Guest Digging At Birka

When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, they often ask ”So have you dug at Birka?”. As of yesterday I can finally proudly reply ”yeah, a bit”.

”Birka” is a Latinate attempt to write Biærkey, ”Birch Island”. It’s an island in Lake Mälaren, two hours by slow boat from Stockholm. For a bit more than 200 years starting in the mid-8th century, it hosted the first town on Swedish soil, established there as a regulated international trading post under the protective (and probably tax-grabbing) hand of the Kings of the Swedes. This immortally classic Viking Period site has huge cemeteries, a huge early urban culture layer which is up to two meters thick, a town rampart, a fortified hilltop and more.

My friend Sven Kalmring and his team have reopened and extended the trench excavated in 1969–71 under Björn Ambrosiani’s direction, in order to learn more about Birka’s waterfront during three weeks of fieldwork. Tuesday my friends Roger Wikell and Kalle Dahlberg visited them and managed to find a chunk of a runestone sitting in a clearance cairn near the trench. And Wednesday I paid a visit.

Getting to Björkö is difficult if you don’t want to spend hours on the tourist boat and you haven’t got a boat of your own. The closest point you can drive to is Lindby dock on the southern tip of Adelsö, whence you can see the town site clearly. Unless you want to swim 300 metres though, you somehow have to find a boat. I was helped by Runemaster Kalle Dahlberg, who very kindly lent me his canoe. He taught me to put stones in the prow box to keep from drifting sideways when paddling solo in a strong wind. And soon I was at the trench edge on Björkö, saying hi to my peeps.

When visiting someone’s dig for just a few hours, I try to make myself useful in capacities that don’t require any time-consuming teaching, and where I won’t mess stuff up. I spent the day hauling buckets of water out of the trench (there’s a feckin’ stream running through the deeper parts of the trench, sandwiched between the fat culture layer and the equally fat post-glacial clay under it), delivering them to the screens, and wet screening bucket after bucket of the Black Earth. I’ll say that again. Wet screening the Black Earth of Birka. If you’re into small finds, this is as good as it gets.

The Black Earth is full of well preserved bones and teeth of animals, including loads of fish bones, even a piece of swan eggshell in one of my buckets. It reminded me of the Thames foreshore at low tide. I also picked up quite a quantity of burnt clay and knapped stone, and some 19/20th century bits from the top layers. My best finds of the day were a 6 mm globular rock crystal bead and a small cupped piece of yellow/green vitrified clay. This latter looked like a piece of either a crucible or a Schmelzkugel, the brazing packages used when making brass-covered iron weights.

Runologist Magnus Källström visited and gave Roger’s & Kalle’s runestone fragment some tender attention. With his expert pointers and my own examination I got the impression that the fragment reads iruasaþ, but I have no idea what that might mean. It’s certainly not one of the region’s many formulaic 11th century inscriptions. Magnus is a popular guy right now. Marta Lindeberg’s team found a beautifully carved rune bone with a long inscription at nearby Sigtuna, Tuesday.

At four I got back in Kalle’s canoe and paddled back to Adelsö, with the soot of the Black Earth under my nails, red-pated from the May sun, and with a song in my archaeologist’s heart.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Digging At Birka

  1. This is the number one spot mentioned in Swedish History schoolbooks together with ancient Uppsala. It also the assumed primary spot, in the same books, for Sweden being christianized.

    Dispite these nationalistics ideas it is a fascinating early town in middle Sweden but much smaller than Hedeby if I have read the archeology books right.

    They found a young girl, in one of the graves, called “Birkaflickan” that probably was a danish girl by the age of 6-10 years?

    Did i get this right Martin?

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  2. Another coincidence – my daughter dug this out for me today, totally obliviously:

    Well, she knows my grasp of archaeology is at cartoon level. But she didn’t know you’d just been there.

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  3. Speaking of isotopes -when digging near the Lutzen battlefield of 1612, a mass grave was recently located. The dead were supposedly Swedish soldiers, but all of them but one seems to have originated on the continent. The Swedish army (or at least this massacred unit) was apparently made up by a large portion of mercenaries.
    BTW there was no mercy shown. Anyone who fell was hacked or shot to death.

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  4. As a kayaking instructor I must warn against using heavier-than-water ballast. You don’t want to see your canoe sink after capsizing it. Use wood or water bottles.

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  5. I’ve been lurking around all the time, but only maybe once a week. Sb isn’t what it used to be. These days I spend more time with Freethoughtblogs.

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