Pagan Arabic Inscriptions Found in a Swedish Garden

Dear Reader, let me tell you about some pagan Arabic inscriptions found in a private garden near where I grew up.

In 1920 an engineer who lived in Saltsjöbaden, a leafy affluent suburb of Stockholm, donated almost a hundred pieces of inscribed stone to a museum in town. They had formed a decorative rockery in his garden. And the previous owner of the property was a famous elderly Orientalist named Count Carlo de Landberg (1849-1924).

The stones had been broken out of the living rock at a site in southern Yemen, probably in the Wadi Ar Ruqub near Aden. Count Landberg acquired them in 1898 during a scientific expedition organised by the Imperial Austrian Academy of Sciences. The Count however came into conflict with the rest of the expedition leadership and abandoned the project shortly after they arrived in Yemen. And subsequently he refused to submit the materials he brought home. The inscribed stones ended up in his garden instead.

The inscriptions are religious dedications written in Old South Arabian using the Ancient South Arabian script. They date from about 600 BC to 200 BC and invoke a god named cAmm, that is, “Uncle”. He ruled the moon and the weather and was head of the pantheon in the Kingdom of Qataban.

So if the weather is particularly fine in Saltsjöbaden, and if the moon shines particularly brightly there, then perhaps people there should thank Uncle cAmm.

My old friend Jan Peder Lamm described the find circumstances and Count Landberg in Fornvännen 1993. And Jan Retsö analysed the inscriptions.

Anglo-Saxon Frisia

Map from schotanus.us

After the departure of the Roman state administration in AD 409, England saw the arrival of numerous Germanic-speaking migrants during the 5th century. They brought with them a foreign language (Old English), a foreign religion (Scandinavian paganism), foreign social organisation (non-urban, decentralised), foreign material culture (south Scandinavian), and their genetics have been shown to survive in English people to this day.

These people later believed that they had originated in Angeln, Saxony and Jutland, the area around the mouth of the River Elbe. Therefore we call them Anglo-Saxons.* But linguistic and genetic data don’t point to that kind of origin.

The closest documented linguistic relative of Old English is Old Frisian, whose home was closer to the mouth of the River Rhine, west of Angeln and Sachsen. The closest genetic matches to Anglo-Saxon skeletons are also found in Frisia.

So was these people’s origin story erroneous? I’ve wondered about this for years, and I just learned something that suggests no. I’m at a conference in the Netherlands, and my colleagues here explain that parts of Frisia have very little 5th century settlement at all. This seems to have been due to over-exploitation of coastal peatland in the Late Roman era. People drained the peat for agriculture, it got compacted by gravity and microbial action, the ground level sank sharply, and the sea moved in, rendering the land useless to agriculture. And when eventually people re-colonised these areas… they were using pottery that my colleagues describe as Anglo-Saxon.

So the reason that the English immigrants’ language and genetics look Frisian is probably that both England and Frisia were colonised by the same people. Or possibly even, that Frisia was repopulated from A-S England.

* I am not interested in what this term means today to US right-wing hate groups.

Mats P. Malmer 100 Years

Mats Peterson Malmer (1921-2007) would have been 100 years old on 18 October. If I had to pick just one archaeological hero, I’d pick Mats. It’s his clarity of thinking and writing. It’s his insistence on objective observation. It’s his uncompromising willingness to process enormously large volumes of material. It’s his wide thematic range. Mats’s 1984 debate piece “Arkeologisk positivism” was enormously important to me in grad school ten years later when I was surrounded by an evangelising post-modernist relativist orthodoxy.

In the Malmer retrospective reader volume Archaeology as Fact and Fiction (in English, 2016), Stig Welinder comments on Mats’s radically stringent and explicit typological methodology from 1962. It never become the subject of much debate: archaeology simply recognised it as sound and adopted it wholesale. The 2016 volume is an excellent entry point into Malmer’s wide-ranging work. It’s available on-line for free.

Mats has been proven wrong in some of his interpretations, most importantly regarding the arrival of agriculture in Sweden. Archaeogenetics have recently documented a large immigration wave at the time that would have surprised Mats if he had lived. But as a lifelong friend of the natural sciences, he would calmly have accepted the evidence.

In Tim Murray’s big 1999 collection of archaeologist’s biographies, there are only two Swedish names. One is Oscar Montelius, our most fruitful thinker and writer of the 19th century. The other is his 20th century counterpart, Mats P. Malmer.

What I wanted to do when I grew up

When I was seven I wrote a micro-essay in school about what I wanted to do when I grew up. “I want to be an archaeologist. I want to dig in the trench, not just sit on the edge and point. But I won’t mind if people call me ‘professor'”.

(People did call me ‘professor’ at the time. Bookish child who liked to answer questions in school.)

And now I usually do sit on the edge of the trench. Mainly because I get interrupted all the time by diggers and visitors. It can be hard for me to keep track of which context a given bucket of dirt belongs to, and if I get interrupted at the soil screen I block the work flow. Also I’m too lazy to remove turf and topsoil these days.

