Travel Companion of Linnaeus


I wrote my PhD thesis about the largest prehistoric cemetery on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The place is named Barshalder and straddles the boundary between Grötlingbo and Fide parishes. The first graves are from the early 1st century AD and the last from about the year 1100. Some continuity! And the site measures two kilometres from one end to the other. One of Gotland’s two great barrows is near the middle of its extent, now badly damaged by potato cellars. This barrow enters written history when a famous man passes it in the summer of 1741.

The earliest written mentions I found of the graves at Barshalder were terse cadastral-map legends from about 1700. Then came Carolus Linnaeus, the great naturalist, on his state-sponsored investigative tour of the island.

“Linnaeus … noted that ‘several small … burial places were seen in the area’. He made special mention of the Gullbacken barrow, calling it a ‘dug-up mound’ These are brief statements made in passing, but they tell us that Gullbacken had already been robbed (and fairly recently too, given the digging marks still apparent). Also, the name of the barrow and probably its related folklore are shown to have been in existence by this time.” (Barshalder 1, p. 20.)

The folklore alluded to is a group of generic legends once applied to almost every barrow in southern Scandinavia, involving golden chariots, trolls living inside the barrow, treasure-hunters who fail to make the correct ritual observances and so cannot get at the treasure, etc.

Linnaeus travelled with a group of young men (and a 14-year-old nobleman whose relatives were in the king’s favour) whom he had given various fields to observe during the tour. An official account of the group’s travels was published in 1745, and the manuscript draft written on the road has also been printed. I wasn’t expecting any more information about Barshalder and Gullbacken from that direction.

One of the travellers was 22-year-old Hans Jacob Gahn (1719-1782) who was the expedition’s domesticus: his task was to record information about folkways, farmsteads, agriculture, tools and furniture. Gahn kept his own travel diary for part of the tour: it’s been in the Gahn family archives since, and never published until a few weeks ago. The Gotland County Museum’s yearbook has a Linnaean theme this year to celebrate the man’s 300th birthday. In it is a full transcription of Gahn’s field diary, from which I translate:

Julius 8. In the morning at eight we left Grötlingbo parsonage. 1/8 mile from the church, on the right-hand side not far from the road, we saw a great stronghold, inside of which was a vaulted room, two fathoms high, three fathoms wide and long. On the sides were holes like little cupboards in the wall. Nearby were the remains of old houses, cellars and a well. The locals called all this ‘Wigan’, and it seemed to have been a place of retreat in ancient times when enemies threatened. Further on we passed ‘Gullbackan’, which the farmers said to be named for a golden rod that had once been found there, but several circumstances caused us to judge it to have been a mound for casting bells. Nearby were a few small quarries.

“Wigan” is not actually a fortification: it’s the ruin of a High Medieval affluent farmer’s abode, an earlier incarnation of the current Viges farmstead. “Gullbackan” is the barrow. The site is far from the nearest church, making it a very unlikely location to cast a bell. The quarries would later expand greatly and occasion a lot of the archaeological excavations that I built my thesis on.

Here’s a schedule of Linnaean things to do on Gotland during the tricentennial year of 2007.

Dagbok under en resa till Öland och Gotland 1741 av Hans Jacob Gahn. Gotländskt Arkiv 2006. Gotlands Fornsal. Visby.
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