The Austmarr Network

Austmarr V

No one is an island

Islands in the Baltic Sea 500-1500 AD:

Characteristics and networks in an interdisciplinary perspective

Swedish National Heritage Board and Gotland Museum, Visby, 15-16 October 2015

Conference report

Kendra Willson

The fifth annual meeting of the Austmarr network was held on October 15-16, 2015, at the Gotland museum in Visby, Sweden, sponsored by the National Board of Antiquities and the Gotland Museum with funding from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. The organizers were Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt (Swedish National Heritage Board, Visby) and Per Widerström (Gotland Museum, Visby).

The theme of the meeting was "No one is an island: Islands in the Baltic Sea 500 - 1500 AD. Characteristics and networks in an interdisciplinary perspective." As Michael Meichsner (University of Greifswald) put it in his talk, this perspective involves "taking the island thing seriously"; he cited Baldacchino's (2004: 278) observation that "Islands do not merely reproduce on a manageable scale the dynamics and processes that exist elsewhere. Islandness is an intervening variable that does not determine, but contours and conditions physical and social events in distinct, and distinctly relevant ways." (Baldacchino 2004: 278) The island theme brought together the different contributions in a discussion of what is "special" about the island communities in the Baltic Sea. The conference had a stronger archaeological emphasis than previous Austmarr seminars and a center of gravity in Sweden and especially Gotland.

The early arrivals met on Wednesday evening, October 14, for socialization at the Black Sheep Arms restaurant. On Thursday morning, following a welcoming address by Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt and Per Widerström, the seminar began with Alexander Podossinov's (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow) report on "Islands in the Baltic as reflected in ancient literature from Homer to Jordanes." Ancient writings mention a number of islands in the Northern Ocean, of which the Baltic was viewed as a part. In his voyage in the Northern Ocean, Odysseus passes three islands, featuring giant man-eaters and an entrance to Hades. The island of Thule, discovered by Pytheus in the 3rd c. B.C., was identified with various northern locations by medieval scholars. Hecataeus from Abdera in the 3rd c. BC mentions islands Elixoia "beyond Celtica" and Scanza. The belief that Scandinavia was an island, rather than a peninsula, persisted until Adam of Bremen in the 11th c. A.D. Numerous other islands in the Baltic are mentioned by ancient Roman writers.

Tatjana Jackson (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow) spoke on "Danish islands in Knýtlinga saga," explaining why the saga refers to the journey from Jutland to Fyn and Sjælland as travel north rather than east. The rotated frame of reference places the regions of Denmark in the Norse world-view which divided the world into regions; directional terms refer to travel toward those regions. This "rotated" frame of reference is not seen in other texts such as Heimskringla which were among the sources for Knýtlinga saga. However, it is seen in King Alfred's additions to his translation of Orosius and may be reflected in other Anglo-Saxon texts. The "shifted" orientation scheme appears to be more original and is preserved in Knýtlinga saga from oral tradition.

Maths Bertell (Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall) discussed "Viking Age Föglö - a travel route and its population." Föglö, a collection of islands in shallow water in the outer Åland archipelago, is among the first place names in Åland mentioned in medieval sources (in Valdemar Sejr's 13th c. itinerary), although it was not a power center and lacks significant early landmarks, unlike Lemböte and Kökar, also mentioned in the itinerary. The area lies along travel routes but would be difficult to navigate without a local guide. This part of the Åland archipelago has been little studied in relation to the Viking Age, although there are remains from the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. Åland in general suffers from a lack of funding for and interest in Viking Age archaeology.

Sven Kalmring's (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology, Schleswig) paper "Islands in the rural sea - Viking-age towns between cosmopolitanism and delimitation" discussed the status of the few towns (Hedeby, Ribe, Birka, and Kaupang) that developed in Viking-Age Scandinavia. He emphasized that towns were highly exceptional in the Viking Age; most of society was rural and agrarian. The few Viking towns functioned as conceptual "islands" where different rules applied than elsewhere. Market areas were physically differentiated from the surrounding territory and were protected by rulers so that merchants would not be subject to the dangers which attended most strangers.

