Tag Archives: Late Iron Age

Breaking the silence with an article

Two years ago, during the summer and autumn of 2015 I worked on an article. I set an intention to account for and contextualize the Kvarnbo Hall based on the results of the investigations in 2014. I discussed the site and the building at the state of knowledge at that time in its regional and historical context, in comparison to the full data set of coeval houses on Åland. I also examined the development of Iron Age settlement and explanatorily discussed the rapid and large-scale colonization to Åland evident in the middle of the first millennium AD. As a result, a new perspective for our understanding of the emerging importance of Late Iron Age Åland was provided.

As the text turned out pretty well (if I might say so 😉 ), with lots of new knowledge potentially relevant beyond the Fennoscandian region, I decided to submit it to The Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology, a well-renowned, peer-review journal rated high among archaeology journals worldwide. I was, of course, well aware of the fact that not only is it more difficult to get accepted in journals of such calibre, but that the wait time might turn out to be rather long. I submitted the manuscript on the 8th of December 2015. And I received positive reviews on the 1st of February 2016. My revisions were submitted on the 12th of February 2016. But then, the great silence spread its wings over the whole thing… (This silence was, however, apologetically explained by the editor during the summer). The processing of my manuscript was resumed in the beginning of 2017 and on the 7th of March 2017 it was finally published online. Why do I provide such a lengthy account on this process? To illustrate the anxiety the author is faced with?? Well, partially, yes, but also because things obviously changed during the excavation 2016 and certain aspects of this article written in 2015, the ones related to the building remains as seen from the infra-red aerial photo, should probably be reconsidered, at least, to a certain degree. In general though, I am very happy with this research being published and thereby providing some interesting stuff on the Late Iron Age settlement archaeology on Åland for a wide audience.

You can find the text following this link: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/9k2H9XfnYqtS7MjTdQAD/full  (the journal provides a number of free downloads of the full article, so first come – first served 😀 )

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

Site report

Well, it took its time, but the report of the archaeological investigations in 2014 is now finally ready 🙂 You can read it or look at the pictures in it here: Ilves Kvarnbohall 2014 (although there is a short abstract in English, the main text is in Swedish).

Site reporting

After having been digging and writing tens-and-tens of technical site reports for the past 10 month, how much fun do you think it is to write another site report?? Even if it is a site report on the archaeological investigations at “my own site” of Kvarnbohall? Well, let me be frank, not so much fun… or, maybe, just marginally fun. Site reports are, after all, quite boring to write as it is mostly about technical data. Although, site reports are, at the same time, also, one of the most important kinds of archaeological writing. Anyway, I am back to working with the excavation data from the investigations at Sa 14.9. When it comes to this particular site reporting, I managed to do a lot during the autumn already, but, apparently, I then started from the simpler end and have to deal with all the complex issues now… Todays “headache”, for example, is the section below – the cut was placed through two features, feature 3 = the wall and feature 4 = post-hole, but the section revealed at least 4 different features, which I had, in fact, documented during the excavations already, but digitalizing the data was, nevertheless, not easy; despite the fact that I had my 3D models and a quite a number of photographs and my own excavation diary entries to aid the work… 11 sections digitalised… 10 sections to go… sigh?

Dogs around the longhouse site – Sa 14.4

Continuing my review of the immediate archaeological surroundings of Kvarnbohall, besides the large cemetery of Sa 14.1 that I discussed in my last post, there is another Late Iron Age cemetery to be found in the 400 m radius from the longhouse site – the site that is officially named Sa 14.4 and unofficially known as the southern cemetery of Kvarnbo Kohagen. However, if I would have chosen the radius of 500 m instead of 400 m, in addition to the mentioned two, three more Late Iron Age cemeteries would have made the cut into the description of the archaeological background of the region!

Sa 14.4 dog

The central part of the burial mound nr 36 with an almost complete skeleton of a large dog and two clay pots at its head end. While going through the bone material from the grave, jawbones of a smaller dog were documented as well. From: Dreijer 1958.

