis. However, it was not printed. If you like what you're reading, you can support my voice by subscribing to the Brute Norse Patreon page, or by sharing this article.
These are sad days for Scandinavian museum objects. Last week, 1some 400 objects were viciously burgled from the University Museum in Bergen, in all likelihood bound for the black market. Now, words of lament are howling from across the Swedish border as archaeologists have been forced to destroy artifacts recovered from digs, and objects such as scales, coins, knives, decorated foils, pre-Christian cult objects etc. are sent for scrap metal right on the site, if they are not considered unique enough to warrant conservation. Apparently too precious to own, but not to precious to be thrown.
This has already been discussed elsewhere on English language sites that are, diplomatically speaking, more tendentious in disposition, and where it plays right into the hands of a narrative where Sweden is on a masochistic binge to erase its own cultural memory to better accommodate swarthy hordes from across the sandy dunes. This will not be yet another article about that, but you cannot help but think that with this legislated destruction of their own cultural heritage, Sweden is not doing a very good job at combating the stereotypes pinned against them.
Let's add some much needed nuance: To my understanding, the destruction is for the most part carried out by private companies sourced to conduct routine and emergency digs on behalf of state archaeologists. Additionally, the items bound for the grinder are usually of negotiable historical value. These are digs that are often done in association with construction work, which none the less make up the bulk of Scandinavian digs, to the point where contemporary Nordic archaeology is more or less synonymous with highway projects and the like. Sweden, however, is unique in its employment of private archaeological companies for such tasks.
The fun thing about archaeology is that you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes you get little, sometimes you get a lot. This rings particularly true when it comes to emergency digs, in which the lack of time necessitates many tough choices. I'm sure more than a few artifacts and their contexts have met an untimely demise at the hands of such gambles, but it's debatable whether or not this is problematic if they would have been obliterated by machinery anyway.
Blasting the past
It's not unheard of to find examples of house remains, burials, or even cult sites where archaeologists can do little but step back and let the bulldozers in. In my hometown, there is the particularly grim example of the destruction of the Bronze Age burial mound at Tjernagel. A site unique not only for its impressive size, but for the fact that it's referenced in a skaldic poem from the beginning of the 11th century. The 3000 year old mound was destroyed in 1983 to make room for a since decommissioned radio transmitter. As baffling as this might seem, such practices have generally been accepted sacrifices on the altar of societal infrastructure.
However, extending this logic to artifacts is a new turn, or should I rather say; shockingly old. Especially considering that contemporary archaeology explicitly distances itself from its antiquarian roots in the 19th century, where conservation was entirely up to the excavators who could more or less scrap whatever they saw fit. Deliberate destruction was not entirely unheard of, either, as the fate of the 8th century Storhaug ship shows. Buried in a massive mound on a particularly fertile stretch of farmland on my own native island of Karmøy, it was Excavated in 1886 by Anders Lorange. The Storhaug ship is estimated to have been at least 27 meters long. Three meters longer, and a century older, than the Gokstad ship. Lorange had no idea what to do with such a find, so he rounded up the artifacts and let the local peasants tear the ship apart for firewood.
A child of his time, for sure. I have not met a sane archaeologist that didn't roll their eyes at Lorange's choice of action, so it's shocking to me that any Scandinavian archaeologist would return to the antiquated practice of scrapping artifacts they don't consider beautiful or important enough to save. You know, I really don't want to be one of those argument-by-current-year sort of people, I really do. But that sort of practice would hardly be tolerated in 1917 archaeology, let alone 2017.
The reasoning behind the choice to destroy these artifacts lies with the fact that museum stores are filled with metal objects of negotiable public interest. Okay, they better be filled to the brink, to the edge of absolute collapse, because the case applies to all the other Nordic countries, or Western Europe for that matter, but so far I've yet to see anybody else making screws and bottle openers out of Viking Age iron. The world may be headed off the deep end, we don't need to enforce such dystopian levels of recycling just yet.
It's been pointed out that most of the recycled material is more recent, modern trash that archaeologists are under no obligation to conserve. But there is an obvious paradox in the fact that, in theory, pocketing a rusty nail is a criminal offense but throwing it in the trash is not.
Absurdly, Sweden is the only Scandinavian country that allows private archaeological companies to perform such excavations, but it's significantly harder to acquire a private permit to use metal detectors there than it is in Norway or Denmark. Sweden banned unlicensed use of metal detectors in 1991 (Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist gives an outline of their legality on his blog). Consequently, Sweden reports the fewest number finds from private detectorists, while the opposite is true for Denmark, which appears to be winning the karmic game as far as conservation goes. Whether or not metal detectors should be subject to draconian restriction is debatable, and is only relevant to this discussion as far as it relates to the black market. It's possible to argue that Sweden's restrictive legislation in itself serves as an enabler to so-called nighthawks. That is antiquarian slang for illicit detectorists.
