Second Week Of 2016 Excavations At Birgittas Udde

We spent Thursday afternoon backfilling. As I write this, only trench G remains open, and the guys there expect to finish soon. Here’s some highlights of what we’ve learned during our second week at Birgittas udde.

Trench A in the outer moat demonstrated that the moat had a wide flat bottom, was not very deep and contains no lake sediments. Probably always a dry moat, providing material for the bank behind it. No Medieval finds.

Trench C: section through the deep inner moat.
Trench C: section through the deep inner moat.

Trench C in the inner moat demonstrated that this moat too had a wide flat bottom, but it was deeper and is full of hard clayey sediment: seems to have held shallow water. No datable Medieval finds.

Trench D: stone-filled cellar. Note the remains of the cellar's southern wall, right.
Trench D: stone-filled cellar. Note the remains of the cellar’s southern wall, right.

Trench D inside the inner defensive bank demonstrated that the site has been used for quite some time and rearranged: the stone pavement proved to be the top of a deep fill used to obliterate a rectangular cellar with drystone walls. Apparently this is the cellar of an early building that has been replaced by the large mortared masonry cellar that dominates the site today. It would have saved considerable labour to extend the cellar instead of replacing it, which suggests that this was the stronghold’s main building that couldn’t be torn down until its successor was habitable. Disappointingly, no Medieval finds in or under the stone fill.

Morning wait before we pile into the cars and go to the site.
Morning wait before we pile into the cars and go to the site.
Trench F demonstrated the same general trait of the site as trench D: there are two generations of two house foundations here, all in all four. No further Medieval finds after the glass shards and the coin.

Trench G at the northern end of the western line of buildings has given an iron latch lifter (that is, a simple key) and a spread of stones that suggests the building’s northern gable may have consisted of a drystone wall.

Let’s summarise what we’ve learned so far. Birgittas udde has quite a long Medieval use history where at least three buildings in the inner bailey have been replaced with newer versions. The high nobility makes its presence known not only through the fortifications and the large intricate masonry cellar, but also through a broken imported drinking glass. The complete absence of pottery in eight (or nine) indoor and outdoor trenches, though, suggests that waste management was quite fastidious, or that the site was never inhabited for very long each time, or both. This supports an interpretation where Birgittas udde is a special-purpose site for threatening situations, a fortified retreat in a peripheral location on Ulvåsa manor’s land. And the main Medieval version of Ulvåsa manor is at Gamlegården, the long-lived unfortified site abandoned in 1580.

A few decades ago a badger family dug a large sett next to the big cellar and dumped their spoil into it. The level floor left by the restoration architect in 1924 has had a big ugly spoil mound sitting in one corner ever since. At the landowner’s suggestion, and with the County Archaeologist’s blessing, my team rolled the turf off the mound and lifted it out of the cellar bucket by bucket to backfill the abandoned sett. Despite screening and metal-detecting much of the badger spoil, we made no Medieval finds. Another piece of restoration we’ve done is to give the intact piece of corridor vaulting over the cellar’s entrance a much-improved turf cover. This will keep rain from leaching the mortar out of the arch, improving its longevity.

On the 9th we’re moving our headquarters to Stegeborg camp ground & hostel. On the 10th a number of new team members will join to replace people who are only with us at Birgittas udde. And on Monday the 11th we break turf at Skällvik Castle. Stay tuned, Dear Reader!

First Week Of 2015 Excavations At Landsjö

2014 trenches A-E and rough locations of 2015 trenches F-H.
2014 trenches A-E and rough locations of 2015 trenches F-H.
Like Stensö, Landsjö Castle has half of a rare perimeter wall and is known to have been owned by a descendant of Folke Jarl – or rather, by his daughter-in-law, the widow of such a descendant. Last year we found that the high inner bailey has a previously unseen southern wall with a square tower at the east end, and we found five coins of AD 1250-75 in a deep layer that seem likely to date the castle’s construction phase. But unlike Stensö, in three strategically placed trenches we found no trace of the missing bits of the perimeter wall.

This year we started a few days early with half the team at Landsjö, and I write this on Monday night of the second week with full staffing. We’ve opened four sizeable trenches this year, of which G showed conclusively that the steep outer bailey has never had the missing half of its perimeter wall. It seems that the castle started with an L-shaped perimeter wall defending only the west and south sides of the inner bailey, and the north and east sides left unwalled – which worked thanks to steep high drops there. But the outer bailey seems never to have reached a defensible state. With it the castle looked rather impressive from the lakeshore, but if you wanted to get into the outer bailey you could easily bypass the unfinished perimeter wall. All we found in trench G was an 18th century jacket button most likely belonging to the smallholder who lived on the islet at that time.