The grave field of Sa 14.4 is situated north from the longhouse site, on the other shore of what was once a low bay north of Kvarnbohall. During landscape surveys in 1930, E.W. Drake and C. Ramsdahl counted 33 grave mounds at this cemetery, but 4 more mounds were documented at the site in the end of 1950s. Matts Dreijer has investigated 4 structures at Sa 14.4 and it is remarkable that in one of the investigated mounds (mound nr 36) he found an almost whole skeleton of a large dog lying on its left side with head to the east and two clay pots at its head end. Actually, there were two dogs buried in the mound as jawbones of a smaller dog were discovered as well. At the same time, there were no human bones in this grave.

From the period known as Late Iron Age in the northern Europe, i.e. 550-1050 AD, there is a large corpus of dog bones from graves, cremations as well as inhumations.  Dogs are found both in men’s and in women’s graves, in high status and in low status burials, and are often interpreted in the context of being faithful and loyal companions or as a token of social status, but, also, ascribed an important symbolic-mythological meaning with relation to the transformation from life to death. But separate dog graves are quite rare in the northern Europe. Separate dog graves are found on the Continent and England, but in northern Europe graves of only dogs are very uncommon: in the synthesis article from 1992, Wietske Prummel* mentions only one separate dog grave from the northern Europe – from Kjuloholm inhumation cemetery in Finland.

Thus, the separate dog grave documented at the grave field of Sa 14.4 is indeed remarkable. But what makes the whole thing even more notable is the fact that this is not the only separate dog burial known from the Late Iron Age Åland! In 1937, among others, a separate dog grave was investigated in Pålsböle and in Svartsmara, both in the municipality of Finström. Now, while the dog burial in Svartsmara might be a secondary burial into the Late Iron Age burial mound, the burials in Kvarnbo Kohagen and Pålsböle are from the Late Iron Age. It is just to admit that the Iron Age on the Åland islands is something Pretty Darn Interesting 😀

Prummel , W. 1992. Early Medieval dog burials among the Germaic tribes. Helinium, XXXII/1-2, 132-194. The article is also readily available online – http://alexandriaarchive.org/bonecommons/archive/files/prummel-dog-burials-germanic-tribes_3045393dfe.pdf

Archaeological surroundings of Kvarnbohall – Sa 14.1

IK 115Just about 100 m southeast from the longhouse site, there is one of the largest Late Iron Age graveyards on Åland – Sa 14.1. During landscape surveys in 1930, E.W. Drake and C. Ramsdahl counted 134 grave mounds at this grave field and the only overview map of this site – IK 115 – still in use, is compiled by them at that time. Thus, this map is missing information on the exact number of visible grave mounds as after the landscape surveys in 1970s, there were already around 170 mounds estimated, but even more graves hypothesized at the site; and according to the official information today, there are about 180 visible grave mounds at this site. In comparison to the existing overview map, the majority of the un-mapped and “newly discovered” graves are on the northern side of the site, but, also, on the areas bordering the fields on the southern side of the site.

The grave field of Sa 14.1 has been studied on a number of occasions, f.ex. 14 mounds were excavated during 1970-74 and 1981; unfortunately, the documentation of these excavations is pretty poor as most of the feature reports were written years after the excavations relaying on the diary entries. While the excavations in 1981 were conducted in the northern part of the site and in connection to the house construction in the vicinity, the excavations during 1970s were a part of the summer course in archaeology and the graves excavated are located in the southeastern part of the cemetery. In my opinion, the most noteworthy outcome of the excavations at Sa 14.1 was not the number and/or the character of the artifacts found, but the observations made in regard to one of the grave mounds studied – grave mound nr 1. Grave mound nr 1 is about 12 m in diameter and, thereby, the largest of the ones excavated (but not the largest mound at the site). There were traces of plowing in three-four different directions documented under the mound. So, either the grave(s) was situated in the area used for agricultural purposes before it became a graveyard territory or these traces have come as a result of ritual activities immediately before the burial. In either case, the choice to build a burial mound on an older agricultural area or through ritual activities kind of creating an agricultural area under the intended burial mound, it might be interpreted as a way to connect the person to be buried in the mound to the ancestors and their agricultural activities – and, thereby, manifesting the surviving family’s entitlement to the land.

