Tern Island Again

Last week my dad and his wife took us to Tärnskär, “Tern Island” again like three years ago. This time we looked closer at the lovely glacial abrasion features on the island’s higher end.

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Medieval Zombies: the Grateful Dead

Reading Anund & Qviberg’s new guide book on Medieval Uppland, I came across a great religious legend: “The Grateful Dead“. (The band got its name from a dictionary entry on this family of stories.) The earliest version of the legend is found in the German Cistercian prior Caesarius of Heisterbach’s 13th century book of miracle stories, the Dialogus miraculorum. This book was hugely popular for centuries, and though Caesarius is largely forgotten today, we do remember his chilling line about how to tell a Cathar from a Catholic, attributed by Caesarius to one of the Albigensian Crusade’s leaders: “Kill them all and let God sort them out”.

The Grateful Dead on a 1492 votive painting in Kołobrzeg Cathedral.

The cool thing about “The Grateful Dead” is that the story has zombies. Caesarius tells us:

There was a once a man who had the habit, when he passed a churchyard, always to stop and pray for the souls of the dead whose bodies were buried there. Once it occurred that he was pursued by armed enemies into this churchyard, and lo! all the graves in the churchyard opened and one saw all the dead bodies, armed with swords and staffs, hasten to the man’s aid. For fear of them, the terrified enemies turned back and ceased to pursue the man.

In the 15th century, this legend was a popular subject of church art across German-speaking Northern Europe. At least four churches in the Swedish province of Uppland has murals of the Grateful Dead: Biskopskulla, Roslagsbro, Rö and Yttergran. The story was lent new relevance by the Late Medieval preoccupation with Purgatory, where much of religious life became concentrated on ways to shorten the period of cleansing torture — such as indulgences. In that era’s interpretation of the legend, the dead rise to save a man who makes a habit of praying for their souls, thus shortening their stay in Purgatory.

And the imagery lives on. In early fantasy games of the Dungeons & Dragons ilk there was a trope about zombies wielding agricultural implements as weapons. I bet this came straight from Medieval art. The image below is from Jackson & Livingstone’s bestselling 1982 choose-your-own-adventure book The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Zombies by Russ Nicholson, from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.


I’ve found two good papers on the Grateful Dead in Medieval art available on-line, by Hans Wieser 1947 in German and by Åke Nisbeth 1953 in Swedish.

New Rolling Stones E-Book

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’s first gig, at the Marquee Club in London. Journalist Hanspeter Kuenzler and Bavarian e-book publishers The eBook People GmbH celebrate the occasion with a massive illustrated two-volume biographical anthology in English on the band. Counting the pages in an e-book is of course difficult. But suffice to say that the first volume, that Aard has received for review, extends to 694 pages on my smartphone, where I read it.

Kuenzler provides the year-by-year narrative backbone of the story and, in a nice touch, for each year lists important new albums. His style is effortless and attractive, and he does a good job of covering the musical, social, world-contextual and gossipy aspects of the story without losing track of where he’s going. It’s an anthology because Kuenzler has also dug up a plethora of contemporary press items on the Stones and certain important people in their circle, both descriptive articles and interviews. After reading what Kuenzler thinks about the Stones’ activities in 1965, for instance, we also learn what the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and NME had to say about them at the time.

Oddly, this period coverage does not extend to reviews of Stones albums or concerts. We learn what journalists of the past thought about the Rolling Stones – but sadly not what they thought about their records. Instead Kuenzler diligently reviews the albums himself from a 21st century perspective. And in these reviews we encounter the book’s only important editorial weakness.

When read immediately after one of Kuenzler’s narrative chapters, the reviews turn out to be full of repetitions, including entire phrases, suggesting that he wrote the reviews first (for an unrelated project?), then the narrative chapters, and then he never returned to re-edit the album reviews. Copy editing and proof-reading are good, though. The book does suffer from a common e-book glitch, namely that there are occasional gratuitous page breaks when I read the .epub file on Aldiko for Android (a lovely piece of software).

All in all congratulations are due all around: to the Stones who have survived for so long and made their many fans so happy, to Hanspeter Kuenzler who has written a good book, and to my fellow music fans who have a good read and many musical discoveries ahead.

50 Years: The Rolling Stones. Views From The Inside, Views From The Outside. Part 1 is available in .mobi, .epub and .epub format and costs $15. Buy it here!

How Do Older Things End Up Buried Under Newer Ones?

Tomas Romson asked me a good question. Why do archaeological layers form in such a way that older things end up buried below newer ones? The answer is, because people and natural processes deposit dirt on the ground. Using a word borrowed from geology, we call the study of such layers stratigraphy.

