Stones in the Snow: A Norse Fur Traders' Road into Sami Country

By Bergman, Ingela; Ostlund, Lars et al. | Antiquity, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Stones in the Snow: A Norse Fur Traders' Road into Sami Country


Bergman, Ingela, Ostlund, Lars, Zackrisson, Olle, Liedgren, Lars, Antiquity


Introduction

Roads, trails and paths can provide information about the social, political and economic organisation of societies (Earle 1991; Davies et al. 2005; Pipo & Hunt 2005). They are tangible expressions of communication and so give physical shape to social relationships (Snead 2002: 756-57). Prehistoric roads have formed a focus for archaeological research in south Scandinavia (cf. Jorgensen 1996; Larsson 2001; Mahl 2002; Rudebeck 2002; Thorn 2002; Qvistrom 2006), while in northern Fennoscandia, ancient trails and roads have generally received less attention (e.g. Smedstad 1988; 1996; Ericsson et al. 2003). In northern Sweden, trails linked to the Nasa Mountain mining enterprises and the so-called 'Judge's Trail', both dating to the seventeenth century, have been studied (Hoppe 1945; Agren 1983). Those trails are in the interior forest and coastal regions, and are mainly marked by blazed trees. To date, no trails in the mountain region have been recorded, despite the long history of Sami settlements and migrations, and the importance of the mountains in the east-western trade since prehistoric times. Carefully built and reliable trails would have been essential for inter-societal relations in this sparsely populated region.

The area where the native Sami settled extends from northern Norway and Sweden to the west to the Kola Peninsula in the east, crossing the borders of four nation states. Sami language and culture differ significantly from that of the surrounding Nordic, Finnish and Russian societies. The Sami had developed as an ethnic group by the end of the first millennium BC (Mulk 1994: 7; Hansen & Olsen 2004: 36-42), and the first known mention of Sami people was by Tacitus in AD 98 (Fjellstrom 1985: 52). Hunting and fishing were their main economic activities until c. AD 500, when reindeer pastoralism emerged in parts of their territory (Aronsson 1991; Storli 1993).

During the Iron Age, Sami settlements expanded extensively into the area on the border between Norway and Sweden, probably related to the emergence of reindeer herding. Semi-subterranean hut remains of the so-called stallo-type--characterised by sunken floors surrounded by embankments (see Mulk 1994) suggest there was intense systematic use of a previously unexploited ecological niche close to the tree limit. Radiocarbon dates show that stallo-huts were first established during the ninth century AD and fell into disuse during the eleventh century AD (Liedgren et al. in press). During this period, the Sami became major fur suppliers for northern Europe. Artefacts found in Sami settlements were made as far away as Karelia, the Baltic countries, central Russia, southern Scandinavia and England (Serning 1956; Zachrisson 1984; Bergman 1991; Wallerstrom 1994; Mulk 1996; Hedman 2003).

The high mountain range formed a natural barrier separating the interior lowlands from the Atlantic coastal areas, but the mountain Sami situated in the centre of east-west commerce provided a connecting link. The Sami who lived in the mountain area were closely connected to the Norwegian chiefdoms through trade and taxation (Haetta 1980). The products that the Sami provided were crucial to the wealth of the chieftains (Hansen 1990: 173). During the eleventh century, central royal power grew strong at the expense of the local chieftains, and, eventually, the Norwegian king took control of the Sami trade and taxation (Hansen 1990: 201). However, the Church was a rival power with strong economic interests (Fjellstrom 1982; 1985: 63). From the second half of the sixteenth century onwards, the Arjeplog mountain region was one of the northern areas subjected to the rule of the Swedish king.

During archaeological investigations of Sami Late Iron Age settlements in the alpine area of Arjeplog, Sweden, a trail across the mountains was discovered, marked by pairs of erected stone slabs. Such markers have not been recognised in the archaeological record before. …

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