Painting the past in 19th-century Norway

The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe.  The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling.  In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era.  In the West it’s Late Antique.  Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period.  In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one).   The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age).  The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.

I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age.  For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age.  This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire.  Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones.  They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not.

These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters.  Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint.  Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814.  Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana).  A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste.  The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6).  Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.

Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition.  Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting.  Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject.  A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains.  Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.

Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:

  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
  • Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
  • Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
  • Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
  • Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
  • Menhir by the Sea (1838)
  • Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
  • Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
  • Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
  • Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]

All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany.  The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment.  Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few.  Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape.  People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us.  Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own.  Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Domen near Vordingbord in Winter (c.1825). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings.  Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché.  He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal.  Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles.  In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past.  In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker).  Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).

Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains.  They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers.  They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past.  This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1838). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Johan Christian Dahl’s Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1841). Source: Project Muse.

None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn.  Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one.  During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed.  As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature.  Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.

As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery.  While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes.  Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context.  The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive.  Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures.  Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl.  Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage.  With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.

Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites.  For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists.  Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor.  Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?


Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from, accessed July 2015].

Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Field notes 2: The Viking ship museum, Oslo

On Sunday I had a free day in Oslo.  I had arrived at the decision some time ago, thoroughly cemented after visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition in the British Museum where the somewhat sad remnants of the Viking ship Roskilde 6 were displayed in their rather more impressive aluminium exoskeleton, that if I could do only one thing in Oslo it would be to see the Viking ship museum.

The museum displays the spectacularly preserved carcasses of three ships and their associated finds from burial mounds at Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune.  I’m not going to repeat much information about them here, as you can get that from the far more reliable source of the museum’s website, which I’ve linked to above.

According to the information boards, the decorative metalwork that may have accompanied these burials was seemingly robbed long before their excavation in the later 19th and early 20th century.  The notable exception being the horse gear from another ship burial at Borre (the ship does not survive), which has lent its name to a whole style of Viking art.

In my last post, I talked briefly about the power of material culture to inspire intellectually.  Perhaps because my knowledge of the Viking period is rather limited, these vessels did no so much provoke insight as evoke emotion.  No quantity of photographs can communicate the sense of sheer, dark mass that these colossal vessels evoke, rising in such graceful yet powerful curves to tower over the viewer.  Even as ancient museum pieces they don’t exactly appear fragile.  I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that intimidation, whether through conspicuous display or actual violence, was the purpose behind the construction of these hulks, but that’s certainly how I read them.

The decorative wood carving and its level of preservation on the Oseberg ship was remarkable.  Once again, the motifs combine grace and elegance with the lurid and menacing world of the Viking mythos.  This was also impressive on the four sleighs and other smaller items found alongside the Oseberg ship.

As a final comment, if you ever happen to visit the museum make sure to save some time to squint in frustration at the textile remains in their little darkened room, it’s worth damaging your eyesight for, and I’m half blind as it is.


The Oseberg ship


The robust hull of the Gokstad ship


Grizzled remnants of the Tune ship


Detail of the Oseberg stern


Knobbly attachment (technical term) of the Oseberg rudder


Leather bindings on the Oseberg rudder


Detail of the Oseberg ship stern


Detail of the Oseberg prow


Internal detail of the Oseberg prow


A decorative post (one of four) from the Oseberg burial


Detail of one of the four Oseberg sleighs


A further detail of the same Oseberg sleigh

Field notes 1: Stavanger, Norway

On Friday I finished a week’s work at the Arkeologisk museum i Stavanger, recording about a hundred or so Migration Period brooches as part of the fieldwork element of my postdoctoral project.

During my time in Stavanger I also had the opportunity to explore the town and learn a little about its history.  These days, cruise ships aside, Stavanger derives considerable wealth from its offshore oil rigs, and it has a whole museum dedicated to to the history and processes of extracting oil from the sea floor, replete with (perhaps a few too many) tiny scale models of rigs.  The colossal, earth-shattering drills, however, were my favourite bits.


What is this? An oil rig for ants?



