Sacrificing The Gods’ Share

I found an excellent argument in a recent paper by Svend Hansen,* clinching something in a particularly satisfying way.

Certain Bronze Age hoards in Northern Europe contain a lot of fragmented objects. But the pieces rarely add up to complete artefacts. In 2001 Stuart Needham argued that this may be due to a custom similar to that known e.g. from ancient Greece, where an animal was sacrificed and only certain parts that make poor eating were burnt as offerings to a god (a sleight of hand taught to humanity by Prometheus the trickster). Perhaps most scrap metal hoards from Northern Europe contain the gods’ share of a much larger collection of objects that were re-cast for renewed use.

The ideas behind Greek animal sacrifice are well documented in coeval written sources. Not so with North European metalwork deposition. But now Svend Hansen points out that though the Greeks never wrote about it, they were apparently also depositing scrap metal – and in exactly the manner suggested by Needham! At Olympia and other Greek sanctuaries of the 9th and 8th centuries BC, tripod bronze cauldrons dedicated to the divinity were often re-cast with only a few selected pieces taken aside and deposited in sacrificial wells or middens. This goes on at the same sites as the animal sacrifice that we understand quite well.

* Hansen, Svend. 2012. Bronzezeitliche Horte: Zeitliche und räumliche Rekontextualisierungen. Hansen, S. et al. (eds). Hort und Raum. Aktuelle Forschungen zu bronzezeitlichen Deponierungen in Mitteleuropa. Berlin.

Bronze Age Axe

Mossen axeI’ve started to assemble pictures and maps for my Bronze Age book. Almost all known objects from deposition sites in the Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren areas have already been illustrated elsewhere. But here’s an exception: a socketed bronze axe found before 1963 in a bog at Eklunda in Bred parish, near Enköping, Uppland province. It’s 3,000 years old, dating from Period IV, 1100-950/20 cal BC.

Axes like this were fitted onto hafts shaped like a V with one very short arm, and held in place by a string or strap through the little lug near the base – which is damaged in this case. The verdigris covering the bronze suggests that the bog had been drained and ploughed for years before the axe was found. Wet sediments prevent such corrosion.

When Evert Baudou collected the material for his PhD thesis in the 50s, this type, A2a, was mainly known from northern Zealand and eastern Funen, but there was also a casting mould from Västergötland. Finds since then are unlikely to have changed the distribution pattern much. The axe from Eklunda was probably an import piece. I have no detailed information about where the find spot is, but judging from the results of my studies, it is likely to have been in or at a Bronze Age lake or sea inlet which later silted up and became a bog. There’s an endless discussion about why people parted with bronze objects in this manner. I believe they did it primarily to communicate with supernatural beings.

The axe is inv. no 11,863 in Västmanland County Museum. Big thanks to Susanne Granlund for the photograph.

Read Up, Write, Repeat

I’m doing the final library work for my Bronze Age book. When working on a big research project, I always find it a little difficult to calibrate the most economical way to schedule my reading. Of course, I have to know early on what’s in the literature on the subject I’m working with. But I also like to start writing early. And I’d rather not put too much time into re-reading stuff after I’ve figured out how it’s relevant to my theme. I read some of it before I start writing, most of it while I’m writing, often at the computer, and then I inevitably save some of it until I’m almost done writing and all I’m really prepared to do is make minor additions.

I like to read roughly in reverse chronological order. That way I’ll learn about the current state of knowledge first, and also get a lot of compact summaries of previous research. Then I sort of know what the early contributors said before I read their stuff, though I can’t skip them because they may have been misrepresented by later writers. I once read a book draft where this guy had read everything in chronological order until he ran out of time, so he had covered everything in detail except the last 15 years of work on his subject. Ouch.

The bibliographies in the most recent contributions give me a map of the territory. I keep a growing list of work to check out during a project, and then a lot of it gets culled in the final phase after I’ve flipped through it. I’m a little embarrassed to be ordering so many books and journal volumes from the stacks just to return them half an hour later, but at least I help improve the library’s usage stats.

For my current book project this flip-through checking is largely because there’s a huge international literature about Bronze Age hoards, but the vast majority of works are blind to the landscape context of the find spots, which is what I’m writing about. Conversely, someone who is really into artefact typology and regional metalworking traditions will be disappointed if they open my book. But “landscape location” will be in the title.

