Final Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

Andreas Viberg analysed the geophysics, I directed the excavation, Lotta Feldt did the GPS survey, Jon Lundin presented the survey data, Cheyenne Olander took the drone photograph and combined all the data in this picture.
  • 3½ days of digging, ½ day of backfilling and re-turfing, ½ day of house cleaning before we said goodbye at noon on Friday.
  • Found a blue glass bead and a bronze wire spiral bead near the hall’s NE entrance. Both would fit well on a bead string that broke in AD 700-750.
  • Signs suggest the swapping out of some structural posts around the entrance.
  • Structural ironwork found on top of a roof-bearing posthole’s fill suggests that similar objects found in the topsoil last year had been redeposited there by 19th century diggers, and are in fact old.
  • Svante Hagsten of Aska Maskinstation Ltd did a beautiful job of backfilling our trenches. I wish I had had the sense to ask him last year! Then the students re-turfed.
  • Another de-stressing innovation is that I will return the equipment to the county museum storage on Monday, after everybody’s gone home.
Bead from the NE entrance area. Photo Cheyenne Olander.

Third Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

Drone photo by the excellent Cheyenne Olander, north to the right
  • Finished the north trench with the high seat & foil figure concentration, started backfilling.
  • Emptied the recent refuse pits in the south trench, uncovered and sectioned the south wall line and four buttress postholes outside it.
  • Opened a third trench over the hall’s north-east gate.
  • Few artefact finds, of which the most interesting is our second 13/1400s crossbow bolt.
  • I’ve had an idea about what happened to the platform after the mead hall was torn down in the later 900s. We have wondered why there is no sign of activity or damage between 1000 and 1800. Aska was probably the härad assembly site in the 1000s and 1100s. Was the platform maintained as a thing mound?

Second Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska

North wall ditch. Left: outdoors. Right: indoors.
  • Extended trenches from 84 to 112 sqm.
  • The County Museum’s Lotta Feldt and Linnea Hernqvist surveyed our visible features with an RTK GPS.
  • Found more gold foil figures for a maximum total of 33 from Aska. This number may prove lower when fragments are fitted. But we are certainly past Helgö’s number now.
  • Identified many features of the mead hall’s architecture that we had already seen on the geophys. And got a clearer idea of the wide, backfilled mid-19th century ditch that runs obliquely across the mead hall’s east half.
  • Discovered more butchery refuse pits from around 1900. They have primarily damaged the inner of the two south wall lines. This complication offers a fun opportunity for true stratigraphic excavation.

First Week of 2021 Excavations at Aska: Three New Gold Foil Figures

Drone photo by Cheyenne Olander
Foil figure, find no 300
  • At Aska near Vadstena in Östergötland is a massive earth platform on which geophys has revealed an almost 50-metre mead-hall. Six radiocarbon analyses date its lifetime to c. AD 660-950.
  • Last year we opened a few square metres over the mead hall’s northern wall line and one roof-support, just east of the building’s centre, and found 22 gold foil figures. Now we have opened 42 sqm in that same area and found 3 more.
  • We only have to find two more foil figures to beat Helgö. But that is just because my dear old thesis supervisor Jan Peder was forbidden by his boss to wet-screen the spoil heaps there after they became aware of the figures.
  • Other interesting new finds from the north trench are a third whale-bone gaming piece and a heavily worn slate whetstone of possibly identifiable geographic origin.
  • The structures in the north trench are coming out beautifully, particularly the outer wall ditch.
  • We have also opened 42 sqm across the building over the south wall line, with many well-preserved structures and finds of our first two beads, both opaque glass.
  • This is my eighth fieldwork campaign with students. As usual we are getting along beautifully on site and in communal living, a source of great pride to me. Even though our numbers are record high! It’s a big project even compared to typical contract excavations. (I’ve had to say no to more volunteers than I can remember.) Everyone is super nice, and it is particularly fun to have seven Łódź students with us. I’m picking up bits of Polish and they’re feeding us potato dumplings. The villagers at Aska are also extremely kind and supportive.

Read about last year’s fieldwork on the Aska platform mound: week 1, 2, 3, 4.

Gold Foil Figures and Backfilling: Week Four at Aska

The embrace of the ancestors. Photo Björn Falkevik.

We found the first gold foil figures, guldgubbar, on Monday of week 3. Eventually we ended up with 23 of them, though a few may be parts of the same foil. There are only seven known sites with more recovered foil figures than Aska. To avoid unwanted attention during fieldwork, I released this information only after we had begun closing the trench.

