Towards an Archaeology of Picnics (Unwillingly)


Spent the day metal-detecting a lovely high-profile site in Uppland for a colleague. It’s turf-covered and a popular haunt of campers and picnic parties. My next detector is definitely going to be one that can differentiate between aluminium and precious metals. I hate aluminium. I took up 111 objects and almost all of them were made of that accursed metal: mainly pull tabs, bottle tops and crumbly nasty wads of foil, but also a tent peg and sundry other things. The oldest find was a 1934 coin. I was a little touched to find a 1980s scout badge, just like the ones I used to wear. And even though I found nothing of archaeological interest, I enjoyed seeing the site and doing the work.

A funny detail: Gustavus VI Adolphus was an archaeologist and took part in a trial dig at this site in his youth. Then he was king of Sweden from 1950 to 1973. And I found a coin struck with his image in his old age on site…

Also check out my wife’s new magazine feature on Chinese people in Sweden!


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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A Touch of Pitted Ware


So I spent the day on GÃ¥lö, happily digging & sieving a square meter on a Middle Neolithic shore site 25 meters above current sea level that my friend Roger found two years ago. I haven’t dug that period since 1993 when I spent almost the entire fieldwork season on the classic Bollbacken site outside VästerÃ¥s. (I did however write a paper about another site of the era in the early 00s.) Today I found knapped quartz and basalt and granite (!) and a lot of small potsherds, one of which has the Pitted Ware culture’s signature pits and comb-stamp decoration. Mattias found the best pottery: three decorated rim sherds that fit together, shown above. And there were burnt seal phalanges that will allow radiocarbon dating.

It was kind of fun to hear these guys, hardcore Mesolithic scholars who are used to digging potteryless sites at 70 m a.s.l., talk with wonderment about how much fun potsherds can be.

On our way back to the cars through the woods we heard a crossbill. Or so I was told.
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Digging at the Finnestorp War Booty Sacrificial Site

i-fffd99f1f2c3b97c54c585dd57fa6716-Tva praktbleck in situ.JPG

Sösdala style silver sheet fittings. Image from the Finnestorp project’s web site.

Among the many things Swedish archaeologists envy our Danish neighbours are their splendid war booty sacrifices mainly of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries AD. These are silted-up lakes whose anaerobic peat deposits are full of vandalised military equipment taken from less fortunate invading armies (more here). In Sweden, we know of only two major sites in this category: Skedemosse on Öland, which was unfortunately drained and ploughed out long before archaeologists came to work there, and Finnestorp in Västergötland, which is still a shallow lake for part the year. I have just spent two happy days as a fieldworker on Bengt Nordqvist’s dig at Finnestorp.

The site was discovered about 1903 when a road was built across the Katebrobäcken streamlet right by its confluence with River Lidan through a sizeable fen. Bones and pieces of fine metalwork were found and an excavation was mounted by Otto Frödin and Gustav Hallström. As is still the case today, it proved impossible to empty the Finnestorp fen of finds as it measures several hundred meters across. But the site was then largely forgotten. In the 1970s the road was rebuilt and moved slightly, and a new straight channel was dug for the lower reaches of Katebrobäcken. All this was done without archaeological supervision. Only after the fact could a small-scale fieldwork campaign be mounted by Ulf Erik Hagberg (who wrote the book on the aforementioned Skedemosse) and Eva Bergström. In 1992 Katebrobäcken’s new channel was re-dug and deepened, again without the benefit of archaeological attention. Ulf Viking rushed to the site and did some fieldwork, but his project was tragically cut short by a lethal stroke. Bengt Nordqvist and the Gothenburg Historical Society began the current fieldwork campaign in 2000.

