Defining a Culture: The Meaning of Hanseatic in Medieval Turku

By Immonen, Visa | Antiquity, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Defining a Culture: The Meaning of Hanseatic in Medieval Turku


Immonen, Visa, Antiquity


This paper explores the influence of merchants operating out of Germany in medieval Turku by comparing the evidence of documentary reports and the quantity and distribution of imported pottery. The documents make it clear that German merchants were present in the town and generally keep themselves aloof from the local citizens. Bur the pottery tells a different and more subtle story of interaction and involvement in which all parties are potential drivers. The author calls into question the ethnic and exploitative models for a Hansa culture, preferring a post-colonial interpretation that allows us to see the formation of cultures that are hybrid and local in context.

Keywords: Finland, medieval, ceramics, ethnicity, post-colonial, Hanseatic

Introduction. from economics to cultural studies

The study of economic and exchange systems has been a central concern of medieval archaeology since its beginnings. Interpretations have mainly been drawn from the provenance and distribution of ceramics, and also of artefacts of bone, glass, leather and other material, particularly in urban assemblages where they occur in profusion. Urban archaeologists in Finland have focused on Turku (Abo in Swedish), the oldest and largest of the six Finnish medieval towns which was founded in the late thirteenth century. The archaeological evidence from the medieval town has revealed several indications of northern German influence, and recently these influences have begun to be interpreted in terms of Hanseatic culture.

Finnish medieval archaeology has also experienced a shift in interpretation: rather than being seen as indicators of trade, artefacts are now increasingly considered in terms of cultural and ideological interactions and cultural assimilation. It has been argued that the distribution of imported artefacts is not just a symptom of economic transactions, but that they were also a medium for cultural, ethnic, genealogical and social ties contributing to the creation of a Hanseatic culture. In Finland, this new approach to artefacts has largely followed David Gaimster (1999: 67), who argues that the Hanseatic networks of exchange and trade created a proto-colonial scene where the material culture expressed and reinforced the identity of medieval burghers. In this context, the term colonial should not be understood in a territorial sense like modern colonialism, where a colonial power takes control over a geographical area, but rather as an economic and cultural phenomenon affecting the whole Baltic Sea region.

The current paper is a review of the concept of Hanseatic culture used in Finnish medieval archaeology and the criticism it has raised. Using the ceramic assemblage of medieval Turku I will analyse the problems arising from the concept and ask to what extent Hanseatic culture has relevance for understanding the material culture of the town. The term Hanseatic has its beginnings in historians' and art historians' discourse (e.g. Dollinger 1964; Zaske & Zaske 1986; von Achen 1994), but its adoption into the discourse of archaeological material culture studies has raised implications which I seek to articulate and highlight.

Documentary definitions

The basic outline for the development of the Hansa is easy to summarise (Dollinger 1964: 17-32; Schildhauer 1985: 16-17, 176-221). It began as an association of northern German merchants in the thirteenth century and its formation was a part of larger economic, sociopolitical and cultural changes in medieval Europe. During the thirteenth century, emerging new towns increased the importance of the urban populations and urban consumption and, consequently, the specialisation of production and trade. Northern Germany and its merchants were in a position to exploit this new situation and the emerging markets. The Hansa had developed by the mid-fourteenth century from a mercantile association into a community or league of towns, but fundamentally it remained an economic and political system for pursuing the interests and monopoly of north German merchants. …

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