Village of Shame and Honour


In recent years I’ve been involved in some archaeological fieldwork at Skamby in Kuddby parish, Östergötland, Sweden. I like to get a handle on the names of places where I work, what they mean, how they used to be pronounced in the Middle Ages. I was particularly interested in learning about Skamby, because read in modern Swedish, this very uncommon name means “Shame Village”.

There are two explanations for the name: a less entertaining one supported by linguistic scholarship, and a funny folk-etymology of recent centuries. I’ll give you the scholarly interpretation first.

Names ending in “-by” were mainly produced in the later 1st Millennium AD, as seen in the Danelaw in England where 10th century Danish invaders re-named hundreds of farmsteads Whitby, Rugby, Ingleby etc. A brooch that we found with metal detectors shows that there was a cemetery at Skamby already in the 2nd century AD, at a time when the place is unlikely to have been named anything ending in “-by”. So centuries later, the place was renamed, and the new name still sticks.

A farmstead a few kilometres to the east is named Österskam (“Eastern Shame” in modern Swedish), suggesting that the two names refer to the same thing. What the two farmsteads have in common is their location along a little stream valley, and so the place name scholars suggest that “skam” goes back to the Old Swedish skamber, meaning “short”, as in “the short stream”.

Folklore has far more entertaining ideas. It holds that Skamby was originally named Hedersby, “Honour Village”, until one Christmas Eve when there was a snow storm. A woman from Dalecarlia (the people of that province were known to migrate for work) knocked on the door and asked to come in from the cold. The people of Hedersby refused to let her in, and so she stumbled off into the snow and froze to death. Thus the new shameful name.


A large fallen orthostat by the left-hand corner of the barn in the top photograph is known as Dalkullestenen, “the Stone of the Woman of Dalecarlia”. Folklore is uncertain as to whether she turned into the stone or was just found dead near it. The 2nd century brooch was found fairly near the stone, and standing stones are typical markers for Early 1st Millennium male graves. So it’s a ploughed-out Early Roman Period cemetery. But a cool site with folklore is even more fun than a cool site without any.

Update 8 February: Between Skamby and Österskam are two other farmsteads named Hageby (“Pasture village”) and Ängeby (“Meadow village”). It has been suggested that it all started with a single early 1st Millennium farmstead named simply Skamber after the stream, at a time with a lesser population density. Skamber had fields and pastures and meadows. Then, in the mid-1st Millennium, it was divided into four “by” units which received names according to where they were on Skamber’s territory. The westernmost one inherited the mother farmstead’s name, with the suffix “-by” to mark that like its neighbours it was not a primary farmstead.

The Early Roman Period cemetery at Skamby suggests that the mother farmstead may actually have been located near Skamby.

Photographs by Howard Williams 2005.

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12 thoughts on “Village of Shame and Honour

  1. The home of Swedish cross-country skiing legend Gunde Svan is Skamhed, where the “Skam”-prefix apparently means “shortcut”. “The shortcut-heath”, thus and unremarkably.

    Explanations involving shame are certainly more entertaining.


  2. Would I be right in thinking that Skamby is pronounced “sham-bew” (or close to that!)? I’ve never quite worked out the Swedish k…

    Incidentally, when I was living in Denmark, a colleague pointed out to me that “Grimsby” (a fishing town east of where I was brought up) means “ugly town” in Danish.



  3. Sorry, Swedish orthography is kind of weird when it comes to spirants. It’s “scam-bue”. If I remember the rule correctly, it has to do with “hard and soft vowels”. SK before the hard vowels AOUÅ is pronounced like in “scream”, while it’s like “shoe” before the soft vowels EIYÄÖ. Only the rule breaks down on loan words like skelett.

    This rule is actually useless anyway, as the only way to determine whether a vowel is soft or hard is to memorise the list.

    Grimsby would have been named for a Norseman named Grimr, meaning “the masked/helmeted one” if I remember correctly.


  4. The scolarly interpretation as well as the local one seems both very far fetched. “Eastern short”, yeah right… The truth is likely somewhere in the middle or somewhere else entirely. Linguists seem sometimes to get too lost in their little boxes of words. An example is the farmname “Hud” in western Sweden. The earliest spelling is “Huld”, with the name “Huldarheidi” on a moor nearby. Etymologists explain that the name come from the old scand. hulian, to cover, to hide away, but then they give two contrasting explanations: one fraction says that there is on the location a layer of dirt which is hidden underneath another layer of dirt, hence the name. Another fraction says that there is a stream nearby, which has cut deeply into the soil and is hidden by grass, hence the name. So in the first case, a farm has been named after something that you must dig to find, in the other a stream is supposed to have been unchanging since the place was named.


  5. I agree, some place name interpretations are extremely far-fetched. Others are just nondescript: if you interpret a name as meaning “small hill” or “grassy slope”, then there’s no way to disprove your interpretation, as such terrain is everywhere. The central propblem for place name scholarship is in my view testability.

    As for Skamby and Österskam, a more developed idea has actually been proposed, see addendum to the entry.


  6. That’s a wonderful bit of folklore formation though. I’m 99% certain that I’ve read of something similar somewhere else (but where? It’s been too long since I last read any 18th-century antiquarians). Take a place-name that sounds like it means something culturally negative like ‘shame’, the original meaning having been long forgotten: are you even slightly surprised that it generates a folklore narrative involving a fall from grace? (I’m only surprised that it doesn’t include any fairies.)

    I’m curious about something (pardon my ignorance): You mention that ‘A brooch that we found with metal detectors shows that there was a cemetery at Skamby already in the 2nd century AD’ – how can archaeologists say from just a brooch that a place was, specifically, a cemetery? Was it a special kind of brooch?


  7. Most folklore is derivative. There are for example a finite number of treasure hunting stories, and the same ones are told about almost every prehistoric barrow in Scandinavia.

    As for the brooch, there are two reasons that I believe it to mark the spot of a cemetery.

    1. The most common find context for such brooches is graves.

    2. The Dalkullestenen standing stone, clearly a grave marker of the same period, is a short stone’s throw away.


  8. Ah, I see. Thanks, Martin. I’m often curious about the ways archaeologists piece together clues from fragmentary finds. (I think this has become a common British fascination. Blame Time Team.)


  9. Thanks! I’ll keep my eyes open for more bits of place-name research. It’s fascinating stuff, and priceless source material for studies of 1st and 2nd millennium AD society in Scandinavia.


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