Sweden’s first town was a place called Birka, frequently mentioned in Viking Period written sources such as Rimbert’s book about Bishop Ansgar. The town was on an island in Lake Mälaren near Stockholm. Its remains are extensive and highly visible, and have been the object of constant archaeological attention since the birth of the discipline. Nevertheless, there’s a tendency among local-patriotic amateur scholars all around the Baltic to try to argue that Birka was in fact located in their favourite spot on Earth. This is so common that it’s a running joke in the trade. In the following, my colleague Samian Pierre Petersson (keeper of the AHIMKAR blog) reports on the most recent attempt to move Birka.
Populär arkeologi (“Popular Archaeology”) is Sweden’s only pop-sci archaeology magazine. I had never had reason to complain about it before, but today, as I received the latest issue, I found a reason: a short interview with Stig Enström. He is an amateur scholar who recently published a book claiming that the Swedish town of Kalmar had a predecessor that was one of the most important Viking Period central places of Scandinavia. Enström writes that this Viking Period town was named Birka and was actually the place that Ansgar visited in the 9th century. He also states that the pagan temple of Uppsala was actually situated closely north of Kalmar and that the ring forts of Öland were actually built as a defensive line to protect the town of “Kalmar-Birka”. The book is entirely based on mistreated source materials and circular reasoning where one unproven hypothesis is used as proof for another unproven hypothesis that then is used to support the first hypothesis. The fact that the archaeological record offers absolutely no support for the idea that the place in question was once was a major town is nothing that bothers Enström — or the editor of Populär Arkeologi.
Flipping through the magazine I find that the interview is not the only place where Enström and his book are mentioned. In an advert it is highlighted as “a dispute with earlier research claiming that Birka [in Lake Mälaren] held a key position during the Viking Period and in the Christianisation of Sweden. The author’s research is easy to follow by many beautiful pictures, maps and ancient documents”. The magazine also markets the book in its mail-order book store. On top of that the magazine issue contains a review of the book that offers no critical perspective at all on the many statements in the book. It talks of “the excellent illustrations”, as if good pictures is what makes a research publication important.
Now, what is this? Has the editor of Populär arkeologi lost her mind? The country’s single pop-sci archaeology mag supports unscientific work that has no grounding in the archaeological record whatsoever. It reminds me of the various Bob G. Lind affairs, such as the 2007 scandal when the National Heritage Board gave support to his crazy interpretations of Scanian ancient monuments, presenting them on a level with scientific knowledge. This is the exact same thing. Populär arkeologi tells its readers that unproven speculations are equal to scientific research. Why? I have absolutely no idea as to what might have made a fairly respectable pop-sci magazine suddenly abandon every semblance of source criticism. It’s unacceptable and — well, simply stupid. I can only hope that the mag will shape up and offer its readers an excuse for inflicting unfounded speculation on innocent people who paid good money to read the crap.