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)

Friday, July 14, 2017

A gold lunula from Rossmore Park, Co. Monaghan

Continuing my series of images of artefacts from the National Museum of Ireland, I’d like to highlight the beautiful gold lunula from Rossmore Park, Drumbanagher, Co. Monaghan. 

Conventionally, these artefacts are divided into the groups know as ‘Classical’, ‘Unaccomplished’, and ‘Provincial’. The Classical variety show the greatest skill in their manufacture and the greatest symmetry in their decoration. The Rossmore Park is a particularly fine example of the Classical type and is thought to date to around 2000 BC.

It is often thought that, given the probability that they’d be uncomfortable to wear, lunulae may have been worn infrequently – just on special occasions where the display of status and power was important. I would parallel this with many women’s approach to wearing high heels – rather uncomfortable and just for special occasions and/or when power and status displays are needed. I want to deliberately make that link between women and power because (despite the simplistic modern linkage of women and jewellery) the conventional imagery of high status individuals in the prehistoric past is almost exclusively dominated by images of males. This is particularly relevant as osteological examination of Bronze Age burials frequently indicate that women were the recipients of high status burial provisions. So why shouldn’t we imagine that they held power and status in life too?

Whoever – male or female – wore this wonderful lunula would certainly have commanded the attention of all. Whether catching the rays of the sun at an outdoor gathering or glinting madly in the firelight, all eyes would have been upon them and every ear attending to their words …

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Star spangled banners – Flags on display in Austin, TX

In a previous post on the wonderful exhibits to be seen at The Bullock Texas State History Museum, I looked at the fascinating display of the hull and artefacts from the 17th century wreck of La Belle. In this post, I want to touch on their display of American flags. While the modern American flag has a ubiquitous presence – even to Europeans – in our news coverage, movies, TV shows, and social media, I’ve never really given much thought to its history and development. Well, that changed once I stepped into the Museum’s vexillology display. In part, my fascination with this exhibition stems from having lived so long in Northern Ireland, where flags and emblems have been a contentious issue and the past continues to intrude on the present. I’m not going to attempt to give you a complete history of the American flag – you can read the rather good Wiki article on it yourself. Instead, I merely intend to share some of my pedestrian photos of these beautiful and historic flags. Enjoy!

This 13-star flag was handmade around 1790 from a combination of wool and cotton. It is an early version of what was to become known as the Great Luminary Pattern, where the stars are arranged to form a single star. Part of the symbolism of the stars was that together they represented the new nation as a “new constellation”. I did not notice it at first, but each of the stars is set at a slightly different alignment, in an attempt to catch the viewers eye.

While Vermont supported the American Revolution in 1777, they did not become an official State until 1791, when this flag was made. Although they were the 14th state, the Flag Act of 1777 did not allow for the addition of additional stars. Thus, this 14-Star flag is a rare survival and was never officially recognised. Incidentally, the Flag Act of 1794 did allow for the addition of stars but Kentucky had become a State in 1792 and the flag became one with 15 stars.

By 1812, growing American nationalism and continuing trade disputes led to war with Great Britain. This 18-star flag was carried by US troops during the War of 1812. It is made of wool and the stars are arranged in a double medallion pattern, with the inner ring of 6 stars representing the newer additions to the Union.

This 20-Star flag from 1818 was the third official flag of the US. While James Monroe, the President at the time, expressed his preference for a simple arrangement of the stars in ordered rows, here they are oriented differently on every alternate row. As Mississippi’s entry (December 1817) was followed so closely by that of Illinois (December 1818), flags of this design are particularly rare.

If I had to pick a particular favourite for the exhibition, this would definitely be up there. It is a distinctly ‘handmade’ 22-star flag from 1820. Ostensibly, there is so much that’s wrong about it – the stars are red and the canton is in the upper right corner, rather than the upper left. For all that, it is remarkably charming and, even after all these years, the feelings and pride and passion of its creator are still evident. Another interesting thing is, even setting aside the obvious errors, a 22-star flag was never sanctioned. The exhibit explains that the Flag Act of 1818 established the practice of new stars only being officially added on July 4th. Alabama became the 22nd State in December 1819, but Maine became a State the following March. Thus, on July 4, 1820 two stars were added to the flag and a 22-star flag never actually existed. This example can be most probably dated to that narrow three-month window between the two events.  

This 27-star flag is a particularly rare survival as it was created after Florida gained Statehood on March 3rd 1845 but before Texas became a State on December 29th of the same year.

This 30-star flag was made around 1847, but is believed to have been carried into battle at Gettysburg in 1863. During the Civil War official flags bore variations from 33 to 35 stars, but it was not uncommon for individual soldiers to carry older, family flags with them.

Even though the flag was beginning to have a standardised appearance by 1859, when this example was created, there were still no official guidelines. This 33-Star flag was originally a 29-Star example, but had extra stars added as new states joined the Union. It appears that some folks, reluctant to purchase new flags, simply added stars as further States emerged.

While I may not have a huge knowledge of American history, I do have a particular interest in the US Civil War. For this reason, this 33-star flag that was carried at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 is (like the Gettysburg example) particularly evocative for me. A beautiful detail of this flag is the arrangement of the 33 stars, leaving space for the addition of more, symbolising the determination of the Union soldiers.

This is an example of the First National Confederate Flag that was adopted on March 4, 1861, by the Confederate States of America. Like the Union Flag, the canton in the upper left contains the same number of stars as there were States. As this example has 11 stars it must post date June 8, 1861 when Tennessee seceded from the Union. The exhibition rightly acknowledges the duality that still surrounds an object such as this. For some it represents slavery and oppression, while for others it is a symbol of patriotism and heritage. How we regard such potentially contentions symbols and how we negotiate our own understanding of them, coupled with how we value the differing reactions of other groups, is an important issue. It is one that is as pressing in the United States as it is here in Northern Ireland and how we move forward on such issues is a cultural imperative.

A guidon is a pennant that either narrow to a point or fork at the fly end. This example was carried by Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry Regiment in Texas during battles with Plains tribes in the period from 1866-1875. It is an interesting aside, that by 1867 the flag officially had 37 stars, but the Cavalry had a stock of 35-star examples that they continued to carry until their supply ran out.

The Grand Union Flag was first flown in 1776, and was used during the early stages of the American Revolution. This is an 1876 copy, created to commemorate the American Centennial. Ironically, this makes it simultaneously the earliest and latest flag in this collection.

I do not claim to add anything to the scholarship on these flags, and the majority of my comments are base directly on the information cards at the museum. My only hope is that this modest post conveys something of the beauty of the exhibit and the museum as a whole, perhaps even inspire some to visit Austin and The Bullock Texas State History Museum too.

In a lot of my posts I add the suggestion that if you like my writing, I’d be grateful for a donation. Nothing too extravagant – just the price of a pint or a coffee (but I’ll probably just spend it on books). In this case, I’d also add that if you were so inclined, you could consider throwing a few of whatever your local currency is in the direction of the museum: here.