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Crossing Boundaries - Insular metalwork in 'Viking' Scandinavia

How did the Insular metalwork that we find in 'Viking Age' Scandinavia get there? What might the social and cultural significance of 'alien' metalwork reuse be among 'Viking' archaeology?

There are relatively large quantities of ‘Insular’ (ie. from the various political kingdoms of the British Isles) decorative metalwork found in 'Viking Age' Scandinavia, especially (although not exclusively) in funerary contexts. This has been broadly noted for some time, starting with the simple cataloging of ‘Insular’ items by Petersen (1940), Bakka (1965), and indeed in Wamers’ (1983) early work.

(Heen-Pettersen, 2014)

(Heen-Pettersen, 2014)

How and why are these items in Scandinavia? Ashby reconceptualizes the cause of the ‘Viking-Age’ as a process of ‘status fever’ (Ashby 2015, 93). ‘Insular’ metalwork obtained through raiding, symbolic of ‘sorties into the unknown’ and masculine prowess, acts as a physical expression of prestige (Ibid., 96). Reuse, for example in brooches at Kaupang noted by Wamers, is understood to deliberately draw on this (Wamers 2011, 96-7). Against Barrett’s simple conception of ‘bride-wealth’, it is the symbolic resonance of these items that is relevant (Barrett 2008, 680-1).

In this, Ashby is contextualising a set of long-established theoretical standpoints within a ‘Viking-Age’ context. The first is the notion of object biographies. The literature for this is vast but Gosden and Marshall summarise succinctly: ‘objects become invested with meaning through the social interactions they are caught up in’ (Gosden and Marshall 1999, 170), and these meanings are ‘composed of shifts of context and perspective’ (Ibid., 174). Heen-Pettersen and Murray recent exploration of ‘material citations’ in the ‘Insular’ Melhus shrine in Norway has validated this approach in the ‘Viking’ context, although its strong ecclesiastical focus is less relevant here (Heen-Pettersen and Murray 2018, 72).

Most models understand trade as the primary tool for the acquisition of object biographies (Gosden and Marshall 1999, 174). Instead, Ashby draws on the work of Helms and the idea of geographical dislocation. Helms conceptualises ‘esoteric knowledge’, a tool used by elites to gain and maintain power, to extend beyond the cosmological into the geographical (Helms 1988, 261). In material-cultural terms, items from physically distant and culturally ‘alien’ lands are taken to impart ‘great pride’ (Ibid., 264). Although the frequency of ‘Insular’ metalwork in Scandinavia suggests we are not dealing exclusively with Helms’ kings, ‘Insular’ styles appear to have had an active and widely understood symbolism across the ‘Viking’ world. As an expression of the ‘Other’, they represent ‘a particular resonance or even ‘magic’ relating to [their] exotic provenance’ (Ashby 2015, 96).

Ashby’s focus on raiding has not received universal support. Mikkelsen instead attributes much of the religious ‘Insular’ metalwork in Scandinavia to the process of Christianisation by missionaries (Mikkelsen 2019, 167). This seems less convincing, given the sheer quantity of early metalwork. However, if a raiding source is contested, the items still hold significance for their geographically and conceptually ‘alien’ origin. Either way, this is an understanding of intellectual and imagined geography: a construction of boundaries, the crossing of which gives the items a symbolic significance.

It is therefore important to conceptualise these items as symbolic of the life-stories of their owners - not as silent objects but active symbols. It's often easy to forget that these items meant something to their owners, and that sense of worth was not necessarily a direct result of their raw material wealth - just as we treasure objects today for their emotional significance and memories, so did the people of history. Are we dealing with a set of lavish and impressive travellers souvenirs?

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Ashby, S. P., 'What Really Caused the Viking Age? The Social Content of Raiding and Exploration', Archaeological Dialogues 22/1 (2015), p. 89-106.

Bakka, E., Some English Decorated Metal Objects Found in Norwegian Viking Graves (Bergen, 1963).

Barrett, J. H., 'What Caused the Viking Age?', Antiquity 82/317 (2008), p. 671-85.

Gosden, C. and Marshall, Y., The Cultural Biography of Objects, World Archaeology 31/2 (1999), p. 169-78.

Heen-Pettersen, A. M. and Murray, G., 'An Insular Reliquary from Melhus: The Significance of Insular Ecclesiastical Material in Early Viking-Age Norway', Medieval Archaeology 62/1 (2018), p. 53-82.

Helms, M. W., Ulysses’ Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance (Princeton, 1988).

Mikkelsen, E., Looting or Missioning: Insular and Continental Sacred Objects in Viking Age Contexts in Norway, (Oxford, 2019).

Wamers, E., 'Continental and Insular Metalwork' in D. Skre (ed.) Things from the Town: Artefacts and Inhabitants in Viking-Age Kaupang (Oslo, 2011), pp. 65-97.

Wamers, E., 'Some Ecclesiastical and Secular Metalwork Found in Norwegian Viking Graves. Peritia 2/1 (1983), p. 277-306.


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