Tag Archives: Numbers

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

All our faith in… what?

One of the most recent works related to the question of settlement continuity on Åland between Late Iron Age and early medieval times was published in 2007, by Paula Wilson, and was yet again using place-names as the source material (Röster från forntiden – gamla ortnamn berättar). Unlike the established elite of place-name researchers, Wilson questioned the dominating interpretation on the medieval origin of Finnish-Swedish place-names in Finland suggesting much older origin in the Iron Age Germanic-Scandinavian migrations; thereby, she argued for the settlement continuity on Åland. Wilson’s book received a disastrous critique as her interpretations were based on quite so arbitrary speculations. And the idea of depopulation and later re-colonization of Åland is still the one that is being in circulation. “Swedish” and “Finnish” on Åland are depicted exclusive one another, while “Ålandic” is not even in consideration.

It is not only the repeated political dimension of the whole debate on discontinuity versus continuity of settlement between LIA and early medieval times that disturbs me, more than that, I am stricken by the firm belief among many place-name researchers that place-names do not change trough time. But -hello- New York was not named New York from the beginning and there was no depopulation of the place when the name of the settlement was changed to New York! I do not see any source-critical discussion going on in regard to place-names on Åland as the statements emanating from place-name research are just assumed to be true and generated all over and over again. Furthermore, the fact that the whole idea of depopulation in the late 10th century is basically based on place-names only is very alarming. Because, sure, there is this gap in the traditional archaeological material, but this gap can also be explained other than by all people suddenly leaving the whole archipelago. Moreover, there exists material that definitely refutes (or strongly challenges) settlement discontinuity. Ella Kivikoski emphasized house foundations being diagnostically the same from the beginning of LIA well into the medieval times. There is pollen data in favor of settlement continuity. But most importantly, one of the backbones of modern archaeology – radiocarbon dating (C14) – suggests settlement continuity on Åland during the contested time period. Now, there are only 64… 😦 …archaeological C14 dates from the whole Iron Age on Åland and I am painfully aware that this constitutes an enormous methodological issue in using summed probability plot in my argument. Still, summing the probability curves of all the calibrated dates related to Iron Age, there is no settlement discontinuity to infer; furthermore, this information correlates with raw data as well.

All calibrated C14 dates related to the Iron Age on Åland on summed probability plot

All calibrated C14 dates related to the Iron Age on Åland on summed probability plot

In terms of our understanding of the Iron Age on Åland, no question that there is an immense need for more archaeological investigations on Åland, and there is urgency for more data to be published. But most of all, there is a need for syntheses of the data collected so far. In this regard, compared to the neighboring regions, Åland has fallen behind gravely. And this might be the reason why statements that are quite so obsolete still dominate despite the growing evidence against.

About the colonization

One way or the other, colonization relevant to the study of the Iron Age on Åland will be the topic of my next few posts. And in this case, we are actually talking about two separate phases of colonization. Because colonization as a driving force in settlement development has not only been suggested for the beginning of the Late Iron Age, but also indicated for the end of the period, for the beginning of medieval times.

LIA burial mounds

Late Iron Age burial mounds in Saltvik, Sa 14.4.

First, why has colonization been suggested for the beginning of LIA? Because when compared to the previous period poor in finds, suddenly, there are over 400 sites visible on the Åland islands with almost 10 700 features interpreted as graves from the LIA. During LIA, dead were cremated and buried in barrows. These burial mounds, clearly concentrated around the arable lands, are documented in all sizes from 1 m to 20 m in diameter; these are constructed of soil piled over the central cairn or layer of stones and often surrounded by a ring of stones. Mounds are dated from the end of the 6th century AD to around the year 1000, and at least large cemeteries seem to have been continuously used throughout this period. Adjacent to many LIA cemeteries, there are often house foundations. Big (many houses have been over 20 m long and 5 m wide), rectangular, stone framed foundations are frequently documented in groups and dated to the same period as the burial mounds; oldest houses being of the same age as the oldest burial mounds.