The economy of destruction
Like the destruction of ivory, there is every reason to believe that destroying archaeological artifacts increases their perceived market value, even though they have never been legally obtainable to the public in the first place. With news spreading like wildfire about archaeologists destroying their own finds, the topsy-turvy world of Swedish archaeology finds itself in the situation where nighthawks may choose to claim a moral high ground. It is ironic and utterly inexcusable that artifacts have a better chance of surviving in the illicit market, than in the hands of archaeologists. If given the choice between seeing such items destroyed by the excavation teams, or sold privately, I would see them used as paperweights or mantle pieces in a private home any day. If museums can't even find a shoe box to keep them in, they might as well hand out licenses and auction them off legally. Any fate is preferable to legislated vandalism. If this is how the laws simply are, then one could argue that the laws regulating Swedish conservationism are long overdue for reconsideration. If the core of the matter lies with the fact that Swedish museums are criminally underfunded, then all the more reason to raise concerns.
It is particularly idiotic and counter-productive because archaeologists have been struggling to make themselves understood by the public for well over a hundred years. Archaeologists across Scandinavia struggle enough to communicate with landowners as it is, and this will only perpetuate the vilification of archaeology that is still prevalent in Scandinavian agricultural communities. The message these actions are sending out, is one where not only will archaeologists rip up your yard, but they might destroy whatever they find too. By standardizing last resort actions, they have created means for the black market justify itself, and where illegal possession of historical artifacts becomes preferable to their destruction.
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The other day I was met with a lunchtime read of the dreariest kind: Museum break-in, objects of great historical value stolen, said the headline in my news feed. Consider the picture below if you've never been to Bergen. It is the facade of the Bergen University Museum, specifically the Cultural History Collections, or The Historical Museum as they call themselves these days. Knowing the museum world, cold sweat struck me as I realized the gravity of the situation. After all, I live in Bergen and work for another museum group in the same town. I send tourists their way with warm endorsements, knowing they will have a great experience.
I'm sure we all hoped for minimum losses. That we were up against a clumsily executed crime by some aimless small-timer on an amphetamine bender. That security arrived swiftly, sending the burglar - or burglars - running. If not exactly leaving a trail of coins and flint fragments to follow, then at least some solid footage to identify perpetrators by.
It was too much to hope for. Assuming there was more than one, the thieves had climbed a scaffold outside the museum (discernible in the picture above) and smashed a window on the seventh floor which, by Odin's knackers, is part of the magazines. I've been up there myself during my brief stint as an archaeology student.
There is some seriously impressive stuff up there, and the timing could not have been worse: The permanent viking exhibit was down and due for reopening later this year. This may mean that many of the artifacts usually displayed downstairs might have been boxed up in the aforementioned storage. In other words, the thieves may have gotten away with a sizeable chunk of some of the museums most recognized treasures.
The dust settles I'm writing this less than a week after the incident, and many questions are still unanswered. Local newspaper Bergens Tidende quoted the museum director, the venerable Henrik von Achen, as saying that the stores dedicated to the safe keeping of Iron Age objects had had been plundered, among them several artifacts from the Migration and Viking Eras. After some initial confusion as to the extent of the raid the museum now reports 2̶4̶5̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶i̶r̶m̶e̶d̶ ̶l̶o̶s̶s̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶i̶m̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶w̶r̶i̶t̶i̶n̶g̶. They expect the numbers to rise significantly as the tally continues. [Update 18/08/17: The museum has adjusted the number of losses to 400]
Thankfully, the museum maintains an extensive photo documentation program. Images of confirmed missing artifacts are uploaded to a dedicated Facebook group run by the staff, hoping to ease recovery by raising awareness and reaching out to the public eye. Though English information is somewhat lacking, these pictures say all you need to know: Dozens of tortoise brooches, bracelets, torques, keys, pennanular brooches, horse tacks, insular fittings, vessels, trefoil brooches, hack silver, coins, and amulets are confirmed so far. Who knows what else. Join the group it and see for yourself.
The questions we need to ask
There are a few serious question to be begged about how this was allowed to happen. Bergen has been plagued by professional art theft in the past, and the sad story of the presumably contracted raid on the Historical Museum in Lund also comes to mind, where precious objects from Uppåkra were lost in 2013. That incident bore all the markings of a professional, well planned burglary. It's less clear cut in the case of Bergen, because the items were practically handed to the burglars on a silver platter - and I'll tell you why.
First of all, the break-in is believed to have taken place some time on Saturday night, which is interesting insofar that it was only discovered about 8am Monday morning. Pardon my Ostrogothic, but if this is true, how the blazing hell does that happen? At first it was claimed that the burglars had executed the break-in without setting off alarms, but it was later admitted that the alarm went off twice. Are the Bergen Museum's security systems so dated that they do not point to a specific floor? How did the security guard fail to notice the broken window? If the burglar consciously set the alarm off twice to simulate false alarm, hiding in the meantime, then security must have fallen victim to the oldest trick in the book. One they should have anticipated. It would be an absolute humiliation to the integrity of the company, for such false positives should have no consequence to security routines - especially at an object of that importance. If this is the case, the guard is obviously not fit for such duties.