The Late Iron Age grave fields on Åland are generally interpreted as single farm cemeteries and no villages are suggested for the prehistoric Åland. But the grave field of Sa 14.1 seems in my opinion far too large to belong just to one farm. I do dare to suggest that it is a village cemetery 😉 Furthermore, Sa 14.1 is not the only large graveyard on Åland; especially, in the municipality of Saltvik there are number of large Late Iron Age grave fields. Thus, the question of single farms and villages is far from being clear in regard to Iron Age Åland.

Continuing soil-travels

soiltravelsSoil from the longhouse site in Kvarnbo continues to travel abroad 🙂 Comparing to the first batch of soil sent to travel, in much smaller amounts in terms of weight, but in much larger amounts in terms of numbers. 10 samples, ca 20 gram each, with their own special and necessary permit to leave Åland, are at the present moment already travelling (by ordinary mail service) to Umeå, Sweden, in order to be analyzed in the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory at Umeå University for the geochemical properties. I decided for soil chemistry as this method of analysis can help me to interpret, among other things, which post-holes have been affected by fire and which post-holes have not been affected by fire. As there was quite a number of post-holes documented in the trench of rather modest size, it is reasonable to suggest that several phases of building are represented in the archaeological material. By determining which post-holes have been affected by fire and which haven’t, I am much closer to separating these different phases of construction and determining which post-holes might be related to each other. Another question I am trying to find answer to by means of soil chemistry is, if there are traces that might indicate of metal object(s) having been deposited in the post-holes. Theoretically, the method is suitable for answering this question; however, the possibility of unclear patterns is very real as well….

Travelling soil

10 soil-samples for plant-macrofossil analysis were collected from 9 features related to the longhouse at Kvarnbo; and 5 samples – 4 from different post-holes and 1 from the wall construction – will this weekend travel to Uppsala in Sweden, where these will be analysed for plant-macrofossils at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University.

In general, plant macrofossil analysis (i.e. looking at the parts of plants preserved in the soil) is used in order to build up a picture of past environments, reconstruct past vegetation and, thereby, gain insight into past landscapes and their development; but this method can also provide important information about the use of structures in archaeology. The purpose of the plant-macrofossil analysis of Kvarnbo material is, however, first and foremost, to find datable material with low own age (for radiocarbon dating) such as, charred seeds – these can remain preserved in soil for a considerable time span and can sometimes be found in the absence of all other organic remains. Yet, using macrofossils for dating of features such as post-holes, it is important that the sample would come from the secondary fill of the post-hole, because only then there is a hope for the fill containing residues from the floor level of the construction and, thereby, be contemporary to the construction. The primary fill is the material that surrounds and supports the post once it has been installed, i.e. it is the backfilled earth connected to the installation of the post, and this fill is therefore not containing structure-contemporary plant-macrofossils (but might contain older material). In any case, post-holes are pretty good traps for macrofossils – after the post is removed from the construction, the hole is normally filled pretty fast again with the material from the surrounding. Inside a house, this fill-after-removing-the-post is often consisting of the floor; therefore, the analysis of the material from the post-hole might provide not only datable material, but also insight into the activities that have been going on in the vicinity of the post-holes.

