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?

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Ancient Swedish Fishers Put Human Heads On Stakes

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The Mesolithic is the period between deglaciation and the introduction of agriculture in Europe (up to about 4000 cal BC in my parts). Within Swedish research into this period in recent years, no single site has been able to compete with the small town of Motala in Östergötland county. Located at a series of rapids on the main waterway from Lake Vättern to the Baltic, the spot has always been important for fishers and travellers. Its Mesolithic record has gained the limelight thanks to major railroad construction in an area with waterlogged sediment that preserves organics. Thus any number of beautiful bone and wood finds, and of course the bone boner covered here before.

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Now my old colleague and buddy Fredrik Hallgren of Stiftelsen KulturmiljövÃ¥rd has gone public with some awesome finds that have only been known from a blog posts and Facebook updates. Here’s their press release, mercilessly edited:

Archaeological excavations in 2009-2011 in Motala have unearthed a unique Mesolithic site with ceremonial depositions of human crania in a former lake. The skulls have been treated in a complex ceremony that involved the display of skulls on stakes and the deposition of skulls in water. The skulls have been radiocarbon-dated and are 8000 years old.

The rituals at Kanaljorden were conducted on a massive stone pavement constructed on the bottom of a shallow lake (currently a peat fen). Some crania were fairly intact while others were found as isolated fragments. The more intact ones represent eleven individuals, both men and women, ranging in age between infants and middle age. Two of the skulls have had wooden stakes inserted all the way from the base to the top. In another case a woman’s temple bone was found inside the skull of another woman. Besides human skulls, the finds also include a small number of post-cranial human bones and bones from animals, as well as artefacts of stone, wood, bone and antler.

The skull depositions at Kanaljorden are clearly ritual in character. The next step is to find out if the human bones are relics of dearly departed that were handled in a complex secondary burial ritual, or trophies of defeated enemies. The archaeologists hope that the ongoing laboratory analysis [stable isotopes] will give clues as to whether the bones are the remains of locals or people with a distant geographic origin, and if they represent a family group or persons unrelated to each other.

I haven’t read the bone report, so I’m not sure if they have any positive evidence to suggest that the skulls were defleshed before being put on the stakes. Their date puts them about 2000 years before the world was made according to Christian fundies. And don’t diss my ancestors, OK? This is a sacred mystery to all of us who are as one with the Swedish soil. I am going to demand the right to grind these bones to a fine powder and drink it down mixed with mellanmjölk, semi-skimmed milk. Because such is the ancient custom that I just made up among us ethnic Swedes.

Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #254 (May) has a pretty funny 6-page feature by Spencer Smith of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. He claims to have found the site of a Surrey manor house that saw the birth of the last Prince of Wales who was actually an independent Welsh prince: Owain Lawgoch, Owain of the Red Hand (b. c. 1330, d. 1378). But reading the article, I found that it is actually a long piece of special pleading to explain why Smith did not find the desired remains on site! The whole thing was prompted by a TV documentary, where of course you have to put a spin on your non-results. Says Smith: “But where was the manor house? Before filming could begin, the site had to be found. … Funding was then provided by the series producers to research and direct an archaeological excavation.”

For years up until 1995, the fields of Church Farm in Tatsfield, Surrey, were metal-detected by amateurs. One of their finds is a 14th century horse harness pendant with Owain’s family crest. This was one indication used to place excavation trenches for the TV series (though it isn’t clear from the article with what sort of accuracy the object’s find spot is known). But: “there was a surprising absence of building material coming to light … heavily robbed-out foundation … some flint walling material … Some evidence for a made surface”. They didn’t even find Medieval nails! Some pottery can be dated exclusively to the 14th century though.

Here comes the best part. Having found very little, Spencer Smith argues that he was digging on the right spot but that the building had been meticulously taken apart and moved from the site, leaving few traces, because Owain was a politically dangerous character! This of course means that if in the future someone opens a test pit somewhere in a village with a historically documented presence of a Welsh prince and finds nothing, then they can claim to have found his manor house and expect Smith’s support for their view.

To my mind, the fieldwork results reported here suggest that the small excavation trenches were near but not in Medieval house foundations, with nothing to suggest that the houses’ owners or inhabitants were anywhere near princely status. The fieldwork results are in fact completely banal, and without the demand for a TV story, nothing would ever have been written about them.

If I were the editor of CA, I would have passed on this one.

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Current Archaeology #255 (June) has a long feature on a particularly irritating piece of 1990s symbolic determinism, viz the idea that Medieval castles were built more as idealised stage sets for aristocratic life than as fortifications. According to this school of thought, Medieval lords had castles built because they had been listening to poetry about what a lordly Medieval life was like, and thus wanted their own little Camelots. It surprises me to read this now, 15 years after the idea was really popular among hip theoretical archaeologists. (I first came across it regarding Glimmingehus in Scania.) And though the article documents that the real castles are indeed quite like the fictional ones, it does not offer any strong arguments to suggest that the fiction inspired the castles rather than the other way around. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to send troops wading across the artificial meres at Dunstanburgh.

