“How American Art Historians and Archaeologists Use [Scandinavian] Materials”

By Nancy L. Wicker
Minnesota State University, Mankato

In the session: “Archival and Research Resources in Iceland and Scandinavia”

sponsored by:
CARA, Committee on Centers and Regional Associations for the Advancement of Medieval Studies,
The Medieval Academy

International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo MI
6 May 1999

The purpose of my presentation and handout is to assist scholars of medieval language and literature in carrying out research effectively with materials more commonly studied by archaeologists and art historians. I hope to provide an overview of practical aspects of research on material culture focusing on major collections and resource units in Scandinavia, most particularly Sweden, but also Norway and Denmark to a certain extent. Though most of you are probably textual scholars rather than archaeologists or art historians, you may be interested in examining objects—whether spindle whorls, keys, glass, or whatever—mentioned in texts or you may be interested in examining “texts” on objects other than manuscripts. In particular, you may want to examine objects with runic or other inscriptions—the meeting ground for interpretive techniques used in these different disciplines.

In my seventeen years of research with Scandinavian collections, several times I have been in residence at a museum when language and literature specialists have arrived wanting to examine objects and inscriptions on objects such as bracteates, brooches, runestones, and other objects. Museum staff often felt that these “interlopers” sometimes did not observe accepted behavior for examining objects. To my knowledge, there is no “book of etiquette” for examining archaeological and art historical artifacts, but I hope that I can suggest some points to keep in mind when planning to examine objects. My own training and research is both archaeological and art historical, so I will try to speak to both subjects. There are areas of overlapping concern in these two disciplines, and, indeed, there are occasional overlaps that interest the language, literature, and history specialists.

A few words of explanation are necessary when dealing with this material. In Scandinavia, the periods just before Christianity are called the Iron Age and are most generally left to the archaeologists, while only the period after the conversion to Christianity is considered Medieval, and the material culture of this period is covered by art historians. Thus if you want to study Migration Period or Viking Period material, you will need to contact the Iron Age departments of museums. Americans occasionally make the mistake of using our period distinctions and contact the Medieval rather than the Iron Age departments for the material they want to study. I hope that I can help you avoid such pitfalls.

1. Locating the objects and contacting the museums:

First I would like to talk about locating the objects and contacting the museums that house them. The researcher who wants to examine artifacts in Sweden must carry out the background research to determine the current location of the objects. There are published catalogues of major artifact categories such as bracteates and runestones, but other artifact types are not so neatly categorized. It is crucial to find as much information about the objects you want to examine, in particular the museum accession number and as many details as possible about the find location since finds are organized according to sites within parishes within provinces. Most of this information can be found from the U.S. before you leave home, and doing so will make best use of your time and money. It will probably be easier to locate the pertinent books at your own library (even if you must use Interlibrary Loan) than to rely on locating them in an unfamiliar setting after you get to Scandinavia. (Getting access to a research library should not be a problem in the major university cities, but hours will be limited and you may not have loan privileges.)

Medievalists wanting to examine artifacts in Sweden will have most of their needs met in Stockholm at the Statens Historiska Museum (SHM), or Museum of National Antiquities. Although this institution is primarily considered an archaeological museum, it also is responsible for Swedish cultural history and art from the Stone Age to the sixteenth century. Therefore, art historical collections of the medieval period are also housed there, although later art is at the Nationalmuseum. Besides the archaeological collections and a temporary exhibition about the Viking town at Birka, the Museum of National Antiquities is known for its exhibition of medieval textiles as well as what the museum calls “church movables.”

Collections in Norway and Denmark also follow this pattern, with archaeological and Christian medieval art in the same museums but with later art in other collections. In Norway the major museum is the Oldsaksamling in Oslo, and in Denmark the primary collection is the Nationalmuseum in Copenhagen.

There have been differing philosophies of central versus dispersed collections over the years in all three countries. Around twenty years ago, there was a growing tendency toward allowing provincial museums to retain objects from their own regions, but this was nipped in the bud after a disastrous series of burglaries and unfortunate incidents in several museums.

Though most medieval collections are actually in these central collections in Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen, some finds have remained dispersed in provincial museums in the three countries. In addition, medievalists will find many other museums of interest, which I have listed in an accompanying brochure. Almost all the major museums that may interest the medievalist are accessible on-line, so finding information about museums in Scandinavia is becoming easier and easier.

