I knew absolutely nothing about Finland in November, 2010: I had the general impression that Finland was a snow-covered tundra peopled by reindeer and cross-country skiers. That changed at a conference in Scotland where I met some historical archaeologists from northern Finland, and their research on material life on the northernmost colonial reaches of Europe itself was fascinating and ambitious. I was keen to develop an international dimension to my research on the emergence of consumer culture, and Finland was a compelling if unexpected comparison to Indianapolis: my Finnish colleagues at the University of Oulu championed an historical archaeology of Finland that encompassed medieval trading centers, a rich history as Swedish and then Russian territories, and a 20th century heritage that witnessed independence, a civil war, and a distinctive if not unique World War II experience.
In 2011 I submitted an IUPUI Arts and Humanities Initiative Travel and Resource Support Grant to explore the material evidence of emergent capitalism in Finland over three centuries. Oulu is one of the world’s northernmost urban centers, a subarctic community settled by the Swedes in 1605 but part of a region in which people have lived for millennia. The grant proposal simply aspired to meet with my Finnish colleagues, inspect their excavated collections, share my own research, and perhaps craft a collaborative project in a discipline that is overwhelmingly focused on North America. The grant had a sound research agenda, but it also left some room to listen to my Finnish colleagues tell me what is important about their scholarship and heritage, and it allowed me to listen to my own curiosity.
The heart of my visit to Oulu was simply seeing the place, visiting the archaeological sites, and looking at the rich material culture the Finns had excavated from regional sites. One of the sites they had excavated was a merchant’s home in Oulu that burnt in a town-wide 1822 blaze. The merchant’s household contained an astoundingly massive assemblage of English ceramics that had been intended for trade in Oulu and into Arctic Lapland and east to Russia. During my Arts and Humanities grant visit we did some material analysis and started a paper on the assemblage that examined marketing and consumption on the margins of Europe. The paper compared the Finnish assemblage to marketplace patterns in the Atlantic World, which were in some ways very similar and in others quite different. That paper, “The Creamware Revolution on the Northern European Periphery: Creamware Marketing in 19th Century Northern Finland,” has since been published in 2013 in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.
What may have been most important about the Finland trip were the projects that have followed despite not being part of the original research design: We subsequently have published a series of papers on colonial landscape surveillance, World War II landscapes, and medieval marketing, all of which would never have been research questions for me if I had not ventured beyond Indianapolis. The Arts and Humanities project provided sufficient preliminary research to support a Fulbright Finland proposal, and I received a Fulbright Scholar and returned to the University of Oulu in Fall 2012. I became a Docent in American Historical Archaeology at the University of Oulu in Fall 2013, an associate faculty appointment; my colleague Timo Ylimaunu is now an International Scholar at IUPUI.
It turns out that Finland is indeed covered by snow for much of the year and has lots of reindeer and skiers, but there were lots of intellectual and cultural surprises. Oulu, for instance, is home to the Air Guitar World Championships, whose astoundingly cheeky ambition is “to promote world peace – according to Air Guitar ideology, wars will end, climate change stops and all bad things disappear if all the people in the world play the Air Guitar”; at the edge of the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi todays bills itself as the home of Santa Claus, with numerous Kris Kringles entertaining a host of tourists; and the legion of saunas covering the Finnish landscape are profoundly consequential cultural spaces and not simply sweaty showers. Much of what the grant aspired to do was successful, but some of the longer term research implications probably came from the experience of having good local colleagues and a bit of IUPUI support to start the project at all.
Paul R. Mullins is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at IUPUI; Past-President of the Society for Historical Archaeology; and author of The Archaeology of Consumer Culture and Race and Affluence: An Archaeology of African America. For more on his research see his blog Archaeology and Material Culture.