August Pieces Of My Mind #1

Front: Klåstad-Klosterstad church site with 11th century wooden church. Grove in middle distance: 1920 burial at Aska, the richest Viking Period grave in Östergötland. Rear: Aska village, Vendel Period platform mound, gold foil figures.
  • Looks like the Falun Gongers camping on Wikipedia are finally going to get the same treatment as the Scientologists got!
  • Woke at 05:15, head revving up with thoughts of feature lists, soil samples and level measurements. We’re backfilling the trench on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Fieldwork nearing its end. Highly informative publishable results. Big presentation to the villagers in 45 minutes. Sunny evening. A calm sense of accomplishment.
  • Feeling victorious and pleasantly tired after hours of returfing and a swim in Lake Vättern in front of Vadstena Castle.
  • Affability means potential for turning into a monkey in German.
  • I’m reading Ursula LeGuin’s last novel, Lavinia (2008). It’s a kind of historical fantasy, set in a version of Early Iron Age Italy where the Aeneid is a true story. The book’s nature as a commentary on Vergil’s epic is emphasised by him appearing as a shade from the future to speak with the main character. Though LeGuin was 79 when it appeared, the writing is still strong.
  • Saw a bunch of bats hunting in the pine woods last night at sunset. ❤

Gold Foil Figures and Backfilling: Week Four at Aska

The embrace of the ancestors. Photo Björn Falkevik.

We found the first gold foil figures, guldgubbar, on Monday of week 3. Eventually we ended up with 23 of them, though a few may be parts of the same foil. There are only seven known sites with more recovered foil figures than Aska. To avoid unwanted attention during fieldwork, I released this information only after we had begun closing the trench.

Such gold foil figures are the size of a fingernail, made of thin embossed gold sheet, and depict people in sumptuous clothes. All the ones from Aska that I could easily classify belong to the type with a man and a woman embracing. Possibly the divine ancestors of the petty-royal lineage. These miniature works of art are typical of the Vendel Period elite’s mead-halls, c. AD 540-790. Functionally speaking, at several sites they have been found associated with the postholes of the main audience chamber’s roof-supports and the king’s high seat. Perhaps these posts were tarred, and people stuck the foil figures onto them.

Other finds of the week are two whale-bone gaming pieces, reinforcing our impression that the floor layer that we sought in vain has actually been used to back-fill the roof-support postholes and wall foundation trenches.

I’m no longer convinced that the building has more than one phase. That extra line of postholes may just be from the high seat.

We did the last bit of digging Wednesday and then closed the trench. First we dropped modern coins in the deeper sub-trenches, then geotextile, then back with the stone piles, the earth dumps and finally the turf stacks. I hadn’t allocated enough time for this work, forgetting that we had three times the acreage to cover compared to my previous digs at Medieval castles. So we weren’t done until Friday afternoon.

I’ve blogged quite a lot about gold foil figures before.

Sofia and Cheyenne in the roof-support posthole. Photo Ivan Odebratt.

Hearth Eats Students And Turns Into Posthole

Bronto posthole, not bronto hearth

Today Emma Karlsson of the Östergötland County Museum brought a much wished-for RTK-GPS to site and instantly solved the biggest conundrums on our dig. We have Andreas Viberg’s detailed geophys plan of the building we’re investigating. But we have not had an exact GPS device to tell us where we are on that plan when wandering around site.

In our trench we have expected to find three really big sunken features: a hearth in the middle and two roof-support postholes. But we have found only one feature there. Size, shape and surface fill were right for a hearth. Starting from this assumption we have dug around fruitlessly for the postholes. But as Ola Lindgren and his friends went down into our single huge feature, it looked less and less like a hearth. No charcoal. Too deep. WAY to deep. Hey, where are Sofia and Ivan who work on that feature?! Oh, they are no longer visible above ground when they dig.

Enter Emma and her GPS skills. The enormous feature that swallowed the students is one of the roof-supporting postholes. Its original fill of large boulders has been removed, and replaced with something that (as Ola suggests) looks like 20 sqm of trashed floor pavement with sundry dropped objects. The other posthole is sitting three meters away under some innocent-looking soil that we thought were the top of the platform mound. And the hearth is only half inside our trench.