And this summer some of the Polish students called me ‘professor’ again.

Final Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

Andreas Viberg analysed the geophysics, I directed the excavation, Lotta Feldt did the GPS survey, Jon Lundin presented the survey data, Cheyenne Olander took the drone photograph and combined all the data in this picture.
  • 3½ days of digging, ½ day of backfilling and re-turfing, ½ day of house cleaning before we said goodbye at noon on Friday.
  • Found a blue glass bead and a bronze wire spiral bead near the hall’s NE entrance. Both would fit well on a bead string that broke in AD 700-750.
  • Signs suggest the swapping out of some structural posts around the entrance.
  • Structural ironwork found on top of a roof-bearing posthole’s fill suggests that similar objects found in the topsoil last year had been redeposited there by 19th century diggers, and are in fact old.
  • Svante Hagsten of Aska Maskinstation Ltd did a beautiful job of backfilling our trenches. I wish I had had the sense to ask him last year! Then the students re-turfed.
  • Another de-stressing innovation is that I will return the equipment to the county museum storage on Monday, after everybody’s gone home.
Bead from the NE entrance area. Photo Cheyenne Olander.

Third Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

Drone photo by the excellent Cheyenne Olander, north to the right
  • Finished the north trench with the high seat & foil figure concentration, started backfilling.
  • Emptied the recent refuse pits in the south trench, uncovered and sectioned the south wall line and four buttress postholes outside it.
  • Opened a third trench over the hall’s north-east gate.
  • Few artefact finds, of which the most interesting is our second 13/1400s crossbow bolt.
  • I’ve had an idea about what happened to the platform after the mead hall was torn down in the later 900s. We have wondered why there is no sign of activity or damage between 1000 and 1800. Aska was probably the härad assembly site in the 1000s and 1100s. Was the platform maintained as a thing mound?

Second Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

North wall ditch. Left: outdoors. Right: indoors.
  • Extended trenches from 84 to 112 sqm.
  • The County Museum’s Lotta Feldt and Linnea Hernqvist surveyed our visible features with an RTK GPS.
  • Found more gold foil figures for a maximum total of 33 from Aska. This number may prove lower when fragments are fitted. But we are certainly past Helgö’s number now.
  • Identified many features of the mead hall’s architecture that we had already seen on the geophys. And got a clearer idea of the wide, backfilled mid-19th century ditch that runs obliquely across the mead hall’s east half.
  • Discovered more butchery refuse pits from around 1900. They have primarily damaged the inner of the two south wall lines. This complication offers a fun opportunity for true stratigraphic excavation.

First Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska: Three New Gold Foil Figures

Drone photo by Cheyenne Olander
Foil figure, find no 300
  • At Aska near Vadstena in Östergötland is a massive earth platform on which geophys has revealed an almost 50-metre mead-hall. Six radiocarbon analyses date its lifetime to c. AD 660-950.
  • Last year we opened a few square metres over the mead hall’s northern wall line and one roof-support, just east of the building’s centre, and found 22 gold foil figures. Now we have opened 42 sqm in that same area and found 3 more.
  • We only have to find two more foil figures to beat Helgö. But that is just because my dear old thesis supervisor Jan Peder was forbidden by his boss to wet-screen the spoil heaps there after they became aware of the figures.
  • Other interesting new finds from the north trench are a third whale-bone gaming piece and a heavily worn slate whetstone of possibly identifiable geographic origin.
  • The structures in the north trench are coming out beautifully, particularly the outer wall ditch.
  • We have also opened 42 sqm across the building over the south wall line, with many well-preserved structures and finds of our first two beads, both opaque glass.
  • This is my eighth fieldwork campaign with students. As usual we are getting along beautifully on site and in communal living, a source of great pride to me. Even though our numbers are record high! It’s a big project even compared to typical contract excavations. (I’ve had to say no to more volunteers than I can remember.) Everyone is super nice, and it is particularly fun to have seven Łódź students with us. I’m picking up bits of Polish and they’re feeding us potato dumplings. The villagers at Aska are also extremely kind and supportive.

Read about last year’s fieldwork on the Aska platform mound: week 1, 2, 3, 4.

How To Metal Detect Legally In Sweden In 2021

Swedish metal detector regulations are uniquely restrictive. They have never been good from the perspective of knowledge advancement, artefact rescue or public participation in cultural heritage. And in recent years they have become worse. But with this blog entry I don’t aim to tell you what I think of the current rules or why. I’m just summing up what the rules are. Thanks to Olle Södergren and Ny Björn Gustafsson for insightful comments and corrections on a draft of this entry!

The first thing to understand is that the Swedish system makes it effectively impossible to metal detect on a whim while vacationing (unless you’re a nighthawk). Long waits are always part of the process.

I’ll explain the pertinent laws, then I’ll give some instructions.

