Posted by: Marte Spangen | October 27, 2015

Without a trace?

Sámi culture in the Viking Age as presented at the Swedish History Museum

Sámi culture in the Viking Age as presented at the Swedish History Museum

My most recent article “Without a trace? The Sámi in the Swedish History Museum” is just being published in very good company in a special issue of Nordic Museology devoted to “Rethinking Sámi cultures in museums”. The article is a reworked and extended version of my presentation at the Viking conference “Skandinavia: En, tre, eller mange?” in Oslo last December. It features the following abstract:

“Around 2005, the Swedish History Museum (SHM) in Stockholm reworked their Vikings exhibition, aiming to question simplistic and erroneous understandings of past group identities. In the process, all references to the Sámi were removed from the exhibition texts. This decision has been criticised by experts on Sámi pasts. In this article, it is argued that we can talk about a Sámi ethnic identity from the Early Iron Age onwards. The removal of references to the Sámi in the exhibition texts is discussed accordingly, as well as the implicit misrepresentations, stereotypes and majority attitudes that are conveyed through spatial distribution, choice of illustrations, lighting, colour schemes and the exhibition texts. Finally, some socio-political reasons for the avoidance of Sámi issues in Sweden are suggested, including an enduring colonialist relation to this minority.”

You can download the article here, and you can order the whole issue on the Nordic Museology webpage. Comments are, as always, very welcome.

I would like to thank all the readers of this blog for following me through another eventful year – with only half a year to go before my thesis has to be done, I hope 2016 will be similarly productive!

In the meantime; Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!


Posted by: Marte Spangen | October 7, 2015

The very, very last final fieldwork

Local historian Ragnvald Christenson showed me to this highly interesting stone circle at Haukelifjell and told me about the use of and ancient travel routes in this high mountain area in Telemark county

Local historian Ragnvald Christenson showed me to this highly interesting stone circle at Haukelifjell and told me about the use of and ancient travel routes in this high mountain area in Telemark county

Ok, I know I said last years campaign was “the very last fieldwork”, but four highly interesting observations in Telemark county lured me back onto the road last week.

One of the structures, the so-called “Munkekjerka” in Eidanger, proved difficult to find with the description I had available. In the high mountain area of Haukelifjell I had better luck, as I did not only find the stone circles reported on but an additional two structures of interest. These were located close to the main road over the mountain and in immediate vicinity of a shieling, on dry spots in a bog area. I suspect they have to do with hay stacking and shepherding. This is an explanation I think is likely for some of the structures I have looked at in northern Norway too.

However, for another structure further up in the mountain this is an unlikely explanation. According to my guide, local historian Ragnvald Christenson, the grass on the bog beside the circle would not be suitable for harvesting. Besides, the structure is rather massive with a wall of about 11 m in diameter, including some large boulders and enclosing an uneven inner surface with large differences in height. It is situated in steeply sloping terrain at the bottom of a hill beside the mentioned bog, just beside the famous Ålmannvegen, which crosses the bog. This travel route has been used for ages and is also known as a pilgrimage road in the Middle Ages.

The similarities of this structure with northern Norwegian circular offering sites have been spotted before and some have argued that the stone circles at Haukelifjell could also be Sami. Telemark county is usually not considered a Sami area but Sami reindeer herding was performed in these mountains in the 19th century. Some have wondered if there may have been a Sami population here in older times too.

I would, however, rather focus on reasons for building this sort of structure, than the ethnic origin of the builders. Not because the latter aspect is not relevant and interesting, but because I have some doubt about the offering site explanation for stone circles like this. Whoever built them, I would like to find a plausible explanation for the rather consistent size, placement in the terrain and general construction of such structures from Finnmark in the north to (at least) Telemark in the south.

It has been suggested it could be a shooting blind but the topography is not particularly convenient for hunting, and why would anyone put so much effort into building a large stone circle when what is usually needed is a small stone wall? Another suggestion has been that such stone circles could be temporary dwelling places for travelers but again the size is peculiar and unnecessary, the wall is too rough and irregular to be the foundation for a larger construction, and the interior seems to uneven and steep to be suitable for dwelling. The connection to the thoroughfare could still be significant, and perhaps is the quite consistent placement of such structures at the bottom of hills or hillocks a clue. Or is the relation to the bog here important?