Trenches F and I (just SSE of F) are in the basement remains of stone buildings built in the inner bailey as part of its western perimeter wall. Both basements are full of rubble, which we are still removing, and both are yielding ample finds of bones and small iron objects. Trench F also shows clear signs of a major fire, with lots of cracked stone in the rubble, with the inside of the walls visibly flaked by the heat, and with a charcoal layer just emerging this afternoon. If we’re lucky, then nobody’s been poking around in that burnt layer since the fire went out.

Trench H has been both a disappointment and a boon. It has not yielded any of the walls we hoped for. No gatehouse. Rather it seems to be on an enormous spoil dump from the digging of the dry moat across the castle islet. But in this spoil we’ve found Early Red Ware, a High Medieval pottery type, and, intriguingly, a sherd of Late Neolithic pottery along with some knapped quartz. Neolithic pottery experts who have seen a photograph agree that this is Malmer type J ware from the final phase of the Battle Axe Culture about 2300 cal BC. Fun and unexpected!

Just inland of the swamp woods and rushes covering the shore of Lake Landsjön, the manor’s overseer Roger Österqvist kindly helped us machine a 50-metre trench along the shore just where the distance to the islet is least. And there, under a metre of Carex peat, we found pointed stakes rammed into the clay at six spots. Most of these are probably from simple jetties and fish traps. But two are thick enough to belong to bridges over to the islet. Radiocarbon and maybe dendrochronology awaits. We also found a beautifully preserved iron ard tip, part of an agricultural implement of likely High Medieval date.

Lotta Feldt of the County Museum told me something extremely interesting Monday. A tight and reliable radiocarbon date for mortar can be had for €700 at the University of Turku. This would allow us to date every major construction event at these castles – because we have been taking mortar samples. I’m definitely looking into that!

Now we have three days of excavation left, plus half a day of backfilling before I return most of the tools to the museum and our team disperses. I say most of the tools, because I have had to buy eleven orange plastic scoops designed for bailing small boats. We use them to catch trowelled soil when we clean between stones. I’ve decided that this is a fine statement of wealth and status. I own more bail scoops than any private individual I know, and I don’t mind telling all and sundry.

How I Select The Sites I Dig

Having read yesterday’s entry about what I need to get hold of before I can dig a site, Apel Mjausson asked me on Facebook, “How do you decide where to dig? Sweden is lousy with unexplored sites. Are you following a specific story, looking at place names, take nominations…?”

Disregarding sites I’ve been paid to dig and sites I’ve only metal-detected,* my motivations have been as follows. To begin with, I only ever dig sites that I judge likely to produce something publishable and exciting. (And sometimes I lose on that gamble).

  • At Barshalder in 1997 I dug two graves because at my advisor’s suggestion I was writing my thesis on a huge cemetery, and there were a few sections of it that nobody knew anything about.
  • At Skamby in 2005 Howard Williams and I dug a boat grave because our friend local historian Arne Danielsson suggested it, because boat inhumations are famously rich in well-preserved artefacts, and because nobody had dug a boat grave in Götaland before.
  • At Stora Tollstad in 2006 Howard and I trial-trenched a major barrow in order to date it and find out if it was relevant to my on-going work with the late 1st millennium. (It was.)
  • At Sättuna in 2008 Petter Nyberg and I stripped 1047 sqm in a field because metal detector finds suggested that the postholes of a Vendel Period elite manor were sitting under it. I had metal-detected the site because it has another huge barrow and a name ending in -tuna, which signals the presence of power in the 1st millennium. Sadly the landowner wouldn’t let us at the most promising field because of a crop, so we dug in the second-best one next to it and found nothing to write home about.
  • At Pukeberget in 2011 Margareta Backe and I dug a few test pits in a cave because a Bronze Age spearhead had been found inside, I was writing a book on Bronze Age deposition sites and I wanted to know if there was more evidence of ancient activity in the cave. We found only recent cub scout stuff.
  • At Stensö and Landsjö in 2014 I dug a number of trenches in two castle ruins because I hadn’t worked with the High Middle Ages before, I wanted to study castles and Christian Lovén suggested these two sites. They are the only castles in Östergötland that have perimeter walls despite being owned by the nobility rather than by the Crown or Church. Neither had seen documented excavations before.

* For some reasoning around 1st millennium AD candidate sites for metal detecting, see pp. 16-17 in my 2011 book Mead-halls.

What I Need In Order To Dig My Sites

I’ve headed my own research excavations since 1996. Now I’m preparing for four weeks of fieldwork during the upcoming season. I operate as an independent scholar in this context, and none of my excavations have been prompted by land development. Here’s what I need to get hold of before I can break the turf or metal-detect the plough soil on an archaeological site in Sweden.