And another thing. The floor pavement they raked into the posthole after tearing the mead-hall down contains nothing that has to date from after the end of the Vendel Period in the 790s. Intensive metal detecting by skilled detectorists across our 200 sqm trench has not turned up a single one of the Islamic silver coins that flood Scandinavia from the 790s onward. Was the Aska mead-hall on its platform mound torn down before the start of the Viking Period? Where then did the royal inhabitants of the village’s extremely rich 800s and 900s graves live? And what were their ideas about the platform mound?

Lesson learned: I am never digging a site with geophys data again without an exact GPS device to tell me where I am on the GPS plot.

Third Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

A piece of a decorative mount from a Vendel shield, c. AD 700. Embossed bronze foil with Style II animal art has been tinned and folded around the iron mount. Most of the foil is now missing.

At the beginning of this week there was no topsoil left in the trench, and so we left the 19th century behind and moved down into sunken features belonging to the mead-hall itself. Some highlights.

  • There is very little evidence for any activity in the trench between the year when the hall was torn down (maybe around AD 1000?) and the start of intensive coin dropping in 1805.
  • There is no rich or distinct floor layer in the trench. The topsoil and some partial post-destruction stone pavements sit directly on the fabric of the platform where the stones in the sunken features poke through.
  • We knew from the geophys that the hall has double walls. Cutting across the northern wall however, we found not two, but four foundation ditches with closely spaced postholes on their bottoms. This means that the hall has two phases built on the same spot, and that we only saw one of them in the geophys. The innermost wall line has yielded a large and rather crudely made iron key.
  • The great hearth pit has been backfilled with a layer of clean stones, no soot, a lot of air pockets. In this covering layer was a piece of a decorative shield mount from about AD 700 and an iron pendant with a close parallel in a seeress’ wand from the 10th century, plus flint flakes from fire making. I’m not sure at the moment if this is also where the slate spindle whorl was found.
  • Though the roof-supporting postholes are clearly visible in the geophys, we have failed to find them in the trench. They seem to be backfilled with material identical to the platform into which they are dug, and any large stones in them must be deeply buried.
  • A 1980s radiocarbon date places the construction of the platform in the interval 660–880 cal AD. Rich burials found nearby in 1885 and 1920 suggested that the platform would belong in the later part of this interval, around AD 800. This has proved incorrect: we have made some finds that place the use of the hall firmly in the 600s or 700s. More about these a week from now.

Second Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

Aska lodbild v 2
The lawn-covered surfaces and our trench is where the mead-hall stood. Drone photo Cheyenne Olander.

The second of four weeks on the Aska platform mound went well too. Highlights:

  • We’ve deturfed a total of 200 sqm and removed the topsoil.
  • Thanks to some extra volunteers, I had 19 people working with me one day, a personal record.
  • We’ve made some 1st millennium artefact finds, but they are quite humble so far: a few potsherds and belt knives only.
  • The top 30 cm are quite disturbed, with occasional modern objects found below the level at which the hall’s postholes and wall lines appeared. These disturbances include at least one waste pit full of pig jaws.
  • We have a point from a 13/1400s crossbow bolt and a 1559-60 coin of Gustavus I. They date from long after the hall was torn down, but are interesting anyway.

aska 2020 hela saktet-103 lores
Aerial view from the NE. Drone photo Cheyenne Olander.

