Category Archives: Fieldwork

Diagnostic digging

with Frands Herschend

One of the things we ask ourselves at Kvarnbo is if there were any other Late Iron Age hall farms like Kvarnbo on Åland, and how many more Late Iron Age settlement sites there could be in today’s agriculturally exploited areas. The reason is simple: if we had had a not too expensive way of finding the remains of such sites, we would get a much better grip on an important formative period in the history of modern Åland, prior to its becoming a part of the Medieval Swedish realm.

Fieldwork at Kvarnbo is meant to – actually, it is designed to proceed in well-defined steps that allow us to understand what a given archaeological step in the field will lead to. We test, investigate and proceed with new tests and new evaluations in order not to go astray, but to proceed in a rational way building up our knowledge base and predict the outcome of our actions.

This stepwise method teaches us a lot about Kvarnbo as well as a good deal about Late Iron Age hall farms and their halls in general. We have of course made a mistake or two – nothing irreparable – but most often our predictions have been quite correct. Today we would not be entirely surprised if we came across the remains of yet another Ålandic hall, next to a church in a well-drained, slightly elevated position. Most probably, test pits on such a site will reveal that farming during hundreds of years has taken away all the cultural layers above the site and moved plough soil in such a way that it will partly cover (and indeed protect) low laying prehistoric layers. Already now, with the help of metal detectors and amateur archaeologists, students and volunteers methodically digging 1 m2 test pits during 2 or 3 weeks, supervised by an experienced archaeologist, we could in all probability confirm or reject the existence of a hall farm. In the coming weeks we will become even better at defining a hall site without actually excavating it because our checklist will become longer and more specific.

Diagnostic diggingIt is probably not possible and perhaps not even sensible to excavate a complete farm site that has not suffered the ravages of the plough. However, there is a great point in finding these Ålandic farms and, why not, another Ålandic hall in today’s farmland, since doing it will reveal the first truly political geography on Åland. Indeed, to the visiting archaeologist sitting in the morning at Marie Bar in the sunshine drinking his coffee reading the daily newspapers eating one of the exquisite sandwiches waiting for his ride to Kvarnbo, the political geography of Åland seems still to be a significant subject and a more ambitious metal detecting project in cooperation with professional archaeologists and interested amateurs could be highly productive in this regard.

Reflections of a volunteer – part 1

by Pasi Välkkynen

I heard about this excavation in Archipelacon (a science fiction/fantasy event in Mariehamn at 2015) in which Kristin had a wonderful presentation about viking age Åland. I was so impressed that when she told about the chance of participating in the excavations as a volunteer, I knew immediately that this is what I want to do next summer if I can arrange my holidays to match with the schedule.

I have an engineering and computer science background and absolutely no experience of archaeological excavations. I have always been interested in history, but like most people, I knew very little about archaeology. My “knowledge” of arcaeology was a kind of mix of knowing that sometimes someone finds magnificent treasures like ancient Egyptian graves, or legendary lost cities like Troy, with a hunch that maybe those are not common occurrences and it is not as glamorous as those famous finds let the public perceive archaeology. But someone must have found the artefacts in the museums and uncovered those ancient sites, right? So, my expectations on the other hand were very mixed, and on the other hand I didn’t have any real expectations. I was prepared to come to the excavation site and do what I was told to do, and to see what is going on on the site.

Archaeology as I have experienced it at this excavation has been surprisingly physical work. I was expecting to be digging with small, delicate tools and carefully measuring the location of each thing I might find, by millimetre precision. During this week we have been examining the plough layer through 1 m by 1 m sample squares and cataloguing the amount of different things we find from each square. Since all the material at the plough layer has been moving around for more than a thousand years, the millimetre-precision location of a single bone fragment is not very significant as we are more interested in the distribution and number of objects inside the sample volume. Pick and spade have been some of my best friends this week. Digging through the dry, tightly packed soil and the occassional even more tightly packed clay has been hard work and sieving has been quite physical work as well. In fact, my activity meter scored between 165 and 180 percent of my daily activity recommendation every day (I reach something like 50 percent during a normal day at the office). I bet the machine was really confused when I was shaking the sieve box. 🙂

Sieving was so exciting (at least during the first week of doing it) as you never knew what treasures the water would uncover. Even though I didn’t find anything significant, I was quite surprised at the joy of finding and recognising even fragments of bone or iron age pottery. Speaking of recognising things, I was expecting it to be easier. I mean, anyone should be able to tell the gold coin from a rock, right? Too bad there were no gold coins in my pit, but plenty of things looking like stones. Especially anything made of clay is quite hard for an amateur like me to tell apart from rocks, so I have been collecting loads of pebbles and small stones just in case they turned out to be something interesting when I would examine them more carefully in the cataloging phase. Many of them turned out to be just stones, but I still found a nice pile of burnt clay, bone (both burned and unburned variety), and even some iron age ceramics pieces among other things. I also learned about identifying finds by knocking them on my teeth, tasting them, etc. I still have sand in my mouth. 🙂

In summary, this excavation turned out to be nothing like I expected (mostly because I had no idea what to expect) but extremely interesting in any case. It was really great to get to know real archaeological procedures and methods and to be able to talk with these professors, researchers, students and other hobbyists about our finds and their meaning. I was not at all surprised to find out that it was not very glamorous work (no complete golden necklaces), but just really about paying attention to details, finding — or sometimes as importantly not finding — small, insignificant things that would not necessarily be important as themselves but that would contribute as a sample to a bigger picture about the site. Just like any research, and just my cup of tea. Getting to spend a part of my summer holidays increasing the amount of knowledge about our common history was awesome.


