New Dates for the Bronze Age

When I was an undergrad in 1990 we were taught that all six periods of the Scandinavian Bronze Age were 200 (or in one case 300) years long. The most recent radiocarbon work shows that they all had different lengths and were more likely 130-280 years long. And the periods with the most abundant metalwork finds, II and V, are the two shortest. So their previously known status as metal-rich eras looks even more pronounced now, and the intervening periods look even poorer.

Per. I. 1700-1500 cal BC (200 yrs)
Per. II. 1500-1330 (170 yrs)
Per. III. 1330-1100 (230 yrs)
Per. IV. 1100-950/20 (165 yrs)
Per. V. 950/20-800 (135 yrs)
Per. VI. 800-530/20 (275 yrs)

Each of these periods translates to a list of artefact and monument types that are commonly found together. Their relative ordering through time has been known since the 1880s. Current work looks at the absolute dates at which these typological laundry lists were current. It uses a new technology, radiocarbon dating of cremated bone, and new applications of Bayesian statistics, which allow us to constrain the uncertainty of the radiocarbon results using stratigraphical observations. The latter means that if we know that grave B was later than grave A because one sat on top of the other, then we can tell the software to disregard parts of the probability distributions that gainsay this observation.

Hornstrup, K.M et al. 2012. A New Absolute Danish Bronze Age Chronology As Based On Radiocarbon Dating Of Cremated Bone Samples From Burials. Acta Archaeologica 83. Copenhagen.

Best Danefae of 2012

Most prosperous countries have legislation for what kinds of archaeological finds a citizen has to hand in to the authorities. In Denmark, still using a Medieval term, such finds are termed danefae, “property of the dead”. And here is Danish TV4’s list of the top-10 such finds of 2012. All but one of them have been handed in by detectorists, and two by Swedish detectorists operating in Denmark because of Sweden’s restrictive rules!

It wouldn’t really be worthwhile to make a top-10 like this for Sweden, as the pretty gold & silver metalwork they concentrate on in the program is usually found detectorists, and we don’t allow the honest ones to go looking in Sweden. The reason that precious metals are so interesting to archaeologists isn’t their market value, but their resistance to corrosion. Most of the beautiful craftsmanship of the past has disintegrated or become unrecognisable. But the precious metalwork endures unchanged.

Thanks to Morten Axboe and Tobias Bondesson for the tip-off.

Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #273 (Dec) has an interesting feature on an 18th century ship of the line found hidden as a construction kit under the floor of a workshop at a naval dockyard in Kent. The timbers were re-used, but not in an economically or structurally rational way. Instead the greatest possible amount of ship’s timbers had been crammed in under the floor. Markings on them and historical records identify the ship as the HMS Namur, famous in its time for the battles it fought. It was launched in 1756 and broken up in 1833-34.

Investigators have put forward an interesting suggestion as to why the Namur’s timbers were deposited in such an unusual manner. At the time when the famous ship was broken up, the head of the dockyard where it was found was a man who had served on it as a boy at the Battle of Cape Vincent in 1797.

In the same issue, I also enjoyed a feature on early industrial archaeology along the 1819 Tavistock Canal in Cornwall, where excavations have documented early non-standard engineering designs.

CA #274 (Jan) looks back at two decades of the hugely successful archaeology TV show Time Team, whose last season is now being aired. This is a very big deal in UK archaeology, and the show’s death throes has been covered incessantly by all of the popular magazines I read. Let’s hope the awful “History” Channel will not be all the archaeology TV can offer in the future.

In a fascinating feature on excavations at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, we learn about the habits of 19th century anatomy students. This is one of the more grisly sites I’ve heard of, but the reason it can’t compete with Mesoamerican ritual murder sites is that thankfully these bodies were dead when they were cut up. Many burials at the Royal London site contained recombinations of dissected body parts, and some included dissected animal carcasses as well. Nevertheless, burial was orderly and attempts were clearly made to put a complete body together in each coffin, although not all parts would come from the same individual. Frankenstein stuff!

1st century BC Gaulish copper-alloy helmet found serving as a cremation container near Canterbury

CA #275 (Feb) is an Orkney special but also announces the coolest cremation container I’ve ever seen, found by a Canterbury detectorist: a 1st century BC Gaulish copper-alloy helmet. It looks a lot like an old moped helmet and contained a fibula along with the cremated bones.

