How Have My Ideas About the Late Iron Age Changed?

23 years ago I started my undergraduate studies, and my hugely inspiring main teacher was Göran Burenhult, who had written our main textbook. Now I'm teaching a very similar freshman archaeology course for the first time, and the main textbook is again one written by Göran Burenhult. This two-volume work is titled Arkeologi i Norden and appeared in 1999. At Göran's invitation I contributed an article for the second volume about aristocratic culture in the 5th through the 8th centuries.

I haven't re-read my article in a long time. But very timely, my friend Kristina – who is writing a book about Old Uppsala – asked me the other day to look my piece over and tell her if there are any points I've reconsidered over the past 14 years. As it turns out, there are. Two big ones and a number of small ones.

  • I hadn't yet realised that the shift from the Migration Period to the Vendel / Merovingian Period is qualitatively different from all other period shifts during the Iron Age (or indeed the start and end of the Age!). It was a highly dramatic affair. The start of the archaeological Migration Period in Scandyland had been due to indirect knock-on effects of the Hunnic invasion of southern Europe in AD 375. The start of the Merovingian Period was instead largely due to a global atmospheric dust cloud (of volcanic or meteoritic origin) that caused several years of famine and extreme cold from AD 536 onward. Pollen diagrams across Scandinavia indirectly document huge population loss. This coincided with the Plague of Justinian in AD 541–542. Yet about the same time, political and military order was restored on the Continent after the great migrations, ending the Scandinavian golden age of plunder that the region's poets would reminisce about for centuries to come. The Early Vendel Period elite of the Lake Mälaren area in fact staged a violent and sustained campaign of iconoclasm against the memorials of their Migration Period forebears, smashing their picture stones to pieces, looting their chamber graves and supressing runic literacy.
  • My unsourced statement that there was no Swedish realm before the 12th century was wrong. At least from the start of the Merovingian Period, the tribal Swedes had a main king although his realm was poorly organised and far smaller than High Medieval Sweden. About AD 1000 this realm formed a federation with the neighbouring Geatish provinces when Olof Ericsson skotkonungr was elected joint king of both. This led over the course of the 11th century to the organisation of the federation into hundreds/härad, to the establishment of the network of Husby royal manors and to a much tightened organisation for the ledung royal naval levy. If by definition any Swedish realm worth that name must include the Geatish area, then Sweden begins with the election of King Olof.

Then a few details.

  • The period shift to the Merovingian took place in the 530s, not the 520s, as I wrote.
  • The western Roman empire fell in a protracted process during the Migration Period: this was not an event about the time of that period's start, as I wrote.
  • Well organised Scandy warbands went to the ailing East Empire and helped extract solidus gold payments in person. Those coins did not reach us though down-the-line trade or gift-giving, as I wrote.
  • The classic period of image-rich picture stones on Gotland probably lies mainly in the 9th century, not the 8th, as I wrote.
  • The helmets handed out by Frankish kings to their vassals were of the Spangenhelm type, not the Scandy Vendel/Valsgärde/Sutton Hoo type with embossed sheet metal panels, as I wrote.
  • I shouldn't have made that unsourced statement about Vandal material culture in Tunisia being recognisably Scandinavian. I didn't know for sure in 1999 that it was, and I still don't know.

For more about this period, download my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats as an Open Access free PDF.

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On one hand the Plague of Justinian could have been faciliated by malnutrition leading to loss of disease resistence, on the other hand it could have been a new pathogen. Unlike the Black Death [a disease now extinct but related to extant pathogens), we do not know which pathogen it was. Do any of you have comments on this issue?

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 18 Sep 2013 #permalink

I would like to hear a discussion with you and Anna Lihammer on this subject :-)

By Thomas Ivarsson (not verified) on 18 Sep 2013 #permalink

Yes, history needs to be rewritten.

By Faisal Saya (not verified) on 19 Sep 2013 #permalink

speaking of rewriting, theTexas School Board are at it again (groan).

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 19 Sep 2013 #permalink

(OT, conditions at universities) Death of an adjunct professor, left in abject penury.…
“As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne's president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”
Holy . F*cking. Sh*t.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 20 Sep 2013 #permalink

"...While present-day Scandinavian populations are intermediate between the two groups, consistent with admixture, they appear genetically slightly closer to Neolithic hunter-gatherers than Neolithic farmers. This suggests a model where initial colonization by agricultural populations was followed by later admixture with hunter-gatherer populations or gene flow from other regions. "
-Makes sense. The agricultural practices of your original territory may not work well in the new territory, so you would benefit from interacting with the local hunter-gatherers. Lots of cultural, linguistic and genetic admixture..

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 20 Sep 2013 #permalink