Ancient Scandinavia

Book review

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

T. Douglas Price

Book cover: Ancient Scandinavia: An Archaeological History from the First Humans to the Vikings by T. Douglas Price

T. Douglas Price’s book, Ancient Scandinavia: An Archaeological History from the First Humans to the Vikings, published by Oxford University Press in 2015, is the first book in English to provide an up-to-date, comprehensive overview of Scandinavian prehistory. If you are of Scandinavian descent and want to understand the full depth of your cultural heritage, you need to read this wonderful and beautifully illustrated book.

Scandinavia has been at the forefront of scientific archaeological method and theory since the early 19th century, perhaps because so much of its history lies underground rather than in libraries. In 1967, when I was a student archaeological volunteer at the Iron Age farmstead at Ullandhaug in Stavanger, Norway, I was introduced to ingenious aerial photographic mapping technologies and broad-scale stripping of the earth in football-field-sized excavations. I realized that the then-very-modest Scandinavian archaeologists had much to teach other archaeologists.

Despite its history of archaeological innovation and achievement, Scandinavia has tended to be written off by many scholars as lying outside the geographical boundaries of important world-wide archaeological research. Archaeologically speaking, ancient Scandinavia has often been considered peripheral to tracing the main thrusts of human prehistory. Yet contrary to popular opinion, Scandinavia was closely connected to the rest of Europe throughout most of its ancient past.

The region’s first inhabitants migrated from the cold plains of northern Germany some 15,000 years ago and made their way up the coast of Norway into the Arctic by 10,000 years BCE. During the Mesolithic Period, some 9,500 to 4,000 years BCE, Scandinavia was the place to be for hunters and gatherers. The coastal regions of Scandinavia offered a rich harvest of fish and marine mammals that was unparalleled in the rest of Europe.

In the later Bronze Age, 1700 to 500 BCE, Scandinavia had established close trade relationships with central Europe and beyond, and its tribal chieftains had become among the richest in Europe. The archaeological sites of Bronze Age Denmark have yielded more swords than anywhere else in Europe. Moreover, in style and workmanship these swords and those of the rest of Scandinavia closely resemble the swords then popular in ancient Mycenaean Greece, the world made popular by Homer’s The Iliad.

By the Viking Age, 750-1050 CE, Scandinavia had become a player of great influence in European history. During the Viking Age, Scandinavians took control of much of England and Ireland and all of northern France and founded important trading and political outposts in Russia and the Ukraine. Plus, they benefited from a trading empire that extended to far-flung Constantinople and the Arab Caliphates. Ironically, Scandinavia’s central role in the European past only begins to ebb in the late Medieval Period when Europeans began to record their history in books and archives rather than in the ground.

Professor Price’s book begins with a brief but engaging overview of Scandinavian archaeology. He then sets the stage for the coming of the first Scandinavians by describing the late Ice Age environment of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The first inhabitants were reindeer hunters who quickly followed the retreating glaciers that had covered most of Scandinavia for thousands of years. For the most part, they hugged the coasts of Scandinavia and within a short time they had extended their prey to include marine mammals such as seals and even whales. Because many of these early sites are found on islands, Price believes these first Scandinavians mastered boat building early on.

With final end of the Ice Age, hunting and gathering continued to define the life of the early Scandinavians. The coastal regions of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden provided a rich bounty from the sea and land. During this period, known as the Mesolithic (9500-4000 BCE), the people of Scandinavia enjoyed a diverse diet of fish, marine mammals, mollusks, moose, boar, and aurochs plus a variety of berries, nuts, and other plant foods. Growing cereals and raising domesticated animals comes late to Scandinavia, but the Neolithic Period (4000-1700 BCE) slowly takes root as people take up farming in addition to fishing and hunting. According to Price, competition for prestige among an emerging elite drove society to gradually take up farming and animal husbandry.

By the start of the Bronze Age, Scandinavian society had become hierarchicalm and leading men and women were buried with rich grave goods in the large earthen mounds that still dot the landscape. Large polities funded by both trade and war arise in the subsequent Iron Age (500 BCE-750 CE), which gave birth to the glory days of the Viking Age when the invention of the full-fledged Viking ship enabled the chieftains and petty kings of Scandinavian to impose their will on a good part of Europe and harness a vigorous trade with many additional lands.

Price does touch on the prehistory of northern Scandinavia and the Sámi, but openly admits in his preface that the focus of the book is primarily on what he calls “Southern Scandinavia,” for that is where his expertise lies.

Ancient Scandinavia is richly illustrated with maps and color photographs. It is skillfully organized and well written. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of detailed descriptions of selected archaeological sites and artifacts from every period he covers. This allows the reader to become closely intimate with a sampling of some the most interesting archaeological sites and treasures of ancient Scandinavia. Price ably combines the broad brush of the written word with exquisite detail.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.