Recent Archaeomags

Skalk 2013:6 (December) has a nice piece about shell middens and Mesolithic oyster cooking, recalling a few points I made back on my first blog. You can’t open a fresh oyster without a steel knife. But if you heat the oyster even just slightly, it opens. I was also interested to learn about a harbour in a volcano crater off Iceland’s coast, containing the wreck of a Dutch trading ship that foundered there in 1659. And they’ve found another 8th century jewellery grave at the classic cemetery of Nørre Sandegård on Bornholm, with three of the domed oval brooches I wrote a big paper about in the mid-00s!

Current Archaeology #285 (December) reports on the big project on Early and Middle Anglo-Saxon burial fine chronology that has finally been published by my friends from the Sachsensymposia.* What everybody’s talking about is the absolute chronology, where radiocarbon has shown that furnished burial was abandoned in the 670s and 680s, earlier and more abruptly than previously thought. But this big book will also prove seminal regarding the relative chronology, offering comprehensive typological classification schemes for artefacts and Stufen periodisation for burial assemblages. No more will English archaeologists speak of intuitively conceived “6th century” types and assemblages!

There’s one annoying detail though in a short news item that needs correcting. On p. 8 there is talk about outrigger canoes – “a style of vessel depicted in Bronze Age rock art from Scandinavia”. No, no and no. Nobody in Scandy maritime archaeology believes in that outrigger interpretation. The 4th century BC boat from Hjortspring exemplifies the type of boat depicted again and again in the rock art. It has two curved prongs at either end, like elephant tusks: the lower one is an extension of the keel and the upper one is an extension of the gunwales. Those two lines in the rock art do not represent a hull and an outrigger.

From Current Archaeology #286 (January) I learned something entertaining about Glyn Daniel, the wine-loving Disney Professor and Francophile editor of Antiquity whose collected editorials and professional auto-biography are such a joy to read.** He lived for 18 years in a house in the same block as Old Divinity School in Cambridge, and excavations in the past decade have revealed that the Danielses’ garden sat on a Medieval hospital cemetery.

Current World Archaeology #62 (Dec/Jan) doesn’t just contain the piece by the man giving birth to a much better kind of battlefield archaeology than everybody else’s. It also shines a too-brief three-page light on Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a fascinating site in Sinai. It offers a unique window on Israelite religion in the 8th century BC. Sure, Jews worshipped JHWH there. But also his wife Asherah. And his buddy Baal. In other words, they hadn’t become monotheists yet, still happily putting the plural into Elohim. Check out Ze’ev Meshel’s 2012 book.

British Archaeology #134 has a fine piece about two 1st century weapon graves and an associated ritual precinct at Brisley Farm in Kent. The photographs from the excavation reminded me of something discussed at a seminar on Late Iron Age settlements in Uppsala last week: digging in stiff clay is awful. Either you get sunshine, and then the stripped clay surface turns a homogenous grey and hard like concrete, making it impossible to see any colourations and causing finds to crack with the clay. Or you get rain, and then your excavation becomes a lake – particularly the deeper depressions such as graves and sunken-floor huts. And in either case, dry sieving is impossible and wet sieving is painfully slow. What you have to do is plan everything while stripping, before it dries out, then erect sun roofs over your most important features and install sprinklers. Very nice sword-spear-shield graves though, as seen above.

* Hines, J. & Bayliss, A. (eds). 2013. Anglo-Saxon graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework. Society of Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33. London.

** Daniel, G. 1986. Some Small Harvest. London. – Daniel, G. 1992. Writing for Antiquity. London.

Author: Martin R

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

21 thoughts on “Recent Archaeomags”

  1. Dear Birger,
    I’m not sure that you are right with your rock art interpretation. The boats depicted are not sewn plank boats like the Hjortspring boat which is 1300 years later. The outriggers (if that’s what they are) are clearly separate to the main boat and connected by cross beams. I may be wrong but I cannot believe that they are anything other than outriggers.
    Steve Clarke


    1. Scandinavian boat archaeologists agree that the rock art does depict Hjortspring type boats. And not much of Scandinavian rock art dates as early as the 17th century BC, as you suggest.


  2. Dear Martin,
    I have no idea of the date of the rock art but suppose it might be a thousand years earlier than the Hjortspring boat which was built of planks. I can only repeat that the rock art boats are mostly in two parts – connected by cross beams. Are you suggesting that they are sewn boats? I’ve been digging for too long to believe that I can’t be wrong but please go back to the rock art and you will see what I mean. I’m sure we are both after the truth.
    Best wishes,
    Steve Clarke


    1. I’m neither a boat scholar nor a rock art scholar, so what I think is not very important. I’m telling you that the scholarly consensus among people who know this stuff is that the rock art boats depict Hjortspring-type boats, not boats with outriggers. The vertical lines that can rarely be seen connecting the upper and lower contour line of a rock-art boat are interpreted as decoration. Most rock-art boats have no such lines.


