The Ethics of Historical Archaeology
Virtually all historical archaeologists are fascinated by seemingly prosaic things like ceramics, bones, and buttons…
In July 2011 I spent a month in Oulu, Finland with my colleague Timo Ylimaunu and a group of post-doctoral students who are doing historical archaeology in one of the northernmost cities on the face of the planet. Archaeologies of the last half-millennium are relatively rare in most of northern Europe, where there is an exceptionally rich prehistoric record and a scholarly tradition that frames archaeology as a scholarship on the distant past, but the University of Oulu has focused much of its recent fieldwork on the post-1500 material record of globalization and colonization on the northern Gulf of Bothnia. Some of the material culture inevitably is not at all like what we find in North America, but much of the material they excavate is identical to the things found on archaeology sites throughout the colonial world; likewise, their research questions are questions much like those historical archaeologists ask almost everywhere in the world. Scattered European scholars in places like Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Austria have been conducting historical archaeology for quite a while, and Oulu is simply among a recent wave of new research from European colleagues. Nevertheless, some of this work remains unknown to many of us in the US, because these European scholars cannot always attend conferences in North America, their scholarship was long somewhat inaccessible in print, and even with digitization some material is not in English. Yet with a little persistence it is becoming increasingly more practical to follow the scholarship in places like Europe, Africa, and Latin America, where a rich range of archaeologies of the last half-millennium are being conducted.
I met Timo and his colleagues in Aberdeen at the Conference on Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) in 2010, where they were presenting work from the University of Oulu’s most recent project “Town, Border and Material Culture: Effects of Globalisation and Modernisation in Northern Finnish Towns Since the 15th Century.” The Town, Border, and Material Culture project began in 2009 and examines the transition from the medieval to the early modern period in the northern Gulf of Bothnia. Founded as a Swedish city in 1605, Oulu is one of a series of towns on the gulf, which reaches northwards nearly to the Arctic Circle and has long provided goods including fish, fur, tar, and paper. Archaeologists throughout the world have examined what globalization looks like in local materiality, and the Oulu project does much the same thing examining how, in their words, “everyday life changed in relation to … an emerging new worldview.” Their project examines archaeological data from sites excavated since 1973 and has included intensive documentary research on town maps and illustrations, probate inventories and fire insurance records. The project is funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation and the Academy of Finland and has included three PhD dissertations. Risto Nurmi’s dissertation “Development of the Urban Mind—an Object Biographical Approach,” for instance, examines urbanization in Tornio and the ways residents defined imported and local material goods in forms that often departed quite significantly from their dominant social, economic, and cultural meanings. Nurmi’s dissertation (which is in English) examines consumption and urbanization questions familiar to most historical archaeologists, but it ultimately questions how many American models of consumer status and display actually translate to the many worldwide markets where the identical goods were being purchased, used, and discarded. Like much of the most interesting international historical and post-medieval archaeology, Nurmi’s study and the Oulu project illuminate and complicate some of our most basic assumptions about material culture and global connections.
I have absolutely no background in Finnish culture or history, so it was a bit of a leap for me to go and think I might find some research, but I was confident that I would learn something from Timo and his colleagues. The Oulu scholarship on consumption has indeed forced me to rethink some of my assumptions about shopping and using material things. Like many of our international colleagues, they have an enormous amount of data and field research possibilities, and despite being under their own professional pressures—historical archaeology is a small and not always stable disciplinary niche–they have been very gracious about sharing material and helping me negotiate the place. And every place has some hidden gems: Oulu, for instance, is home to the Air Guitar World Championships (August 22-24, 2012 for those of you contemplating next summer’s vacation), and with the perpetual daylight in Summer (yes, it is a mixed blessing) I was able to spend a lot of time on the city’s astounding network of 550 kilometers of bike paths, which they say is the highest per capita amount of bike paths anywhere in the world.
Dr. Ylimaunu and his York University colleague James Symonds will be chairing a session on European historical archaeology at the SHA Conference in Baltimore on Thursday morning January 5th including work by Pavel Vareka (University of West Bohemia, Czech Republic), Natascha Mehler (University of Vienna), Per Cornell (University of Gothenberg, Sweden), Jonathan Finch (University of York), and Oulu archaeologists including Titta Kallio-Seppa, Annemari Tranberg, and Anna-Kaisa Salmi, so do drop by and say hello. And if you are sufficiently curious about Oulu in particular and Scandinavian archaeology in general, think about attending Nordic TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) in Oulu April 25-28, 2012.