Underwater Burial Cairn In Huskvarna Bay

Archaeological sites in Lake Vättern off Huskvarna

The latest inland ice was 3 km thick and its weight left a big dent in Scandinavia. Since deglaciation (which is, on the geological time scale, a current event) the dent has been straightening out. This causes land uplift. But just outside the edge of the dent, it causes the land to sink. Southernmost Scandinavia is losing land to the sea, not gaining it.

The fulcrum of this see-saw crosses Lake Vättern right at its southernmost point. The lake is receding at one end and encroaching at the other. This is why there is an Early Bronze Age burial cairn (Raä 140:3) and sacrificial bog (Raä 140:4) on the lake bottom off the town of Huskvarna . The cairn was originally built about 1400 cal BC on a hilltop above the lakeshore, in a location where it would be widely visible from boats. It didn’t turn out that way.

Later the cairn was joined on the lake bottom by Sanda parish’s Medieval church.

I’ve written before about Huskvarna on the subject of the substance abuse epidemic that decimated two generations of the town’s industrial workers in the 20th century.

Update following day: my knowledgeable colleagues Staffan von Arbin and Claes Pettersson point out that only one cairn is actually known at present, not several as I implied in the original wording.

Hagbard’s Scaffold

Sweden’s bedrock has been entirely abraded by the inland ice. It sanded down the country like a big wood planer, leaving smooth lovely outcrops known as hällar all over the place. This is the main natural prerequisite of Sweden’s rich rock art tradition. Most of it dates from the Bronze Age, 1700–500 BC.

Denmark hardly has any visible bedrock, so they don’t have much rock art over there, and what they do have tends to be on boulders. It is thus hardly surprising that when you do find figurative art on boulders in Sweden, it tends to be in the provinces closest to Denmark.

Near Asige church in Halland we have one of the most monumental examples of this. Two flat stone grave markers and two pairs of big honking menhirs with rock art on them! One pair has become embellished with an antiquarian name: Hagbards galge, “Hagbard’s Scaffold”. This refers to a tale told by Saxo Grammaticus in his History of the Danes and is probably a coinage from about 1800: after us Scandies rediscovered Medieval literature but before we realised that the world is considerably more than 6000 years old. There was a time when intellectuals thought that all Scandinavian antiquities could be explained with reference to the Sagas.

The legendary rock art surveyors Sven-Gunnar Broström and Kenneth Ihrestam have often figured here on the blog. Now they have reexamined and documented Hagbard’s Scaffold, finding lots of previously unseen motifs. (But first the County Archaeologist had someone kill and remove all the lichen on the stones.) This transforms the monument from a group of menhirs with some rock art on them into honest-to-goodness pictorial stelae! Though the mate of the birth-giver stele has only cupmarks and the mate of the shield-bearer stele has no markings at all.

Broström, S-G & Ihrestam, K. 2015. Hagbards galge. Raä 17 i Asige socken, Halland. Rapport över dokumentation av hällristningar 2015. BOTARKrapport 2015-29. Botkyrka.

Stele A, south side. The previously known concentric circles representing the sun and/or a shield have now been found to have two legs and a head, that is, we are looking at a person holding a shield and/or the sun.
Stele A, south side. The previously known concentric circles representing the sun and/or a shield have now been found to have two legs and a head, that is, we are looking at a person holding a shield and/or the sun.
Stele B, north side. Most people in Scandy rock art are just stick figures, so gender is sometimes difficult to judge. An oversized erection identifies men, like the guy bottom left. A ponytail hairdo is a common identifier for women, and there are cases where the ponytail is combined with a cupmark in the crotch. This attribute identifies the two otherwise ungendered top figures on the stele as women. Their unusual, extremely wide-legged stance suggests to me that the artist is emphasising female fertility. The concentric circles represent the sun and/or a shield here too.
Stele B, north side. Most people in Scandy rock art are just stick figures, so gender is sometimes difficult to judge. An oversized erection identifies men, like the guy bottom left. A ponytail hairdo is a common identifier for women, and there are cases where the ponytail is combined with a cupmark in the crotch. This attribute identifies the two otherwise ungendered top figures on the stele as women. Their unusual, extremely wide-legged stance suggests to me that the artist is emphasising female fertility. The concentric circles represent the sun and/or a shield here too.
Stele B, east side. The curved horizontal line and the horizontal ladder are both remains of the era's ubiquitous ships.
Stele B, east side. The curved horizontal line and the horizontal ladder are both remains of the era’s ubiquitous ships.

