Digging at the Finnestorp War Booty Sacrificial Site

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Sösdala style silver sheet fittings. Image from the Finnestorp project’s web site.

Among the many things Swedish archaeologists envy our Danish neighbours are their splendid war booty sacrifices mainly of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries AD. These are silted-up lakes whose anaerobic peat deposits are full of vandalised military equipment taken from less fortunate invading armies (more here). In Sweden, we know of only two major sites in this category: Skedemosse on Öland, which was unfortunately drained and ploughed out long before archaeologists came to work there, and Finnestorp in Västergötland, which is still a shallow lake for part the year. I have just spent two happy days as a fieldworker on Bengt Nordqvist’s dig at Finnestorp.

The site was discovered about 1903 when a road was built across the Katebrobäcken streamlet right by its confluence with River Lidan through a sizeable fen. Bones and pieces of fine metalwork were found and an excavation was mounted by Otto Frödin and Gustav Hallström. As is still the case today, it proved impossible to empty the Finnestorp fen of finds as it measures several hundred meters across. But the site was then largely forgotten. In the 1970s the road was rebuilt and moved slightly, and a new straight channel was dug for the lower reaches of Katebrobäcken. All this was done without archaeological supervision. Only after the fact could a small-scale fieldwork campaign be mounted by Ulf Erik Hagberg (who wrote the book on the aforementioned Skedemosse) and Eva Bergström. In 1992 Katebrobäcken’s new channel was re-dug and deepened, again without the benefit of archaeological attention. Ulf Viking rushed to the site and did some fieldwork, but his project was tragically cut short by a lethal stroke. Bengt Nordqvist and the Gothenburg Historical Society began the current fieldwork campaign in 2000.

The Iron Age war booty at Finnestorp has spent most of the past 1600 years in a black smelly stratum full of leaves, sitting on top of the glacial clay and covered by thick silt. Most of the preserved objects are bronze and silver fittings for horse gear and swords. Spearheads and sword blades are few, shield bosses to my knowledge absent. There is an abundance of high-quality 5th century metalwork, much of it bronze strap mounts onto which gilded and punch ornamented silver-sheet decoration in the Sösdala style has been soldered. They appear to be thinly scattered all over the erstwhile lake floor with a few concentrations. The dates and quality of the objects are the same as those of the fabulous Danish Ejsbøl find, but the find density so far appears less high. Hearths have been found on an island in the fen which have yielded 5th century radiocarbon dates, sheep bones and molten silver droplets, evidence of feasting and systematic damage done to the war booty before sacrifice at these sites.

The main reasons that the on-going project has been able to collect so many fine things are that a) considerable parts of the find-bearing stratum have been lifted to the surface through the three main destructive digging events in the 20th century and deposited on top of the silt layer, b) the metal detector section within the Gothenburg Historical society (with which I have collaborated extensively in Östergötland) with their great skill have been on site for years searching through these dump layers. Most of the finds at Finnestorp are not made in situ.

My two days on site were spent in a 4 by 2 metre trench between the old and new channels of Katebrobäcken. At the top was a find-bearing layer resulting from the 1992 event. A few steps from the trench, this layer yielded a madly overdecorated bandolier buckle a few years ago, found by metal detector. Today Tim Olsson found a tiny bronze buckle for a Migration Period fanny pack (!) here while I shoveled the dump soil away for him in 10 cm increments. In adjoining parts of the trench, team members had also removed half a meter of dirt representing the 1970s event without finding anything before reaching the undisturbed find stratum containing a fine bronze sword pommel and two or three other things. Meanwhile Kenth Lärk followed the streamlet’s erosion scarp with his metal detector and picked up a gorgeous strap joiner with a direct parallel in the Högom burial’s bridle. He didn’t have to shift an egg’s volume of dirt.

A large trench across the road, sited exclusively from study of the topography with a view to investigating the ancient lake’s shore where the people behind the sacrifice would have stood, produced only a few small flint implements from several millennia before the sacrifices. This demanded a lot of hand-digging and sieving by many people.

