The Knowable, the Doable and the Undiscussed: Tradition, Submission, and the 'Becoming' of Rural Landscapes in Denmark's Iron Age

By Thurston, Tina L. | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Knowable, the Doable and the Undiscussed: Tradition, Submission, and the 'Becoming' of Rural Landscapes in Denmark's Iron Age


Thurston, Tina L., Antiquity


Farmers in Late Iron Age Denmark lived in centuries-old villages, within territories inhabited for millennia. Long-held patterns of settlement, movement, economic interaction and socio-political structure characterized the cultural landscapes of these loosely integrated, heterarchical societies. During the transition to a state in the late Viking Age, many new settlements were established and rapid landscape change transformed older communities into highly controlled, newly regulated places. Such episodes have routinely been dismissed as the result of natural population increases. Examination of cultural landscape change, in conjunction with changes in space-time geography, as developed by behavioural geographers, indicate radical shifts in the daily paths and projects of agricultural producers, caused not by population pressure, but directly related to the state's efforts at centralization through the deconstruction and subsequent rebuilding of the cultural landscape.

Introduction

During periods of social and political upheaval, when classes, factions, ethnic groups and territorial regions agglomerate, disintegrate and reform themselves and each other into new or different things, the linkages between power and place and between individuals and institutions are thrown into uncertainty: the unthinkable may become mundane, the unimaginable commonplace. At such critical junctures, social institutions are vulnerable to radical change, initiated by those who can seize hold of them and, by altering them, reshape their societies. This can be accomplished through combinations of force, the threat of force and the creation of false consciousness. This paper will explore such a crucial social transformation during the late prehistoric-protohistoric sequence of state formation in Late Iron Age and Early Medieval Denmark by monitoring landscape changes in Scania, which was, at that time, an outlying province of the Danish state.

Throughout the period of state-building in Denmark [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], AD 500-1200, rural settlement was characterized by waves of village foundations and episodes of colonization, and the adoption of new farming technology and cropping rotations. For years, population pressure has been the standard explanatory framework (Boserup 1965; Berglund et al. 1991). Recently, social and economic models have been considered (Ridderspore 1988; Callmer 1991), but are not often tested archaeologically.

I argue here that population did not undergo unusual increases during this time. While the first episode of colonization appears to be linked to slow population growth over two to three centuries, I suggest that subsequent radical changes in settlement involved a large-scale redistribution of population, through changes in patterns of nucleation and dispersion. Dramatic changes in rural settlement were engendered by the political and economic strategies of an increasingly powerful central government and changing relationships between classes: rulers and farmers. These changes, and how they affected farmers' daily lives, are revealed through archaeological analysis of the cultural landscape, augmented by Torsten Hagerstrand's concept of space-time geography (1978; 1982), where movement through four dimensions can be quantified, examined and compared under different social, economic and political regimes.

Why landscape?

Changing prehistoric social conditions can be difficult to discern, since they may be sweeping yet subtle, and comprise processes rather than events. As Hastorf notes (1993: 17), many archaeological models of state formation focus on what she terms the being rather than the becoming of states. Since the process of state-building in Denmark was lengthy, uneven and emerged from a society where change from less to more political inequality was being consciously and unconsciously negotiated, looking at the process as an episode of becoming is a profitable paradigm. …

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