  • Contacts/notoriety. I couldn’t get much of what’s listed below without contacts/notoriety in the business.
  • Funding. Most of my research money comes from small private foundations in annual instalments of about $3,600 (€3,200 = SEK 30,000). The most dependable ones have supported my work for 20 years and seem pretty confident that I’ll do something useful with the money.
  • Land owner’s permission. I check the property name on the map, then I call the municipality’s land registry to find out who owns the land, and then I call the owner and ask. So far nobody’s said no, though one or two first wanted to know if they might be hit with any costs. They never are since they’re not the ones who head the digs.
  • An organisation to apply for the excavation permit. A person can’t get a permit. Only organisations can. I always collaborate with the county museum. We make an agreement where they will apply for the permit, and I promise that no costs will hit them. This is an expression of generosity and trust on their part, motivated to some extent by scientific curiosity. Unlike highway contract archaeology, I tend to target the most interesting sites around that my colleagues have wondered about for years.
  • County Archaeologist’s permission. I write a permit application, my colleagues at the museum tweak it a bit, and then they send it on to the county council. The County Archaeologist only gives us a permit if I’ve written up my previous fieldwork and if it seems likely that I will be able to pay for finds conservation.
  • Labour. I work with volunteers: students, metal detectorists, the members of local historical societies, friends and family.
  • Equipment. I borrow most of the fieldwork equipment from the county museum and other contract archaeology units.
  • Housing. Unless the participants in the dig live near the site, I have to provide housing. Just after lunch today, for instance, I called the Östra Husby village grocery store and got the number of a man who lets a house not too far from Stensö Castle. He was surprised to hear that I need twelve beds, but adapted quickly and said that he’ll be happy to find the extra ones for me.

Starting Up At Stensö

Stensö castle, trench C, the part along the perimeter wall. Note the ashlar.
Stensö castle, trench C, the part along the perimeter wall. Note the ashlar.
Drove down to Vikbolandet on Sunday night with my excellent colleague Ethan Aines from Stanford, and we were met at expedition HQ by seven of my Umeå students from last autumn semester. Very pleased to see them again! They’ve just finished their second term and several are scheduled to go on to the third. So I’ll be seeing them in the halls in September when I take on my second batch of Umeå freshmen, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to supervise a few of them for their BA theses. Everyone’s being charming and nobody complains about dorm life. Last night I taught the team Qwirkle. This morning there was a big mouse in one of our traps in the kitchen.

We started work at Stensö castle on Monday morning, clearing the walking path of a few storm-felled trees and laying out three trenches. We’re the first archaeologists to break turf here, true to my modus operandi. I don’t have contract archaeology’s resources, but I have the freedom to go where I will for fieldwork (except so far the peripheral innards of the Sättuna barrow, the only time I’ve had a permit application turned down, which still irks me), so I select sites that will never be touched by highway projects and which are not already well explored and understood.

Trench A is on the flank of the mound that marks the castle’s assumed northern tower. No masonry shows through the turfed-over rubble here. The trench aims to answer the question whether the northern tower was planned and built along with the perimeter wall when it was added to the site. If so, we can expect to find stones projecting out of the tower wall’s face to anchor the perimeter wall – which has been demolished along this stretch and is not currently visible.

Trench B is between the two towers and aims to answer the question where the perimeter wall was on this stretch.

Trench C is in the south-east part of the bailey against the perimeter wall and aims to answer the questions what sort of buildings stood there and what they were used for.

So far we’re just moving rubble. It contains a few humongous gneiss ashlar (Sw. gråstenskvader) which we cannot lift and don’t want to get crushed by. I’m thinking we can probably drag the ashlar out of trench C with a pulley anchored to a tree. Getting a mechanical excavator to this hilltop site in the woods would cost too much. This is only a problem in trench C where the goal is to get beneath the rubble and into a Medieval culture layer.

We’ve already made an interesting find. Trenches B and C have yielded a small amount of deformed vitrified brick that attests to a fire on site. These secondarily burnt bricks may come from the top part of the perimeter wall. Perhaps there was a wooden walkway along the inside of the wall, it got torched and some of the brickwork got messed up. There is no written evidence for any attack on the castle, but rebellion leader Engelbrekt’s forces took nearby Rönö castle in the 1430s and Stensö was not far out of their way.

Signing off, Tuesday lunch. Two students are making pancakes!

Stensö castle, trench C, the part along the perimeter wall. Note the ashlar.
Stensö castle, trench C, section through the rubble.