Odin from Lejre? No, it’s Freya!

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So you’re a metal detectorist and you find a silver figurine at storied Lejre in Denmark. It depicts a person sitting in a high seat whose posts end in two wolves’ heads. And on either arm rest sits a raven. The style is typical for about AD 900. So when you hand the thing over to the site manager, he of course exclaims, “Holy shit! It’s Odin!”. And that’s what he tells the press.

Until somebody like me comes along and points out that it’s a woman.

She’s wearing a floor-length dress. And a shawl. And four finely sculpted bead strings. This is a standard depiction of an aristocratic lady of the later 1st Millennium. The Lejre figurine is a direct counterpart to the Aska pendant (below), which is universally understood as the effigy of a goddess. The high seat is Odin’s, allright. But the occupant is most likely Frigga or Freya. Or maybe, just maybe, Thor in drag during the hammer reclamation mission. That is so cool! This find will mess with everybody’s mind!

Congratulations to detectorist Tommy Olesen who found the piece two months ago! And thanks to Tobias Bondesson for the heads-up.

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Thanks to a tip-off from Dear Reader Jerrark, here’s a close-up video of the figurine:

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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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Hundreds of Iron Age War Dead Found

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Illerup Ådal in Jutland is known for one of Denmark’s largest and most well-excavated war booty sacrifices, most of it dating from the early 3rd century AD. (See my recent entry about the similar Swedish site Finnestorp.) As I’ve learned from my friend Tim Olsson’s new book about such sites, there’s a second find spot at Vædebro, right where the Illerup stream empties into Lake Mossø, a few kilometres from the war booty site. The artefact finds here are few, but the bones of 25-30 people were found about 1960, mainly robust men, some with battle wounds. And now the Vædebro site has exploded thanks to limited new excavations!

My buddy Martin Skoglund tipped me off about the sensational new find at Vædebro. Danish colleagues has opened a small trench and found the remains of 12-15 about 200 people! If the density of bones continues outside the little trench, this will be beyond comparison the largest find so far of probable battle dead to whom the sacrificed war booty has belonged. Scientific analyses of these bones (dating, geological point of origin…) will allow the war booty field to make a huge advance. Already one radiocarbon date points to the 1st century AD, which suggests that not all of the bodies have anything to do with the big weapon sacrifices.

For almost 150 years, Scandy archaeologists have tried to make sense of these defeated Iron Age armies from their beautifully preserved gear. Never have we really dreamed of finding the dead guys themselves like this. My heartfelt congratulations to project director Ejvind Hertz of Skanderborg Museum and his team!

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New/Old 6th Century Find on Bornholm

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In early May (I was <this> close to capitalising “Early” because I write about archaeological periods all the time.) metal detectorists on Bornholm, Denmark, rediscovered one of the earliest-documented find spots of guldgubbar. These are tiny embossed gold foils depicting people: usually a single man, sometimes an embracing man and woman, less frequently a single woman. They are a diagnostic artefact type of the Vendel Period’s elite manor sites (AD 530-790). A cool thing about the new find is that is contains gold bracteates as well, which suggests that we are dealing with one of the last goldsmith sites of the Migration Period as well as one of the Vendel Period’s first. And there is even one of the Migration Period’s rare little round-sculpture figurines, famous among Swedish archaeologists since the find of three such at Lunda in Strängnäs.

The identification of the old find spot is plausible both from the scant information in the early publication and through the similar and rare artefact types found. A thorough rescue excavation has now been done to clean the site of gold.

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Friends of the Kaga lady will recognise two such images of high-born wives™ in the new find: one smaller mounted on an iron plaque and one larger, folded over.

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The gold bracteates in the find are weird, having an unusually stylised and small central motif engraved on a square die, when they are almost always larger and round. This is because the goldsmith has used a punch intended for the concentric rows of decorative punch marks on a large bracteate’s rim zone instead of a real bracteate die. This too suggests an unusual bracteate production milieu, arguably a very late one. The find of May 2009 will figure largely in future discussions of these things.