My Bronze Age Book Is Out

Dear Reader, it is with great pleasure that I announce the PDF publication of my fifth monograph,* In the Landscape and Between Worlds. The paper version will appear in April or May. Here’s the back-cover blurb.

Bronze Age settlements and burials in the Swedish provinces around Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren yield few bronze objects and fewer of the era’s fine stone battle axes. Instead, these things were found by people working on wetland reclamation and stream dredging for about a century up to the Second World War. Then the finds stopped because of changed agricultural practices.

The objects themselves have received much study. Not so with the sites where they were deposited. This book reports on a wide-ranging landscape-archaeological survey of Bronze Age deposition sites, with the aim to seek general rules in the placement of sites. How did a person choose the appropriate site to deposit a socketed axe in 800 BC?

The author has investigated known sites on foot and from his desk, using a wide range of archive materials, maps and shoreline displacement data that have only recently come on-line. Over 140 sites are identified closely enough to allow characterisation of their Bronze Age landscape contexts. Numerous recurring traits emerge, forming a basic predictive or heuristic model. Bronze Age deposition sites, the author argues, are a site category that could profitably be placed on contract archaeology’s agenda during infrastructure projects. Archaeology should seek these sites, not wait for others to report on finding them.

Get the PDF for free from Umeå University, Academia.edu or ScienceBlogs!

* Though I’ve written at least one book chapter, on 8th century brooches, that’s considerably longer than my third book.

Pimp My Book Manuscript

Since late ’09 my main research project has concerned the Bronze Age in the four Swedish provinces surrounding Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren. I’ve looked at the landscape situation of the era’s deposition sites, which is pretty much where you find bronze objects. Yesterday I finished the first draft of the book (except the descriptive gazetteer, into which I still need to stick a few bits). And so here it is (300 kB PDF file)! The title is:

In the Landscape and Between Worlds. Bronze Age Deposition Sites Around Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren in Sweden.

I would be very grateful for comments, corrections and questions from Aard’s readers. Don’t be afraid to ask layman’s questions. There are no illustrations in the file because most of them haven’t been made yet, though they are on their way.

The last time I asked my readers to pimp a book manuscript was in June of 2010. Two dear regulars stepped up to the plate and were duly thanked in the preface to my Mead-halls book.

Sacrificing The Gods’ Share

I found an excellent argument in a recent paper by Svend Hansen,* clinching something in a particularly satisfying way.

Certain Bronze Age hoards in Northern Europe contain a lot of fragmented objects. But the pieces rarely add up to complete artefacts. In 2001 Stuart Needham argued that this may be due to a custom similar to that known e.g. from ancient Greece, where an animal was sacrificed and only certain parts that make poor eating were burnt as offerings to a god (a sleight of hand taught to humanity by Prometheus the trickster). Perhaps most scrap metal hoards from Northern Europe contain the gods’ share of a much larger collection of objects that were re-cast for renewed use.

The ideas behind Greek animal sacrifice are well documented in coeval written sources. Not so with North European metalwork deposition. But now Svend Hansen points out that though the Greeks never wrote about it, they were apparently also depositing scrap metal – and in exactly the manner suggested by Needham! At Olympia and other Greek sanctuaries of the 9th and 8th centuries BC, tripod bronze cauldrons dedicated to the divinity were often re-cast with only a few selected pieces taken aside and deposited in sacrificial wells or middens. This goes on at the same sites as the animal sacrifice that we understand quite well.