Merili Metsvahi (University of Tartu) discussed "The legend about the brother-sister-marriage connected with the lake Kaali in Saaremaa." This lake in the middle of the island Saaremaa was caused by a meteorite landing around 400 BCE; it has been speculated that the event led to later stories about flying dragons. According to the legend under discussion here, after a wedding between siblings was performed at a manor house, the house sank into the ground and the lake appeared in its place. The same legend is associated with other Estonian lakes, including Valgjärv, where Viking Age remains can be seen under the shallow water on calm days. The legend reflects the interface between the pre-Christian matrilineal structure of Estonian society and the patrilineal Baltic Germans. Sibling marriage is a stronger taboo in matrilineal societies, whereas in patrilineal ones, father-daughter incest is a more prevalent concern. The Baltic Germans who comprised the ruling class had a stronger taboo against marrying the lower-class peasants than their own relatives; because they were a small community, sometimes cousin marriages occurred. Metsvahi argues that this legend showing supernatural punishment for violation of incest taboos reflects the Estonian peasants' view of the Baltic Germans.

Michael Meichsner's (University of Greifswald) "A force from the outside: Gotland and the political networks in the Baltic Sea Region in the 15th century" discusses political changes in Gotland at the end of the Middle Ages. Whereas islands are now viewed as peripheries of remote centers, in medieval times Gotland connected and constituted the maritime space. It was strategically important in the Kalmar Union. Gotland in the Middle Ages had had no native nobility or local elites. In 1407-1408, the Teutonic Knights handed over Gotland to Eric of Pomerania, who visited the island personally and introduced external controls of a type that had not been known there before. Visby was allowed to maintain its traditional privileges but had an obligation for mutual support. Peasants (i.e. rich farmers) were allowed to trade outside Visby and had an obligation to supply the king and castle. New taxes were introduced. Five noblemen controlled Visborg and Gotland in the 15th c. That century was a time of centralization and increased administrative control. By the end of the 15th c. Jens Holgersen controlled the harbors and trade and Gotland became a more "normal" part of the integrated kingdom.

The first day concluded with a runic section. Lisbeth Imer (National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen) discussed "The rune stone tradition on Bornholm." Roughly 260 runestones are known from Bornholm, dating from the 8th through the 11th c. Runestones appear later there than elsewhere in Denmark, with 40 stones dating from the 11th and 12th c., while no Bornholm runestones have been found contemporary with the "post-conversion runestone boom" (970-1020 A.D.) in Jutland and Skåne. Swedish practices may have provided a model for ornamentation in Bornholm runestones. Runic coins and lead amulets are also a prominent part of the Bornholm runic tradition.

Continuing from Imer's presentation, Magnus Källström's (Swedish National Heritage Board, Visby) talk "Alike or not alike? The writing traditions on Viking Age rune-stones from Öland, Gotland and Bornholm" presented insular runic traditions in a comparative perspective. Traditionally these runic traditions have been compared to those of neighboring mainland areas rather than to each other. A comparison does not reveal strong patterns shared among all the islands vis-à-vis the mainland, but there are some pairwise similarities in which two of the islands pattern together.

Thursday evening concluded with a dinner at Packhuskällaren near the museum. The Friday morning session focused on Gotland. Early risers were given a tour of the Gotland Museum exhibitions by Per Widerström (Gotland Museum, Visby). Per then presented on "Archaeology on Gotland: Odin and the mask from Hellvi." A 2nd c. Roman cavalry mask helmet representing Alexander the Great was reworked as a mask with one bright reflective eye and one dark eye, apparently part of a pattern of "Odinic" one-eyed masks and figures seen inter alia in the Sutton Hoo helmet (Price & Mortimer 2014). The altered mask appears to have been mounted to a post over a cupboard full of drinking equipment in a Viking Age house at Hellvi in Gotland.

