Monday, June 19, 2006

Schleswig and Hedeby

As I begin writing this entry, I'm waiting in the sunshine at Schleswig railway station in northwest Germany, near the Danish border. The town is a tiny place in beautiful rural surroundings, and judging from the number of empty shop spaces and houses, it's dwindling further.

I came here for a two-day conference and stayed on over Sunday for the Viking Period monuments. The area has been a contested border zone between Jutland and various Continental powers at least since the 7th century, as shown for example by the great wall-and-dyke of the Danevirke. The last time the area changed hands was only in 1864 when the Prussians took it from the Danes. Also, it's a topographically convenient spot to cross the base of Jutland from the North Sea to the Baltic or vice versa. So it's no surprise to find a heavily fortified 9th to 11th century town here: Hedeby.

The modern name of the parish is Haddeby, which progresses organically from the Viking Period pronunciation, Hæidhabyr. But the town site is known to modern Germans as Haithabu. This is an artefact of the 16-character runic alphabet: you can't write Hæidhabyr very well with it, so a runestone erected by one of the local magnates calls the place HITHABU. This is similar to the way that the Viking Period Biærkey via the Latin Birca became the modern name Birka, referring to the town site on Björkö near Stockholm which is actually the same word.

Compared to this sister town on Björkö, Hedeby offers the modern visitor a much larger museum, a more impressive, really huge town wall connected to the Danevirke, but less in the way of barrow cemeteries. Small excavations and a lot of professional metal detecting are currently taking place. Us Swedes should be metal-detecting the Björkö site too! But then again, we haven't published the early 90s excavations yet...

Bundesland Schleswig-Holstein has a very rich archaeological record. Its Bronze Age and Roman Iron Age are second to none. The conference I attended was on the great war booty sacrifices of the latter period. In the 2nd to the 6th centuries, people in the area sacrificed the gear of successfully repelled invading armies in holy lakes that later became peat bogs with perfect preservation. Most have been found in modern Denmark. But the southernmost one, Thorsbjerg, was found in Schleswig-Holstein, just north of Süderbrarup. It's unusual as it contains the equipment not of Norwegian or Swedish invaders, but of people attacking from the south, the Altmark, near the Roman border. This shows in the unusual finds, such as the silver mask.

The mask has been much discussed: is it part of a Roman parade helmet? According to Thomas Fischer of Cologne this is unlikely: they weren't made of thick solid silver like the Thorsbjerg mask. Instead, he suggests that it is the re-worked face of a 3rd century cult statue, looted from a temple in Gaul. This would likely make it a later relative of the recently found bronze mask from Västra Vång in Blekinge, Sweden. I like this interpretation, as it wraps up a lot of loose threads.

The Thorsbjerg finds became mixed up in Denmark's loss of Schleswig-Holstein, and ended up at various German and Danish museums. Currently, they have been re-united at the Landesmuseum in Schleswig for re-study and a more comprehensive re-publication. Led by Jørgen Ilkjær and Claus von Carnap Bornheim, young doctoral students are returning to the finds from Nydam, Vimose, Kragehul, Thorsbjerg and Ejsbøl, analysing them armed with the knowledge gained from the recent work at Illerup Ådal. Very cool.

Sweden has at least two of these war booty bog sites, Skedemosse on Öland and Finnestorp in Västergötland. The low known number is probably due to our abundant forests. The Danes have little woodland, so historically they have burnt a lot of bog peat, and so they have made a lot of bog finds. I was the only Swede at the conference. I told the other attendees that the rest of Sweden's research scholars were unfortunately busy reading Michel Foucault. In Sweden, I am known as a neo-positivist with little more than scorn for data-divorced archaeological theory. In Germany and Denmark, people remark on my obvious and incisive theoretical leanings. But really, Dear Reader, given the choice to read the collected works of either Foucault or Ilkjær, can there be any doubt as to what I'd prefer?

Now I'm in Neumünster, of Wachholtz Verlag and Frühmittelalterliche Studien fame. I'm going to Lübeck via Bad Oldeslohe, and thence to the old Hansa town's disused military airstrip from which the cheap Irish airline will whisk me to Skavsta. Dear Reader, I sign off at 10:39 aboard a commuter train that sounds like a long-haul diesel truck.

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Anonymous Henrik said...

I'd prefer Jørgen Ilkjær to Monsieur Foucault anytime, except for reading myself to sleep. You are *not* alone.

26 June, 2006 14:43  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks, I know. But our philosophically challenged colleagues are very loud and very certain of their own importance. I find it galling.

26 June, 2006 16:39  
Anonymous Henrik said...

philosophically challenged! *LOL*

29 June, 2006 13:35  

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