Ingela Bergman

Cultural heritage, landscape and identity processes in northern Fennoscandia

Cultural heritage issues are increasingly prevalent within public debate forums. Nations, minorities and indigenous peoples are invoking their cultural heritage in different contexts in order to justify and underscore their cultural, social and political aims. At present, northern Sweden is an arena for identity and ethnicity processes that have strong political overtones. The absence of research about the societies of the Iron and Early Middle Ages leaves the field open for essentialist and politically biased interpretations of archaeological findings and historical sources.

The aim of the research programme is to illuminate land use and societal change in northern Sweden's coastal area during a period in which the cultural landscape was shaped by hunters, fishermen, reindeer herders and farmers with ethnic and cultural identities that do not directly translate to the modern images. Through an interdisciplinary collaboration encompassing archaeological, historical and ecological fields, studies are being made of land use, social and economic structures and inter-regional relations from the 7th to 20th centuries, with the results being related to present-day identity processes in northern Fennoscandia.
Final report

Cultural heritage has increasingly become the focus of national politics in many European countries, bringing to the fore tensions within and between local, regional and national communities. Cultural heritage is drawn upon to demonstrate affinity to the land, thereby conferring legitimacy on claims of self-government and socio-political autonomy. In Sweden, the recent legal process between the Swedish state and the Girjas Sámi village (about the rights to grant permission for hunting small game) highlights the significance of archaeological remains and historical knowledge.

The overall aim of this programme was to explore the multi-cultural history of coastal northern Sweden during the Late Iron Age and Medieval Period (AD 500-1500). The main area of investigation included the coastal areas of Norr-and Västerbotten as well as the Tornedalen area. Previous studies have generally focussed on (Swedish) Medieval colonisation enterprises as an interpretative framework for the understanding of cultural-historical processes. Taking this one step further, our research targeted issues concerning the complexity and significance of colonisation and assimilation processes, subsistence shifts and changes in landscape affiliation. Important research questions included: How did different economic strategies manifest themselves in the landscapes over time? What were the social incentives and cultural requirements for contact between coastal and interior societies? What were the social and economic impacts of Swedish colonisation enterprises? In this context, we made no a priori assumptions about the ethnic and cultural affinity of the coastal population(s), however, interior communities were designated Sámi. The historical ethnonyms of Kven and Kainolainen have formed the bases of the analyses of inter-cultural relations in sub-project 3.

The research has been explicitly inter-disciplinary in character including archaeology, ecology and palaeoecology, forest history and history, soil science and the study of place names. Considering landscapes as a way of communicating cultural values has formed a common denominator and theoretical framework transcending the disciplines. The work included three sub-projects focussing on cultural heritage and landscapes, historical patterns of diverse land use and the social and cultural relationships between the Sámi and Finns during early historic times. The first two were closely intertwined throughout the programme, with the third sub-project running mostly in parallel. Fieldwork included landscape surveys, excavations, sampling and experiments, and was mainly conducted during the first four years, while the subsequent two years were dedicated to analysis and the publication of results. Studies also included a huge survey of original 16th century records and the transformation of quantitative data into spatial data with maps, for use in landscape analysis. Information given in historical records was scrutinised and analysed from alternate perspectives vis-á-vis the prevailing interpretative frameworks. In general, papers were co-authored by at least two members of the research team, thereby promoting and strengthening the inter-disciplinary approach.

The emphasis on landscape affiliation structured the initial steps of the research procedure, including a focus on different economic strategies: farming, hunting and fishing, reindeer herding and trade. The results revealed traces of cereal growing in the form of small-scale mobile cultivation. This form of cultivation was fully concurrent with the seasonal land use strategies characterising hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. The simultaneous occurrence of cereal production in the coastal and interior areas of Norr- and Västerbotten during the Late Iron Age suggests common social and economic networks rather than territorial divisions between separate communities. Archaeological and palaeoecological results also confirm the introduction of permanent farming centuries before the colonisation initiatives during the 14th century. Early farming focused on cattle breeding and settlements were preferentially located in alluvial environments without interfering with other forms of land use.

The systematic fishing in interior lakes by coastal farmers during the 16th century reflects land-use patterns dating back to at least AD1200. Fishing activities were conducted in agreement with interior Sámi communities. The internalisation of Sámi place names by the coastal fishers suggests multilingual interactions among the coastal communities. The organisation of prehistoric and early historical coastal hunting and fishing subsistence was analysed based on archaeological data in combination with ethnographic and historical accounts. It is evident that common access to resources and the means of production was a prominent trait, as was the superiority of the community collective versus the individual. It is equally evident that the administrative and fiscal infrastructures introduced by the Catholic Church and the Swedish Crown were, indeed, adjusted to pre-existing community structures and land-use patterns.

