Obituary: Klavs Randsborg (1944-2016)

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Klavs Randsborg, Professor of World Archaeology in Copenhagen University, who died on 13 November aged 72 was one of the great figures in Scandinavian and world archaeology over the past half-century. Randsborg spent most of his academic life in Copenhagen University, but it was for the great breadth of his international research that he should be celebrated. Best known for his many books beginning with his ground-breaking work on the Danish Bronze Age, which was followed by a revolutionary book on the Viking Age in Denmark and then his re-evaluation of Europe in the 1st millennium and most recently his personal cultural interpretation of his home, Anatomy of Denmark. Since the 1980s, each year was marked by a new study or monograph or by a clutch of provocative re-readings of sites or places. He was no less an active field archaeologist: his projects included work on sites in the Aegean, Sudan, the mid-western USA, Ukraine, Kephallonia, and Benin.

Randsborg’s range of interests and his grasp of languages coupled with his restless reading made him an exceptional intellectual force. These gifts brought him invitations to be a Visiting Professor at several British, Dutch, and German universities as well as George Washington University at St Louis in the USA. In Randsborg, students found an intellectual who would seek to understand their point of view. No less important to his research was his tireless travelling in eastern Europe, the USA (he visited 49 states), western Asia, the Mediterranean, and western Africa. These research trips informed and strengthened his belief and love of Copenhagen and his Danish roots.

In essence Randsborg was a romantic. Immersed in the history and historiography of Danish archaeology and truly fascinated by its long cultural evolution culminating in the architecture of modern Copenhagen, he considered his work to be burnishing this global bastion of social democracy.

Every study was sketched out from quotations of poetry, each being an investment in critical thinking, seeking temporal and spatial connections that led to new interpretations of the past. Above all, he aimed to extract ideas from measured information – from numbers of places and objects, and distribution maps – turning these prosaic details into ideas to challenge the status quo. So, having re-positioned the archaeology of the Vikings, he turned his hand to understanding how they had fitted into European history. A decade of research on the 1st millennium AD led him to organise the ground-breaking conference on this theme in the Danish Institute in Rome in January 1987. At the conference and in the published proceedings, he pitted the interpretations of the North against the South, and had archaeologists challenge historians, the ventriloquist of a remarkable reappraisal of canonical European Classical and post-Classical history. He would repeat this for Bronze Age chronologies, and was progressing towards the same overturning of traditional cultural histories for West Africa from the Palaeolithic to early modern times.

Generosity of spirit was his hallmark as much as his wonderfully idiosyncratic guided tours through Copenhagen. In so many ways this big man was a giant in the field, modest yet supremely creative, poetic yet able to handle the prose of publishing all manner of archaeology. He was a prehistorian who evolved and reinvented himself repeatedly to make archaeology thrilling and hugely relevant to our fast-changing world.

Richard Hodges is President of the American University of Rome and regular contributor to CWA.

Klavs Randsborg with Richard Hodges (right), May 2008.


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