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In Memory of Klavs

I am flying back from the memorial conference to Klavs Randsborg – Crossroads Archaeology - held in Copenhagen. It was a deeply affecting experience taking stock of Klavs’s legacy.

On Friday night Professor Sji Jinsong (Institute of Archaeology, Beijing) read out this poem that he penned on the 13 November 2016 on hearing of the passing of our great friend, Klavs Randsborg.

Passing a prairie, a desert,

rivers, and mountains,

like migrating with traces,

through the depths,

the vast sky,

with the sea dying white clouds


the wind of

Memories ripple the calm ocean,

waves like hovering wings.

In a morning in the distance,

when flowers falling and scattering,

leaves of plane trees turn golden,

a sound resounding of

the ocean is always heard.

Read in Chinese in the Carlsberg Academy, surrounded by Thorvaldsen sculptures, Klavs (who loved poetry) would have been supremely touched. Natural forces, he seemed to be saying, prevail but memories matter.

Klavs Randsborg excavating in Benin, 2012

Shi was one of the 42 speakers at the celebration of Klavs’s life in Copenhagen University organized by Inge Merkyte and an army of students. Together, all of us walked in the shadow of this great Danish archaeologist – my friend since 1979 – and all of us recognized the huge debt we owed to his generosity and immense intellectual creativity. Speakers from Asia, the Americas, Africa, Europe and, of course, Denmark spoke to the themes that shaped his life and World Archaeology.

Often I thought I heard his comments, encouraging, quizzical and occasionally acerbic. – as though he was whispering, as he always did when we sat together at conferences. No-one and nothing passed him by. He lived for every moment and every encounter and every idea.

What a pleasure Inga Merktye conjured up for us all. Each and every one of us discovered how as in our own case others too had prospered and grown thanks to his wise counsel. A glorious pattern emerged transcending age, race, region and gender. And how very much he will be missed because he was Scandinavian archaeology and to all of us, he was Denmark.

Crossroad Archaeology: Global Narratives of Local Encounters A memorial conference for Professor Klavs Randsborg (1944-2016) October 26-29, 2017, University of Copenhagen

The aim of the conference was to honor the scientific achievements of Klavs Randsborg, a longstanding and renowned Professor of World Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen where he had been an influential voice for 50 years. He had also held appointments at the Universities of Washington, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Gothenburg. K. Randsborg was also an active field archaeologist: a track that developed during his participation in the UNESCO campaign to save the monuments of (Sudanese) Nubia and consequently brought Randsborg to his own projects that included work in the Aegean, Norway, the mid-western USA, Ukraine, Russia, Cephalonia, Bulgaria, Ghana, and Benin.

The participants were former collaborators and students.

The scientific program of the conference was very diverse, reflecting the great breadth of Klavs Randsborg’s interests and research. Indeed, K. Randsborg was not constrained by time or geography, always seeking temporal and spatial connections that led to new interpretations of the past and each time placing cultural phenomena on a larger scene, providing intellectually thrilling perspectives and promoting curiosity. “Crossroad Archaeology” can be seen as an instrumental approach to building models where 10th c AD royal center at Jelling can be explained through Dahomean traditions of Colonial era; where counting of decorative elements on Bronze Age finds in Denmark suddenly reveals unambiguous knowledge of calendars and measuring systems in the past; where fluctuations in supply streams of Arabic coins unveil raiding patterns on England and the Carolingian kingdoms by the Vikings. These global narratives of local encounters were always convincingly and legibly presented in K. Randsborg’s works.

With persistent vision, K. Randsborg constantly reviewed the interaction between “abstract phenomena” identified by social sciences and “the physical world” that also includes man’s ability to act independently.

This inspired repeated reinvention of himself and quest for original – for some controversial – insights, especially in matters that seemed to be resolved. He underlined the contemporaneity of archaeology, never static, always evolving, as he unpretentiously stated in his many seminal books or “the products of specific time”.

K. Randsborg was constructing a vision of archaeology that strived to define its own and independent domain within the wider universe of social (and other) sciences, criticizing modernity for being “clouded historicism with little content” ignorant of tradition and beliefs as means of survival and social reproduction. Said in his own words: “The present is a strange world. Over the past fifty years, the rapid increase of information has surpassed anything previously experienced. Nevertheless, the loss of history is immense (…), the past is rarely taught as a coherent story. Conflicts have arisen between globalization and tradition. Perhaps an understanding of the workings of history may help to fill this gap” (The Anatomy of Denmark). Therefore he maintained the ambition of writing comprehensively in a global age.

Hence the conference was seen as a platform for the intersection of geographies, periods, personalities and views, towards the past as a coherent and relevant story.

In 2017 Klavs Randsborg would have celebrated a 35-year jubilee as a chief editor of Acta Archaeologica, the most prestigious Scandinavian annual launched in 1930. The proceedings of the conference will be published in the commemorative volumes of the journal.

The conference was planned as three major thematic blocks: Denmark & Scandinavia (26.10.2017), Europe (including the Classical world) (27.10.2017) and the World (with a focus on Africa, South America & Asia) (28.10.2017). The last day (29.10.2017) of the conference was dedicated to the guided tours that used to be the arena of the non-surpassed eminence of Klavs Randsborg, knitting stories, perceptions and personal experiences with buildings, monuments, and elevations in the terrain.

The organizing committee: Prof. Richard Hodges, Dr. Per Ole Rindel, Dr. phil. Jane Fejfer, MA Thomas Roland, MA Søren Albek, Dr. Inga Merkyte

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