The majority of the excavated and radiocarbon dated hearths proved to belong to late historical times, AD1600-1800. However, hearths with earlier dates and the huge number of place names related to the presence of Sámi, some of which are older than AD1600, point to reindeer herding forming an integral part of coastal land use and subsistence further back in time. Interestingly, the location of place names suggests other forms of reindeer herding and land use than during late historical times. In addition, palaeoecological results verify the active management of lichen heaths for winter grazing through intentional and repeated forest fires from the first century AD until the mid-1700s. Our research included experimental elements focussing on heat production techniques, specifically in hearths of the same construction as those excavated. Based on Sámi traditions related to heat production in tents (låvdagoahte) under winter conditions, experiments were conducted with the purpose of analysing burning temperatures in relation to colour shifts in the soil beneath the hearths. The results proved to be instrumental to the understanding of the seasonality of settlement patterns.

Throughout the studied period, trade was a major force promoting close social and economic relationships between the coastal and interior communities. The huge number of objects with a southern and eastern provenance occurring at interior Sámi settlements and sacrificial sites confirms the presence of wide trading networks during the Late Iron Age and early medieval period. The widely accepted narrative attached to the so-called birkarlar as being cruel and vicious tradesmen exploiting the Sámi has been totally revised. Instead, our research shows that birkarlar were coastal farmers acting as middlemen on a commission of trust in the trade between interior Sámi and coastal farmers and they represented the indigenous communities vis-á-vis external agents. The birkarla trading network presupposed the active co-operation of Sámi communities and the socio-economic ties between the parties were very tight. The deconstruction of earlier nationalistic interpretations of the ethnonyms Kven and Kainulainen promotes a reinterpretation of inter-cultural relations between different language groups in the context of early encounters between Swedish – and Finnish.speaking groups in Finland and in the northern parts of the Bothnian Bay. The historiographical part of sub-project 3 examined the concept of a unified people in relation to the cross-national borders (specifically in the Sámi and Kven context). It demonstrates how ethnicity and nation are problematic concepts in the analysis of nations created across state borders. As the nation-state is the dominant modern political construct, it has forced minorities to use nation as a model in formulating ethno-political demands.

As a concluding remark on the results produced within the programme we stress the cultural and socio-economic resilience of the indigenous communities in relation to the Swedish central powers well into the 16th century. In this context, the colonisation narrative was revised and analysed on the basis of new knowledge and from the perspectives of the indigenous communities. This is an issue of current interest within the framework of indigenous perspectives on rights, research and methodologies in the international arena. Among other contributions to pushing research boundaries are the studies of long-term management of resources and landscapes. The active manipulation of ecosystems by prehistoric and early historic indigenous communities in the arctic and sub-arctic areas is not commonly recognised and the results add new perspectives to the understanding of landscape as a concept and of landscape affiliation. The relationship between cultural heritage and identity processes is another issue of current international interest and the alternative historiographic narratives produced within the programme provide new insights into the significance of historic affiliation as a means of self-knowledge. These are cultural aspects beyond the range of DNA-analyses. New fields of research have emerged during work on the programme. The significance of legal perceptions in situations where there were encounters between different socio-economic structures and conflicting interests stands out as an urgent subject of research. Another field of great interest would be the study of indigenous forms of landscape management in arctic environments, specifically in relation to concepts of intensive versus extensive land use, sustainability and self-governance.

The research involved continuous contact with colleagues in the Nordic countries, the USA and Chile, in the form of discussions, analyses and processing of data, co-authorship or fieldwork. With few exceptions, papers were published in English, making results accessible to the international research community. In addition, the members of the research team attended conferences and seminars to present results of the research programme: The conference “Sámi Rights in Modern Landscapes- Indigenous People and Nature Conservation (Luleå, August 2013), The 14th conference of the Nordic Theoretical Archaeology Group (Stockholm, April 2014), The International Congress of Arctic Social Science (ICASS) IX (Umeå, June 2017), The 60th IAVS (The International Association for Vegetation) Annual Symposium) (Palermo, June 2017), and Advances in Sámi Archaeology (Inari, June 2018). Results are communicated to students within the archaeological and ecological fields and form part of an educational programme at the Department of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå. Programme results have been presented to officials within the fields of nature and cultural heritage preservation. Information delivered to the general public included nearly a hundred public lectures in addition to field excursions. The total number of people attending the lectures has been estimated to between 2500 and 3000. Public lectures were arranged in co-operation with local and regional museums in Norr- and Västerbotten and with the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm as well as with County Administative Boards and local history societies. During the final year of the programme, six team members conducted a “lecture tour” visiting museums in Luleå, Piteå, Skellefteå and Umeå. The tour included a suite of lectures presented over one day at each location. Around 300 people attended the tour lectures. The tour proved to be a much appreciated format, promoting a dialogue between the participating scholars and the audience attending the lectures. The research programme has attracted the attention of local, regional and national media in the form of newspaper articles, as well as radio and television programmes.

Grant administrator
The Silver Museum
Reference number
SEK 27,600,000
RJ Programmes