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

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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.

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Aerial view from the NE. Drone photo Cheyenne Olander.

First Week of 2020 Excavations at Aska in Hagebyhöga

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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

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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 Archive.org!

Second Week Of 2016 Excavations At Skällvik Castle

Our second week at Skällvik Castle proved a continued small-finds bonanza, and we also documented some pretty interesting stratigraphy.

  • More of everything in Building IV. In addition to more coins of Magnus Eriksson, dice and stoneware drinking vessels, we also found a lot of points for crossbow bolts. It’s starting to look like the castle guards’ day room! As for why we found crossbow bolts only inside one building and none outdoors in the bailey, I figure that they had been amassed there for re-fletching. The dark indoors find context and the undamaged sharp points show that the bolts did not end up in the floor layer of Building IV because people were shooting there.
  • Building IX has a lovely floor sequence. First a terracing layer with few finds, probably pre-dating the entire building. Then a culture layer. Then a stone cobble floor. Then clay full of magical fairy stones. Then mortar. Then large square unglazed brick tiles, only a few of which survived. Then a demolition layer mixed with household refuse. Such attention paid over time to the floor of a low-ceilinged cellar-like ground-floor room demonstrates the resources available to the castle’s owner.
  • Building X has had a nice ribbed brick portal, as evidenced by broken decorative bricks left by the quarrymen.
  • The gate house is still very rich in bones, as remarked on by the 1902 excavator. And his coffee-loving workmen or their contemporaries left a small midden in it after the end of fieldwork.
  • Two finds in particular document the presence of the social elite, which is hardly surprising at a royal castle where both King Magnus and the Bishop of Linköping dated letters. One is part of a wheel-turned ivory ear scoop, the Q-Tip of the era’s nobility from the NW building. The other is a seal matrix with a simple coat of arms, found near the castle dock. I’m optimistic that specialists will be able to read the inscription and identify the owner.
  • We have enough coins to be able to draw chronological conclusions not only from which types are there, but from which ones are missing. All but one of the coins we have identified so far were struck for Magnus Eriksson, most during his final minting period about 1360. His successor and nephew Albrecht was crowned King of Sweden in February of 1364, and this ruler is represented by only one coin, a frontal crowned-face bracteate.
  • We can see the quarrying of the castle for building material, targeted largely towards bricks, preferentially towards specialised decorative ones and floor bricks. These were in all likelihood taken by boat the two kilometres to Stegeborg Castle when it was re-erected, probably in the 1360s. And when Stegeborg was partly torn down about 1700, the bricks travelled on to the royal castle in my home town Stockholm!
  • It would be great to learn what’s under the rubble that fills the castle keep. But excavating this building would be an enormous undertaking, with regard both to the sheer volume of rubble with large heavy boulders, and to the long-term conservation commitment once you’ve emptied the structure. It is not a job for one precariously employed university lecturer and his students, working for a few weeks on small grants. The organisation that excavates Skällvik Castle’s keep will have to have solid long-term funding. And it must be willing to put a roof on the structure, restore the masonry and return the keep to daily use as a museum space with offices. Any responsible intervention into a ruin must be done with an eye to the far future, not just to the next tourist season.

First Week Of 2016 Excavations At Skällvik Castle

The famous royal castle of Stegeborg sits on its island like a cork in the bottleneck of the Slätbaken inlet (see map here). This waterway leads straight to Söderköping, a major Medieval town, and to the mouth of River Storån which would allow an invader to penetrate far into Östergötland Province’s plains belt. The area’s first big piece of public construction was 9th century fortifications intended to guard this entrypoint, in the shape of the Götavirke earthen rampart some ways inland and a wooden barrage at Stegeborg. This barrage was kept up for centuries, and indeed, the castle’s name means “Barrage Stronghold”.

Stegeborg is easily accessible by car and receives many visitors. Few of them however then continue on to the nearest castle ruin, which is oddly enough only 2 km to the SSW: Skällvik Castle. It sits on a rock outcrop on the south shore of the inlet, inside Stegeborg’s line of strategic defence and within sight of it. Why two castles so closely apart?

The written sources are rather murky, partly because they rarely differentiate between a manorial land property and a castle sitting on that property. But following my friend Christian Lovén’s treatment of the evidence, the timeline seems to be roughly this.

  • C. 1300. King Birger has Stegeborg Castle built.
  • 1318. Stegeborg is besieged and largely torn down in a civil war after King Birger has his rival brothers Erik and Valdemar starved to death in a Nyköping dungeon. Reports the Chronicle of Duke Erik from the victorious party’s perspective, “They broke down that wall so completely / They did not leave one stone on top of another”. King Birger is deposed and exiled.
  • C. 1330. King Magnus (the son of the murdered Duke Erik) or the regents during his minority refortify the Slätbaken passage, but with a new castle on the hill at Skällvik rather than on Stegeborg Island. About the same time, Skällvik Parish church is built between the two castle sites.
  • 1356. Skällvik is attacked by the forces of Erik Magnusson, rebellious royal pretender and son of King Magnus.
  • 1360s. Realising the obvious, King Albrecht (nephew of King Magnus) returns to the superior strategic position and rebuilds Stegeborg, quarrying the ruins of Skällvik for building material.

