Medal For Planting Spruce On Barrows

The top official in charge of protecting and making accessible the archaeological record in Sweden is titled Riksantikvarie, “Antiquarian of the Realm”. In English, this title is usually translated as “Custodian of Ancient Monuments”. How should a person act in practice as custodian of ancient monuments?

Everybody understands that you need to keep people from damaging sites & monuments through digging, ploughing, dynamiting, covering, and graffiti. But you can’t just declare a site out-of-bounds and leave it to its own devices: pretty soon it will become so overgrown that it is unrecognisable and thus neither accessible nor likely to be understood as valuable. In recent decades, the preferred method in Sweden has been to cut down bushes and saplings, leave some sparse tree cover and make an agreement with a local farmer for grazing. If no livestock is available, you have to mow the site regularly.

This method was developed in the early 20th century. Prior to that, Swedish archaeologists (who tended to have an urban bourgeois background) didn’t quite understand how vegetation and the cultural landscape interact. For instance, in 1874 the Royal Academy of Letters awarded its silver token to Carl Johan Peterson of KÃ¥rby in Östergötland, because he had planted spruce all over a mound cemetery. This gets horrified winces when you tell it to colleagues of today. But there’s a wrinkle to this famous story. Peterson planted the spruce to protect the mounds, not to make them look nice. Maybe they were threatened by ploughing, which would have been even more damaging.

My buddy Robert Danielsson (who wrote the book on heritage site management and gave me information about Peterson’s silver token) notes:

“Spruce actually does less damage than for instance birch since the root system keeps to the topsoil and is comprised of fairly few, thick and shallow roots. The trouble with spruce is its tendency to fall over. The idea that birch might be good for sites is a misapprehension as a great number of roots reach to every depth and perforate everything around them. The best tree is the oak that does fairly little damage with its vertical root. From an historical perspective, spruce is also unsuitable since it is a relatively recent arrival in our flora.”

Author: Martin R

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

9 thoughts on “Medal For Planting Spruce On Barrows”

  1. Hmmm. Interesting to consider. I know the greatest threat to site is us stomping around them, but I never considered what to do about it except keep off.

    I wonder what covering the site with top-soil, and then planting something like holly on it would do. The holly leaves–at least the ones in my mom’s front yard–are stiff, sharp, give good ground coverage, and are virtually indestructable. Woe to the fool who messes with them without preparation.


  2. I guess it also depends on the sort of mound, or other site. On a mound, sometimes we know, from experience, or better yet from archaeogeophysics, how deep you have to go before tree roots might disturb any features. They will interrupt information on mound construction, but archaeologists always have to deal with that.


  3. I would add that modern mechanized harvesting can also be destructive because the size and weight of the machines.

    However, I should also point out that, according to the earliest IA sources, the Chinese traditionally planted trees on their barrows to mark them in the landscape.


  4. Steve, holly wouldn’t be great for accessibility. And heritage management isn’t just about keeping the archive in good order for the great grandkids. It’s also about making sites accessible and comprehensible to people right now.


  5. Selection of trees and livestock … very practical. But it lacks a high tech, and high dollar, flair. I say we build a three meter barrier wall, seal the top, and fill the space with a CO2. Just think, slowed oxidation, low moisture, and best of all, you do archeology in a modified diving outfit. This was the method used by the Russians when welding titanium submarine hulls. Submerging the entire hull in CO2 eliminated oxidation. It required the welders to ‘dive’ the job.

    Imagine the opportunity for dramatic photography. Do all the work at night, better to protect the artifacts from UV. Cinematically lit the renowned and highly photogenic Dr. Martin Rundkvist slowly climbs up from the dig site, he slowly rises through the CO2 fog, tenders standing respectfully aside while mindfully tending safety and air lines, once on the platform a swift an smooth removal of the helmet, a slight shake of the head, and a quick and photogenic flash of a tired but enthusiastic smile as the cameras roll.

    Your speech goes something along the lines of: Here at this historic site we have set up the worlds most advanced system for protection of artifacts and … we a deeply committed to protecting our history … no cost is too much … I find that 2 billion dollars to retrieve pottery bits is not too high a price to pay, even risking my own life, to preserve our heritage and …

    This is, of course, the American way. When in doubt throw money. Go high tech and high concept. With space exploration being neglected there are a lot of unemployed engineers out there who can help you design the system. And, inevitably, as the costs spiral up, so do the price of your services. Once the money machine starts rolling all the archeologists will want to jump in.

    In ten years digging a site without a CO2 containment will be considered an abomination, a foolhardy risk to priceless artifacts. Priceless in part because if you dig it in a gas containment prices will certainly rise.

    Yes, this is possible. There are scads of money held by major corporations and the wealthy few. With so many sectors for investment down they are primed and motivated to laying down cash for a nice song and pretty picture. A bit of the Vulcan mind grind and the money will just flow in. It is time to indulge your dark side and make archeology into the high tech science it can be. For too long you have been burdened with brushes, trowels, scraped knees, and dirty hands. The artful application of a few billion dollars will spruce things up and make archeologists willing to ride the wave celebrities. Wealthy celebrities who will control and dominate their field for decades.

    Feel the power of the dark side course through your hands … and wallet.


  6. From an historical perspective, spruce is also unsuitable since it is a relatively recent arrival in our flora.

    Heck, there is a spruce in Dalarna that is 9550 years old.

    For many years the spruce tree has been regarded as a relative newcomer in the Swedish mountain region. “Our results have shown the complete opposite, that the spruce is one of the oldest known trees in the mountain range,” says Leif Kullman, Professor of Physical Geography at UmeÃ¥ University.


  7. Art, I think you got part of the inspiration from the “black monolith on the moon” scene of 2001. I don’t mean it as a criticism, I vote we put up Klieg lights and have the archaeolgists move about in futuristic biohazard suits (to avoid DNA contamination). The people can view the stuff -for a fee- on internet, in real time.

    Bob, do we know which species is least likely to send roots down into the artefacts and damage them? This should be the main consideration.


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