Fornvännen’s Summer Issue On-Line

Fornvännen 2016:2 is now on-line on Open Access.

Nerman’s Weaponry

Professors tend to have a few pet issues that they emphasise time and again over their careers as researchers and supervisors. This is quite clear with two 1960s-70s professors in my field. In Bertil Almgren’s case, one such pet issue was the source-critical quality of archaeological information. In Mats Malmer’s case, one was clear and exact verbal definitions of terms.

I agree with both of these imperatives. But there’s one case where an adherence to Almgren’s priorities over Malmer’s was clearly not the right way to go.

Birger Nerman’s monumental folio-format work Die Vendelzeit Gotlands, about portable objects from Gotland in the period AD 550-800, appeared in two parts. The illustrations in 1969, two years before Nerman died. The text in 1975, four years after he died, with heavy input from his daughter Agneta Lundström. The two books place every well-preserved object found before 1969 in one of five phases.

In 1983, Bo Annuswer wrote his third-term paper in Uppsala about a part of Nerman’s work, with Almgren as his supervisor. Annuswer looked at all the find combinations with weaponry in them, and classified them according to source-critical quality. He concluded that the weapon chronology with its five phases has extremely weak source-critical footing.

You can criticise Annuswer for not using all available sources of information. A good deal of the find combinations are not at all as poorly supported by archival information as he claimed. The whole thing was a bit of a hatchet job on Nerman, written to flatter Almgren’s source-critical agenda. But that’s not my main issue with Annuswer’s paper.

The thing with Nerman’s weaponry chronology from a malmerian perspective is that it doesn’t properly speaking exist at all. There are no type definitions, no seriation, no identification of diagnostic types. It’s really just a lot of pictures divided into five sections and some extremely brief supporting text from Nerman’s posthumous editor. Die Vendelzeit Gotlands analyses nothing, it just postulates a chronology out of the blue.

You don’t have to spend weeks examining the source quality to take a hatchet to Nerman’s weaponry chronology. Because there never was a scientifically argued chronology to begin with.

Uneven Sites & Monuments Attention

The Swedish national register of archaeological sites is one of the best in the world. But if you ever consider using it for any kind of research purpose, have a look first at the register’s map of sites just west of Örkelljunga in Scania. The diagonal line is the parish boundary between Tåssjö and Rya. Tåssjö has undergone intensive survey for forest sites, most of which derive from Early Modern resource extraction. Rya has not.

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.

A Fee For Metal Detector Permits Would Be Highly Damaging

From 2014 on, Swedish metal detectorists have had to report all finds datable to before 1850 to the authorities. I have recently shown in a note in Fornvännen that this rule came about by mistake, and that it has broken the County Archaeologist system. It takes hours for a county heritage administrator to process one metal detector permit. It also takes only a few hours for a detectorist to find a copper coin from the 1840s, which voids her/his permit for that site. S/he then applies for a new permit, which means that the pile of unprocessed permit applications on each administrator’s desk grows exponentially.

My suggestion for how this problem should be solved is to move the cutoff date from 1850 to 1719. This is a useful year for coins: the year after Carolus XII died and the year before Frederick I ascended to the throne. No research is ever done into small finds from after 1719 that are found in ploughsoil. We do not need to collect them.

The National Heritage Board has now suggested another solution: placing a hefty filing fee on applications for metal detector permits, regardless of whether a permit is eventually granted or not. I think this would be an extremely bad solution. It would probably radically cut down on the number of permit applications, but it would also have the following highly damaging consequences.

  • Metal detecting would go underground.
  • Detectorists would be alienated from contact with heritage management and archaeological research.
  • Detectorists who made important archaeological finds without a permit wouldn’t dare report them to the authorities.
  • Fewer archaeological discoveries would be made.
  • Heritage would become less accessible to the citizens who own it.
  • Legal metal detecting would become golf: only accessible to rich people.

The 1850 rule for small finds is silly, it came about inadvertently and it needs to be changed. The way to correct the mistake is not to place an artificial hurdle in the way of law-abiding detectorists, creating a system kludge to treat a symptom of the underlying problem. The problem is in the law that took effect in 2014. Let’s change that law.

Announcing My New Essay Collection

cover250pxIn December of last year I finished a collection of short humorous archaeological essays. It’s my sixth book, my first one in Swedish, my first one aimed at the lay reader. Since then I’ve been waiting for established Swedish publishing houses to pronounce judgement on it. Five of them have now turned it down, none with any very detailed explanation, but most of them in terms suggesting that they think it’s competently written but it probably wouldn’t sell much.

As a long-time blogger and e-book reader, I am not particularly disheartened by this. After all, this blog has a greater number of hits in a week than the entire first print run of a typical Swedish pop-sci book. And so, here it is, my new e-book, Arkeologi är choklad, inte potatis (“Archaeology is chocolate, not potatoes”)! ISBN 978-91-639-2057-8, both EPUB and MOBI formats. It’s distributed under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non Commercial, No Derivatives licence. Please help me spread it around! It’s on as well.

(Having said No Derivatives, I should hasten to point out that I would be very happy to talk to anyone who feels like translating the book.)