So Stegeborg and Skällvik Castles aren’t really two separate castles when seen on a strategic scale. They’re two versions of the same castle that has moved slightly to and fro over its 400-year lifetime, leaving a fossilised mid-14th century version at Skällvik.

Unlike Stegeborg Castle, which was maintained and extended up to the 1690s, nothing was ever built on Skällvik Castle’s foundations. Only recently was a small-scale brickworks established at the foot of the castle hill. In 1902 restoration architect A.W. Lundberg considerately removed a lot of the rubble from the ruins, leaving the culture layers easily available to the excavator everywhere except inside the keep. In the past week, me and my team have been the first archaeologists to take advantage of this state of affairs.

In addition to the high keep, Skällvik Castle has three main buildings arranged around its sloping bailey. They are joined up by short stretches of perimeter wall. We have opened trenches inside all three buildings (two in the long building IX-X) and in the bailey along the wall of building X. In addition we have test-screened and metal detected two big spoil dumps from 1902, and skilled metal detectorists have investigated our trenches and the surface around the foot of the castle hill. A few of our main results so far:

  • Five of six Medieval coins date from about 1360. The sixth is too corroded (i.e. debased) to allow dating before conserved. Two were minted in nearby Söderköping, one in Kalmar.
  • All other coins date from 1800 or later.
  • Building IV, where Lundberg identified a baking oven in 1902, has yielded all five datable Medieval coins, a bone gaming die and a piece of fine burgundy stoneware, probably from Lower Saxony. Drinking and gambling in the warmth of the bakery!
  • Building IX has yielded a fine cobbled cellar floor and a comb fragment.
  • The two 1902 spoil dumps are erosion rubble and brick kiln refuse, respectively, and not productive of small finds.
  • Unlike Birgittas udde, Skällvik Castle offers many preserved bones.
  • I have demonstrated experimentally (and idiotically) that when clearing brambles, you should wear protective glasses. I was lucky to only get my left cornea nicked a little. Hurt pretty bad and left me barely functional for two days.
  • Stoner dudes parked by the authorities at your religious abstainer hostel provide much entertainment with their spaced-out antics and conversation. Unless you mind food, cigarettes and bikinis going missing. And nocturnal rearrangement of furniture. And heavy bass at two in the morning.

Second Week Of 2016 Excavations At Birgittas Udde

We spent Thursday afternoon backfilling. As I write this, only trench G remains open, and the guys there expect to finish soon. Here’s some highlights of what we’ve learned during our second week at Birgittas udde.

Trench A in the outer moat demonstrated that the moat had a wide flat bottom, was not very deep and contains no lake sediments. Probably always a dry moat, providing material for the bank behind it. No Medieval finds.

Trench C: section through the deep inner moat.
Trench C: section through the deep inner moat.

Trench C in the inner moat demonstrated that this moat too had a wide flat bottom, but it was deeper and is full of hard clayey sediment: seems to have held shallow water. No datable Medieval finds.

Trench D: stone-filled cellar. Note the remains of the cellar's southern wall, right.
Trench D: stone-filled cellar. Note the remains of the cellar’s southern wall, right.

Trench D inside the inner defensive bank demonstrated that the site has been used for quite some time and rearranged: the stone pavement proved to be the top of a deep fill used to obliterate a rectangular cellar with drystone walls. Apparently this is the cellar of an early building that has been replaced by the large mortared masonry cellar that dominates the site today. It would have saved considerable labour to extend the cellar instead of replacing it, which suggests that this was the stronghold’s main building that couldn’t be torn down until its successor was habitable. Disappointingly, no Medieval finds in or under the stone fill.

Morning wait before we pile into the cars and go to the site.
Morning wait before we pile into the cars and go to the site.
Trench F demonstrated the same general trait of the site as trench D: there are two generations of two house foundations here, all in all four. No further Medieval finds after the glass shards and the coin.

Trench G at the northern end of the western line of buildings has given an iron latch lifter (that is, a simple key) and a spread of stones that suggests the building’s northern gable may have consisted of a drystone wall.

Let’s summarise what we’ve learned so far. Birgittas udde has quite a long Medieval use history where at least three buildings in the inner bailey have been replaced with newer versions. The high nobility makes its presence known not only through the fortifications and the large intricate masonry cellar, but also through a broken imported drinking glass. The complete absence of pottery in eight (or nine) indoor and outdoor trenches, though, suggests that waste management was quite fastidious, or that the site was never inhabited for very long each time, or both. This supports an interpretation where Birgittas udde is a special-purpose site for threatening situations, a fortified retreat in a peripheral location on Ulvåsa manor’s land. And the main Medieval version of Ulvåsa manor is at Gamlegården, the long-lived unfortified site abandoned in 1580.

