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Department of Geography



Historical geography of Sámi hunting society in northern Sweden

Northern Scandinavia was perhaps the last frontier region to be formally incorporated into the boundaries of the expanding nation states of medieval Europe. In what is today northern Sweden, agrarian colonisation and church building began along the coastline of the Gulf of Bothnia in the 14th century, but the interior remained the domain of Sámi (Lapp) hunter-gatherer-fishers until the 16th century or later. Although connected to the outside world by the fur trade for more than 2,000 years, Sámi life styles were transformed more by the transition from hunting to reindeer pastoralism after 1600 than by colonialism and capitalism as such. Full historical documentation only really begins after the Lutheran church had enforced Christian conversion and the Swedish state had imposed taxation in the 18th century.

This research project is conducted jointly between Tim Bayliss-Smith and Inga-Maria Mulk (Ájtte Museum, Jokkmokk, Sweden). We concentrate of the medieval period when reconstructions of the historical geography of Lapland can draw upon a few written sources but mainly still depend on archaeological and palaeo-environmental data and ethnographic analogy. Our research topics include hunter-gatherer settlement patterns, reinterpretation of archaeological finds from Sámi sacrificial sites, and documentation of a Sámi rock art site in Padjelanta. The rock art becomes meaningful when seen as an aspect of the Sámi world-view concerning landscape and sacred geography, using a reconstruction of Sámi cosmology for the period before the onset of reindeer pastoralism and Christianity.

Figure: Subsistence economy of the Mountain Sámi over the past 4,000 years - a tentative reconstruction.


Publications arising from this project include:

  • 1998: The representatation of Sámi cultural identity in the cultural landscapes of northern Sweden: the use and misuse of archaeological knowledge (with I.M. Mulk), chapter 24 in P.J. Ucko and R. Layton (eds) The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape: Shaping your Landscape, London: Routledge, pp. 358-396.
  • 1999: Sailing boats in Padjelanta. Sámi rock engravings from the mountains in Laponia, northern Sweden (with I.M. Mulk), Acta Borealia 16, pp. 3-41.
  • 2001: Anthropomorphic images at the Padjelanta site, northern Sweden: rock engravings in the context of Sámi myth and ritual (with I.M. Mulk), Current Swedish Archaeology 9, pp. 1-30.
  • 2004: Hunting and gathering societies, energy flows in, in- C.J. Cleveland (ed) The Encyclopaedia of Energy, vol. 3, New York: Academic Press and Elsevier Science, pp. 183-195.
  • 2006: Rock Art and Sámi Sacred Geography in Badjelannda, Laponia, Sweden (with I.M. Mulk), Umeå: Archaeology and Environment vol. 22, Department of Archaeology and Sami Studies, University of Umeå.