Category Archives: Fieldwork

The life of a post-hole

with Kim Darmark


Digging post-holes can be rather tedious, non-rewarding work. Cut through, photograph, document the section, take samples and on to the next one. To a certain extent, this has been true at Kvarnbo as well, but a surprising number of the post-hole remains have, on the contrary, been challenging and exciting to investigate. This is due partly to the fact that so many of them have a life history which is possible to reconstruct. It is often possible to follow the events that have taken place through the different constructional elements making up the feature. In quite a few cases, it is possible to see the edges of the original pit, filled with a lighter primary fill, which was deposited in the pit at the moment of its construction. This fill is often lined with stones, creating a solid base for a beam to rest on. Both naturally rounded stones from the surrounding and rugged, fire-cracked blocks of stone have been chosen for this purpose. The primary fill contrasts markedly from a darker secondary fill, which enters into the pit at a considerably later date, when the old supporting beam is removed from the pit. The darkening of the fill represents many years of intensive use of the site, during which large amounts of organic remains have been tossed on site, creating refuse layers, usually referred to as cultural layers. This dark soil only infills the small chamber that is produced by the stones in the stone packing, and is often also rich in finds, which constitutes the other interesting aspect of post-hole investigation at Kvarnbo. Since we sift the soil through sieving net using water, we find every little find, even tiny ribs, scales and vertebrae from fish, which has ended up in the post-hole. The usual finds are bones and pottery, but a few less common items have been found as well, such as pearls, and small copper loops. Almost every feature that has been investigated this season has contained at least a few finds, some of them large amounts, and gives testimony to the richness of the cultural layer once present at the site.

Press this link to see the 3D model of feature 211 during investigation 😉

Traditional Strategy and New Techniques

by Frands Herschend

Strip (off the plough soil), map (the patterns you see) and sample (material from mapped structures) – is an archaeological field strategy applied to settlement remains in agricultural land, where crops have been growing for centuries. Ultimately, the method has become prolific, because of the gradual shift in the use of the cultural landscape. This shift made arable land more important and organized not least by means of roads. Consequently, farms were moved out of the farmland when possible. In Iron Age, on the other hand, arable land was less important, while grassland and meadows contributed substantially to subsistence. Not surprisingly, a rational Iron Age farm situation was in the centre of the farm’s agricultural area. Few roads were needed.

In Kvarnbo, change has been model, and today, the farms at Johannisberg are situated next to and above the arable land in which the Iron Age Kvarnbo hall stood on its small drained hillock.

When the excavations were planned, the strip, map and sample method was the obvious choice. But there are different way of stripping, mapping and sampling, and at Kvarnbo we have introduced a new mapping method in order to develop the general method. The testbed was successful during the test excavations in 2014, and in 2016, this mapping method was developed to become a routine.

Except for a handful of GPS reference points defining some of the test pits before the excavations started (see here), nine main reference points were defined after the top soil was stripped off in the area of over 1000 m2, and complemented with 183 reference points inside of that area. Supported by these, all (georeferenced) exact measurements, plans and sections are based on photographic 3D models. Also, a large scale plan was made with a drone during a 10 minute photo session and its orthographic projection, printed as an overview, has enabled the team to orientate itself on the site.

New techniques

Archaeological documentation goes hand in hand with interpretation. Description dominate fieldwork without excluding interpretation, and in the field, ocular observation is the general mode of perception: either you see something of you don’t. Later on, during the report writing process, interpretation and lab results dominate in order to answer the question: what cultural phenomena have we excavated? The problem in field archaeology is not what one observes, the problem is that which cannot be seen.

Overlapping features in the trench of 2014

In this section from the trial excavations of 2014, one can see archaeological features from Late Iron Age (A12 and A13) been transected by more modern plough furrow (A18).

For instance, looking at plough layer and plough furrows or any other depression, the point is to describe some sort of “ploughing biography” of the field as a part of the its involvement in history. It is easy to see the dark furrows when they cut into the yellow underground, but difficult to detect them at the bottom of the plough layer, and impossible higher up, although they may well exist in soil 20 centimeters or more below the surface. In fact, only by means of close observation of soil sections can one distinguish between ploughed and not ploughed soil.

Since we want to sample the contents of the different fills in postholes, we make a preliminary section of the first centimeters of the soil until, based on this section, we can dig away the plough soil, that is, the contamination of the prehistoric fill. As a result, we can, for example, conclude that the burnt clay, which represents burnt walls and was abound in the test pits, doesn’t exist in the postholes of the hall (because it was never burnt down).

So far, we have sectioned, described and interpreted c. 230 features of 273 on the c. 1000 m2 of our site. This is time consuming, but the ensuing 3D documentation is fast. On average, therefore, a team of four professional archaeologists and 2-3 amateurs can section, describe, interpret, sift and model 20-25 features per day, and sample soil for chemical and macrofossil analyses. 3D-modelling brings a new better and cheaper standard to strip, map and sample methods.



