Runestone in a Park Hermitage


The Vadstena Abbey runestone, Ög 179. Photo by Thuresson 2005, Wikimedia Commons.

I found a pretty sweet piece of monument re-use. English landscape parks of the 18th and 19th centuries were designed a bit like theme parks, where visitors were intended to walk around encountering intriguing surprises here and there. A Chinese pagoda. Some topiary. A fake ruin. An hermit’s hut where on special occasions a false-bearded sage would impart his wisdom to the park-owner’s guests.

In Scandinavia these parks often included pan-Nordic national romantic features, like the Norwegian chalet in the Søndermarken park at Frederiksborg outside Copenhagen that my wife and I visited this summer. And what could be more Nordic and romantic than a runestone? In 2013 I blogged about the Sälna runestone that was broken apart, taken to the park of Skånelaholm manor and given a rather odd new inscription in 1820. Now I’ve found another example of the same behaviour, possibly dating from the same year.

Olof Regnstrand was an energetic man with many business ideas, one of the most long-lived ones being that he and his family ran the hospital kitchens at the former Vadstena Abbey as a concession for several decades. In about 1820 he redesigned part of the former monks’ garden and orchard as a semi-public pleasure park where the bourgeoisie of the little town could be entertained on summer evenings, with a dance hall, a gazebo and other attractions.

Among the other attractions was an hermit’s cave, built roughly of undressed limestone and located next to the gazebo at the abbey church’s south-east corner. Both structures used for their back wall part of what we now know was a 13th century brick building that had in the time of the monastery been the monks’ World Gate, the place where they met with secular visitors. And for the hermitage’s door post, Regnstrand chose a runestone! It had previously stood at the lakeshore nearby, lost its lower half and become eroded by the water and ice. But though the hermitage and the gazebo are long gone, the stone still stands roughly where Regnstrand planted it, and three boreholes show where the hinges of the hermitage were once fastened. It is the oldest piece of Vadstena’s history that can be seen by visitors, originally raised in memory of one Eskil who died in the early 11th century.

I found this lovely historical nugget in Julia Sigurdson and Sune Zachrisson’s fine 2012 book Aplagårdar och klosterliljor (pp. 158-159). For solid information about English park hermitages (but little about the hermits themselves), see Gordon Campbell 2013, The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome .


Good Recent Swedish Popular History

I don’t read much in Swedish. On a whim I decided to check what recent Swedish books I’ve read and liked outside work. Turns out they’re all popular history. Alla rekommenderas varmt för den som delar mina intressen!

  • Kring Hammarby sjö. 1. Tiden före Hammarbyleden. Hans Björkman 2016. Local history.
  • No, I’m from Borås. Ola Wong 2005. Eventful family history in China and among German-speaking Romanians, Banater Schwaben. (Yes, the title is in English.)
  • Svenskarna och deras fäder – de senaste 11 000 åren. Bojs & Sjölund 2016. On DNA and the post-glacial peopling of Scandinavia.
  • Det svenska hatet. Gellert Tamas 2016. On the Swedish Hate Party and Scandinavian terrorism.
  • Jorden de ärvde. Björn af Kleen 2009. On big landowners in the Swedish nobility and how they avoid splitting up their estates.
  • Newton och bibeln. Essäer om bibeltexter, tolkningsfrågor och översättningsproblem. Bertil Albrektson 2015. Essays on Bible philology by an atheist professor who served on the last Swedish state-sponsored Bible translation committee.
  • Finna dolda ting: en bok om svensk rollspelshistoria. Daniel & Anna-Karin Linder Krauklis 2015. On Swedish roleplaying-game history.
  • Äventyrsspel: bland mutanter, drakar och demoner. Orvar Säfström & Jimmy Wilhelmsson 2015. On Swedish roleplaying-game history.
  • Drömmen om stormakten. Börje Magnusson & Jonas Nordin 2015. On Erik Dahlberg and the great 17th century topographic work Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna.
  • Vid tidens ände. Om stormaktstidens vidunderliga drömvärld och en profet vid dess yttersta rand. Håkan Håkansson 2014. On Johannes Bureus and North European 17th century mysticism.