These questions will probably give me a headache over the next few months, so it will be nice to think back to a lovely autumn day in the mountains, doing the very, very last fieldwork of the project.

Posted by: Marte Spangen | September 13, 2015

Ruralia XI in Clervaux, Luxembourg

Some of the Ruralia XI participants by the well of St. Willibrord in Rindschleiden, Luxembourg, a source allegedly "brought out with his miraculous stick". Outdoor sermons are still held here once a year, and the park around it has recently been redesigned with a designated area for spreading ashes.

Some of the Ruralia XI participants by the well of St. Willibrord in Rindschleiden, Luxembourg. The source was allegedly “brought out with his miraculous stick”. Outdoor sermons are still held here once a year, and the park around it has recently been redesigned with i.a. a designated area for spreading ashes.

The academic autumn season of conferences has started and I spent last week in Luxembourg to attend the 11th conference of the rural archaeology network Ruralia. About 60 researchers from all over Europe met to discuss various aspects of “Religious places, cults and rituals in medieval rural environment”. I presented my project in a paper called “Sami circular offering sites – medieval religious anomalies or a modern myth?” and received many useful questions and comments, as well as some very good tips about similar structures other places in Europe and researchers I should contact about these.

Fantastic frescoes from the first half of the 15th century inside the church of Rindschleiden. The photo does not do them justice!

Fantastic frescoes from the first half of the 15th century inside the church of Rindschleiden. The photo does not do them justice!

The other conference papers covered a wide range of topics from rock-cut graves in Portugal to pilgrim churches for parents with deceased children in Swtitzerland, offering caves in Latvia, hermitages in the UK, and many other interesting localities and approaches to the main subject of religion, cult, and rituals at the outskirts in Europe. In addition we got to see some of Luxembourg and its sites of religious significance during several excursions. Unfortunately I could not stay for the whole program, but I am very happy I got the chance to participate in this highly interesting and enjoyable event. Many thanks to the organizers for a great week in Clervaux!

Posted by: Marte Spangen | June 6, 2015

Two new articles out

Recent coins found in a circular offering site in Storfjord, Troms. They were redeposited after the investigation.

Recent coins found in a circular offering site in Storfjord, Troms. They were redeposited after the investigation.

Research and article writing are time consuming and sometimes frustratingly slow and meticulous processes, so it is always satisfying to finally see something as a finished product. This week has been rewarding in that sense, as two articles I have co-written over the last year have been published online:

New Users and Changing Traditions – (Re)Defining Sami Offering Sites was co-written with Tiina Äikäs as a further development of our joint effort to explore the thematics in a conference paper for EAA in September (see older blogpost). The full text of the article is so far only available online for subscribers, but it will be printed in the forthcoming issue of European Journal of Archaeology.

The article deals with the reuse and re(defining) of Sámi offering sites by a range of different stakeholders, including local Sámi and non-Sámi, academics, tourist entrepeneurs, neo-pagans, etc. We discuss how archaeologists can mediate the stories of the Sámi pasts these actors promote with the archaeological narrative about the offering sites. The article includes two case studies that relate to the Sámi circular offering sites, as well as four case studies concerning Sámi offering sites in Finland.

Animal offerings at the Sámi offering site of Unna Saiva – Changing religious practices and human–animal relationships is the result of a cooperation with Tiina, Anna-Kaisa Salmi, and Markus Fjellström, the last two whom have performed osteological and isotope analyses respectively on the bone assemblage from the offering site Unna Saiva.

The bones were collected during an excavation in the early 20th century, together with around 600 metal objects including jewelry, coins, arrowheads, etc. In later research, the artefacts have been given most attention, and the bone assemblage has never been systematically investigated before. Hence, our study provides very interesting new information about the offering practices at this site, concerning its earliest dates, the species involved, the choice of individuals in terms of sex and age, what body parts were deposited, and whether the animals were fed. Based on these aspects we discuss changes in the offering traditions as related to the transition from hunting to reindeer herding in the area. The article is published in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and is available online for free until 23 July 2015 (and for subscribers after this date).

Posted by: Marte Spangen | June 4, 2015

Cultural Heritage and Identity

Slightly random illustration photo from a Copenhagen café; it is always good to have a fork at hand when the lights are (too) low...