Once you’ve located the appropriate museum, sometimes it is difficult to decide where to address your inquiry. One rule-of-thumb is that you should write to a specific curator who deals with your material, which is great if you already know who this person is. However, the organization of departments and personnel may change, such as when the National Museum of Antiquities in Stockholm reorganized on September 1, 1998. Now there are departments of Collections, Documentation, Development and production, and Support, instead of Stone/Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Medieval antiquities. Also, be aware that a letter may lie unopened if the person to whom it was addressed is on leave for a year. Therefore, some advise that you should address your inquiry to the appropriate department in a larger museum or merely to “curator” (unspecified). In this way, if the curator has recently changed positions or even museums, or if the person has died (!) your letter will be directed to the current curator. Eventually letters will get answered; however, they may not be answered as quickly as you hoped. A crisis on your part may not be treated likewise by museum officials unknown to you on the other side of the ocean.

Make sure that the museums can easily contact you. Do not forget to send information about how to contact you by various methods—including address, fax number, and e-mail address—both at home and at any stable address that you will have if you will be traveling extensively. Also inform them of your tentative itinerary, especially letting them know when you will be leaving the U.S.

2. Communicating with contacts before arrival and during the visit.

Next, I would like to make some suggestions about communicating with contacts before arrival and during your visit. Once you have identified the pertinent museum departments or individuals to contact, requests for permission to examine the objects should be initiated. Present your research subject and tell what you intend to do during your visit. You are expected to demonstrate why it is necessary for you to examine the artifacts in person. As much as possible, you should send lists of the finds or objects you wish to study. Give the inventory number as well as province, parish, and locality for the provenance of the find or object. If you cannot procure the inventory number, the topographical information becomes even more important for the staff to be able to find the material in question. You may need to produce lists organized according to both inventory numbers and provenance. At one museum, I had my list arranged by inventory numbers ready, but they had the objects filed by provinces and parishes, so the numbers meant nothing to them. If you are dealing with many objects, you presumably will have organized a database of the information. Having a thorough database available on a laptop will help you provide various kinds of information and be as adaptable as possible.

Other topics for discussion include scheduling your visit and inquiring about possible conflicts due to conservation of artifacts or loans to traveling exhibitions. If you want to request permission to photograph objects or if you need a microscope or special lighting, you should make such requests as far ahead of time as feasible and be specific about your needs and rationale. You also need to be very specific about objects that you want to examine simultaneously for comparative purposes. At one museum, I was frustrated when I was only allowed to examine one object at a time since I had wanted to compare the pieces. Depending upon the extent of the material that you want to examine, the museum may not give you access to everything at one time for security or logistical reasons.

Museum contact personnel may range from extremely knowledgeable and helpful for your study to nearly ignorant of your needs and interests. Sometimes the world’s authorities on your topic may be happy to assist—they are likely to be curious about who you are and what you want to do with “their” objects. Often they will be very helpful with suggestions of other artifacts and published material to consult. If you have problems getting access, it is very unlikely that they are trying to block your access to the material; it is more likely that the material has temporarily been loaned, another researcher has requested to study the material during the same time period, or there are no personnel available to assist you at the time you have requested. Museums really do consider it an important part of their responsibility to further the development of knowledge by giving researchers an opportunity to study objects from their collections.

The person with whom you have previously communicated may or may not be the person who assists you at the museum. It is likely that a head curator may correspond with you, but when you appear at the museum in Scandinavia, this person may be on leave, at a meeting, or engaged in research. Someone will be assigned to assist you in viewing the objects. This person may know nothing about the material and is merely the staff person who is available. This staff member will probably be the one who will be in charge of practical matters such as getting keys and access to the collections.

When you arrive at the museum, it may happen that the objects you planned to examine are not available for study. Adequate communication before arrival should prevent this; however, occasionally objects are moved on short notice. When I arrived at one museum, I was told that the bracteates I had planned to examine had been placed in storage while a new exhibition is being built. The objects were in warehouse in the harbor area, and my museum contact told me which bus to take to get myself there. Such happenings can wreak havoc on your travel schedule, which should never be too tight!

Sometimes, museum personnel go beyond the call of duty and perform personal acts of assistance such as suggesting reasonable lodging, arranging for mailing a package of books home, assisting in locating books and reports for me to purchase, or even helping with complicated travel plans for getting to the next museum. While you should not expect such assistance, it pays to ask those who know the area when you are dealing with the headaches of traveling in an unfamiliar country for research purposes.

. Examining the objects.

Next I would like to give some advice for the study of the objects themselves. At this point, you will finally get to handle the material you have been studying so long. I know that I was very excited the first time Jan Peder Lamm placed a gold bracteate in my hand at the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm! Protocols for handling materials vary from collection to collection, but there are guidelines for dealing with artifact categories such as various metals, wood, bone, stone, textiles, and so on. Practical considerations and the etiquette of handling the objects, such as use of cotton gloves, tend to vary from museum to museum. In general, there is no need to use gloves when handling gold which is inert, but if you are examining iron or bronze objects, you will need to wear them. However, some institutions are hyper-correct and require you to wear gloves for everything, while others are less strict and discount their use entirely. You should simply accept whatever they want you to do.