Thanks to Finn Ole Nielsen of Bornholms Museum for permission to publish the photographs and to Morten Axboe for explaining the weird bracteates.

Danish Metal Detector Festival

i-812ad3c564d6a169d495d4568932ce50-Danish metal detecting.jpgDenmark has an excellent system in place to enable and govern a responsible and constructive metal detector hobby. While the UK’s ploughsoil heritage is largely being trashed by nighthawks (despite the valuable efforts of the Portable Antiquities Scheme) and Sweden’s is left to corrode untouched out in the fields, the Danes organise metal detector festivals, inviting skilled amateurs and professionals alike! One is taking place at Halsted on Lolland between 3 and 5 April. The public is welcome to watch on Saturday the 4th. Rest assured that the international crew of 70 detector-wielding participants will re-write the area’s history and later prehistory in those scant three days.

Thanks to Tobias for the press clipping.

Update same day: A few commenters feel that I’ve overstated the problem with nighthawking, i.e. clandestine metal detecting, in the UK. I based my assertion on an article on page 5 of the April issue of Current Archaeology (#229), which reports on a recent investigation by English Heritage:

“The survey found that nighthawking was rife on scheduled ancient monuments and ‘honey pot’ sites (mainly Roman settlements and villas) that have been targeted repeatedly, with considerable damage to crops and fields, as well as to archaeology.” There is “… a vicious circle of under-reporting of the crime, which in turn creates a false picture of the seriousness of the situation, making this a low priority crime for the police.”

Update 26 March: For some perspective on whether the UK nighthawk problem is serious or not, see these links provided by Aard regular Jonathan.

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Regardless of the nighthawks, of course the UK has major legislative problems in this area. Landowners own all finds (!) and the archaic “treasure trove” law presupposes an interpretation by the county coroner of why each individual find was buried back in the day. (Did I get it right now, Jon?)

New Foil Figure Die From Zealand

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Working with the Gothenburg Historical Society’s metal detector group at Sättuna near Linköping in the spring of 2007, I was fortunate enough to be on site when Niklas Krantz found the thirteenth gold foil figure die known to scholarship. These dies were used in the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries to make tiny images of gods or rulers out of gold foil. The beauty of the dies is that the figures themselves are too small and light to trigger a most metal detectors. Not so the dies. And finding one of them is more interesting than finding a foil figure, since the die documents a site where the figures were actually made. These are generally interpreted as the seats of petty kings.

The other day, Danish school teacher and metal detectorist Jannick Nielsen found yet another foil figure die! Unless I’m poorly informed, his find is number 14. It surfaced on western Zealand, a large island where at least two dies have been found previously. Jannick’s die belongs to the common type which depicts an embracing couple. Norwegian historian of religion Gro Steinsland has published an influential interpretation where this motif is taken to represent the marriage between an Aesir god and a giantess, being the mythical ancestors of the era’s royal lines as documented in extant genealogies.

Thanks to Jannick for permission to publish his photograph. For more Danish detectorist goodness, see www.detekt.dk.

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Norwegians Grade Archaeology Journals

The other day I took a look at how the European Science Foundation’s ERIH project grades journals in Scandy archaeology. Dear Reader Ismene pointed me to a corresponding list put out by the NDS, “Norwegian Data Support for the Social Sciences”. While ERIH recognises three impact grades plus ungraded journals, the NDS has only two grades plus ungraded. Here’s the list of relevant journals.

Grade 2

  • Acta Archaeologica
  • Fennoscandia Archaeologica
  • Norwegian Archaeological Review

Grade 1

  • Current Swedish Archaeology
  • Fornvännen
  • Journal of Danish Archaeology
  • Journal of Nordic Archaeological Science
  • Kuml — Årbog for Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab
  • Meta — Medeltidsarkeologisk tidskrift Defunct!
  • Primitive tider
  • Viking

ERIH and the NDS agree upon the top importance of Acta Archaeologica and N.A.R. But the NDS has a higher opinion of Fennoscandia Archaeologica and Meta than does ERIH. Conversely, while ERIH finds Hikuin and Iskos and L.A.R. to be important journals, the NDS seems entirely unaware of them. The fact that Primitive Tider and JoNAS are missing from the ERIH list is probably due do their subscription number requirement (>=200).