The Iron Age war booty at Finnestorp has spent most of the past 1600 years in a black smelly stratum full of leaves, sitting on top of the glacial clay and covered by thick silt. Most of the preserved objects are bronze and silver fittings for horse gear and swords. Spearheads and sword blades are few, shield bosses to my knowledge absent. There is an abundance of high-quality 5th century metalwork, much of it bronze strap mounts onto which gilded and punch ornamented silver-sheet decoration in the Sösdala style has been soldered. They appear to be thinly scattered all over the erstwhile lake floor with a few concentrations. The dates and quality of the objects are the same as those of the fabulous Danish Ejsbøl find, but the find density so far appears less high. Hearths have been found on an island in the fen which have yielded 5th century radiocarbon dates, sheep bones and molten silver droplets, evidence of feasting and systematic damage done to the war booty before sacrifice at these sites.

The main reasons that the on-going project has been able to collect so many fine things are that a) considerable parts of the find-bearing stratum have been lifted to the surface through the three main destructive digging events in the 20th century and deposited on top of the silt layer, b) the metal detector section within the Gothenburg Historical society (with which I have collaborated extensively in Östergötland) with their great skill have been on site for years searching through these dump layers. Most of the finds at Finnestorp are not made in situ.

My two days on site were spent in a 4 by 2 metre trench between the old and new channels of Katebrobäcken. At the top was a find-bearing layer resulting from the 1992 event. A few steps from the trench, this layer yielded a madly overdecorated bandolier buckle a few years ago, found by metal detector. Today Tim Olsson found a tiny bronze buckle for a Migration Period fanny pack (!) here while I shoveled the dump soil away for him in 10 cm increments. In adjoining parts of the trench, team members had also removed half a meter of dirt representing the 1970s event without finding anything before reaching the undisturbed find stratum containing a fine bronze sword pommel and two or three other things. Meanwhile Kenth Lärk followed the streamlet’s erosion scarp with his metal detector and picked up a gorgeous strap joiner with a direct parallel in the Högom burial’s bridle. He didn’t have to shift an egg’s volume of dirt.

A large trench across the road, sited exclusively from study of the topography with a view to investigating the ancient lake’s shore where the people behind the sacrifice would have stood, produced only a few small flint implements from several millennia before the sacrifices. This demanded a lot of hand-digging and sieving by many people.

So Finnestorp offers a conundrum of fieldwork methodology. Ideally we would of course want to know where each ancient object is in the undisturbed parts of the black stratum. But find concentrations are few and far between in that layer, and reaching it is labour intensive. It is much more profitable to search by metal detector in the redeposited dumps on the surface, which is exactly what Bengt Nordqvist has the Gothenburg detectorists doing. The team’s non-detectorists are collecting a small number of finds with exact original context info through digging and sieving. But the detectorists are raking in finds. They are from secondary positions, but are known to have moved only a few meters each in x-y-z direction when the road workers’ mechanical excavator lifted them. Bengt Nordqvist’s fieldwork campaign will thus prove one of the 21st century’s greatest advances in Swedish Migration Period studies.

Monday evening I had the pleasure of talking for two hours without a script about my Östergötland project to an audience of ~50 in Trävattna parish hall. The place was packed, and as far as I could tell nobody fled during the intermission. I take this to mean that everybody enjoyed themselves almost as much as myself. At times like these I allow myself to think that it’s actually a bit of a waste that (though not for lack of trying) I am not employed as a university teacher.

North Shore Battlefield


Spent the day metal detecting for Thomas Englund at the battlefield of Baggensstäket, anno 1719 (as blogged about before: 1234). This was my third time there, and the first time I’ve helped on the northern half of the area across the water from where I live. Thomas found musket and pistol balls. I picked up an 18th century coat button and loads of steenkeenggg aluminium bottle tops, and saw an abandoned tree house. I’m particularly interested in the pre-battle finds that are starting to accumulate.

Sättuna Fieldwork Report Nearing Completion

I’m almost done with the report from my excavations at Sättuna in Kaga last September. Here’s an excerpt.

Finds and radiocarbon dates allow us to identify five phases on-site, two of them corresponding to the dates of the metal detector finds that occasioned the excavations.