First 4-Wheel Wagon In Swedish East Coast Rock Art

Bronze Age rock art along Sweden’s south-east coast is rich but not as varied as that of the famous west-coast region. One motif that we have been missing is the four-wheel wagon. It isn’t common anywhere except on one site, Frännarp in inland Scania (below right), but we have had none whatsoever where I am.

Wagons at Frännarp in Scania
Wagons at Frännarp in Scania
The other day we got our first wagon: at the rich classical site of Himmelstalund on the outskirts of Norrköping in Östergötland province. According to period convention, it is depicted in a flattened perspective with the wheels seen from the sides and the carriage from the top. The drawbar is cut by a later ship (off camera), and it appears that there were never any draught animals. The wagon probably dates from the centuries about 800 BC.

This rock art is carved into the smooth surfaces left by the inland ice. The paint and chalk is recent. The red-painted figure above the Himmelstalund wagon is a pair of incomplete foot soles or shoes. The thin chalk lines represent two ships that appear to have been mostly weathered away before the wagon was carved. People returned to these panels and made additions for centuries.

Note that the person who painted the foot soles didn’t see the wagon or the faint ships! This shows how important it is to return to rock art panels regularly with skilled personnel for renewed study. In this case I can take a small amount of avuncular pride in the find, because Theres Furuskog is a long-time collaborator of mine who has done GPS surveying, fieldwalking and metal-detecting with me on many sites in Östergötland and Södermanland. She has also worked for years with cleaning and painting rock art. Her find is a prime example of how important it is to employ educated, intelligent and experienced people for such tasks.

Another fine first in east-coast rock art was the sun horse of nearby Gärstad, found in 2011.

800 Years Of Human Sacrifice In Kent

British Archaeology #131 (July/August) has a feature by Pippa Bradley that caught my interest. It’s about a Wessex Archaeology dig in 2004-05 at Cliffs End farm in Thanet, a piece of north-east Kent that was an island up until the 16th century when silting finished connecting it to mainland England. What we’re dealing with here is ritual murder, some pretty strange disposal of the dead and ancient Scandinavian migrants.

Use of the site begins in earnest with six ring-ditch barrows during the Early Bronze Age (2200-1500 cal BC). These were poorly preserved and yielded few interesting finds. People then leave the barrows in peace for several centuries and don’t return to the site in any serious way until the Late Bronze Age shortly before 1000 cal BC. And that’s when the weirdness starts. Three round enclosure ditches are dug and re-dug, slighting five of the barrows. The ditches were found to contain household refuse, episodic feast remains and a burial or skull deposit (all shared with various pits inside the enclosures). And the smallest barrow gets slighted from another side by a continuous complex of at least 36 pits, some of them bearing evidence for re-cutting and re-use. The uncovered part measured 29 by more than 52 m. Here’s where the weirdness turns to horrors.

Respectful Late Bronze Age burial in England is typically urned cremation in closely clustered cemeteries. The treatment of the bodies deposited in the Cliffs End pit complex is strikingly deviant. Basically what they’re doing here is killing people and livestock, manipulating their remains ritually, often exposing them on site for a time, and finally inhuming them in pits. Bone preservation is perfect, leaving it all too clear what is going on. And it goes on for 800 years, well into the Middle Iron Age about 200 cal BC. A three-century hiatus during the Early Iron Age, I speculate, may be covered by the part of the feature that hasn’t been excavated.

At least 24 people end up in sacrificial pits between 1000 and 800: males and females, ages 6 to 55. One large pit sees the following sequence (image above):

1. Redeposited human bones and two new-born lambs
2. Woman over 50, killed by sword blows to the back of the head
3. Another pair of lambs
4. Cow’s head, two children and a teenage girl
5. Cattle foot and bag containing dismembered man, 30-35
6. More redeposited bones from people who died before the pit was dug (see below)

Some of the disarticulated bones from this pit are partly charred or gnawed by scavengers or show a patination typical of temporary deposition in a nearby midden. The excavators apparently interpret the animal parts and certain small artefacts in the pit as grave goods, but to my mind nothing in the pit should be seen as a respectful burial: human bodies, livestock and artefacts are all sacrificial gifts to some particularly blood-thirsty deity. The artefact finds are mainly pottery, but also a rare and interesting lead weight and part of a bone balance. Weights and balances are indicative of trade and a grasp of mathematics, but are also important tools when composing metal alloys such as the period’s all-important bronze. Scandinavian weights of the same era take the shape of little female statuettes wearing paired torque neck rings, and we find the paired torques as wetland sacrifices.

