This little guy is the new face of Old Uppsala. Most likely a religious amulet, being too small for a gaming piece, he showed up as a corroded lump in a cremation grave of the Late Vendel Period, early-8th century. The same grave also yielded a lovely millefiori glass bird gem, glass beads, and very unusually for its time, molten remains of silver objects. To my knowledge this is the richest female Vendel Period grave found to date at the old nucleus of Svealand, that is, the best candidate for the grave of an 8th century Queen of the Swedes.
Read more at the Old Uppsala project blog kept by my friend, noted author Kristina Ekero Eriksson! Photographs by Sophie Nyström, Acta konserveringscentrum AB (metal dude) and Bengt Backlund, Upplandsmuseet (bird gem).
Millefiori glass bird
Figurine before conservation
Guldgubbar are tiny pieces of gold foil with (usually) embossed motifs. They most commonly depict single men, then embracing couples, then single women, all in fine clothing. They date from the Vendel Period (540-790) and seem to have been religious artefacts. Usually they are found in the remains of elite residences, concentrating in and around roof-bearing postholes in the main hall. They form this gold-poor period’s continuation of the Migration Period’s gold bractate pendants and other sumptuous goldwork.
Gold foil figures weren’t necessarily made where they are found. They are eminently portable, and identical ones have been found at multiple sites. But if you find the copper-alloy dies they were stamped on, then you’ve probably located a production site. And unlike the tiny foils themselves, the dies can be located in the ploughsoil by means of a metal detector. We know of fewer than 25 such dies. In 2007 I was lucky enough to direct fieldwork where Niklas Krantz found the northernmost one known to archaeology: at Sättuna in Kaga outside of Linköping. The Sättuna die (below) shows a single woman seen in profile, opening her mouth to speak or sing and lifting her hand in an imperious gesture.
On 23 February Danish metal detectorist Dennis Maigaard found a closely similar die while working with a county museum. It has the Sättuna lady’s sideways displaced feet that suggest she’s sitting down, it has the great disc-on-bow-brooch under her jawline, but it hasn’t got the raised hand. The site is a known elite one at Boeslunde on SW Zealand that has yielded at least one die before. I wish Swedish archaeology would collaborate more with people like Dennis instead of putting destructive legal obstacles in their way!
I’ve covered dies from Zealand before: here and here. Thanks to Hans Henrik Hansen for the photograph and to Tobias Bondesson for information.
23 years ago I started my undergraduate studies, and my hugely inspiring main teacher was Göran Burenhult, who had written our main textbook. Now I’m teaching a very similar freshman archaeology course for the first time, and the main textbook is again one written by Göran Burenhult. This two-volume work is titled Arkeologi i Norden and appeared in 1999. At Göran’s invitation I contributed an article for the second volume about aristocratic culture in the 5th through the 8th centuries.
I haven’t re-read my article in a long time. But very timely, my friend Kristina – who is writing a book about Old Uppsala – asked me the other day to look my piece over and tell her if there are any points I’ve reconsidered over the past 14 years. As it turns out, there are. Two big ones and a number of small ones.
- I hadn’t yet realised that the shift from the Migration Period to the Vendel / Merovingian Period is qualitatively different from all other period shifts during the Iron Age (or indeed the start and end of the Age!). It was a highly dramatic affair. The start of the archaeological Migration Period in Scandyland had been due to indirect knock-on effects of the Hunnic invasion of southern Europe in AD 375. The start of the Merovingian Period was instead largely due to a global atmospheric dust cloud (of volcanic or meteoritic origin) that caused several years of famine and extreme cold from AD 536 onward. Pollen diagrams across Scandinavia indirectly document huge population loss. This coincided with the Plague of Justinian in AD 541–542. Yet about the same time, political and military order was restored on the Continent after the great migrations, ending the Scandinavian golden age of plunder that the region’s poets would reminisce about for centuries to come. The Early Vendel Period elite of the Lake Mälaren area in fact staged a violent and sustained campaign of iconoclasm against the memorials of their Migration Period forebears, smashing their picture stones to pieces, looting their chamber graves and supressing runic literacy.
- My unsourced statement that there was no Swedish realm before the 12th century was wrong. At least from the start of the Merovingian Period, the tribal Swedes had a main king although his realm was poorly organised and far smaller than High Medieval Sweden. About AD 1000 this realm formed a federation with the neighbouring Geatish provinces when Olof Ericsson skotkonungr was elected joint king of both. This led over the course of the 11th century to the organisation of the federation into hundreds/härad, to the establishment of the network of Husby royal manors and to a much tightened organisation for the ledung royal naval levy. If by definition any Swedish realm worth that name must include the Geatish area, then Sweden begins with the election of King Olof.
Then a few details.
- The period shift to the Merovingian took place in the 530s, not the 520s, as I wrote.
- The western Roman empire fell in a protracted process during the Migration Period: this was not an event about the time of that period’s start, as I wrote.
- Well organised Scandy warbands went to the ailing East Empire and helped extract solidus gold payments in person. Those coins did not reach us though down-the-line trade or gift-giving, as I wrote.
- The classic period of image-rich picture stones on Gotland probably lies mainly in the 9th century, not the 8th, as I wrote.
- The helmets handed out by Frankish kings to their vassals were of the Spangenhelm type, not the Scandy Vendel/Valsgärde/Sutton Hoo type with embossed sheet metal panels, as I wrote.
- I shouldn’t have made that unsourced statement about Vandal material culture in Tunisia being recognisably Scandinavian. I didn’t know for sure in 1999 that it was, and I still don’t know.
For more about this period, download my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats as an Open Access free PDF.