  1. Late Mesolithic: finds and features with one radiocarbon date.
  2. Middle/Late Neolithic: one hearth with a radiocarbon date, no finds.
  3. Mid-1st Millennium AD: a pit and a hearth with two radiocarbon dates, no finds.
  4. Viking Period: one posthole with a radiocarbon date, no finds.
  5. Modern rubbish pits.

Late Mesolithic

This phase is identified by a radiocarbon date and a collection of lithics, mainly knapped quartz with some leptite, ultramylonite and basalt, but no pottery and no flint. The only well-defined tool is a ground-surface asymmetrical basalt adze (F220) with a quasi-rectangular cross-section, found on the surface of the field during stripping. After separate first-hand study, Stone Age specialists Fredrik Molin and Roger Wikell unanimously placed the assemblage in the Late Mesolithic (5500-4000 cal BC), noting that the adze would look entirely at home among the abundant finds from the Strandvägen settlement site in Motala (cf. Tom Carlsson 2008, Where the River Bends, pp. 232-245, 374-379). This date is consistent with the level above the sea and the absence of Neolithic pottery. None of the finds can certainly be determined as shore-abraded after knapping.

Most of the Stone Age finds occurred singly in the fills of sunken features that looked no different than usual. Only pits 124, 128 and 154 yielded more than one piece of knapped stone each, suggesting that they may have been Stone Age features. Radiocarbon-dating 128 and 154 would have been problematic as both showed signs of modern disturbance. This left only 124, but it yielded no charcoal. Hearth 45 however, which contained no other artefacts, yielded charcoal of rotten oakwood that was dated to 4460-4340 cal BC with 95% probability (Ua-37499, 5560±40 BP).

We found raw material in the form of unmodified quartz seashore pebbles in some features and collected them when they co-occurred with knapped stone. They are very unlike the typical gravel mixed in the fills and natural on site. In several cases, very small quartz pebbles have been used for knapping or simply broken open and then discarded.

In an appendix, Fredrik Molin analyses the lithics and summarises his impressions as follows (and I translate):

“The adze, the signs of micro-blade production, and possibly the use of leptite and ultramylonite all suggest a Late Mesolithic date. Nothing however excludes an Early Neolithic date except the absence of pottery.

Most of the quartz cannot be dated. But to my mind it appears too coarsely knapped for the Early or Middle Mesolithic – and such a date can be ruled out anyway because of shoreline displacement. Quartz knapping [in Östergötland] becomes progressively coarser and uglier with time.”

Middle/Late Neolithic

Feature 123, whose functional interpretation as a hearth was uncertain, yielded hazel charcoal that was dated to 2460-2270 cal BC at 79% probability (Ua-37500, 3855±35 BP). The interval straddles the Middle/Late Neolithic period shift at 2350 cal BC. A shore site from this era might be expected to yield some Late Pitted Ware decorated pottery, of which we found none. Fredrik Svanberg (web log comment, 20 March 2009) has suggested that the sample may have been contaminated, possibly combining material from the site’s Mesolithic and Iron Age components.

Mid-1st Millennium AD

The Early Vendel Period, the later 6th century, is the site’s heyday in terms of the metal detector finds. We made no datable finds of this era during the excavations. Two sherds of black coarse svartgods pottery are most parsimoniously allocated to this phase, though they may well be somewhat earlier or later. Pit 170 and hearth 135 yielded one radiocarbon date each, 170 on spruce-trunk charcoal in 320-440 cal AD (86% probability) and 135 on maple charcoal in 410-550 cal AD (95% probability). As none of the samples had a confirmed low intrinsic age, and as the site has not yielded a single piece of metalwork dating before the Migration Period, it seems safe to place the beginning of this activity phase in the 5th century AD. All pits and hearths on site that yielded no dating evidence are most parsimoniously placed here.