Of course, you must be scrupulous about keeping artifacts with their respective boxes and inventory numbers. Normally an object will have a number written on it somewhere, but some numbers on objects found a hundred years ago are beginning to wear off. Carelessness about handling objects and replacing them into the proper containers can lead to alarming situations in which objects are mistakenly thought to be missing or even stolen. Several times I have wanted to examine objects that the curators could not find because they had been placed in the wrong box or tray at some time in the past.

You should plan your work to achieve as much as possible during one visiting period. The material you wish to study will probably be taken out of the storerooms by the staff and placed in a study room for you. Then you will likely be placed in this room with the materials that you have requested. It is crucial that you communicate with the staff person assigned to you about the logistics of breaks, what hours you are allowed to have access to the materials, and what your are to do with them when you are finished. Otherwise, you may get locked in a room for many hours before someone reappears! Be specific in your questions about what to do with the material if you need to use the toilet or what happens when it is time for lunch or coffee breaks. They may want you to phone someone to get the material from you, or you might be allowed put the objects in a day-safe.

Coffee breaks are very important in Scandinavia. While you may feel that you do not have enough time for lunch or coffee breaks, your hosts may consider you discourteous if you skip breaks. If you know any Scandinavian languages, try to use it, especially for logistical and practical considerations. Although all museum staff will know some English and they may switch back to it if it becomes clear that their English is stronger than your foreign language skills, trying to use the language will make coffee and lunch breaks and personal courtesies go much more smoothly. Even if your knowledge of the language is rudimentary, most will appreciate your efforts.

You will want to accomplish as much as possible to get the greatest possible benefit from your museum visit. At the same time, you cannot neglect the security of the objects. Stringent security measures are enforced if you want to examine gold and other treasures in the vaults or in the “gold room.” I cannot tell you how to get into the gold vaults at the Museum of National Antiquities, but I can say that when I needed to examine artifacts in the “gold room,” it took the exhibition designer, carpentry staff, guards, and several other people a couple of hours to take apart the exhibition and obtain the objects for me to examine. It could only be done on Mondays when the collection was not open to the public. In other museums, the system is quite different, and objects could only be removed from the exhibition while the area is accessible to the public on Tuesday through Friday. There are as many systems as museums. It is important to remain flexible to deal with difficulties and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. You might be disappointed and prevented from seeing what you wanted due to last-minute problems, but it is more likely that you may get the opportunity to examine more than you expected. On one occasion, I was told, “well, while we’re in here, don’t you want to look at the later ones, too?” In another instance, after trying for an hour to take an exhibition apart, I was told, “well, we’re just not going to be able to take that glass out, so we can’t get the object out for you.” You may be very disappointed, but depending upon how much energy and time have been expended, it might be best to just admit defeat and thank them for helping.

Besides instances of extremely high security, you may encounter very lax systems. This can be much more disconcerting than high security. If a valuable object is damaged or disappears shortly after your visit, you can feel comfortable if there is scrupulous documentation that you returned every piece. Low security can allow you to feel unnecessarily vulnerable. If you encounter careless attention to details or overall security, you may want to alert officials, but you also need to be discrete and not bring it to the attention of people who do not need to know.

Protocols of examining non-precious materials vary considerably. Handling of ceramics varies according to the condition of the material. Dealing with high-fired glazed later medieval ceramics is a very different matter from examining friable Migration Period pottery. Osteological and wooden materials that require careful conservation may be of interest to this audience in the case of bones and wooden sticks with runic inscriptions. These materials are treated very differentially depending upon the conditions under which they were discovered. Materials such as earth-bound textiles require very special handling, but are not likely to be examined by textual scholars.


If you have asked for permission to photograph the objects, come prepared for a variety of conditions. You should have a variety of film types with you because you will probably not have any choice about where you will be allowed to examine and photograph the objects. If you are examining non-precious materials, you may have to work with fluorescent lights, such as if you are placed in the basement study room at the Museum of National Antiquities. If you are fortunate enough to be working with gold or silver, or perhaps bronze, you will be working under different conditions for security reasons, and the lighting situation may be much better for photography. If you want to do color photography, use tungsten film with incandescent light or use daylight film if you can work near a window. You will probably be working under very low light conditions, so be sure to have a mini-tripod and cable release.

If you want to use a microscope or a photo-microscope, you will need to request it far ahead of time, and there simply may not be one available. If using a photo-microscope, try to get someone to instruct you in how to use it. I used a such a microscope in Stockholm in 1982. Before my return in 1997, I inquired about it, but no one had used it for years and its whereabouts were unknown. After I arrived in Stockholm, we had to find it and then I had to reconstruct how to use it. I wasted several rolls of film re-learning how to use the photo-microscope and was very happy that I had plenty.