July Pieces Of My Mind #2

20200721_082832lores

  • History tells us that there used to be a midsummer celebration with a maypole on the Aska hall platform. Two days of screening and metal-detecting has turned up many low-denomination copper coins, all from the period 1805 to 1909.
  • I love the sound of trowelling in the morning. It sounds like… victory.
  • This is my eighth excavation with students. 1997, Barshalder, Early Roman Period. 2005, Skamby, Pre-Roman & Viking Periods. 2008, Sättuna, Mesolithic & Vendel Periods. 2014, Stensö & Landsjö Castles, High Middle Ages. 2015, Stensö & Landsjö Castles, High Middle Ages. 2016, Birgittas udde & Skällvik Castle, Mesolithic & High Middle Ages. 2017, Ytterby, Vendel & Viking Periods. 2020, Aska, Vendel & Viking Periods.
  • Second journal paper this year finished and submitted, ka-ching!
  • Learning basic QGIS is complicated by two facts. 1. The basic manoeuvres are hidden in a jungle of advanced functionality. 2. The whole thing is glitchy, so you can never be sure if it’s your own fault or QGIS’s when something doesn’t work.
  • Hey everyone who calls a student on the PhD programme “a PhD”. What do you call someone with a PhD degree?
  • Cousin E’s plastic boxes for Magic cards now serve as find collectors on my excavation.
  • Two seasoned field archaeologists with decades of experience, including myself, have failed to check the gauge of the screens and brought some useless 2 mm ones to our site, creating bottlenecks.

First Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

Aska 3 lores
Friday afternoon, trench across the hall seen from above looking west. The stone layer marks the indoors. To the right are two visible postholes from the widely spaced buttress posts, Trelleborg style. Drone photo by Cheyenne Olander.

The platform mound at Aska in Hagebyhöga is a 3 metres high raised foundation for an almost 50 metres long mead-hall. Think King Hrodgar’s hall Heorot. Think King Théoden’s hall Meduseld (= mead-hall = Sw. mjöd-sal).

Ragnhild Fernholm and Carin Claréus test trenched the mound in 1985-86 and found an articulated rear leg of a horse under it, with a radiocarbon date most probably in the AD 700s. Andreas Viberg and I surveyed the top platform with ground-penetrating radar in 2013, and Andreas swiftly mapped every posthole in the structure. In the past week my crew of 15 hard-working people, mostly students from my old department at U Stockholm, has opened a 100 sqm trench across the central room in the mead-hall. Here are some highlights.

  • There is no thick stratigraphy on top of the hall foundation. The uppermost packing stones of the postholes are only 10-25 cm below the turf.
  • Everything we have found in the topsoil may date from after AD 1800. The only exception is a single 1630s fyrk coin. The many pre-WW1 coins tally well with information given by old people in the 1980s, that there had once been annual mid-summer celebrations on the mound.
  • After the hall was torn down, a layer of smallish stones was laid down over its indoors. Feel free to interpret this in a symbolic and/or practical way.
  • Thanks to the simple stratigraphy, we will be able to open up the full 200 sqm that our permit allows.
  • I look forward to sectioning and soil-sampling the central hearth, a few of the great roof-bearing postholes and the wall trenches.
  • It is liberating not to have to excavate every sunken feature like you do on a highway dig where the site will be bulldozed when you’re done.
  • I love geophys, skilled metal detectorists and drone photography!

Hans Hildebrand Tries to Obliterate the Migration Period in Svealand

hbrand
Schematic map to illustrate Hildebrand’s factually incorrect argument

Working on a paper about Roman Period snake-head rings in Scandinavia, I read a short 1873 paper by Hans Hildebrand on the chronology of these objects. His model of the rings’ development is still broadly accepted. But the enormous growth of the known material and better typological methods have turned his brief contribution into a historical footnote rather than something we still engage with.

Still, reading the paper I came across a passage that seemed so odd to me that I couldn’t quite understand what Hildebrand meant on a quick read. His reasoning follows lines that we have abandoned completely. So I’ll try to make sense of it here. This is about the absolute dating of the rings.

First Hildebrand notes that though most rings are not from datable find combinations, their general design and decoration place them in the Early Iron Age. This, we now know, is from c. 530 BC to AD 540 if we count the Migration Period with the EIA, as Hildebrand does. Then he points to the Thorsberg war booty sacrifice, which contains late snake-head rings, Roman coins from 60-194 AD and objects datable to the 4th century AD. He sums up by placing the snake-head rings in the interval AD 100-300. Today we place them in phases C1b and C2, which we date to AD 210-320. (Hildebrand couldn’t know that the Roman coins in Thorsberg belong to a much earlier deposition event in the sacred lake than the rings.) Well done, Hans Hildebrand. But now comes the odd bit (and I translate, and insert paragraph breaks).

