The Curse of Uniquity

3 October, 2011

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article:

Williams, Howard; Rundkvist, Martin and Danielsson Arne. 2011. The Landscape of a Swedish Boat-Grave Cemetery. Landscapes (2010) I pp. 1-24.

A map of modern Asyut

Saturday morning, Asyut families visit the eternal homes of their ancestors and relatives. The cemetery is situated next to the rock containing prominent Pharaonic graves. On the modern grave houses there are numbers, arrows and directions leading you right in the narrow alleys off the main street.

In Asyut, contrary e.g. to Cairo, nobody lives permanently in graves, and the prime time-consuming reason for visiting is keeping them tidy – sweeping floors and courts with date palm leaves. But since going there and doing this takes a while and since the monuments are capacious, there is a point in bringing food and organize a picnic or perhaps an overnight stay. This doesn’t mean that religious rituals are forgotten, far from it. It just means that visiting the graves fuses family, society and religion in Upper Egypt [1].

The Roman town, situated safely above the high-water mark of the once flooding Nile, is still visible in the street plan, in a nowadays very souterrain bath and in the old desert road, Darb al-Arba’in, The Forty DaysRoad, to the Kharga oasis and the Sudan. That road passes by the cemetery. Passing by sepulchres that occupy the foot and lower slopes of the mountain overlooking the town, means entering or leaving through a barrier separating the desert without life and the town of the living. Given the striking difference between the desert that runs all the way up to the Eastern flank of the cemetery and the fertile Nile Valley that takes over at its Western flank, the cemetery as a zone of transformation, is as cardinal as the city-of-the-dead metaphor.

Before entering or leaving Asyut we would have crossed the canals that irrigate the fields and make the transformation, when crossing, a matter ’pontification’ or ’bridge-making’ in the literal sense of the word. Today, forgetful of ancient traditions, nobody actually offers anything on the bridge.

In Asyut, therefore, the cemetery combines the two main kinds of Iron Age Scandinavian cemeteries: the ones defining a border or a zone of transgression and the ones mirroring the settlements. In Scandinavian Iron Age they are often but not necessarily separated. The latter are generally speaking later than the former, and not until the Roman Iron Age, especially the end of that period, do some graves start to resemble rooms. Roman influence cannot be ruled out.

Concepts, such as Border and Mirror are probably almost archetypical in connections with graves and they may well be something to look for in any cemetery.

Williams, Rundkvist and Danielsson (WRD) approach their cemetery the other way round. Having stated the unique character of the Skamby boat grave cemetery, by means of excavating one of the 21 graves visible to the naked eye, and knowing nothing about unmarked graves or the time depth of the cemetery, they set out to contextualize its centrality taking the equation ‘one cemeteryequals one settlement’ for granted. They start with the regional perspective presenting a next to arbitrary source material, i.e. village names with –stad as the second component. Then they zoom in on cemeteries and hill forts before they proceed to local rune stones. Eventually they end up on the grave-covered ridge at Skamby. On all levels, mapping a haphazard source material, distinction and essence link-in with place. Since we know so little about the actual places, the link is mostly hypothetical.

WRD make a number of relevant and some slightly irrelevant observations, but cursed by their quest for uniquity they end on a resounding ‘Really!’:

Hence, the landscape was a pivotal medium in the practice of boat-inhumation, allowing a local elite group to perform their identities and allegiances by distinctive and dynamic means (p. 20f.).

Really, what a swinging and liberal landscape, the Ostrogothic – very similar to the Asyut setting or by all means Saint Nicholas Churchyard in central Aberdeen – allowing all kinds of things to take place.

There is little to critisize in the authors’ conclusion  and yet it would seem that WRD may have missed some slightly less commonplace points.

Rune stones around the Skamby cemetry

From excavations carried out by W&R, we know that some time in or after  the 9th century. a visitor placed a purse of 9th century. gaming pieces on the wooden roof of the only excavated grave at Skamby. The precise date of the burial is unknown, but  coeval with, older or younger than the production date of the gaming pieces. Let us suggest at the cemetery was used in some way or other during the 9-10th c.