Slightly random illustration photo from a Copenhagen café; it is always good to have a fork at hand when the lights are (too) low…

I just got back from Copenhagen where I made a brief visit at the university yesterday to participate in the PhD course Cultural Heritage and Identity. It was led by dr. Marie Louise Stig Sørensen from the University of Cambridge, who also gave a keynote lecture. The discussions afterwards, with participants from nine different subject areas and various countries, revolved around complex heritage issues concerning definition, value, destruction, conflict, and other current topics in heritage studies. The position of heritage and identity between materialty and discourse was one main turning point of the debates.

Materiality is a hot topic in the social sciences right now, including in archaeology, though archaeologists have obviously always been concerned with things, such as objects, monuments, find contexts, landscapes, etc. Archaeologists have, however, also been following the same theoretical trend as the humanities in general over the last 30 years or so by focusing on language and text as methaphors for various aspects of (material) culture. This has now turned to a concern with the very specific ways we relate to things (see e.g. B. Olsen 2010: In Defense of Things). In a heritage context “the material turn” entails more focus on the physical and sensory qualities of the monuments, places, and objects of cultural heritage, and how these affect the actions and thoughts of the people around them.

These are not exactly questions that are “solved” in a short afternoon, but yesterday´s course certainly inspired further thinking and writing, both on the materiality aspects of the sites I am studying, and how they are defined, by whom, and why.

Posted by: Marte Spangen | April 17, 2015

Museum as third space

Greetings from Paris! I have spent this week in the metropolis with the Nordic research school in archaeology, Dialogues with the past, to participate in the very interesting course “Museum as third space”. The course focused on a rethinking of the museum and how it can position itself as a cutting-edge research institution based on the specific advantages of housing a range of disciplines, collections, and material installations and of having a direct relation to an audience.

Museology is not my primary field of interest in the PhD, but the thematics is very relevant for the study I have done of the exhibition of Sami pasts in the Swedish National History Museum (see older blogpost), and the theories that we discussed during this week are ideas about the world, society, and research that can be applied to a range of archaeological practices and other subjects.

Holly, Chris and Sanne discussing the storyboard for our app

Holly, Chris and Sanne discussing the storyboard for our app

The week started with an interesting and fun app production workshop with Sara Perry, and continued with lectures by and discussions with the organizers Brita Brenna and Peter Bjerregaard, key speakers Rane Willerslev and Irit Rogoff, and not least all the participating PhD students from different parts of the Nordic countries and Germany. Both lecturers and students represented a variety of disciplines where museum studies are performed. This multidisciplinary input was very rewarding, in part because it showed how much we have in common across such borders and in part because it constituted what I understand as third space; the meeting between and negotiation of different agendas and views.

I have not yet had time to digest the massive amount of information and impressions, but the week has certainly given food for thought. New topics and theorists are now lining up on my reading list and the discussions have given insight into new research areas and possible tracks of exploration in my own research. Many thanks to the organizers and all the participants for making the course such a motivating experience!

Posted by: Marte Spangen | January 12, 2015

Article available online


Happy new year! The first article relating to this project, “It could be one thing or another” – on the construction of an archaeological category, where I outline the history of the concept of Sámi circular offering sites and some reasons why I think this term and interpretation is in need of a critical review, is now available online here on the blog or through The article was first printed in Fennoscandia Archaeologica in 2013, but it has so far only been available in print due to copyright issues. I hope it will now find a wider audience. Feedback will be much appreciated!

Posted by: Marte Spangen | December 22, 2014

In exchange

This year´s Christmas greeting goes out from my hometown Løten in southern Norway, which is known, among other things, for its many Iron Age grave mounds.

This year´s Christmas greetings goes out from my hometown Løten in southern Norway, which is known, among other things, for its many Iron Age grave mounds.

The end of the year is approaching, and I would like to thank everyone who has followed the blog through the last 12 busy months of writing, conferences, courses, fieldwork, archive digging and a lot of traveling. I very much appreciate all the comments, questions and input I have had concerning the project and related issues, both here and in other contexts.

Hopefully this will continue in 2015, and as a meassure to achieve that, I will be trying out a new context after new-year: from 5 January you will find me at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History (IAKH) at the University of Oslo, where I will stay for six months as an Erasmus exchange student.

