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.

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Best Danefae of 2012

Most prosperous countries have legislation for what kinds of archaeological finds a citizen has to hand in to the authorities. In Denmark, still using a Medieval term, such finds are termed danefae, “property of the dead”. And here is Danish TV4’s list of the top-10 such finds of 2012. All but one of them have been handed in by detectorists, and two by Swedish detectorists operating in Denmark because of Sweden’s restrictive rules!

It wouldn’t really be worthwhile to make a top-10 like this for Sweden, as the pretty gold & silver metalwork they concentrate on in the program is usually found detectorists, and we don’t allow the honest ones to go looking in Sweden. The reason that precious metals are so interesting to archaeologists isn’t their market value, but their resistance to corrosion. Most of the beautiful craftsmanship of the past has disintegrated or become unrecognisable. But the precious metalwork endures unchanged.

Thanks to Morten Axboe and Tobias Bondesson for the tip-off.

Valkyrie Figurine From Hårby

Etymologically speaking, ”valkyrie” means ”chooser of the slain”. The job of these supernatural shield maidens in Norse mythology is to select who dies on the battlefield and guide their souls to Odin’s manor, where they will spend the afterlife training for the Twilight of the Gods, the final battle against the forces of chaos. After each day’s combat training, a mead-hall party with drink and reincarnated pork ensues, with the valkyries waiting the tables.

We have had very few period depictions of armed women. Instead scholars have applied the term “valkyrie” to a common Late Iron Age motif of a usually unarmed woman who offers up a mead cup or horn, sometimes standing alone, sometimes to an armed man, who is often on horseback. A more cautious term for this motif is “the greeting scene”, and there is reason to link it to beliefs about what would happen to men in the afterlife (cf. houris). But there are armed women embroidered on the tapestries from the AD 834 Oseberg ship burial, and a small group of brooches shows them in 2D relief (pictures below). Thanks to Danish amateur metal detectorists, that group is growing steadily. And now a 3D version of the motif has surfaced!

Detectorist Morten Skovsby found the first 3D valkyrie figurine late last year at Hårby on Funen. She wears a floor-length dress and has her hair in the typical knot we’ve seen for instance on the Lady of Sättuna in Kaga, and she’s armed with sword and shield. The interlace decoration on the rear of her dress should permit pretty tight dating once specialists get to see it clearly, but she’s definitely from the Vendel or Viking Periods, and I’d say probably from the 8th/9th/10th century.

See also the Lejre Lady. Thanks to Jakob Øhlenschlæger for the tip-off, to Jan Hein and Henrik Brinch Christiansen for the photographs and to Claus Feveile for additional information.

A man on a horse is greeted by a woman with a shield and a drinking horn. Brooch, Tissø, Zealand. Finder Flemming Nielsen.

Brooch depicting an armed woman. Gammel Hviding, Jutland. Finder Jens Chr. Lau. Photo Henrik Brinch Christiansen. Drawing Claus Feveile.

New Migration Period Hoard

A few weeks ago my friend Tobias Bondesson and his fellow amateur detectorists Iohannes M. Sundberg and Tommy Olesen found a 3.5 kg silver and gold hoard from the 5th century AD near Roskilde in Denmark. They reported their find to the town museum, the hoard was lifted by experts and excavations are ongoing. This closed find, consisting of ~1500 pieces of metal and the pot in which they were buried, is of immense value to archaeology and numismatics thanks to the snapshot of coeval objects it gives us. This not just bullion: many of the objects are typologically distinct. I’d love to help identify all the bits!

Congratulations guys! My hat is off to you! As Tobias comments: this shows that the Danish system, where professional archaeologists treat honest detectorists with respect and invite them to collaborate, works.

Bronze Age Mortuary Cult In Viborg

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Yesterday I went to Jutish Viborg by train, plane and bus. This took a bit less than eight hours. Exiting Aalborg airport into the icy sleet I managed to walk straight into the glass wind breaker outside the turnstile, banging my forehead and knee. Everybody around studiously avoided noticing my antics. On arriving in Viborg I found the museum, met some colleagues and received a key for the visiting scholars’ building at Asmild that I’m staying in. Then to the city library where there is warmth and (flaky) wifi, and where I am now sitting again. Wednesday ended in good company with colleagues at the Chinese buffet place The Great Wall. (I complimented the cook in bad Mandarin and asked about the mantou.)