Imagine a Neolithic family who build a house on virgin land and live there for some decades. At the end of this phase there are a number of stinky middens and remains of the house on the site. These materials get compacted by microbial activity and mucked around by wildlife, and eventually form a culture layer full of artefact fragments and bones and charred plant remains across the site.

Then after a lightning strike a nearby wood burns down, exposing a sand deposit to strong wind from the sea for a few decades. The wind covers the Neolithic layer with drift sand.

Now a Bronze Age family comes along and builds a house on the drift sand, and the process repeats itself.

Then a nearby river changes its course and floods the site, covering it with a layer of river muck.

Now the site becomes grassed over and Iron Age farmers from a nearby village use it as pasture for centuries. Hardly any deposits accumulate on top of the old river muck, just a couple of hearths and thin waste scatters from transient shepherds.

Then a Medieval potter sets up shop nearby and uses the site as a dumping ground for broken and misfired pottery.

By now there’s a stratigraphical layer cake on site. But dating the stuff you may find there is not as simple as measuring the level above the natural subsoil. Because people dig pits and place the spoil on their era’s ground surface.

Imagine the Iron Age folks digging a pit on the site to bury an old man with a dodgy reputation who isn’t allowed to rest in the village cemetery. They dig his grave deep enough that the base of the grave cut reaches all the way into the natural subsoil. This means that when they backfill the grave, they leave a number of redeposited Neolithic and Bronze Age artefact fragments on top of the Iron Age land surface. As Amnon Ben-Tor taught us volunteers at Tel Hazor in 1990, every major layer on a tell contains finds from every phase of the tell’s use. In fact, during the month I spent at Hazor we managed to extend the tell’s known life back into the Early Bronze Age despite the fact that we were digging much later layers dating from the Persian Empire. There was some EB pottery in that layer too.

But of course we no longer dig stratigraphy in site-wide layers and do not attempt to keep the excavation surface level. Imagine removing the Medieval potter’s dump layer in a good-sized trench on site, exposing the top of the river muck. A number of discolorations are visible in the surface of the muck layer. Some are Iron Age hearths. One is an Iron Age grave. And next to it is a small diffuse deposit left from the grave diggers’ spoil heap. Before we remove any of the river muck, we carefully remove and sieve each of these later deposits, which in the case of the grave provides us with a ready-made section through the site’s stratigraphy. Though we haven’t actually dug into the Neolithic or Bronze Age deposits on site yet, we will now already be aware that they exist and are separated by geological layers in a manner you almost only ever see in theoretical thought experiments.

King Björn Invited Me To His Mead-Hall

Yesterday Jrette, her buddy and I went down to Ströja in Kvillinge outside Norrköping and had a look at the mead-hall excavation I’ve blogged about. Arkeologikonsult’s Björn Hjulström very kindly showed us around. The site will become an Östergötland classic, not only for the 6th century manor hall but also because of its long habitation continuity and for the keen appreciation its excavators have for stratigraphy. I saw hachured plans that would make British urban archaeologists proud.

The excavation is caused by and funded through a planned road widening and railroad improvement which are both hitting Ströja bytomt square on. The word means “hamlet plot” and refers to sites with known rural habitation on pre-1900 maps. The last buildings at Ströja were torn down in c. 1920. There are farmsteads on the plot on a 17th century map, and property boundaries there sketch a typical rectangular hamlet plot of the 13th century’s laga läge type. Last year’s work on site extended that continuity back to the 7th century within the boundaries of the hamlet plot, which is a beautiful case study for scholars who want to understand how this High Medieval re-organisation of rural hamlets was done.

An important reason that Björn and his team can excavate this site is that it is no longer inhabited. Looking at the map of the area in the Sites & Monuments register you’ll find lots of abandoned hamlet plots, which is a sure sign of a 17th century säteri manor somewhere in the vicinity. Such manors are excellent preservatives for Medieval hamlet sites, since their establishment entailed removal and loss of independence for smaller landowners around the manor. In this case, the manor is named Krusenhof and was established in 1623.

There are two funny side notes to be made about the manor. One is that the guy who owns it now also farms Hjortsberga manor in Vårdinge and kindly gave me permission to investigate a Bronze Age deposition site there last year. The other, more childishly, is that the hamlet that became Krusenhof is known as Kullerstad, Knyllestad and Knullerstad in the pre-manorial written sources. In England, that would be “Fuckerstead” – tee-hee.

The entire stripped area on site is full of complicated stratigraphy and well-preserved bones. There are loads of wells, a sunken-floor building and a great big burnt-stone layer whose purpose the diggers hint darkly at. Are all those bones really from meals?**

King Björn would like to invite you all for drinks. In this photo he is standing in the side aisle between the row of roof-bearing posts and the building's outer wall. This is where we would expect built-in benches for sitting and sleeping.

