The famous royal castle of Stegeborg sits on its island like a cork in the bottleneck of the Slätbaken inlet (see map here). This waterway leads straight to Söderköping, a major Medieval town, and to the mouth of River Storån which would allow an invader to penetrate far into Östergötland Province’s plains belt. The area’s first big piece of public construction was 9th century fortifications intended to guard this entrypoint, in the shape of the Götavirke earthen rampart some ways inland and a wooden barrage at Stegeborg. This barrage was kept up for centuries, and indeed, the castle’s name means “Barrage Stronghold”.
Stegeborg is easily accessible by car and receives many visitors. Few of them however then continue on to the nearest castle ruin, which is oddly enough only 2 km to the SSW: Skällvik Castle. It sits on a rock outcrop on the south shore of the inlet, inside Stegeborg’s line of strategic defence and within sight of it. Why two castles so closely apart?
The written sources are rather murky, partly because they rarely differentiate between a manorial land property and a castle sitting on that property. But following my friend Christian Lovén’s treatment of the evidence, the timeline seems to be roughly this.
- C. 1300. King Birger has Stegeborg Castle built.
- 1318. Stegeborg is besieged and largely torn down in a civil war after King Birger has his rival brothers Erik and Valdemar starved to death in a Nyköping dungeon. Reports the Chronicle of Duke Erik from the victorious party’s perspective, “They broke down that wall so completely / They did not leave one stone on top of another”. King Birger is deposed and exiled.
- C. 1330. King Magnus (the son of the murdered Duke Erik) or the regents during his minority refortify the Slätbaken passage, but with a new castle on the hill at Skällvik rather than on Stegeborg Island. About the same time, Skällvik Parish church is built between the two castle sites.
- 1356. Skällvik is attacked by the forces of Erik Magnusson, rebellious royal pretender and son of King Magnus.
- 1360s. Realising the obvious, King Albrecht (nephew of King Magnus) returns to the superior strategic position and rebuilds Stegeborg, quarrying the ruins of Skällvik for building material.
So Stegeborg and Skällvik Castles aren’t really two separate castles when seen on a strategic scale. They’re two versions of the same castle that has moved slightly to and fro over its 400-year lifetime, leaving a fossilised mid-14th century version at Skällvik.
Unlike Stegeborg Castle, which was maintained and extended up to the 1690s, nothing was ever built on Skällvik Castle’s foundations. Only recently was a small-scale brickworks established at the foot of the castle hill. In 1902 restoration architect A.W. Lundberg considerately removed a lot of the rubble from the ruins, leaving the culture layers easily available to the excavator everywhere except inside the keep. In the past week, me and my team have been the first archaeologists to take advantage of this state of affairs.
In addition to the high keep, Skällvik Castle has three main buildings arranged around its sloping bailey. They are joined up by short stretches of perimeter wall. We have opened trenches inside all three buildings (two in the long building IX-X) and in the bailey along the wall of building X. In addition we have test-screened and metal detected two big spoil dumps from 1902, and skilled metal detectorists have investigated our trenches and the surface around the foot of the castle hill. A few of our main results so far:
- Five of six Medieval coins date from about 1360. The sixth is too corroded (i.e. debased) to allow dating before conserved. Two were minted in nearby Söderköping, one in Kalmar.
- All other coins date from 1800 or later.
- Building IV, where Lundberg identified a baking oven in 1902, has yielded all five datable Medieval coins, a bone gaming die and a piece of fine burgundy stoneware, probably from Lower Saxony. Drinking and gambling in the warmth of the bakery!
- Building IX has yielded a fine cobbled cellar floor and a comb fragment.
- The two 1902 spoil dumps are erosion rubble and brick kiln refuse, respectively, and not productive of small finds.
- Unlike Birgittas udde, Skällvik Castle offers many preserved bones.
- I have demonstrated experimentally (and idiotically) that when clearing brambles, you should wear protective glasses. I was lucky to only get my left cornea nicked a little. Hurt pretty bad and left me barely functional for two days.
- Stoner dudes parked by the authorities at your religious abstainer hostel provide much entertainment with their spaced-out antics and conversation. Unless you mind food, cigarettes and bikinis going missing. And nocturnal rearrangement of furniture. And heavy bass at two in the morning.