Sadly I have a Danish language problem. I read it all the time and I can usually follow a public talk in Danish unless the speaker is from rural Funen. But I find it really hard to pick up more than about every third word of an informal multilateral conversation in a noisy environment. And people here don’t understand my Swedish very well either. So I’ve been speaking slow Swedish with many pauses and as many Danish words as I can remember, or falling back on English.

This morning was lovely and sunny. I walked across the isthmus into town and treated myself to a hotel breakfast and speedy wifi. Then a nice walk back clockwise around half of the South Lake to the South Mill where the seminar I’d come for was.

It’s been an interesting day and I’ve talked to about a score of people, several of whom I’ve been corresponding with for years but never met before. Notable among the latter are Skalk’s editor Christian Adamsen, Bronze Age nestor Henrik Thrane and my fellow sacrificial finds scholar Lise Frost. The list of attendees numbers 55 people, mostly Jutish contract archaeologists and museum curators.

The theme was Bronze Age mortuary cult in the local cultural landscape. It is common knowledge that the inhumation barrows of the Early Bronze Age tended to be re-used for urn burial in the Late Bronze Age. But here we got to see how elaborate this re-use could be. Various structures were often built along the foot of such a re-used barrow, including paired post holes suggesting little wooden altars or pulpits to communicate with a given burial, large semicircular ditch features and entire post-borne buildings. Often LBA people actually preferred Neolithic barrows to the more recent EBA ones. Urn burials were not just inserted into a barrow’s fabric, but also often extended onto flat ground around it, particularly in the Early Iron Age.

Our charming host Martin Mikkelsen explained something that made me face-palm. Of course all ancient monuments sustain damage if you plough them. And if you plough over a BA barrow, you will destroy a lot of the LBA urn burials inserted into its upper layers. Keep at it long enough, and in the end you will of course hit the primary EBA burial too. But…

When the Danes realised these threats, they scheduled a lot of their best-preserved barrows, which meant that the farmers couldn’t plough over them. Instead they ploughed around them, since the visible monument was what enjoyed protection. (In bad cases they would plough the barrow square.) This means that a scheduled barrow is usually better-preserved today, but whatever was around it under flat ground is pretty much gone. Whereas an unscheduled barrow in tilled soil is usually hard to even find any more, but the subterranean LBA and EIA features around its foot are well preserved – because the farmer has ploughed out the barrow to form a protective layer of deeper plough soil over the flat ground features!

The landscape archaeological theme that ostensibly binds this series of seminars together (I reviewed previous report here) was almost entirely absent from the proceedings. One guy from Odense did make some comments on such aspects, but since Odense is on Funen I couldn’t quite understand what he said.

In other news, I received the brand new report from last year’s seminar, titled Bebyggelsen I yngre bronzealders lokale kulturlandskab (Eds Sanne Boddum et al., Viborg 2012), and an off-print of a new paper where they have radiocarbon-dated cremated bones from furnished graves to test the absolute chronology of the Danish Bronze Age. No big surprises turned up there, showing that Oscar Montelius got it about right in the 1880s by means of cross-dating with Mediterranean and Near Eastern written dynastic chronology. The main piece of news in Bronze Age chronology since then is that the period starts closer to 1700 than 1800 BC as Montelius thought.

I shall now buy some breakfast for tomorrow, eat some kebab and wend my way back to Asmild for an off-line evening of reading. Tomorrow I’ll hit the museum exhibits (to me, an archaeological museum is otherwise primarily a finds storage facility, where some objects can be unavailable for study because they are in the exhibition) and then take the half-past-five bus back to Aalborg. And I’ll try not to walk into that glass wind breaker again.

