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Hjortspring: a Pre-Roman Iron-Age Warship in Context edited by Ole Crumlin-Pedersen and Athena Trakadas
Ships and Boats of the North Volume 5, Viking Ship Museum 2003; 293pp; CD-ROM; ISBN 87-85180-521 (52 €)

The Hjortspring book is, for any maritime archaeologist looking to extend that necessarily meagre portion of their library focused on publications from within the discipline, a very appetising proposition. This, combined with a positive mention of various archaeological internet discussion lists and the CD-Rom included at the back of the volume, promises a lot of a book largely focused on one element of a ‘weapon-offering’ deposited in a bog on a southern Jutland island in the fourth century BC. However, the 19m plank-built boat, part of the Hjortspring find excavated by Gustav Rosenberg in the 1920s, is a remarkable find. It is remarkable not only for the light it sheds on pre-Roman Iron Age technology, maritime military activity and socio-political relations, but for the part it has played in the history of Danish archaeology and Northern European maritime archaeology.

The volume is a detailed account of the varied archaeological work that has focused on the Hjortspring boat; the different periods, individuals, approaches and techniques involved in the excavation, reconstruction and interpretation processes. It is very appealing in itself: illustrative and engaging, with a terminology page and the easy, interactive character of the CD-Rom presentation. In fact, initially it has something of the synthesis feel of a coffee table book about it, making it accessible to the wider public, but it also includes individual, more rigorous discussions of various elements of the inter-disciplinary work involved.

‘Hjortspring’ begins with a chapter on the original discovery of the Hjortspring find and the excavations by Rosenberg. The second chapter includes several sections on the original analysis, reconstruction and conservation of the boat, followed by discussion of the modern, re-conservation and exhibition process. Chapter three focuses on the boat reconstruction project, detailing planning, methods, building the Tilia Alsie (the reconstruction of a Hjortspring boat), her sea trials and characteristics and capability calculations. The fourth chapter addresses the fuller Hjortspring assemblage, a fascinating single-event deposit of the boat alongside a mass of weapons and armaments, and discusses weapons-offerings and the find within its later prehistoric, northern European context. The slightly curious inclusion of the reconstruction project prior to the chapter on the Hjortspring find and its context reflects the boat-centred focus of the book. This focus continues in the fifth and sixth chapters. Chapter five explores the relationship between boat and ship iconography from the later prehistoric period and connections with Tilia Alsie, whilst the final chapter looks at the Hjortspring boat in its ship-archaeological context, comparing it to other prehistoric boat finds.

At this stage, the reviewer must admit to being more able to comment on the archaeological analysis and account within the book than the technicalities of boat reconstruction. Nevertheless, the discussion and open explanation of the Hjortspring reconstruction methodologies seem admirably comprehensive.

There is currently some debate over the merits and validity of specific vs representative experimental boat-building projects; that is reconstruction vs replica, with the former being based on excavated remains and the later on other, often iconographic sources. The Tilia Alsie is a reconstruction, specific to the Hjortspring find; although given the limited excavated remains and the consequently complex reconstruction techniques employed, it may fall between the two categories. Moreover, the idea of a ‘correct’ version of a boat seems to miss the point slightly and is an unhelpful, counter-productive critique. The real issue surrounds what is done with the reconstruction, what it is used to analyse and what archaeological interpretations are made as result. In this case, they are largely functional, looking at issues of capability and construction, such as tools and building techniques, capacity, handling and speed.

One of the book’s strengths is that it addresses the full Hjortspring assemblage. It would have been easy for the high-profile reconstruction project and the famous boat find to eclipse the find assemblage. The assemblage is comprised of mainly armaments and weaponry, but also includes ‘everyday’ wooden objects, and, among other skeletons, that of a horse was found beneath the boat. The scale of the assemblage is extraordinary. Flemming Kaul estimates between 80 and 100 warriors would have made up the attacking force that owned these weapons (a number which incidentally would have required four Hjortspring-sized boats to transport). The discussion of the assemblage is fascinating, although it repeatedly stops short using terms such as ‘ritual’ and ‘sacrifice’ but failing to unpack these concepts. For example, the unusual deposition of ‘individual elements, such as the back tooth of the lamb and the upper part of a fore leg of the dog’ separate from the otherwise intact skeletons, only leads to the suggestion that ‘this removal cannot be the result of later disturbances, and perhaps reflects certain ritual processes’ (p143). Despite drawing some socio-political conclusions from the assemblage, the discussion never moves beyond the notion of ritual offerings, functional and rational within their context, and the descriptive interpretation of ‘the weapons of a conquered army, offered as the price of victory’ (p142).