Activities and Roles at the Castle

I’m writing an interdisciplinary book about lifestyles at Medieval strongholds in Östergötland province, Sweden. The central chapter “Activities and roles” is currently 8,900 words. Here are the section headers.

  • Agriculture at arm’s length
  • Baking bread
  • Brewing
  • Animal husbandry and the eating of meat
  • Hunting and the eating of game and wildfowl
  • Fishing and the eating of fish
  • Cooking
  • Dining and drinking
  • Waste disposal
  • Relieving oneself
  • Lighting
  • Keeping warm
  • Healthcare and personal grooming
  • Fashion and jewellery
  • Ladyship
  • Chivalry and horsemanship
  • Love affairs
  • Weddings
  • Growing up
  • Religion
  • Music
  • Gambling and boardgames
  • Writing
  • Taxation, customs collection, rent collection
  • Trade and other coin use
  • Soldiering
  • Imprisonment
  • Slavery
  • Keeping pets
  • Smithwork
  • Crafts in perishable materials
  • Fur production
  • Shipbuilding

My Ancestry

Inspired by Karin Bojs’s and Peter Sjölund’s recent book Svenskarna och deras fäder, I’ve looked into my ancestry by means both genetic and genealogical. Here’s a few highlights.

  • Like most Stockholmers, I’m of mixed rural Swedish stock. My great grandpa’s generation contains 16 people born mainly in the 1880s. Only one of them was born in Stockholm. His parents were born in Värmland and Södermanland provinces. The other 15 were born all over rural southern Sweden: Bohuslän (two people), Småland (two people), Södermanland, Skåne and Närke. They went to Stockholm to find work, met and got married.
  • My Y chromosome is type R1b-M269, which is the second-most common one in Sweden and the most common one in Western Europe. My closest modern matches form dense clusters in England and New England. There’s clearly an Englishman in my recent pedigree, most likely in the 15th or 16th centuries judging from a combination of genetic statistics and genealogy. In the mid-1600s my paternal line was already in Värmland with Swedish names.
  • My mitochondrial DNA is the very common type H with my closest modern matches clustering in Finland. This means that my maternal line points east to a very great grandma in West Asia about 25,000 years ago. Of Europe’s three original major population components, this would represent the Ancient North Eurasians.
  • I found the first Rundkvist! In the 1800s a lot of rural Swedes quit using the patronymic and took family names instead. My grandpa’s grandpa Johan Jansson (1853-1925) took the name Rundkvist and moved to Stockholm from Fryksdalen in Värmland. His brother Magnus Jansson instead chose Söderqvist for some reason.
  • Update 14 March: Aard regular Lassi pointed out something enlightening. Parts of modern Sweden saw state-sponsored immigration from Finland in the decades around 1600. This is the simplest explanation for why I have a Finnish maternal line. Its earliest member known to me, Helena Helgesdotter, was born near Gothenburg in 1775.

A Medieval Lady’s Seal


14th century seal matrix found at Skällvik Castle in 2016. Mirror-flipped photo.

My detectorist friend and long-time collaborator Svante Tibell found a seal matrix in the field next to Skällvik Castle this past summer. In the Middle Ages of Sweden, people of means didn’t sign their names to documents. They carried seals around, with which they made imprints into chalk-mixed wax, and these were affixed to paperwork such as property deeds and wills. If you lost your seal matrix, you lost your ability to sign documents – and you theoretically gave that ability to whoever found your seal. When people died during this period, their seal matrices were carefully destroyed. Sometimes the pieces were buried with the dead person, such as in the case of Svante Nilsson (obiit 1512).

The seal matrix from Skällvik shows the letter T in a shield. This device is known from a different seal under a surviving document from 1331, around the time when the castle was built. And around the edge of the matrix is as usual an inscription. I have no training in reading Medieval writing, so I took the matrix to the National Archives, where Roger Axelsson and his colleagues enthusiastically helped me make sense of it.

According to Roger & Co, this is what the seal’s inscription says. The letters within parentheses are somewhat uncertain.