The Dancing Beasts of Hvirring

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Here’s a cool new detector find from Hvirring in central Jutland, Denmark. I’ve never seen a piece like this before: measuring only 45 mm in length, it must be a top mount for something – box, horse yoke, staff? But the motif, four dancing gripping beasts, and the style they’re executed in, place the thing firmly in the 9th century. Note the little round ears and the cross-hatching on chest and rump.

Thanks to Dear Reader Jakob for the tip-off.

Recent Archaeomags

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Here’s a quick look at the most recent windfall of popular archaeomags that has reached my big black mailbox. I’ve decided to terminate a few of the complimentary subscriptions, so these rundowns will be shorter and/or less frequent in the future. If you want, Dear Reader, you can check back at the five instalments I’ve written since late December: 23 Dec27 Jan15 March30 April14 June.

  • To me, the high point of Archaeology Southwest #25:2 (spring ’11) are two aerial photographs of the Gran Quivira / San Buenaventura mission pueblo in central New Mexico (pp. 6-7). Here is a major Native American pueblo settlement with many very large kivas (round underground ceremonial rooms), all uncovered and neatly preserved – and at one end of the thing are two whopping big cathedral ruins built of exactly the same local stone. What a strange and intriguing historical situation in the 17th century, when Spanish monks supported by armed forces latched onto a local proto-urban culture and diverted its surplus resources to new religious and political ends.
  • Skalk’s August issue (2011:4) presents some new funny gold foil figures and tiny figurines from Bornholm, probably deposited in the 6th century. The figurines are finer versions of the ugly little gold man from Lunda in Södermanland, but some of the foil figures are really strange. They’re not the usual rectangular piece of embossed foil, but the rarer foil cut-out figures – with an oversized face embossed on the chest/belly region (pic above). This face looks distinctly Roman to me. I wonder what they used as a die. Also, I enjoyed a piece by Inge Adriansen on the adventures of the Isted lion, a piece of repeatedly moved 1862 public sculpture caught up in the ethnic tension between Danes and Germans in contested Schleswig.
  • British Archaeology #120 (Sept/Oct) notes that one of the decapitated Vikings found in a Dorset mass grave in 2009 had the horizontal filed grooves on his front teeth that have started to crop up in Viking populations everywhere. Apart from that, I must confess that what mainly caught my eye in this issue was the toothsome young lady operating a magnetometry rig in Stratascan’s advert. Babes always sell, I guess.
  • In Current Archaeology’s October issue (#259), don’t miss the piece on the seventeen 1st / 2nd century altars to Jupiter found in 1870, buried in pits near the Roman fort of Maryport on the coast of Cumbria. Documentation was sketchy at the time, and the idea has been that the altars were ritually decommissioned or hidden. Recent re-excavation of the site showed that in fact, they had been used quite unceremoniously as post packing for a major timber building in the 4th century. I’d like to see the entire ground plan of that thing!

Sacrificial Finds in the Late Bronze Age Local Landscape

Since the autumn of 2009, I’ve spent most of my research efforts studying sacrificial finds in the Bronze Age local landscape. I was thus pleasantly surprised (though a little disappointed because I missed the whole thing) when I learned that there had been a symposium on the theme “Sacrificial finds in the Late Bronze Age local landscape” at the museum in Viborg, Jutland, in March last year. Recently, only about a year after the event, a fine proceedings volume (104 pp., A4 format, 2-column text, colour printing) was published, and I was kindly sent a copy for review here on Aard.

The volume contains seven papers ranging in length from 5 to 26 pages. All deal with the Danish Late Bronze Age. Three don’t actually say much about sacrificial finds, but concentrate on other aspects of the landscape (mainly traffic routes, graves and assembly sites with many cooking pits) and mention the sacrificial deposits only briefly in relation to these. The shortest paper is a poorly referenced contribution by a revered senior scholar who mainly opines on why the metalwork deposits were made and says little about their landscape situation. This leaves three solid papers for me to comment on that fit the volume’s title and are relevant to my own work.

