Some reflections on the Early Medieval Åland – settlement reduction or continuity
by Jan-Henrik Fallgren
Because of the nature of Åland as an archipelago, the settlements have always been very scattered, distributed on a variety of islands. Despite this, one can distinguish several contiguous smaller settlement and farmland areas (bygder), naturally demarcated by water, forest and rocky areas. These areas are clearly shown by the concentrations of ancient monuments from the early medieval period, such as graves, grave-fields, and stone foundation houses. These concentrations correlate well with where the best farmland where situated on Åland, and where most settlements can be found at the oldest maps from the 17th and 18th centuries. The archipelago’s six hill-forts are placed and built next to, or on the outskirts of, each larger contiguous farmland and settlement district within the island group.
Due to differences in the archaeological records within the archipelago, and the distribution of the hill-forts, it has been suggested by Jan Storå and others, that Åland consisted of two broad polities during the end of the pre-historic period; one north-eastern, with a strong connection to both eastern Sweden, and the coastal areas of present day Finland, and one south-western polity, exhibiting a more local or regional character. Both polities had a set of three hill-forts each. These sets of hill-forts have been interpreted as reflecting organized groups with social hierarchies and conventions of conduct differentiating themselves from other organized groups, i.e. as separate polities. This, I believe, is a highly probable interpretation in many ways. One might think that these six would be too small to constitute a political entity by themselves. The fact is that most Iron Age tribal political units and early medieval petty-kingdoms rarely were any larger than these. Usually they consisted of a single settlement district (bygd in Swedish, bygd and fylke in Norwegian, scir in Old English, mag and tuath in Old Irish, mag and howe in Gaelic Scottish, pays in French, gau in German, campus in Classical Latin, and regio in Medieval Latin), and sometimes two. These smaller units were usually also parts of, and the building blocks of, larger entities-kingdoms, where a hierarchy of kings was the normal situation.
The hill-forts were always the biggest, the most potent expression, and often the most complex constructions within a territory in the regions of Europe where hill-forts were erected and built during the Iron Age and the early medieval period. No doubt they were collective structures, at regular intervals maintained, repaired or expanded collectively by the people living in the area. In those cases where the original name of the forts is known, and is not containing a god’s name as prefix, they were often named by the people, tribe, gens or kingdom where they were erected. A kingdom could be named after a hill-fort, or the cliff or mountain where it was erected. There are also several known early medieval examples of a special kingship, a High kingship, named after a hill-fort, the fort where these kings where inaugurated. These High kingships always included several petty kingships, where the different petty kings were competing to gain the higher office, or where the High kingship was itinerant between some or all of the included petty kingdoms, or was itinerant between a few of the royal lineages in the region. All this, together with the fact that hill-forts often exhibit proof of communal feasting and plenty of ritual activities when excavated, demonstrates that hill-forts probably always had a primary communal symbolic and ritual function for those who used and built it. During martial context they could also be used as a last refuge.
Therefore, each of the Ålandic hill-forts can be regarded as symbolic manifestations for each of the six different cohesive settlement districts within the archipelago, representing six different polities/regions divided into two larger political units with three lesser in each. Perhaps they all had a common meeting point, gathering- or assembly place at the small island of Tingön, at the inlet to Kastelholm and Sund parish, as the name of the island certainly would indicate. In addition to the name itself, the island is located almost at the geographical centre point of the archipelago, which would fit extremely well into what we know about those kinds of places from other regions of Europe during the Iron Age and the early middle ages, for example Roma on Gotland, Uisneach on Ireland, and Carnutes in Gaul. This kind of gathering places were looked upon as the sacred centre, or navel of the earth, and constituted the axis mundi for the people gathering here.
…to be continued 🙂