Such gold foil figures are the size of a fingernail, made of thin embossed gold sheet, and depict people in sumptuous clothes. All the ones from Aska that I could easily classify belong to the type with a man and a woman embracing. Possibly the divine ancestors of the petty-royal lineage. These miniature works of art are typical of the Vendel Period elite’s mead-halls, c. AD 540-790. Functionally speaking, at several sites they have been found associated with the postholes of the main audience chamber’s roof-supports and the king’s high seat. Perhaps these posts were tarred, and people stuck the foil figures onto them.

Other finds of the week are two whale-bone gaming pieces, reinforcing our impression that the floor layer that we sought in vain has actually been used to back-fill the roof-support postholes and wall foundation trenches.

I’m no longer convinced that the building has more than one phase. That extra line of postholes may just be from the high seat.

We did the last bit of digging Wednesday and then closed the trench. First we dropped modern coins in the deeper sub-trenches, then geotextile, then back with the stone piles, the earth dumps and finally the turf stacks. I hadn’t allocated enough time for this work, forgetting that we had three times the acreage to cover compared to my previous digs at Medieval castles. So we weren’t done until Friday afternoon.

I’ve blogged quite a lot about gold foil figures before.

Sofia and Cheyenne in the roof-support posthole. Photo Ivan Odebratt.

Hearth Eats Students And Turns Into Posthole

Bronto posthole, not bronto hearth

Today Emma Karlsson of the Östergötland County Museum brought a much wished-for RTK-GPS to site and instantly solved the biggest conundrums on our dig. We have Andreas Viberg’s detailed geophys plan of the building we’re investigating. But we have not had an exact GPS device to tell us where we are on that plan when wandering around site.

In our trench we have expected to find three really big sunken features: a hearth in the middle and two roof-support postholes. But we have found only one feature there. Size, shape and surface fill were right for a hearth. Starting from this assumption we have dug around fruitlessly for the postholes. But as Ola Lindgren and his friends went down into our single huge feature, it looked less and less like a hearth. No charcoal. Too deep. WAY to deep. Hey, where are Sofia and Ivan who work on that feature?! Oh, they are no longer visible above ground when they dig.

Enter Emma and her GPS skills. The enormous feature that swallowed the students is one of the roof-supporting postholes. Its original fill of large boulders has been removed, and replaced with something that (as Ola suggests) looks like 20 sqm of trashed floor pavement with sundry dropped objects. The other posthole is sitting three meters away under some innocent-looking soil that we thought were the top of the platform mound. And the hearth is only half inside our trench.

And another thing. The floor pavement they raked into the posthole after tearing the mead-hall down contains nothing that has to date from after the end of the Vendel Period in the 790s. Intensive metal detecting by skilled detectorists across our 200 sqm trench has not turned up a single one of the Islamic silver coins that flood Scandinavia from the 790s onward. Was the Aska mead-hall on its platform mound torn down before the start of the Viking Period? Where then did the royal inhabitants of the village’s extremely rich 800s and 900s graves live? And what were their ideas about the platform mound?

Lesson learned: I am never digging a site with geophys data again without an exact GPS device to tell me where I am on the GPS plot.

Third Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

A piece of a decorative mount from a Vendel shield, c. AD 700. Embossed bronze foil with Style II animal art has been tinned and folded around the iron mount. Most of the foil is now missing.

At the beginning of this week there was no topsoil left in the trench, and so we left the 19th century behind and moved down into sunken features belonging to the mead-hall itself. Some highlights.

  • There is very little evidence for any activity in the trench between the year when the hall was torn down (maybe around AD 1000?) and the start of intensive coin dropping in 1805.
  • There is no rich or distinct floor layer in the trench. The topsoil and some partial post-destruction stone pavements sit directly on the fabric of the platform where the stones in the sunken features poke through.
  • We knew from the geophys that the hall has double walls. Cutting across the northern wall however, we found not two, but four foundation ditches with closely spaced postholes on their bottoms. This means that the hall has two phases built on the same spot, and that we only saw one of them in the geophys. The innermost wall line has yielded a large and rather crudely made iron key.
  • The great hearth pit has been backfilled with a layer of clean stones, no soot, a lot of air pockets. In this covering layer was a piece of a decorative shield mount from about AD 700 and an iron pendant with a close parallel in a seeress’ wand from the 10th century, plus flint flakes from fire making. I’m not sure at the moment if this is also where the slate spindle whorl was found.
  • Though the roof-supporting postholes are clearly visible in the geophys, we have failed to find them in the trench. They seem to be backfilled with material identical to the platform into which they are dug, and any large stones in them must be deeply buried.
  • A 1980s radiocarbon date places the construction of the platform in the interval 660–880 cal AD. Rich burials found nearby in 1885 and 1920 suggested that the platform would belong in the later part of this interval, around AD 800. This has proved incorrect: we have made some finds that place the use of the hall firmly in the 600s or 700s. More about these a week from now.