  3. Dear Martin,
    As you say, you are just telling me what other people think – I’m just interpreting what I see in photographs of the rock art and with the knowledge that such a Bronze Age boat has been found at Lurgan in Ireland. What you think IS important especially if you are wrong!
    The verticle lines joining the boats to the outrigger are not rare but are on pretty well all of the drawings I have here. And I cannot believe that they are some sort of isolated decoration as you say.
    I wonder if you are making the rock art conform to the Hjortspring boat – it’s a common sort of mistake in archaeology – I’ve made it myself in the past.
    Cheer up!


  4. I haven’t seen the article, but I’d be interested to know what the news item is talking about in terms of location/culture. If it’s rock art from somewhere other than Scandinavia, clearly no specific parallels can be drawn with either Scandinavian rock art or the type of canoe it might represent. Equally, just because thus far we have no material evidence of outrigger canoes in Scandinavia doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t exist.

    On a related topic, has anyone got any good recommendations for publications on Scandinavian rock art (in Swedish, ideally)? I’ve been translating French papers on the subject recently (i.e. on African rock art) and would like to get up to speed for the part of the world I actually live in!


  5. The news item was about furrows in the subsoil at a UK excavation site. The excavator interpreted them as launching furrows for outrigger canoes, an idea he had picked up from an abandoned interpretation of Scandinavian rock art.

    Johan Ling’s books Elevated Rock Art and Rock art and seascapes in Uppland are among the most recent ones on Swedish material, but as the titles suggest they are in English. Try searching for hällristningar on VITALIS and!


  6. Sounds like a dubious interpretation – whereabouts in the UK? Obviously some areas were more influenced by Scandinavia – and in different periods – than others.

    Thanks for the book suggestions. In English is fine too, of course, but not much help in trying to learn the Swedish terminology!

    btw I never get email notifications of comments, is that normal?


  7. Oh, quite near my alma mater (Lampeter).

    Interesting site, but I’m not convinced by the interpretation (sorry Steve). If I was building a massive outrigger canoe there’s no way I’d plan to launch it using three parallel furrows. Imagine the work of trying to get them parallel and with a canoe-shaped section – all to drag a canoe along them down to the water and launch it? Why not use rollers or some other easier solution?


  8. Hi Jane,
    We have considered rollers but the theory is that they would sink into the clay, whereas watered (or flooded) channels would make movement easy (some experiments done). There’s a lot more to it than Martin appears to think and I seem to have touched a nerve with him by suggesting he cheer up!
    I’m not used to this type of correspondence but could try to send a longer note about my book on the discovery. As I’ve said before, I’ve been digging for too long to think that I cannot be wrong. Just off to the site so will have another go soon.
    Hwyl fawr,


    1. My point is that whether or not there were outrigger boats on the Monmouthshire coast, one cannot support such an interpretation with reference to Scandinavia because the informed consensus is that there are no signs of any outrigger boats there.


  9. Yeah, the email notification thing doesn’t work for me either, which I think explains why I have those odd out-of-sync multi-off-topic discussions with Birger, where I answer his second last comment.

    Of course, there could be other possible explanations for why we have odd discussions.


  10. Hi Martin, your point about whether there were Monmuthshire outriggers is easy – if they were just across the Irish Sea at Lurgan why not here? Your ‘informed consensus’ that there were no BA Scandinavian outriggers appears to be wrong as they are clear enough in the rock art where the outriggers are separate to the boats but joined by cross beams – not under the keel as you suggest – not the first consensus to be wrong ! – the rock art is clear enough for me. Anyone can call it up on the Internet and judge for themselves.
    Sorry I’m out in the field most of the time, so not the best contributor.


  11. Hi Martin,
    I’ve been thinking about this and realise that you have been confusing the Hjortspring IRON AGE sewn boat with BRONZE AGE outrigger log boats of the rock art – a huge difference in time and craft. But don’t worry – I’ve made far worse mistakes myself ! . . . . Steve


  12. No, I’m not confusing them. The Scandinavian Bronze Age ends in the 6th century BC and the Hjortspring boat dates from the 4th century BC. Hjortspring is not an innovative design, it is the tail end of a long tradition of Scandinavian boat building.

    Let’s make a deal: I will continue to defer to the regional consensus among Welsh Bronze Age scholars, and you can defer to the regional consensus among South Scandinavian Bronze Age scholars. Whaddya say?


