Circling Concepts A Critical Archaeological Analysis of the Notion of Stone Circles as Sami Offering Sites
Abstract: The thesis discusses a category of cultural heritage that has been labelled "Sami circular offering sites", aiming to establish some basic facts about their origin, distribution and use, as well as their cultural and socio-political context and influence. The stone enclosures in question have been interpreted as Sami offering sites since the mid-19th century, but a discourse analysis of the research history indicates that this may have been based on a scholarly hypothesis rather than ethnographic or archaeological evidence. Furthermore it is questioned if all the structures that are currently included in this category are in fact remains of the same cultural practice. This is investigated through surveys of 81 suggested circular offering sites in Norway, two excavations and analyses of the find material. The large stone enclosures in counties Finnmark and Troms that were first categorised in this way prove to have quite consistent builds and measurements and a find material mainly dating between the 13th and 17th centuries. These structures are here labelled type 1. In contrast, constructions that have later been added to the category, particularly in other areas, have other and less consistent characteristics and seem to include remains of a range of different activities. They are here divided into two generic types 2 and 3. The thesis further discusses alternative interpretations for the type 1 structures, concluding that their materiality, construction, location, topography and finds are consistent with archaeological, historical and ethnographic evidence for wolf traps. Their distribution indicates a regional Sami cultural practice related to inland winter habitation and travel routes, while also apparently coinciding with the Russian/Karelian taxation area in northern Norway in the Middle Ages. Thus the builds may have been inspired by the fur trade or other activities of the latter groups. It is uncertain when exactly the installations fell into disuse, as datings are calibrated to AD 1450-1650. The abandonment could be related to the decline of Novgorod as a fur trade centre, Russian loss of taxation rights in northern Norway, increased Swedish impact in the inland areas and Norwegian activity along the coasts, which all led to changes in administration, taxation, trade patterns and demand for furs. The contemporary decimation of the wild reindeer population, increased reindeer herding and introduction of new weapons like crossbows, guns and foothold traps, may all have made permanent trapping installations less useful. The sites may, however, have gone out of use at different times. Certain finds of marrow split bones, very recent coins and other objects suggest a later reconceptualisation of some structures as offering sites, whether as a local explanation or inspired by the later scholarly definition. Throughout the thesis, the construction and distribution of the archaeological category and the preference for the ritual or religious interpretation are discussed as results of specific socio-political contexts, where stereotypical notions about Sami identity and culture have had a strong impact. The thesis explores how academic and other narratives influence each other within certain discourses of power and indigenous "rights and rites", and the continuous mutual impact on individual actions and emotions through networks of people, power and things. The present reinterpretation challenges existing academic and local narratives. It is based on the materiality of the structures, but the offering site explanation is not positively refuted. Yet, as part of an authorised heritage discourse, the present statement is more likely to impact future categorisation and practices than other narratives within other discourses, expressing a persistent and inherent power inequality. This may be ethically problematic in the context of an indigenous minority, but it may also be argued that the role of the archaeologist expert is precisely to expose the insisting materiality of the past and the power/knowledge networks that promote specific narratives about it.
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