So Finnestorp offers a conundrum of fieldwork methodology. Ideally we would of course want to know where each ancient object is in the undisturbed parts of the black stratum. But find concentrations are few and far between in that layer, and reaching it is labour intensive. It is much more profitable to search by metal detector in the redeposited dumps on the surface, which is exactly what Bengt Nordqvist has the Gothenburg detectorists doing. The team’s non-detectorists are collecting a small number of finds with exact original context info through digging and sieving. But the detectorists are raking in finds. They are from secondary positions, but are known to have moved only a few meters each in x-y-z direction when the road workers’ mechanical excavator lifted them. Bengt Nordqvist’s fieldwork campaign will thus prove one of the 21st century’s greatest advances in Swedish Migration Period studies.

Monday evening I had the pleasure of talking for two hours without a script about my Östergötland project to an audience of ~50 in Trävattna parish hall. The place was packed, and as far as I could tell nobody fled during the intermission. I take this to mean that everybody enjoyed themselves almost as much as myself. At times like these I allow myself to think that it’s actually a bit of a waste that (though not for lack of trying) I am not employed as a university teacher.

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The Knowledge of the Ancients

I’m reading Eric Carlquist’s and Harry Järv’s massive new anthology of library history, Mänsklighetens minne. For an idea about what the anthology is like, consider that all the contributors are male and that the youngest of them was born in 1947. For an idea about me, consider that I would happily have read all 866 pages of it already in my later teens.

Reading this book, I’m struck yet again by the difference between knowledge “on good authority” and scientific knowledge. Throughout the European and Islamic Middle Ages, throughout the millennia of Chinese civilisation, ancient texts were preserved and copied largely because they were believed to contain valuable timeless knowledge about the world. In a few cases, like those of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on geography and astronomy, this was true to some extent. But in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Thus the texts that were once held to describe the material world are now studied mainly for what they can tell us about the world of ancient thought. To the extent that they are mined for data on the real world, it is by historians studying the time of their writing. This is a tiny business at today’s universities.

To a writer, it is of course sad to think that one day nobody will care about your work. But I feel even more sorry for those manuscript-copying monks who helped transmit the ancient texts up to the invention of printing. They must have believed that the works were really important.

Book Completed With Skedevi and Regna

Today I didn’t make any effort to entertain the kids until mid-afternoon. I was busy filling in some gaps and writing the last piece of text for my Östergötland manuscript, an entry for the gazetter at the end of the book. It’s been my main project for almost four years. What remains now is fiddling with details (bibliography, figure numbering and captions, test-reader comments, read-through and final copy edit) and collecting/making illustrations.


Regna and Skedevi parishes
In northernmost Östergötland, far from the plains belt, is Lake Regnaren whose surface is 60 meters above current seal level. It empties through a short stream northward into Lake Tisnaren (44 m a.s.l.), through which the province boundary runs. The southern and western shores of Regnaren are a fertile enclave forming the core of Regna parish. Between Regnaren and Tisnaren is Skedevi parish. On the northern shore of Tisnaren are the fertile parishes of Västra and Östra Vingåker in Södermanland province.

Before the construction of modern roads, Regna and Skedevi had much better communication with Södermanland than with central Östergötland. Throughout our period of study the two parishes display a series of elite indicators.

Starting in phase D1 of the Migration Period, Regna parish has a stray copper-alloy brooch with punch decorated and gilded Sösdala style silver sheet panels. With the Vendel Period, the destroyed cemetery of Smedjebacken at Ruda in Skedevi very near the province border becomes productive. We now see a seax sword of type ?SAX4, a gilded disc-on-bow brooch with cloisonné and a small domed oval brooch with animal art, all of the Late Vendel Period. From the Viking Period, Smedjebacken has three swords and a type Petersen E lance head. In 1914 Byle Östergård in Skedevi near Ruda yielded a hoard consisting of three gold arm rings, weighing 139 g. Finally, Skedevi parish has a Husby royal manor of the 11th/12th centuries next to the church. The parish name was once probably an appellative: a skedevi was a pagan sanctuary where ritual horse races were staged (Sv.ortn.lex. p. 277).

Meanwhile in Västra Vingåker parish, we see e.g. a Migration Period openwork bracteate-like gold pendant from Skonäs and from graves at Sävstaholm a Vendel Period display bridle and a garnet-studded Husby type brooch. Östra Vingåker has not to my knowledge produced anything comparable.

Ireland and Lithuania Pass Old Testament Laws

In the West we shake our heads, and very rightly so in my opinion, at sharia, Islamic law rooted in the culture of 7th century AD Arabia. This is the body of thought that leads to judicial stonings and mutilations to this day.