Also be prepared with more than enough film so that a blunder such as rolling your film that you had planned to reuse back into the camera by mistake is not a disaster. The museum will not be happy to keep objects out of the display cases for additional days because you bungled your photography. The topic of how to photograph different kinds of objects extends far beyond the what I can cover here. Just try to practice beforehand photographing objects of similar size, surface, and materials. Before working with gold bracteates, I practiced with shiny coins, though I did not have any gold ones.

If you are doing much photography, you will need to find a good local photo shop. It pays to ask at the museum. Occasionally the in-house photography staff will be able to assist you for free, though not in Stockholm. SHM Picture, the archives for images of objects, takes commissions from client’s orders for a hefty fee—their price-list is available on the web. Situations vary from museum to museum—in Copenhagen, the museum’s photography department developed my film for a reasonable price, and in both Oslo and Stockholm, the curators or their assistants were happy to recommend a good photo shop where the museum itself has photographic work done. Sometimes your museum contacts may be able to arrange a discount for photographic services at local shops for research or educational uses, especially for longer stays and if you will be doing extensive photography.

4. Locating objects and structures not in museums:

Not all of the objects you may want to examine are located in museums. In particular, you might want to see Gotlandic picture stones, runestones and runic inscriptions on rock outcroppings, and paintings, stone carvings, and liturgical objects in churches.

Of about 6,000 known runic inscriptions, at least 3,600 are in Sweden. Of these, 2,500 are runestones from the late Viking period of the eleventh century; in addition, there are some runestones in the early futhark from the Migration and Vendel Periods. Sweden’s runic inscriptions are published in Sveriges Runinskrifter, which began in 1900 with Öland’s inscriptions. Fifteen volumes have appeared, with only Norrland, the last part of Gotland, and the last part with stray finds from Uppland remaining. Inscriptions from Halland, Skåne, and Blekinge were published in Danmarks Runeindskrifter (1941-42, L. Jacobsen & E. Moltke), as are the rest of the Danish inscriptions. Norway’s inscriptions are published in Norges Innskrifter med de Eldre Runer and Norges Innskrifter med de Yngre Runer. In these publications, locations are noted and corpus numbers are listed. However, the earliest volumes were published at the beginning of the century, and some of the runestones have been moved into museums since then, so it may be a good idea to check on the current locations of stones before traveling to examine them. The Swedish “Runverket” is on-line, so you can inquire about locations if in doubt. New Swedish runic finds are published in the journal Fornvännen from Stockholm and in Nytt om Runer published yearly by the Runearkivet (Runic Archive) in Oslo. Its bibliographies are also available on the internet.

The churches of each of the three countries and their ecclesiastical inventories are published in the three series, Sveriges Kyrkor, Norges Kirker, and Danmarks Kirker. If you want to examine liturgical objects and altarpieces, it is especially important to establish whether they are in their original locations in the churches or have been moved to the Medieval Department of the museums in Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen.

If you are planning to look at the stones and churches, plan your mode of transportation in advance. Some years back, an American graduate student bought a pair of hiking boots in preparation for his research on Upplandic runestones. He thought that they would all be close enough to each other that he could walk from one to another; however, this is not really feasible, especially in inclement weather. Sometimes renting a bicycle will be sufficient, especially in Uppland or Gotland. Although public transportation is convenient to reach major cities and towns, it might be necessary to rent a car to reach many locations in rural areas throughout the landscape. To plan your routes, obtain maps, such as the Swedish Blå kartan series of 1:100,000 (and similar for Denmark and Norway—also 1:50,000) that mark the locations of runestones, picture stones, and churches. There are special map stores, Kartbutiken on Kungsgatan in Stockholm and Nordisk Korthandel in Copenhagen, where you can purchase these and other specialty maps. Norwegian maps are available at most good bookstores in Norway, with the 1:50,000 perhaps the most convenient scale. A very convenient 1:100,000 topographic atlas is available for the whole country of Denmark.

5. Thanking your hosts.

Finally, do not forget to thank your hosts. Try to get the names of everyone who assisted you so that you can write to thank them. Even if you do not write to everyone, it is courteous to write to your contact and extend thanks to others who helped you. You also need to keep a record of those who assisted you so that you will be able to acknowledge them later when you publish material.

After hearing all of these warnings and cautions, you may wonder if it is worth all this bother to attempt to examine objects in person. I would say in most cases, yes. You will never see the same details of an inscription on a bracteate by looking at an illustration from Hauck’s corpus of bracteates as you would see by examining the piece yourself. While it is not always feasible for museums to allow everyone to see all objects, museum employees are there to assist you and they do want their objects to be studied. If your thesis, dissertation, or new research project deals with objects, you should examine them yourself. You can never fully trust someone else’s reading of the objects, and even if you do agree with the experts, you need to see the actual object to really know what it is like.