Meal Remains From Castles: 2016 Osteology Reports

Supported by a grant from the King Gustavus Adolphus VI Foundation For Swedish Culture, osteologist Lena Nilsson has analysed the bones we collected during excavations last year at two Medieval strongholds. Two weeks with 19 fieldworkers at Birgittas udde produced only 0.4 kg of bones, because the site has no culture layers to speak of and the sandy ground has been unkind. But from the following two weeks at Skällvik Castle we brought home 32.7 kg of bones! And now Lena has looked at them all. Here are her reports:

The reports are in Swedish, but the species names and anatomical terms are given in Latin. Birgittas udde was occupied briefly in the 1270s but then seems to have been vacant, though kept in repair long into the following century. Skällvik Castle was occupied from 1330 to 1356 or shortly thereafter.

Lena is available for more work, and I’ll be happy to help readers get in contact with this seasoned osteologist.

Update 29 May: And here’s Lena’s report on the bones from Landsjö Castle 2015.

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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.

A Medieval Lady’s Seal

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.

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).

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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.

Second Week Of 2016 Excavations At Skällvik Castle

Our second week at Skällvik Castle proved a continued small-finds bonanza, and we also documented some pretty interesting stratigraphy.

  • More of everything in Building IV. In addition to more coins of Magnus Eriksson, dice and stoneware drinking vessels, we also found a lot of points for crossbow bolts. It’s starting to look like the castle guards’ day room! As for why we found crossbow bolts only inside one building and none outdoors in the bailey, I figure that they had been amassed there for re-fletching. The dark indoors find context and the undamaged sharp points show that the bolts did not end up in the floor layer of Building IV because people were shooting there.
  • Building IX has a lovely floor sequence. First a terracing layer with few finds, probably pre-dating the entire building. Then a culture layer. Then a stone cobble floor. Then clay full of magical fairy stones. Then mortar. Then large square unglazed brick tiles, only a few of which survived. Then a demolition layer mixed with household refuse. Such attention paid over time to the floor of a low-ceilinged cellar-like ground-floor room demonstrates the resources available to the castle’s owner.
  • Building X has had a nice ribbed brick portal, as evidenced by broken decorative bricks left by the quarrymen.
  • The gate house is still very rich in bones, as remarked on by the 1902 excavator. And his coffee-loving workmen or their contemporaries left a small midden in it after the end of fieldwork.
  • Two finds in particular document the presence of the social elite, which is hardly surprising at a royal castle where both King Magnus and the Bishop of Linköping dated letters. One is part of a wheel-turned ivory ear scoop, the Q-Tip of the era’s nobility from the NW building. The other is a seal matrix with a simple coat of arms, found near the castle dock. I’m optimistic that specialists will be able to read the inscription and identify the owner.
  • We have enough coins to be able to draw chronological conclusions not only from which types are there, but from which ones are missing. All but one of the coins we have identified so far were struck for Magnus Eriksson, most during his final minting period about 1360. His successor and nephew Albrecht was crowned King of Sweden in February of 1364, and this ruler is represented by only one coin, a frontal crowned-face bracteate.
  • We can see the quarrying of the castle for building material, targeted largely towards bricks, preferentially towards specialised decorative ones and floor bricks. These were in all likelihood taken by boat the two kilometres to Stegeborg Castle when it was re-erected, probably in the 1360s. And when Stegeborg was partly torn down about 1700, the bricks travelled on to the royal castle in my home town Stockholm!
  • It would be great to learn what’s under the rubble that fills the castle keep. But excavating this building would be an enormous undertaking, with regard both to the sheer volume of rubble with large heavy boulders, and to the long-term conservation commitment once you’ve emptied the structure. It is not a job for one precariously employed university lecturer and his students, working for a few weeks on small grants. The organisation that excavates Skällvik Castle’s keep will have to have solid long-term funding. And it must be willing to put a roof on the structure, restore the masonry and return the keep to daily use as a museum space with offices. Any responsible intervention into a ruin must be done with an eye to the far future, not just to the next tourist season.

First Week Of 2016 Excavations At Skällvik Castle

The famous royal castle of Stegeborg sits on its island like a cork in the bottleneck of the Slätbaken inlet (see map here). This waterway leads straight to Söderköping, a major Medieval town, and to the mouth of River Storån which would allow an invader to penetrate far into Östergötland Province’s plains belt. The area’s first big piece of public construction was 9th century fortifications intended to guard this entrypoint, in the shape of the Götavirke earthen rampart some ways inland and a wooden barrage at Stegeborg. This barrage was kept up for centuries, and indeed, the castle’s name means “Barrage Stronghold”.

Stegeborg is easily accessible by car and receives many visitors. Few of them however then continue on to the nearest castle ruin, which is oddly enough only 2 km to the SSW: Skällvik Castle. It sits on a rock outcrop on the south shore of the inlet, inside Stegeborg’s line of strategic defence and within sight of it. Why two castles so closely apart?