[S’_ _]S[O] V[X]ORI S[O]NO[N]V[M]

Sigillum …so uxori Sononum

The seal of …sa, wife of Sune

Annoyingly, the two completely illegible letters are part of this woman’s name. But Roger has a suggestion for who her husband Sune may be: Sune Ingvaldsson, who lived in Östergötland about the right time and whose wife’s name has been lost to history. The couple chose to be buried in Hällestad, a peripheral parish in the forest of NW Östergötland.

There’s one more annoying detail here, says Roger. The man with the similar T seal from 1331 was named Thorberg. But there is no known female name T_sa from the time. Why then has this woman got a T on her shield? I wonder if our unnamed lady might have been using her father’s coat of arms.

Anyway, our little points of annoyance are probably insignificant compared to how Sune’s wife felt when she dropped her seal into the sea just off Skällvik Castle’s dock, some time in the mid-14th century.

Seal matrix, side view.

Seal matrix, side view.

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.

An Heraldic Snail

I visited Grödinge church south of Stockholm for the first time Thursday. The occasion was my great aunt Märta’s funeral, an event which, though of course sombre, cannot be called tragic. The old lady was always cheerful and friendly, but by the time she passed away she was 104, severely disabled, and according to her many descendants quite tired of it all. As I like to say, I don’t fear death but I certainly don’t want to become disabled or isolated in my old age. For most of her remarkably long life Märta was in fine shape, and she was never isolated at all.

Grödinge is one of Sweden’s many thousand Medieval churches, and in those there are always innumerable details to catch the eye of anyone with an antiquarian bent. From my pew I looked at the 17th century funeral arms that so commonly adorn the walls. We were in the eastern bay of the nave with four sets of arms commemorating members of the Rosenhielm family, who have roses cheerfully sprouting from their heraldic helmet. But on the north wall of the chancel I could just make out two arms with what looked a lot like… an heraldic snail. After the service I looked closer and found that this was in fact the case. And I soon realised that it’s a funny case of folk etymology gone heraldic.

The plaque under the arms in the picture reads “Here lies buried the late Honourable Lord Lars Sneckenfeldt of Sneckstavyk, His Majesty’s trusted servant, born into this world in Stockholm in the year 1621 on the 23 April, and deceased in Our Lord at Sneckstavyk the 10 June 1664”.

Lord Lars was Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna’s secretary and the first nobleman of his line. His manor was the first one in the parish to receive säteri tax exemption. The property went back at least to the Viking Period or more likely the 6th century, and had previously been named Brötsta. Säteri manors however often received new names, and Snäckstavik (as we now spell it) is typical of the genre. The new manorial name referenced a nearby inlet of the Baltic Sea, Snäckviken, and the new noble line’s name referenced that of their manor.

But why a snail? Well, Snäckviken does mean “Snail Inlet” in modern Swedish, now as in the 17th century, and that is how Lord Lars interpreted it. But as we now know, this place name is almost a thousand years old. And in the 12th century, Snäckviken meant “Warship Inlet”. Names with snäck- dot our coasts and have plausibly been connected to the nascent Swedish kingdom’s naval organisation of the 11th and 12th centuries, the ledung. I’m sure Lord Lars would have been happy with a warship as his heraldic symbol. But as it was, he got something quite unique thanks to a misunderstanding.

Grödinge Church

Grödinge Church

Poet and Spy

Reading a good book, Charles’ Nicholl’s The Reckoning. The Murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992, 2nd expanded ed. 2002), about the 16th century playwright. It’s a bit overloaded with asides and covers far more characters and factions than anyone can keep track of without extensive note-taking. But quite intriguing withal. I find it fascinating how rich and detailed the written sources for this era are.

“Christopher Marlowe … is remembered as a poet, ‘the Muse’s darling’, and as a wild young blasphemer in an age of enforced devotion, but he was also a spy …

It is not a pretty view of the Golden Age of Elizabeth, and it is not a pretty view of Christopher Marlowe either. In these fragments which record his involvement in the secret world … there is a common thread of falsehood. … The keynote of this kind of work is precisely non-commitment: to belong to both sides and neither. It is a world of gestures, of alterable meanings: the ‘secret theatre’.

