Oldtidsforfattere under arkæologisk kontrol – Om skriftlige kilder og materiel kultur i Sydskandinavien


  • Søren Skriver Tillisch


oldtidsforfattere, skriftlige kilder, materiel kultur, Sydskandinavien


Archaeological “checks” of classical writers Written sources and material culture in Southern Scandinavia

The writings of classical authors have rarely been used in the study of Southern Scandinavian prehistory during the last 50 years. This is primarily because of their misuse in the early part of the 20th century and the professionalisation of archaeology after the Second World War. As the interests of archaeology have moved from a local to a regional scale this situation has changed. However, there has been no theoretical or methodological discussion of the relationship between written sources and material culture in Southern Scandinavia in the past 10-15 years, despite the employment of a wide selection of sources in studies of material culture. This is problematic since much research suggests that great theoretical and methodological care is needed in approaching this problem. Through the study of three examples, the basics of a methodology for studying prehistoric societies such as that existing in Southern Scandinavia during the Iron Age will be laid down. The three examples are: Pytheas the Massaliot and his journey to the amber island of Abalus, a comparison between exchange at the Gudme-Lundeborg ‘emporium’ with Roman-Indian trade and the historical-archaeological emergence of “the Danes”.

Written sources and material culture
The relationship between written sources and prehistoric archaeology is ambivalent. There is nothing like a reference to a written source to enliven a dry treatise! However, a direct relationship between written and archaeological sources is rare. But an archaeological interpretation is pieced together using information from many sources, and given the close relationship with historical science it is not prima facie feasible to leave out historical sources in archaeological treatises. The anthropology of antiquity is also important here since it considered the northern Barbarians to be wilder and more hot-headed and, conversely, more just and free, the further they lived from the Graeco-Roman centre of the world. Similarly, the southern and eastern Barbarians were said to be lazy and live under tyranny – a reference to the climate in which they existed. In light of this, the use of written sources relative to the archaeological record presupposes a careful consideration of textual and historical context (fig.1).

The interrelation of the written sources
The interrelation of the sources may best be described as an equation containing an abundance of unknowns. Overall we can distinguish two main groups of sources: mythological, such as those concerning the myths of the Hyperboreans and of Apollo, and factual historical-ethnographic. The oldest factual source is undoubtedly the fragments of “On the Ocean” by Pytheas the Massaliot, mainly surviving in Strabo and Pliny. Pytheas was followed by a number of lost Hellenistic authors. In the 1st century AD, Pomponius Mela, Pliny and Tacitus all concerned themselves to some degree with lands now recognised as being in Southern Scandinavia, as did Claudius Ptolemaeus in the mid-2nd cen- tury AD. This latter work was, however, based on a compilation produced no later than c. 110 AD by Marinus of Tyros. After Claudius Ptolemaeus there is no direct mention of Southern Scandinavian prior to the 6th century AD writers of Jordanes and Prokopios.

Historiographical survey
In the early days of archaeology, J. J. A. Worsaae, Oscar Montelius and Sophus Müller considered archaeology, to a greater or lesser degree, to be part of historical science, albeit with certain specific core objectives related to material culture. It was only with the arrival of Johannes Brøndsted that archaeology thought itself able to ‘check’ the written sources against the archaeological record. This trend became more pronounced in the latter part of the 20th century as the developments of the 1930s and 1940s were denounced, and processual archaeology reigned supreme from the early 1960s onwards. Ulla Lund-Hansen’s study of Roman imports in Scandinavia changed the situation somewhat and since then teleological projects, like Fra Stamme til Stat in Denmark, the Borre project in Norway and the Svealand project in Sweden, have dominated archaeological research into the Iron Age of Southern Scandinavia. Simultaneous with these developments, other researchers have pointed out the complexity inherent in using a combination of written sources and material culture. More especially, they have shown that Germania libera, a common denomination of non-Roman Germania, is a historiographic misnomer as well as Germania magna and Germania transrhenana, none of which is mentioned in the sources. All this leads to the need for an evaluation of the relationship between written sources and the archaeological record in order to provide a sound basis for a future methodology.

Pytheas the Massaliot and the North
In international research there is no doubt that Pytheas’ visit to Abalus, the amber island, and Ultima Thule far to the north was a real historical event. This has been questioned somewhat by Scandinavian archaeologists on the basis of, as I see it, incorrect readings of the written sources and the lack of any direct evidence of such a journey. Such evidence should, however, not be expected to exist from a single journey and the surviving fragments are sufficient to enable a few archaeological-historical suggestions to be made. For example, identification of the amber island as the former island of Thy in Northwest Jutland, and the idea of amber as fuel as being reminiscent of its use in conjunction with burial rites.

The Romans in India and in Scandinavia – an analogy?
Southern Scandinavia takes up no more than a few lines in Claudius Ptolemaeus’ geographical treatise of the 2nd century AD. Despite this, the meagre information offered has, in recent years, been used in conjunction with the rich sites of Gudme- Lundeborg and Himlingøje to argue for close contacts with the Roman Empire. This trade has been perceived as being analogous to that between Roman Egypt and India. This conclusion is shown to be wrong by a comparison of the archaeological records of Southern Scandinavia and India, and by considering the continuity of sources on India against the fragmentary state and diminishing number of the sources relating to Southern Scandinavia. For example, there are abundant finds of amphorae from India and none from South Scandinavia, and there is at least one major work on Romano-Indian exchange and only fragments relating to the Romano- German equivalent.

The ethnogenesis of the Danes
In the first half of the 6th century AD the Danes are mentioned three times in written sources. Although we will most probably have to disengage completely Jordanes’ creation myth of the Goths from the usual link to the assumed but unproven Gothic migration from Sweden around the turn of the era, this is still an important source. Accordingly, the contemporary archaeological record indicates the appearance of a polity in Southern Scandinavia fairly likely to be connected with the Danes, and maybe even a pax Danorum of the 6th –8th centuries AD.

Cultural historical fragments
It has been shown that it is possible both to falsify and to qualify archaeological interpretations using written sources. It has been demonstrated that Pytheas the Massaliot’s journey was a real historical event, backed up by archaeological evidence. It has also been shown that the Roman imports at Gudme-Lundeborg and Himlingøje do not seem to reflect trade equivalent to that between Rome and India. A direct comparison of the material and historical evidence seems to exclude that possibility. Furthermore, sources from the 6th century AD, together with the material culture, strongly suggest the appearance of a polity centred on the Danes and demonstrate that there is no inherent connection between Jordanes’ Gothic creation myth and the assumed Gothic migration. Methodologically it seems clear that material culture and written sources must be evaluated separately in order to judge the potential for synthesis. Only after careful consideration of the pros and cons can an argument be proposed. A major conclusion is that some modern archaeological interpretations of material culture are based partly on anachronistic readings of the relevant written sources. Accordingly, while there is positive confirmation that the written sources, even those referring to the Early Iron Age of Southern Scandinavia, may be of use in the study of prehistory, there is also a warning that this is not always the case. Very serious contextual considerations must precede any attempts at a synthesis between these two diverse groups of evidence relating to the past.

Søren Skriver Tillisch
Atheneskolen, København





Tillisch, S. S. (2009). Oldtidsforfattere under arkæologisk kontrol – Om skriftlige kilder og materiel kultur i Sydskandinavien. Kuml, 58(58), 213–240. Hentet fra https://tidsskrift.dk/kuml/article/view/26395