  13. Hi Martin,
    Fair enough–clearly you know more about these things than I do – but can I send you a long piece about the book? Sorry I’m so slow in replying but we are practically floating around in the post-glacial lake dig – we could use a double canoe! Cheers, Steve


  14. Hi Martin,
    This is from a sort of advert. Best wishes, Steve

    Evidence of Prehistoric Boat Building

    Stephen Clarke
    Peter Bere, John and Jane Bray, Gordon McDonald, Neil Phillips

    Monmouth Archaeological Society 2013
    ISBN 978-0-9558242-2-7

    WITH EVIDENCE from the shores of a post-glacial lake, the authors present their interpretation that Bronze Age twin canoes with outriggers were being constructed in clay channels and slid out onto the lake. A Wye Valley lake had formed from melting ice sheets some 11,000 years ago and attracted human settlement almost continuously from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. The story of prehistoric boat-building is woven around the Welsh Border town of Monmouth which occupies a peninsula on the edge of the vanished lake.
    In 1999, archaeologists were digging inside an empty shop in the town when they found a very water-worn Bronze Age flint arrowhead inside a pebbly beach some six metres higher than the town’s rivers. Twelve years later, Iron Age pottery and a Mesolithic camp site were found beneath a similar shoreline in a gas main trench on the other side of the town. These and other discoveries could only be explained by the survival, almost into historic times, of the post-glacial lake – a fact supported by material and radiocarbon dates from the bed of the lake. Much of today’s town would have been under about six metres of water while the lake itself, being some 4 kilometres across, would have been bigger than any in southern Wales today.
    A watching brief during a housing development on low-lying ground overlooking the western side of the lake – at Parc Glyndŵr – revealed six drifts of Bronze Age fired stones (for boiling water – ‘burnt mounds’), these covered a period of about a thousand years; there was also a New Stone Age hearth and Iron Age remains on the bed of the lake. These vestiges covered an area of just sixty metres and it was here that the greatest mystery also arose – apparently unique in prehistoric archaeology.
    Two shallow channels with boat-shaped bottoms and a smaller trapezoidal-shaped one had naturally filled with anaerobic clay and were found to be running at right angles to the lake. The channels were thirty metres long and closely associated with the abandonment of a burnt mound which produced Bronze Age pottery and a radiocarbon date of c1680BC. All three channels were level and perfectly parallel to each other, as if they were the base for the construction and moving of a frame of some sort; the channels only produced clean sharp flakes of imported flint – seen as evidence of woodworking with flint tools. The remains were sealed by a metre of alluvial clay.
    Archaeologist Jane Bray and maritime engineer Gordon McDonald suggested that the channels formed a matrix for the construction and launching of a prehistoric twin-hulled craft with an outrigger. Vessels with outriggers are depicted in Scandinavian Bronze Age rock art where the outriggers are shown as quite separate to the main boat but clearly linked to it by cross beams. There is also good ethnographic evidence of twin canoes with outriggers in both drawings and descriptions from Fiji during the 19th century.
    The chances of more stable vessels like these being preserved in wetlands must be lower than that of single canoes – of which scores have been found in Western Europe. Like Darwin’s missing links, this is probably down to chance, but also because outriggers would more often end life against dry land and be broken up for spares or for firewood. This must also be the case with Bronze Age sewn boats where only a dozen fragments are known from the British Isles.
    However, it appears that at least one combination craft has been found – at Lurgan in Ireland. It has a series of paired holes along its side which the authors say can only be explained as fixing points for the attachment of either another logboat or of stabilisers of some kind and they consider it likely to have been a sea-going vessel. The boat is 15m long and 1m wide and part of a similar vessel was found at nearby Carrowneden. The Irish boats are of a similar period to the Parc Glyndŵr burnt mound which was closely cut by the channels (with a radiocarbon date of 3700 ± 35 BP). The Lurgan boat radiocarbon date was 3940 ± 25 BP and the Carrowneden one 3890 ± 80 BP. The Parc Glyndŵr Channel 3 is, like the Lurgan boat, 1m wide.
    Well over a hectare of ground around the channels was excavated, proving conclusively that the channels were not part of some ancient agricultural or water management system. Far larger areas across the site were stripped or trenched during the construction of 85 houses but no comparable features were revealed.
    Prior to the industrial revolution technologies changed little, so it should be no real surprise that the earliest ‘boatyard’ excavated should have almost identical features to those at Parc Glyndŵr – even though they were thousands of years apart. At Smallhythe, in Kent, a 15th century vessel was constructed in a level channel, shaped like the bottom of a boat, and dug at right angles to the estuary – just above high tide level. Surprisingly, there was none of the expected dry docks, slipways or inlets into the estuary. The evidence for wood working in the channels came from ships’ nails at Smallhythe and the flint flakes (mostly on the sides of the channels) at Parc Glyndŵr. On both sites the completed vessels could have been slid straight out on to the water. Today, Smallhythe and Monmouth are far from the sea but it was not always so, for shipbuilding continued in Monmouth until the 19th century and both areas were surrounded by the raw materials of heavy woodland and ample plastic clay.

    Stephen Clarke, MBE, FSA, MIfA, is a professional archaeologist with fifty years’ field experience. His team has received several British Archaeological Awards including that for the greatest initiative in archaeology – the Silver Trowel.


  15. Hi Martin,
    I would be grateful for any comments or anything you can suggest – I admit that we are a bit ‘all at sea’ in some ways – ours is of course just an interpretation but we’ve had no other explanation which holds water (!)
    Best wishes (Hwyl Fawr) Steve


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