So we return to the circumstances of Marlowe’s death armed with this perception of [plots] and pretences, these forms of political gamesmanship which are such a feature of this world he belongs to. Marlowe’s political career is not – as in the conventional literary biography – a separate and rather puzzling side-issue. …

… We find Marlowe in the company of spies and swindlers because, regrettably, he was one himself. Our regret has no real claim on him. Posterity prefers poets to spies, but this young man could not be so choosy. He lived on his wits or else went hungry, and he was probably rather better rewarded for spying than he was for the poetry we remember him by.” (2002, pp. 317–318)

July Pieces Of My Mind #2

  • Jrette wandering around watching TV on the iPad, overturning and breaking things in the kitchen. *sigh*
  • Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.
  • Jrette stole my zombie novel — Carey’s 2014 Girl With All The Gifts — and proclaimed it to be the best book she’s read in ages. Now I am bookless.
  • Mistakenly read two global catastrophe novels in a row. Now everything around looks temporary.
  • Jrette is twelve today! I asked her if she doesn’t find the Vampire Diaries scary. “I would, only with a dad who’s a scientist, I’m not afraid of supernatural things.”
  • Pittentian in Perthshire is a fine place name. Means “Willie No 10” in Swedish.
  • No, Google Music’s randomiser, the fact that I like Queens of the Stone Age and a few tunes by Eagles of Death Metal does not mean that you should play me lots of songs by the various bands that Josh Homme sings in, and little else.
  • The vagueness of Medieval land ownership is infuriating. You could buy a farm, then years later for some reason receive a document from the former owner emphasising again that you did indeed buy the farm, and then his cousin would show up and demand that you hand the farm back because it used to belong to his granddad. Or the Crown. Or a bishop’s see. It had to do with ancient ideas about land belonging to lineages, where one’s relatives could have right of first purchase, or where land could simply be inalienable.
  • Jrette wore my denim jacket to the movies!
  • Check out my guest entries in Swedish on the Östergötland County Museum’s blog about the Stensö and Landsjö digs.
New kitchen finally almost done after over two months of awkwardness!

New kitchen finally almost done after over two months of awkwardness!

The Crowning of the Lion

Deep in a single square metre of trench D at Landsjö castle, on the inner edge of the dry moat, we found five identical coins. Boy are they ugly. They’re thin, brittle, made of a heavily debased silver alloy and struck only from one side; they bear no legend and the image at the centre is incomprehensible. But I love them anyway, because they offer a tight date: this coin type was struck for King Valdemar Birgersson c. 1250-75. And the first written mention of Landsjö dates from 1280, so it all works out.

Valdemar became king because he had an extremely powerful and ruthless father, the jarl Birger Magnusson. Being a jarl meant either acting as viceroy over an area or as the king’s right-hand man in general. King Erik the Lisp and Lame was Jarl Birger’s brother-in-law. When Erik died childless in 1250, his nephew Valdemar, the jarl’s son, was elected king though still a child. Jarl Birger then ruled in his son’s place until dying in 1266. Valdemar ruled on his own for nine more years before being deposed by his more effective younger brother Magnus. King Valdemar is mainly remembered for his dalliances with various women rather than for any political achievements.

So what are these ugly coins supposed to depict? Well, many dies were in use, partly because there were many mints – of which only the one at Lödöse in Västergötland has been securely identified so far. And some of the dies were much more detailed than the one used for our five coins. The most detailed ones clearly depict the crowned head of a carnivore, most likely a lion. And Valdemar’s father’s coat of arms showed a bare-headed lion. So the crowned lion refers to Valdemar himself, or more generally to the crowning of Jarl Birger’s lineage. The dynasty kept the Swedish crown for over a century.

Many thanks to Frédéric Elfver and Kenneth Jonsson for identifying the coins.

Coin of King Valdemar Birgersson, 1250-75, provenance unknown

Coin of King Valdemar Birgersson, 1250-75, provenance unknown

Coin of King Valdemar Birgersson, 1250-75, provenance unknown

Coin of King Valdemar Birgersson, 1250-75, provenance unknown

Coin of King Valdemar Birgersson, 1250-75, provenance unknown

Coin of King Valdemar Birgersson, 1250-75, provenance unknown