Well, what about the mead-hall? It’s just outside the boundary of the High Medieval hamlet plot, and currently the earliest known structure on site. The building has seen some post replacement and one whole-sale demolition and rebuilding on the same floor plan with about ten pairs of roof posts. The Snartemo glass beaker’s sherds are popping up from one of the gable postholes. And overall, the postholes are oddly shallow for their width. At similar sites elsewhere, you can hide an archaeologist in each roof posthole without even dismembering him. But not here. And it isn’t because the postholes have been truncated by later ploughing: a rare and beautiful drystone beam support wall along one end of the building survives to above the level of the postholes’ top packing stones. This suggests that the hall was not very high and bore a light-weight thatched roof.

Sadly, the modern ploughsoil has been stripped from the whole site without the benefit of metal detecting. The team is however metal-detecting the stripped surface intensively. As you can see from the photos, the trench edge is just a few meters from the mead-hall, so I suggested to Björn that he put some skilled person-hours into metal-detecting the plough soil just outside that trench edge to perhaps pick up some good stuff from the great hall.

A note on dates: Björn (who understands scientific sampling way better than most Swedish archaeologists thanks to his lab background) has a charred-through roof post from the hall, and he has sent three samples for dating: one from the post’s surface, one halfway in to the centre, and one from the centre. This series will provide a control against contamination if they line up nicely with the oldest date at the centre and the youngest one at the periphery.* The Snartemo beaker, being the single datable find so far from the hall, is Late Migration Period (D2), c. AD 450-540. It would be odd to find a hamlet plot being established during that interval as the big rift in Iron Age settlement continuity marks the end of that period (cf. the AD 536 atmospheric dust event). So maybe the beaker was an heirloom brought to the site when the wandering hamlet Ströja moved here in the 6th century.

*Update 15 July: I got stuff mixed up: the charred-through post was on another site, and the reason that you sample thrice in such a case is that then you can deduct the confidence intervals of the two older dates from that of the youngest and get a much narrower date for the felling of the tree. What Björn does have so far from the Ströja hall is samples from the outermost layers of three posts that were superficially charred. One of these samples is already at the radiocarbon lab and heading for the accelerator.

**Update 18 July: That stone layer is strewn with human skull fragments! Some are radiocarbon dated to the 8th century! And there are scattered postholes there. It looks a lot like the peripheral crafts site at Herrebro in Borg that I discuss in my book. I imagine that when an old thrall had died and you had fed her body to the pigs, you might put her skull on a stake in the farmstead’s ritual precinct…

In My Earbuds Lately

  • Black Keys – Brothers (2010). Soulful vocals and psychedelic guitars.
  • Brimstone Solar Radiation Band – Solstice (2005). Melodic Norwegian psych.
  • David Bowie – Low (1977). Soul rock interleaved with ambient instrumentals.
  • Howlin’ Rain – Magnificent Fiend (2008). Soulful vocals and psychedelic guitars.
  • Lightships – Electric Cables (2012). Teenage Fanclub bassist goes solo.
  • Norm Sherman – The Esoteric Order of Sherman (2012). Eclectic musical comedy.
  • OK Go – Of the Blue Colour of the Sky (2010). Intricate studio pop, Prince falsetto.
  • Voodoo Trombone Quartet – Eponymous (2005). Ska, rocksteady, lounge music, breakbeats.
  • Wondermints – Rehearsals & Epic Demos (2000). 90s power pop & psych pop.

Fun Stuff Ahead

I have four pleasant things on my desk at the moment:

  • Finally my first uni job! Humble but very important to me. I’ve been asked to teach Swedish landscape archaeology to exchange students in English for about 100 hours during the autumn term. Start 4 Sept.
  • A commission for an encyclopedia article on Viking gaming. Deadline 30 Sept.
  • A speaking slot at a conference in a Crimean coastal resort during the off-season, to talk about Swedish contacts with that area in the 4th and 5th centuries. Deadline 3 Oct.
  • A growing book ms. on Bronze Age sacrificial sites. Deadline 31 Dec. 2013.

What about you, Dear Reader? Any fun stuff coming up?

New Guide Book on Medieval Uppland

Sweden’s traditionally divided into 25 landskap provinces. They live on in people’s minds despite having been superseded by a new län division in 1634. The boundaries of the landskap go way back into prehistory, and so they don’t respect the country’s cities much, these generally being much later in origin.

