Autumn Speaking Schedule

mr550pxFor the first time since 2011 I haven’t got any teaching this autumn semester, which is really bad both for my finances and for my troop morale. (I feel like my colleagues would celebrate or not even notice if I got eaten by a grue tomorrow.) To boost both I’m instead seeking paid extramural speaking gigs. Here’s what I’ve got scheduled at the moment.

  • 27 Sept. On early local history, in Sickla.
  • 6 Oct. On the Skällvik castle excavation, in Söderköping.
  • 19 Oct. On archaeology and religion, in Jönköping.
  • 20 Oct. On archaeology and religion, in Visby.
  • 27 Oct. On archaeology and religion, in Karlstad.
  • 2 Nov. On the local Iron Age and Middle Ages, in Vadstena.
  • 3 Nov. On archaeology and religion, in Linköping.
  • 6 Nov. On early local history, at Skogsö.
  • 7 Nov. On archaeology and religion, in Södertälje.
  • 9 Nov. On early local history, in Sickla.
  • 15 Nov. On archaeology and religion, in Malmö: Sir Toby’s, Davidshallsgatan 21.

Dear Reader, would you like to hire me as a speaker?

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A Medieval Lady’s Seal

My detectorist friend and long-time collaborator Svante Tibell found a seal matrix in the field next to Skällvik Castle this past summer. In the Middle Ages of Sweden, people of means didn’t sign their names to documents. They carried seals around, with which they made imprints into chalk-mixed wax, and these were affixed to paperwork such as property deeds and wills. If you lost your seal matrix, you lost your ability to sign documents – and you theoretically gave that ability to whoever found your seal. When people died during this period, their seal matrices were carefully destroyed. Sometimes the pieces were buried with the dead person, such as in the case of Svante Nilsson (obiit 1512).

The seal matrix from Skällvik shows the letter T in a shield. This device is known from a different seal under a surviving document from 1331, around the time when the castle was built. And around the edge of the matrix is as usual an inscription. I have no training in reading Medieval writing, so I took the matrix to the National Archives, where Roger Axelsson and his colleagues enthusiastically helped me make sense of it.

According to Roger & Co, this is what the seal’s inscription says. The letters within parentheses are somewhat uncertain.

[S’_ _]S[O] V[X]ORI S[O]NO[N]V[M]

Sigillum …so uxori Sononum

The seal of …sa, wife of Sune

Annoyingly, the two completely illegible letters are part of this woman’s name. But Roger has a suggestion for who her husband Sune may be: Sune Ingvaldsson, who lived in Östergötland about the right time and whose wife’s name has been lost to history. The couple chose to be buried in Hällestad, a peripheral parish in the forest of NW Östergötland.

There’s one more annoying detail here, says Roger. The man with the similar T seal from 1331 was named Thorberg. But there is no known female name T_sa from the time. Why then has this woman got a T on her shield? I wonder if our unnamed lady might have been using her father’s coat of arms.

Anyway, our little points of annoyance are probably insignificant compared to how Sune’s wife felt when she dropped her seal into the sea just off Skällvik Castle’s dock, some time in the mid-14th century.

Seal matrix, side view.

Seal matrix, side view.

A Fee For Metal Detector Permits Would Be Highly Damaging

From 2014 on, Swedish metal detectorists have had to report all finds datable to before 1850 to the authorities. I have recently shown in a note in Fornvännen that this rule came about by mistake, and that it has broken the County Archaeologist system. It takes hours for a county heritage administrator to process one metal detector permit. It also takes only a few hours for a detectorist to find a copper coin from the 1840s, which voids her/his permit for that site. S/he then applies for a new permit, which means that the pile of unprocessed permit applications on each administrator’s desk grows exponentially.

My suggestion for how this problem should be solved is to move the cutoff date from 1850 to 1719. This is a useful year for coins: the year after Carolus XII died and the year before Frederick I ascended to the throne. No research is ever done into small finds from after 1719 that are found in ploughsoil. We do not need to collect them.

The National Heritage Board has now suggested another solution: placing a hefty filing fee on applications for metal detector permits, regardless of whether a permit is eventually granted or not. I think this would be an extremely bad solution. It would probably radically cut down on the number of permit applications, but it would also have the following highly damaging consequences.

  • Metal detecting would go underground.
  • Detectorists would be alienated from contact with heritage management and archaeological research.
  • Detectorists who made important archaeological finds without a permit wouldn’t dare report them to the authorities.
  • Fewer archaeological discoveries would be made.
  • Heritage would become less accessible to the citizens who own it.
  • Legal metal detecting would become golf: only accessible to rich people.

The 1850 rule for small finds is silly, it came about inadvertently and it needs to be changed. The way to correct the mistake is not to place an artificial hurdle in the way of law-abiding detectorists, creating a system kludge to treat a symptom of the underlying problem. The problem is in the law that took effect in 2014. Let’s change that law.

