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Contextual relations

Sarah Croix, October 2012 – March 2014

The establishment of emporia in Scandinavia in the early Viking age sparked the development of new and original forms of urban life. While urbanism is often approached from an economic and political perspective, it can also be understood as a way of life, involving various social actors in the course of their daily routine. As a new phenomenon in Scandinavia, urbanism called for new solutions in order to combine local traditions, foreign cultural influences, seasonal and sedentary occupations and a constant flow of people.

In the archaeology of urban settlements, materials deposited and retrieved as closed contexts can be understood as episodes of intentional, individual actions. Their analysis can lead to a detailed understanding of day-to-day practices, including social relations, rules and regulations, waste disposal patterns, use of indoor space, and the temporality of craft activities. It also allows for an investigation of how domestic life and local tradition interacted with the early medieval urban network, perceptible through foreign and innovative forms and ideas concerning production, dwellings and more generally, material culture.

These questions will be addressed in this project, which will study and compare aspects of daily life from an archaeological perspective in four towns: Ribe in Denmark, Kaupang in Norway, La Calotterie (Quentovic) in France and Staraya Ladoga in Russia, for the period c. AD 700-900.

One of the main objectives of the project is to develop a methodology for archaeological interpretation in urban excavations and for the analysis of complex stratigraphies and archaeological contexts. In order to handle the huge amount of data retrieved from urban excavations, analysis generally proceeds by processing individual classes of evidence separately and re-integrating it by means of statistical analysis, broad phases and site-scale distribution maps. This approach leads to a fragmentation of the contextual evidence into sub-categories (area, material, typology, ‘scientific’ data, a.o.) and tends to form the basis for highly generalized accounts about the occupation and function of a site.

As an alternative, this project will pursue contextual analysis by gathering the various forms of evidence into discrete, individual units, and study stratigraphic relationships between contexts in order to reconstruct a coherent picture of an occupation. The selected contexts will consist primarily in floor layers and waste deposits which can be spatially connected to other archaeological structures, namely buildings, craft-related pits and fire-places, ditches and fences. This will allow consideration of the physical interplay between domestic activities and specifically urban activities, and the solutions found for coping with the spatial and functional requirements of the various and seemingly unrelated activities animating urban life.