Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson

Birka, Rus and Nordic Gentes. Identity, self-image and cultural expression in Viking Age Sweden.

The aim of the project is to apply the theories of gentes and identity to a Scandinavian context, and in particular to the Viking Age trading post of Birka and its inhabitants. The trading post was a cultural melting-pot with a far-reaching network of contacts, reflected in the material culture. Birka held an important function in the characteristic gift-based power structure of Viking Age society. The trading post operated as a node in the trade with prestigious objects and advanced handicraft. At the same time Birka’s political and administrative function in the region can be questioned. When Birka, during the tenth century became an active part in a trade network reaching as far as Constantinople,
the regional perspective on power became too limited. Other structures for power and collective identity were formed. The concepts of identity and self-image among early medieval people - gentes - have become the focus of historical research. The project places the discussion in a Nordic context with archaeology as a base. Contemporary accounts of Northerners will be compared to their accumulated material culture and the self-image that they display in e.g. burial rituals and grave goods. The project is synchronised with the digitisation work of the archaeological material and the construction of a research platform for Birka which is planned in the infrastructure project “Birka - an archaeological research resource” .
Final report

Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson


The aim with the project was to give a new and deeper view of what Birka represents, how we can define its inhabitants and what this means for Viking Age Sweden. By applying the theories of gentes and identity to a Scandinavian archaeological context the aim was also to show that archaeology as a field of research can contribute to the ongoing discussion of identity, self-image and belonging.

The main questions were how the inhabitants of Birka considered themselves and their environment? How and in comparison to what affinity was defined and what the implications of this are when interpreting Birka and it's relations to the hinterland?

In addition to the main questions the project encompassed two case studies, both of which aimed to highlight different aspects of identity, self-image and cultural expression that were manifested in the cultural melting pot that was Birka. Case study 1 dealt with cultural contacts and interactions that took place outside Viking Age Scandinavia but had an impact on Birka while case study 2 focused on the existing situation on Birka.

The three most important results are 1) the study of cultural interaction, how it was initiated and maintained and what the consequences were, 2) how societal change during a period of transition generated new identities and 3) the development of a new method working with archaeological source material starting with the archaeological individual.

1) Cultural interactions and their consequences, visualized through traces of contacts between Scandinavians and steppe nomadic groups/magyars, was the main focus of case study 1. By categorising different types of contacts by aim, duration, exchange, mutual demands and results the archaeological material gave a nuanced image of the character of the contacts and interactions and their consequence on society. Results from the study have been presented in Traces of Contacts (2012) and Close Encounters with the Byzantine Border-zones (forthcoming). Decisive cultural contacts took place even in Birka and the hinterland and case study 2 indicated some of the consequences of these interactions concerning how people group and express their belonging through material culture and social and religious practices. Results have been presented in Creating a Cultural Expression (forthcoming) and She Came from Another Place (2013).

2) Birka existed during a period of transition and in step with the great societal change that took place, new identities emerged. Prerequisites of everyday life change resulting in new ways to express belonging and to adjust to the surrounding world. A comparative study between urban Birka and the rural hinterland show differences in cultural expression, but also in aspects of helath, diet and life style. These differences had effects on the relations between Birka and the surrounding hinterland. The study was enabled by collaborations within physical anthropology/osteology and bone chemistry/isotope analyses and the results are presented in The Urban Woman (2013) och The Viking Age Paradox (2013).

3) A significant methodological conclusion has been that issues on materiality and social archaeology must have its starting point in the archaeological individuals rather than in the artefacts. The potential of the archaeological material and its immanent agency becomes apparent when the material is related to the individuals that generated it. As a next step changing the outset from the overall structures to the people that lived and acted in Birka created a further understanding of the societal change that was taking place. The working method was introduced at a seminar in Uppsala in 2014 and will be presented in a paper Med utgångspunkt från människorna (forthcoming).

The project has generated a number of new topics and questions regarding how people's identities are reflected through diet, health and mobility. Issues like these cannot be fully examined by archaeology and cultural history but requires interdisciplinary collaborations. This research will carry on as I am now part of the archaeological-genetic Atlas-project at Stockholm University.