Anybody here read the Norwegian Archaeological Review? It’s apparently globally important on the level of Antiquity! Please tell me what I’m missing.

European Science Foundation Grades Journals

The European Science Foundation has a project called the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH).

… there are specifities [!] of Humanities research, that can make it difficult to assess and compare with other sciences. Also, it is not possible to accurately apply to the Humanities assessment tools used to evaluate other types of research. As the transnational mobility of researchers continues to increase, so too does the transdisciplinarity of contemporary science. Humanities researchers must position themselves in changing international contexts and need a tool that offers benchmarking. This is why ERIH (European Reference Index for the Humanities) aims initially to identify, and gain more visibility for top-quality European Humanities research published in academic journals in, potentially, all European languages.

Through a peer-reviewed process, ERIH is grading European journals in the humanities.

The ERIH lists will help to identify excellence in Humanities scholarship and should prove useful for the aggregate benchmarking of national research systems, for example, in determining the international standing of the research activity carried out in a given field in a particular country.

Suddenly, humanities scholars will have to start paying a lot more attention to where they publish. In Norway and other countries, a department’s funding is directly linked to the ERIH grade of the journals where its faculty publishes.

Grade A means global readership. Grade B means international readership. Grade C means national readership. Only good respected scholarly journals get graded at all. Here’s a rundown of grade A and B journals focusing at least to a great part on Scandinavian archaeology (not including e.g. Mediterranean archaeology practiced by Scandinavians).

Grade A

  • Acta Archaeologica
  • Norwegian Archaeological Review

Grade B

  • Current Swedish Archaeology
  • Fennoscandia archaeologica
  • Fornvännen
  • Hikuin
  • Iskos
  • Journal of Danish Archaeology
  • Kuml
  • Lund Archaeological Review
  • Viking
  • Archaeologia Medii Aevi Finlandiae Monograph series
  • Lund Studies in Historical Archaeology Monograph series
  • Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistyksen Aikakauskirja Monograph series
  • Tor Graded despite being on hiatus since a decade!

So, all the Scandy countries except Iceland have grade B journals. Acta Archaeologica is an annual published in Copenhagen, and it does have the kind of global scope required for grade A. I’m a little surprised though that N.A.R. is graded A. I’m really interested in Norwegian archaeology, and yet I have only ever found reason to read one or two papers in that journal in my 15 years as a professional scholar. It seems to cater mainly to the theory crowd with which I do not mix willingly. On the other hand, Norway has only one grade B journal, which is likely to get inundated with manuscripts now from Norwegians who would like to keep their funding yet continue to write about actual archaeology.

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Tobias Bondesson and the 333rd Coin

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Tobias Bondesson treats us to the tale of a recent find that blew his mind.

Oh, mercy mercenary me!

Being a detectorist is damn hard work! I get out of bed at the crack of dawn on my day off from work to perform the ritual of “sweep, beep, dig deep” for as many hours as I can before I really, really, have to head back home, lest I want my detecting privileges revoked by a higher power (i.e. girlfriend). And what do I have to show for it? A bum knee, sore shoulders and a mild case of tinnitus are some of my more prominent achievements. On the other hand, metal detecting is the best hobby ever, which was without a doubt proven on April 30th, when I found a peculiar “bottle top” on Zealand in Denmark.

That particular afternoon, I searched a site that in the past hasn’t delivered anything more exciting than 18th century copper coins and a few 17th century silvers. After about an hour with nothing to show for my efforts except a musket ball and a Medieval horse shoe, I got a signal similar to those presented by the ubiquitous and annoying aluminium bottle tops. But as I flipped the plug of soil over, I wasn’t greeted by a dull crumpled-up piece of scrap — but by a soft golden sheen and the Danish royal crest sporting three lions. It took several close looks and more than one pinch in the arm to wrap my mind around it, but the result remained the same — I had found a 17th century gold coin!

