Archaeology consists of a myriad of weakly interconnected regional and temporal sub-disciplines. My work in Östergötland is largely irrelevant to a scholar in Lapland and entirely so to one in Tokyo. Larger interregional syntheses are rare and tend to be read mainly by undergraduates who have yet to select a specialty.
Now, imagine someone outside of Scandinavia, who speaks none of our languages, but who wants to approach our prehistoric archaeology for the first time. Such a person — in London or San Francisco or Shanghai — will most likely try to find a recent synthesis in English put out by a reputable academic publisher. And when they do find and read such a book, it is likely to make a lasting impression on their views of our myriad regional sub-disciplines.
It so happens that the Cambridge University Press has now issued such a synthesis: more precisely, a three-volume work on the history of Scandinavia. Its first, 920-page part covers the period from deglaciation to AD 1520. I have read the parts covering Scandinavian archaeology and history up through the Viking Period. This book is likely to form foreign views of Scandinavian prehistory and early history for a long time to come, and its earlier part is interesting as a 230-page summary of what is worth knowing about our fields of study. If something is missing from the synthesis, then it is most likely because its authors have deemed the issue peripheral.
The work’s disposition alone suffices to show that its editors are far more interested in written history than in archaeology: two volumes cover half a millennium after AD 1520, one covers fifteen millennia before that date. In fact, disregarding a presentation of the area’s recent geological development, ten millennia in the Late Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic are covered in 5,5 pages. With a similar treatment, the period after AD 1520 would have fit in less than a single page, and the Cambridge History of Scandinavia would have been six pages long.
It would have been possible and quite legitimate to produce a work based entirely on written sources, beginning with a few paragraphs about Classical authors and then moving on to the late 1st Millennium AD. The first volume’s editor, Knut Helle, is a retired professor of Medieval history. But the Cambridge History of Scandinavia aims to cover prehistory too, and so we may ask if it succeeds well in its undertaking. Is the narrative factually correct and up-to-date? Is the selection of information to present methodical and coherent? (There is no self-evident set of questions that such a primer must answer.)
Ulf Sporrong provides a sturdy 28-page introduction to the Nordic area’s natural geography and post-glacial landscape history with good maps. Ari Siiriäinen then takes the reader through Childean culture-historical aspects of the Stone and Bronze Ages — in 17 pages. His pre-Neolithic pages are of course too few to be taken as a serious attempt to tell the story of those millennia. But I was surprised to find no mention of Finnish Late Mesolithic pottery, and confused by the mention of a “Limhamn Culture” apparently contemporaneous with the Nøstvet Culture. A fact checker with some archaeological schooling would have caught this garbled reference to the Lihult Culture of western Sweden.
Entering the 9-page Neolithic, I was alarmed to find no end of errors. We are told that the TRB Culture entered Europe from elsewhere and included amphorae in its pottery assemblage. Some passage graves have two passages entering the chamber. Corded Ware burial starts in about 2300 cal BC and often features bodies placed “on one side with the feet slightly bent”. And it goes on. Siiriäinen first points out that it is impossible to make any scientifically grounded statements about language families in prehistoric societies, but nevertheless proceeds to say for instance that the Typical Comb Ware Culture of Finland from 3400 cal BC onward probably went hand in hand with a Finnic language, and that the Corded Ware Culture brought Baltic loan words into the Finnic languages.
Neither Siiriäinen nor Helle knows that the absolute date for the beginning of the Scandinavian Bronze Age was moved forward a century and anchored at about 1700 cal BC with the aid of dendrochronology in the mid-1990s. However, the book’s Bronze Age is at least mercifully short: less than 3 pages. In this space, Siiriäinen takes the opportunity to radically reinterpret the period’s votive deposits as “indications of troubled times and competition between the societies”. With its many errors in such a short space, Siiriäinen’s contribution is quite remarkably bad. In my opinion, its most serious failing is however a complete lack of references, either in the text or in the bibliography at the end of the book. The text is a dead end, offering the reader no hint of where to go next.
After this ordeal, we are mercifully delivered into far more capable hands. Bjørn Myhre covers the Iron Age up through the 8th century AD in 34 pages, to the satisfaction of this reviewer. And then the archaeology stops. Michael Barnes provides a cautious and competent 9 pages of historical linguistics. With the exception of a few pages on material culture by Else Roesdahl, the Viking Period is then entirely the business of historians, and mainly a question of kings, earls, bishops, battles, conquests and nascent states. A lot of it is excellent work, particularly Peter Sawyer’s contributions. Yet it makes me wonder why we bother to dig. (In Antiquity 2007:1, Catherine Hills reports similar impressions of recent syntheses in Early Medieval studies.)
When taking up this book, I had intended to look out for archaeological information collected from two fertile and populous Swedish provinces where I have done research. I wanted to know how much that kind of regional results are worth in the greater scheme of reconstructing the Scandinavian past. As it turned out, there is very little in the book pertaining to my neck of the woods. Indeed, there is very little archaeology here at all. Seen as an interdisciplinary synthesis, the book is a complete failure with the exception of Myhre’s introduction to the Iron Age. Yet it will no doubt be widely read and influential, no matter what a scholar in the field may think of it.
The Cambridge history of Scandinavia. Vol. 1, Prehistory to 1520. Ed. Knut Helle. Cambridge University Press 2003. 920 pp. ISBN 0-521-47299-7.