The book is braided of three strings. One is a reverse chronological series of essays on archaeological periods seen through the lenses of sites I’ve worked on, from the Early Modern at Djurhamn all the way back to the Early Mesolithic with Roger & Mattias at Tyresta. The second string consists of partly quite polemical pieces on what archaeology is like and how it works in Swedish society, including titles like “We never go to Egypt” and “There are no jobs and you don’t want the jobs there are”. The third string is a chronological series titled “My Strange Career”.

To whet the appetite of Swedish colleagues, let me say that I mention a considerable number of names of people in Swedish archaeology whom I have reason to thank, and I talk about a few other possibly identifiable people without mentioning their names.

I’m very keen to learn what everybody thinks!

Fornvännen’s Winter Issue On-Line

Dress pin heads from Viidumäe on Saaremaa.
Dress pin heads from Viidumäe on Saaremaa.

Fornvännen 2015:4 is now on-line on Open Access.

Help Ben Study Medieval Scabbard Chapes

Here’s a guest entry by my correspondent Ben Bishop who’s doing a project on Medieval scabbard mounts using data from the Portable Antiquites Scheme (PAS).

I am researching medieval English scabbard chapes formed of folded copper alloy. They date from the period c. AD 1050–1300. The overwhelming majority are fragmentary when found and recognisable by the most decorative elements (shield for the mounted warrior, dragon head for the winged dragon). They are spread across England, including the Isle of Wight. The counties that are richest in these objects are Wiltshire (particularly L shaped chapes), Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, with a fair number from Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire.

My project is a voluntary research paper based on my university dissertation. It is a classification of this material that may one day form a PAS datasheet accessible to the public. I have liaised with several metal detectorists and Finds Liason Officers from the PAS. I am analysing the iconography, manufacture and relationship of these chapes to other medieval dress accessories and scabbard fittings. They are fascinating and many show scenes that have no comparisons in medieval metalwork or sculpture.

Most are slender, measuring 20-60 mm in height and 20-40 mm in width. This object type follows a defined pattern, but examples are unique and contain individual decoration. They are L, J, V or U shaped, formed from one piece of copper alloy folded along the seam and riveted through the arm terminal and the plate. They are open and closed work mounts, some similar in appearance to strap ends.

They are a unique group, with many unique elements, like terminals or attachment arms. Several are themselves decorative creatures, open mouthed Viking beasts or fists. They contain a diverse range of scenes that range from simple geometric shapes or curvilinear lines to zoomorphic imagery. The most decorative are birds, horses with reins, copulating wolves, winged horses, dragons, mounted warriors and riders grappling stag like creatures. Later variations are U shaped, with incised scallops on the face or fleurs-de-lis. These generally have a cross engraved or etched into the reverse which is often crude and may be a maker’s mark.

Although they contain elements of the Ringrike, Urnes and Romanesque styles they do not adhere to the stereotypical art styles of the Late Viking Period. They are separate from the formulaic chapes of the high medieval era. European connections are unknown, but comparable examples to those found on the 2010 ‘Four knife sheath chapes’ blog entry here have been discovered.

As mentioned, most of these objects are fragmentary and only analysis of multiple examples can provide reliable information. Over 200 folded bifacial scabbard or sheath chapes have been recovered. Over 95% were recovered by metal detectorists and recorded through the support of groups like the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Many new types are emerging through this cooperation, but little has been published and most analysis is based on assessment of a singular find.

I have accessed all relatively accessible published examples on the PAS and in literature, I have searched metal detector forums for examples but I would appreciate any help you can give me.

If you know of any published, unpublished, found or excavated examples or have any suggestions all feedback would be gratefully received. If you have discovered any yourself, or similar items it would be fascinating to have your input. If you would like any more information on the project or any particular aspects please let me know at ben.bishop27 at gmail dot com.

All Unconserved Finds Must Die Die Die?

Several colleagues have told me this bizarre rumour that I hope is unfounded. Contract archaeologists at two sites on Öland and in Småland have found more Medieval coins than their conservation budget can cover. So they have to prioritise which coins to conserve. So far so good, and congrats on the lovely finds.


According to this rumour, someone in an official position is demanding that they throw away the coins they choose not to conserve. Because there is no place in this person’s administrative framework for unconserved finds from a contract excavation.

Is this true!? Who is this person?

If this is true, then it beats my heretofore favourite example of administrative stupidity in archaeology, from the 1990s highway project in Möre. There were two little hills in the way of land development. Evaluation identified a poorly preserved Mesolithic settlement on Hill A and Bronze Age fossil fields on Hill B. “Scientific agendas” were drawn up accordingly for each site. During full excavations, a much better-preserved Mesolithic settlement was discovered under the fossil fields. But since the scientific agenda for Hill B was about Bronze Age fossil fields, nobody was allowed to dig the Mesolithic remains there.

I’ll update this entry as information reaches me.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #6 – Kvanli

Detectorist John Kvanli is the chairman of Rygene detektorklubb and one of Norway’s most prominent proponents of collaboration between amateurs and professionals in field archaeology. Of course he has a tattoo! It’s an Urnes brooch from c. AD 1100, in the final exquisite Christian style of Scandinavian animal art.

John tells me he has found several fragments of these fragile objects, but the one inked onto his upper right arm is a settlement excavation find from Lindholm Høje, across the fjord from Aalborg in northern Jutland. The needlework was done by the Martin Tattoo Studio in Bangkok, Thailand.

For more about the Urnes style, see my entry about René Lund Klee’s tattoo. For the general blog series about detectorist tattoos, see Aard’s tattoo tag.