The longest paper, by Martin Mikkelsen, takes the FÃ¥rdal find as its point of departure. This large mixed bronze hoard from central northern Jutland dates from about 800 BC and is mainly known for a handful of rare and intriguing figurines that may once have adorned a ceremonial ship model, as depicted in the period’s rock art. Railroad workers found it in 1926, and Hans Kjær commented in Aarbøger 1927 that the site appeared to have a peripheral location: “The manner of deposition seems to emphasise the general trait that gifts to a deity are placed at spots where no-one goes.”

Mikkelsen recounts the results of excavations and collections since Kjær’s time and shows that he was quite wrong. The deposit was actually buried on one of the aforementioned assembly sites with many cooking pits, and within a few kilometres are several others of the same kind as well as coeval burial sites, settlements and sacrificial deposits. This brings the location of the Lilla Härnevi hoard to mind, that was buried about 500 BC on a probably recently abandoned very large settlement site in Uppland.

Lifting his gaze, Mikkelsen proceeds to look at five other sacrificial finds in their landscape situations. This is where it gets really interesting to me, as I’m interested in the generalities here, in “landscape rules”. And sadly, Mikkelsen concludes,

“The picture that emerges from this attempt is ‘motley’. … By extension from these results, we must conclude that those sacrificial finds that have been found ‘near’ assembly sites [with many cooking pits] display such variation that we cannot operate with any simple relationship between sacrificial finds and assembly sites.” (pp. 57-58)

In other words, the situation at FÃ¥rdal cannot be generalised, and though Mikkelsen’s study collects lots of interesting information about six individual sacrificial sites in their landscapes, it does not arrive at results applicable to the entire class of sites. Nevertheless, it’s an honest attempt and a good paper.

*

In 2008, Lise Frost defended a PhD thesis on the landscape situation of Late Bronze Age metalwork deposits in the Himmerland (Cimmeria!) region of northern Jutland. Her contribution to the book is an 11-page summary of that unpublished work, with particular reference to four areas with evidence for repeated depositions. She sees a recurring (though far from universal) preference for bogs next to prominent hills, and for the vicinity of fords and probable road corridors, concluding in her summary,

“… depositions must be seen as an aspect of the spatial structure of a settlement complex. Centrality in this way can be connected to concentrations of hoard finds in areas significant for rituals. Areas, that can also lie close to important lines of transport and communication.” (p. 71)

This contact with settlement is something I see as well in the Lake Mälaren provinces of Sweden.

*

Martin Mikkelsen returns with five pages about a fine bronze sword of c. 1000 BC found in 1930 near Rødding, Rødding hundred, in central northern Jutland. The find spot has long been misidentified in the literature as a parish with the same name in another nearby hundred. Now Mikkelsen has re-identified the spot with great accuracy and gives it the same thorough treatment as he did the Fårdal find. There is settlement nearby, but possibly centuries later, and the spot is a nondescript and rather steep slope below the spot of a destroyed barrow. Mikkelsen argues, quite well IMHO, that this find is likely to be a non-ritual deposition intended for retrieval. But we can never know.

*

It really isn’t good enough for archaeology to continue sitting around waiting for the public to locate Bronze Age sacrificial sites, then look at each one in isolation as an interesting anecdote. We need to take a general look at the landscape situations involved, like Martin Mikkelsen and Lise Frost do, so that when someone makes a new find we can say “This is an expected spot” or “This is unusual”. And more importantly, we need to build models so that when given a piece of landscape to study, we can point to a spot on the map and say, “This is the most likely spot for a Bronze Age sacrifice”. The symposium publication discussed here contains much food for thought to anyone interested in this work.

Annual thematic symposia on Late Bronze Age landscape archaeology are planned to continue at Viborg and Holstebro museums until 2016. The next one, on burial, will take place in Viborg on 8 March 2012.


Boddum, S. et al. (eds). 2011. Depotfund i yngre bronzealderens lokale kulturlandskab. Yngre bronzealders kulturlandskab vol. 1. Viborg Stiftsmuseum & Holstebro Museum. ISBN 978-87-87272-94-0. [Order the book from Martin Mikkelsen.]

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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