Thus, very rapidly, in the beginning of LIA, distinct agrarian culture evolved on Åland with the types of burial mounds and house foundations that had no preliminary stages why exogenous population groups are argued to have been responsible. Colonization is explained with the geographical position of the archipelago becoming valuable for different reasons.

Secondly, how come has colonization been indicated for the beginning of medieval times? In comparison to the rest of the Baltic Sea region, suddenly, around the year 1000 AD, the traditional archaeological material just disappears on the Åland islands for some number of years. The early Christian graves usual in the LIA cemeteries in the Baltic Sea region are absent on Åland. Most of the houses adjacent to LIA cemeteries on Åland have been abandoned. There are no late Viking Age and early medieval finds that are documented in the surrounding areas of the Baltic Sea region (such as rune stones or continental coins) found on Åland. And many place names on Åland are of medieval character. Thus, settlement discontinuity has been suggested by some and settlement regression by many scholars, with the reasons to be found in Åland not being relevant from the geographical point anymore. Re-colonization or exogenous increase in population has been indicated (as a result of Swedish Crusades and resulting population movement from the west) for the beginning of medieval times.

From cairns to people

Big cairn

EIA cairns may be rather grand like this one at Le 19.7/2

While houses of the Early Iron Age Åland remain lost, there are some 150 sites with over 1400 features on Åland that are registered as traces of graves belonging to EIA. During EIA, dead were cremated and buried in stone settings and cairns with only few grave goods. In contrast to the Bronze Age tradition of burials in large cairns that were built directly on bedrock and located on high grounds close to water (and, occasionally, revisited during EIA), EIA cairns on Åland are smaller and burials individual. Also, although there are EIA cemeteries close to coast, the majority of EIA graves have been located in some distance from water, being built on low sandy ridges. Therefore, it is mainly the setting and the height above sea level that has been and still is considered decisive during landscape surveys and inventories while assigning an archaeological period of either Bronze Age or EIA to cairns and stone settings.

Only about 4% of the registered EIA cairns and stone settings on Åland have been investigated and wide-scale, contextualising analyses of this material are few. Therefore, the value and importance of Helena Edgren’s work must be emphasized as her research in the beginning of 1980s is still the best and practically the only analysis on the subject. Edgren analysed the geographical and topographical location of EIA cairns on Åland pointing out 3 different groups of loci:

  1.        inland, around forested mires
  2.        inland, by arable land
  3.        on the coast
Little cairn

EIA cairns may also look (and usually do look) quite so inconspicuous like this newly found and not yet registered little cairn in Lemland

According to Edgren, the municipalities of Eckerö, Jomala and Sund (?) had most of the located cairns and were thus most densely populated areas during EIA. Today, the situation is somewhat different – the highest number of registered EIA cairns is in Eckerö and Lemland as in both municipalities there are about 400 cairns located, but also Jomala and Hammarland have around 200 registered EIA cairns each (I count 224 resp. 188). In Lemland and Hammarland, cairns are almost exclusively located inland, around forested mires, while in Eckerö and Jomala these are found all over the municipalities’ territory displaying all three types of loci. Edgren argues that EIA cairns were built by three populations with different economic structures as indicated by the geographical and topographical locations: first group was involved in inland fishing and cattle rising, second in farming, and third in seal hunting and open sea fishing. Edgren also points out that, in some cases, the tradition to bury in cairns extended into the Late Iron Age making the boundary between ‘old’ and ‘new’ ambiguous and clearly signifying settlement continuity between these two periods.

Although Edgren’s discussion on EIA Åland is simple, her research extended beyond the diagnostic features of EIA monuments and brought the behaviour of people in the past closer to the fore. But there is no question that EIA is one of the least studied periods of Åland. And it worries me gravely since this constitutes background for our understanding of the Late Iron Age…….

Lost houses of Early Iron Age

Examples of the so-called Morby ware from Åland (ÅM 632:138, 652:61 and 77).

