Friday, 3 July 2009

Who were the Danes? An introduction (English)

It has been an ambition of mine for longer than I can remember to combine my interest in archaeology and history with both science and perhaps some more esoteric methods, choosing a path that doesn’t always suit the established professional minds.
Digging deeper into the saga and early poems, for example.
There is a clear tendency to write off the concrete value in e.g. Bjowulf, the Hervarar Saga and Voluspa (The divination of the sorceress)
But why?

It is not a revolutionary new statement that the old sagas and poems just might contain a nucleus of real events. But the step seriously to analyse this fragile literature with the object of excavating a historic background has always been considered scientifically dubious. Writers and amateurs with little to lose have, therefore, led the way. But during the past 20 years archaeologists have increasingly been able to provide evidence from the iron age that turns the sagas and other iconography into descriptions that should not be ignored. People, who previously were laughed at, e.g. the Danish writer Peter Grove, have increasingly become rehabilitated. Their findings and the openness in what is termed “New Archaeology” has made our most ancient – and oral - literature a cultural reality and helped open the door to serious research in the hero-poetry.

Perhaps 95% of the writing passed down to us in the last 1000 years, e.g. Snorre Sturlasson’s Eddas, can be classified as pure literary entertainment; Jeffrey Archer a la 1200 CE; But if the remaining 5% can be used to unravel some of the enigmas of the past, the culture and the people and even give us an indication of our origins – wouldn’t that be a boon?

The Roman, Byzantine and Greek historians knew too little about, or were simply uninterested in, what was going on in Northern Europe. It was too far away.
However, hidden in their accounts we sometimes find a few pearls to which we have paid no attention, but which turn out to have great significance. One only needs to consider Jordanes’ totally bungled sentence about the Herules and the Danes. Five words that confused us forever. But if the Goths are our ancestors, then suddenly Theodoric, Didrik of Bern, Ermanrik and many others become hugely important to us. Comparing this information with poems and sagas may then help open our minds and provide a new understanding, however difficult it may be to digest. But it deserves an attempt!

Archaeology today has moved well beyond wellies, mud and digging up old bones. As a science it has moved forward leaps and bounds through incorporating a broad interdisciplinary scientific approach. The first embryonic steps in this direction were taken through pollen analysis, dendro-chronology and C14 dating. With thermo-luminescence, advanced chemical preservation and geophysical radar the scientific tools removed yet another set of barriers. Today the interest has moved into border area studies on Climate, Biotopes and Culture and there is surely more to come.

Comparative studies between the content of sagas and poems and traditional archaeology is a relatively new science - part of the "New Archaeology". But once the professionals open their minds and lose the fear of ridicule, I am sure there is much success to excavate! The historic value of the sagas should not be written off a priori and relegated to the world of story-telling and poetry.
Unfortunately one only needs to surf the Internet to ascertain the wholesale leaning towards a safe narrow-mindedness, but I am sure this is about to change.

Admittedly, once we move into the world of poetry, the scientific ice becomes very thin. Normal verification methods do not always apply. It is incredible, however, how far we can penetrate the darkness through critically comparing sources, using a little common sense and adding otherwise acquired knowledge about cultural issues in the iron age. But with "New Archaeology" and finds from the last 20-30 years many of the more esoteric theories and possibilities have suddenly moved into the world of reality.

We know that we will never get to the bottom of all the enigmas. But even a little progress has value. And it’s exciting. Will we ever know if we really found Raedwald’s ship and burial mound at Sutton Hoo? Did he know Hengist and Horsa? Or were the Geats, the Getae, the Gautae and the Danes identical?

Frankly, I find it healthy if we only get half way – or even that far. There has to be something left for our curiosity leaving a reason for both carrot and whip.

In the course of the years to come I shall try to find – or perhaps rather choose? – my own holy grail: “Who were the Danes and where did they come from?”

What a task, but as a minimum I will add another column of light in my life’s memory!

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