Far more interesting is a piece about the Derbyshire hillfort of Fin Cop, where tiny excavations across the bank and moat have turned up evidence for a massacre in the 5th century BC – all women and children. If the density of war dead in the trenches is typical for the entire moat, then it contains dozens or hundreds of people. This has not seen before at similar sites, which may be due simply to the local geology – Fin Cop happens to be on a rare patch of rock that preserves bone. A previous consensus regarding a peaceful and ritual use for these sites may now have to be reconsidered. (On a proof-reading note, the blown-up quotation on p. 25 has been misedited to completely belie the gist of the article.)

And don’t miss Chris Catling’s understated criticism of the UK government’s “Big Society” political slogan on p. 48. “BS”…

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In Populär Arkeologi 2011:2, Anna Wessman reports on her recently defended doctoral thesis (on which my friend Howard Williams was the opponent) about the Levänluhta spring site in SW Finland. The spring is full of human bones and artefacts of the mid-1st millennium, and it has generally been considered as a sacrificial site. But Wessman shows that the actual artefact finds are typical of burial sites at the time. Levänluhta may simply be an unusual burial site, wet collective inhumation instead of the typical dry collective cremation. More fieldwork is on the way, and I will follow it with great interest. (Tarja Formisto’s 1993 PhD thesis about these bones contains something rather unusual: a piece of latter-day ethnic craniometry!)

Anne Westermark and Jimmy Axelsson Karlqvist report on another wet site with Iron Age human bones: in Motala, right around the famous Mesolithic deposits by River Motala ström. There are many Mesolithic human bones there too including skulls once raised on poles in a lake, but the new ones date from the 3rd or 4th century BC. Interesting indeed!

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Skalk 2011:2 has a good feature by my Academy boss Lars Larsson and Arne Sjöström on the bogs of Ringsjön, with pictures of two lovely and very rare Mesolithic finds. One is the bone head of a flint-edged fish spear in situ, only the bog chemistry has obliterated the bone: all that’s left are the flint microliths and the resin that glued them to the bone point. The other is the front end of a hazelwood arrow with microliths glued to it with resin – and this is the first time we get to see exactly how those microliths of various shape were used. Here, a lanceolate one formed the point and four triangular ones formed barbs. Carbon-dated to the Late Maglemosian, c. 7600 cal BC.

And I find this bit fascinating: the study of the Mesolithic lake settlements in these bogs is entirely dependent on industrial peat extraction, because they’re under >4 m of post-Neolithic bog peat! The Mesolithic scholars can only work where the machines have removed those meters of peat.

Early Mesolithic Blubber Concrete

Dear Reader, do you come across a lot of ancient blubber concrete in the course of a normal day? I got some exciting news from Mattias Pettersson Tuesday morning regarding his and Roger Wikell’s Mesolithic sites in the Tyresta nature reserve. As Aard’s regulars know, Tyresta is a former archipelago that is now wooded highlands due to isostatic land uplift, all full of early post-glacial seal-hunting camps. It’s easy to share Mattias’s enthusiasm (and I translate):

Does anyone remember the burnt bubbly lumps we found under the hut floor at the 85 m a.s.l. site in Tyresta? Now Sven Isaksson of the Archaeological Research Lab has done a chemical analysis, and the results are awesome: there are remains of marine fat in the lumps! It’s di-hydroxi fatty acids and isoprenoid fatty acids among other things. The latter fats are made by plankton and then wander up the food chain. Alkyl-phenyl fatty acids are there as well, and they’re a decompositional product of marine fatty acids. Holy shit! Sven took the largest lump to be on the safe side, and it turned out to consist mainly of organics with only a small mineral-grain component. At first he thought it looked like tar. Sven repeated the test several times with different solvents, and the results are consistent. The material apparently formed through the burning of “tissue, fat and skin of marine origin”, to quote Sven. [Think seal blubber.]

The Tyresta material is chemically different from north-Norwegian finds of spekkebetong, “blubber concrete” (1600-1200 BP), but the differences may be due to the vast difference in age [thousands of years]. Now of course we must carbon date a lump.

You can really see on the lumps that the material has been fluid, bubbling away in the hearth pit. The lumps retain their original surface, their shapes bubbly and rounded. They also seem to carry imprints of stuff that has burned off, twigs or maybe bones. Now we wonder if we happened to hit the spot that is richest in lumps on the hut floor, or if there may be even better squares to dig just nearby? […] One idea is to perform some kind of microscopic analysis to check for tiny seeds, carbonised parts of invertebrates, pollen, spores etc. that may be embedded in the lumps.