The excavated surface yielded several datable pieces of metalwork from the ploughsoil but none from the sunken features, and there were no remains of building foundations. This suggests that in the 6th century, this particular part of the site saw some metalworking carried out in flimsy structures or outdoors. Any refuse pits and postholes resulting from this activity were apparently less deep than the modern ploughing.

Viking Period

After an apparent hiatus of a century or more in the Late Vendel Period, there are at least six metal detector finds that can be dated to the Viking Period, AD 790-1100. This phase also shows up in a radiocarbon date from one of the excavation’s few postholes, feature 8, where charcoal of rotten Scots pine was dated to 760-900 cal AD at 81% probability (Ua-37498, 1205±35 BP).

Modern Rubbish Pits

This phase gathers sunken features yielding modern artefacts, well-preserved bone (as soil conditions were very poor for such preservation), dynamited rock and/or a curious fine white sand. For unknown reasons, the sand had apparently been carted to site and used to fill four pits, two of which also contained modern finds. The artefact types found in the modern features were iron nails, iron wire, glass, pottery/china, roof tile, brick, fired clay and fresh wood. Modern activities that these features document are the burial of waste, the digging of a drainage ditch and the dynamiting of a few large boulders.

Sättuna Radiocarbon

Last September I directed two weeks of excavations at Sättuna in Kaga, an amazing metal detector site I’ve been working at since 2006. I was hoping to find building foundations from a late-6th century aristocratic manor indicated by the metalwork. But I couldn’t get permission to dig the most promising bit of the site. Instead my team of Chester students and I dug off to one side and found no end of pits and hearths, but hardly any artefacts at all. Those bits that we did find are lithics, apparently belonging to a Late Mesolithic shore site.

Yesterday I got the radiocarbon results. They line up pretty well with what we knew from the artefact finds, with two exceptions: there’s no late-6th century at all, and there’s a funny 3rd Millennium BC date that corresponds to none of our finds.

This shows that the people on this site avoided burying stuff that keeps, not just during one era, but over repeated use phases covering thousands of years. Drat.

Lab code




Calibrated date


Oak, rotten

Hearth 45


4462-4338 cal BC (95%)

Late Mesolithic


Hearth 123


2462-2271 cal BC (79%)

Middle/Late Neolithic

Spruce, trunk

Pit 170


321-436 cal AD (86%)

Late Roman/Migration


Hearth 135


412-545 cal AD (95%)


Scots pine, rotten

Posthole 8


763-895 cal AD (81%)


Many thanks to Ulf Strucke for wood species and anatomy determination.

Fighter Plane Ammo


Ammunition is extremely easy to find with a metal detector. Cartridges are large chunks of brass, which would make them obtrusive even if they were just spheres. But they are in fact sheet-metal cylinders closed at one end, which means that whatever orientation they have in the ground, there is usually two metal planes reflecting the detector’s signal. They shrill like mad.

Above is a pic of two cartridges I picked up at Sättuna today. The left-hand one is the most common type in Swedish farmland, used mainly to hunt large mammals, but also I believe in standard-issue army rifles of the 20th century. The right-hand one is something more unusual. I have only come across it at Sättuna. Look at the size! The two cartridges measure 55 by 12 and 99 by 20 millimetres respectively.

Sättuna is not far from the military airfields and SAAB fighter airplane factory of Linköping. When working at the site, we have constantly been overflown by various military aircraft. The larger cartridges are traces of a fighter pilot’s shooting practice one day decades ago.

Is there perhaps a gun nut around who can give us the type codes for the two ammo types?

(Kai, guess what I’m gonna give you as a housewarming present.)

Update 26 September: Explains Felix, the larger cartridge is likely a .50 BMG whose production began in the late 1910s. It was used in fighter planes especially during the Second World War.

Update 27 September: And N.N. adds that the smaller one is likely a 6.5×55 mm Swedish Mauser cartridge, developed in 1891 and popular among hunters to this day.

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