Bronze Age Cemeteries As Comic Books

Vertical photos of untidy cairn-like structures at the cemeteries of Påljungshage in Helgona and Rogsta in Tystberga.

Cemeteries of the period 1000-300 cal BC around Lake Mälaren display a bewildering variety of ugly, damaged, diffuse stone structures. They usually contain multiple small depositions of potsherds and burnt bones that often do not represent a whole person, and sometimes there’s even just part of an animal. Closed finds are frustratingly rare here, when archaeologists often look to cemeteries to find out about chronology and social roles.

I’ve been reading Anna Röst’s 2016 PhD thesis where she’s drilled down for hundreds of pages into the minutiae of two of these sites. She has a really interesting perspective on them.

Röst suggests that her sites were not governed by the idea of permanent burial that we see so often in eras before and after her study period — including our own. Instead, they were intended for long convoluted multistage ritual processes where people would mess around with the bones, metalwork, stone structures, pottery, fire and animals. The great variation among the structures that we excavate and document now is partly due to varying ideas about the correct script for such a chain of ritual events: two structures may look different today because they were never intended to look the same. But in other cases the variation may be due to a single ritual script being interrupted on different pages: two structures may look different today because they were abandoned at different points along the timeline of a single process.

This recalls Fleming Kaul’s interpretation of the imagery engraved on period bronze razors: he considers each razor to be a panel in the same comic book about sun-ship mythology. You can’t understand a whole comic from one panel. Nor can you understand what people where doing and intending at a Late Bronze Age cemetery in Södermanland by looking at a single structure.

But there’s a big difference between the burials and the razor iconography. We never find a razor with a half-drawn scene on it. If Röst is right, then almost every one of the structures we document today at her kind of cemetery is a half-drawn scene, intended for an audience who were interested in the act of drawing, not in reading the finished comic book.

Röst, Anna. 2016. Fragmenterade platser, ting och människor. Stenkonstruktioner och depositioner på två gravfältslokaler i Södermanland ca 1000-300 f Kr. Stockholm University. [Full text available online]

Author: Martin R

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

3 thoughts on “Bronze Age Cemeteries As Comic Books”

  1. That kind of grave dated to bronze age also occur here on the eastern side of the Baltic sea, but of earth instead. Was there not some archaeologist having a similar theory about viking age burials? That what we discover in the graves could be the seen as “the scenery left after the play have ended” or something in that way.

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