Life in town: Project Description


With a basis in recent archaeological excavations in central Odense, and drawing on contemporaneous written sources, this project will establish a new archaeological research approach to the formation of urban identity by analysing urban practices and artefact biographies from a network perspective.

The central research questions are:

  • How did urban practices see expression in the material culture?
  • How were the town's local, regional and transregional networks manifested?
  • How did these aspects influence the formation of urban identity?


Actions in material culture

The town has often been studied as an arena for major political and cultural changes in the Middle Ages. However, in recent decades the role of the individual has begun to feature more prominently in research on Medieval towns (Carelli 2001; Rosén 2004; Larsson 2006a, 2006b; Anglert & Lindeblad 2004: 5), as evident from the anthology Everyday products in the Middle Ages (Hansen et al. 2015). The emphasis has thereby shifted from power configurations and topography to the town's individual inhabitants. This research perspective is central to the present project and is rendered operational via foundation in agency theory and the tangible material culture. Agency theory highlights how the individual influences society through their conscious actions, including the creation and use of material culture. The latter should, in this respect, be perceived in the broadest possible sense, i.e. not merely in terms of artefacts, but also of cultural deposits and structures. The context in which material occurs is crucial to an understanding of the conscious and subconscious intentions behind it.

Material culture, actions and identity are intimately interlinked, for example the expression of identity through material culture. But does it follow that changes in material culture can be seen as reflecting changes in the identity and self-perception of individual actors? This project will employ an approach taken from Material Culture Studies, which underlines that material culture, in the form of such as artefacts or physical space, can in itself be an actor and thereby be perceived as influencing human actions (Beaudry & Hicks 2012).


Networks and new perspectives

The current status of Scandinavian research is reflected in De første 200 årene - nyt blikk på 27 skandinaviske middelalderbyer (Andersson et al. 2008). A picture emerges from this which reveals a lack of Danish studies founded on the individual and identity, relative to work in the other Scandinavian countries. Similarly, the potential of social network studies, applied to research on the Medieval town as in equivalent Viking Age studies (Sindbæk 2007), remains unacknowledged - a situation the present project aims to remedy.

Most recently, the Entrepot project (2012-14) has carried out pilot studies focussing on networks and urbanity as reflected in material trends from AD 500-1200. It also demonstrated how involvement of science and a contextual approach can shed new light on material from earlier archaeological excavations, where different methods were applied initially (Croix 2014). These perspectives can be further developed in the present project by focussing on the history of use (biography) of the artefacts and on urban practices, from a network perspective.

Research is currently in progress into the relationship between actor and network (Müller 2012; Knappett 2013: 3-15). From an actor-network perspective, people and artefacts are perceived as being bound together in complex relationships (Latour 2005). Networks have played a crucial role in the formation of urban identity as they have facilitated an exchange of material culture, practices and norms. By shedding light on artefact biographies, networks can be reconstructed and the relations within them picked out and highlighted (Knappet 2013: 4-8).

Networks and migration have been brought into focus in a Danish urban archaeological context by the Urban Diaspora project, begun in 2014, which is investigating the relationship between native Danes and foreigners in towns from AD 1450-1650. Similarly, cultural transmission through migration and networks is illuminated in a north European context in the project Guilds, Towns and Cultural Transmission in the North, based on written sources (Bisgaard et al. 2013). A conclusion from this is that an exchange of practices and identities can be demonstrated but its actual extent and degree of influence only become evident through the material culture (Lamberg 2013: 105-106).

Establishment of the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) in 2015 presents a unique opportunity to develop research into urbanity and urban networks in a global perspective. The present project coincides with several of UrbNet's core areas, such as studies of artefact biographies or the tangible material remains and the pinpointing of urban social biographies through urban practices. These subjects will be addressed via a contextual approach, combined with a wide range of scientific analyses and investigations.


Materials and methods

Settlement traces have been identified in Odense dating back to the 10th century and a project investigating the town's origins is currently underway at Odense City Museums. The present project focuses on the subsequent period, namely AD 1100-1500.


In 2013-14, Odense City Museums carried out total excavation of an area of 2300 m2 at the site of I. Vilhelm Werners Plads, located centrally in the medieval town. Good conditions for preservation, combined with the large size of the investigated area, have provided a rare insight into the development, from the Early to the Late Middle Ages, of almost an entire block, from the street through backyards to the alleyway beyond, with an extensive finds assemblage and well-preserved structures such as booths, houses, byres and stables, latrines, paths, roads, fences, refuse depots and much more. By employing a strictly managed contextual method of excavation, through reflexive interpretation of the formation of the cultural deposits, a focus on stratigraphic observations and grouping of data already in the excavation phase, aimed at a general overarching interpretation, as well as strategically-based recovery of zoological material and sampling for scientific analyses, the great potential of the site data has been realised (Thomasson 2011: 66-70). This approach has few precedents in urban archaeological investigations but is central to illumination of the project's core problems and questions.

Given the richness of the material assemblage urban practices, which constitute the response patterns that form and are formed by life in the town, can be studied in detail. Trade, crafts and industries, settlement patterns and everyday actions are all carriers of urban practices.

Urban practices see particular expression in the regulation and structuring of public space. For example, the remains of streets and booths excavated at I. Vilhelm Werners Plads make it possible to elucidate the nature of this spatial regulation and structuring. This, in turn, must have been conditional on a degree of organisation of the town and its inhabitants and it illustrates how individuals reacted to these constraints and their significance for their everyday life.

