Archaeology has to change: Prof. Natascha Mehler and the Hanseatic League

27.8.2020 | When thinking of the Hanseatic League what comes to mind usually are the iconic buildings in the Hanseatic cities in Germany and along the Baltic Sea. But only few people know that the Hanseatic League also went to a different region: the North Atlantic and the Northern islands. Prof. Natascha Mehler from the University of Tuebingen focuses on this rather unique aspect of the Hanseatic League in her research. We spoke with her about her newest project and the situation of women in academic archaeology.
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(© Peter Prestel)

Professor Mehler, you have recently started a new project, the LIFTE project. What is it about?

That project has its roots in my long-lasting passion for archaeology and the history of the Hanseatic League in the North Atlantic, the North Atlantic islands and Iceland, Shetlands, the Faeroe and Orkney. The acronym LIFTE stands for “Looking In From The Edge”. I already did a lot of research on the topic on Iceland but there still is so much to explore on the other islands. We now have a lot of source material at hand—written sources that we can investigate and archaeological material. For the next three years we will look at how Shetland and the Orkney islands were embedded in the early global network of trade in the Renaissance period when the Europeans expanded and left Europe, in particular we will look at the role of the Hanseatic League.

Does it build upon a previous project?

We previously had a project funded by the Leibniz association in which my team focused on the Hanseatic League in Iceland, Shetland and the Faeroe islands. Iceland was very much connected to the cities of Hamburg and Bremen in the 15th and predominantly 16th century. We looked at the other islands, too, but not to that extent. That’s going to change with LIFTE.

Why was there a connection between Hamburg and Bremen in Germany and these islands? They do not have that many resources one could trade with.

They have only one main commodity to be precise and that is fish. The Hanseatic League went there in search of fish such as dried fish or stockfish. That was a really important commodity for the whole of Europe in the 15th and 16th century and also later. Dried fish lasts very long. It is a super food when traveling. You can feed a lot of soldiers during wartime, a lot of people on boats – we know that shipping techniques improved considerably during that time and stockfish was the perfect food for long travels.

Why didn’t they just produce it in Germany or closer by? There is a lot of fish in the Wadden Sea, too.

True. You could probably use, for example, Baltic cod. But it’s relatively small in comparison to the cod from the North Atlantic. The further you go north the fatter and larger the cod gets. But the most important part of course are the drying conditions. You simply cannot air-dry fish at the northern coast of Germany or close by. But the higher up north you get the better the conditions are for air-drying and the quality of dried fish.

That’s the fascinating thing with the archaeology of the Hanseatic League in the far north: Hardly anybody has looked at it

What made Shetland, Orkney, and Iceland better outpost than for example Scandinavia to where the Hanseatic League went a lot?

There isn’t really an advantage. Norway was rather rich in resources. But there was also a lot of competition. The German merchants went to the North Atlantic islands because there were not so many restrictions and regulations, you could roam relatively freely, do business and have less competition.

Why the Scottish islands and not the mainland which has access to the fish, too?

They didn’t go to the mainland as far as we know. They only went to Shetland and maybe Orkney. But to what extend they did we want to find out with LIFTE. It still is a big mystery we are hoping to solve now. But to the mainland they didn’t go at all. The Eastern coast of England yes, but not Scotland.

Why so?

That’s a good question. I’ve not thought about that. I would guess it’s because of all the kings, the royal power in Scotland and England trying to prevent that. But I don’t know. I have to investigate that.

Maybe with the next project?

Maybe. That’s the fascinating thing with the archaeology and the history of the Hanseatic League in the far north: Hardly anybody has looked at it. The Hanseatic League is a topic which is predominantly investigated by historians. The investigation of the archaeological aspect of this trade has just started, maybe in the last ten or fifteen years. We know a lot about the Hanseatic core area in Germany, the Baltic, maybe Bergen in Norway, a bit of England, Belgium etc. But the Northern islands aren’t very well researched.

Why has nobody looked into it until now?

There are at least two reasons. One is that the bulk of trade took place in the Hanseatic core area and not so much in the periphery like the islands. The Hanseatic history is mainly focused on its economic history. The Hanseatic core area was where the big business was done. That’s where the big ships went and the large amounts of materials were shipped. The North Atlantic is very much in the periphery and not many goods were shipped to for example Luebeck.

The second reason is language and travel. Fifty, maybe 100 years ago it was very difficult to get to these places. The documents were written in a mix of middle-low German, old Danish and old Icelandic. Only a hand-full of people can read these sources. On top they didn’t have internet and technology to share sources and travel was more difficult than nowadays.

What was the influence the Hanseatic League had on the local communities? When thinking of the Hanseatic League I would expect grand buildings and architecture. But that is not the case on the islands.

My focus is specifically on that in the research project actually. How did the German merchants and sailors—predominantly men of course—interact with local communities in the North, how did it happen and what lasting impact did it have on the insular communities?

