Mats P. Malmer in 1989, holding a miniature replica of a Bronze Age sword. Photograph by Dr Rune Edberg, published with kind permission.
Yesterday, 18 October, was Swedish archaeology professor Mats P. Malmer’s 86th birthday. Sadly he passed away on 3 October. I wrote a brief appreciation when I heard the news. Here’s a longer one by Anders Andrén and Evert Baudou, both professors of archaeology and members (like Malmer himself) of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters. Andrén is the current holder of Malmer’s chair in Stockholm, having succeeded the man’s successor Åke Hyenstrand. I’ve translated the obituary from Dagens Nyheter for 16 October with the authors’ permission.
Mats P Malmer
A brilliant archaeologist
By Anders Andrén and Evert Baudou
Former professor of archaeology at the University of Stockholm, Mats P. Malmer of Lidingö, has passed away after long illness, shortly before his 86th birthday. He is survived by his wife Brita, professor emerita, and his daughter Elin with family.
Mats Petersson Malmer grew up in an intellectual and debate-friendly teacher’s family in Höganäs. After high school graduation from the reallinjen program and military service during the war, he embarked on studies of the humanities in Lund with Latin, pedagogics and history. Thanks to inspiring teachers, archaeology caught his interest, and he took a fil.lic. degree in that subject in 1953. Six years later, Malmer left Lund with his family to head the Stone and Bronze Age division of the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm. During his museum years he defended his doctoral thesis in Lund in 1962 and was immediately awarded the title of docent as well. From 1970 he worked as a professor of archaeology, first in Lund until 1973 and then in Stockholm until 1987.
Malmer was that rare thing, a brilliant practical and theoretical archaeologist in one person. Already in the late 1940s he showed, investigating the Medieval hospital of Åhus, how important the details of the find context is for archaeological interpretation. He always emphasised that advances in archaeology, in the shape of new horizons of understanding, are the result both of new finds and of new thoughts. Malmer himself was greatly influenced by analytical philosophy, not least Wittgenstein, as is plainly visible in his doctoral thesis Jungneolithische Studien from 1962. It treats the Neolithic Battle Axe Culture of Sweden and Norway and its European connections. This work forms a critical reappraisal of ethnic interpretations in the archaeology of the inter-war years. Instead of equating archaeological cultures with separate peoples, Malmer argued that what lay behind different material expressions was the diffusion of ideas about material culture and varying local conditions. But the doctoral thesis was equally a methodological attack on what Malmer called “impressionism” in archaeology, that is, the lackadaisical way in which many archaeologists classified their material. He demanded clear definitions of basic categories such as time, space and typology. Thus he set the stage for a theoretical and methodological debate that would later be named New Archaeology in the Anglo-American tradition.
Already the year after his dissertation Malmer continued to challenge archaeological impressionism in Metodproblem inom järnålderns konsthistoria, and later in work on Bronze Age rock carvings as well. Nevertheless, the culturally complex Neolithic remained closest to his heart. He returned to problems treated in his dissertation with excavations of a pile dwelling at Alvastra in the 1970s, and as late as 2002 he summarised his ideas about the period in The Neolithic of south Scandinavia.
He was elected a member of several Swedish and foreign scholarly societies, including the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Society of Antiquaries and the British Academy. It is symptomatic that Malmer is the only post-war Scandinavian portrayed in The Great Archaeologists from 1999.
To many people, Mats Malmer appeared quiet, almost retiring, but in a smaller circle of friends he was very friendly, interested and debate-happy. His pedagogical gifts made him an appreciated yet demanding teacher. As a researcher and debater he was analytically sharp but also curious, avid and deeply interested both in the present and the distant past. Throughout his life, Malmer remained true to his critical realist view of knowledge. He sought the human and multifaceted truth about prehistory, at the intersection of the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Thus the post-modernist currents of our time were entirely foreign to him. He felt that they opened the door to a relativism and political overinterpretations that he associated with the archaeology of the 1930s, ideas he spent his entire scholar’s life combating.