Rune stones are meant to be seen and read, and thus by means of text and decoration, a rune stone combines two input rooms: (1) Social Network and (2) Place and conveys a message. A rune stone, therefore, makes up the central node in its area of influence[2]. In principle these areas are proportional to the number of stones at the node. Mapping rune stones this way discloses the area of subsistence related to the Skamby cemetery as indeed void of rune stones [3]. Not surprisingly, when it comes to rune stones, churches stand out as more important nodes than villages or farms.

Skamby and Å as elements in a hypothetical Early Iron Age manor landscape

The map also defines the position of Skamby as early-iron-age inasmuch as it is somewhat withdrawn from the coast and situated between a resource area, the woodlands to the Northeast, and a subsistence area, the open fields to the Southwest. Well-watered by streams and brooks they benefit pasture and haymaking. We can expect the cemetery to be a reflection of a settlement as well as a demarcation of a border between areas. Pointing out ‘the voyage’ on the ‘ridge wave’ by means of boat graves at the edge of the woodlands (sailing North to somewhere Home?) as far from the water as almost possible, is odd in an Early Iron Age perspective. Nevertheless, given the kenning way in which incompatible phenomena are mixed to give metaphoric meaning in Norse poetry during the Carolingian Iron Age, 750-1025 CE, the situation of the cemetery and its ‘grave-speak’ idiom could nevertheless be meaningful.

The large Roman Iron Age farm Missingen in Østfold* situated on the border between woodlands and arable lands, is a paragon of the prolific Early Iron Age situation.*Gro Anita Bårdseth, Norwegian Archaeological Review 2009:2, pp 146-58 with references.

The bay Slätbaken indicating the small pre-Medieval (Skamby-Å) Vikboland and the large Medieval (Söderköping-Stegeborg) Östergötland setting

As the rune stone distribution shows there is nothing Early Medieval in the position of Skamby and that should prompt us to explain why:

(1) Skamby belonged to the upper echelons of society in which traditional (commemorative) rune stones were less interesting.
(2) Skamby in the Carolingian Iron Age and Early Medieval Period was not settled by its owner. (We may suspect that stewards, the holders of an office rather than holders of land, are reluctant rune stone erectors).
(3) Skamby had already lost its importance and its land (and its landing-place at Å?) to farms less dominant such as the rune stone farms. Perhaps because Söderköping was about to become a fact and Slätbaken barraged at Stegeborg.

Local knowledge will eventually make Skamby unique, but until we know more, its landscape exhibits general qualities only. The site matters because it may have existed during the Carolingian Iron Age, despite the fact that it echoes Early Iron Age ideals and because it sports Late Iron Age mortuary metaphors. If Skamby represents a manor, then it is intriguing that its possible landing place at Å attracted rune stones and the first parish church. In a clear-cut Late Iron Age/Early Medieval landscape the powerful would have preferred to build their large farm, its cemetery, and perhaps its church, somewhere between their woods and their landing place.

Some more or less similar Early Iron Age large manorial landscapes survive as a form of centres – Kvåle in Sogndal (well into the Middle Ages), Gudme (as manors such as Broholm and Hesselagergård), Uppsala and Uppåkra (as the archdiocese of Uppsala and Lund respectively), Skamby, if there were ever a manor next to the cemetery, did not survive.

In Asyut, however, nothing could change the basic interplay between town, graves and landscape.

[1] Upper Egypt Identity and Change, edited by Nicholas Hopkins and Reem Saad. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo New York 2004, is a splendid moder introduction to the more cognitive aspects of society in Upper Egypt. And Hans Alexander Winklers study Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt: A study of Spirit Possession (1936) translated and printed by American University in Cairo Press 2009, dives deep into unorthodox spiritual live in Upper Egypt.

[2] Please note that the landscape was a pivotal medium in the practice of rune stone erection, allowing a local elite group to perform their identities and allegiances by distinctive and dynamic means.

[3] WRD have mapped the rune stones from Å at the new church rather than the old, i.e. the ruin called Ring, where they belong. This blurs their picture a little.


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