Book Review

BJØRNAR OLSEN, PRZEMYSLAW URBANCZYK & COLIN AMUNDSEN (ed.). Hybrid spaces: medieval Finnmark and the archaeology of multi-room houses (Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture Series B Skrifter 139). 413 pages, 245 b&w & colour illustrations. 2011. Oslo: Novus; 978-82-7099-651-3 hardback NOK445.

Review by David Griffiths
Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford, UK

Griffiths image

The Norwegian county of Finnmark is the northernmost territory of continental Scandinavia, bordering Finland to its south and Russia to its east. As with many apparently 'remote' areas, historically it has been a crossroads of cultural and economic influences. These arise principally from the fishing and farming settlements of coastal northern Norway, the dominance of Sámi reindeer herding on the inland plateau and inner fjords, and eastward trading links along the Barents Sea coastline to the Kola Peninsula and the White Sea (which also attracted multifarious Europeans over the centuries). Finnmark's climate is not quite as harshly Arctic as may be supposed from its extreme latitude alone. The warming influence of North Atlantic currents keeps its seas and landscapes free of snow and ice in summer and autumn, and the near-total midsummer daylight endows it with a brief but intense growing, gathering, hunting, fishing (and indeed excavating) season.

Norwegian descriptions of Finnmark from the early modern period remarked upon a discrete, densely-clustered form of traditional housing found only in coastal areas of the county and its immediate borderlands to east and west. Bearing little resemblance to settlement types found elsewhere in Norway, these sub-rectilinear cellular clusters have become termed 'multi-roomed houses'. Characterised by thick stone and turf walls enclosing multiple living and working spaces off a central corridor, with a single common entrance, they had flagged surfaces and corner hearths, and some had wooden inner walls and flooring. Earthwork remains were explored by archaeologists in the mid twentieth century, and their occupation dated loosely to the later medieval period. Cultural and functional interpretations were highly tentative, and the relationships of multi-roomed houses to the remains of neighbouring boat sheds, and more typically Sámi roundhouses often found nearby, remained uncertain. An international archaeological research project in the early 2000s mounted a fully-fledged field study, which is reported upon here by nineteen authors.

Survey and selective field-testing has mapped multi-roomed house remains in 22 coastal localities; their uneven spread suggests they are not a generalised cultural phenomenon but represent a settlement type specific to certain geographical, social and economic factors. All have a strong relationship with the sea and coastal routeways. Test-excavations have taken place in several loci but sustained effort was concentrated on two sites in particular, Skonsvika and Kongshavn, both in the Berlevåg district of the Varanger Peninsula in eastern Finnmark. The technique deployed consisted of single long, narrow exploratory trenches cutting across the middle of the building complexes. The authors accept that their style of excavation may attract criticism, but they have confirmed beyond doubt that these multi-roomed house settlements date to the period AD 1200–1500, and have given an important if restricted insight into their structural, functional and depositional characteristics. The structures seem largely to have been built as complete complexes, rather than accreted over time—an important advance upon earlier understanding. Beyond their superficial similarity in date, plan and construction, there are significant distinctions between the excavated sites. Artefacts, environmental evidence and soil micromorphology all show pronounced differences. Skonsvika, for instance, is seen as a workaday trading and producing site, with a strong Russian/Novgorodian flavour in its material culture, whereas neighbouring Kongshavn has more pronounced links to Norwegian material culture and arguably to royal authority. Both sites also have subtle traces of Sámi influence in the ways in which resources were exploited and consumed. A cross-over of 'pure' Norwegian, Sámi or Russian influence is too simplistic a cultural explanation for this 'hybrid' building form. Intersections of economic, political and ethnic contact in certain coastal areas produced regionally-unique combinations of agency, within which the multi-roomed house type evolved, was adapted, and declined as a preferred settlement form for settlers of varying occupations and cultural backgrounds.

The monograph has a restrained, uncluttered design and a clearly laid-out chapter structure which balances empirical and interpretative elements, and it is written throughout in extremely clear English. The house structures, soils and palaeo-environmental studies are well-described and summarised. The artefacts are discussed by functional theme but not tabulated or catalogued, and could therefore have done with a system of cross-referencing to contexts within the excavations; there are also one or two slight misfires in their descriptions (e.g. fig. 13.22 is a buckle, not a brooch). The building plans are presented as separate figures at varying scales. A scaled diagrammatic comparison, as well as some more in-depth spatial study, perhaps including access analysis, would have been welcome. The monograph includes informative and insightful historical studies of the northern reaches of medieval Norway. Finnmark was a borderland, officially ruled by Norway, but its eastern districts were also taxed on a peripatetic basis by Russia. From the later Iron Age onwards, the vast chiefdom estate of Bjarkøy, northernmost in the ancient Norse province of Hålogaland (and the probable home of Ottar [Ohthere], who related his experiences to King Alfred of Wessex), seems to have extended its territorial reach across western Finnmark almost to the North Cape. The Viking-age chieftains' claims on this coastline were succeeded, consolidated and extended eastwards in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries by Norwegian ecclesiastical and royal authority. The monograph's conclusion puts forward the fascinating and entirely feasible suggestion that Icelanders were responsible for establishing Norwegian rule in this northern outpost, and compares the multi-roomed houses to strikingly similar Icelandic building forms. Iceland (which came under the Norwegian crown from 1262) was almost as accessible to Finnmark as was distant Bergen. This raises some interesting possibilities about the nature of politics and society in medieval Scandinavia, and reminds us that the modern nation-state with its fixed borders and self-defined national culture is an anachronistic model for understanding this formative period in northernmost Europe.