Another approximate dating is possible. The snake-head rings occur … from Scania and up north to Uppland and Medelpad. As several have been found in Uppland, we must say that the type was indigenous north of Lake Mälaren as well. But now we find, when looking at all the products of Sweden’s Early Iron Age, that not all of this period has been shared by the country south of the border woods and the country around Lake Mälaren.

Towards the end of the Early Iron Age people in this country (as in Norway and Denmark) made … gold bracteates [pendants], but these are missing from Svealand [the land north of the border woods]. The bracteates were rooted in fine craft products of the Constantinian era [AD 306-363]. The changed taste that contact with them created in the North limited itself to Götaland and did not appear in Svealand, which thus appears to have left the Early Iron Age culture behind at this time. As the invasion of the Huns in the late 4th century severed the contact between the Classical world and the North, the acquaintance with the Constantinian taste must have appeared in the North about 350-375. After this time, then, the Early Iron Age was not shared between Svealand and Götaland, but the sharing seems to have continued all the way up to the aforementioned period, as a copy of a Constantinian medallion has been found in Uppland. The snake-head rings must thus belong to the earlier part of the Iron Age, the time before AD 400. This chronological calculation thus matches fairly well with the previous one and thereby gains strength.

Before I look at the argument, note that several factual errors collapse it. There are in fact gold bracteate pendants in Svealand. True, they are inspired by Constantinian-era medallions, but by old medallions: the bracteates actually start about AD 450, over a century later. They are in any case an insufficient proxy if you want to determine if there is final EIA settlement of the South Scandinavian kind in a region. And the North never did lose contact with the Mediterranean. But accepting all this, what is Hildebrand’s argument? It boils down to this.

“Svealand has no final EIA. The LIA starts much earlier in Svealand than in Götaland. But Svealand does have snake-head rings. So the snake-head rings do not belong to the final LIA.” In modern terms: the absence of known gold bracteates from Svealand means that in that region, the Vendel Period followed immediately upon the Late Roman Period and began around AD 400 there.

It wasn’t a good argument even in 1873. Hildebrand did well to base his dating of the snake-head rings on the Thorsberg find combination, and to relegate this convoluted and poorly founded argument to a supporting paragraph.


Hildebrand, Hans. 1873. Ormhufvudringarne från jernåldern. Kungliga Vitterhets, Historie och Antikvitets-Akademiens Månadsblad 14-15, February–March 1873. Stockholm.

May Pieces Of My Mind #1

djupsjön
Spent a cold moonlit night in the shelter at Djupsjön on Sörmlandsleden’s stage 13 near Nykvarn.

  • I’m playing Freeciv and it’s all coming back to me after all these years.
  • It’s a good year for bumblebees in Stockholm. ❤
  • Harbour seals (Sw. knubbsäl) raise their young on the shore. But they descend from a species that did this on snow-covered sea ice. Harbour seal fetuses still grow a coat of white fur, then change colour in the womb.
  • I ignored the simple shaft-hole axes when I studied Bronze Age deposition sites, because the axes look the same in the preceding period and most aren’t from the BA. But here’s a case where one has been deposited in a typical BA location: at the narrows between two lakes. A few km to the north-east is Ekudden with its large and beautiful lakeshore bronze hoard, dating from Per. III, 1330-1100 cal BC.
  • I’ve resumed work on an old paper that I abandoned many years ago because of a book project. And for the first time I’ve found use for the word processor’s outliner. I’ve always kept the headings structure in my head before, but now I found myself with no overview of what I was doing.
  • Fadedpage.com offers free ebooks that are out of Canadian copyright. Which is more recent books than e.g. in the UK and US. I just got the fifth James Bond novel onto my Kindle.
  • My brain is going full Slavic. I don’t even flinch when presented for the first time with the word zwłaszcza, “especially”.
  • You know the meme pic with the guy whistling after another woman while walking with his girlfriend? That girlfriend is sooo pretty.
  • Sweden starts vaccinating boys as well against HPV! Excellent news for women’s health. Also protects the boys against genital warts.
  • The Sibyl’s Tea and Coffe Shop in Stockholm reports that their business has not collapsed, it has just rearranged itself to a greater proportion of online mail order sales.
  • One morning this week a family member called to me, look at the neighbour rabbit! It’s changed its coat! Turned out that a young hare was hanging out on the back lawn. Two hours later the ginger rabbit was there instead.
  • Tardigrades are multicellular, but just barely. Big ones consist of 40,000 cells.
  • Wen’t hiking for two days near Nykvarn with my boardgaming buddy Markus:

