Michael Neiß, PhD

Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University
& Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Aarhus University (UrbNet)

International Postdoc (2023-2026) funded by the Swedish Research Council (VR)

Homepage: neiss.se Contact: michael@neiss.se

In recent years, Viking period scholarship is experiencing an unparalleled renaissance in material research. As a result, it has become ‘en vogue’ to study ancient craft products. But in regards to religious change, the role of the craftspeople remains strangely under-exploited. HAbIT aims to understand how the applied arts from urban contexts contributed to making Scandinavia a part of Western Christianity. The project title alludes to ancient craft processes, as well as the digital solutions of today that help us unveil them.

Reconstructed mould and ‘virtual cast’ of the lost ’Odin Mask’ from Ribe, based on a fusion of 3D laser scans on different debris (Illustration: M. Neiß) – representing the pictorial language of a ‘pagan’ culture?
Urnes style brooch from Lindholm Høje, Denmark – representing the pictorial language of a hybrid culture?
Reconstructed ‘Virtual cast’ of a lost pilgrim token that is based on a fusion of several 3D laser scans of mould debris from the town of Ribe – that started out as a VP emporium transformed into a MP cathedral town (Illustration: M. Neiß) – representing the Christian universe, as created by God the Geometer.

The Viking period was an era that saw many “tribal” societies transform into heterogeneous Christian realms with urban centres, which sometimes would grow further on into Medieval period towns. This transformation can be likened to interlocking chains of events that involved a plenitude of agents with different incentives. The progress of Viking Period research has long been slowed down by outdated dichotomies that prevent a fresh-eyed view on the subject. The first one concerns the idea of a monolithic culture within Christian Europe that suddenly came to dispel a corresponding pagan culture up North. This idea can be traced back to a tendency towards essentialism in the field of Comparative Religions that led scholars to focus on major world religions, while neglecting traditions ‘in between’. And yet, previous research points towards the complexities of religious identity during the Christian mission. The second dichotomy concerns two categories of art, i.e. pictorial narratives and symbols on a monumental scale that carried meaningful messages, in contrast to the applied art on practical devices, which was devoid of deeper meaning. This notion was promoted by the combination of a Eurocentric art concept and an evolutionary research paradigm that entailed a pessimistic view on décor-producing, ’primitive’ cultures that were not expected to have reached the necessary intellectual level to connect pictures with meaning. As a result, the key role of Viking Period craftspeople in the religious transformation has been bound to eschew our grasp. Although, the scholarly debate on the Viking Period urbanisation process is finally gravitating towards the significance of craftspeople, it still remains to be connected with the similarly important debate on urban centres as meeting points for ideologies and religions – as attested by Rimbert’s writings on the missionary Ansgar and his endeavours up North! What sets Viking Period towns apart from antedating central places is a constant increase in standardized utility goods that conveyed pictorial messages. A collaborative pilot study with UrbNet at Aarhus university demonstrated that metal casting debris yields clues about the processes that fuelled social change: Nowadays, artisans are envisioned as active creators of the cultural universe they inhabit. Many choices within the manufacturing process are culturally conditioned and express a mentality. Thus, an analysis of operational sequences offers a key to the inner workings of Viking Period society. Certain changes in the artisian habitus that facilitated standardization were not likely caused by capitalistic opportunism but by the very gradual mental shifts that contributed to the emergence of a the very ideological superstructure that transformed Scandinavia into Christian realms. It is therefore imperative to analyze the interplay between this cultural change and the habitus of Viking Period artisans, their pictorial messages and how their output was received at different stages of the process.

HAbIT assesses the potential of this craft-centred analysis, using new natural science data, operational typology and art studies, as well as the theoretical concept of hybridity. It is embedded in a novel conceptual framework, based on informed GT (i.e. a variety of the grounded theory methodology) – which uses established theories to identify distinct patterns that hitherto went unnoticed. Contradictions that arise from the mix of methods are seen as a generator for progress that gives rise to a new theory. As such, I combine dynamic typology from archaeology, Panofskyan hermeneu­tics from art history and multimodal semiotics from linguistics. This way, HAbIT generates both new methods and an empirically grounded theory on the materiality of cultural transformation. Until recently, little could be done in that respect, arguably due to the lack of essential data that is now coming into our reach – as a result of accelerating innovations in theory and method in the natural sciences and the humanities, as well as within digital technology!

Contact: michael@neiss.se

Publications

The réseau opératoire of Urbanization: Craft Collaborations and Organization in an Early Medieval Workshop in Ribe, Denmark

In: Cambridge Archaeological Journal, ISSN 0959-7743, E-ISSN 1474-0540, Vol. 29, no 2, p. 345-364

This paper proposes that the organization of crafts may be a key catalyst in the emergence of urban communities. This is argued through a reassessment of finds from a non-ferrous metal workshop from the eighth century excavated in Ribe, Denmark. We analyse 3D laser scans in order to classify previously unidentified mould fragments, which show that the workshop produced a range of metal parts for composite products like wooden chests, belts and horse harnesses. Such production required an operational network, or réseau opératoire, to combine the necessary skills and expertise of several artisanal specializations. The need for collaboration between specialized craftspeople would have been a decisive incentive for the formation of permanent communities of an urban character. These observations point to a neglected bottom-up driver for the development of early urbanization.

Støbeforme af sten fra middelalderen: Massefremstilling af metalgenstande til verdslig og religiøs brug i Ribe

In: Kuml: Årbog for Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab, ISSN 0454-6245, p. 201-238

The Museum of Southwest Jutland’s collection contains seven fragments of High Medieval metal-casting moulds of stone, all found during construction works and archaeological excavations in Ribe. They contain a great deal of information with respect to the production techniques, craftsmanship and artefact types of the period. Comparisons with other finds, coupled with X-ray analyses, suggest that the moulds were used to cast objects of lead/tin alloy. These mould types and metal types are a reflection of the mass-production of small objects that developed in the High and Late Middle Ages; a phenomenon that is documented in written sources, supported by the large number of artefacts surviving from this period. The artefacts cast in the moulds fall into the category of small objects intended for personal use: costume accessories and ornaments as well as objects with religious/magical symbolism and application. The demand for mass-produced objects included both costume accessories and ornaments intended to be sewn on to clothing, as well as other small objects with either a secular or religious iconography or function.