The legislative assemblies of Ireland and Lithuania, each just a short boat ride from Swedish shores, have recently shown that the mindset they cultivate is certainly not that of AD 700. They are aiming for Old Testament times, 700 BC or earlier.

In Ireland, blasphemous speech is now illegal. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)

In Lithuania, is is now illegal for media and schools to spread information that “agitates for homosexual, bisexual relations, or polygamy.” “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

To all free-thinking and tolerant people in Ireland and Lithuania, this must of course be a huge embarrassment. You have my sympathy! I hope these laws will not mark the beginning of a slide backward to the Bronze Age for your countries.

New/Old 6th Century Find on Bornholm

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In early May (I was <this> close to capitalising “Early” because I write about archaeological periods all the time.) metal detectorists on Bornholm, Denmark, rediscovered one of the earliest-documented find spots of guldgubbar. These are tiny embossed gold foils depicting people: usually a single man, sometimes an embracing man and woman, less frequently a single woman. They are a diagnostic artefact type of the Vendel Period’s elite manor sites (AD 530-790). A cool thing about the new find is that is contains gold bracteates as well, which suggests that we are dealing with one of the last goldsmith sites of the Migration Period as well as one of the Vendel Period’s first. And there is even one of the Migration Period’s rare little round-sculpture figurines, famous among Swedish archaeologists since the find of three such at Lunda in Strängnäs.

The identification of the old find spot is plausible both from the scant information in the early publication and through the similar and rare artefact types found. A thorough rescue excavation has now been done to clean the site of gold.

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Friends of the Kaga lady will recognise two such images of high-born wives™ in the new find: one smaller mounted on an iron plaque and one larger, folded over.

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The gold bracteates in the find are weird, having an unusually stylised and small central motif engraved on a square die, when they are almost always larger and round. This is because the goldsmith has used a punch intended for the concentric rows of decorative punch marks on a large bracteate’s rim zone instead of a real bracteate die. This too suggests an unusual bracteate production milieu, arguably a very late one. The find of May 2009 will figure largely in future discussions of these things.

Thanks to Finn Ole Nielsen of Bornholms Museum for permission to publish the photographs and to Morten Axboe for explaining the weird bracteates.

Bookshelves

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I’m now in that state of summer leisure mixed with the responsibility of providing entertainment for the kids that causes a man to forget what day it is of the week. And so a week’s fun is no longer restricted to its last two days. But I have done nothing grandiose lately: mainly pottered about and enjoyed being reunited with my lady wife after her recent visit to the in-laws.

Anyway, Friday and Saturday were largely taken up by housework of the interior decoration kind. My dad likes to suggest grandiose changes to our house and incite my wife into supporting his ideas, but as he also invariably offers to perform the work in question I can’t complain. I felt that one short wall of our large living room needed re-painting and the construction of a large wall-hung book case. While I was busy with this wall, my dad and my wife painted all the other three walls and the ceiling. Now we have 24 glorious metres of shelves and nicer-coloured walls.

When it comes to bookshelves, I am a passive plaything of women. My first bookshelf I found next to the laundry room when I was in student housing — thanks, Lady Fortune. My second one I bought to match my first wife’s shelves. No 3 I bought to match No 2. And now I have just gotten shelves as per a design by my dad’s wife, who used to head the Swedish interior decorators’ association. What is my own true wish in bookshelves? I shall most likely never know. But it felt good to start getting our books out of the cardboard boxes and onto the new shelves last night.

Leaving my dad to apply the last coat of paint this morning, we headed out to my mom’s place in the archipelago. (Near Djurhamn, the harbour site where I’ve done fieldwork.) Sunshine, wind, rounded grey cliffs, pine trees. I live beside the main Medieval shipping lane from the Continent to Stockholm. This is beside the Early Modern route. No ghost ships though.

De-Lurk

Lurker:

“In Internet culture, a lurker is a person who reads discussions on a message board, newsgroup, chatroom, file sharing or other interactive system, but rarely or never participates actively.”

From this follows that a de-lurk is an opportunity for shy regular readers to make their presence known. Please tell us something about yourself, and about what you’d like to read more of here! Even if you’re not shy at all.

Extra kudos to people who de-lurked already at the first Aard de-lurk or even at the Salto Sobrius regulars roundup of March ’06.