Metal detectorist Steffen Hansen has kindly given me permission to show you his tattoo sleeve. He found the strap-end at Øvre Eiker in Buskerud fylke, Norway, and had it tattooed along with other Norwegian examples of the Borre style. I haven’t got a picture of his find, but you can see what they look like in the accompanying picture of a piece from the eponymous find at Borre in nearby Vestfold fylke. The tattoo was done by Mikael “Kula” Jensen of Radich Tattoo in Mjøndalen.
The Borre style is the Viking Period’s second and most long-lived style of relief decoration, c. AD 875-975. Its frontal animal heads, often with Mickey Mouse ears, marks it as animal art and as a descendant of the Gripping Beast style, but the interlace that covers the objects’ surfaces isn’t animals. Instead it’s abstract ring braids with characteristic saw-toothed ridges, mimicking metal filigree or cord passementerie. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson has pointed out in a 2006 paper that the Borre style never occurs on offensive weaponry, but is common on jewellery, belt fittings and mounts for defensive weaponry. Thus she interprets the Borre style as a form of magical protection for the wearer.
Borre itself is a royal site with many major barrows. In all likelihood, the ship burial from c. AD 900 that gave the style its name contained a king of the Vestfold lineage. I was there in 2013, gave a talk and took a lot of pictures.
The previous instalment in our series of metal detectorist tattoos was from Hugo Falck. Us archaeologists love to see people engage with the archaeological heritage, and you don’t really get more personal about it than this. Dear Reader, have you got a tattoo of an artefact that you’ve found? I’d love to show it here!
When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, they often ask ”So have you dug at Birka?”. As of yesterday I can finally proudly reply ”yeah, a bit”.
”Birka” is a Latinate attempt to write Biærkey, ”Birch Island”. It’s an island in Lake Mälaren, two hours by slow boat from Stockholm. For a bit more than 200 years starting in the mid-8th century, it hosted the first town on Swedish soil, established there as a regulated international trading post under the protective (and probably tax-grabbing) hand of the Kings of the Swedes. This immortally classic Viking Period site has huge cemeteries, a huge early urban culture layer which is up to two meters thick, a town rampart, a fortified hilltop and more.
My friend Sven Kalmring and his team have reopened and extended the trench excavated in 1969–71 under Björn Ambrosiani’s direction, in order to learn more about Birka’s waterfront during three weeks of fieldwork. Tuesday my friends Roger Wikell and Kalle Dahlberg visited them and managed to find a chunk of a runestone sitting in a clearance cairn near the trench. And Wednesday I paid a visit.
Getting to Björkö is difficult if you don’t want to spend hours on the tourist boat and you haven’t got a boat of your own. The closest point you can drive to is Lindby dock on the southern tip of Adelsö, whence you can see the town site clearly. Unless you want to swim 300 metres though, you somehow have to find a boat. I was helped by Runemaster Kalle Dahlberg, who very kindly lent me his canoe. He taught me to put stones in the prow box to keep from drifting sideways when paddling solo in a strong wind. And soon I was at the trench edge on Björkö, saying hi to my peeps.
When visiting someone’s dig for just a few hours, I try to make myself useful in capacities that don’t require any time-consuming teaching, and where I won’t mess stuff up. I spent the day hauling buckets of water out of the trench (there’s a feckin’ stream running through the deeper parts of the trench, sandwiched between the fat culture layer and the equally fat post-glacial clay under it), delivering them to the screens, and wet screening bucket after bucket of the Black Earth. I’ll say that again. Wet screening the Black Earth of Birka. If you’re into small finds, this is as good as it gets.
The Black Earth is full of well preserved bones and teeth of animals, including loads of fish bones, even a piece of swan eggshell in one of my buckets. It reminded me of the Thames foreshore at low tide. I also picked up quite a quantity of burnt clay and knapped stone, and some 19/20th century bits from the top layers. My best finds of the day were a 6 mm globular rock crystal bead and a small cupped piece of yellow/green vitrified clay. This latter looked like a piece of either a crucible or a Schmelzkugel, the brazing packages used when making brass-covered iron weights.
Runologist Magnus Källström visited and gave Roger’s & Kalle’s runestone fragment some tender attention. With his expert pointers and my own examination I got the impression that the fragment reads iruasaþ, but I have no idea what that might mean. It’s certainly not one of the region’s many formulaic 11th century inscriptions. Magnus is a popular guy right now. Marta Lindeberg’s team found a beautifully carved rune bone with a long inscription at nearby Sigtuna, Tuesday.
At four I got back in Kalle’s canoe and paddled back to Adelsö, with the soot of the Black Earth under my nails, red-pated from the May sun, and with a song in my archaeologist’s heart.
My paper on the re-use of Late Iron Age picture stones during that same period (mainly in late male graves) has been published in English and Swedish parallel versions of Gotländskt Arkiv 2012. That’s the annual of the Gotland County Museum. Have a look! Questions and comments are most welcome.
The Midgardsenteret visitors’ centre at Borre invited me to give a talk about my Östergötland elite settlement project. This went well, with a sizeable and appreciative audience last night. One gentleman explained that they had all learned Swedish from watching kids’ TV when they were little. Today I went on a royal Late Iron Age binge.
