Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Swastikas from the Oseberg Ship Burial, Norway & Time Travelling Nazis ...

Fragment of Oseberg tapestry showing horse-drawn covered wagons (source)
When I first thought about reviving the late Prof Rynne’s lecture on the swastika in Irish art and archaeology I didn’t have many concerns. I though I may (occasionally) have to explain that I’m not an actual Neo Nazi or in some way using the research topic as a vehicle for some form of anti-Semitism. As it turns out that’s never happened, though I do know of one instance where my lecture was boycotted because of the ‘controversial’ nature of the subject. What I hadn’t anticipated was the response of my friends and acquaintances on social media that now see a swastika and immediately post it to me. I genuinely can’t thank you all enough – your contribution to my research is so very much appreciated. Some of the examples sent are known to me, some are new, but all are accepted with gratitude.
Tapestry fragment possibly showing sacrificial victims hanging from trees (source)
Recently my friend James K posted a swastika to my Facebook page from the Oseberg Ship burial in Norway. The Oseberg ship is among the most famous Viking age sites ever investigated – even if you only have a passing acquaintance with all things Viking, you probably know this site. At the very least, you probably know many of the iconic finds recovered during the excavation. The ship housed the remains of two women and was buried in 834AD. However, parts of the ship date to around 800 AD and may be considerably older. Anyone with an interest in the swastika symbol is familiar with the ship because of what’s known as the ‘Buddha Bucket’. The bucket dates to around 750AD and is decorated with a cross-legged figure that bears cloisonné enamel ornament. The latter is in the form of 16 T-shapes, arranged into four groups. Each group of four T’s interlocks to form a swastika shape in the void between them. This item is of particular interest to my research as it is commonly thought to be of Irish manufacture. How it ended up in Norway is, of course, speculation. It’s easy to suggest that it was taken on a Viking raid, but it could as easily have been traded or have been a prestigious and cherished gift. Admittedly, my usual explanation that the figure may one day, of his own volition, have decided to go see the world and hitched a lift with some passing Scandinavians is among the less likely possibilities.
Tapestry fragment of two spear holders near dragon-decorated houses (source)
I had rather though I knew the excavation and its contents well enough, so when James’ post popped up on my screen I read ‘Oseberg’ and though ‘I know this!’ … apparently I don’t know the site quite as well as I thought. I was unaware that Gabriel Gustafson’s early 20th century excavation – amongst the myriad wonderful items – uncovered a series of tapestry fragments. They are in pretty poor condition, but are sufficiently clear to deduce that they include a representation of a procession of horses, carts, and people. The Wiki page on the fragments notes that the late archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad (best known for her discovery of the L'Anse aux Meadows site in Canada) believed that the two ravens depicted on the tapestry represented “Huginn and Muninn flying over a covered cart containing an image of Odin”. Although difficult to see on the original, close examination has revealed a number of swastikas placed within the design. Another portion of the tapestry appears to depict several human figures hanging from a tree. This is frequently interpreted as a human sacrifice and paralleled with Adam of Bremen's description of the temple at Uppsala, with the bodies of sacrificial victims hanging in a sacred grove. I’ve also found an illustration by Sofie Kraft, reproduced as part of a webpage dealing with the Oseberg tapestries showing two spear carriers standing outside two small houses decorated with dragons’ heads on the gables. The space between one of the spearmen and one of the houses is filled by a swastika.
Interpretive reproduction of Oseberg tapestry (source)
In my lecture on swastikas [here], I’m always keen to stress the difficulty in ascribing meaning to an individual swastika and how that meaning probably varied widely over space and time. It is no different here. In a Viking context, it is commonly thought that the swastika is an allusion to Thor. For example, the inscription on the Sæbø or Thurmuth sword was famously read by Stephens as ‘ohmuþ’ or "Owns [me], Thurmuth" with the swastika used as a rebus for the name ‘Thor’. The issue here is, of course, that the allusions in the tapestries appear to refer to Odin, not Thor. The other issue is that the swastika is not the only small figure composed of straight lines that peppers these scenes. Even a cursory examination of the tapestries shows a number of different designs. Probably the most common of these can be described as an arrangement of five squares where the central square has a further shape appended on each corner. It’s a push, but the argument could be made that this is another form of swastika as it retains the rectilinearity and the division of four in the classic swastika. It is, however more difficult to see many of the other symbols in the same light – the ones composed of just three squares, or especially the design under the arm of the individual with the horned helmet. In case of the latter example, I felt that one could argue that there were four squares on either side of the vertical dividing line, making it effectively a double swastika ... but I thought that it was pushing at the limits of credulity and my heart wasn’t really in it. The way I see it, either we have to take the position that all of these symbols have meaning (even if we can’t be sure what it is) or they’ve just been included for stylistic reasons, to balance the composition or just fill out what would otherwise be whitespace. While my position as an individual interested in swastikas draws me towards the idea that they have – wherever and however used – have meaning, but it is an argument that lacks any depth or validity. All I can offer is Etienne Rynne’s oft-used phrase “You pays your money, you takes your choice”.
Enlarged left-hand section of interpretive reproduction (source)
Another recurring theme of my research that is of relevance here is what I describe as the Nazi usage of the symbol now traveling backwards through time, tainting the meaning of the symbol from other contexts and eras. I can’t be certain, but I think that’s what’s happening here too. Thankfully, no one is advocating attacking the original tapestries to unpick the swastikas, but that’s kind of what’s happening in other ways. In my search for images of these tapestries, I encountered the webpage of a now-defunct Norwegian company called Memory who specialised in creating Viking and medieval-themed souvenirs and gifts. Two of the product lines they developed (in conjunction with the staff of the Viking Ship Museum) were based on the Oseberg tapestries. These were a reproduction tapestry and a multi-function cushion cover/placemat. Both items are based on the leading portion of the ‘Odin’ procession. They’re gorgeous and I’d genuinely love to have them in my own home. However, it is clear that the souvenir reproductions all lack the swastikas that appear in the original.
Souvenir tapestry produced by Memory (source)

