Category Archives: Finds

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

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!

pärlor

Two Abbasids

In regard to the age of my “little dragon” introduced some weeks ago it can be only said that it dates to prehistoric actions at the Kvarnbo Hall site. Much better dating, well, almost the best dating an archaeologist can wish for is offered by two Islamic coins I have discovered!

The very first Islamic coins recovered on Åland were documented in Finström 1846 and after that the number of Islamic coins registered on Åland started to grow. By far the most remarkable of finds within this category was made in 12th of June 1876 when a hoard of over 800 Arabic silver coins was discovered in Bertby, Saltvik. Islamic coin finds of types other than hoards are more seldom, but still known, also, from a few settlement sites.  And the Kvarnbo Hall site is now among the settlement sites where Islamic coins – two of them so far – have been discovered. Btw, at the very moment I discovered the first of these, which is just a tiny fragment measuring at most merely 1 centimeter, my first thought was that I must already be pretty mighty working with my metal detector if I manage to discover objects of such a modest dimension 😀

Dirhamfyndplats

Gert Rispling from The Royal Coin Cabinet in Stockholm and Frida Ehrnsten from The Coin Cabinet at the Finnish National Board of Antiquities in Helsinki have both had a look at the Islamic coin fragments found from the Kvarnbo Hall site. According to their estimation, both coins are Abbasids i.e. coins from the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, and both have been struck before 833 AD. There is no other period in the history of the Islamic coin that exhibits greater diversity of types and variants than the first Abbasid period that lasted 132-218 AH / 750-833 AD. It was the time of the prosperity for the Caliphate and there were many coins with varying appearance minted – new types and variants of coins of that period are still being discovered.

For obvious reasons, the smaller fragment of a coin found at the Kvarnbo Hall site poses greater challenge in terms of closer identification, however, Gert Rispling suggests it to have been minted around 194-200 AH / 810-816 AD, somewhere in today’s Iraq or Iran. But the larger fragment found at the Kvarno Hall site enables closer identification. It was estimated to have been coined by the caliph al-Amin who reigned in 193-198 AH / 809-813 AD, and the coin was minted in Madinat al-Salam (today’s Bagdad) in 196 AH / 811-812 AD. Btw, al-Amin’s reign meant no good for the Caliphate, as he had a violent conflict – civil war – with his half-brother al-Ma’mun that in turn generated other spin-off conflicts weakening the dynasty. Al-Ma’mun come out as a winner from that conflict and reigned until 218 AH / 833 AD.

Two Abbasids discovered at the Kvarnbo Hall site make a really nice complement to the artefact-based dating of the site.

Little dragon (aka: melted brooch)

Different find categories registered during metal detector surveys at the Kvarnbo Hall site so far show no particular spatial concentration, except for the fragments of bronze (and/or possibly copper). Analysing find distribution, there is clearly an area at the site where most of the finds documented are pieces of bronze clips – the area is situated on the north-eastern side of the longhouse, some 50 m from the corner of the hall building. While I was working in that zone and documenting these fragments, it was, furthermore, pretty obvious that the soil is also hiding significant amounts of iron exactly in the same area. So, either there is a modern metal thingy ploughed apart at that spot, or we could speculate about a prehistoric craft area. On the basis of the metal findings, I am cautious in assigning this area to solely prehistoric activities without further investigations, because among the fragments documented, there is awful lot of pieces that are very thin and have sharp edges, looking fairly recent to me… But, at the same time, there are also fragments that are clearly old: thick droplets, melts and twisted rods of bronze coated with nice patina as well as clips with worn-out round edges. Furthermore, among the finds of this category, there is a melted brooch section definitely of prehistoric origin (it kind of looks like a little dragon 🙂 ). Thus, I am pretty sure that one has engaged in the art of metalcraft at the Kvarnbo Hall site, and assuming that, I would start looking for the craft area in this particular zone “infested” with iron and with a high concentration of the bronze fragments.

Bronsbleckillu

Buttons

Now, I’m no expert on buttons, but you’d be amazed how much research there has been done on this subject! As an example for the Nordic areas, there is a book by Otto Helander “Något om knappens historia i Sverige” (Something about the history of button in Sweden). The following knowledge I am about to share comes from this book and some diverse places in the Internet.

During prehistoric times, buttons were rare in the North. Well, there are button-like things known from Bronze Age, but then they disappear. During Late Iron Age, Viking Age in particular, buttons reappear in the North, but these are pretty much exclusively connected to the oriental connections. It is only starting from medieval times and from the 14th century when the real history of buttons starts. This coming of button was connected to the change in clothing – from long and flowing to tight. However, at first, buttons were just something for the clothes of wealthy people and these were, furthermore, mainly used as decoration and not as methods of closing clothing (for which lacing or hooks were used). From the end of the 16th century buttons became more common, but it is still only from the 18th century when buttons really did appear on the clothing of workers and peasants – at first, on male attire and from the mid 19th century also on female attire.

Buttons

Unfortunately, among ca 30 buttons that I have documented during metal detector surveys at the Kvarnbo Hall site (from all over the field without any particular area of concentration), there isn’t a single one that I would dare to state to be older than the 18th century. But from the typological point of view, it can be stated that cast brass buttons with concave panel clearly dominate the material. Very similar to these are cast brass buttons with the flower motive in the middle that I have also discovered from my site. These kinds of buttons were one of the more prevalent types used by common people. There were many vests and pants with exactly these kinds of buttons during the late 18th and, especially, 19th century. Btw, in Finnish, the type with the flower motive in the middle has even its own name – Kansanpuvun nappi (folk costume button).