Antje Wendt (National Historical Museum, Stockholm) spoke about "Viking Age gold rings on Gotland." While silver hoards represented "bank accounts," accumulations of means of payment from trade or plunder that could end up buried for religious reasons or because forgotten after the death of the owner, gold hoards were specific-purpose money without commercial functions and pattern quite differently in archaeological finds. Rings had religious functions related to "Odin's law," temple hoards, and oaths. Gold rings functioned as a symbol of the relationship between a chieftain and his retainers or between allies in a gift society. Gold rings appear to have functioned frequently as gifts, as seen in literary sources. Their design followed that of silver rings.

Ny Björn Gustafsson (Visby) spoke about "In sight or out of reach? - On the production of Gotlandic and non-Gotlandic dress jewellery at Stora Karlsö in the Viking Period." The site on Stora Karlsö, off the coast of Gotland, called "Stora Förvar" ('the big holding'), a cave partially excavated in the early 20th c., contains rich cultural deposits dating over a 6000-7000 year period. This is the only location on Gotland at which molds were found for making both characteristic Gotlandic and non-Gotlandic jewelry. The "special" status of Stora Karlsö (an island off the coast of an island) as not belonging either to the Swedish or to the Gotlandic mainland made possible types of production geared toward both markets.

The final session of the conference was devoted to ongoing and future projects. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson (Stockholm University) described her involvement in a large interdisciplinary project, in a presentation entitled "Introducing the ATLAS-project: Late Iron Age and Early Medieval mobility around the Baltic reflected through archaeology, aDNA and isotopes." Rapid advances in genetic sequencing techniques have enabled sequencing of ancient genetic material (aDNA) which was not possible a few years ago. In this collaboration, the archaeologists help to choose materials to sample (e.g. individuals to sequence) and ask why they are interesting. Is there a match or mismatch between genetic heritage and displayed "ethnic" identity in a burial find? Between biological sex and displayed gender? Genetic and osteological analysis may, for instance, help to resolve whether the individuals in anomalous inhumation burials may have been foreigners or unfree. Genes reveal people's heritage, population migrations, and sex. Isotope analysis of bones reveals "how you use your body" - diet, geographical context, stress, illness, injury, mobility. Burial archaeology tells what happened when a person died. None of these types of data by itself provides "the answer" to ancient people's identities, but combining different techniques and new technologies makes it possible to explore different pieces of the puzzle.

Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt (Swedish National Heritage Board, Visby) presented "Relations between the islands of Austmarr - a research proposal." The project would compare the runic traditions of Gotland, Öland, and Bornholm. This project would involve "interdisciplinary study of runic inscriptions," involving archaeological perspectives and new forms of technical analysis as well as text-based runology. Several of the contributors had recently taken a field trip to examine the Bornholm inscriptions. The presentations by Imer and Källström at this seminar represented a pilot study for the proposed project.

Finally, Maths Bertell (Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall) and Kendra Willson (University of Turku) discussed the "Future of Austmarr network," tracing the history and goals of the network. The network has held conferences annually since 2010. An edited volume based on selected contributions to the first three seminars is well underway, to be followed by grant applications and further books.

The Austmarr network is an international, interdisciplinary network of scholars interested in cultural contacts and developments in the circum-Baltic region in prehistoric and early historic times. We aim to overcome the traditional barriers among different disciplines interested in reconstructing the past (including history, history of religion, archaeology, folklore, linguistics and philology) and between the national traditions in each of those disciplines in reconstructing the crucial role of contacts in shaping the modern ethnic identities (Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Finnic, and Sámi) found around the Baltic. Please see the website. Contact Maths Bertell (maths dot bertell at miun dot se) or Kendra Willson (kenwil at utu dot fi) for further information about the network.


Baldacchino, Godfrey 2004. The coming of age of island-studies. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 95(3): 272-283.

Price, Neil, & Paul Mortimer 2014. An eye for Odin? Divine role-playing in the age of Sutton Hoo. European Journal of Archaeology 17(3): 517-538.

Call for papers

Invitation as .pdf

Schedule (.pdf)

Abstracts (.pdf)