* Hansen, Svend. 2012. Bronzezeitliche Horte: Zeitliche und räumliche Rekontextualisierungen. Hansen, S. et al. (eds). Hort und Raum. Aktuelle Forschungen zu bronzezeitlichen Deponierungen in Mitteleuropa. Berlin.

Bronze Age Axe

Mossen axeI’ve started to assemble pictures and maps for my Bronze Age book. Almost all known objects from deposition sites in the Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren areas have already been illustrated elsewhere. But here’s an exception: a socketed bronze axe found before 1963 in a bog at Eklunda in Bred parish, near Enköping, Uppland province. It’s 3,000 years old, dating from Period IV, 1100-950/20 cal BC.

Axes like this were fitted onto hafts shaped like a V with one very short arm, and held in place by a string or strap through the little lug near the base – which is damaged in this case. The verdigris covering the bronze suggests that the bog had been drained and ploughed for years before the axe was found. Wet sediments prevent such corrosion.

When Evert Baudou collected the material for his PhD thesis in the 50s, this type, A2a, was mainly known from northern Zealand and eastern Funen, but there was also a casting mould from Västergötland. Finds since then are unlikely to have changed the distribution pattern much. The axe from Eklunda was probably an import piece. I have no detailed information about where the find spot is, but judging from the results of my studies, it is likely to have been in or at a Bronze Age lake or sea inlet which later silted up and became a bog. There’s an endless discussion about why people parted with bronze objects in this manner. I believe they did it primarily to communicate with supernatural beings.

The axe is inv. no 11,863 in Västmanland County Museum. Big thanks to Susanne Granlund for the photograph.

Were The Dead At Cliffs End Simply Buried?

On 10 June I blogged about some grisly finds from Cliffs End in Kent which to my mind indicate eight centuries of human sacrifice during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. I invited colleagues at Wessex Archaeology who did the dig to comment, and Chief Osteoarcheologist Jacqueline McKinley kindly sent me some detailed views.

The first thing to note is that though the full monograph hasn’t appeared yet and my blog entry was based on a pop-sci feature in British Archaeology, a scholarly paper on the site has in fact been published:

McKinley, Schuster, & Millard 2013. Dead-sea connections: a Bronze Age and Iron Age ritual site on the Isle of Thanet. In Rethinking the Bronze Age and the arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, ed. Koch & Cunliffe. Oxbow Books.

Looking at our differences of opinion, Dr. McKinley is not comfortable with my use of the terms “human sacrifice” and “ritual murder”, because, as she points out, only one of the many skeletons shows signs of lethal violence. I base my interpretation more on the deviant treatment and deposition of the bodies, where crucially they have been dealt with in the same way as the animal bodies deposited at the site rather than given the urned cremation that we recognise as standard respectful burial in that era and region. Many of the human bodies from Cliffs End are not complete, and there are many ways to kill someone that leave no trace on the skeleton. But Dr. McKinley emphasises that she doesn’t find their treatment to have been particularly disrespectful, and in her opinion recent advances show Bronze Age burial in Kent to have been much more varied than previously believed.

This leads on to a fundamental difference in our ways of looking at burial. I find the following comment particularly enlightening.

They are not sacrificial pits. Only one burial pit — 3666 — was found, the others all lay in graves which had been excavated through the backfills overlying pits in the southern half of the feature. The pitting all predates the use of the area for mortuary activity. … They are not pits and not sacrificial

What Dr. McKinley says here is that the pits containing dead people are by definition graves, not sacrificial, not pits, because they contain dead people. Apparently she feels that a dead person cannot be a sacrificial object, and that if you dig a hole you can’t call it a “pit” once you’ve put a dead person in it. If I understand her correctly, Dr. McKinley agnostically looks at all disposal of dead people as the same kind of usually respectful activity unless there is very strong reason to believe otherwise.