Examples of the so-called Morby Ware from Åland – finds ÅM 632:138, 652:61 and 77 stored in the Museum of Åland.

Early Iron Age on Åland is represented with very few finds and “settlement decline” is the keyword for the period. But I find this statement unsatisfactory and strongly suspect EIA settlement being downgraded.

When it comes to EIA settlement sites, well, until the excavations in 1981-82 in Godby (Fi 8.11), there were no EIA settlement sites known from the Åland islands. And even today, more than 30 years later, there are only about 12-13 EIA settlement sites of which the majority might belong to EIA as well as to Bronze Age (or to both periods). The thing is that EIA settlements on Åland as we know them are characterized by very small number of finds and almost non-existent cultural layers. Few have been investigated, there are hardly any radiocarbon dates from these sites and identification has been based on a certain type of pottery with the impression of grass and/or cat-paw ornament – this pottery style is known as Morby Ware and has its roots in the Bronze Age, but was used well into EIA (it is dated from ca. 800 BC until 300 AD). Thus, judging from the available settlement archaeological material, the center of gravity of EIA settlement is to be considered in the beginning of the period while for some unknown reason the settlement seems to have gradually thinned out during the later part of the period. This perception also finds strong support in the understanding that Late Iron Age began with large-scale colonization to Åland.

In archaeology, it is highly visible, spectacular and physically well-defined ancient monuments that have always drawn the attention. Although archaeologists today recognize the importance of less visible and know how to excavate such past, settlement sites are part of much larger human landscape with no definite borders making settlement archaeological investigations much more complicated and in need for funding that today’s systems are not willing to provide for such ‘unimpressive’ monuments. Therefore, EIA settlement sites are often located and studied as a result of large scale rescue/contract archaeological projects conducted with targeted research designs. In Scandinavia, it was rescue/contract archaeology opening up large areas for archaeological investigations that markedly changed the understanding of EIA settlements and enhanced our knowledge leading to the fact that EIA house foundations, for example, are now found on a regular basis. But on Åland, rescue/contract archaeological projects of such scale and design are rare (read: nonexistent) and ‘unspectacular’ sites are just not found yet, as was the case with Scandinavian archaeology decades ago. Therefore, instead of emphasizing “settlement decline” on Åland during EIA, the paradoxical situation with the absent source-material should be discussed.

Introducing Matts Dreijer

There are 10 or so archaeologists who stand for 5 or more excavation reports relevant for the Iron Age on the Åland Islands, but one of these archaeologists stands out like a towering mountain above all the others in this respect. Of about 215 excavation reports on Iron Age, over 80 are written by Matts Dreijer, while Ella Kivikoski and Jan-Erik Tomtlund, who are following second and third, stand together for just over 40 reports on excavated features. Matts Dreijer (1901-1998), who was born in Estonia, held an influential position within the local administration of the Åland Islands; he was head of the department of antiquities and superintendent of the Åland Museum from 1934 until 1970. And he was very passionate about Åland, but that does not change the fact that it is often his excavation reports that are of rather low quality.

Matts Dreijer

Medal Matts Dreijer 85

It is true that what is considered to constitute quality in excavation reports develops in line with changes in the way archaeologists conduct research. And archaeology, the way archaeological fieldwork is conducted has developed immensely when compared to the days when Matts Dreijer was excavating. Well, even excavation reports that were considered of high quality just ten years ago might be difficult to set as an example for the reports written today. Thus, it is natural to wonder if Dreijer’s reports are not just reflecting the spirit and standards of the archaeology of his days. However, I do not think that this is entirely the case… Although it is to a certain extent relevant (as well as amusing) to read about who was the lady holding the measuring stick or how the excavation interrupted the vacation, etc. – small facts of such nature are often mentioned in Dreijer’s reports – compared to archaeologists excavating and reporting on Åland at the same time with him as well as before and after, Dreijer is neither detailed nor descriptive enough to permit re-examination of excavated sites beyond the most rudimentary level; he is hardly ever analyzing his fieldwork. This is making his excavation reports, on some occasions, almost frustrating to read as one is just craving for more relevant information. In this connection, it is quite noteworthy that these ca. 40 reports that are authored by Kivikoski (who was contemporary to Dreijer) and Tomtlund cover many more pages than reports written by Dreijer, who did excavate many more sites… But Dreijer did publish his interpretations, which is totally another story 😉