 

I’m A Polish Research Professor Now

vidskylten

I have just taken up a steady research job at the University of Łódź, Poland’s third-largest city. I can barely believe it as I write those words. (A description of my tediously woeful previous experience on the academic job market is appended below.) For you Americans: there is no tenure system in Europe, but this basically means that I got tenure. It’s been my increasingly frustrated career goal since I was an undergrad almost 30 years ago.

Everyday teaching in Łódź is done in Polish, a language I began learning a few weeks ago. I’m going to continue my Scandinavian research and periodically do fieldwork with Łódź students, mostly working from Stockholm. But there’s a difference from before: I’m going to be even more productive since I no longer spend one day a week editing Fornvännen. And with time I hope to participate in the department’s projects as well.

As the crow flies, the distance from central Stockholm to central Łódź is 845 km (525 miles). This is a long commute for a European academic and would have crossed more than one language border if the Baltic Sea hadn’t been a big part of the distance. But to US scholars, it’s completely in the realm of the expected: roughly the distance between the capitals of the adjacent states Colorado and Oklahoma.

I feel like an extremely impatient sprinter who finally hears the starting gun. Oh, and the English way of spelling Łódź would be “Woodsh”!

—–

Woes on and off the academic job market 2003-19

After finishing my PhD in 2003 it took me nine years of almost constant productive research (on a shoestring budget) before I got my first adjunct teaching job. For one month. In the following five years I had a series of temp jobs on four Swedish campuses and became all too familiar with the almost completely non-meritocratic hiring practices of Scandinavian humanities departments. In late 2017 I was passed over for yet another job in favour of someone who shouldn’t have been a contender, and I decided I’d had enough. Fourteen years on the Scandinavian job market for archaeology PhDs, over 170 publications, and the securest contract I’d had was for one semester at 55% of full time. Ridiculous. I finished the manuscript of my Medieval castles book, quit doing research, quit applying for funding, and went looking for any kind of job.

2018 proved highly varied. I didn’t get a single one of the jobs I applied for, but instead four employers contacted me and I worked more than full time for the entire year. While editing my four last issues of the journal Fornvännen for the Royal Academy of Letters, I first made maps for the Medieval Sweden project at the National Archives, then taught high-school Swedish and English, then worked as a canvasser for the Social Democrats in the election season, and was finally a heritage expert on an EU project at the County Archaeologist’s office in Linköping.

2019 has been less varied and less financially rewarding, partly because I’ve been unemployed for the equivalent of almost two full-time months. I’ve taught high-school Swedish, coordinated canvassing for the EU parliamentary election in May and done admin for the local chapter of my party. And again I haven’t gotten a single job that I’ve applied for except for the teaching gig.

From a scholarly viewpoint though, 2019 has been a good year. My Medieval castles book appeared in March, I’ve translated it into Swedish and that version will appear in February. I’ve also translated Nils Mattsson Kiöping into English and annotated his writings, a project that is almost completed and which I hope to see published this year.

Contract archaeology has had no work for me in these two years, partly because there hasn’t been a major infrastructure project near Stockholm. But also because my profile is off. I’m 47, I’ve headed years of fieldwork for research purposes, but I’ve only worked for three seasons total in contract archaeology. Two employers have told me that you can’t get into that business on the fifth floor. You have to enter at street level and walk up the stairs one season at a time. They can’t hire someone with my CV as a rank-and-file digger. And they recruit their site & project managers in-house. One fellow told me there would be mutiny among his tried-and-true hopefuls if he gave those jobs to unfamiliar research eggheads.