Iron Age practices in the sacrificial pit complex are less intense and intricate: over a period of three centuries, eight people get buried whole and seven disarticulated bone bundles are deposited. One young man is buried on top of half a horse. The bone bundles bear signs of scavenging by dogs.

Who were these people then? Could anybody at Cliffs End get roped in for sacrifice and be denied respectful burial at the whim of the local druid? Historical and ethnographic accounts suggest that this is unlikely. Small low-tech societies have a strong sense of in-group versus out-group. If you don’t get your urn in the clan’s urn field in this era, it’s highly likely that you are simply not a clan member. And here’s where stable isotopes come in, a fantastic data source that sees more and more use in interpreting bone finds. Among the questions isotopes can answer today are main food sources and geographical area of residence.

Andrew Millard of Durham University analysed all suitable teeth from 25 individuals. Here’s the geographical breakdown of the sacrificial victims’ area of origin:

36% local
32% southern Norway or Sweden
20% western Mediterranean
12% indeterminate

The reason that you do more than one tooth from the same individual is that teeth form in sequence during gestation, childhood and adolescence. If you move or change your diet during that period, this shows up in the isotope ratios of whatever tooth your body is making at the time. This gave particularly interesting results in the case of an old woman whose disarticulated skull was redeposited in the Late Bronze Age charnel pit discussed above. She was born in Scandinavia, moved to northern Britain as a child, lived a long life and finally ended up as a prop in a religious ritual on Thanet.

More than half of the victims are foreigners. And though more than a third are locals, we don’t know if their parents were locals as DNA hasn’t been done yet. Who travels like this in the 1st millennium BC? Certainly not tourists. Traders do travel, but for a community dependent on long-distance bronze deliveries, it would not be a sustainable strategy to ambush and kill the traders – never mind that these were in all likelihood well organised and armed. My guess is that we’re dealing with slave raiding and slave trade. Goods travelled, and one valuable commodity was slaves. All valuable commodities were appropriate as sacrifices to the gods when that time came.

In the case of the well-travelled old woman, I imagine her being taken from her tribe in southern Norway by Scottish slave raiders, growing up in Scotland, and then being traded on maturity to a Kentish tribe with odd religious practices. She probably gives birth to more slaves there (perhaps a few of the recovered individuals with local isotope signatures) and lives most of her adult life at Cliffs End. Not as a member of the clan, but as property of a clan member. And then comes that final Beltane feast out by the barrows.

Check out Wessex Archaeology’s on-line exhibition on Cliffs End! A monograph is in press: Jacqueline McKinley et al., Cliffs End Farm, Isle of Thanet, Kent: a mortuary & ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility.

Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #276 (March) has a feature on excavations for a new container port that’s being built at Stanford Wharf near the mouth of the Thames. The Iron Age and Roman Period archaeology proved quite lovely, with waterlogged salt-making sites, remains of a boat house, loads of pottery, even waste from garum fish-sauce making. But the reason for the excavation is also interesting.

Consider the terms “nature reserve” and “nature preserve”. Most of us probably think of them as bits of particularly fine nature that are fenced in and preserved. But at Stanford Wharf much of the archaeology was done because they were going to turn farmland into a nature reserve and the process would destroy the archaeology!

The fields in question have long been protected from flooding by a sea wall. They could have been turned over to nature by just leaving them untouched. But that would have produced shrubland, not a type of nature perceived as interesting or valuable. Instead the land has been converted into a tidal marsh through the expedient of removing the sea wall and bulldozing away half a metre of topsoil. The aim was to attract wading birds. So this “nature” reserve is actually a type of cultural landscape that has cost a great big sum of money to create, all as part of the overarching port project.

British Archaeology #129 (March/April) has a feature by Bronze Age scholar Dot Boughton on a subject that’s been much on my mind in recent years: Bronze Age metalwork depositions. Most such collections of metalwork has a fairly tightly focused chronology, with almost all component objects dating from the same phase in the relative chronology. In other words: when depositing bronze, people rarely sought out antiques. But there’s been a small group of problematic or poorly documented hoard finds (Danebury, Batheaston, Salisbury) that hint at a rare custom of curating ancient metalwork and burying it in chronologically mixed hoards. In Sweden we see this for instance in the Härnevi hoard whose site I metal-detected to no great avail in 2011. Now, thanks to an intelligent metal detectorist, for the first time in England such a find has been excavated under controlled conditions, at Tisbury in the Vale of Wardour, Wiltshire.

