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.

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.