Robert Van de Noort’s new book North Sea Archaeologies, despite the redundant po-mo plural (oh, how I hate those), seems quite fascinating judging from CA’s write-up. Van de Noort envisages long-distance trade and travel as important rites of passage, indeed as real foundations of political power, for leaders across Northern Europe during Prehistory. And I was particularly struck by the maps of the North Sea’s late glacial and post-glacial shorelines, where so much that is now under water was dry land. The Thames and the Rhine were once tributaries of a much larger river that flowed south through the valley we call the English Channel! And as late as 5000 cal BC much of Dogger Bank between England and Jutland still formed a huge island.

I always enjoy reading Chris Catling’s columns, mainly because he writes well but partly because I agree with his politics. I find the opinions of CA editor emeritus Andrew Selkirk far less appetising, which sometimes makes reading his otherwise interesting contributions a bit of a chore. Selkirk is a Tory and appears to believe that the public sector should be funded by voluntary donations from the rich. He loves amateur archaeological societies and is on record saying that at least some rescue archaeology should not be developer-pays, but taken on for free by local amateurs. In CA #275 he gives an interesting run-down of who controls funding in UK archaeology, and opens with this gem:

It is a common complaint that our society has become too unequal. To an archaeologist, of course, this is nonsense. Compare our society to the pharaohs of Egypt, or most past societies, and we are remarkably equal. No one can afford to build a pyramid today, and even a cat may look at a king. Thinking that society is being made more equal by taking from the rich and giving to the poor is a big fallacy, I fear. In practice what happens is you take money from the rich and give it to bureaucrats.

Ain’t that lovely? We shouldn’t complain about inequality as long as things are better than in Old Kingdom Egypt. And anyway, redistributing wealth is useless since it will only feed those pesky public sector officials.

British Archaeology #128 (Jan/Feb) has a nice feature on an exceptionally well-preserved Neolithic settlement near the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney. Lots of worked-stone architecture, some even retaining paint, and various decorated small finds. Then there’s a “goodbye Time Team” feature and a feature on messages carved into the bark of still living trees near a Salisbury Plain military training ground by soldiers heading for the 20th century’s wars. “Arborglyph” is apparently the word you’re looking for.

Valkyrie Figurine From Hårby

Etymologically speaking, ”valkyrie” means ”chooser of the slain”. The job of these supernatural shield maidens in Norse mythology is to select who dies on the battlefield and guide their souls to Odin’s manor, where they will spend the afterlife training for the Twilight of the Gods, the final battle against the forces of chaos. After each day’s combat training, a mead-hall party with drink and reincarnated pork ensues, with the valkyries waiting the tables.

We have had very few period depictions of armed women. Instead scholars have applied the term “valkyrie” to a common Late Iron Age motif of a usually unarmed woman who offers up a mead cup or horn, sometimes standing alone, sometimes to an armed man, who is often on horseback. A more cautious term for this motif is “the greeting scene”, and there is reason to link it to beliefs about what would happen to men in the afterlife (cf. houris). But there are armed women embroidered on the tapestries from the AD 834 Oseberg ship burial, and a small group of brooches shows them in 2D relief (pictures below). Thanks to Danish amateur metal detectorists, that group is growing steadily. And now a 3D version of the motif has surfaced!

Detectorist Morten Skovsby found the first 3D valkyrie figurine late last year at Hårby on Funen. She wears a floor-length dress and has her hair in the typical knot we’ve seen for instance on the Lady of Sättuna in Kaga, and she’s armed with sword and shield. The interlace decoration on the rear of her dress should permit pretty tight dating once specialists get to see it clearly, but she’s definitely from the Vendel or Viking Periods, and I’d say probably from the 8th/9th/10th century.

See also the Lejre Lady. Thanks to Jakob Øhlenschlæger for the tip-off, to Jan Hein and Henrik Brinch Christiansen for the photographs and to Claus Feveile for additional information.

A man on a horse is greeted by a woman with a shield and a drinking horn. Brooch, Tissø, Zealand. Finder Flemming Nielsen.
Brooch depicting an armed woman. Gammel Hviding, Jutland. Finder Jens Chr. Lau. Photo Henrik Brinch Christiansen. Drawing Claus Feveile.