Stockholm is a case in point. Today’s urban area is neatly bisected by the boundary between Uppland and Södermanland provinces. Two years ago myself and other Stockholmers got half of our High Medieval itches scratched by a fine archaeological guide book covering Södermanland. Now Johan Anund and Linda Qviström have returned with a book that sees to our Uppland needs as well.

Det medeltida Uppland is just as jam-packed with goodies as the previous book, full of interesting information and lovely pictures. As I wished for in 2010, the new book has GPS coordinates. But it still does not have a table of contents that covers subheadings, nor individual page headers. These things might be worth thinking about for the volume on the Medieval city of Stockholm that is also forthcoming. (I have written on that subject here before upon reading Nils Ahnlund.)

Here are some tidbits that caught my interest especially.

  • A 14th century legal code for Trögd hundred regarding forestry survives, Trögdbolagen.
  • The Alsnöhus runestone sits on Viking Period culture layers and may have been relocated there as part of the 13th century palace project.
  • In 1937 the Medieval ruins of Svartsjö castle were excavated and the small finds were placed in the nearby Early Modern castle. In 1963 the finds were found dumped on the ground nearby.
  • Häverö church had Late Medieval murals depicting i.a. a nude woman biting on the Devil’s fishing hook (cf. the nude sinners in Bosch’s Last Judgement). In 1825 the murals were destroyed because they were seen as indecent.
  • Svinnegarn church, a regional pilgrimage site, had 12 kg of silverware confiscated by the Crown after the Reformation.
  • There’s a Medieval miracle story about warlike zombies, illustrated by a well-preserved mural in Biskopskulla church. (More on this in a future blog entry.)

I do find, however, that the copy editing and proof reading is sub-par. One thing that grates particularly on my sensibilities is the many comma splices where independent clauses are breathlessly stacked on top of each other with commas between them, not conjunctions or periods. On p. 170, for instance, we find this monster (and I translate):

The purpose of the church porches is controversial, they probably acted both as chapels and assembly halls, sometimes ecclesiastical courts may have convened there.

All in all, though, the book is a fine addition to the popular literature on the Scandy Middle Ages for people who like to visit sites, not just read about wars and royalty.

A Mead-hall of the Eastern Geats Has Finally Been Found

My book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats appeared last September. On p. 9 I wrote:

Splendid single finds, though never surveyed comprehensively, offer a rough idea of where elite settlements might be sought. But little is known about individual elite settlements in 1st millennium Östergötland. Not one of the Beowulfian mead-halls of this book’s title, being my shorthand for the ostentatious manorial buildings where the Late Iron Age elite lived their lives and played their roles, has been identified in the field. Yet they are easily recognised elsewhere through their architecture and associated find categories, and so common that it is by now difficult to argue that you have found an elite settlement of the period unless you can point confidently to its hall building.

And now, ten months after the book appeared, Östergötland’s first mead-hall has been found! The foundation postholes of an ostentatious 40 by 6-7 metre building dating from the 6th century, with a smashed Snartemo glass beaker. I sure hope the team metal-detected before they stripped the site, because all the indicative elite metalwork on these sites is in the plough soil.

The site is Ströja in Kvillinge parish near Norrköping. The name hints in a roundabout way that it might be a good place to look for Vendel Period aristocrats. This has to do with guldgubbar, the minuscule gold foil figures of gods and heroes that are found at the period’s elite manors. One of the closest find spots for gold foil figures as measured from Kvillinge is the Brahe church on the island of Visingsö in lake Vättern. And that church hamlet was once also named Ströja! (I don’t know the name’s etymology.)

So how have the predictions I made from the material known to me fared? Well, on p. 79 I point out six parishes out of c. 155 in the province as having good indicators for a Vendel Period elite presence. Kvillinge is not one of the six. But neighbouring Östra Eneby is…

I’m pleased to learn that the excavation is headed by Björn Hjulström who did his PhD at the science-friendly white-coated Archaeological Research Lab in Stockholm, and that the unit is Arkeologikonsult where I have worked and been very well treated in the past. Congratulations! And get those metal detectors out, sharpish!

Norrköpings Tidningar has a video interview with Björn.

Snartemo type glass beaker, 6th century. Photograph from NT's video.

Pitch-Perfect Pixies Homage

This musical style was invented by the Pixies in the mid 80s. Their early work was a main source of inspiration for Curt Cobain of Nirvana. Now Cage the Elephant have recreated the early Pixies style from its blueprints and written a song about Cobain’s birthplace in Washington state. I like it!

In other rock ‘n’ roll news, Fornvännen was just offered a review copy of a book about the Rolling Stones. The journal deals mainly with prehistoric archaeology. I guess Keith Richards has looked like Ötzi for quite some time now, come to think of it.