The Tisbury hoard consists of about 114 objects: mostly weaponry and tools but also some jewellery and sundries. The latest piece dates from the 7th century BC which is past the start of the Iron Age in England. But the hoard is dominated by bits from the Late and Middle Bronze Age, the oldest being a piece of an Early Bronze Age flat axe that pre-dates even the start of the South Scandy Bronze Age (being roughly coeval with our Late Neolithic Pile hoard). Boughton suggests that the hoard may have been kept and displayed in a “communal museum”. It reminds me of ancient Greek temple treasuries.

Boughton’s thoughtful piece is an interesting read, but given what I’m working on myself I miss a discussion of the hoard’s landscape setting in relation to watercourses, settlement sites and monuments of similar or earlier date.

As I’ve commented sometimes here on Aard, I don’t care much for archaeology outside of Northern Europe. The best way to explain it is probably that few professional electricians spend their free time studying the plumbing in the building projects they work on. So I was pleased to find Current World Archaeology #57 (Feb/March) venturing into Northern Europe with five pages about Crusader castles on the shores of the south-east Baltic. The piece’s emphasis on palaeo-environmental work will make it a good read for anyone with such predilections.

New Dates for the Bronze Age

When I was an undergrad in 1990 we were taught that all six periods of the Scandinavian Bronze Age were 200 (or in one case 300) years long. The most recent radiocarbon work shows that they all had different lengths and were more likely 130-280 years long. And the periods with the most abundant metalwork finds, II and V, are the two shortest. So their previously known status as metal-rich eras looks even more pronounced now, and the intervening periods look even poorer.

Per. I. 1700-1500 cal BC (200 yrs)
Per. II. 1500-1330 (170 yrs)
Per. III. 1330-1100 (230 yrs)
Per. IV. 1100-950/20 (165 yrs)
Per. V. 950/20-800 (135 yrs)
Per. VI. 800-530/20 (275 yrs)

Each of these periods translates to a list of artefact and monument types that are commonly found together. Their relative ordering through time has been known since the 1880s. Current work looks at the absolute dates at which these typological laundry lists were current. It uses a new technology, radiocarbon dating of cremated bone, and new applications of Bayesian statistics, which allow us to constrain the uncertainty of the radiocarbon results using stratigraphical observations. The latter means that if we know that grave B was later than grave A because one sat on top of the other, then we can tell the software to disregard parts of the probability distributions that gainsay this observation.

Hornstrup, K.M et al. 2012. A New Absolute Danish Bronze Age Chronology As Based On Radiocarbon Dating Of Cremated Bone Samples From Burials. Acta Archaeologica 83. Copenhagen.

Finding And Classifying Forgotten Sites

I haven’t blogged much about my research lately. One reason is that I am only working with it at ~50% this academic year since I’m teaching in addition to my usual 25% editor’s job. Another is that I’m in an intensive desk-based data collection phase, which gives rise to a lot of hypotheses and hunches but not much in the way of analytical conclusions. Here’s what I’m doing.

I’ve got a great big database of about 400 Bronze Age finds from the Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren provinces. This sample is delimited thusly:

a) datable finds
b) that are not demonstrably from graves or settlements
c) which have enough location info that I know at least which hamlet’s land they came from. In many cases I know what land parcel within a hamlet, or even the find-spot’s coordinates to within a few tens of meters.

Most of these finds appear to be “deposits”, which may be called “sacrifices” if you decide to ignore a two-century-long debate over their interpretation.

What I’m doing now is to establish as exact location info as possible for each find, measure its distance to the nearest burnt mounds and rock art, and plot it on the Geological Survey’s interactive map of ancient shorelines and lakes. Finding sites often takes historical detective work, since the only information I may have is the name of a 19th century meadow or a measurement from a named but long-deserted crofter’s cottage that is no longer on the map. Most of these riddles I can solve on-line. Indeed, one reason that nobody’s done this before is probably that it would have taken way too much time and travel between libraries and archives.

Having pinpointed a site, I classify it into one of a few groups that I’ve come up with inductively. I’ve now done all the sites with known coordinates, most of the parcel-level ones and some of the hamlet-level ones. At this moment I have located and classified 101 sites which have seen only one documented deposition event each. They break down as follows.

