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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.

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Comments

  1. #1 Mattias Niord
    March 6, 2008

    Indeed, I raised one eyebrow in the best Spock fashion when I read that, but did not really read anything since my radar said it was “uninteresting and just ideas”.
    But if he could explain how the ringforts of Öland would be able to protect anything around Kalmar, bar Bårby, who is situated with a good lookout view over the Kalmar staits.

    You can´t defend something just because you make a lot of walls, when there is a big strait filled with water between what you are supposed to be defending and your defences, and that strait is easily navigable. You would not need forts, you would need ships!

    Anyway, and I guess he has completley missed the fact that the forts are way older than the town he claims to have been there, or does he claim it dates form the late roman period aswell? Now, it would not suprise me if he would make such a claim.

  2. #2 Martin S
    March 6, 2008

    I just want to point out that some of the ringforts were used all through the Iron Age. Except for this I completely agree with you. The only �Birka candidate� in the Kalmar area is of course K�pingsvik on �land. It was quite a substantial settlement/town in the Viking period.

  3. #3 ArchAsa
    March 7, 2008

    Oh for the love of DARWIN! Just when I thought the tide was actually slowly turning on the “anything goes since its prehistory”-shool of thought. This is really the most embarrasing moment in PopArk’s history. One might potentially see a point in publishing an article about it, if they also had given up major space to real researchers to refute the claims. Then it might have been an interesting presentation of different ways of source criticism.

    One wonders what the editorial team will do with a “beautifully illustrated” book published by a racist organization “proving” all swedes are true aryans and anyone else a latecomer? Or indeed one of the many already existing books touting creationist claims. Some of them are coffee table material for sure, which says next to nothing of their actual content.

    That settles it. If I ever write popular articles I’m sending them somewhere else.

  4. #4 Tobias
    March 9, 2008

    Just received my copy of Popark and I must say that the critics seem to have a hard time separating what is written in the book and in Popark.

    There is actually no mention of Uppsala or Öland’s ring forts in the interview. Also, the interview does not further the idea that Ansgar went to Kalmar instead of Björkö. It simply states that the book positions Kalmar as “viking age center” instead of Birka. The author, however, moderates the statement in his reply saying that there were surely several Viking central places, of which he believes Kalmar was one.

    And I don’t fully support Pierre’s criticism regarding “The fact that the archaeological record offers absolutely no support for the idea that the place in question was once was a major town”. If the archaeological record established so far held all the information we would ever need, then any and all fieldwork should immediately be banned since it would only be a waste of money.

    Regarding the book review, I can agree that it seems a bit lenient. However, I do not agree that it offers no criticism. The review states that “Enström points out several places and observations that warrant further investigation, even if not being Ansgar’s Birka, which the author claims.” In the end it is also stated that “the text and its contents would have benefited greatly by a discussion with so called [sic] established archaeologists and place name researchers”. Sound s like criticism to me, albeit not searing. And what is the problem with good illustrations?

    As far as the advertisement on page 24 goes, It is just that, an ad. It briefly presents the stance of the author and is actually quite cleverly formulated since it states that it is directed towards readers who already doubt that Ansgar came to Björkö. Whether that is a major people movement in southeastern Småland, I have no idea.

    In short, as long as the book and Enström’s ideas are not touted as gospel, which in my opinion they aren’t, I see no problem with them being included in Popark. And far from all the books reviewed in Popark have been based on archaeological records of any kind. There are actually other books that are read worthy.

  5. #5 Pierre
    March 9, 2008

    No Tobias, you are right. There are no mention of Uppsala or the Ölandic ringforts in Popark, nor of a lot of other things that Enström writes about. But what on earth is better if Popark not even read the book? Or if they kept their critisism quiet? They gave it room in their mag without any real criticism. To me that is to support it.

    I don´t understand your point saying that all fieldwork would be a waste of mony because the archaeological record gives no support to the idea of a major Viking Age town. A major town would have left some traces, right?? Thera are none. But further fieldwork would be very much welcome, as the archaeological record can give answers to a lot of other questions and not only to if Kalmar had a predesessor of greate importance or not during late Iron Age in certain places pointed out by Enström. This is not about wether there was a settlement or not in the area. I´m sure ther were, but I can find no reason to argue that it was a major town. This is rather about science. Enströms work is not science, if by science you mean the use of proper sources, a proper method and a good portion of source criticism aiming to find out something true about how it was to live in the Kalmar are during late Iron Age.

    Popark still markets the book on several places without taking any (all right, almost any) notice of the facts I complain about. If offering no criticism, then they must be of the opinion that it, all in all, is a good book. Please tell me what is so good about that?

  6. #6 Mary
    March 17, 2008

    Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas legistlatures have all decreed where Hernando DeSoto crossed the Mississippi River. Which, if you look at your map, is a geographical impossibility. But we have to have somewhere to put the signs up.

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