The grand architecture which the Hanseatic cities are famous for one wouldn’t find on Orkney or Shetland. That’s a very fascinating thing. At least in Iceland the merchants weren’t allowed to stay over winter. They went back and forth each summer. In Shetland they too stayed for three months, maybe six, but sometimes also the whole year round. They hired locals to build solid stone buildings for them. But nothing comparable to for example those fancy buildings we find in Luebeck. Sometimes they only stayed on board of their ships. In the case of Iceland we have one point to consider: In 1602 the Danish king—Iceland at that time was part of the Kingdom of Denmark and Norway—ordered all the Germans to be kicked out of Iceland and forbade trade with the Germans. All German buildings had to be torn down. This order kind of erased the memory of the German traders there. That’s why no buildings survived and why we need archaeology.

How will you research the role of the Hanseatic League and its outposts on the northern islands?

We will use different types of sources. One source type will be archaeological material from previous excavations and from new excavations. For example: We’ll be looking at harbor sites in Orkney and Shetland and investigate what kind of harbors they used. What harbor facilities do we find? What constituted a harbor site? We also want to see whether we can find any facilities of the fish trade and the fish processing in the local communities. Our archaeozoologist in the team will look at fish bone material and tell us which fish species were exploited and how they were processed, and possibly also which fish species were preferred at certain times. We will look at local farm buildings and middens. Middens contain all the waste which tells us a lot about what people consumed. We will basically go through the 16th century garbage and identify pottery and other objects they threw away. Pottery wasn’t produced in Orkney or Shetland at that time and needed to be imported. So that will tell us a lot about the trade.

Another category will be written sources. There are many documents, letters and contracts from German merchants: complaints about German merchants, complaints from German merchants to the council or Bremen, complaints about business rivalry etc. Written documents tell us names and where people went to. They maybe give us an idea about how many barrels of fish they brought on board, but in many cases they lack a lot of important details. That is why we need to draw on different types of source. Put together, both source types are complimentary. They allow us to put together all strings. But we will also rely on local knowledge and the oral tradition of the people on the islands.

Will they be involved in the project?

Some of the stories from for example local farmers will give us indications where to excavate. If a farmer for example tells us that every time he digs in his garden he finds a piece of 16th century pottery that would be interesting. But we want to involve the public and the local communities even more, it is an important part of the project. There already is a group of volunteers in the Orkney archives and they are very much interested in their island’s history and they will help us to transcribe documents, read the old handwriting, etc. Proper citizen science. But we will also use our knowledge to engage with the public through our blog and through a traveling exhibition that we will install towards the end of the project at the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven.

Will you physically go to the islands?

I actually will. But it has to wait until February next year or so. We haven’t even started the project yet. It was supposed to start earlier this year but due to the Corona virus we had to postpone everything.

The thinking really needs to change to open up the field to working mums

How easy is it to juggle fieldwork, family duties and being female in a highly competitive field?

I had to reduce my fieldwork in the last years since becoming a mom. One of course needs a strong partner at one’s side. He needs to be at home when I am excavating. But nowadays I don’t want to be away from the children for four weeks or longer. I usually take them with me wherever I can.

Hold on! You take your children with you during fieldwork? How fantastic!

It is a problem in German academia because there is no infrastructure for mothers to bring their children to fieldwork. I always have to create it myself: Hire someone to look after them while I’m working during the day, etc. I have to pay everything from my own pocket, including the children’s travel cost and the babysitter. That needs to change. In Scandinavia, Norway mainly, and Iceland my colleagues have babysitters around during research fieldwork. There it’s no problem to bring children to excavation sites. The thinking really needs to change here to open up the field to working mums.

What else needs to change in academic archaeology to make the field more accessible to female scientists?

The older generation needs to start understanding that there is a problem. Especially male professors don’t see the problem. I’m sorry to say but most men don’t see the problem for women in academia. In archaeology in particular the structures are deeply hierarchical and patriarchal. It is a very conservative field that does not have many women in higher positions, especially in the field of medieval and post-medieval archaeology. Therefore, every time I have a chance I talk to male professors and make them aware of the problem. I don’t stop, don’t change the topic or let go until they understand it. (laughs) I guess I am a bit stubborn there but we need change in the field.

Looking at the numbers of female undergraduates and female professors in archaeology, we could not agree more. What advice would you give to the early career female archaeologists? What should they do to have a career in the field?

Be much more outgoing and confident! Visit conferences at a very, very early stage in your career. Make yourself visible within the community and talk to people. If you cannot travel for whatever reasons, tell the others but tell them also that you are interested. They will know anyway that you are a good person and a hard worker. It’s an individual initiative you have to take. Social media is a great way to become visible. Show people what you are doing. In archaeology, very often, you are sitting in an office with lots of finds but you don’t think outside the box. Show the public and your colleagues what you are doing. Show everyone on social media what you found. Tell the little stories. Make your network. Use social media or any type of media. Last but not least: Go out and talk!

What a great advice! Thank you, Professor Mehler for the interesting interview.

  (© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and

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