Ancient Swedish Fishers Put Human Heads On Stakes


The Mesolithic is the period between deglaciation and the introduction of agriculture in Europe (up to about 4000 cal BC in my parts). Within Swedish research into this period in recent years, no single site has been able to compete with the small town of Motala in Östergötland county. Located at a series of rapids on the main waterway from Lake Vättern to the Baltic, the spot has always been important for fishers and travellers. Its Mesolithic record has gained the limelight thanks to major railroad construction in an area with waterlogged sediment that preserves organics. Thus any number of beautiful bone and wood finds, and of course the bone boner covered here before.


Now my old colleague and buddy Fredrik Hallgren of Stiftelsen KulturmiljövÃ¥rd has gone public with some awesome finds that have only been known from a blog posts and Facebook updates. Here’s their press release, mercilessly edited:

Archaeological excavations in 2009-2011 in Motala have unearthed a unique Mesolithic site with ceremonial depositions of human crania in a former lake. The skulls have been treated in a complex ceremony that involved the display of skulls on stakes and the deposition of skulls in water. The skulls have been radiocarbon-dated and are 8000 years old.

The rituals at Kanaljorden were conducted on a massive stone pavement constructed on the bottom of a shallow lake (currently a peat fen). Some crania were fairly intact while others were found as isolated fragments. The more intact ones represent eleven individuals, both men and women, ranging in age between infants and middle age. Two of the skulls have had wooden stakes inserted all the way from the base to the top. In another case a woman’s temple bone was found inside the skull of another woman. Besides human skulls, the finds also include a small number of post-cranial human bones and bones from animals, as well as artefacts of stone, wood, bone and antler.

The skull depositions at Kanaljorden are clearly ritual in character. The next step is to find out if the human bones are relics of dearly departed that were handled in a complex secondary burial ritual, or trophies of defeated enemies. The archaeologists hope that the ongoing laboratory analysis [stable isotopes] will give clues as to whether the bones are the remains of locals or people with a distant geographic origin, and if they represent a family group or persons unrelated to each other.

I haven’t read the bone report, so I’m not sure if they have any positive evidence to suggest that the skulls were defleshed before being put on the stakes. Their date puts them about 2000 years before the world was made according to Christian fundies. And don’t diss my ancestors, OK? This is a sacred mystery to all of us who are as one with the Swedish soil. I am going to demand the right to grind these bones to a fine powder and drink it down mixed with mellanmjölk, semi-skimmed milk. Because such is the ancient custom that I just made up among us ethnic Swedes.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

16 thoughts on “Ancient Swedish Fishers Put Human Heads On Stakes”

  1. Thank you for the summary, Martin. You are absolutely right to ask the question, whether the heads were skeletons. From a danish not so PC point of view, it sounds like the old custom of “kill everyone and put their heads at stakes” known from the middle ages to the french revolution, but who knows…

    And why dont you drink the mummy-powder (grinded egyptian mummy) instead – a great remedy from the 19th century, and probably easier to come by?


  2. Martin, these are clearly victims of the great flood, and we all know that being buried by the flood throws of carbon dating! Joke aside, I’d thought that Sweden would have been under a mile of ice around that time, when did the glaciation end in Scandinavia?


  3. quite a find,how does it fit in with the later legends and songs of this area,did Beowulf put heads on stakes.yes i know the time difference,but still…


  4. Damn! I mailed a comment but it got eaten by the spam filter.
    Anyway, depending on whether the hunter-gatherers were displaced or absorbed into the arriving neolithic populations the cultural crossover would be spotty. How much of the cult practices that crossed over is anybody’s guess, since few cult objects were made of durable materials.


  5. I’m pretty sure that when you put up a head on a spike, it’s to send the message, “You Mess With Us, Yours Go Here Next”.


  6. I heard his presentation at the EAA and the funny thing is that the skulls even when mounted on the sticks, were roughly 50 cm below the water surface, so not really visible (provided that the wooden poles kept their actual length and not all of them were broken at about the same length.
    A really exciting dig considering the scarcity of Mesolithic human remains.


  7. Wonder if the wood is in good enough shape to grab a dendrochronology sequence that could be cross-referenced to the Greenland ice core sequences the paleoclimatologists are busily dating.


  8. AT, these sticks are alas too thin to offer rings enough to lock them into a reference curve. You can’t reference individual pieces of wood against the ice cores. You need regional average curves.


  9. These old, bog-preserved human remains just fascinate me. Thanks for the summary. These particularly caught my interest, as one set of my great-grandparents came from Motala. These could well be some far ancestors of mine, or have been done in by far distant ancestors. Gives one a different perspective on the find.


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