This is Vestfold, home of the Norwegian branch of the Ynglingar dynasty, with sites like Oseberg, Gokstad, Kaupang, Huseby, Gulli – and Borre. The ancient cemetery starts right outside the main entrance to Midgardsenteret with some low mounds of respectable diameter. And then, as you walk down the slow slope towards the shore of Viken, the place goes absolutely nuts with absurdly huge barrows.
One of the largest ones was quarried away for road-building in the 19th century, yielding the first known but poorly preserved major ship burial, dating to the early 10th century. There’s been debate over whether Borre is really the dynastic burial site of the Ynglingar whom Snorri Sturluson tells of in the Heimskringla. I’ll just say this. If that line of Viking Period kings was an historical reality – which no historian seems to question seriously – then there is no way in Hel that they would have allowed anybody else to accumulate a uniquely huge barrow cemetery anywhere west of the Scandinavian mountain range – let alone at Borre, smack bang in the middle of Vestfold. The minute another family tried to build their barrow number two, or a slightly too large barrow number one, their mead hall would be burning merrily and surrounded by the Ynglingar retinue on a cleanup mission, swords in hands. Also, each barrow at Borre presupposes control over huge labour, which equals political power.
I scaled all the major barrows and cairns including the isolated Fiddler’s Barrow to the south, saw the sunken traces of Bjørn Myhre’s 1980s/90s test trenches (no archive report, no publication), saw the tricorn, saw the site of the great hall foundations revealed by GP radar, and looked unhappily at the huge robber trenches in the barrows. I really hope they’re 13th century (and thus evidence for behaviour among people I study) and not 18th century (and thus modern vandalism). Then I checked out the unusually early and unusually oriented church nearby. That’s what the Borre family built after they quit erecting barrows. And finally I was shown the new mead hall reconstruction near Borre, huge and ornately carved in the Oseberg style, with a twelve metre roof and narrative relief panels on the four central roof posts. The tale of Beowulf is illustrated by the same Vendel helmet warrior images as grace Fornvännen’s cover!
After lunch the Midgardsentret’s master blacksmith Hans Johnny Hansen drove me to the Oseberg ship barrow, sitting next to a little stream at the bottom of a wide valley, the least monumental location possible. On past the Traveller’s Barrow to Tønsberg where H.J. showed me the new replica of the Oseberg ship – blew my mind! Also lovely replicas of the smaller Gokstad rowboats and a replica of another mid-size ship. The master smith, who personally made all the thousands of clench nails for the Oseberg replica, pointed at the brass screws holding this latter ship together and made skeptical noises.
I spent my last two hours in Tønsberg at the museum, checking out the Klåstad wreck of a 10th century trading ship, the collection of whale skeletons, finds from the two 12th century battlefields at Re and an exhibition about the resistance against the German occupation in the 40s. I was chilled to read an account by their regional leader of how two young local women were found through phone wire tapping to have taken lovers in the Gestapo. The resistance immediately kidnapped and jailed both women. “We were debating whether to terminate or deport them. But finally we sent them by boat to Sweden, largely because they had made themselves useful in jail, cleaning the place up and cooking for the guards. They later sent Christmas cards from Sweden to their lovers, which we intercepted, but they didn’t seem to abuse their situation over there. So I’m glad we decided to let them live.” After the war, the children born to such women during the occupation were infamously poorly treated.
Etymologically speaking, ”valkyrie” means ”chooser of the slain”. The job of these supernatural shield maidens in Norse mythology is to select who dies on the battlefield and guide their souls to Odin’s manor, where they will spend the afterlife training for the Twilight of the Gods, the final battle against the forces of chaos. After each day’s combat training, a mead-hall party with drink and reincarnated pork ensues, with the valkyries waiting the tables.
We have had very few period depictions of armed women. Instead scholars have applied the term “valkyrie” to a common Late Iron Age motif of a usually unarmed woman who offers up a mead cup or horn, sometimes standing alone, sometimes to an armed man, who is often on horseback. A more cautious term for this motif is “the greeting scene”, and there is reason to link it to beliefs about what would happen to men in the afterlife (cf. houris). But there are armed women embroidered on the tapestries from the AD 834 Oseberg ship burial, and a small group of brooches shows them in 2D relief (pictures below). Thanks to Danish amateur metal detectorists, that group is growing steadily. And now a 3D version of the motif has surfaced!
Detectorist Morten Skovsby found the first 3D valkyrie figurine late last year at Hårby on Funen. She wears a floor-length dress and has her hair in the typical knot we’ve seen for instance on the Lady of Sättuna in Kaga, and she’s armed with sword and shield. The interlace decoration on the rear of her dress should permit pretty tight dating once specialists get to see it clearly, but she’s definitely from the Vendel or Viking Periods, and I’d say probably from the 8th/9th/10th century.
See also the Lejre Lady. Thanks to Jakob Øhlenschlæger for the tip-off, to Jan Hein and Henrik Brinch Christiansen for the photographs and to Claus Feveile for additional information.