Pastoralists and the state in Iron Age and Medieval Sweden

With NSF support, Dr. Tina Thurston and colleagues from the United States, Sweden, and the UK will conduct three and a half years of fieldwork on Sweden’s Småland Plateau, seeking to understand how autonomous pastoral peoples are encapsulated by states and incorporated into state political and economic systems, often against their collective will. We characterize local-state relations in terms of successive sequences of independence, confederacy/hegemony, and colonializing force and their varying impacts on ethnic identity, political cohesion, and economic strategies. Between AD 500 and 1550, twelve Plateau polities were incorporated into the Svear (later Swedish) state. Sketchy ethnohistories concern activities of social and political elites, incorporating real people and events and politically embroidered legends supporting later Svear agendas and identity. Of the local, ethnically-distinct forest pastoralist population, virtually nothing is known, except that the early historic state recorded non-cooperation, tax evasion, ‘illegitimate’ treaties with Sweden’s enemies, culminating in 16th century armed rebellion. Few crops grew in the marginal environment, though pastoralism was viable, along with exploitation of iron ore and wood, for charcoal used in smelting. To exploit these resources in a hostile region, around AD 1100, the state increasing its local power by sequentially establishing outposts, in concert with rising taxation and labor demands. The project will document local conditions as the state brought pressures to bear on producers, significant enough to foment violent conflict. Did quality of life and livelihood change over time? Critical to questions about this largely prehistoric context is the timing and extent of agricultural expansion waves, recognizable through establishment of pioneering hamlets and opening of new forest pasturage, assessed through datable sites and clearance features. Pedestrian survey, soil chemical survey, and test excavations will precede excavation of appropriate sites, to establish locales of dwelling, farming, and industry, AD 500 to 1550, within the former autonomous Småland kingdoms of Tveta and Vista. New microregional pollen profiles, macrobotanicals, extant and new faunal assemblages, and survey and dating of iron and charcoal production features chart economic change. The ultimate goal is a case study of state-pastoralist relationships: contemporary and historic pastoralists have played important roles in state politics and economies, controling important resources, but typically unafraid of conflict and with strong sociopolitical cohesion, often in conflict with central authorities. Modern and historic ‘encapsulation sequences’ occurred long before the advent of social scientific disciplines, and while the outcomes are much studied, the process is almost completely undocumented. Pastoral peoples can have significant power, and the sequence through independence, hegemony, encapsulation, and subsumption is neither inevitable or unidirectional. The Plateau, displaying the full sequence is a perfect context for study of relationships between successive generations of rulers and pastoral subjects.

Lead Investigator: 
Reciprocal Interactions
Småland, Sweden
Temporal Scope: 
AD 500-1550