From cairns to people

Big cairn

EIA cairns may be rather grand like this one at Le 19.7/2

While houses of the Early Iron Age Åland remain lost, there are some 150 sites with over 1400 features on Åland that are registered as traces of graves belonging to EIA. During EIA, dead were cremated and buried in stone settings and cairns with only few grave goods. In contrast to the Bronze Age tradition of burials in large cairns that were built directly on bedrock and located on high grounds close to water (and, occasionally, revisited during EIA), EIA cairns on Åland are smaller and burials individual. Also, although there are EIA cemeteries close to coast, the majority of EIA graves have been located in some distance from water, being built on low sandy ridges. Therefore, it is mainly the setting and the height above sea level that has been and still is considered decisive during landscape surveys and inventories while assigning an archaeological period of either Bronze Age or EIA to cairns and stone settings.

Only about 4% of the registered EIA cairns and stone settings on Åland have been investigated and wide-scale, contextualising analyses of this material are few. Therefore, the value and importance of Helena Edgren’s work must be emphasized as her research in the beginning of 1980s is still the best and practically the only analysis on the subject. Edgren analysed the geographical and topographical location of EIA cairns on Åland pointing out 3 different groups of loci:

  1.        inland, around forested mires
  2.        inland, by arable land
  3.        on the coast
Little cairn

EIA cairns may also look (and usually do look) quite so inconspicuous like this newly found and not yet registered little cairn in Lemland

According to Edgren, the municipalities of Eckerö, Jomala and Sund (?) had most of the located cairns and were thus most densely populated areas during EIA. Today, the situation is somewhat different – the highest number of registered EIA cairns is in Eckerö and Lemland as in both municipalities there are about 400 cairns located, but also Jomala and Hammarland have around 200 registered EIA cairns each (I count 224 resp. 188). In Lemland and Hammarland, cairns are almost exclusively located inland, around forested mires, while in Eckerö and Jomala these are found all over the municipalities’ territory displaying all three types of loci. Edgren argues that EIA cairns were built by three populations with different economic structures as indicated by the geographical and topographical locations: first group was involved in inland fishing and cattle rising, second in farming, and third in seal hunting and open sea fishing. Edgren also points out that, in some cases, the tradition to bury in cairns extended into the Late Iron Age making the boundary between ‘old’ and ‘new’ ambiguous and clearly signifying settlement continuity between these two periods.

Although Edgren’s discussion on EIA Åland is simple, her research extended beyond the diagnostic features of EIA monuments and brought the behaviour of people in the past closer to the fore. But there is no question that EIA is one of the least studied periods of Åland. And it worries me gravely since this constitutes background for our understanding of the Late Iron Age…….


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