Recent critiques of the culture-historical approach to ethnicity have denounced the idea that archaeological cultures are ‘actors’ on the historical stage, playing the role that known individuals or groups have in documentary history. But the critique has gone as far as to claim that, because archaeologists supposedly have no access to the meaning of cultural traditions, medieval ethnicity cannot be studied by archeological means. Ethnicity should be banned from all discussions, if medieval archaeology is to make any progress in the future. The paper examines the theoretical malaise at the root of this scepticism verging on nihilism. The understanding of the archaeological record not as an imprint, but as a text allows for much learning about meaning in the past. Symbols, style and power are the key concepts that currently guide anthropological research on ethnicity as a ‘social construction of primordiality’. As several archaeological examples show, medieval ethnicity was a form of social mobilization used in order to reach certain political goals. Ethnic identity was built upon some pre-existing cultural identity, in a prototypic manner.