On tentativeness of numbers

Just the other day, I read the first academic work on the archaeological subject in Finland that happens to be a book about Åland 🙂 It is from 1858 and titled Om Ålands fornminnen (About the ancient monuments of Åland) written by Karl August Bomansson. Karl August Bomansson (1827-1906) was an Ålander, born in Saltvik, who became the first national archivist in the National Archives of Finland. He was a pioneer in the realms of archaeology and archives in Finland. And he was a true academic of his time, not an antiquarian collector excavating for the sake of discovering “pretty old things”. Archaeology in Bomansson’s book starts with one of the most numerous and conspicuous archaeological features on Åland – grave mounds, soil-covered barrows that belong to the mortuary practice of the Late Iron Age. And already on page 4, Bomansson casually mentions that “last summer, with Academic support, I excavated a large amount of such mounds” and continues to account for their construction and finds. On page 8 we learn that not less than 50 or 60 barrows (!) have been investigated by Bomansson who “in order not to needlessly destroy these beautiful ancient monuments” always reconstructed the excavated mounds.

With very few exceptions, the excavations Bomansson conducted are not possible to trace in the database that contains all known ancient sites and monuments on the Åland Islands. Also, in his book, only some locations where he excavated are mentioned. Thus, without specifically investigating into the matter (with a possible starting point in the K.A.Bomansson’s archive in the National Archives of Finland), it is simply unknown where and which barrows exactly did Bomansson excavated. Thereby, the numbers I have given on the excavated features from the Iron Age must not be seen as absolute! Because when I say that only about 935 graves of the registered 12.000 have been investigated, I have not included these 50 or 60 that Bomansson excavated in the 19th century.

Generally speaking, there is a great deal of tentativeness about the numbers given while describing the registered and documented state of the Iron Age on Åland. The database that contains all known ancient sites and monuments itself is ever growing and changing. Despite the moderate size of Åland, new sites are still found, new features are registered at the sites already known, and existing data is modified with more knowledge gained. In this connection, it is rather illustrative to exemplify with the case of Ha 22.12(/Ha 22.11). The site stands registered as a Late Iron Age cemetery – this information implies that the features at the cemetery are grave mounds, barrows, as this was the way the dead were buried on Åland during the Late Iron Age. However, visiting the site, several stone cairns catch the eye among barrows, and to bury the dead inside cairns was the burial practice of the (Bronze/) Early Iron Age. Thus, this site is potentially a cemetery used throughout the Iron Age (and, thereby, of great interest for my research). Furthermore, although the site has been mapped as well as partially excavated in the first half of the 20th century, as late as in 2011 a new cairn of considerable proportions was discovered by archaeologists during the re-mapping of the same cemetery.

Ha 22.12

Ha 22.12 cemetery with barrows and cairns

Documented Iron Age

Emanating from the registered state of the Iron Age on the Åland Islands, the picture of the period is hugely dominated by graves and cemeteries. Different kinds of settlement remains constitute less than 2% of all the registered features, while 97% are related to death and mortuary practices. At the same time, archaeological excavations (no matter the size or the character of the projects) have been conducted at almost 60 settlement features, i.e. 30% of the registered settlement remains have been excavated to some extent. But, as only about 935 graves of the registered 12.000 have been investigated by archaeologists, the percentage of excavated graves is just about 8%. In total, only about 1000 features dated to Iron Age have been archaeologically excavated. Although, I do think that we should not stare blind on the issues of how disproportionate is the relation between Iron Age settlement sites and cemeteries and/or how few field-investigations there have been implemented on Åland, these are, nonetheless, significant factors to consider.

