Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Norway conserves archaeological finds from 1537, but not when they’re from 1538 or later. That means we know less about people’s everyday lives during the last 481 years.

Stoneware from around 1700. This was thrown in a bin. Photo: NIKU, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research

These have been the rules since Norway set the protection limit for archaeological deposits in the country’s first cultural heritage law in 1905.

This law deemed that archaeological material originating before 1537 should be protected. Anything later was no big deal.

The chosen date was anything but random.

The Protestant Reformation came to Norway in 1537, and with it both the Middle Ages and a large part of the country’s self-determination disappeared. The Catholic Archbishop was key to providing a kind of balance of power between Norway and Denmark, but that soon ended when he was chased out of the country.

When the first Cultural Heritage Act was adopted as a new and independent Norway was being formed, the archaeological heritage and material history originating during Danish and Swedish rule weren’t seen as worthy of protection.

"The individuals who designed the law had a perception of the Middle Ages as Norway's golden age," says Christopher McLees. He recently completed his doctoral degree at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) with a thesis that addresses this seemingly strange protection limit.

The age limit for buried archaeological deposits hasn’t changed since the original law was passed and remains part of Norway's current cultural heritage law. McLees believes this is a problem.

The scope of historical knowledge that we are losing is steadily widening as the material remains of the lives of previous generations are being neglected and destroyed.

People are surprised

In recent years, excavations of cultural layers containing newer objects and building remains have been occurring at Trondheim Torg, right in the heart of the city. This is only happening because archaeologists received a rare exception to the rule. Normally, excavators would have free rein to go ahead with construction in the post-Reformation deposit layers here.

“Passers-by who hear this are surprised – and appalled,” says the new Doctor McLees, who works as an adviser and researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). He has been familiar with the issue for decades.

He and others have had to watch while several-hundred-year-old history was destroyed forever at construction sites. This time, archaeological finds from the 16th century and later are also being recorded. They include trash, products, tools and built objects left by craftsmen and other ordinary people, who lived and worked in what were then the city outskirts before Cicignon's reconstruction of Trondheim after the great fire of 1681.

Archaeologists have been granted an exception to the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act in downtown Trondheim and can save objects that date from after 1537. Photo: Steinar Brandslet, NTNU

Others besides random people on the street are surprised as well. Archaeologists from other countries are often astonished when they hear about the strict distinction, where objects from one year must be conserved, but objects from the following year are not. Denmark implements a flexible age limit, in which archaeologists argue for conservation on a case-by-case base. Sweden’s limit is currently set to 1850 and adjusted over time.

Economic reasons

The age limit for conserving cultural remains set in 1905 went beyond merely historical and national-romantic reasons, and those were the economic aspects. Norway was full of objects and buildings that were several hundred years old. Not everything could be protected if room was to be made for our current age.

“Then, just like now, society didn’t want to incur additional costs,” McLees says.

And it costs money to take care of old things. Impinging on property rights and imposing constraints on development were factors that probably also contributed to retaining the 1905 age limit.

Special rules

But several other types of protection and special exceptions besides the Cultural Heritage Act exist. These include shipwrecks and cargo more than 100 years old, and all Sami cultural remains originating prior to 1917. Exceptions are made for special cultural monuments and environments of more recent vintage – so they can’t simply be destroyed.

It’s quite paradoxical that standing buildings from before 1650 are automatically protected, while cellars – and sometimes the foundations of buildings that burned down or that people intentionally let fall into ruin because they were in the way of something else – are not.

Norway Cultural Heritage Act 1905 1537
Baby crib. All Sami objects older than 100 years are protected. But they are among the exceptions in Norway. Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

Everyday life disappearing

In the past, protection has often focused on conserving special or grand objects rather than preserving the history of the common folk. Ethnologists, historians, architects and cultural historians have dominated the decision making in terms of what to conserve. They have often prioritized and valued written, aesthetic and visible sources more highly as sources of knowledge about our recent past.

“Archaeology and the invisible buried material remains of daily life have ended up low on the list of priorities,” McLees says.