From the late 19th century to the 1960s, however, Stavanger was a relatively poor town, with an industry based on canning fish. Indeed, the town has a canning museum too, located on the site of one of the old factories, where you get to relive the godawful experience these people (and children) lived through by seeing if you could fill a tin with plastic sardines in 6 seconds.  It took butterfingers here 15 seconds.  Though I would’ve been sacked, I’m proud to say that all the little fish were put to bed especially neatly in strict typological order.


The highlight was all the old sardine tins, if you’re into that kind of thing

Petroleum and little fish aside, my time at the museum was very fruitful indeed.  It was a real pleasure to work under the generous guidance of the extraordinarily knowledgable staff of the museum.  I really couldn’t have asked for much more.  Despite having spent some months trawling through the Norwegian literature and catalogues, there really is no substitute for listening to the people who have worked with their collection for years, and have a seemingly encyclopaedic and highly valuable knowledge of the region.

This alone is reason enough to travel so far to visit the collection first hand. The other invaluable thing about handling these objects is that you notice aspects you haven’t before.  Spend too much time looking through catalogues, and it becomes hard to imagine these items as anything more than two-dimensional diagrams.  In the flesh, you not only notice more, but you also remember the power of material culture to inspire thought and insight.  To me it’s the equivalent of reading a primary text rather than the notes someone else had made on it.

Consequently, with just a few days handling these objects (it’s been nearly 3 years since I was last doing this kind of work), I’ve already thought of a couple of articles I’d like to write.

This time round, I’ve pared down my recording technique.  During my PhD research, I took along an array of equipment and pro forma sheets for recording each object in infinitesimal detail.  I took close to 40 measurements of each item, to a tenth of a millimetre, as well as extensive written notes on the placement of certain decorative aspects, and so on.  This led to quite an extraordinarily detailed dataset, but it was arduous and time consuming. Very little of it ever turned out to be useful for the project at hand. Additionally, this level of detail is entirely unfeasible for my present, much larger project.

This time around, I’m using just a camera and a notebook.  I’m taking high quality images of the fronts, reverses and profiles of each item as standard, plus detailed shots of anything I find interesting.  This could be a number of things, including close-ups of tiny punched decoration, iconographic motifs, technical details to do with casting technologies, repairs or wear patterns.

I use my notebook to jot down summary descriptions of each item, if necessary, plus any other details of interest. Usually this is to do with unique or at least rare characteristics, perhaps notes on where I’ve seen such features before.  I also have some small sketches of details I’m worried might not show up in the photography, or to remind me what to look out for in those photos.


My trusty notebook

My notebook also includes critical details like museum (accession) numbers and running photo identification numbers, which allows me to locate the photos of particular objects when I get back home and have to deal with all these data.  This is perhaps the most important aspect given that in just a week I have already accumulated more than 2,600 photos.  These of course need to be sifted through as most photos are bracketed (3 shots of each view, taken at high, low and supposedly ideal exposure).  Needless to say, my notepad and backup hard drive are at present probably more precious to me than my passport.

After a long (and at times precipitous) train journey, I arrived in Oslo last night.  I’ll be here for a few days working with the university’s collection. Watch this space!

The Migration Period brooches of Norway (research update)


An enormous relief brooch from Dalem, Nord-Trondelag, Norway (length = c. 23cm). This fine illustration is taken from Oluf Rygh’s Norske Oldsager (Fig.259)

During the last few weeks I’ve been compiling a catalogue of 5th- and 6th-century brooches from Norway. Due to the scope of my project, these have only been taken from published sources and compiled with the indispensable help of the Universitetsmuseenes arkeologisamlinger (Norway’s online catalogue of its university collections). By far the largest and most useful of the published catalogues are Joachim Reichstein’s (1975) corpus of cruciform brooches, and Thorlief Sjøvold’s (1993) corpus of relief brooches. No doubt, this leaves out a number of more recent finds, but the numbers are sufficient to show an overview of the kinds of patterns these finds follow. Currently, I’m working on the rest of Scandinavia, the Netherlands and northern Germany.