Although only the very bottom of the post-hole features are preserved at the longhouse site in Kvarnbo, the samples sent to Sweden are all representative in terms of the amount of soil needed in order to run the analysis (every sample contains ca 2 liters of soil), also, all the samples were collected from the uncontaminated contexts meaning that these should not be corrupted by younger material from the subsequent use of the area. Now, it is only to hope that these will contain at least some plant-macrofossils, too (because, you know, these could be empty of such material as well………). macrofossile sampling hole feature 11


The excavations are past. Right now, reporting is the center of my everyday life. Or, at least, it should be. I have managed to write and submit a report to one of the foundations who supported the archaeological fieldwork at Sa 14.9 – Birgit and Gad Rausings Stiftelse för Humanistisk Forskning. And I have started to build up the body of my excavation report. But as it tends to be with writing, in the head everything is great, but when you open the actual document, you block… It has been difficult to get back in the swing of writing after finishing fieldwork. Despite the fact that I wrote something every day during the excavations, somehow, “real writing” is a different type of writing – the mental activity required is of different kind and, therefore, for the past few weeks, I really have had to push myself to open my PC. But I do feel the change coming!

Att skriva rapport

Photo: Conny Andersson

Photo: Conny Andersson

Yesterday, however, I had much more pleasurable kind of reporting in my agenda – local historical society, Ålandsforskarna, invited me to present my project and the results of the archaeological investigations implemented so far. We were out in the field where the location of trenches was still visible in the vegetation and thanks to the nice weather, everyone survived my hour-long talk about how archaeological investigations often include walking back and forth on plowed fields and investigating dark spots 🙂


Ordinary things at an extraordinary place

A multi-faceted grinding stone

A multi-faceted grinding stone from Kvarnbo

As I have discussed in a number of my previous posts, there is a fair amount of quite so amazing finds from Sa 14.9 in Kvarnbo (of which not everything has been described here) indicating a rather extraordinary character of the place. But there are also finds that indicate more normal living at this site during the Late Iron Age; and these finds are as important for our understanding of the site as are the objects of more exclusive quality. I want to emphasise, however, that the finds of more ordinary character documented at the site so far were not really searched for at this stage of my investigations – I was just lucky to have found these during metal detecting and geophysical surveys.

A multi-faceted grinding stone made from quartzite was one of these ordinary things at this extraordinary place and it was found some meters east from the longhouse. Although grinding stones might have been used to grind the skulls of enemies 😛 these were still most commonly used for vegetable food processing and the facets on the stone are the result of grinding or rubbing. Being just 7 cm in diameter, the grinding stone from Kvarnbo has a perfect fit for my hand and I actually think that this stone would have been pretty uncomfortable to use for someone with bigger hands (totally reliable test supporting this statement was carried out with my visiting brother feeling the hold of the stone as well 😀 ). Together with the grinding stone, a piece of flint was found. Flint is not naturally occurring on Åland and must be imported to the islands from Southern Sweden or Denmark, but it is quite so usual find in the Iron Age context; pieces of flint were used for making fire.

First piece of the Iron Age ceramic from Sa 14.9

The first piece of the Iron Age ceramics from Sa 14.9

There was another piece of flint found in the field as well, this time much more – about 30-40 meters east from the longhouse, and in the area that turned out to be very interesting for the site. It all started when marking out the grid nr 3 for the survey with the ground penetrating radar in the area that was largely untouched by previous field works. This area was sloping to the east and standing at the lower end one could actually see that there are two terraces in the field – the higher one with the longhouse on top and east from that there is a lower terrace. On the edge of this lower terrace, a sandy area of about 15 x 4 meters was observed stretching from south to north. And around this sandy area really nice lumps of wattle-and-daub were observed, including an absolutely fabulous piece with both the side with imprints of twigs and straws and the smooth outer side being represented on the same piece. Also, burned bones were noted in the same area. And I am pretty sure that we have located another house in the field north of the church of Saltvik 🙂 Furthermore, south from this new house, by another suspiciously sandy patch, the first piece of the Iron Age ceramics from Sa 14.9 was picked as well. Thus, in a way as expected, there are more building remains to be found by the hall structure.

If you can see the sandy lens in the field on this photo - you see the traces of a longhouse ;)

If you can see the sandy lens in the field on this photo – you see the traces of another longhouse at Kvarnbo 😉