  • Metal detecting is illegal in Sweden without a permit from the County Archaeologist, Länsantikvarien. Metal detecting is never legal for amateurs on the islands of Gotland and Öland in the Baltic.
  • Sweden has no trespassing laws: as long as you don’t interfere with crops or livestock, or bother someone at home, you can go wherever you want.
  • When members of the public find an object older than 1850 on or next to a registered site, it is public property and must be handed in to the County Archaeologist, regardless of what material it is made of.
  • When members of the public find objects older than 1850 somewhere else, they (not the landowner) have ownership of them except in the following cases, where finders are obliged to offer the finds to the State before possibly gaining ownership:
    • Objects that consist at least in part of gold, silver or copper / bronze / brass.
    • Objects irrespective of material that are found together in some kind of cluster.
  • This means that if you find a single iron object somewhere distant from registered sites, it is legal to keep it, but you are concealing potentially valuable archaeological data. If you find a flint chip and a potsherd together in one spot, then you are obliged to offer them to the State. And if the State decides to keep any of your finds, you are entitled to remuneration.
  • The find spot of an archaeological object becomes a known archaeological site the moment you show your finds to an archaeologist. This means that if you find something really interesting and follow the rules, chances are you will not get continued permission to metal detect in that spot, as most County Archaeologists do not let detectorists anywhere near known archaeological sites.
  • Private individuals can receive a permit to metal-detect a certain spot for a certain time, provided there is no known archaeology there and the person expresses no interest in archaeology.

With all this in mind, to enjoy metal detecting legally and constructively in Sweden as a private individual, follow these steps.

  1. Identify a likely field/beach/park far from the nearest registered ancient monument (runic Rs on the map, also check the on-line register).
  2. Check with the landowner & tenant that it wouldn’t cause them trouble to have you walking and digging little pits on the land in such and such a season.
  3. Screenshot a map and circle the area you want to metal detect with drawing software. A field or two is realistic: a parish is not.
  4. Fill out an on-line application form on Länsstyrelsen’s web site (i.e. the County Council). Append the map. Emphasise that you already have the landowner’s & tenant’s permission and you will show any pre-1850 finds to the County Archaeologist. Do not mention archaeology. The permit is typically good for one year.
  5. Pay a 870 kronor fee for them to process your application (€85, £72, $100). This does not guarantee that you will get a permit.
  6. Wait two weeks and then start nagging the County Archaeologist politely by phone.
  7. When metal detecting, bring your permit, a GPS navigator and zipper baggies. Bag all finds that you believe are pre-1850. Write coordinates in the SWEREF 99 TM grid on the bags.
  8. If you find something you believe is pre-1850, e-mail pictures of the object and its GPS coordinates to the County Archaeologist as soon as possible.

The above procedure is designed to keep private individuals away from archaeological finds as far as possible. There is however a way for a person to take part in targeted archaeological fieldwork in their spare time. This is by joining the Swedish Metal Detector Association and waiting for one of the collaborative efforts they organise with a few friendly organisations, notably Örebro County Museum. I work part-time at this museum, and organising big detector investigations is one of my tasks.

Now, what have I forgotten? And is anything unclear? Tell me!

This is an updated version of an entry from 2009.

Dating the Aska Mead-hall

When the 49-metre mead-hall on the Aska platform mound was torn down, people lifted the large useful stones out of the postholes and then backfilled them with the floor layer that had accumulated over the building’s lifetime. Last summer we collected samples of these fills and Jens Heimdahl identified carbonised grain in them.

On 12 January I received radiocarbon dates for four of these grains from prof. Krąpiec’s lab in Kraków. The dates are quite widely dispersed and demonstrate that there was a lot of old refuse in the floor layer by the time it was shovelled into the postholes. Thus the grain represents a long use period, perhaps the entire use period of the building. It’s not one brief grain-charring event.

If you want a short use-period for the hall (i.e. if you compress it as tightly as these four two-sigma date spans permit), then it was built in 650 and torn down in 880. If instead you want a long use-period (i.e. you inflate the use period as widely as possible within the date spans), then it was built in 590 and torn down in 990.

But we don’t have to rely on the carbonised grain alone. A 1980s trial trench through the platform secured articulated horse bones on the ground surface under the platform that gave a radiocarbon date in 660–880. These 220 years are quite a wide span, reflective of 1980s radiocarbon technology. But it’s enough to show that 590 is too early for the construction of the platform mound.

I sent a new sample from these horse bones to Kraków for analysis with today’s tech, and received the result on 15 January. That horse died between AD 670 and 770, which pushes the earliest possible date for the building project forward only a decade compared to what the 1980s analysis indicated. And one of the carbonised grains from the use-period of the building is likely to date from before 650.

A start date for the construction project around 660 is not surprising, given the building’s layout and the objects we found in the postholes. The new end date for the hall’s use-life after 880 is unexpected, however. The only finds we made that could point to any activity after 790 are a pair of whale-bone gaming pieces. I expect that as we empty more postholes this summer we will start to find more clearly datable Early Viking Period material. A few dirham coins would be most welcome, in fact quite expected given the radiocarbon dates and the elite context.