Second Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

Aska lodbild v 2
The lawn-covered surfaces and our trench is where the mead-hall stood. Drone photo Cheyenne Olander.

The second of four weeks on the Aska platform mound went well too. Highlights:

  • We’ve deturfed a total of 200 sqm and removed the topsoil.
  • Thanks to some extra volunteers, I had 19 people working with me one day, a personal record.
  • We’ve made some 1st millennium artefact finds, but they are quite humble so far: a few potsherds and belt knives only.
  • The top 30 cm are quite disturbed, with occasional modern objects found below the level at which the hall’s postholes and wall lines appeared. These disturbances include at least one waste pit full of pig jaws.
  • We have a point from a 13/1400s crossbow bolt and a 1559-60 coin of Gustavus I. They date from long after the hall was torn down, but are interesting anyway.

aska 2020 hela saktet-103 lores
Aerial view from the NE. Drone photo Cheyenne Olander.

First Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

Aska 3 lores
Friday afternoon, trench across the hall seen from above looking west. The stone layer marks the indoors. To the right are two visible postholes from the widely spaced buttress posts, Trelleborg style. Drone photo by Cheyenne Olander.

The platform mound at Aska in Hagebyhöga is a 3 metres high raised foundation for an almost 50 metres long mead-hall. Think King Hrodgar’s hall Heorot. Think King Théoden’s hall Meduseld (= mead-hall = Sw. mjöd-sal).

Ragnhild Fernholm and Carin Claréus test trenched the mound in 1985-86 and found an articulated rear leg of a horse under it, with a radiocarbon date most probably in the AD 700s. Andreas Viberg and I surveyed the top platform with ground-penetrating radar in 2013, and Andreas swiftly mapped every posthole in the structure. In the past week my crew of 15 hard-working people, mostly students from my old department at U Stockholm, has opened a 100 sqm trench across the central room in the mead-hall. Here are some highlights.

  • There is no thick stratigraphy on top of the hall foundation. The uppermost packing stones of the postholes are only 10-25 cm below the turf.
  • Everything we have found in the topsoil may date from after AD 1800. The only exception is a single 1630s fyrk coin. The many pre-WW1 coins tally well with information given by old people in the 1980s, that there had once been annual mid-summer celebrations on the mound.
  • After the hall was torn down, a layer of smallish stones was laid down over its indoors. Feel free to interpret this in a symbolic and/or practical way.
  • Thanks to the simple stratigraphy, we will be able to open up the full 200 sqm that our permit allows.
  • I look forward to sectioning and soil-sampling the central hearth, a few of the great roof-bearing postholes and the wall trenches.
  • It is liberating not to have to excavate every sunken feature like you do on a highway dig where the site will be bulldozed when you’re done.
  • I love geophys, skilled metal detectorists and drone photography!

Excavation Report from Skällvik Castle 2016

Skällvik Castle, drone photo from the north-east with our trenches A-G indicated. By team member Jan Ainali.

Two years ago myself and Ethan Aines headed the first professional excavation at Skällvik Castle, a 14th century stronghold. It’s near Söderköping, across the water from Stegeborg Castle, and may be seen as a fossil of an itinerant castle that sat on Stegeborg’s islet before and after the period 1330-1360. Skällvik Castle was at various times owned by the See of Linköping and the Swedish Crown, and was at least used by the provincial Lawspeaker as well.

Some of our main results were these.

  • The written sources document activity at the castle in 1330-50. The coins we found extend that use period at least four more years to 1354. In 1356 there was a civil war and the nearby vicarage is known to have been attacked. This is a likely end date for the castle.
  • We identified the castle guards’ day room, warmed by the bakery oven, where finds show that the guards spent their off-time fletching crossbow bolts and gambling with dice for money.
  • We found a noblewoman’s seal matrix, dropped into the sea off the castle’s dock. Her full name and identity are unknown, but historians have helped us identify two men known from the written record who may be her father and her husband. There was still sealing wax stuck to the matrix under the verdigris.

Get the report from!