Plow layer as context…

Plogjord som kontext…is the name of a brand new collection of articles by researchers who gathered in Oslo to discuss the scientific potential of soil that has been heavily disturbed by plowing. This is a theme that naturally concerns our project as well. In many countries, the plow layer is not regarded as constituting an ancient monument (sw. Fornlämning) due to the fact that the finds in the layer can no longer be tied to a specific context. This is also the reason why continued plowing of fields with traces of prehistoric settlements is allowed, since the ancient monument is considered to be the destroyed features below plowing depth and not the plow layer itself.

At the same time, the finds from the plowed horizon can, on a more general level, give important scientific information. Christiansen (2016) discusses the plow-related movement of coins from prehistoric hoards and concludes that, even though parts of the hoards can be found over 80 meters from their original position, most of the finds can be found within a few meters, up to 10 meters from where they were originally buried. This is of course also modified according to terrain, mode of cultivation and morphology of objects. For example, large irregular objects are transported more easily by the plow than small, regular pieces.

The effect of repeated plowing on underlying features. From Martens 2016.

The effect of repeated plowing on underlying features. From Martens 2016.

When we decided to manually investigate the plow layer at Kvarnbo through systematic sampling, it was partly based on the idea that we could obtain rough spatial information from finds, which could be related to both the information from the infrared photography showing the contours of the building, and also to the features hopefully to be uncovered at a later stage. Another aspect was the collection of Iron Age finds other than metal, such as pottery, glass, bone, clay daub etc, which would give qualitative information to the site as a whole.

The results look promising so far. Judging from the finds from the initial test pits registered, in the western part of the building, many of the find categories (burned clay, burnt and unburnt bone in particular) seem to be concentrated outside the building itself, while the inside is relatively empty. Maybe this means that there is still a possibility to reconstruct a general picture of the find distribution within and without the house? It is also encouraging to see, that the amount of obviously later finds is not as high as predicted. Certainly the plow layer contains porcelain, modern glass, etc, that cannot be connected to the use of the site during the Iron Age, but there is a chance that a large portion of the finds are to be associated with the building. This is certainly the case with the Iron Age pottery and the glass beads unearthed to date!

Read more about the subject in J. Martens & M. Ravn (eds.). 2016. Pløyejord som kontekst. Oslo.

by Kim Darmark

Volunteers and headgear

This week, the excavation warmly welcomes 8 new participants. Pasi and Hannele from Finland, both of whom heard about the project through Archipelacon 2015 (The Nordic SF & Fantasy Convention) held in Mariehamn. Michaela from Åland, a viking warrior from Fibula, who has supported the project with her enthusiasm from early on. The blacksmith Peter from Sweden, who brings a touch of Indiana Jones to the excavation with the most stylish leather hat. Thomas from Sweden, who found his way to Åland through a long-time interest in archaeology. A very important addition to the team are the archaeology students from Gothenburg university – AntonLinnéa and Markus – who are on Åland to get a more varied and extensive fieldwork experience. A number of these great people will stay an entire month or even longer and will probably appear in this blog again in the weeks to come 🙂

The pictures clearly show, that all the volunteers wisely use headgear of different type in the scorching sun as I recommended in my pre-excavation communication, whereas the so-called professionals (Kim and Henke 😛 ) seem to think that they can manage without 😀

Pasi and Hannele from Finland, Michaela from Åland, Peter, Thomas, Linnea, Anton and Markus from Sweden

Cinematographic ambitions


I have been contemplating making a short documentary since the project, especially through Rasmus Olin, who was participating in the test-excavation in 2014, has gathered a lot of footage. Therefore, we continually make small time-lapses and plan further on even making videos about the progress during the excavation. Today we attempted a time-lapse while digging a test-pit. The quite nice panning effect that you see in the short film below is totally involuntary and due to the low quality of the supporting structure, consisting of a ladder, a piece of wood and yellow duct tape. Archaeologists can meddle in engineering, but obviously with poor results 😀

Test pits deliver!

I am very happy to end the first week of excavation with noting that the digging of test pits in the plow layer has already resulted in finds clearly connected to the Iron Age phase. Besides pottery (including ornate pieces), the two glass beads found, are clearly among my personal favourites 🙂 This in combination with good signs of underlying features in a number of pits, bode well for the weeks to come. Stay tuned for more thorough presentations!


