Lost On A Fieldwork Gamble


Success and failure in archaeological fieldwork is a graded scale. I wrote about this in autumn 2008:

My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I’m not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we’re getting the second worst possible results.

The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We’re certainly not there.

The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We’re not there either.

The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.

What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It’s like winning a year’s supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.

I’ve spent the past two days metal-detecting and fieldwalking three Bronze Age sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren region with a team of up to eight skilled volunteers, and pretty much it’s one second-worst possible result, one inconclusive and one worst.


At our Nyköping site we got lots of knapped quartz and fire-cracked stone, allowing us to posit a ploughed-out settlement site. But no pre-modern metalwork. This suggests that narrows in lakes such as the nearby finds-producing one were really important in situating sacrifices. Celebrants didn’t stray much from them. 14 person-hours of metal detecting and 10 of field walking.

At our Gnesta site only a fourth of the surface was open to study due to remaining snow and meltwater. It’s richly seeded with recent rifle cartridges, some so fresh that they aren’t even verdigrised yet. 6 person-hours of metal detecting. I need to get back there.

At our Enköping site we found nothing. No pre-modern metalwork, little modern, nothing. 15 person-hours of metal detecting. The field’s under stubble, so conditions aren’t ideal. I’m coming back after harrowing in August.

Luckily, thanks to the interest and generosity of my collaborators, these two days in the field cost me only two tanks of gas and six person-nights at an affordable hostel. So unlike in the case of Sättuna, the lack of useful data isn’t a big setback. My current Bronze Age project is much more of a high-risk game than the Late Iron Age one I did in Östergötland. Sites of the latter period are littered with metalwork and debris. Bronze Age ones are far more frugal, reflecting the period’s relatively poor metal supply where every gram of metal had to be imported or recycled. We were at sites where major metal finds were made a century ago, and found nothing. I’m headed for sites were nothing has been found yet…

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Recent Archaeomags

Skalk’s first issue for 2011 opens with a great article by Mr. Bronze Age Religion himself, Flemming Kaul. It deals with two wooden votive helmets found in a bog on Lolland in Denmark. Their closest parallels are from a big multiperiod deposit of pre-Roman metal helmets found at Negova/Negau in Slovenia. One of the latter carries an extremely early inscription in Germanic, the name Harigasti, which makes the link to the Uglemose find even more interesting.

Kaul shows further parallels from coeval situla art where boxers compete for similar helmets. And then comes a passage that made me laugh (and I translate):

“Thus there is no doubt that helmets like these served as sporting trophies. And among the Greeks such trophies, like cauldrons on tripods, could be deposited in a temple as part of the temple hoard. The 26 helmets from Negau may similarly have been a collection of sporting trophies kept in a local sanctuary, where as the generations passed helmets were added one by one. Shortly before 100 BC the Cimbri or some other Germanic tribe came by, stole the helmets, dedicated them to Harigast [their god of war?] and deposited them as a sacrifice. The Cimbri, as it were, robbed the local boxing club of its trophy collection.”

Moving on, I also liked Pernille Pantmann’s and Inge Bødker Enghoff’s piece about a well-preserved and well-excavated Bronze Age settlement on Zealand where bone preservation was particularly fine. The median length of the codfish eaten there was 55-60 cm which shows that these people did a lot of deep-water line fishing from the boats we see so often in the rock art of neighbouring regions. And the site has rich deposits of metalworking debris too. Good stuff!

Current Archaeology #251 came with the excellent news that a privately owned album of excavation photographs from Sutton Hoo’s mound 1 has come to light. This is extremely valuable as the dig was hasty and the detailed documentation of the ship remains was lost during WW2. The photographers were two school teachers on holiday, Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack.

An interesting idea reached me via a book review: Barry Cunliffe and John Koch’s anthology Celtic from the West is devoted to the proposition that the Celtic languages entered Europe from the West via IE-speaking early metal prospectors who came by boat around the Iberian peninsula. Only later would Gaul and Central Europe have been Celtified. Interesting indeed! The fact that our oldest evidence for Celtic languages is from the South-East is of course because that was where literate Greeks were around to document the language situation.