Another concrete example is seen in the fill deposits in the streets, where such extensive use was made of animal bones and horn cores that these must have been subject to organised collection. The archaeozoological analyses identify them as waste from slaughtering and the procurement of raw material for horn-working - both which must have taken place in the town (Østergaard 2015). This material therefore provides a basis for studying a number of urban practices, such as organisation of the infrastructure, handling of refuse and resource exploitation and various crafts and industries.


Mapping of urban practices and artefact biographies reveal the actors, relations and networks that are associated with an actual context and which contribute to formation of urban identity (Sinclair 2000: 196). The biographies of artefacts and structures can be studied through operative chains (chaîne opératoire), from procurement, through working and sale, to use, discard and deposition in an archaeological context.

Science plays a significant role in research into archaeological contexts, operative chains and networks. Scientific dating, archaeobotanical analysis and micromorphology help validate the interpretation of the archaeological contexts. Similarly, discovering the provenance of artefacts such as wooden beakers, building timbers and pottery is crucial to the qualification of network relations and hubs. Written sources can confirm, contradict or reveal completely new patterns in the material culture and can therefore function as a basis for comparison and confrontation. They are available primarily via Projekt Middelalderbyen's source archive: (

In order to ascertain whether the findings from I. Vilhelm Werners Plads in Odense represent something special and characteristic, or whether they reflect typical trends for a medieval town and its variegated population, data will be examined from selected earlier investigations in Odense from 1950 onwards, both published and unpublished. These excavation data are available from synthetic review publications and digitisations (Jacobsen 2001; Zinglersen 2004). Moreover, the primary study material will be seen in relation to the findings from extensive investigations carried out in 2010-15 in Copenhagen and Nya Lödöse near Gothenburg with a focus on similarities and differences in development, function, networks and urbanity. The investigations in Copenhagen and Nya Lödöse employed contextual methods, but do comparable circumstances and conditions provide the same result? What is the significance of fundamental differences such as whether a town was planned or founded primarily on trade? And what significance do differences in the development of the town's functions have relative to the project's questions and problems about urbanity and identity?


Dissertation form

The dissertation will be submitted in anthological form, i.e. a number of papers framed by a summary introduction, discussion and conclusion. The papers will be produced sequentially and aimed at publication in international peer-reviewed journals. A minimum of one paper will be an interdisciplinary work adopting a scientific approach. The aim of the anthological form is to ensure progress in the project and enable participation in topical debates and themes in the professional research environment.

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Andersson, Hans, Gitte Hansen  Ingvild Øye (ed.): "De første 200 årene- nytt blikk på 27 skandinaviske middelalderbyer". UBAS Nordisk 5, 2008.

Anglert, Mats & Karin Lindeblad: Nya Stadsarkeologiska horisonter. Sverige 2004.

Beaudry, Mary C.  & Dan Hicks (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. 2012.

Bisgaard, Lars, Lars Boje Mortensen & Tom Pettitt (eds.) Guilds, Towns, and Cultural Transmission in the North, 1300-1500. Odense 2013

Carelli, Peter: "En kapitalistisk anda. Kulturelle forandringar i 1100-tallets Danmark". Stockholm 2001.

Croix, Sarah: Permanency in Early Medieval Emporia: Reasseing Ribe. European Journal of Archeology 0 (0) 2014, pp 1-27. 2014

Jacobsen, Jørgen A.: Fynske jernalderbopladser. Bd. 2. Odense 2001.

Knappett, Carl (ed): Network Analysis in Archaeology. UK 2013.

Lamberg, Marko: A Finnish Minority Identity within the Merchant

Community of Late Medieval Stockholm? In Lars Bisgaard, Lars Boje Mortensen & Tom Pettitt (eds.) Guilds, Towns, and Cultural Transmission in the North, 1300-1500. Odense 2013, pp 91-108. Odense 2013.

Larsson, Stefan (ed.): Centraliteter: människor, strategier och landskap. Sverige 2006a.

Larsson, Stefan (ed.): Nya stadsarkeologiska horisonter Sverige 2006b.

Müller, Ulrich: Networks of Towns - Networks of Periphery? In Sunhild Kleingärtner & Gabriel Zeilinger (eds): Raumbildung durch netzwerke?Zeitschrifft für Archäeologie des Mittelalters Beiheft 23 Kiel 2012, pp 55-78.  

Rohwedder, Søren: Indvandring til Danmark i middelalderen. Upubl. Speciale ved Institut Historie, Kultur og Samfundsbeskrivelse, SDU. Odense 2007.

Rosén, Christina: Stadsbor och Bönder. Materiell kultur och social status I Halland från medeltid till 1700-tal. Sverige 2004.

Sinclair, Anthony: Constelllations of knowledge. In: Marcia-Anne Dobres & John E. Robb (ed.): Agency in Archaeology. London and New York 2000, pp 196-212.

Sindbæk, Søren M.: Networks and nodal points: the emergence of towns in early Viking Age Scandinavia. Antiquity, 81. UK 2007, pp 119-132.

Thomasson, Joakim: Från stadsarkeologi till urbanitetsarkeologi? Förslag till framtidsperspektiv i Medeltiden och arkeologin: mer än sex decennier. Sverige 2011, p. 49-80.

Zinglersen, Karl Brix: Byens Kulturlags modeller. Upubliceret Hovedfagsspeciale ved Middelalder Arkæologi, Århus Universitet. 2004.

Østergaard, Susanne: Zooarkæologisk analyse af dyreknoglemateriale fra OBM 9776 Thomas B. Thriges Gade. Odense Bys Museer. FHM 4296/1392. 2015.




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