Book Review: Cambridge History of Scandinavia

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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.

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So, in other words, even in a work this size, Scandinavian archaeology is treated as "peripheral" and something separated that had nothing to do with the rest of the world, a k a unimportant for the development of western civilization as we know it. Oh, unless it has to do with Vikings (you know, the stupid, hairy, unruly wildmen of the north, who in no way whatsoever influenced or were influenced by anything refined and important, such as Romans - no wonder they were wild, anyhow, since they must not have had women, or at least they are absent from most English-language anthologies...I wonder who all those fat ladies with the big metal circles in Wagner's opera are??), of course. Unfortunately, this is not a surprise, just a variation on the same old theme. Montelius and Thomsen are probably rolling over in their graves! No wonder pseudo archaeology based books become so big - they're the only books that actually cover Scandinavian archeo in an inclusive way as if those godforsaken poor barbarians in the north actually mattered and even contributed something to (pre)history. A shame.
Rant over.

By Christina (not verified) on 01 May 2007 #permalink

Weeeell... No. That's not the problem with this book. It portrays ancient Scandinavians as smart and well-organised. My beef with it is that the book is a half-assed attempt to cover not only written history, but also archaeology.

And that's sort of what I mean. How come "we" always get that treatment, more so than "important" peoples of the past?

By Christina (not verified) on 01 May 2007 #permalink

In this case, "we" treated ourselves that way pretty much without foreign help. Most of the contributors live in Scandinavia.

Do they include Finland in Scandinavia? :)

So Martin, is there a book (in English) you would reccomend. The total Scandinavian history I was taught at school (in Australia) was "That's where the Vikings came from when they raided England... oh, yes, they raided Scotland and France too." Unfortunantly it is neccessary to know the history or archaeological record to be able to know when a book has got it all wrong. As a reenactor I have learnt more since school but still not enough to know which books are reliable. If there's nothing in English, try something with lots of pictures with _good_ captions.

Windy: yes they do, and the North Atlantic islands as well.

Eleanora: I'm sorry, this is the first synthesis in English that I've read.

But I do know of good books in English on shorter bits of the Scandinavian past, such as Malmer's 2002 book The Neolithic of south Sweden. In what period are you mainly interested?

Windy: yes they do, and the North Atlantic islands as well.

There's no single good word for that whole area, I guess.

Nitpicking about whether Finland is "really" in Scandinavia may be fruitless, but if someone is looking for information on the history of the easterly parts of Fennoscandia they might not know that they need to look in a "history of Scandinavia".

In Finnish we have a nice neutral term "Pohjoismaat" meaning the "big five", but translated to English that is "Nordic countries" and it seems that to many Anglo speakers Nordic = Vikings.

Yeah, you're right. The editor says in the intro that the project aims at covering the area known in Scandinavian as Norden, "the North".

Viking and Middle Ages.

I have no good suggestion there. The popular literature on the Viking Period is huge. I haven't read any of it, but reviews suggest that a lot of it is crap.

On suggestion though: if a book on the Vikings features pix of Vendel Period helmets, then it's unlikely to be any good. There is only one Viking Period helmet preserved, the Gjermundbu find, and it's not a flashy piece of work.

A scant regard for prehistory is pretty common in a lot of these grand overview style books. There are plenty for the UK, and they often start with the Roman invasion, as if the previous 10,000 years were somehow a minor blip on the historical radar.

If we are lucky, a bit of bronze and iron age might sneak in, but the pal/mes/neolithic might as well not have happened. This is academically crap, but also strange as a lot of people have an interest in prehistory. If I ever edit one of these volumes, I'll ignore the comings and goings of infinite numbers of kings and queens whose names I usually forget and concentrate on what happened during the overwhelming majority of time since Britain finally became an island (plus all the good stuff before that).

I gather that before metal detecting, the UK used to have a pretty healthy flint-collecting subculture. Grahame Clark, for instance, grew up as a flint anorak. If that's still going on on any measurable scale, then you have a ready-made audience.

Yeah, there are still a good number of people looking out for flint. The handaxe behind the earliest human occupation of northern Europe paper in Nature a year or so ago was found by an amateur collector walking along a beach.

We had managed to miss the stuff for the last couple of hundred years (glossing over the whole Eolith controversy) and then one storm and a fortuitous bit of dog walking and we suddenly have a human presence. Absence of evidence and all that. Obviously it's an exciting find; however it has now led to me spending hours sieving through wet sand on an exposed beach. The pub afterwards makes up for it though.

We had managed to miss the stuff for the last couple of hundred years (glossing over the whole Eolith controversy) and then one storm and a fortuitous bit of dog walking and we suddenly have a human presence. Absence of evidence and all that. Obviously it's an exciting find; however it has now led to me spending hours sieving through wet sand on an exposed beach. The pub afterwards makes up for it though.