Archaeologists are interested in more than impressive churches, the king's gold or flashy buildings. They want to uncover the history hidden underground and how ordinary people like you and me actually lived in the past – the kinds of clothes they wore, what they ate, the tools they used, and the things that occupied them in their daily lives. In this context, a cooking pot or a shoe can tell just as exciting a story as a gold ring or a beautifully painted portrait.

“This is also a part of history that people today can relate to,” McLees says.

Often, it’s probably easier to understand conserving a striking mansion than the buried ruins of buildings and backyards in parts of the city where people on the lower rungs of society lived and died. But what would tell future archaeologists most about your everyday life – your mobile phone or a Picasso painting?

Protections changing – for some things

Internationally, cultural heritage agencies have long been aware of the need to conserve the material history of our most recent past. Norway is also undergoing an awakening in the academic and management realms of heritage protection, and post-Reformation archaeology is gaining greater significance.

The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage has prioritized ten themes in recent history and plans to protect important cultural monuments within each of them. The conservation strategy includes defence and war history, industry, old traffic routes and particularly important post-1537 archaeological sites, including cultural layers in cities and towns. Separate rules have been established for national minorities, such as the Kven and Roma peoples, who are entitled to extra protection of their past.

"The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s proposal is at least in part a delayed response to the fact that the Norwegian authorities have actually committed to conserving more of our cultural heritage through the European Malta Convention," McLees said.

Hermetically sealed

Although McLees welcomes this much delayed measure, he is not optimistic about the effectiveness of the conservation strategy or the future management of Norway’s recent archaeological heritage.

“The criteria for selecting the objects for permanent protection haven’t been specified. This form of protection will put a hermetic lid on the selected cultural monuments. They’ll continue to gradually deteriorate, and won’t be able to be used as sources for research or historical writing,” he says.

The 1537 age limit will also stand in most cases, and the remaining material sources of the past 500 years of history will continue to disappear and be neglected.

McLees believes the stories written about our near future will still have gaps and be inadequate.

“They’ll leave out what has always been indispensable in the lives of human beings through the ages – material objects.

Source: McLees, Christopher. Materialities of Modernity and Social Practice in Trondheim c.1500-1800: An Archaeological Contribution to the Study of Post-Medieval Norway.

 

Press release from Gemini Research News, by Steinar Brandslet / NO


Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

medicinal plants herbal medicine ethnobotany Amazigh Morocco High Atlas
Irene Teixidor-Toneu together with one of the Amazigh women who contributed to her thorough research on plant use in the High Atlas. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

A new methodology for comparing herbal medicine across societies can also be used to understand the transfer of cultural traditions.

“I did a thorough documentation of the natural remedies, mostly plants, used by the Amazigh people in the High Atlas. Then, I studied how modernization in its various forms influences the use of plants,” explains Irene Teixidor-Toneu, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.

“To summarize, there is a change in the use of substances, since people are open to medication prescribed by the doctor. At the same time, traditional knowledge and beliefs concerning plant use are kept alive, although traditions also change over time.”

Having spent almost a year in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains, ethnobotanist Irene Teixidor-Toneu finished her PhD on the use of medicinal plants in Amazigh (Berber) villages.

Her scientific article, describing the methodology, was published in the October issue of the journal Nature Plants. She is currently working at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where her methods will be applied to map the use of medicinal plants in Scandinavia from Viking times until today, in a project that was launched in November 2018.

"The traditional way of life is under threat a lot of places, it's not simply about biodiversity, says Irene Teixidor Toneu. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Modern or traditional medicine?Her PhD dissertation was devoted to the transmission of knowledge about medicinal plants used by a defined group of people.These were some of the basic questions Teixidor-Toneu studied:

  • Why are certain plants selected for medical use?
  • How are they used?
  • How does usage change over time?

If you were to ask a pharmacist, one obvious explanation to why certain plants are used,is that they contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds developed in order help plants thrive or fight competitors, predators, or pathogens. Many phytochemicals have therapeutic effects.

However, there is always a combination of reasons why a plant is selected for use, according to Teixidor-Toneu.