Announcing My New Essay Collection

cover250pxIn December of last year I finished a collection of short humorous archaeological essays. It’s my sixth book, my first one in Swedish, my first one aimed at the lay reader. Since then I’ve been waiting for established Swedish publishing houses to pronounce judgement on it. Five of them have now turned it down, none with any very detailed explanation, but most of them in terms suggesting that they think it’s competently written but it probably wouldn’t sell much.

As a long-time blogger and e-book reader, I am not particularly disheartened by this. After all, this blog has a greater number of hits in a week than the entire first print run of a typical Swedish pop-sci book. And so, here it is, my new e-book, Arkeologi är choklad, inte potatis (“Archaeology is chocolate, not potatoes”)! ISBN 978-91-639-2057-8, both EPUB and MOBI formats. It’s distributed under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non Commercial, No Derivatives licence. Please help me spread it around! It’s on Academia.edu as well.

(Having said No Derivatives, I should hasten to point out that I would be very happy to talk to anyone who feels like translating the book.)

The book is braided of three strings. One is a reverse chronological series of essays on archaeological periods seen through the lenses of sites I’ve worked on, from the Early Modern at Djurhamn all the way back to the Early Mesolithic with Roger & Mattias at Tyresta. The second string consists of partly quite polemical pieces on what archaeology is like and how it works in Swedish society, including titles like “We never go to Egypt” and “There are no jobs and you don’t want the jobs there are”. The third string is a chronological series titled “My Strange Career”.

To whet the appetite of Swedish colleagues, let me say that I mention a considerable number of names of people in Swedish archaeology whom I have reason to thank, and I talk about a few other possibly identifiable people without mentioning their names.

I’m very keen to learn what everybody thinks!

Fornvännen’s Winter Issue On-Line

Dress pin heads from Viidumäe on Saaremaa.

Dress pin heads from Viidumäe on Saaremaa.


Fornvännen 2015:4 is now on-line on Open Access.

Help Ben Study Medieval Scabbard Chapes

Here’s a guest entry by my correspondent Ben Bishop who’s doing a project on Medieval scabbard mounts using data from the Portable Antiquites Scheme (PAS).

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I am researching medieval English scabbard chapes formed of folded copper alloy. They date from the period c. AD 1050–1300. The overwhelming majority are fragmentary when found and recognisable by the most decorative elements (shield for the mounted warrior, dragon head for the winged dragon). They are spread across England, including the Isle of Wight. The counties that are richest in these objects are Wiltshire (particularly L shaped chapes), Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, with a fair number from Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire.

My project is a voluntary research paper based on my university dissertation. It is a classification of this material that may one day form a PAS datasheet accessible to the public. I have liaised with several metal detectorists and Finds Liason Officers from the PAS. I am analysing the iconography, manufacture and relationship of these chapes to other medieval dress accessories and scabbard fittings. They are fascinating and many show scenes that have no comparisons in medieval metalwork or sculpture.

Most are slender, measuring 20-60 mm in height and 20-40 mm in width. This object type follows a defined pattern, but examples are unique and contain individual decoration. They are L, J, V or U shaped, formed from one piece of copper alloy folded along the seam and riveted through the arm terminal and the plate. They are open and closed work mounts, some similar in appearance to strap ends.

They are a unique group, with many unique elements, like terminals or attachment arms. Several are themselves decorative creatures, open mouthed Viking beasts or fists. They contain a diverse range of scenes that range from simple geometric shapes or curvilinear lines to zoomorphic imagery. The most decorative are birds, horses with reins, copulating wolves, winged horses, dragons, mounted warriors and riders grappling stag like creatures. Later variations are U shaped, with incised scallops on the face or fleurs-de-lis. These generally have a cross engraved or etched into the reverse which is often crude and may be a maker’s mark.

Although they contain elements of the Ringrike, Urnes and Romanesque styles they do not adhere to the stereotypical art styles of the Late Viking Period. They are separate from the formulaic chapes of the high medieval era. European connections are unknown, but comparable examples to those found on the 2010 ‘Four knife sheath chapes’ blog entry here have been discovered.

As mentioned, most of these objects are fragmentary and only analysis of multiple examples can provide reliable information. Over 200 folded bifacial scabbard or sheath chapes have been recovered. Over 95% were recovered by metal detectorists and recorded through the support of groups like the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Many new types are emerging through this cooperation, but little has been published and most analysis is based on assessment of a singular find.

I have accessed all relatively accessible published examples on the PAS and in literature, I have searched metal detector forums for examples but I would appreciate any help you can give me.

If you know of any published, unpublished, found or excavated examples or have any suggestions all feedback would be gratefully received. If you have discovered any yourself, or similar items it would be fascinating to have your input. If you would like any more information on the project or any particular aspects please let me know at ben.bishop27 at gmail dot com.