One by one, archaeological features at the Kvarnbo Hall site, mainly post-holes, are being investigated. And there is a number of really pretty ones among these post-holes – several are preserved much better than I expected (about 0,4 m in depth), and every so often, there is a stone packing evident. In at least three cases so far we have post-holes that have been filled with the material from a hearth and thereby filled with finds of bones from many different creatures (including fishes and birds) as well as pieces of pottery. Every  post-hole not yet investigated is therefore like an unopened package, whose contents are still unknown and it is up to us to unwrap the mystery 😀


Week 5 – brief summary

Anläggningar undersöksThis week we had Daniel flying the drone over the cleaned surface, barely beating the rain, and giving us the much needed overview picture of the site. The overview picture confirms what we suspected – features are scattered over a large part of the trench and beyond the boundaries of our investigation. The majority seems to be circular post-hole like features very varying in size. A couple of centrally located features excite us with both their size, placement and relation to each other 😉 Some features can already at this stage be viewed as hearths and are mostly situated in the southernmost part of the trench. Otherwise, the surface is quite obviously dominated by plough furrows, hundreds of them, as well as a couple of long ditches transecting the entire site. We have numbered and individually photographed 246 archaeological features defined so far and have also started to make cross-sections through some of them. Investigating the features will dominate the rest of the excavation. Sadly, that will be done without help from Anton and Peter, both of whom have been with us 4 weeks and have proven themselves to be true troopers of archaeology – their effort was highly appreciated and will be missed. They left together with Jonathan and the remaining, diminished team thus has the fortune to investigate all the features no matter the weather 😀


250? 300? 350? archaeological features

There was an end to the endless manual cleaning of the trench 😀 and everyone involved in this job must be considered as heros!! This endeavor was by far the physically most demanding phase of our investigations. It was also quite boring. As a result, we have a swarm of archaeological features (criss-crossed by hundreds of furrows….). To my frustration, almost every time I wanted/started to photograph the cleaned parts of the trench, the sun made its appearance and there was my shadow again. Luckily, Daniel is on his way bringing the drone that will give us the much needed overview of the trench. It will be alright, you’ll see 🙂


Mead Cups

by Frands Herschend

Between the 6th and the 11th century, texts in Latin, Old French, Old Friesian, Old High German, Old English and Old Norse tell us about halls, and we come to know them as lavish buildings and important social arenas. In the hall the wealthy and powerful demonstrate wealth and power in a peaceful, generous and civilised way. In the centre of this arena sits the hall owner and next to him his consort – lord and lady. He is power, since he is ‘the bread giver’ that is ‘the lord’. She is his moral compass guiding him in that part of the world where he executes his power – be it local or imperial.

One of her important duties when he has filled his hall with guests and visitors is diplomatic. She addresses a guest when needed and offers him something to drink. For that reason she is called the lady with the mead cup. This role may seem mundane, but since the hall is an arena what she has to say to a guest is for everyone to hear. She speaks in a polished way and everybody catches her drift. To many authors she is elegant civilisation, and beauty, personified. The mead is instrumental inasmuch as it makes it easy for the guest to swallow what she has to say.

Her role is crucial for the life in the hall and so is the quality of the mead which preferably is a tasty, old and strong honey wine (10-15% alcohol). And so she needs the cup. The mead represents the produce of the estate that is a local product of the highest quality. The cup on the other hand is an exquisite object acquired by the farm owner to match the mead. In Late Iron Age Scandinavia this cup is a glass and not a drinking horn. It is foreign, fragile and expensive because it must be imported from the Rhineland, Southern England or indeed Byzantium. That is the kind of connections that the mead cup signals.

In archaeological terms this means that if one excavates a hall, one would expect to find glass sherds. If the hall is well-preserved or indeed smashed, as these centres of civilisation sometimes are, there are hundreds or indeed thousands of sherds on the floor. But if a hall is badly preserved it takes an effort to find them. It is not rocket science to find them when one excavates a well-preserved hall, but if the hall is badly preserved, it takes patience, a lot of sifting and indeed a keen eye. That was exactly what the Kvarnbo excavation team had.

Since the trial excavations in 2014 strongly indicated the presence of the hall in Kvarnbo, it was just a matter of time before glass sherds would be found. Actually, they started coming already the second day. A rim sherd from a typical early 7th century glass cup. Now, there are several small sherds from at least five glasses. Once the rim belonged to a slightly bluish thin transparent glass that brought out the deep golden colour of the mead.

Of all the diagnostic finds we have recorded during this season, the glass sherds are still the most characteristic hall-indicating artefacts.

Mead cups