Another cool tidbit is that Roman sites in the UK and 19th century sites with imported Classical sculpture have local living micropopulations of Mediterranean land snails!

Current Archaeology #252 celebrates the 200th episode of Time Team and takes an in-depth look at the geophysical underpinnings of the show. How else would one get a good overview of a site in three days of fieldwork?

Of great interest to me because of my current work is a piece by conservators Laura McLean and Stefanie White on a ploughed-out bronze axe hoard recently found and salvaged at Burnham in Essex by a detectorist. It was in a pot whose bottom part, with its bronze contents, was still in situ. Over a hundred pieces of metalwork including fifty socketed axe frags, eight socketed spearhead frags, seven sword frags, three sickle frags, two gouges and lots of casting waste.

I don’t know the English typochronology well enough to date the hoard (Ewart Park phase maybe?). But it’s certainly Late Bronze Age and not EB, given that it’s socked axes and not flanged ones or palstaves. And I believe the Brits never get the really short socketed axes of our per. V and VI. So my guess is that that this hoard should be Final British Bronze, 8th century BC.

CA’s international sister publication Current World Archaeology is out with its 45th issue. It’s a Southern Italy special, with little I can comment on, but there’s also a piece by Ellen Marie Næss on the Oseberg ship-burial skeletons. As we have seen here, they were reburied and recently disinterred again, and new osteological results await academic publication. But Norwegian colleagues of mine tell me that the new alleged findings are a little too weird to have been missed by the osteologists on the original Oseberg team. Per Holck has some explaining to do before we accept that all the ship-grave people he examines turn out to have strange deformities, like Morgani’s syndrome.

Archaeology Magazine is published in New York state. Issue #64:2 has a good feature by Lauren Hilgers on Han Dynasty rural settlements in Henan sealed catastrophically and preserved when the Yellow River flooded 2000 years ago. I must say though that I don’t like the Chinese habit of building exhibition halls over deturfed and cleaned archaeological layers to show them to the public. Of course all manner of plants and fungi immediately colonise the surfaces, and they have to spray them with chemicals. Better to do your dig, backfill and put the site under grass for the next excavator.

A piece on battlefield archaeology at Towton in Yorkshire (where armies clashed in 1461) is interesting but contains a baffling line of argument. The investigators have found shards of a small brass cannon. They have taken upon themselves to analyse whether there is residue of gunpowder and lead on the insides. There is, and so the investigators allow themselves to argue that the cannon was fired in the battle. But how on Earth do they think that the thing would have shattered and remained on the battlefield unless it had been fired!?

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Shores of Ancient Sweden

i-6dbead8ecaf69b12cbf30eb9c9fdd914-Vardinge 1000 BC 500 px.png

The National Geological Survey of Sweden has put an interactive deglaciation and shoreline displacement model for the country on-line for free. You can download detailed hi-res maps of your favourite parts of Sweden for 0-16 thousand years ago, and a few thousand years into the future! (But only at intervals of whole millennia.) Invaluable for Swedish prehistorians!

Above is the area between LÃ¥ngbro and Hjortsberga in VÃ¥rdinge parish, Södermanland, where I’m planning some fieldwork, as it looked in 1000 BC according to current knowledge of the shoreline displacement process. I scouted the area out last spring and found a cupmark boulder. It’s on a known settlement & burial site located on the southern shore of the long-gone lake in the middle of the map.

Thanks to Kenneth Alexandersson for the tip-off.

Chiemgau Impact Hypothesis is Dead

Update 13 December: Florian at Astrodictum Simplex has translated the whole entry into German. Thank you, Florian!

Update 21 December: German pop-sci web zine Scinexx reports on the poor status of the impact hypothesis and refers to this blog entry. They also mention a really weird idea of the CIRT’s that I hadn’t heard about: that the impact event somehow taught certain Celts to make better steel, and that this material eventually allowed the Roman empire to expand!