A few decades ago a badger family dug a large sett next to the big cellar and dumped their spoil into it. The level floor left by the restoration architect in 1924 has had a big ugly spoil mound sitting in one corner ever since. At the landowner’s suggestion, and with the County Archaeologist’s blessing, my team rolled the turf off the mound and lifted it out of the cellar bucket by bucket to backfill the abandoned sett. Despite screening and metal-detecting much of the badger spoil, we made no Medieval finds. Another piece of restoration we’ve done is to give the intact piece of corridor vaulting over the cellar’s entrance a much-improved turf cover. This will keep rain from leaching the mortar out of the arch, improving its longevity.

On the 9th we’re moving our headquarters to Stegeborg camp ground & hostel. On the 10th a number of new team members will join to replace people who are only with us at Birgittas udde. And on Monday the 11th we break turf at Skällvik Castle. Stay tuned, Dear Reader!

First Week Of 2016 Excavations At Birgittas udde

Ulvåsa in Ekebyborna is a manor near Motala with two known major Medieval elite settlement sites. Excavations in 2002 proved that the unfortified Gamlegården site was established before AD 1100. The fortified Birgittas udde site has seen no archaeological fieldwork since 1924, when the main building’s cellar was emptied and restored. Its date is only known to the extent that almost all moated sites of this kind in Sweden belong to the period 1250-1500. My current book project deals with Östergötland province’s fortified sites of the High/Late Middle Ages, and so I decided to spend two weeks digging at Birgittas udde with my students this summer. I am lucky enough to field a record team this year: 18 hard-working people with more to join later. We broke turf last Monday.

Medieval Ulvåsa has quite rich written sources thanks to an extremely famous 14th century inhabitant: St. Bridget of Sweden. She spent over 20 years here as wife and mother, raising eight children, before becoming a prolific religious author and major political player. My project isn’t focused on her, but good written sources are always a pleasure to work with, and the top-level nobility to which St. Bridget belonged is central to my investigations. Contemporary sources say nothing about where on Ulvåsa’s land the saint lived. My guess right now is that the family stayed mainly at Gamlegården and withdrew to the peripheral stronghold of Birgittas udde only when the political situation demanded it.

Birgittas udde is a long, high narrow promontory into Lake Boren that has been cut off with two straight moat-and-banks. We have opened six trenches.

Trench A is in the fill of the outer moat and aims to seek the date of the site’s abandonment and hopefully household refuse in the bottom layer. Our most interesting find so far here is a redeposited Mesolithic quartz core which came as a pleasant surprise.

Trench B is in the outer bailey, a sizeable featureless area between the outer bank and the inner moat. The trench aimed to find out about Medieval activity in this space, but instead it has given most of the evidence we have for the Mesolithic use of the promontory. It’s a microblade industry utilising high-quality quartz and red quartzite, very similar to assemblages from other sites in similar locations around the lake. We were lucky enough to have three friends of mine, all major authorities on the Mesolithic, visit us and classify our finds: Lars Larsson, Fredrik Molin and Roger Wikell. They place the finds in the Middle or perhaps Late Mesolithic, around 6000 cal BC. We backfilled and re-turfed trench B yesterday. No sunken features were found on the trench floor.

Trench C is in the fill of the inner moat and has a similar aim to that of trench A. Our most interesting find so far here is an intriguing lump of slag that speaks of metalworking on site.

Trench D is in the easternmost of the buildings along the bank in the inner bailey, and aims to study the building’s use. The small finds here have not so far been illuminating. But we have encountered a strange pavement of large selected stones that might suggest the foundation for an immense oven, if it weren’t for the complete absence of charcoal and other signs of burning.

Trench E is in the inner bailey on the open featureless space between the various house foundations. Like trench B, it aimed to find out about Medieval activity, but here we found nothing at all. We almost finished backfilling trench E yesterday.

Trench F is our largest one. It includes some of the interior of the westernmost of the buildings along the bank in the inner bailey, a large sloping outdoor surface, and some of the interior of the southernmost of the buildings along the inner bailey’s western edge. The trench aims to study the use of these buildings and hopefully pick up household refuse. Our best Medieval finds are from trench F: two sherds of a highly ornate imported drinking glass and a silver bracteate coin (so far unidentified). The glass in particular is exactly what we are hoping to find.

I don’t think we will have time to do a trench G.

Before signing off I must mention two people who are extremely important to the success of this campaign: my co-director Ethan Aines, who is absolutely ace, and our landlord, Carl von Essen, who is unbelievably hospitable, helpful, interested and insightful.

One more week at Birgittas udde now. Who knows what we may find?