I believe that most if not all societies distinguish between friendly and hostile burial, where a good example is the difference between the churchyards and execution sites of the Medieval and Early Modern Periods. Or look at what was done to Osama bin Laden’s body: it was cremated and tossed into the sea, surely not what his family had done if they had dealt with the body rather than his enemies of many years in the US government.

I also emphasise the distinction that slave-owning and warlike societies make between people and chattels, and between in-group and prisoners of war. The Aztecs sacrificed foreign prisoners on top of those pyramids, not the local sandal-maker.

If Bronze Age body disposal in Kent is more varied than previously thought, and I am happy to rely on Dr. McKinley’s expertise on this point, then my question is – why? What does that variability mean? Which of those burials are friendly ones, which are hostile, which of the bodies were deposited as commodities similar to any sacrificial gift to the gods, which belonged to prisoners perceived as foreign sub-humans?

Finally a point where I agree with Dr. McKinley and am happy to stand corrected. The Late Bronze Age ritual enclosures at Cliffs End should probably be seen as snuggling up to the Early Bronze Age barrows rather than slighting them, which was the word I used:

Whilst the enclosure ditches do slightly impinge upon four of the barrow ditches, rather than ‘slighting’ them (which suggests a deliberate action) they clearly respect them; I appreciate the plans show the enclosure ditches slightly overlapping those of the barrow but by this stage the barrow ditches were largely backfilled and would not have been evident whilst the associated mounds would have been.

First 4-Wheel Wagon In Swedish East Coast Rock Art

Bronze Age rock art along Sweden’s south-east coast is rich but not as varied as that of the famous west-coast region. One motif that we have been missing is the four-wheel wagon. It isn’t common anywhere except on one site, Frännarp in inland Scania (below right), but we have had none whatsoever where I am.

Wagons at Frännarp in Scania
Wagons at Frännarp in Scania
The other day we got our first wagon: at the rich classical site of Himmelstalund on the outskirts of Norrköping in Östergötland province. According to period convention, it is depicted in a flattened perspective with the wheels seen from the sides and the carriage from the top. The drawbar is cut by a later ship (off camera), and it appears that there were never any draught animals. The wagon probably dates from the centuries about 800 BC.

This rock art is carved into the smooth surfaces left by the inland ice. The paint and chalk is recent. The red-painted figure above the Himmelstalund wagon is a pair of incomplete foot soles or shoes. The thin chalk lines represent two ships that appear to have been mostly weathered away before the wagon was carved. People returned to these panels and made additions for centuries.

Note that the person who painted the foot soles didn’t see the wagon or the faint ships! This shows how important it is to return to rock art panels regularly with skilled personnel for renewed study. In this case I can take a small amount of avuncular pride in the find, because Theres Furuskog is a long-time collaborator of mine who has done GPS surveying, fieldwalking and metal-detecting with me on many sites in Östergötland and Södermanland. She has also worked for years with cleaning and painting rock art. Her find is a prime example of how important it is to employ educated, intelligent and experienced people for such tasks.

Another fine first in east-coast rock art was the sun horse of nearby Gärstad, found in 2011.

800 Years Of Human Sacrifice In Kent

British Archaeology #131 (July/August) has a feature by Pippa Bradley that caught my interest. It’s about a Wessex Archaeology dig in 2004-05 at Cliffs End farm in Thanet, a piece of north-east Kent that was an island up until the 16th century when silting finished connecting it to mainland England. What we’re dealing with here is ritual murder, some pretty strange disposal of the dead and ancient Scandinavian migrants.