How could the construction company be so daft as to not secure the site better? I would presume that security concerns would be part of the work routine, but really, the accountability lies with the museum trusted to keep these artifacts safe. Here's the museological bottom line: The security company screwed up, the construction company screwed up, and they should answer for it, but these were red flags that should have been recognized by the museum itself.
On that note I must add that the museum handled the situation as honorably as they possibly could. As the director Mr. Achen expressed, no museum suffering a break-in can honestly say that their security measures were good enough, so his integrity can't be questioned in that department. They have taken full responsibility for their own, painful losses. If thieves could be accurately anticipated, these things would obviously never happen, yet it goes to show that an up-to-date, thorough security regime is an undeniable and absolute necessity, because this is the alternative is the exact situation they are up against: There is no security footage, there are no suspects. These fragile artifacts may never be recovered, and some have most certainly sustained some kind of permanent damage. They could be sitting in the back of truck bound for the black market in Eastern Europe, or corroding in a puddle of bong water across town, but really they could be anywhere. Your guess is as good as mine. [Update 18/08/17: Media report evidence pointing in the direction that this was indeed a planned, professional strike. This is congruent with the types of artifacts that were stolen.]
Bergen University Museum is pointing no fingers. I suppose they can't, but as an independent voice, I can. I've worked in museums my whole adult life. I know the meager budget sob story all too well. Bad funding affects the security of artifacts, buildings and, last but not least, the museum work force itself. To update their security - as mentioned, an absolute necessity - I fear many museums will have to make cuts that do damage to other departments. We need artifact security, but job security too. To achieve this, many museums will require better funding, one way or another.
The first, cheapest, and easiest line of security belongs to the attentive museum worker, but while museums and their employees hold the task of protecting our cultural heritage, their ability to do this is remarkably dependent on politicians, and the biggest finger of them all, I shall point at them. Blessed is the museum that runs on ticket sales alone. I've certainly never worked at one. In fact, most museums are at the mercy of either private or government funding. Theft is not the only threat here. It's no secret that many museum magazines simply aren't up to scratch in terms of climatization. Finally I shall also break the taboo of criticizing the public, though I usually try to take their side in heritage matters.
Many Norwegians, spoiled by the nanny state as we tend to be, have entirely unrealistic expectations in terms of the duties and services of museums. As citizens of a heavily taxed social democracy claiming to care about public enlightenment, they expect museums to offer their services cheaply, or even for free. Even though entry fees are comparably cheap here, some will not pay the equivalent of two bus rides, or about 70% the price of a movie ticket to see a national treasure. Simultaneously, governments both past and present relieve themselves of their duties by cutting as much cultural funding as their conscience allows them, preferring to build anew rather than maintaining what they started. Meanwhile, museums who have been asking for decades, don't receive the funds to modernize. Still they are expected to fight off mold and vandals alike, even when they barely have enough to pay their workers in the first place. Relying to a great extent on intermediate positions taken as works of passion, with little to no hope of career development.
The museum is a sacred space
I extend my condolences not only to the Bergen University Museum, but to the Norwegian public whose cultural memory has been severely pillaged through this deplorable crime. Norway is a small country built on trust, and the benefit of the doubt. These are core ideals, and relevant to the ongoing domestic debate about so-called Norwegian values.
If, by any chance, the guilty party reads this essay, I want to tell you this, cocksucker, that I hope you realize the symbolic gravity of your deed. You stand shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban, who as a gesture of defiance against world heritage, reduced to rubble the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Your are hardly different from the black market speculation and outright destruction carried out by the zealots of the Islamic State. You are a 1:1 scale copy of the crooked goldsmith Niels Heidenreich who stole and destroyed the Golden Horns of Gallehus for the sake of nothing more sacred than his own greed.
This is what's at stake. Museums are sacred institutions, and I mean this quite literally, not as a trite, literary embellishment. The very term comes from the Greek mouseion (Μουσεῖον), which originally denoted a shrine or temple dedicated to the muses, minor deities of art and inspiration. Museums are temples to the memory of mankind. They are shrines in which we may converse with the past, which grounds us and gives our time and lives context. Offering new and old perspectives alike. Where culture is produced, examined, interpreted, and enjoyed. I'd even wager that beyond visiting the graves of loved ones, and family rites of remembrance, it is the closest thing the Western world has to ancestor worship. While all artifacts have indiscriminate value to the museum, the fact that these items were from Iron Age and Viking Era makes it all the more painful, as these periods have a firm grip on the Norwegian consciousness. The Viking Era being is our founding myth, the Norwegian ethnogenesis, the womb of the nation.
This is not lost on thieves. For artifacts to be recognized in terms of market value, all of the above must be taken into account. But this is nothing compared to the cultural worth of these artifacts. Like a temple, artifacts are deposited and sacrificed. Though they may move from museum to museum, from temple to temple, they must never be fully removed. Art theft is sacrilege. The burglar rapes the muses.
How can you help? By raising awareness, joining the Facebook group, sharing this article, and by keeping an eye open for any suspicious artifacts on the online market. I'm aware several auction houses have been notified. Let's not make it any easier for the criminals.