Settlement biographies and methodological integration in south Scandinavian Iron Age research

Past settlements were inherently complex phenomena, and their surviving remains are often fragmented and opaque. One group of concepts that has recently been used to come to terms with the difficulty of studying settlements are settlement biography or life-history concepts. A key component of these approaches is the acknowledgement that houses and settlements were never static but rather underwent numerous life stages, some of which linked to the biographies of their inhabitants, while others were more independent, occurring after or between periods of occupation.

These concepts have during the last decades added social and cultural dimensions to studies of settlements which, for most of the last century, were dominated by functionalist perspectives. Perhaps because these concepts were introduced as a response to functionalistic thinking, their focus has been on the exploration of cultural biographies, or the cultural meaning given to objects during different stages of their life their connections to the social aspects of the lives of people. Biographical perspectives have also been mainly used reactively to make sense of past excavations and existing data, and only rarely to help design new methodologies.

Parallel to these developments a growing number of archaeologists has, over the last decades, been advocating for more interdisciplinary research as a way for providing settlement archaeology with better empirical foundation.

In this paper I explore whether a biographical perspective can be helpful for proactively guiding methodological integration in studies of the south Scandinavian Iron Age by giving research from various backgrounds a shared core of intent and expectations as well as a long-term research perspective.

For this purpose I focus on an argument by Kopytoff (1986, p.66, writing about biographies of people in introduction to biographies of objects) who defines a solid biographical model as one that:

[… ] is based on a reasonable number of actual life-histories. It presents the range of biographical possibilities that the society in question offers and examines the manner in which these possibilities are realised […] And it examines idealized biographies that are considered to be desirable models in the society and the way real-life departures from these models are perceived.

Translated into archaeological terms, such a biographical approach calls for a careful and long-term merging of various strands of research. It needs the larger-scale perspective provided by architectural data from excavations, including studies of typologies and settlement structures, to improve our understanding of idealised settlements during the periods/areas under study. It also requires detailed and repeatable case studies of individual sites in order to come to grips with archaeological variation on the scale of individual households.

I furthermore argue that even before beginning to construct such a biographical model, the individual detailed case studies of settlements present a significant methodological challenge and invariably require multidisciplinary research, consisting of 1) analysis of architecture and settlement structure, 2) analysis of relevant settlement activity residues, preferably performed as multiproxy studies in order to tackle the complexity of archaeological formation, and 3) a relevant analogical (historical, ethnographic, experimental, etc) framework within which the results of the first two points can be understood (i.e. middle-range theory sensu Binford 1983).

I will discuss a pragmatic application of my proposals with examples from south Scandinavian Iron Age research, particularly my ongoing study of the early Iron Age site of Sønderris in south-west Jutland. Here an architectural study of the settlement remains (inspired by Arnoldussen 2008; Petersson 2006; Streiffert 2001) is performed alongside a multidisciplinary analysis of settlement activities utilising phosphate analysis, loss-onignition, magnetic susceptibility, plant macrofossils and artefact distributions as proxies for various settlement aspects (Grabowski & Linderholm 2013; Grabowski 2014; Linderholm 2010; Viklund 1998), and interpreted within the help of an ethnographic analogical framework for Iron Age settlements, researched by Carlie (1999).


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