In the Lake MÃ¤laren area of Sweden, you rarely find any large pieces of Bronze Age metalwork in graves or at settlement sites. When the beautiful larger objects occur – axe heads, spear heads, swords, neck rings, belt ornaments – they almost exclusively come from odd find contexts that I for one feel comfortable with terming sacrificial deposits. My current main project aims to find out the rules that decided where people made sacrificial deposits. This entails looking at the finds we already know of and trying to trace the find spots, which is difficult as most finds were made about 1900 by members of the public. This strange time framing has to do with the fact that most of the sacrifices were made in wetlands, and the wetlands of the Lake MÃ¤laren area were mainly messed with by the public during the decades to either side of 1900.
I want to be able to predict where these sites are and dig them in their untouched state, thus helping to reinvigorate a field of study that has languished for lack of new data for half a century.
This far into my studies, I’m not very optimistic about finding any useful regularities regarding the dry land sacrifices. They are a minority of the finds, and dry land occupies a great majority of the area involved. I’m afraid that any rules I may be able to propose will be too vague to tell me where to dig. But with wetlands, it may be another thing. Far more finds and a far smaller percentage of the area.
In the past weeks I have finished primary data collection on the known finds and run some simple numbers. Looking at finds that are at least potentially from wetlands by parish, Skogs-Tibble near Uppsala leads the field. And a closer look showed me that the numbers represent a belt of finds scattered through three parishes, from Ãsterunda through Skogs-Tibble to VÃ¤nge, with some peripheral occurrences in parishes to the sides. So at this point in the evolution of my model, it’s basically like this:
Look in the Skogs-Tibble scatter. In wetlands. About 1.5 km from burnt mounds and rock-art sites.
And that’s what I did Friday. Near the site scatter’s centre of mass is an oblong lake basin in Skogs-Tibble that has steadily been silting up since getting cut off from the Baltic some time in the Neolithic (current surface 37 m a.s.l.). Only at the centre is there still a small area of open water, while the rest is all bog. In 1891, someone found a bronze flanged-axe head of c. 1400 BC while digging at an unspecified point in the eastern half of the basin. Most likely the digging had something to do with drainage, that is, reclaiming strips of dry land along the basin’s edges to improve forestry. I fought through the undergrowth at the basin’s edge, had a look around, and then settled for a spot to sink a test pit.
You’ll have to understand that I’m pretty new to wetland archaeology, which has never been a big pastime among my colleagues in the region. We don’t really have a tradition. Opening that test pit was a first step for me in learning about how these places really look under the spongy ground surface. And I made a stupid mistake that I could have saved myself if I had remembered what I learned while digging at Djurhamn and Finnestorp in recent years. Maybe you’ll laugh at me, but anyway:
A lake basin is usually deepest at the centre. And my pit was almost as near the centre of this basin as I could get without diving into the lake. I had to remove 1.5 metres of finely layered Phragmites australis reed-root peat before I reached open-water sediment. When I was finished, that pit was deeper than my wife is tall, and it was surrounded by an embankment of turves. And I was grimy from head to toe.
So, what did I learn? Well, in the reed peat were a few well-preserved (though very soft) sticks and other pieces of wood that showed no sign of human modification. They suggest drier woodland episodes. I only went beneath the peat on a 0.5 sqm surface, stooping in the shaft. There was no identifiable organic lake sediment, just a thin layer of coarse sand and sharp-edged gravel, then clean grey glacial clay that was laid down long before the Bronze Age. No artefacts. The spot has been a reed belt for thousands of years, probably since before the basin became landlocked.
Next time I’ll spend comparable labour digging several shallower pits instead, closer to the respective basin’s edge where the sediment pillar above the Bronze Age level is lower. Live & learn.