Crossing Disciplinary Borders in Viking Age Studies
Problems, Challenges and Solutions
The 7th Austmarr Symposium
Tartu 1–3 December 2017
What happens when scholars cross the disciplinary borders? What problems are there when a scholar uses the material from one discipline to interpret the material from an entirely different one, and how should the problems be solved? Interdisciplinarity is a prestige word in the academic world. In practice, it has turned out to be more problematic. Material, methods and research issues are often of very different kinds in different disciplines.
This is well-known in research on the Viking Age. In the textually orientated research, among philologists and historians of literature, many scholars have a skeptical attitude towards the use of written sources – often considerably later Icelandic texts – by archaeologists and historians of religion. Text scholars often think they do quite well without the material and findings of other disciplines and claim the written sources speak for themselves. Archaeologists tend to be more open towards crossing the disciplinary borders and towards using written sources in their interpretation – classical examples are the role of the Icelandic Vínland sagas in the interpretation of the finds in L’Anse aux Meadows and the role of Adam of Bremen’s chronicle in the interpretation of the finds in Gamla Uppsala. Historians of religion often use literary sources from different periods as well as archaeological material and later folklore in their reconstructions of pre-Christian belief and cult. Linguists often discuss etymologies in terms of language contacts and place names in terms of distribution without situating them in relation to other aspects of culture. There has also been a recent revival of interest in post-medieval folklore into discussion of the Viking Age, both by representatives of the already mentioned disciplines and also by folklorists. A concentrated methodological discussion is much needed on linking this wide range of research and bringing it into harmony, as well as connecting and uniting research done on different Austmarr cultures – different cultures of the Baltic Sea region.
The necessity of interdisciplinary studies has recently been stressed by several scholars in the debate about the historicity of female Viking warrior leaders, as a result of a brand new article on a grave in Birka (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.23308/full). Should the fact that a woman is buried with weapons and other grave-goods usually connected with warfare in itself be interpreted as a proof of the existence of female war leaders, or is it, as some critical voices have claimed, equally necessary to use written sources for the interpretation, and, if so, what source value do the different written sources have? This ongoing debate is a good example of the importance of the theme of the 7th Austmarr symposium.
Another topical issue which underscores the importance of the symposium theme is the Salme finds (http://www.arheoloogia.ee/ave2012/AVE2012_Peetsjt_Salme.pdf). Is it possible to connect these remains of a failed Swedish military campaign to Saaremaa in the 8th century with Viking age Old Norse poetry mentioning a failed Swedish campaign to Saaremaa some hundred years ago? Could such a combination be used for the interpretation of the finds? The particular topic of the Salme finds will be discussed at a separate session during the 7th Austmarr symposium, where the group behind the excavations (Jüri Peets, Marge Konsa et al.) will present the finds and their interpretation of them and open for a broad interdisciplinary discussion with the symposium participants.
The 7th Austmarr symposium is devoted to the challenges of interdisciplinarity and the combination of different kinds of material. A main aim of the symposium is to promote a better understanding and more fruitful communication between disciplines which share common interests and concerns.