Carving Out Transformations – Wood Use in North-Eastern Europe, 1100–1600

Research project funded by the Academy of Finland, 2018–2022

Wood was a ubiquitous material for premodern communities living in the subarctic region. The present project focuses on the use of wood in North-Eastern Europe from the 12th to the 17th century. We will take a long-term perspective on the significance of wood, embodied in both material and metaphorical movements of the substance from forest to households and markets, and from blocks of wood into ecclesiastical sculptures. The project shifts emphasis from such artefact groups as ceramics, metal objects, and individual works of art to this less inconspicuous but omnipresent substance.

The project is embedded in the contemporary debates on materiality, and object biography, and their importance for understanding interactions between humans, other animals, objects, and the environment. The term ‘materiality’ suggests more than only the physical aspects of things and reality. It encompasses also the entangled processes of meaning-making and their cultural and social contexts: how things come to matter. The history of these processes can be tackled with the concept of ‘biography’. It provides tools for analyzing the movements and alterations of artefacts, and mapping out how material things change but also affect the social and natural environments.

North-Eastern Europe constitutes a particularly interesting and unique case regarding the premodern use of wood. Firstly, wood was widely available as a raw material, and it permeated the everyday life. Secondly, the region was an interface territory where urbanism reached its northernmost point, and the vast reaches of forest wilderness began. The project constructs a model on the importance of materiality in the interfaces between ecological zones, technologies and cultures.

The project crosses the established borders between archaeology, art history, history, paleoclimatology, and paleobotany. The whole spectrum of available source materials – urban archaeological finds along with bog finds, works of art, and written sources – will be scrutinized. In this venture, the project is part of the cutting-edge trend of the environmental humanities which combines liberal arts with the scientific study of wood. Interdisciplinary work opens up a nuanced vista to how the wood, through its transformations, is a medium of communication, intertwined with cultural and social changes.

The researchers involved are Visa Immonen as the leader of the project, Janne Harjula, Mia Lempiäinen-Avci, Ilkka Leskelä, Elina Räsänen and Katri Vuola.