The most common type of button today, the 4-hole button was adopted only in the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century. At first, by men, but after the WW I, when more masculine female fashion became popular, also by women. Such buttons are very boring as these don’t allow any pattern on the button; I would also deem the two 4-hole buttons discovered at the Kvarnbo Hall site as the most mundane of buttons at the site. At the same time, the most interesting button from Kvarnbo has to be the very large and crudely made 2-hole button. Mostly because I haven’t seen anything alike before 🙂 (Actually, I’m not even sure if it is a button.).

Back to metal – modern “junk” (?)

junkIf you thought that I am done sharing about my new actuality of metal detecting, you are wrong – I intend to continue taking up aspects this new vocation of mine has inspired me to (and -yes- at some point, there will be some newly discovered Late Iron age findings presented as well 😉 ).

When I started to work with metal detector, I expected to find and dig a lot of what is considered to be junk. And, at first, looking at the growing amount of my finds, I thought that I am, indeed, finding a lot of junk. I do dig what I am sure most of people consider rubbish, such as foil and bottle caps. I also dig bullets and cartridge cases, which I consider as a junk, but I do know that there are people (including archaeologists) who are interested in such finds. But then, there is a number of finds that I considered as a junk, but I am about to reconsider – to some degree. The thing is that while presenting detector findings by just laying these on the table, many people often reach to look at things they recognise. And among the findings that I have made – in addition to coins – thimbles, keys and buckles have great popularity 🙂

Thimbles, keys and buckles

From the Kvarnbo Hall site I have discovered one thimble in the form of a ring and two customary thimbles, but I have no good idea about their age. The problem with the thimbles that were used simply solely for pushing a needle through fabric or leather as it is sewn and not as collectibles is that they look very alike throughout centuries. However, in rough terms, analysing the small dimples on the thimble might help with dating – before the middle of the 18th century dimples were done by hand and, thus, a thimble with an irregular pattern of dimples dates likely before the mid 18th century. Furthermore, from the mid 18th century, the shape of thimbles is much less domed than before, and the metal is thinner. From the three thimbles found at the Kvarnbo Hall site, one has clearly handmade dimples and seems to be older than the other two.

When it comes to keys it is probably easier to determine their age. In case of the two keys discovered in Kvarnbo, however, I can only say that none of these is from the Late Iron Age, because Iron Age keys just look different. Both keys are quite so small and the better preserved one looks more like a key used for a clock… for a table clock?… Just as the keys, buckles are also easier to date than thimbles and browsing through the Internet, you can find quite a lot of information about buckles – for example, following this link. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that I can say anything sensible about the buckles I have dug so far 😛

People are and have always loosing things. While losing a thimble or a buckle wasn’t probably such a big loss, losing a key must have been quite annoying. But losing a ring might be emotionally devastating – I have found a simple finger ring of silver from the Kvarnbo Hall site and I do think that the loss of it made someone sad back in the history. But again, I have no good idea about how far back in the history we should put this item. From my “Late Iron age point of view” it is a non-diagnostic item (and thereby fairly junkish 😉 ).

New skills at work

Last year, with the help of archaeologist Mats Blohmé, metal-detector survey of about 1 hectare was conducted at the Kvarnbo Hall site. The objective then was to identify the areas with the presence of prehistoric metal objects and, thereby, gain an understanding of both the character and date of the site as well as of the horizontal distribution of finds. And, as the result, well, some pretty nice objects were discovered dating from the late 6th century AD to the end of the Viking Age, pointing towards the existence of an elite settlement at the site. However, as these finds were distributed all over the area studied, no potential hot-spots were located. Furthermore, as the survey did not include the whole field, the site was not delimited. Thus, with my newly acquired skills, I have decided to continue metal detecting surveys at the site and the field as a whole.

While working at the site, same as last year, iron is discriminated, i.e. I have chosen to set the machine to ignore (small) ferrous objects, such as nails. But even though the machine allows me to discriminate an audio signal from a ferrous object, in case the remote control is actively used, it is still visually showing if there are iron targets in the area of search. Thus, I would say that my discrimination is not so strong, and I actually get a pretty good picture about the amount of metal in the area. At the same time, as the field is scattered with iron objects, I am afraid that there are quite a few cases when valid signals have been masked by iron targets as iron kind of tends to do that… not to mention that I am just a beginner in the highly addictive world of metal detecting. Well, eventually, I will work out a setting that would be optimal for my purposes! And I am fine with the idea that I will probably have to search through the site for several times anyways.

So far, I have dug about 150 targets at the Kvarnbo Hall site. Together with the work done last year, you would think that the total amount of metal objects documented in the field would be around 200. However, as all of the finds without direct archaeological relevance to the Iron Age and Early Medieval times were redeposited at their find-spots during the survey last year – after the find circumstances were documented with GPS and photographs – this year, I have had an opportunity to rediscover exactly the same objects 😀 To document exactly the same objects is obviously not so exiting, but, from the bright side, this fact enables observations about the movement and displacement of the objects during the time in-between their disclosures. And this is actually quite fascinating, as the field has been ploughed and harrowed in-between the surveys. Interestingly, three different kinds of object that I chose for closer examination from that point of view show minimum movement (see also picture below):

  • the 2015 find-spot of a button is only 1,3 meters SE from the spot it was discovered in 2014,
  • the 2015 find-spot of a spoon is 1,3 meters NNW from the spot it was discovered in 2014,
  • the 2015 find-spot of a big junk of modern iron is 1,4 meters N from the spot it was discovered in 2014.

This data makes me wonder if there has been any significant movement at all during the year and a half that has passed in between the surveys. Maybe, it is mostly the margin of error with the GPS that I have used?

Förflyttningsillu