While Oslo is not unknown territory for me, I have never studied or worked at IAKH, so I look forward to be included in this interdisciplinary research environment and to be able to draw on all the knowledge my colleagues there have about archaeology and history in Norway. In addition, a lot of source material will be more readily available when I am based in Oslo. All in all, there will be no more excuses for not getting that monography done…

Before that, however, there will be time for a few days off in winter wonderland. With the photo above I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Posted by: Marte Spangen | November 23, 2014

Scandinavia: one, three, or many?

Visitors at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm studying the showcase with objects from the Unna Saiva offering site in northern Sweden

Visitors at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm studying objects from the Unna Saiva offering site in northern Sweden, displayed in the “Vikings” exhibition. Photo: M. Spangen ©

Next week I am off to Oslo to participate in an interesting conference about Viking Age identities in Scandinavia, Skandinavia: en, tre, eller mange? (“Scandinavia: one, three, or many?”), on the 3rd to the 5th of December.

The organizers are the Viking Age researchers´ group at the Museum of Cultural History, and the conference is the second of three events that explore various aspects of Viking Age research. This time the main question is how homogenous Scandinavia was by the end of the first milennium AD, and how different it was from neighbouring areas. Was there a common Scandinavian culture and societal structure or were there more regional differences than today, depending on various contacts and networks within and reaching outside of Scandinavia? In what way have the national and patriotic attitudes of the last two centuries affected our perception of a common “viking culture” as opposed to regional variations? And are the perceived differences in the Viking Age in the three Scandinavian countries really a result of different research traditions in these countries?

I have been invited to talk in the session Etnisitet: Vi, dere, og dem? (“Ethnicity: we, you, and them?”), and will give a paper called Samiske offerplasser eller “offer i de djupa skogarna”. Vikingtidens samiske identiteter i Norge og i Sverige (“Sami offering sites or “offerings in the deep forests”. Viking Age Sami identities in Norway and in Sweden.”). Here I will discuss some real and some perceived differences in Sami offering sites in Norway and Sweden, including how and why the discussion about ethnicity and identity in relation to this topic differs between the two countries.

The conference will be held in the Scandiavian languages, but hopefully the contributions will be made available as articles in English sometime in the near future. Read more about the conference and download the full program here (in Norwegian).

Posted by: Marte Spangen | September 7, 2014

EAA coming up!

Runepinne Offerholmen

In a couple of days I am off to Istanbul, Turkey, to attend EAA, or more specifically; the 20th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists.

Together with Ester Oras, Tõnno Jonuks, Martti Veldi and Tiina Äikäs, I am hosting the session “T06S016 Sacred Nature: Site Biographies, Research, Ethics” on Thursday 11 Sep, chairing part of the session. We are really pleased to have a full-day program of interesting lectures with a wide chronological and geographical scope.

I will also be presenting a paper on behalf of Tiina Äikäs and myself, “New users and changing traditions – (re)defining Sami offering sites”. In the paper we explore what factors impact the creation and redefinition of Sami offering sites through time, and how we as archaeologists handle new users and uses when trying to define such sites. See complete abstract below. The full program for the conference can be downloaded here.

Abstract: “New users and changing traditions – (re)defining Sami offering sites”
Tiina Äikäs and Marte Spangen
Thursday 11 Sep 2014, 17.00-17.20

Some Sámi offering sites have been used for over a thousand years. During this time the offering traditions have changed and new people have started using the places. Contemporary archaeological finds give evidence of both continuing traditions and new meanings attached to these sites, as well as to sites that were probably not originally used for rituals in the Sámi ethnic religion. In some cases the authenticty of the place seems to lie in the stories and current beliefs more than in a historical continuity or any specifically sacred aspects of the topography or nature it is situated in. Today´s new users include e.g. local (Sámi) people, tourists, and neo-pagans. This paper discusses what informs these users both about what places are offering sites and about how they should relate to them. What roles do scholarly tradition, heritage tourism, and internal cultural have in (re)defining Sámi offering sites and similarly what roles do “appropriate” rituals have in ascribing meaning to particular places? How do we mediate wishes for multivocality with our professional opinions when it comes to defining sacredness?

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