One of the great things about detecting is that the interesting stuff isn’t just confined to the field. Home office duties such as researching and logging finds are just as rewarding as finding them. So, after a shaky drive home, I hit the books and the Net. What I found was that this was no ordinary gold coin. The coin is of the denomination 2 Gold Crowns and was struck in 1628 during the reign of Christian IV (King of Denmark 1588-1648) by the moneyer Nikolaus Schwabe of Dresden. It was minted with the explicit purpose to make up part of Christian IV’s war coffer during the Thirty Years’ War, which Denmark had joined in 1625. A war coffer was really just that: chests or barrels filled with gold and silver coins of high denominations brought along on campaigns, primarily to be used as payment to mercenary troops. The reason was that mercenaries required payment at regular intervals in order stay loyal to their employer. So, there was of course a lot of money from war coffers circulating at the time. But this gold coin represented a considerable sum; the value actually corresponded to the weekly wage of the well-to-do royal moneyer Nikolaus Schwabe. So, one possibility is that these coins were intended to be used as salary for mercenaries of higher rank.

But this specific coin is also remarkable for another reason. According to the still existing ledgers, only 333 were ever struck, and of these only 4-6 were known to still be in existence prior to this find. In addition, it has been documented that Christian IV himself visited the location where I found the coin. So maybe, just maybe, the King himself has held it in his hand.

Facts

  • The “Dobbelt Guldkrone” or “Double Gold Crown” of 1628 weighs nearly six grams and is minted from 22 karat gold.
  • Only 333 coins were struck, whereof 4-6 were known to still be in existence.
    In 2004, an identical coin was sold at an auction for DKK 125 000 (USD 20 000 / EUR 17 000 at 2004 exchange rates).

  • The coin has been duly reported and delivered to the Danish authorities.

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Early Neolithic Amber Hoard CT Scanned

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The Skalk article I mentioned the other day (with the rubber goat) tells the story of an unusual find made in northernmost Jutland in the summer of 2005. Peter Jensen was stripping some land of topsoil for gravel extraction when, from the vantage point of his machine, he spotted something interesting on the ground. Jensen happens to have much experience of machine operation at archaeological digs. It turned out that he had managed to identify a pit in the subsoil filled with thousands of amber beads: an Early Neolithic votive deposit datable around 3500 cal BC.

Most votive amber deposits have been found in wetlands where the amber is often very well preserved. In this case, however, the pit was dug into gravel, and the amber was in very poor shape: in fact, falling to pieces. After Jensen called in the archaeological cavalry, the deposit was wrapped in plaster and taken indoors. What were my Danish colleagues supposed to do with a six-litre volume of crumbling amber? Taking it apart and trying to stabilise every individual bead would take ages and cost an enormous amount of money. And in its corroded state, the find still wouldn’t be much fun to see for the museum visitors. Still, archaeologists wanted to now what kind of beads were in the deposit.

The conservators at the National Museum then had a bright idea. They took the soil block to a forensics lab, where the whole thing was run through a CT scanner with a 0.5 mm slice distance. Presto: they now have an exact 3D model of the deposit showing every individual bead, and they have abandoned all thoughts of taking the block apart. Notably, the find contains several bead spacers, bar-shaped gadgets with six or seven holes intended to collect the separate bead strings of a large amber pectoral.

And guess whom we have to thank for all this? Messrs Lennon & McCartney! Explains Wikipedia: “The CT scanner was ‘the greatest legacy’ of The Beatles, with the massive profits resulting from their record sales enabling EMI to fund scientific research, including into computerised tomography.”

The National Museum in Copenhagen has put a lot of information on the find on-line, including video clips where the viewer travels horizontally or vertically through the deposit, a few CT slices at a time from one end to the other. Cool stuff!


Bech, Jens-Henrik. 2008. Ravfangst. Skalk 2008:1. Højbjerg.


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