A.Hackman's field-report from 1924

One of my favorite field-reports from early times of archaeological research on Åland is A. Hackman’s report from 1924 on excavations at Late Iron Age house foundations in Lagmansby, Saltvik (Sa 18.4)

As in archaeology we have to destroy that which we wish to understand – there is a saying that archaeological excavation is a controlled destruction – more important than the quantity of archaeological field-investigations is the quality of field-documentation. In my opinion, in case of accurate field-documentation, archaeological sites and features are not really destroyed but merely altered, transferred into site-reports. This is how and why archaeologists can re-examine sites excavated decades ago and come up with new interpretations. Fortunately, lots of field-reports from Åland are readily available through an online database administered by Finland’s National Board of Antiquities; reports are stored in the archive of the Museum of Åland as well. Unfortunately, despite the number of investigations being rather small, not all sites which are known to have been excavated have field-reports. Still, there are around 215 field reports relevant for the Iron Age on the Åland Island. But it is important to note that many of these field-reports are of very low quality – f.ex, it is not seldom that a feature rich in finds is described in less than 100 words (yes, I have counted 🙂 ). Therefore, in terms of settlement archaeology, when it comes to these approx. 60 settlement features (excavated from around 35 settlement sites), according to my standards, only one-third of sites that have been studied have substantially useful reports on the excavated features.

Registered Iron Age

A lot can be done in the archaeological study of a region’s history with an available record of registered ancient monuments, accurate field-documentation and knowledge on archaeological objects with clear finding circumstances. Therefore, it is only reasonable to try to clarify, what is the situation of applicable sources in regard to the Iron Age on Åland; this will be the topic of my next few posts.

To start with, there is a database that contains all known ancient sites and monuments on the Åland Islands and this inventory is administered by the Museum of Åland. Today, it contains information on roughly 1770 archaeological sites. So, what I did first was to filter archaeological sites and monuments in this database registered as belonging to the Iron Age – that left me with about 710 entries in case of which I also checked whether or not there have been any archaeological investigations implemented (this was done based on the sites’ description in the database as well as emanating from the accession numbers -numbers assigned to an archaeological collection that identifies its origin- in the Museum of Åland).

Excerpt from a database that contains all known ancient sites and monuments on the Åland Islands

Excerpt from a database that contains all known ancient sites and monuments on the Åland Islands

So far-so good, you may think. However, soon I was forced to amend my Iron Age database. First, a number of Late Iron Age cemeteries have been documented to have graves-contemporary house foundations or other settlement traces in the immediate vicinity, and these two distinct categories of ancient monuments have been registered as one (such as sites Su 21.8 and Su 21.9 on the figure above). Being interested in settlement archaeology, I separated these cemetery-settlement units. Monuments registered as settlement sites belonging to Bronze/Early Iron Age were taken into an account as well, mostly because of the scarcity of settlement remains from the Early Iron Age on Åland, but also because of the difficulty in exact dating of such sites to either of the periods on the basis of mere inventory. I also added sites and monuments registered as belonging to Iron Age/Medieval times and Late Iron Age/Medieval times and Iron Age/uncertain times – well, you get the point: the sites that might be connected to Iron Age. Plus, I also revised the database in regard to sites such as Su 22.4 on the figure. This site stands registered as a Late Iron Age cemetery with 6 grave mounds, although archaeological investigations determined these mounds to be rather recent house remains, i.e. this site is not relevant for my study.

Without going further into other kinds of amendments I have done to my Iron Age database, I will just wrap it up by noting that, today, I have 775 archaeological sites and monuments in it, with a total rounded up number of 12.420 different kinds of features (grave mounds, house foundations, cultural layers, burnt mounds, etc.) that I account relevant for my project. Of these 12.420 features, about 12.000 are graves and only about 200 belong to settlement remains; burnt mounds constitute the majority of the remaining features in this constellation. – This is the registered state of the Iron Age on Åland.