Back in August, I blogged about this dodgy paper that had been published in Antiquity. Subsequently, German geologists Robert Darga and Robert Huber and I got together and wrote a rebuttal, which we submitted to Antiquity. It got turned down for a pretty good reason: somebody else wrote a rebuttal featuring original results from the site in question that blows the whole idea of the original paper to bits. That work hasn’t been published yet, and the authors of the dodgy paper have been busy promoting their freaky ideas, so the two Roberts and I have decided to publish our paper here on Aard. The title pretty much says it all:

The Site of Phaëton’s Chariot Crash is Most Likely Illusory, as the Chiemgau Impact Hypothesis is Not Accepted by Geological Consensus.

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Bronze Age Talk on Saturday

i-d2d9cfcbfffb2246347bf5805f5b2a12-Pukberget spjutspets.jpgI’m giving a talk at the Stockholm County Museum in Sickla, Saturday at two o’clock, as part of a day seminar. The subject will be my on-going research into Bronze Age sacrificial sites, where I collaborate with the museum on fieldwork. Aard readers are welcome: just tell the organisers that I’m your estranged dad. And do say hi to me!

I’m a little nervous, though, as I’ve found out that I’m on immediately after a talk by my old coursemate Dr. Susanne Thedéen, a Bronze Age specialist, who is going to talk about pretty much the same theme! I try to console myself with the fact that she gave a talk about one of the subjects of my thesis last week, burial ritual and gender on Viking Period Gotland. But maybe she did that better than I would too? Anyway, after the seminar I’ll flee with Junior to the Stockholm Gaming Convention and drown my sorrows in boardgames. Any Dear Readers going there too?

The spearhead right dates from about 700 BC and was found in the Pukberget cave in Uppland.

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Bronze Age Book Review

I had two pages in the May issue of Forskning & Framsteg (Sweden’s equivalent av Scientific American) about recent books on the Scandinavian Bronze Age. I was happy to publish there, but not very happy with the rushed chop job the contribution went through without my involvement before it was sent to the printers. So, below the fold is an uncut review in Swedish of the following books:

  • Det 10. nordiske bronsealdersymposium. Trondheim 5.-8. okt. 2006. Red. Terje Brattli, Trondheim 2009.
  • Changing landscapes and persistent places. An exploration of the Bjäre peninsula. Jenny Nord. Lund 2009.
  • Bebyggelse och samhällsstruktur. Södra och mellersta Skandinavien under senneolitikum och bronsÃ¥lder 2300-500 f.Kr. Magnus Artursson. Göteborg 2009.

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On-Line Mesopotamian Board Game


Reiner Knizia is one of the board-gaming world’s greatest celebrities, famous for a long string of hit games. According to the members of Boardgamegeek.com, the best of Knizia’s games is Tigris & Euphrates (1997), which is #11 on the site’s thousands-strong ranking list. I can’t really compare against other Knizia games, but I do know that it’s one of my favourites.

As you may imagine, I was very happy the other day when I discovered that Boardgamegeek.com actually offers on-line T&E for free, played against real people! The rules are available in many languages on BGG. Let’s have an Aardvarchaeology T&E challenge! I’m mrund on the site. Who wants to play?

Update 1 July: Paddy K recommends a video tutorial to teach you the game.

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Gods of High Places and Deep Romantic Chasms

The Pukberget sacrifical cave, Uppland

I recently submitted my contribution to the proceedings volume from the 11th Nordic Bronze Age Symposium. Here’s the manuscript and here’s the abstract:

Gods of High Places and Deep Romantic Chasms
Introductory remarks to a study of the landscape situation of Bronze Age sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren area

This paper outlines work in progress with the Bronze Age sacrificial sites of the Lake Mälaren provinces in Sweden. The project’s goals are twofold: a) to understand the landscape rules behind the siting of deposits, and thereby b) to develop a tool-kit that allows scholars to find undisturbed Bronze Age deposits without the aid of farmers, dredgers or ditch diggers.