In addition to relief brooches and cruciform brooches, which were the two largest and most decorative varieties of brooch worn in Migration Period Norway, I have also included a sample of the less impressive types. For the most part, these are small, plain bow brooches usually known as “R243” brooches thanks to their place in Oluf Rygh’s (1885) famous catalogue, as well a variety of plain tiny equal arm brooches that come in relatively late in the Migration Period and do not have a standardised name in the English literature, but are usually referred to as likearmede spenner in the Norwegian (Jennsen 1998). In addition to these four major types, there are also a number of what are probably best described as the Norwegian equivalents of Anglo-Saxon small long brooches, some wonderfully serpentine s-brooches, a handful of Nydam brooches and a few other minor varieties.  Although this is work in progress, the distribution of these brooches in Norway predictably follows patterns of overall burial.


The distribution of just over 800 Migration Period brooches in Norway, focused in the southwest but spreading right up the thin western coastal strip

For someone more familiar with the archaeological record of early Anglo-Saxon England, Migration Period Norway presents its own difficulties, but also some points of exceptional interest. The fact that burial in Norway usually involved barrows means that their location was obvious to the barrow diggers and archaeological pioneers of the 19th century. Hence, a relatively large proportion of the extant record was explored quite early in the history of our subject. Founders of early medieval typology and chronology like Oscar Montelius, Oluf Rygh, Bernhard Salin, Haakon Schetelig and Nils Åberg seized upon these rich resources to create systems and catalogues that are still in use today.

By modern standards, the earliest excavations were scientific only to a mixed degree, and our record of many of these barrows sometimes only comprises a mixed or incomplete assemblage of a number of burials all mixed together into one assemblage. Bone seems to have only rarely survived into the present day. There are very few cemeteries indeed that have been extensively excavated, let alone recorded to modern standards.

On the upside, the mass of material assemblages excavated at such an early stage meant that Scandinavian typologies and chronologies were developed much earlier and on a firmer basis than their English equivalents. Indeed, they still provide a solid basis for ongoing work. On the downside, the nature of Norwegian cemeteries and their frequently piecemeal excavation has made the kind of mass comparisons of grave goods, demography and cemetery structure that have long been staples of Anglo-Saxon and Mervovingian burial archaeology somewhat trickier, though certainly not impossible.

One exceptional opportunity that the Norwegian offer is the potential for looking at long-term continuity. The mountainous terrain of the northwest coast of Norway and the scarcity of agricultural land made continuity of settlement almost a necessity. A large number of these barrow cemeteries span the Roman Iron Age, Migration Period and even the Viking Period – a very rare thing in a period more generally characterised by major breaks in tradition, or at least rapid transition.

The nature of Norwegian brooches also differs from the Anglo-Saxon sample in aesthetic terms. Scandinavia relief brooches, a large number of which come from Norway, without doubt constitute some of the artistic masterpieces of the age. Some of these items, such as the relief brooch illustrated above, are simply quite stunning to behold and represent a higher degree of metalworking mastery than can be found in Anglo-Saxon England at this date.  It is a simple yet highly intriguing fact that a relatively larger number of the the Norwegian brooches are silver gilt as opposed to copper alloy (though I expect the same is true for the Continental brooches too). Norwegian relief brooches, and even more so cruciform brooches, grew into complex three-dimensional forms, deeply moulded and beautifully curved making their Anglo-Saxon equivalents appear very flat and indeed flatter as their development continued.

Of course, cataloguing all this material is only the first phase of my work, but thanks to the accumulated work of other scholars over the last century or so my task has been made immeasurably easier, as there are readily available catalogues for the majority of the core brooch types.  My ultimate task, however, is to begin to combine all of this collected scholarship and see what interest can be drawn out from inter-regional comparison.


Jenssen, A. 1998. Likearmede spenner. Overgangen mellom eldre og yngre jernalder i Norge – en kronologisk analyse. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Universitetet i Bergen

Reichstein, J. 1975. Die kreuzförmige Fibel. Neumunster: Karl Wachholtz.

Rygh, O. 1885. Norske Oldsager: Ordnede og Forklarede. Christiania: Alb Cammermeyer.

Sjøvold, T. 1993. The Scandinavian Relief Brooches of the Migration Period. Oslo: Institutt for arkeologi, kunsthistorie og numismatikk oldsaksamlingen.