From her field work in the High Atlas in Morocco. Credit: Irene Teixidor Toneu

Faith and loreEthnobiology is defined as the interdisciplinary study of how human cultures interact with and use their native plants and animals. Ethnobotany is defined as the plant lore of indigenous cultures, also the systematic study of such lore.

Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains:

“In studies of plant diversity and conservation, there are a lot of ecological models that don’t take people into account at all. If you think of the vegetation in the Mediterranean area, as an example, nothing makes sense if you don’t consider humans and their influence. After all, the region has been shaped and developed by man for millennia.”

From colouring to foodMost of us probably think of food, spice and medicine, when the subject of plant use is brought up. However, there is a multitude of historic and present practices. Like fumigation.

Fumigation is the physical process of burning and making smoke out of a plant. This can be ritual or medical or a combination of both. It can be done to clean out a dirty room, to remove fleas and ticks and other insects. In Morocco, the Amazigh burn plant that are rich in resins in order to clean the stables for their animals.

Other uses vary from producing and dyeing textiles, making furniture and utensils, construction of houses to providing fodder and veterinary medicine.

The interdisciplinary aspect is one reason why Irene Teixidor-Toneu finds ethnobotany so fascinating:

”There has been a patchwork of approaches and methods because people from different backgrounds have come together, with no common theoretical framework. Researchers from the humanities and natural scientists often have different approaches. In recent years, we have seen some articles trying to unite and define ethnobiology as one discipline, but there are still many ways to regard the interaction of people and plants.”

Constructing family treesTeixidor-Toneu has provided a significant contribution through her perspective article recently published in Nature Plants, with co-authors Fiona Jordan (evolutionary anthropologist, University of Bristol) and Julie A. Hawkins (phylogenetist, University of Reading).

Basically, it is a summary of the theoretical analysis for her PhD work. The article proposes a framework to study plant uses. This framework uses phylogenetic comparative methods applied to anthropological data, which involves – to put it simply - the construction of language family trees.

For some time, it has been used by anthropologists to gain understanding of the evolution of political, religious, social and material culture. It has not previously been applied to plant use, as pointed out by the editor of Nature Plants in the editorial:

“Normally we associate the use of (…) phylogenetic analyses to determine the relationships between species and groups of organisms, tracing their evolution back to putative common ancestors. (…) Teixidor-Toneu et al. have applied comparative phylogenetic methods, not to plants themselves but to the medicinal roles to which they have been put. Even within ethnobotany this is not a common approach, but the ability to use multiple types of data can produce robust and detailed information about how cultural information is transmitted”

Medicinal plants are of special interest because of their role in maintaining people’s health. Phylogenetic comparative methods can enable researchers to study the diversity of medicinal plant applications across cultures, and also to infer changes in plant use over time.

These methods can be applied to single medicinal plants as well as the entire set of plants used by a culture for medicine, known as a pharmacopoeia.

One of the Berber villages in Imlil in the Moroccan High Atlas, where Irene Teixidor-Toneu did her field studies. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Plants and cultural knowledge are both endangered“I think the main significance of our paper is that it opens up new opportunities for studying plant use. At the moment, we are well aware that that biodiversity is threatened. Cultural diversity and traditional lifestyles are also threatened. In other words, many plants as well as the knowledge about how to use them, are endangered. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand how various threatening factors interact and how use and knowledge change over time,” Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains, and adds:

“We are trying to understand plant use across cultures. The first thing we need to understand is how cultures are related. We use phylogeny models, or pedigrees, to trace relationships between people and cultures, based on language similarities.”

“Having traced evolutionary relationships between cultures, we can identify and try to understand the ways plants are used in different cultures. Within this framework we can also study how uses change, and it can be linked to geographical models. So, we end up with what we could call a biocultural geography.”

Full bibliographic information

Comparative phylogenetic methods and the cultural evolution of medicinal plant use. Irene Teixidor-Toneu, Fiona M. Jordan & Julie A. Hawkins. Nature Plants volume 4, pages 754–761 (2018)

 

Press release from Titan.uio.no/ (NO)