Axes and Grain for the Neolithic Gods


Sven Gunnar Broström, known as Stone Gunnar.

In June of last year I reported on my visit to a small research excavation directed by my Fornvännen boss Lars Larsson at Botkyrka golf club south of Stockholm. The Stensborg site is highly unusual by the standards of this part of the country: a place near the sea shore where some of the region’s first farmers congregated almost 6000 years ago and did some really weird shit. Sven Gunnar Broström, PhD h.c., one of Sweden’s most active and respected self-taught archaeologists, discovered it in the late 60s. Simply through fieldwalking he and Kent Ihrestam recovered and recorded 3000 finds, largely axes and axe-making debris, much of it exotic rock types, and much of it burnt. He also found some very nice Funnel Beaker, Trichterbecher, TRB pottery. Now he’s digging the site with Lars and Elin Fornander, one of the good archaeo-lab folks who took the time to hear Alan Sokal’s talk this last June.


Imagine a big cultic bonfire on some forgotten equinox in the 37th century BC. Imagine tossing into it a big expensive polished flint axe you’ve traded for from the distant flint-producing areas in the south. See it turning into fireworks and flying into bits with a loud crackling noise. This was done with some regularity at Stensborg in the Early Neolithic. Ostentatious public consumption of exotic commodities on the northern edge of Neolithic Europe.


Last year Lars’s team dug test pits and small trenches in the ploughsoil, finding more of the kind of stuff Sven Gunnar had collected. This year they’ve machine-stripped a few hundred square meters to check out what survives beneath plough depth. And they’ve been richly rewarded, not just with more of the same find categories and by burnt human bones, but with the most essentially Neolithic kind of find possible: litre after litre after litre of carbonised grain. It lies around the whole site, and pools in little pits with lithics and pottery and bones. This grain is perfect for radiocarbon, for palaeobotany, for inferring early agricultural methods through the species and proportion of weed seeds in it, and I’d be most surprised if there won’t prove to be enough DNA left in it to allow plant geneticists to identify where the seed grain came from. Lovely stuff.

And I had the pleasure to help fold up and truss the site tent for its horse-transport ride back to Scania. It’s one of the inflatable rubber military field hospitals Lars bought for the classic Skateholm dig in 1982. “Well whaddya know”, said Lars appreciatively, “you’re actually good for something besides blogging!”.


6 thoughts on “Axes and Grain for the Neolithic Gods

  1. I don’t know. This sort of info is exactly what I’d hoped to find on science blogs. Even if you were only good for blogging, you’re blogging is disseminating good information, therefore it is a valid public service. Thanks!


  2. Thanks a bunch! I’ve been working hard all summer to ignore the knowledge of this lovely site being excavated not too far away.
    Oh, those lovely bones…


  3. Then again, do we have reason to suppose any religious activity comes into this at all? I am strongly reminded of rich brats in BÃ¥stad pouring champagne on the floor, just to show they can afford it.


  4. I suspect that if you have more grain than you can eat, the best thing to do with it is to carbonize it. If you leave it as grain, then mice, rats and other vermin will eat it and experience a population explosion. Molds and fungus will infest it and increase the background levels of those spores. Surplus wealth is going to attract human predators too.

    If you partially carbonize it, the proteins get converted into slow release nitrogen fertilizers, the potassium and phosphate remain as soluble nutrients. Carbon is inert and adds cationic exchange capacity to the soil. It aids in aeration of the soil making it more fertile; a real problem in Scandinavia where the glaciers recently stripped off all the topsoil.

    I suspect the idea of sacrificing goods by partial combustion preceded religion for productive reasons and that religion became the post hoc justification for it.

    Why sacrifice a valuable weapon? If you have a better one, the extra one might be used against you.


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