Use of the site begins in earnest with six ring-ditch barrows during the Early Bronze Age (2200-1500 cal BC). These were poorly preserved and yielded few interesting finds. People then leave the barrows in peace for several centuries and don’t return to the site in any serious way until the Late Bronze Age shortly before 1000 cal BC. And that’s when the weirdness starts. Three round enclosure ditches are dug and re-dug, slighting five of the barrows. The ditches were found to contain household refuse, episodic feast remains and a burial or skull deposit (all shared with various pits inside the enclosures). And the smallest barrow gets slighted from another side by a continuous complex of at least 36 pits, some of them bearing evidence for re-cutting and re-use. The uncovered part measured 29 by more than 52 m. Here’s where the weirdness turns to horrors.

Respectful Late Bronze Age burial in England is typically urned cremation in closely clustered cemeteries. The treatment of the bodies deposited in the Cliffs End pit complex is strikingly deviant. Basically what they’re doing here is killing people and livestock, manipulating their remains ritually, often exposing them on site for a time, and finally inhuming them in pits. Bone preservation is perfect, leaving it all too clear what is going on. And it goes on for 800 years, well into the Middle Iron Age about 200 cal BC. A three-century hiatus during the Early Iron Age, I speculate, may be covered by the part of the feature that hasn’t been excavated.

At least 24 people end up in sacrificial pits between 1000 and 800: males and females, ages 6 to 55. One large pit sees the following sequence (image above):

1. Redeposited human bones and two new-born lambs
2. Woman over 50, killed by sword blows to the back of the head
3. Another pair of lambs
4. Cow’s head, two children and a teenage girl
5. Cattle foot and bag containing dismembered man, 30-35
6. More redeposited bones from people who died before the pit was dug (see below)

Some of the disarticulated bones from this pit are partly charred or gnawed by scavengers or show a patination typical of temporary deposition in a nearby midden. The excavators apparently interpret the animal parts and certain small artefacts in the pit as grave goods, but to my mind nothing in the pit should be seen as a respectful burial: human bodies, livestock and artefacts are all sacrificial gifts to some particularly blood-thirsty deity. The artefact finds are mainly pottery, but also a rare and interesting lead weight and part of a bone balance. Weights and balances are indicative of trade and a grasp of mathematics, but are also important tools when composing metal alloys such as the period’s all-important bronze. Scandinavian weights of the same era take the shape of little female statuettes wearing paired torque neck rings, and we find the paired torques as wetland sacrifices.

Iron Age practices in the sacrificial pit complex are less intense and intricate: over a period of three centuries, eight people get buried whole and seven disarticulated bone bundles are deposited. One young man is buried on top of half a horse. The bone bundles bear signs of scavenging by dogs.

Who were these people then? Could anybody at Cliffs End get roped in for sacrifice and be denied respectful burial at the whim of the local druid? Historical and ethnographic accounts suggest that this is unlikely. Small low-tech societies have a strong sense of in-group versus out-group. If you don’t get your urn in the clan’s urn field in this era, it’s highly likely that you are simply not a clan member. And here’s where stable isotopes come in, a fantastic data source that sees more and more use in interpreting bone finds. Among the questions isotopes can answer today are main food sources and geographical area of residence.

Andrew Millard of Durham University analysed all suitable teeth from 25 individuals. Here’s the geographical breakdown of the sacrificial victims’ area of origin:

36% local
32% southern Norway or Sweden
20% western Mediterranean
12% indeterminate

The reason that you do more than one tooth from the same individual is that teeth form in sequence during gestation, childhood and adolescence. If you move or change your diet during that period, this shows up in the isotope ratios of whatever tooth your body is making at the time. This gave particularly interesting results in the case of an old woman whose disarticulated skull was redeposited in the Late Bronze Age charnel pit discussed above. She was born in Scandinavia, moved to northern Britain as a child, lived a long life and finally ended up as a prop in a religious ritual on Thanet.

More than half of the victims are foreigners. And though more than a third are locals, we don’t know if their parents were locals as DNA hasn’t been done yet. Who travels like this in the 1st millennium BC? Certainly not tourists. Traders do travel, but for a community dependent on long-distance bronze deliveries, it would not be a sustainable strategy to ambush and kill the traders – never mind that these were in all likelihood well organised and armed. My guess is that we’re dealing with slave raiding and slave trade. Goods travelled, and one valuable commodity was slaves. All valuable commodities were appropriate as sacrifices to the gods when that time came.