After closer study of nine sites in Uppland and Södermanland provinces in the field and numerous ones in the archives, I have found that the Bronze Age people under study preferred to make sacrifices at wet, high, topographically dramatic and ancestral locations. There are finds from bogs and white-water river gorges, hilltops, a cave and a settlement-site that had once been important. In the rare dry-land deposit locations, eye-catching boulders were sought out.

Known sacrificial sites appear to prefer a location 1.2-1.5 km from settlement-indicating burnt mounds, rock art and the coeval seashore. This means that sacrificial sites are typically part of the same contiguous sightlined landscape room as the homes of the people who frequented them.

The paper will go through peer review and revision, so there’s ample time for any Aard reader who likes to suggest improvements.

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Nine Sacrificial Sites

I’m writing a paper for the conference volume of the Helsinki meeting I attended back in October. Here’s an excerpt from the manuscript.

In April and May of 2010 I visited nine sacrificial sites in Uppland and Södermanland provinces, selecting them by the criteria that I had to be able to ascertain their locations closely, the finds should preferably be rather rich, and I favoured sites located within walking distance of each other. The winter had been long and cold, and so vegetation was still sparse and much plough soil remained open to field walking. This ensured the best possible conditions for observation.

The people under study here primarily sought out wet sites for their sacrifices. The hilltop deposits in VÃ¥rdinge are particularly eloquent: they were put in high places, but in bogs up there. Yet as the title of this paper suggests [Gods of High Places and Deep Romantic Chasms], it also emerges that Bronze Age people had a strong predilection for landscape locations that a modern visitor would find dramatic or even sublime.

In their-pre-regulation states, the river-gorge sites of Hyndevadsfallet and Täckhammarsbro would have called to mind Coleridge’s deep romantic chasm [An excerpt from “Kubla Khan” is the paper’s motto]. Each is at the narrowest point downstream from a major lake system. And they were deep as measured in time as well. Sacrifices had begun there in the Middle or Late Neolithic, and at Hyndevadsfallet they continued up into the 17th century.

The Pukberget cave deposit is to my knowledge unique, being inside a jumble of enormous stone blocks from a collapsed cliff side. A more sublime location is hard to come by: the site’s name means “Devil’s Hill”, and it has probably born it since the Middle Ages. A similar association between spearheads and the innards of mountains can be seen in a find from a crevice on Oxeberget Hill near Frändesta in Helgesta, Södermanland.

Yet there is also a major find from a dry apparently domestic site: Lilla Härnevi. When interpreting the Härnevi deposit’s landscape location, however, we must keep in mind that it is extremely late in the Bronze Age and may even have been buried in the first century of the Iron Age. If the many settlement-indicating burnt mounds of Lilla Härnevi hamlet were heaped while the area was shore-bound, then they are about a thousand years older than the deposit. The burnt mounds are still visually prominent today, the plough soil around the hamlet full of fire-cracked stone and quartz. It looks as if people returned to the ruins of a storied ancient settlement site and buried their last multi-period collection of mixed bronzes there, right about the time when society left the Bronze Age behind and moved on. The Hjortsberga torque deposit, while also quite near burnt mounds, has a different relationship to the settlement site, being above and beyond the shore zone where the burnt mounds and graves are. I discovered a cupmark boulder among them.

The sites discussed above demonstrate the attractiveness of wet, high, topographically dramatic and ancestral locations to Bronze Age sacrifices. Let me finally point out another class of sacrificial site that, like the wet locations, is also well known from other periods than the Bronze Age. To my knowledge, at least five dry deposits from Uppland and Södermanland were found under or in contact with eye-catching boulders. Four of them are multi-object deposits, including the great hoard from near Spelvik church in Södermanland, and these are rare. It has been argued, irrefutably, that such a location with a prominent and durable marker would make it easy to retrieve the objects. Yet the fact remains that these deposits were never retrieved. This leads us to the perennial question of whether we need to distinguish between rationally motivated temporary and cultic permanent metalwork deposition.

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