Not Resting Place of the First Finns


I’m posting this from a Helsinki basement café after a day’s excursion by bus and boat in the countryside west of town. We mainly looked at cairns of various form, date and function, including a group of very fine large mountaintop ones of the typical Bronze Age variety.


Toward the end of the day we saw a preserved little bit of an excavated cemetery to which had been added a memorial stone in the 1930s. On the plaque the site is dated to about AD 100 and proclaimed as burial place of the first Finns! The reasoning went like this.

“We have a gap in the archaeological record during the Last Millennium BC. And the linguists believe that the Finnish language arrived here from Estonia about AD 1. And the grave type here has its closest parallels in Estonia. So this must be the grave of early Finnish-speaking colonists who arrived in the country when it was empty about AD 1!”


In the decades since, we have learned that there is no gap in the Finnish settlement record in the Last Millennium, and the grave type has been shown to be native to the coasts all around the south-eastern Baltic Sea. And the linguists have changed their mind about the date of the arrival of the Finnish language. So all that remains of the ideas celebrated on that stone is that yes, we still date the grave goods to about AD 100.

But as I told my colleagues, this is not by far the silliest memorial stone erected on an archaeological site. A strong candidate is found at Vendel church in Uppland where rich boat-burials have been excavated. It reads,


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Danes Run Entire Urn Burials Through CT Scanner

The jaw-drop moment of the conference came for me when osteologist Lise Harvig off-handedly showed us pictures of what she is doing. She’s a PhD student with Niels Lynnerup at the Dept of Forensic Medicine at Copenhagen. Remember the crumbling Neolithic amber bead hoard that the Danes ran through a CT scanner instead of excavating and stabilising the thing? Now Lise is putting entire Bronze Age urn burials through that scanner. She knows where every piece of bone and bronze is in those urns before she even cuts open the plaster they’ve been encased in since being lifted out of the ground. She has perfect 3D digital models of urns that fall apart when you remove the plaster. And she has demonstrated that a lot of the bone fragmentation, that has commonly been assumed to be due to dedicated crushing and grinding by the mourners, is actually simply due to the brittleness of burnt bones whose organic component has leached away over the millennia. Big bones are sitting in the urns, each fragment in place, and fall apart when you try to lift them. As Lise put it, “The one who does the ritual crushing is me, when I empty the urns”.

So, how can a PhD student in archaeology afford to use this sort of hi-tech equipment? Turns out, the technology is developing so fast that the hospitals frequently swap their CT scanners for newer models. The used one at the Dept of Forensic Medicine makes one slice every three millimeters. Not good enough anymore for brain surgery. But perfectly useful for archaeology.

Other issues covered in today’s presentations were:

  • Correspondence analysis of Gotland’s stone ships.
  • The landscape situation of sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren area (me).
  • An Early Bronze Age magnate farm excavated recently near Halmstad.
  • Human sacrifice and corpse rituals in Lithuania.
  • The unusually late introduction of animal husbandry in Finland.
  • Bone pins in the Baltic states.
  • Copper in Fennoscandia before the Bronze Age.
  • Bronze ring casting sites on Saaremaa and elsewhere in the Baltic states.

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11th Nordic Bronze Age Symposium, Day 1

Helsinki isn’t far from Stockholm. It took me a bit more than four hours from home to my hotel here, and I could have shaved more than an hour off of that if I had taken the bullet train to the airport and a cab to the hotel instead of going by bus.

I’m at the 11th Nordic Bronze Age symposium, which for the first time includes a bunch of Baltic colleagues as wall. Everybody’s very friendly and the atmosphere is informal. It’s a pretty sizeable conference as these things go in my discipline: about 60 registered participants, of which I have made the acquaintance of at least half by now. For reasons unclear to me, I was made the afternoon’s discussant, which was fun and flattering.

I’m here to learn what Bronze Age scholars in my part of the world are doing right now, because I’m planning to become one of them. So far I’ve been able to understand everything reasonably well, though I lack basic skills of the trade for the period in question. Menace me with a Bronze Age sword, and I will generally not be able to place it in the right Montelian phase to save my life. (Unless you lend me the sword so I can look it up in the literature. It’s safe, I’m a pacifist. Come on now, just hand it over.)

Here are the main themes touched upon in today’s presentations:

  • Building a new model of how Bronze Age society in Southern Scandinavia was organised.
  • Current Bronze Age research in Estonia.
  • Past and present interpretations of the Early Metal Age and Bronze Age in Finland.
  • Why does the Hajdusamson-Apa sword type occur both in Scandinavia and in Carpathia?
  • Is it possible to find a northern border of the Nordic Bronze Age culture along the coast of Norway?
  • The Bronze Age in the Stockholm archipelago (Mattias & Roger reporting on their on-going Ornö dig!).
  • Recent rock art surveys in Södermanland province.
  • Is it possible to radiocarbon date bronze?
  • Bronze socketed axe found with a piece of the shaft inside, this has been dated, sadly the typological date didn’t match the radiocarbon.)
  • The ethnic and social background of various find types in the Finnish Bronze Age.
  • A Late Bronze Age seal-hunting centre in Ostrobotnia.

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Burnt Mound Near the Sea


Small mounds consisting of burnt stone are a signature feature of Bronze Age settlement sites along the coasts of southern Sweden. They were the subject of my first academic publication in 1994, though I’d hardly even seen one, let alone dug one. This I have finally begun remedying today, when I did another day of volunteer digging with my friends Mattias Pettersson and Roger Wikell.


Mattias and Roger started out as pioneer investigators of the Mesolithic archipelago that is now a bunch of hill tops in the southern part of inland Stockholm county. Their emphasis has shifted though: it’s still the archipelago and shore-bound sites on the edge of the open sea, but last month when I reported on their work they were way downhill in the Middle Neolithic. (Shore-displacement means that downhill equals later.) And now they’re in the Late Bronze Age!


I joined them on Ornö island today. The fact that the place is still an island means that it was way, way out 2600 years ago. Kjell Linnér found the Bronze Age sites of Ornö in 1978, and he worked with us today. There are two clusters of visible structures on the island, all just above the 20 m a.s.l. curves, and probably in use when the shoreline was at 15 m, c. 600 BC. Both clusters were at the inner ends of long sheltered inlets at the time. Most are little burial cairns, but there are also two burnt mounds.


M & R had found three grind stones in the mound, just like the one I picked up at Älvesta in Botkyrka in March ’08. I found a fourth one today, and some pottery, burnt bone and charcoal. Strangely, there isn’t any certainly knapped stone on the site. These people most likely did not have access to enough bronze to use it for all their cutting tools. But they didn’t knap quartz or flint on Ornö. The guys have found a Pitted Ware site (pre-metal) a few hundred meters off, and it’s full of knapped quartz. I wonder what Late Bronze Age seal harpoons looked like.

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