Alsengem Found in Sweden

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Alsengems are little multilayered button-like discs of coloured glass with incised human stick-figures on one side. Archaeology became aware of them in 1871 when one was found on the Danish island of Als. These gems are pretty coarse and ugly compared to the exquisite agate and intaglio ones of Classical antiquity, but they nevertheless have their place in an archaeologist’s heart.

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On the Continent, Alsengems are found as part of church art of the 11th through 13th centuries such as reliquaries, book covers and altar crosses. Their core area is the Netherlands, Lower Saxony and Frisia. In Scandinavia, they occur very sparingly in various archaeological contexts, suggesting that they were imported here on their own, not as part of larger objects. Perhaps they were kept as exclusive amulets. In Sweden, Alsengems are known from early towns such as Lund and Sigtuna and a few other places. Through their four-century floruit, the gems appear to have moved gradually from strictly ecclesiastical milieux into the era’s markets and towns.

Skogaby Kattarp

An Alsengem with two figures was found in June at Skogaby Kattarp in Halland, south-west Sweden. The site is being excavated for a road development by the Halland County Museum under the direction of Anders Håkansson. He reckons that he has found the remains of a magnate’s farm.

Thanks to Jan Peder Lamm for the tip. County Museum news page here. Local newspaper story here. Images and information taken from a document put on-line by Mats Roslund.

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14 thoughts on “Alsengem Found in Sweden

  1. Playing the Devil’s Advocate, and also as someone doing forensics on fake antiquities, I find these objects depicted to be possibly all by the same hand. Is there good provenance, and has anyone compared all these objects side-by-side? I have learned over many years to view antiquities excavated way in the past, or come onto the antiquities market with dubious antecedents with urine-colored glasses. It would be worth the effort establishing their association with the sites so as to avoid possible embarrassment later on. Verbum sap sat, eh?


  2. these things are awesome, what was their “place” or to phrase it differently: what was their “use”? Where in the church could you find one?


  3. VJB, Scandinavian archaeology doesn’t have a fakes problem AFAIK. Back in the 19th century when we still had voluminous trade in prehistoric finds, the goods were mainly corroded bronzes and patinated flints, two find categories that are almost impossible to fake convincingly. Regarding the find contexts of the Swedish Alsengems, I know no details. But there are like five of them all in all, having surfaced one by one over the past century. Not the pattern of your typical faker. In my opinion, the reason these three are so alike is that they were mass-produced in Saxony back in the 13th century. Lots of archaeological finds are stereotypical mass products.

    Carl, check out the link to Mats Roslund’s file for pix!


  4. Please forgive a layman and ignoramus who nevertheless reads this blog with great interest for asking some irreverent questions. Is it correct that all the gems found in Sweden carry the same motive? On the website of Kulturmilj� Halland it says “De ristade figurerna har tolkats antingen som �nglar eller som k�pm�n med sk�gg och sv�rd, d�r handslaget symboliserar en handelsgemenskap” that is to say the figures have been interpreted as “angels” or “merchants with swords”. Does this make sense in your opinion?

    To the uninformed reader it seems a bit peculiar, not to say suspicious, that old artifacts always are classified as “cult objects” or maybe “fertility symbols.” I have discussed this several times on my blog particulary in relation to the so called “Venus von Willendorf” – one of the oldest fertility symbols found in Europe according to the scientists – just a fat nekidd gal in my opinion. You don’t think that that “alsengems” could be just a frivolous knick-knack without any deeper significance? That wouldn’t make it less interesting in my opinion.


  5. Is it correct that all the gems found in Sweden carry the same motive?

    No, according to Schulze-Dörrlamm’s distribution maps in Roslund’s document there are gems with two, three and perhaps four figures from Sweden. The new find seems to be number eight from this country.

    The figures have been interpreted as “angels” or “merchants with swords”. Does this make sense in your opinion?

    Yes, because the early type is usually part of church art and the later types are found at market places. Early Alsengems didn’t mean the same thing as later ones.

    frivolous knick-knack without any deeper significance

    No, Alsengems were hard to make, they’re rare and they occur in power-heavy social contexts. There are frivolous knick-knacks in the archaeological record, but I don’t think the Alsengems belong in that category.

    The cultic interpretation is of course a bit of a joke since archaeologists like to whip it out whenever they find something they don’t understand. But believe me, it’s not an instant uncontroversial interpretation. All good scholars consider it only as one of several hypotheses and compare the strength of the arguments for each one.

    With things like Venus from Willendorf, it’s useless to try to interpret an individual object. What you need to do is collect information about as many similar ones as possible. In the case of the Late Palaeolithic female figurines, I gather that they always occur along with a lot of other weird non-practical stuff.

    Remember also that skilled artwork like Alsengems and Venus figurines presupposes some division of labour. This is another reason that the figurines are interpreted as cultic: Late Palaeolithic society was most likely not strongly differentiated, and specialised artists must have been very rare indeed.


  6. Tack f�r utf�rligt svar och sp�nnande l�nkar. Skall studera dem i detalj. Tyckte mig ana litet medh�ll fr�n kommentarerna till “female figurines”. 😉


  7. I know very little about the Palaeolithic as the inland ice obliterated its archaeological record almost entirely in Scandinavia. But I do think that Willendorf is a babe. Hold on to those curves, ladies!


  8. Martin, what do you mean by “exclusive amulet”? Long-nosed, goat-bearded angels, holding hands, no hard-ons…what weird iconography. 8 is a mighty small sample, but: So the Swedish ones come without settings, but the Saxon ones are found in a larger context of book and reliquary covers? Sounds like loot. Is the back flat or is there any sign of attatchment or modification on the swedish examples to indicate that they were put to a use other than the original intended one? Any documented workshops in Germany?
    I don’t think I’d attribute Paleolithic ivory carvings to craft specialists; cult specialists only maybe.


  9. Exclusive as in “expensive and hard to get”, amulet as in “small object with useful magic powers”.

    The early single-figure ones occur only on Continental church art. The middling two-figure ones occur mainly on Continental church art, but also as a few stray finds at trading places in peripheral areas such as the Swedish ones. The late 3-4-figure ones occur mainly as strays at trading places, with a few still on church art in the old core area. Unleikely to be loot so long after the Viking Period.

    Don’t know about the back sides or about workshops. Read Schulze-Dörrlamm 1990.

    Palaeolithic ivory carvings are too good to be made by occasional artists. Thus their makers were craft specialists. They may also have had other specialisms.


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