Archaeologists on the field

This year’s excavations at the Kvarnbo Hall site commenced yesterday. During the very first week, there are only professional archaeologists working at the site. And I am very lucky to have Frands Herschend, Jan-Henrik “Henke” Fallgren and Kim Darmark in my team. There is hardly a better team to wish for: Frands, who is an archaeology professor at Uppsala University, is -among many other things- the man behind the definition of a hall, Henke has profound knowledge about the Iron Age settlement and archaeology in the North, and Kim, who is actually a Stone Age archaeologist, has such a vast experience in field archaeology combined with a scientific mind that it is difficult to parallel. I am pretty certain that the Åland Islands have never had so qualified group of archaeologists working at the same site at the same time 😉


This first week of the excavations was planned as a set-up week. The intention is to prepare the effective routines before the volunteers join the excavations as well as to get the “feel” of the site in calmer conditions. The excavations are planned as a two-stage study: we start with the investigation of the plow layer (i.e the surface layer of the soil which is affected by agricultural plowing (and in the case of Kvarnbo, we are talking about several hundreds of years of plowing, since the area has been under agricultural use from the middle ages onward)). It is pretty unusual to study layers disturbed by plow, as the archaeologically interesting material in these layers has been so disturbed, that many archaeologists consider it too difficult to say anything meaningful about it. At the same time, there are some studies that have shown that plowing might not disperse artefacts at a site so greatly. So, one of our intentions is to study the spatial distribution of the material. I am also interested in getting a comprehensive overview of the material at the site in general, especially, of the material that is impossible to track down by other means, such as metal detecting. In order to do this, we have laid out a grid on the field and plan to excavate 1 m squares in the plow layer on top of the longhouse as well as in the surrounding areas. Therefore, there are many iron rods with yellow flags on the field right now, but there will probably be even more. The second stage of the excavations is more commonplace when it comes to the study of sites in agriculturally plowed areas – the plow layer will be stripped away with the help of an excavator in order to study archaeological features in situ, i.e. features that have not been disturbed by plow.

Brand new archaeology stuff

The Åland Islands are special in many respects, but the one thing especially relevant for people living here is the fact that Internet shopping is more difficult than in the surrounding countries… Everything must go through the customs and in many cases you end up paying much, much more than you should. Åland is namely excluded from the application of tax systems according to EU directives. Despite the fact that Åland, like the rest of Finland, is part of the customs territory of the European Community, it is not included in the fiscal territory meaning that there is a tax border between Åland and mainland Finland as well as between Åland and other EU countries. Why? Well, basically, in order to sell booze on ships 😀 A tax free sale in the ship traffic is the reason why Åland is excluded from the excise EU tax directives – the ships stopping on Åland even for just 10 minutes can sell tax free. And considering how many people are taking the special cruise to Åland without actually stepping out of the ship to visit the islands, and are on the cruise just for buying booze, there are clearly many who like that kind of agreement. But when you as a person living on Åland buy stuff through Internet and forget to inform the seller that your price must not include VAT, you end up paying double VAT and probably hate the exclusion from the application of tax systems according to EU directives. And even if you do remember to inform the seller and get the right price, so to say, it is still annoying that your purchase is not coming to your doorsteps or the nearest post office just for pick up, but you have to fill the forms and deal with declaring your goods. And it is not only when you buy stuff – on several occasions, I have been forced to declare normal letters only because these were sent to me as registered letters (!!!). I am not fan of this exclusion even though I buy booze on the boats more often I buy other stuff through Internet 😉

Anyways, after I made a mistake once of not informing about this VAT thing and paying much more than I intended to, I am pretty careful in that sense. Thus, all the brand new digging and documentation equipment I recently purchased for the excavations (including some more grip seal bags… well… about 2000 more to be honest 😀 ) found its way into my apartment without any major headaches (except then these usual ones that are related to Internet  shopping on Åland… that were somewhat enforced by the fact that declaring things bought from one and the same seller and billed as a unit, but sent in different packages whereat you do not know what is in which package and thereby you do not know the value of each separate package, is even more complicated requiring personal visit to customs office…).


Archaeology stuff from years ago

Yesterday, I went through my excavation equipment that has accumulated throughout the years. Generally speaking, I knew what I have, because the things you need for archaeological fieldwork are pretty much the same for any site. You always need your trowel, measuring tools, compass, grip seal bags, pens and pencils, etc. And then there is stuff that is always good to have, such as tape and rope and line level, some drafting film, clipboard, etc. But exactly because you always need such stuff (and these do wear off), these things tend to accumulate. I think it is pretty common that instead of inspecting first what you have, you’ll just make a purchase. My inspection made it pretty clear that, among other things, I already have a serious stack of grip seal bags – I could probably put every piece of wattle-and-daub and bone that we’ll likely find at the Kvarnbo Hall site into a separate bag 😀 I mean, I have grip seal bags that still have price label witnessing a purchase at the time when Estonia had kroon as the currency (i.e. before 2011) and I have apparently also saved bags that are labeled with an intended sample number, but never gotten to be used. I was also mildly surprised by the amount of rope I have – different kind and several unopened rolls. Even among folding rulers there were 3 that have been never used! And I seriously do not know how come I have two 50 meter tapes… but I was struck that when it comes to pocket tapes I have all the possible sizes (?) represented as I own a 10, 8, 5 and 3 meter tape. I clearly miss some 30 meter tapes (Am I a hoarder? 😀 ).