The final chapters on the Hjortspring boat’s ship iconographic and boat find context are similarly hampered by a narrowed focus, in this case a potentially reductive focus on ship construction. Both are thorough and informative about the source material, the carvings, iconography and other prehistoric boat and ship finds, but discussion centres around consequent interpretations of construction. In particular, although Ole Crumlin-Pedersen re-explores his original suggestion that the horns of the Hjortspring boat could have been a remnant of a skin-boat tradition (Crumlin-Pedersen 1972) in the light of subsequent discussion, there is a sense that he is going over old material. By placing the Hjortspring find in its ship-archaeological context only through discussion of the development of boat-building technology, he limits that context to construction, (in the process calling to mind that somewhat tired concept of a linear trajectory of boat-building technology evolution), and misses out on engaging with fuller depositional or socio-cultural contexts.

The inclusion of a CD-Rom is a considerable, added bonus, simple to navigate with various still images and pieces of video footage which further illustrate the Hjortspring project. In particular, the exhilarating video footage of the Tilia Alsie sea trials is a significant addition to the account of the reconstruction project. Whatever your stance on the question of replica or reconstruction, its archaeological validity and in this particular case, the video footage is remarkable in its ability to reinvigorate archaeological interpretation. It offers a very different perspective; a perspective not only physical and three-dimensional, but mobile, vibrant and active; the reconstruction vessel fairly flies along, linked incontrovertibly with the people powering it. There is perhaps untapped potential to begin to address physical experience in the past, to look at more human archaeologies, through this element of the reconstruction project. Less dramatic but equally important for those who have not seen the display of the excavated remains at the National Museum of Denmark is footage of the exhibition in Copenhagen, along with original excavation photographs. The CD-ROM also highlights the marked difference between the extent of the excavated boat remains and the reconstructed vessel.

That slight tension between the reconstruction element of the project and the archaeological account and analysis is apparent throughout the book. It may be this tension that highlights the lack of an articulated, over-arching research and theoretical framework in the book. In some ways the reconstruction Tilia Alsie, despite its physicality and vitality, serves to divorce the boat further from the larger assemblage of objects, its depositional context, and beyond that the its original place and meanings in its socio-cultural context. Taken in this light, the phrase ‘in context’ in the book’s title could be a little misleading.

So is this a good book, worth the cover price? On the whole yes, and especially in the context of the poor publication record of the maritime archaeology field and in particular the lack of strident academic discussion around the research agenda or methods of most experimental boat reconstructions. The bibliography is invaluable. The translation of project/chapter summaries into German, Danish and English is a welcome recognition of the internationality of both the project and the discipline. As an account of the story of the Hjortspring boat, of the original excavations and the modern, long-term project with its inter-disciplinary team and its particular approach to the archaeology of this boat find, it is a remarkable record. It will be equally as interesting to some as an account of the team and the particular approach it chose to the archaeology of a boat find. In such a light it can be viewed as anthropological source material, an internally-produced record of that process. It also serves to demonstrate the place the Hjortspring boat warrants in the history and identity of Danish maritime archaeology, and possibly even in the wider, modern Danish national identity. It is also represents a pertinent barometer of the broader state of maritime archaeology as a whole; ‘construction-focused’, ‘overly functionalist’, ‘largely processual’ and probably ‘unnaturally divorced from terrestrial archaeology’, which highlights the need for maritime archaeology to look at itself, to explore notions of reflexivity and to question other theoretical ideas.

The book would have benefited from a clearer expression of the overall archaeological research framework and an examination of the place of the reconstruction process within that framework. Although, understandably, it cannot be all things to all people, there is also room beyond the broader notions of function, design and victory offerings, for a more, in-depth socio-cultural contextual analysis of the vessel. Even within the chapters addressing the Hjortspring assemblage, the wider Iron Age context, ship iconography and ship-archaeological context, there is a conservatism that points the reader towards some exciting concepts but fails to develop them. Some stronger theoretical discussion and interpretation could have balanced the rather functionalist focus of the boat reconstruction chapters. That, however, remains a question of personal preference and such interpretation may be more appropriate in additional academic papers, separate from this accessible and comprehensive account of the Hjortspring find, its archaeological investigation and the construction and sea trials of the remarkable Tilia Alsie.

Jesse Ransley
English Heritage

Crumlin-Pedersen, O. 1972 ‘Skin or wood? A study of the origin of the Scandinavian plank-boat’ in Hasslöff, O., Henningsen, H. and Christensen, A.E. (eds.), Ships and shipyards, sailors and fishermen: Introduction to Maritime Ethnology. Copenhagen, 208-234

Review Submitted: August 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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