Roger Wikell will present the blubber concrete and other findings from the site at the Meso 2010 conference in Spain a few weeks from now. I’ve been blogging enough about the Mesolithic that it deserves its own tag around here.

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Stone Age Dildo Found in Sweden

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Motala in Östergötland has been recognised in recent years as one of the richest Mesolithic sites in Scandinavia north of the current and former Danish provinces. Excavations in waterlogged sediment along River Motala ström have produced great numbers of bone and wood objects that have rarely been preserved elsewhere. Most are harpoon and leister points, but now a bone dildo (a boner?) has joined the growing collection. Measuring twelve by two centimetres, its size is perhaps not very impressive, and there are many non-dildoish uses for which it may have been intended. But without doubt anyone alive at the time of its making would have seen the penile similarities just as easily as we do today. If it is actually a pressure-flaker for fine flint knapping, then this would tell us something about how such work was conceptualised in terms of gender.

Also check out the photo gallery of recently found bone points from the site.

Thanks to my phallic friend Roger for the heads-up.

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Old Masters of Quartz

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Wednesday was another day guest-digging at one of Mattias Pettersson & Roger Wikell’s sites in the Tyresta woods, this one in the huge denuded area of the great forest fire. Otherworldly scenery! It’s the unusually high site discussed here three years ago by Mattias. And since we’re dealing with seal hunters in an area with swift shoreline displacement, it’s in all likelihood the oldest of the lot: 10 000 years, give or take half a millennium. It’s so old that it’s pre-stone-axe. The characteristic greenstone flakes left over from the making of Mesolithic axes don’t go as high as this.

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The finds are all quartz (and a single chip of precious imported flint). And I saw quartz objects that I’ve never seen before. Just in my two tiny excavation squares I found the site’s first microblade, a large unusual biface with a notch at the end (top left below) and something that looked a lot like a trapezoid microlith. The guys just smiled wryly and said “There’s no such thing as a quartz microlith, ask anybody.” But what really struck me was the first series of standardised formal quartz tools I’ve ever seen. Size, shape, production method – all the same.

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The Early Mesolithic type Tyresta semi-discoid quartz blade knife. Despite the fact that quartz fractures in an almost unpredictable manner. These people really knew how to work it, bringing chunks of it on their sealing expeditions to the remote group of tiny islands that is now the heights of Tyresta.

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De Profundis

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Three cool pieces of science have been retrieved from the depths.

  • In the L’Atalante basin, one of the Mediterranean sea’s deep hypersaline anoxic basins, anoxic metazoans have been discovered. That means multicellular beings like you, Dear Reader, who live without oxygen. They’re loriciferans, Sw. korsettdjur, each less than a millimetre long. Instead of breathing like you, aided by endosymbiotic mitochondria, these beasties have another kind of power plant inside their cells similar to hydrogenosomes, that is, they’re chemotrophic.
  • In a bog on the high wooded hills of temperate Hanveden near Stockholm, my Mesolithic friends have now lifted sediment drill cores in which a paleobotanist has found seeds of Alpine mouse-ear chickweed, Cerastium alpinum, fjällarv. In a letter, Roger Wikell remarks that when those little flowers bloomed, the hilltop was a island in the Yoldia sea, part of an archipelago far from the mainland, and the retreating edge of the inland ice was not far away. Today, Alpine mouse-ear chickweed is a common feature of the mountain flora in northernmost Sweden around the polar circle. The various names of the plant all speak of frigid mountaintops.
  • From a cave in South Africa, two specimens of a new fossil hominin species.

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Ancient Beetles Will Date Mesolithic Shorelines

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I got a great letter from Reggae Roger Wikell, which I publish in translation with the permission of Roger and Mattias Pettersson with the awesome metal hair. For context, note that these two scholar friends of mine are the area’s foremost authorities on Mesolithic sites that have ended up on mountaintops due to post-glacial shoreline displacement. The lithics there are mainly quartz.

Not all that glitters is quartz.

Yesterday we had a planning meeting with Dr. Risberg [quaternary geologist and the Stockholm area’s main shoreline displacement guy]. We’re going to core bogs at high elevations and target some critical bits of stratigraphy. Our goal will be to catch datable material (thank you, the Berit Wallenberg foundation, for generous funding). Thanks to Accelerator Mass Spectrometry [a radiocarbon method] we can now date birch pollen and the pretty little forewings of beetles. We know they’re there. I saw them myself in the 90s when we got our first cores from the bogs.

Isn’t it just too awesome to catch a glimpse of an Early Mesolithic summer — the glinting of the blue-green forewing that’s been resting in the sediment for 10 000 years. Those bugs buzzed for a summer and the sun glinted then too in their chitinous armour. A clear blue Ancylus summer whose sea-breeze soughed in the birches, the golden seeds of which are also common in the deepest sections of the sediment core…

Not all that glitters is quartz.

Let’s roll / Roger

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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.