Comparing the Memory tapestry with the interpretive reproduction it is clear that the souvenir version confines itself to, essentially, the lower order of the leading portion of the ‘Odin procession’. On the left there is an open horse-drawn cart with two people, while on the right a single horse draws a covered wagon, or similar. In each case the space below the horses’ belly is filled by a single spear carrier. Above each horse and carriage is a group of people (nine in total, four on the left, five on the right), some of which are carrying spears. In the scene on the right one of the five individuals is clearly holding the reigns of the horse pulling the covered wagon. So far so good and, barring an added or missing spear here and there both the original and the souvenir are pretty much in sync. Where the major differences lie is in the placement of the rectilinear motifs. As far as I can make out, the only one that survives in its original position is the vertical stack behind the tail of the horse on the right. The remainder of the rectilinear motifs are all moved about from their original positions, but still include the 5-box and 3-box patterns, along with a horizontal dentilesque pattern that is presumably turned through 90 degrees when it was borrowed from elsewhere. If the souvenir version had wished to remain completely true to the original, there should be a swastika between the leading horse and the open carriage, just ahead of the leading wheel. At the very least, we could reasonably expect the inclusion of the symbol somewhere in the composition – but it’s just not there. As an aside, I would note that comparing what I term the interpretive reproduction with photographs of the original tapestries indicates that there are many more rectilinear motifs than are depicted on the modern version. While it would appear that these do include more swastikas, it is also true that the condition of the tapestries is such that they are difficult to be sure of their form ... and they do start to make your head hurt after a while.

Interestingly, the drawing on the Memory webpage labelled as ‘Fragment of the original’ is of a portion of the tapestry that includes a swastika. I have been unable to definitely ascertain, but I think it hardly pushes the limits of reason to suggest that the swastika was dropped from the souvenir version because of the Nazi connotations of the symbol. As it is unlikely that many people would want to purchase a rigorously authentic souvenir of an historical artefact that’s emblazoned with a swastika, I imagine that it was quietly left out of the composition. Historical accuracy is great and all, but when you’re in the business of selling tourist merchandise, every pound and Krone counts. I would see this as similar to the abandonment of the symbol by certain Native American tribes once the US joined the Second World War. Up to this point they were a commonly-used symbol and a selling point that chimed well with the early 20th century obsession with the swastika (itself stemming from the popularity of Schliemann’s excavations at Troy). But once the firm connection to Nazism was made, it became a problematic and dangerous symbol for many, leading to its eventual fall in popularity for everyone except the far Right. To be clear, I am in no way advocating for some form of ‘reclaim the swastika’ movement, nor do I wish to see it brought back into common usage. However, I do feel that we should be aware of how the Nazi pollutant still influences our lives today. Hitler may have ended his life in the bunker in Berlin in 1945, but his decision to use the swastika as the symbol for his regime has had far-reaching consequences that cannot be easily resolved. How we negotiate the presence of swastikas from archaeological and historical contexts is an issue we will have to deal with for some significant time to come.

Souvenir cushion covers/place mats produced by Memory (source)
I am available for lecturing engagements on a range of topics, not just swastikas ... but the swastika one is quite popular ... just saying ...

I've also taken the decision not to highlight the images with the locations of each and every swastika. The main reason for this is that these are gorgeous tapestries that repay detailed attention and appreciation as a whole, not just for their inclusion of individual symbols. It's also fun to play 'hunt the swastika' ... it's character building ... or something ...

Illustration of original fragment of the Oseberg tapestries as shown on Memory webpage (source)