In the case of the well-travelled old woman, I imagine her being taken from her tribe in southern Norway by Scottish slave raiders, growing up in Scotland, and then being traded on maturity to a Kentish tribe with odd religious practices. She probably gives birth to more slaves there (perhaps a few of the recovered individuals with local isotope signatures) and lives most of her adult life at Cliffs End. Not as a member of the clan, but as property of a clan member. And then comes that final Beltane feast out by the barrows.

Check out Wessex Archaeology’s on-line exhibition on Cliffs End! A monograph is in press: Jacqueline McKinley et al., Cliffs End Farm, Isle of Thanet, Kent: a mortuary & ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility.

Recent Archaeomags

Current Archaeology #276 (March) has a feature on excavations for a new container port that’s being built at Stanford Wharf near the mouth of the Thames. The Iron Age and Roman Period archaeology proved quite lovely, with waterlogged salt-making sites, remains of a boat house, loads of pottery, even waste from garum fish-sauce making. But the reason for the excavation is also interesting.

Consider the terms “nature reserve” and “nature preserve”. Most of us probably think of them as bits of particularly fine nature that are fenced in and preserved. But at Stanford Wharf much of the archaeology was done because they were going to turn farmland into a nature reserve and the process would destroy the archaeology!

The fields in question have long been protected from flooding by a sea wall. They could have been turned over to nature by just leaving them untouched. But that would have produced shrubland, not a type of nature perceived as interesting or valuable. Instead the land has been converted into a tidal marsh through the expedient of removing the sea wall and bulldozing away half a metre of topsoil. The aim was to attract wading birds. So this “nature” reserve is actually a type of cultural landscape that has cost a great big sum of money to create, all as part of the overarching port project.

British Archaeology #129 (March/April) has a feature by Bronze Age scholar Dot Boughton on a subject that’s been much on my mind in recent years: Bronze Age metalwork depositions. Most such collections of metalwork has a fairly tightly focused chronology, with almost all component objects dating from the same phase in the relative chronology. In other words: when depositing bronze, people rarely sought out antiques. But there’s been a small group of problematic or poorly documented hoard finds (Danebury, Batheaston, Salisbury) that hint at a rare custom of curating ancient metalwork and burying it in chronologically mixed hoards. In Sweden we see this for instance in the Härnevi hoard whose site I metal-detected to no great avail in 2011. Now, thanks to an intelligent metal detectorist, for the first time in England such a find has been excavated under controlled conditions, at Tisbury in the Vale of Wardour, Wiltshire.

The Tisbury hoard consists of about 114 objects: mostly weaponry and tools but also some jewellery and sundries. The latest piece dates from the 7th century BC which is past the start of the Iron Age in England. But the hoard is dominated by bits from the Late and Middle Bronze Age, the oldest being a piece of an Early Bronze Age flat axe that pre-dates even the start of the South Scandy Bronze Age (being roughly coeval with our Late Neolithic Pile hoard). Boughton suggests that the hoard may have been kept and displayed in a “communal museum”. It reminds me of ancient Greek temple treasuries.

Boughton’s thoughtful piece is an interesting read, but given what I’m working on myself I miss a discussion of the hoard’s landscape setting in relation to watercourses, settlement sites and monuments of similar or earlier date.

As I’ve commented sometimes here on Aard, I don’t care much for archaeology outside of Northern Europe. The best way to explain it is probably that few professional electricians spend their free time studying the plumbing in the building projects they work on. So I was pleased to find Current World Archaeology #57 (Feb/March) venturing into Northern Europe with five pages about Crusader castles on the shores of the south-east Baltic. The piece’s emphasis on palaeo-environmental work will make it a good read for anyone with such predilections.