There is a growing interest for Viking identities results from the ongoing research have been presented at a number of international conferences and seminars:

Searching for Identities in Funerary Practices and Material Culture, Seminar on Cultural Exchanges Across the Baltic Sea in the Middle Ages, Tartu University, Estland, April 2011.

Early Contacts between Scandinavia and Georgia, Caucasus, Stockholm, November 2011.

The Eastern Connections of the Birka Warrior, Int. conf. on Scandinavia and the Balkans, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgarien, September 2012.

The Urban Woman - the role and identity of women in Birka, Int. conf. Kvinner i vikingtid. Telemark högskola, Norge, October 2012.

She came from another place, Int. conf. Viking Worlds, Oslo Univ., March 2013.

Alliances Across the Baltic., Seminar on Historical infrastructure of the Baltic Sea: ways, reasons and consequences, Mittuniversitetet Härnösand, April 2013.

Spaces and Places of the Birka Construct, Int. conf. New Aspects of Viking-Age Urbanism, Historiska museet, April 2013.

Foreigner and Local, 17th Viking Congress, Lerwick, Shetland, August 2013.

Becoming Urban, Yale Conference on Baltic and Scandinavian Studies, Yale, USA, March 2014.

A New Way of Life- on the emerging urbanism in Viking Age Eastern Scandinavia, EAA, Istanbul, Turkiet, September 2014.

Krigaridentiteter: krigaren, gruppen och omvärlden, ViS-konferansen Ett, tre, eller mange? Oslo Univ., December 2014.

Identity, Self-Image and Cultural Expression in Viking Age Sweden, SAA 80th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, USA, April 2015.

International collaborations include Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie (ZBSA), Schleswig with an international conference held at the Swedish History Museum in April 2013 and a joint research excavation in the Hochburg in Haithabu, Schleswig in June 2012. I am also a member of the planning committee of the Austmarr Network, an international, interdisciplinary network of scholars investigating historical and prehistoric contacts among peoples in the circum-Baltic region (web-link in list of publications).

As a co-worker at the Swedish History Museum, interaction with the general public has been a vital part of communicating the project. I have participated in the museum's outreach program through public lectures and meet-the-expert guided tours, educated guides and other staff as well as contributed to publications aimed at the general public. Public lectures outside the museum include themes like: Den heterogena vikingen", "Vad kan ett barn berätta?" and "Olika tid - olika Birka".

Media has shown interest in the project and I have participated in the BBC 2 documentary Vikings, SVT (Swe television) and children's magazine Kamratposten with Birkaflickan and in SR (Swedish Radio) science program.

Two papers of consequence are 1) Traces of Contacts. Magyar Material Culture in the Swedish Viking Age Context of Birka (2012). The paper deals with the presence of Magyar artefacts in the material culture of the Viking Age trading post of Birka, Sweden. Examples of artefacts and their different contexts are presented and discussed. The contexts of the finds indicate that there have been several levels of contacts, from brief encounters to a long-term coexistence. The Magyar material in Birka indicates developed long-term contacts that included the transfer of advanced knowledge. By distinguishing different types of contacts, their prerequisites and aims, the consequences of cultural interaction are problemitised; and 2) Foreigner and local: on identities and cultural expression among the urban people of Birka (forthcoming). This paper deals with questions on how identities are formed and maintained and what the term gentes represents in relation to this discussion. Distinction is made between the identity of the individual and the identity of a group and then exemplified by archaeological contexts in Birka. The discussion constitutes a synthesis of the main questions of the project.

The outcome of the project consist of number of papers published in scientific peer reviewed publications with a high level of international impact with publishers such as Brill, Brepols, Oxbow och RGZM Tagungen, Cambridge Scholars Publishing and Scandinavian Academic Press.
The project commenced with a seminar aimed at gathering researchers with ongoing Birka-related projects. The presentations have been published (open access) in the anthology Birka nu. Pågående forskning kring världsarvet Birka och Hovgården.An additional anthology collecting the papers delivered at the international conference in Stockhol, 2013 will be published during 2015. As the requirements for publishing open access have varied depending on the publisher I have chosen to use the "on request" function provided by research portal (web-link in list of publications).