The written sources are rather murky, partly because they rarely differentiate between a manorial land property and a castle sitting on that property. But following my friend Christian Lovén’s treatment of the evidence, the timeline seems to be roughly this.

  • C. 1300. King Birger has Stegeborg Castle built.
  • 1318. Stegeborg is besieged and largely torn down in a civil war after King Birger has his rival brothers Erik and Valdemar starved to death in a Nyköping dungeon. Reports the Chronicle of Duke Erik from the victorious party’s perspective, “They broke down that wall so completely / They did not leave one stone on top of another”. King Birger is deposed and exiled.
  • C. 1330. King Magnus (the son of the murdered Duke Erik) or the regents during his minority refortify the Slätbaken passage, but with a new castle on the hill at Skällvik rather than on Stegeborg Island. About the same time, Skällvik Parish church is built between the two castle sites.
  • 1356. Skällvik is attacked by the forces of Erik Magnusson, rebellious royal pretender and son of King Magnus.
  • 1360s. Realising the obvious, King Albrecht (nephew of King Magnus) returns to the superior strategic position and rebuilds Stegeborg, quarrying the ruins of Skällvik for building material.

So Stegeborg and Skällvik Castles aren’t really two separate castles when seen on a strategic scale. They’re two versions of the same castle that has moved slightly to and fro over its 400-year lifetime, leaving a fossilised mid-14th century version at Skällvik.

Unlike Stegeborg Castle, which was maintained and extended up to the 1690s, nothing was ever built on Skällvik Castle’s foundations. Only recently was a small-scale brickworks established at the foot of the castle hill. In 1902 restoration architect A.W. Lundberg considerately removed a lot of the rubble from the ruins, leaving the culture layers easily available to the excavator everywhere except inside the keep. In the past week, me and my team have been the first archaeologists to take advantage of this state of affairs.

In addition to the high keep, Skällvik Castle has three main buildings arranged around its sloping bailey. They are joined up by short stretches of perimeter wall. We have opened trenches inside all three buildings (two in the long building IX-X) and in the bailey along the wall of building X. In addition we have test-screened and metal detected two big spoil dumps from 1902, and skilled metal detectorists have investigated our trenches and the surface around the foot of the castle hill. A few of our main results so far:

  • Five of six Medieval coins date from about 1360. The sixth is too corroded (i.e. debased) to allow dating before conserved. Two were minted in nearby Söderköping, one in Kalmar.
  • All other coins date from 1800 or later.
  • Building IV, where Lundberg identified a baking oven in 1902, has yielded all five datable Medieval coins, a bone gaming die and a piece of fine burgundy stoneware, probably from Lower Saxony. Drinking and gambling in the warmth of the bakery!
  • Building IX has yielded a fine cobbled cellar floor and a comb fragment.
  • The two 1902 spoil dumps are erosion rubble and brick kiln refuse, respectively, and not productive of small finds.
  • Unlike Birgittas udde, Skällvik Castle offers many preserved bones.
  • I have demonstrated experimentally (and idiotically) that when clearing brambles, you should wear protective glasses. I was lucky to only get my left cornea nicked a little. Hurt pretty bad and left me barely functional for two days.
  • Stoner dudes parked by the authorities at your religious abstainer hostel provide much entertainment with their spaced-out antics and conversation. Unless you mind food, cigarettes and bikinis going missing. And nocturnal rearrangement of furniture. And heavy bass at two in the morning.

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 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?

Stensö Castle 2015 Fieldwork Report

Myself, Ethan Aines and Mats G. Eriksson are proud to present our report on last year’s fieldwork at Stensö Castle, Östra Husby parish, Östergötland. Lots of goodies there, and with an added meaty report on the bones by Rudolf Gustavsson! It was a very fruitful two weeks at the site, during which we found the missing half of the perimeter wall, abundant fine pottery from around AD 1300, a runic inscription by a certain Helgi, the bones of a skinned cat, and more.

Here on Sb: Stenso 2015 Report (High-res, single-sided print)

And on archive.org.

See also the report for 2014, the first documented excavations at the site.

Landsjö Castle 2015 Fieldwork Report

Myself, Ethan Aines and Mats G. Eriksson are proud to present our report on last year’s fieldwork at Landsjö Castle, Kimstad parish, Östergötland. Lots of goodies there! Construction on the castle seems to have begun between 1250 and 1275, and the site was abandoned halfway through an extension project some 50-75 years later. We also found a Middle Neolithic fishing site and an Early Modern smallholding among the ruins.

Here on Sb: Landsjo 2015 Report (single-sided print-web, high res)

And on archive.org.

See also the report for 2014, the first documented excavations at the site.