Historical Archaeology in Finland

In July 2011 I spent a month in Oulu, Finland with my colleague Timo Ylimaunu and a group of post-doctoral students who are doing historical archaeology in one of the northernmost cities on the face of the planet.  Archaeologies of the last half-millennium are relatively rare in most of northern Europe, where there is an exceptionally rich prehistoric record and a scholarly tradition that frames archaeology as a scholarship on the distant past, but the University of Oulu has focused much of its recent fieldwork on the post-1500 material record of globalization and colonization on the northern Gulf of Bothnia.  Some of the material culture inevitably is not at all like what we find in North America, but much of the material they excavate is identical to the things found on archaeology sites throughout the colonial world; likewise, their research questions are questions much like those historical archaeologists ask almost everywhere in the world.   Scattered European scholars in places like Finland, Sweden, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Austria have been conducting historical archaeology for quite a while, and Oulu is simply among a recent wave of new research from European colleagues.  Nevertheless, some of this work remains unknown to many of us in the US, because these European scholars cannot always attend conferences in North America, their scholarship was long somewhat inaccessible in print, and even with digitization some material is not in English.  Yet with a little persistence it is becoming increasingly more practical to follow the scholarship in places like Europe, Africa, and Latin America, where a rich range of archaeologies of the last half-millennium are being conducted.

I met Timo and his colleagues in Aberdeen at the Conference on Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) in 2010, where they were presenting work from the University of Oulu’s most recent project “Town, Border and Material Culture: Effects of Globalisation and Modernisation in Northern Finnish Towns Since the 15th Century.”  The Town, Border, and Material Culture project began in 2009 and examines the transition from the medieval to the early modern period in the northern Gulf of Bothnia.  Founded as a Swedish city in 1605, Oulu is one of a series of towns on the gulf, which reaches northwards nearly to the Arctic Circle and has long provided goods including fish, fur, tar, and paper.  Archaeologists throughout the world have examined what globalization looks like in local materiality, and the Oulu project does much the same thing examining how, in their words, “everyday life changed in relation to … an emerging new worldview.”  Their project examines archaeological data from sites excavated since 1973 and has included intensive documentary research on town maps and illustrations, probate inventories and fire insurance records.  The project is funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation and the Academy of Finland and has included three PhD dissertations.  Risto Nurmi’s dissertation “Development of the Urban Mind—an Object Biographical Approach,” for instance, examines urbanization in Tornio and the ways residents defined imported and local material goods in forms that often departed quite significantly from their dominant social, economic, and cultural meanings.  Nurmi’s dissertation (which is in English) examines consumption and urbanization questions familiar to most historical archaeologists, but it ultimately questions how many American models of consumer status and display actually translate to the many worldwide markets where the identical goods were being purchased, used, and discarded.  Like much of the most interesting international historical and post-medieval archaeology, Nurmi’s study and the Oulu project illuminate and complicate some of our most basic assumptions about material culture and global connections.

I have absolutely no background in Finnish culture or history, so it was a bit of a leap for me to go and think I might find some research, but I was confident that I would learn something from Timo and his colleagues.  The Oulu scholarship on consumption has indeed forced me to rethink some of my assumptions about shopping and using material things.  Like many of our international colleagues, they have an enormous amount of data and field research possibilities, and despite being under their own professional pressures—historical archaeology is a small and not always stable disciplinary niche–they have been very gracious about sharing material and helping me negotiate the place.  And every place has some hidden gems:  Oulu, for instance, is home to the Air Guitar World Championships (August 22-24, 2012 for those of you contemplating next summer’s vacation), and with the perpetual daylight in Summer (yes, it is a mixed blessing) I was able to spend a lot of time on the city’s astounding network of 550 kilometers of bike paths, which they say is the highest per capita amount of bike paths anywhere in the world.

Dr. Ylimaunu and his York University colleague James Symonds will be chairing a session on European historical archaeology at the SHA Conference in Baltimore on Thursday morning January 5th including work by Pavel Vareka (University of West Bohemia, Czech Republic), Natascha Mehler (University of Vienna), Per Cornell (University of Gothenberg, Sweden), Jonathan Finch (University of York), and Oulu archaeologists including Titta Kallio-Seppa, Annemari Tranberg, and Anna-Kaisa Salmi, so do drop by and say hello.  And if you are sufficiently curious about Oulu in particular and Scandinavian archaeology in general, think about attending Nordic TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) in Oulu April 25-28, 2012.

How to get involved at an SHA Conference

Everyone knows professional service is an important part of fostering career growth. It also offers great networking opportunities, and gives you the chance to provide your input and expertise in the direction of the organization and discipline. Becoming active in an organization, however, can be daunting.  Students may be unsure where they are welcome or concerned about the level of commitment required. SHA student members are fortunate to have many options available to them, as well as a community of non-student members who encourage their involvement. The annual conference is a great opportunity to become involved in professional service in a number of different ways.


Organizers in each host city want to share the fantastic resources available in the region.  Tours of local archaeological sites and museums often afford a behind the scenes look. Workshops and round table lunches are also a great way to not only learn a new skill, but to meet other archaeologists with similar interests.  Activities provide a relaxed environment and usually have built-in conversation starters. It is true that these activities cost a bit extra, but student prices are typically available.


The SHA has a wide variety of committees that oversee, organize and execute the organizations work. Friday evening there is a public business meeting that all members, students included, are encouraged to attend.  Many committees may appeal to your specific interests such as the Public Education and Interpretation Committee.  An obvious choice is the Student Subcommittee of the Academic and Professional Training Committee. The SSC is run by students and addresses student concerns. The Gender and Minority Affair Committee also has a new student subcommittee as well. A list of the committees is on the SHA website, along with contact information for the committee chairs: feel free to contact them about your interest, or show up at the meeting. But be prepared. Committee meetings are usually early in the day so that members can also participate in the Conference. You can find the times in the program. Also, attending a meeting isn’t a passive activity: you may find yourself working on a project for the committee during the year. This is a good thing, though. It’s why you’re getting involved.


Working at the Conference is a great way to meet people as they register and throughout the conference. There are often great perks too. Contact Kathy Concannon (kconcannon@mdp.state.md.us) for volunteer options for January 2012 (money saving tip: get in early, and you may very well find yourself with a little discount to the conference).


Other activities offer students a means to get more involved, meet new people and are free. Each year the SHA Past Presidents host a student reception. This is a great reason to come to the annual conference early (It is usually the first evening). Meet other students and senior archaeologists working across the globe. And don’t be shy: the Past Presidents enjoy this event and are excited to talk to the future of archaeology. They are there to talk with you! Ask them about how they got involved, and if they have any tips about how to increase your visibility within the discipline.


With so many opportunities, it is easy to get swept up. Asking questions first is typically the best way to figure out what are the best opportunities for you. This includes emails to committee chairs, asking the Past Presidents about how to be involved, talking with your advisor, and testing out workshops and other activities at the conference. Be cautious about what you can handle: what will conflict with your schoolwork or other commitments? Although colleagues understand your obligations, not keeping a commitment will reflect poorly, so be mindful. Take the time to attend several things before you commit. Your time is limited and you want to find the best use of it. If you really want to work with a particular committee but are unsure where you fit in, ask how you can help. There is plenty of work to go around.