Vetenskapliga artiklar:
Accepterade artiklar och manus:
Källström, A., Linderholm, A., Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. & Lidén, K. Stable Isotope Analysis of Viking – Early Medieval sites in the Mälaren Valley. (manus)

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C.(2015). Spaces and Places in the Birka Construct. In: C. Hedenstierna-Jonson, S. Kalmring & L. Holmquist (eds.) New Aspects of Viking Age Urbanism. Historiska museet Studies 27. Stockholm. (forthcoming)

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. Arkeologiska spår av religiösa ställningstaganden. Om kristendomens introducerande i Birka. In: L. Holmquist (ed.) Kunskap ur föremål. (accepted)

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. (2015). Med utgångspunkt från människorna. In: K. Cassel (ed.) Gamla Uppsala. (accepted)

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. Close Encounters with the Byzantine Border-Zones - on the Eastern Connections of the Birka Warrior. In: O. Minaeva & L. Holmquist (eds.). Scandinavia and the Balkans: Cultural Interactions with Byzantium and Eastern Europe in the First Millennium AD. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Accepted.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C.(2015). To own and be owned –The warriors of Birka’s garrison. In: A. Klevnäs & C. Hedenstierna-Jonson (eds.) 'Own and be owned: archaeological approaches to the concept of possession'. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology, (accepted).

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C.(2015). Foreigner and local: on identities and cultural expression among the urban people of Birka. In: V. Turner & C. Carter (eds.) Proceedings Viking Congress 17. Shetland. (accepted)

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. Creating a Cultural Expression – on Rus’ identity and material culture. In: M. Roslund, I. Gustin & J. Callmer (eds.) Crossing Cultural Boundaries. Communicators and communication in the Baltic and beyond ca. 400-1200 AD. Brill. (accepted).

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. & Kjellström, A. 2014. The Urban Woman: on the role and identity of women in Birka. In: N. Coleman & N. Løkka (eds.) Kvinner i vikingtid. Scandinavian Academic Press. pp. 187 – 208.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. 2014. She Came from Another Place: on the burial of a young girl in Birka (Bj463). In: I. Axelsson (ed.) Viking worlds: Things, spaces and movement. Oxbow. pp. 90 – 101.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Holmquist Olausson, L. & Olausson, M. 2013. The Viking Age Paradox. Continuity and discontinuity of fortifications and defense works in Eastern Scandinavia. In: S. Brooks, A. Reynolds & J. Baker (eds.) Landscapes of Defense in Early Medieval Europe (SEM 28). Brepols. pp. 168 – 213.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. 2012. Traces of Contacts. Magyar Material Culture in the Swedish Viking Age Context of Birka. In: B. Tobias (ed.) Die Archäologie der frühen Ungarn. Chronologie, Technologie und Methodik. RGZM-Tagungen 17. Mainz. pp. 29 – 46.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. 2012. Birkafolket. In: C. Hedenstierna-Jonson (ed.) Birka nu. Pågående forskning kring världsarvet Birka och Hovgården. Historiska museet Studies 22. Stockholm. pp. 213 – 226.

Redaktör för antologier:
Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. (ed.) 2012. Birka nu. Pågående forskning kring världsarvet Birka och Hovgården. Historiska museet Studies 22. Stockholm.

Under färdigställande:
Klevnäs, A. M. & Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. (2015). 'Own and be owned: archaeological approaches to the concept of possession'. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology, (forthcoming).

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., Kalmring, S. & Holmquist, L. (2015). New Aspects of Viking Age Urbanism. Historiska museet Studies 27. Stockholm. (forthcoming)

Personlig webbsida på med CV, publikationslista och artiklar i pdf:

Birkaprojekten vid Historiska museet:

Forskningsprojektet Weltweites Zellwerk, Römisch-Germanischen Zentral Museum Mainz:

Forskningsnätverket Austmarr:


Grant administrator
The Museum of National Antiquities
Reference number
SEK 1,625,000
RJ Projects