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21.03.04 Mikkelsen, Looting or Missioning

The Medieval Review

21.03.04 Mikkelsen, Looting or Missioning


This large and well illustrated book is not a narrative account of either Viking excursions or of Christian missionary efforts. Rather, it is virtually a catalogue or inventory of archaeological finds--mostly of a religious nature and use--tilting heavily toward those with an insular origin and as they have been recovered from many digs in Norway. As the book's subtitle indicates, the main focus is on objects (though mostly as fragments thereof) either from the British Isles and Ireland or of Scandinavian items influenced by and in imitation of those that came from across the North Sea. Though there is some nod to Scandinavian production, as well as to objects from the Carolingian and Ottonian world, and even a few from the east, the emphasis heavily on "insular" objects and contacts.

Mikkelsen argues that the written sources for Viking age Norway are of limited value in tracking the history of settlement and conversion in the Viking age. The Scandinavian sources are almost all from post-Viking years and they largely reflect a top-down view of both the political structure and the course of what, by the time of their writing, had been, albeit belatedly, the process of a now- accepted conversion to Christianity. Nor does Mikkelsen go along with the interpretation that sees so many of the objects of material culture he will discuss in situ because they were loot brought home from Vikings raids upon the Christian world. Rather, the argument here is that many of the items of insular origin or influence came to Norway by way of missionary efforts, with a lesser (but indetermined) number that arrived as mute witnesses to gift-exchange or alliances between men of power or dowries to cement marriages or even--as with coin hoards--signs of economic exchange. The path from the paganism of the Norse world to Christianity was a long one, one of numerous ups and downs, and many of the sacred Christian artifacts examined here may well have come to Norway with monks or missionaries, though they may have eventually wound up in pagan graves, whatever their intended purpose and original use. Whether the artifacts passed from their owners to others through peaceful exchange or as gifts, or through a plundering of monks and priests and bishops, will remain a tale untold. Objects found in graves often argue for an ambivalence or an uncertainty about which god or gods to honor; Christian objects as part of a pre-Christian style burial were a way of playing safe. Furthermore, Mikkelsen sees the material evidence as pointing to many indications of missionary activity taking place at an earlier date than the written sources would lead us to accept, as the latter tend to make much of the role of Christian kings in the 11th century.

The book is divided into three distinct sections after a general introduction and some thoughts about missionary activity to and in the North, all of this in keeping with the case for early missionary activity and for the peaceful transport of many of these objects that will be discussed. In the first section we turn to many kinds of objects, some clearly meant to stand as visible symbols of the new faith (like stone crosses) and others, whatever their final destination in graves and barrows, designed for private spiritual exercises (such as the many small reliquaries or fragments of manuscripts) or for the performance of the sacraments and other forms of ritual (as patens, chalices, and croziers). In this exhaustive coverage of about 20 varieties of objects--each illustration labeled with its museum number and a bibliography where one has been published--we look at remnants of reliquaries and shrines, hanging bowls, chalices and patens, manuscript fragments, croziers, aestels (for pointing at and turning manuscripts), glass beakers, bronze bowls and buckets, and much more. Many objects, often unearthed from pagan burials, are in fragments but some--two book mounts (38) or a gold cross amulet (37) are perhaps much as they were in the 9th or 10th century.

The section of the book turns to the geography of Norway (65-164): where items have been found, and in what numbers, and of what date, again material presented with many caveats about the uneven pace of conversion and the dangers of reading certainty into origins and use when such a judgement is based on an object's ultimate location. Maps cover both large sections of Norway and also provide a close-up look at local sites, perhaps calling for a knowledge of regional geography beyond most readers. Through an elaborate system of legends, the maps give details concerning what kinds of objects were found in each location, and the illustration of objects is complimented by ground plans of churches, diagrams of burial sites, and tables listing the results of radio-carbon dating as applied to post holes and pillars from churches whose now long-lost wooden incarnation antedates the stone or stave buildings eventually built on that site. As in the first section of the book, the illustrations in "A Geographic Analysis of the Christianization Process" show both numerous objects in a surprising state of preservation (a crucifix of silver from Botnhavn, p. 119, or "an anthropomorphic-shaped mount from Rise, p. 88) and the many fragmentary finds that are a common reward for a successful dig. A display of the treasures of several hoards (found at Hoen, p. 146 and at Slemmedal, p. 152) is displayed in such fashion as to bring the Anglo-Saxon treasures of Sutton Hoo to mind. A focus on the possible consequences of Ottar's stay at the court of Alfred the Great around 890 emphasizes links, not hostility, across the North Sea, Ottar coming from the very far north and perhaps being a link in the tale of introducing the new religion. With an eye on the not-infrequent mix of Christian and pagan artifacts and burial customs in graves, the protracted conversion of the Sami (Finns) in Norway is discussed in some detail, though again we must not ask for too much precision about influence or dating in another tale of limited sources.

After some pages of "summary and conclusions" and a comprehensive bibliography Mikkelsen concludes with twenty appendices, twelve covering "clerical objects" and then eight devoted to "secular objects." All the appendices are in tabular form and offer a summary of what has been covered above in a dispersed fashion. Given the object under discussion they vary considerably in treatment, and while Appendix K (chalices paten and Holy-water sprinkler) lists but five objects from four sites, Appendix F (hanging bowls) gives details of sites, museum numbers, probable date, and special characteristics: place ("male grave with balance scale and lead weights," p. 202, or "female grave with circular escutcheon with red and yellow enamel," p 203) for 29 items.

This book is a mine of detailed information while also raising wide-sweeping questions about the role and dating of material objects and questions about interpreting their original and/or intended use, often in some contrast to their ultimate disposition. The high quality of craft work in these hundreds of objects from the Viking Centuries is well displayed in the volume's 165 illustrations (though some modern drawings, floor plans, etc, are included). The illustrations shown and discussed mostly cover items of insular origin but with some from Scandinavians and Frankish workshops as well. And though Mikkelsen is hardly alone in arguing about the way in which archaeological findings supplement or, on occasion, help bend the narrative offered by written sources, his steady drumbeat for "missioning" over "looting" is a reminder of the complexities of life in the distant past. It is also a very useful warning about the challenges of unraveling that life as we study it today.