People in Between: Ethncity and Material Identity, a New Approach to Deconstructed Concepts

Hillerdal, Charlotta

In questions concerning ethnicity and cultural identity in prehistory, there is a great divide between the conclusions maintained on a theoretical level of discussion and the interpretations given to material remains, when these theories are practiced on the archaeological material. Inherited scientific and political structures, usage and ideas contribute to our understanding of ethnicity and the everyday use of the concept, and influence archaeological interpretations. By illuminating these inherited preconceptions, they can be deconstructed, and a workable definition of the concepts found. A categorical approach to material culture needs to be abandoned, along with the hope of identifying ethnic groups in an archaeological material. Analyses should instead concentrate on the concept of ethnicity, as a relational, situational social identity created in the prehistoric present.

The discussion is here approached through case studies set in different contextual situations, displaying great chronological, geographical and political variation, but also revealing some obvious points of contact. Scientific, materialistic, colonial and national perceptions of ethnic groups and ethnicity are penetrated in the case studies of the Varangians in 8th to 10th century Russia, the history of the Métis in Canada from the 18th century till today, and the Swedish speaking population on the island of Ruhnu outside Estonia at the turn of the 20th century. The Varangians are part of the Russian national myth of origin, and have been understood as a Scandinavian people, especially by Scandinavian researchers. Archaeological material of Scandinavian character dating to between the 8th and 11th centuries confirms intense interaction between Russia and Scandinavia in this time period. The Métis trace their roots back to the fur trade era and the encounter between Indian and European traders. Since 1982, they have been recognised as an indigenous people of Canada. The population of Runö was documented as Swedish speaking in the Middle Ages. They were discovered by Swedish ethnography in the 19th century, and interpreted as archaic Swedish. As a consequence of this narrative, the population was evacuated to Sweden in almost its entirety during the Second World War.

In these cases, scientific, political and ideological aspects of social practice interface with the everyday practices in communities and influence the outward perception of that group’s identity, as well as the self-perception within the community. It can be concluded that the ideological setting is equally important to a historical development as are economic or geographical circumstances. The final chapter introduces an alternative interpretation to the early Scandinavian towns as a disappearing phenomenon towards the end of the 10th century, deduced from the conclusions made in the previous case studies.