All Unconserved Finds Must Die Die Die?

Several colleagues have told me this bizarre rumour that I hope is unfounded. Contract archaeologists at two sites on Öland and in Småland have found more Medieval coins than their conservation budget can cover. So they have to prioritise which coins to conserve. So far so good, and congrats on the lovely finds.

But.

According to this rumour, someone in an official position is demanding that they throw away the coins they choose not to conserve. Because there is no place in this person’s administrative framework for unconserved finds from a contract excavation.

Is this true!? Who is this person?

If this is true, then it beats my heretofore favourite example of administrative stupidity in archaeology, from the 1990s highway project in Möre. There were two little hills in the way of land development. Evaluation identified a poorly preserved Mesolithic settlement on Hill A and Bronze Age fossil fields on Hill B. “Scientific agendas” were drawn up accordingly for each site. During full excavations, a much better-preserved Mesolithic settlement was discovered under the fossil fields. But since the scientific agenda for Hill B was about Bronze Age fossil fields, nobody was allowed to dig the Mesolithic remains there.

I’ll update this entry as information reaches me.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #6 – Kvanli

Detectorist John Kvanli is the chairman of Rygene detektorklubb and one of Norway’s most prominent proponents of collaboration between amateurs and professionals in field archaeology. Of course he has a tattoo! It’s an Urnes brooch from c. AD 1100, in the final exquisite Christian style of Scandinavian animal art.

John tells me he has found several fragments of these fragile objects, but the one inked onto his upper right arm is a settlement excavation find from Lindholm Høje, across the fjord from Aalborg in northern Jutland. The needlework was done by the Martin Tattoo Studio in Bangkok, Thailand.

For more about the Urnes style, see my entry about René Lund Klee’s tattoo. For the general blog series about detectorist tattoos, see Aard’s tattoo tag.

Second Week Of 2016 Excavations At Skällvik Castle

Our second week at Skällvik Castle proved a continued small-finds bonanza, and we also documented some pretty interesting stratigraphy.

  • More of everything in Building IV. In addition to more coins of Magnus Eriksson, dice and stoneware drinking vessels, we also found a lot of points for crossbow bolts. It’s starting to look like the castle guards’ day room! As for why we found crossbow bolts only inside one building and none outdoors in the bailey, I figure that they had been amassed there for re-fletching. The dark indoors find context and the undamaged sharp points show that the bolts did not end up in the floor layer of Building IV because people were shooting there.
  • Building IX has a lovely floor sequence. First a terracing layer with few finds, probably pre-dating the entire building. Then a culture layer. Then a stone cobble floor. Then clay full of magical fairy stones. Then mortar. Then large square unglazed brick tiles, only a few of which survived. Then a demolition layer mixed with household refuse. Such attention paid over time to the floor of a low-ceilinged cellar-like ground-floor room demonstrates the resources available to the castle’s owner.
  • Building X has had a nice ribbed brick portal, as evidenced by broken decorative bricks left by the quarrymen.
  • The gate house is still very rich in bones, as remarked on by the 1902 excavator. And his coffee-loving workmen or their contemporaries left a small midden in it after the end of fieldwork.
  • Two finds in particular document the presence of the social elite, which is hardly surprising at a royal castle where both King Magnus and the Bishop of Linköping dated letters. One is part of a wheel-turned ivory ear scoop, the Q-Tip of the era’s nobility from the NW building. The other is a seal matrix with a simple coat of arms, found near the castle dock. I’m optimistic that specialists will be able to read the inscription and identify the owner.
  • We have enough coins to be able to draw chronological conclusions not only from which types are there, but from which ones are missing. All but one of the coins we have identified so far were struck for Magnus Eriksson, most during his final minting period about 1360. His successor and nephew Albrecht was crowned King of Sweden in February of 1364, and this ruler is represented by only one coin, a frontal crowned-face bracteate.
  • We can see the quarrying of the castle for building material, targeted largely towards bricks, preferentially towards specialised decorative ones and floor bricks. These were in all likelihood taken by boat the two kilometres to Stegeborg Castle when it was re-erected, probably in the 1360s. And when Stegeborg was partly torn down about 1700, the bricks travelled on to the royal castle in my home town Stockholm!
  • It would be great to learn what’s under the rubble that fills the castle keep. But excavating this building would be an enormous undertaking, with regard both to the sheer volume of rubble with large heavy boulders, and to the long-term conservation commitment once you’ve emptied the structure. It is not a job for one precariously employed university lecturer and his students, working for a few weeks on small grants. The organisation that excavates Skällvik Castle’s keep will have to have solid long-term funding. And it must be willing to put a roof on the structure, restore the masonry and return the keep to daily use as a museum space with offices. Any responsible intervention into a ruin must be done with an eye to the far future, not just to the next tourist season.

First Week Of 2016 Excavations At Skällvik Castle

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.