Greta Arwidsson was an archaeologist. She was the first female Swedish county archivist as well as the first woman to become a professor of Nordic and comparative archaeology.
Greta Arwidsson was born in Uppsala in 1906. Her father Ivar Arwidsson worked as a docent at the Uppsala University Zoology Department. His expertise in fish and fish types was known and valued throughout the Nordic countries. Nordiska museet paid him to research ancient fishing implements and methods. Greta Arwidsson’s mother, Anna Arwidsson, was also involved in these discoveries. Both her parents died in 1936 just a few months apart. Her mother had been ill for a long time and Greta Arwidsson has revealed that already as a schoolchild she was placed in charge of the household. She had two brothers.
Greta Arwidsson’s parents were actively involved in cultural-historical activities. After obtaining her school-leaving certificate, her own plans for the future were initially becoming a teacher rather than an archaeologist. It was not until she had gained her Bachelor’s degree in 1930 that she began to study Nordic archaeology, under Professor Sune Lindqvist. She participated in Lindqvist’s field archaeology at the boat burial near Valsgärde. According to her diary entries she was given a more prominent role in the Valsgärde digs in 1931, having previously presumably participated as a student. She became particularly interested in discovering a way to raise items out of the ground without further damaging them. She used paraffin, which melts and becomes liquid at 40 degrees C, which she brushed onto the gauze wrapping around a given item, thus creating a solid solution which could easily be lifted out of the ground.
For her dissertation Greta Arwidsson chose to work on the ornamentation which embellished the weapons and shields of the boat burials she had helped to excavate. Animal motifs had long been used as a means to determine chronology. Greta Arwidsson maintained this practise but used her talent for systematic organisation to create a more refined division of what she termed the Vendel styles than those previously provided by Bernhard Salin. She, like Salin, perceived the styles to be chronological in their emergence, where style A belongs to the nomadic period, whilst styles B through D represent the Vendel era, and style E and F represented the transitional period leading up to the Viking period. She summarised these styles in her dissertation entitled Vendelstile, Emalj und Glas, which was published in 1942 almost simultaneously with her work on the Valsgärde boat burial nr.6. In connection with her dissertation studies she also undertook an extensive study tour of Western Europe from 1938 to 1939, visiting museums in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and France. This was just before the outbreak of the Second World War and there was widespread political tension throughout Europe. Given the political situation, and the limited time she had, one can only be impressed by her success in finding so much comparative material in these museums which related to her own material. Her thesis has been confirmed by subsequent research, namely that the Franks in the Rhine region were of great significance to the development of Nordic archaeological items.
Once Greta Arwidsson had earned her degree she became a docent and spent the ensuing years working at the Department of Archaeology at Uppsala University. When the position of chief archivist at the Statens historiska museum became available in 1946 she applied for it and became the primary candidate. However, one of her fellow applicants, docent Wilhelm Holmqvist, appealed this decision, listing his many years’ service at the same museum. As Greta Arwidsson was also applying for the available post of county archivist and head of Gotland archaeological collection at the same time she chose the latter.
Greta Arwidsson performed her new duties as county archivist with great enthusiasm. In a marked difference from her predecessors she actually settled in Gotland. Her duties as guardian of cultural heritage included Visby city wall, which was in a ruinous state. She approached bank director Tage Cervin, who was financially in a position to donate funds for archaeological digs at and restoration work on the wall. She was heavily involved in protecting historical buildings on Gotland. Even though this work, particularly on the many churches on the island, took up most of her working days, it was always archaeological concerns which remained her dearest interest. She and Einar Johansson, the superintendent of the archaeological collection, inspected historical remains that were threatened. During her ten years of employment in Gotland she became well known and respected across the entire island. Her local nickname was “Forngreta”.
When the chair of Nordic archaeology at Stockholm College (later University) became available in 1954 Greta Arwidsson submitted an application. Following an appeal she was appointed professor at Stockholm College.
Initially Greta Arwidsson’s field archaeology was located in Gotland where she completed the study she had previously begun into the mid-eolithic burial site at Ihre in Hangvar. Once that dig was finished, fieldwork moved to Lovön in the Mälare lake. Berit Wallenberg, who had a licentiate degree, lived on Lovön and Greta Arwidsson was able to persuade her to fund excavations on the island. The island remained the department’s field archaeology site long after Greta Arwidsson had retired. The digs initially focused on the Viken burial field on Lovön, where a chambered grave was found containing gold-embossed straps and decorative buttons. Greta Arwidsson published two essays on this remarkable chambered grave, which had been partly plundered in ancient times.
Stockholm College soon became aware of Greta Arwidsson’s great administrative talents. She became the dean of faculty for the humanities and sat on many committees, particularly in relation to the transformation of the college into a university in 1960 and as the plans to construct a specific campus in Frescati took shape. The subject of Nordic archaeology experienced a sudden surge of interest from students, increasing from a mere handful of beginners at the end of the 1950s to over 100 in 1968. She also managed to secure Nils Gustaf Gejvall, the osteologist, as a colleague at her department and he became an advisory researcher. In 1967 a donation from King Gustaf VI Adolf enabled the establishment of a research laboratory at Ulriksdal Castle stables. Greta Arwidsson’s interest in this other side of archaeology is already apparent in her first publication on Valsgärde, in which her father determined the nature of the discovered animal bones. After she retired in 1973 it was also thanks to her work that the archaeological research laboratory was established at Stockholm University in 1976.
Greta Arwidsson never had the major opportunities for unrestricted research as part of her university employment which she may have hoped for. She returned to this after retirement, at which point she completed her Valsgärd studies by publishing a new volume on the finds in Valsgärde 7 in 1977, and by summarising her studies in a couple of popular science essays. She covered finds which had been made during her time in Gotland in other essays, and in collaboration with Gösta Berg she published a book on the major discovery of a forge at Mästermyr on Gotland. She also took on the major project of publishing a reworking of the grave finds on Birka. This kind of analysis was in high demand within the sphere of Viking research and Greta Arwidsson collected all the separate analyses of the finds, which were often student essays submitted to various universities. She reworked the texts together with the original authors to produce publishable material. This work, which included a lot of analyses of finds which she herself authored, filled three volumes, of which the final one was published in 1989.
Greta Arwidsson was the first female Swedish county archivist, the first female professor in the field of archaeology in Sweden, and also the first woman to be elected into Vitterhetsakademien (The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities). She thus played a major role as figurehead for female archaeologists. Her international significance within archaeology is evident from her 1954 membership in Kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab, her 1974 membership of the Honorary Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, and her 1978 membership of Deutsches Archäologisches Institut.
Greta Arwidsson never married and didn’t have any children. She died in 1998, aged 92. She is buried at the Old Cemetery in Uppsala.