39% are in Bronze Age lakes or near their shorelines.
23% are in the Bronze Age Baltic Sea or near its shoreline.
20% are in Bronze Age rivers and streams or on their banks.
8% are in Bronze Age bogs.
7% are well pinpointed sites without any interesting characteristics that I can identify.
3% are on inland hill tops.
1% are in sources.

In addition to these sites I have four that I regard as the key to the whole area of research. They are cumulative deposition sites, that is, places where people have returned repeatedly to deposit objects despite time distances that would make them unlikely to retain any accurate information about earlier deposition events. Rather than reflecting memories of individual events, these sites in my opinion demonstrate long-lived traditional landscape rules for where sacrifices should properly be made. And they share some important traits.

During the Bronze Age, each of the four cumulative sites was in or next to a river at the point where it entered and/or exited major bodies of water. At least three sites were white-water gorges with rapids or waterfalls. And all four were in settled areas, 1–4 kilometres from registered burnt mounds and rock art.

I look at the single-use sites in the light of the cumulative ones. Most are as you can see above associated with water, and an important rule seems to have been that deposition was appropriate at sites where a river or stream changed states. Put differently, if the water interrupts its steady flow to do something interesting, then that’s where you need to sacrifice an axe. This supports and extends the observation that my collaborator Christina Fredengren has arrived at by less data-crunchy methods and published last year: “… metalwork depositions were placed at exits of waters such as river mouths and the confluence (meetings) of different waters, sweet and salt”.

Image from Lenas fotoblogg.

Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #266 (May) has a big feature on the Medieval and Renaissance version of Saint Paul’s cathedral in London. The current one designed by Christopher Wren, I learned, re-uses none of the earlier edifice’s fabric and is not even orientated on the same axis. It was the world’s first purpose-built Protestant cathedral, completed in 1710. What happened to the old cathedral? Well, first the Reformation, then a century of neglect while only the chancel remained consecrated, and then in 1666 the Great Fire of London. Finally Wren’s building crew tore down whatever was left.

Then a feature on the Late Roman cemetery of Lankhills at Winchester, where stable isotope analyses are advancing an old question of where in the Empire certain of its inhabitants came from. They were buried according to unusual rites along with uncommon foreign-looking belt fittings and brooches. The most recent excavations at the cemetery took place from 2000 to 2005, and in 2004 I heard Nick Stoodley talk about the isotope results at the Sachsensymposium in Cambridge (I wrote about it in Fornvännen). Nick suggested that the men with odd material culture were foreign-born and the women local, being their wives or daughters who wore foreign fashions. Now the report volume on these excavations is out, occasioning the feature piece. Turns out that yes, some of the Lankhills people came from various foreign parts (possibly including the suspected Pannonia), but their points of origin don’t correlate with the funny metalwork. Instead the men’s gear is now interpreted as status markers of officials at Winchester’s Imperial textile mill – a diverse group of people with both local and foreign roots.

From Current Archaeology #267 (June) I learned about a Bronze Age hoard found by an upstanding detectorist at Boughton Malherbe in Kent last August. Dating from the Ewart Park phase c. 900 BC, the hoard is Britain’s third largest, consisting largely of axes (socketed and winged) and domed ingots plus a generous sprinkling of sundries. It is the first member of a characteristic French class of hoard to surface in southern England. I wish we got these finds in Sweden too! But our laws allow no honest detectorists to operate without endless red tape. The last time anyone found a multi-object BA hoard in my part of Sweden and told an archaeologist was in 1980 when the military swept the Järvafältet shooting range for undetonated shells.

British Archaeology #124 (May/June) has six pages of reader responses to the acrimonious break-up of the Time Team television team. Good to see that people care! I’ve only watched one episode myself. And in another case of double coverage, six pages on Saint Paul’s. Apart from that, not much to catch my personal interest this time.

Sacrificial Sites: Sorunda and Turinge


Spring is late this year in Sweden, and the weather has been dreary. But now things have perked up, and suddenly I felt the itch to get out and check out some sites before the leaves and grass sprout in earnest and ruin visibility. So Sunday night I hurriedly checked through my database of Bronze Age sacrificial finds and picked out two nearby sites where the find spots are known to good precision. I printed out maps from the sites & monuments register and checked for coeval rock art & burnt mounds nearby. And I got the 1000 BC shoreline map for each site from the Swedish Geological Survey’s web site. So I was set for a field trip Monday.

Continue reading “Sacrificial Sites: Sorunda and Turinge”