Some time ago I received a gift from my aunt, bought at the County Museum of Gotland, a limestone island in the Baltic with an extremely rich archaeological record. The gift was a sponge-fabric dish rag, and I found its decoration slightly astonishing.
In the 5th through the 12th centuries, Gotland was home to a unique tradition of commemorative picture stones, comparable only to those of Pictland, with which they do not appear to have had any actual connection. The early stones are dominated by abstract imagery that has been compared to Visigothic Christian art in Spain, and may hint at an early influence of Arianic Christianity on the island. It is highly likely that the symbolism of these stones was strongly religious. And there, on my dish rag, was one of these sacred designs! Now, I’m a materialistic atheist, but I’d still find it in pretty poor taste if someone started to make dish rags with a picture of the Crucifixion or calligraphy of the Islamic creed. And the picture-stone dish rag is pretty much comparable to that.
Today I received a letter from my friend Howard Williams, who had visited the same museum shop and found another version of the dish rag.
I have just returned from my first trip to Gotland where I enjoyed a stimulating visit to Gotland’s county museum in Visby where I saw, among other things, some of the famous Picture Stones. A great museum and some interesting displays.
On the way out, I scanned the shop for souvenirs. As you know, it is quite common now for museums to have souvenirs inspired by archaeological finds as well as replicas for tourists to buy. These often vary considerably in quality and accuracy. Sometimes with an air of smug academic superiority, I chuckle to myself at the ridiculously un-authentic nature of some of these artefacts, and other times I just scowl at the prices. Others I like, usually if they are cheap, make not attempt at being authentic, and have a function of some kind. [...]
However, there was one souvenir in the landsmuseet in Gotland that made me laugh out loud. Among the many picture stones on Gotland, there are reasonably frequent representations of women, and when they appear, they are as stylised ‘valkyries’, holding a cup, or driving wagons, presumably associated with afterlife beliefs. An exception is the ‘snake-witch’ from the picture stone from När. This is a rare and unique depiction of a supposed-female, legs apart, with elaborate hair or headdress and holding two snakes. Just the kind of image for discussions of empowered female ritual specialists in late Iron Age Scandinavia by gender archaeologists! I am surely right?
So what object was selected by the lansmuseet for this striking image to be adorned upon for tourists?
At the time, this really amused me, so my question is this. Is this a classic example of marketing people making a hilarious un-PC gender-blooper? (“yeah, let’s tick a female image on a dish-cloth, that will sell!”). Is it an example of entrenched chauvinism in Swedish society (stick a female image on a domestic item) or a deliberate tongue-in-cheek post-modern joke by a museum archaeologist for those ‘in-the-know’ to smile at? In any case, it made me laugh and I thought it would amuse/annoy/interest you guys! It is one of many aspects of Swedish museums that I have seen recently where I have thought, is this a joke or is this serious, or is this just plain thoughtless and bad? Or is it just me!
I would love to hear your views and mean no disrespect to the very interesting museum. Martin: you know I am not a blogger myself, but if you think it is blog item, please do state how much I liked the museum itself…
The picture stone from Smiss in När dates from the 6th century and is extremely difficult to interpret because it is unique. The statuettes of snake-handling women from Minoan Crete cannot be relevant here because of the distance in time and space. If the Smiss snake handler is interpreted as a male with horns, then you can compare him to Romanised depictions of the Celtic god Herne/Cernunnos, but it’s still quite a stretch to look for parallels in Gaul of the first few centuries. Nothing in Norse mythology offers any explanation.
I believe that the Smiss person is actually a very rare frontal depiction of a woman with looped braids. This hair style is commonly depicted in profile in later art — such as the Kaga gold foil figure die. And there is one or two later profile depictions of women handling snakey things.
But anyway, to reply to Howard’s question: this is a blooper, not a symptom of patriarchal misogyny. The museum people have probably looked for interesting motifs on the picture stones and taken whatever caught their fancy. There are many women on the stones, and the typical version has not to my knowledge been put on a dish rag.
Still, I do find it weird for the Gotlanders to put the most potent imagery of their cultural heritage on something so close to toilet paper. This is not a case of WASP museum curators treating Native American or Australian Aboriginal religious art in a ham-fisted way — this is Gotlanders using their own archaeological record in a strange fashion.
My friend Ing-Marie Back Danielsson comments,
Unfortunately, I am used to seeing representations of female bodies — modern as well as pre- or post-modern in their excecution — in a variety of contexts. That does not mean I like them all.
About the dish-cloth with the Smiss woman. I do not know about the UK but in Sweden dish-cloths have become popular gifts: you can buy them, for instance, at trendy design centres with different kinds of motifs. I have seen Christmas trees with the text “Happy Holidays”, Marilyn Monroe etc. I do not think I have seen a supposedly cool dude appear on a dish cloth. In this particular case it is the thought of pressing the female crotch against whatever dirty materials that need to be cleaned that could be seen as upsetting. Adding to that is the fact that the stone could once have been a kind of grave monument. Would you like to have a tomb stone (of a relative perhaps) on your dish-cloth? I know I wouldn’t.
The female crotch is used in other contexts as well. I have seen plenty of shoe removers (they come in metal and you use them to take off your shoes) where you put the heel of the foot/shoe in a woman’s crotch who has her legs far apart. And the breasts of women are used for key rings (anti-stress-press thing available at the store Teknikmagasinet), and they are also sold as table decorations in rough cement — for the handy man not too interested in light/smooth materials?
I guess the museum tries to be trendy by selling dish cloths. Period. It would be nice — for a change — to see and experience a museum not being a typical proponent of our society (you all know the -isms I am referring to). Some brains to the museums please. Do they have dish cloths with male genitalia? How about using the Rällinge figurine as a model? No? It appears to have been rubbed quite enthusiastically already judging by its gigantic phallus. Do I dare mention the drawings of Mohammed in Danish newspapers?
Representations in diverse forms, shapes, and executions seemingly always generate emotions of different kinds. Is it always the privilege of the modern middle-aged Western male heterocentric, so keen to defend democratic values, to be the one upsetting instead of being upset?