Roland of Ellekilde – an ‘Installation de Geste’

6 February, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have the latest Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie and I read a series of articles on the Roman Iron Age cemetery from Ellekilde. Installation de Geste

Iversen, Rune. 2011. Ellekilde – en gravplads fra romersk jernalder med fyrstegrav og cirkusbægre. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie 2009 [2011]. Pp 69-120.

Greiff, Susanne and Hartmann, Sonnegard. 2011. Scientific studies on fragments of enameled glass from a ‘circus cup’ found at Ellekilde nead Torslunde, Denmark. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie 2009 [2011]. Pp 121-132.

Drevs Dyhrfjeld-Johnsen, Mads. 2011. Charon-skik og alternative brug af romerske mønter. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie 2009 [2011]. Pp 133-154.

Olderburger, Freek. Lerkar fra Ellekilde – beskrivelse af karrene og kronologisk oversigt. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie 2009 [2011]. Pp 155-184

Bennike, Pia. 2011. Fyrsteskelettet fra Ellekilde – antropologiske studier. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie 2009 [2011]. Pp 185-196.

Gotfredsen, Anne Birgitte. 2011. Dyreknoglerne på gravpladsen Ellekilde – mad, status identitet. Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie 2009 [2011]. Pp 197-216.

Everything that happens in the Song of Roland in one picture

Whatever happened at the battle of Roncesvalles AD 778, it happened in between the first burial at Ellekilde, c. 250 AD, and the composition of the Song of Roland, c. 1150 AD.

There are a number of archetypical Iron Age elements in the Song of Roland such as Roland being a Beowulfian hero with a troubled childhood, a small retinue, the Paladins, and a loyalty that doesn’t call for help. Moreover, when Roland, the hero, meets his antagonist Marsile he cuts off his hand, as Beowulf took off Grendel’s arm, and forces him to flee back home and die in bed. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother returns to avenge her son, and eventually she is killed by Beowulf who also cuts of Grendel’s head. In the Song of Roland, however, the hero must die before the avenger Baligant enters the scene because in this song the super enemy Baligant must be killed by the superhero Charlemagne. When Marsile cannot be decapitated in battle we seem to be left with a head problem. The author, nevertheless, finds a solution: since Roland, unlike Beowulf, cannot cut off the head of his antagonist he takes the head of Marsile’s son (solution: focus on sons) after having wounded the father:

Vait le ferir en guise de baron:
Trenchet li ad li quens le destre poign.
Puis prent la teste de Jurfaleu le Blund,
Icil ert filz al rei Marsiliun. Ll 1902-05.

He (Roland) goes on to strike (Marsile) the way a baron does: and the count (Roland) cuts off his (Marsile’s ) right hand. Then he (Roland) takes the head of Jursaleu the Blond. He was King Marsile’s son.

A graphic solution to the Roland-Marsile-Jursaleu situation

In the Song of Roland, Charles is indeed super and thus it is he who, similar to duke Lupus in Venantius Fortunatus’ 6th century poems, drowns the enemy in the river. Then he takes Queen Bramimonde back over the dreadful Pyrenees allowing love and lowland civilization to convert her to Christianity. In Venantius’ poems, Brunhild is converted (from Arianism to Catholicism) journeying over the same wild mountains to the lowland around Metz and her marriage to King Sigebert (AD 565). Brunhild was escorted by the valiant duke Gogo, since in these early days fictional kings were not the real heroes and not in the habit of drowning soldiers or transporting queens and princesses. Similarly in the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf, the retinue, headed by the thane Hengest, brings back the Danish princess, Finn’s queen, to Denmark. Dismembering, drowning enemies and bringing home damsels, preferably through wilderness or waste land, are among the central elements in successful battle epics.

Roland is well-known for blowing his horn only to signal to Charlemagne that he and the rearguard he commands are now being cut to pieces. His refusal to blow his horn as soon as there is a strategic reason for doing it, was an topic commented upon already by Roland’s retinue who obviously didn’t understand the literary rules of the chanson de geste invented some 400 years after their alleged death in the Roncevaux Pass. Being a horn blower is not always simple.

Rune Iversen’s article, underpinned by Bennike’s and Gotfredsen’s, is a case in point. The man buried in Ellekilde is indeed a horn blower, shot and cut down from behind in battle while sitting on his horse. He is buried with his aurochs horn resting on his right arm (as if it was his best beloved) and we get the impression that he was killed when, unable to defend himself, he blew his horn signaling.

As it happens, he is installed as a hero in his grave – a paragon of loyalty and virtue.

The circus cups from Ellekilde can be bought in the museum shop at Kroppedal That will allow you to put the small cup into the large one and create a more lively aquatic scene having fun with your glasses the Iron Age way

This horn blower was laying on a cushion that supported his head and shoulders. Half laying, half sitting, his body was bended a little making room for the horn, and the man would thus have been looking diagonally through his grave chamber towards the Northwest. Otherwise, the grave is a typical chamber grave, which means that if the dead should wake up he would find something to eat and drink, from vessels and circus cups, in the upper part of the grave chamber, and something to do in the lower playing with his gaming pieces.The position of a complete lamb next to his left foot indicates that this animal was not part of the food (goose, pig, sheep and dog behind his head). Rather it would seem to be a butchered ram lamb representing itself as indeed a lamb rather than food.  Knowing that Kelbaþewaz, i.e. ‘the ewe lamb’s servant’, is a flattering name (On the Reading Rest 9 Jan 2012) it seems reasonable to bury a lamb as the horn blower’s companion.

Dead, yet imitating life in his private quarters he expects human company, and we get an impressive glimpse of the harsh public and pleasant private life of the well-to-do. Death doesn’t seem to be the end of the latter. The fate and the burial is the beginning of commemoration and narrative going on at least 150 years. The horn blower theme continued.

The Layout of the Ellekilde cemetery. The outer crescent, three times the radius of the mound and marked in grey has its centre c. 5 m south of the central grave.

The horn blower’s grave is the first on a cemetery later created around his monument. His was a mound and around it there were two crescents: an inner compact one open towards the Northwest and an outer sparse one opening to the East. The latter was part of a circle, three times as wide as the mound, with its center some 5 m south of the central grave. On average, the burials in the outer crescent are markedly well-equipped. In the inner crescent the graves to the south are the better ones. Archaeologically, the cemetery spans five generations between 250 and 400 AD, but obviously one should have 14C dated some of the graves with skeleton remains only, e.g. grave 8 and 13. Owing to the calibration curve, not least the end phase, c. 400 AD, could have been well-dated if tests were run to get a c. 15 year standard deviation. Chronologically speaking, both the inner and the outer crescent were building up during the entire period.

If we follow the gaze of the man in his central grave it would seem that he is looking out through the opening in the crescents towards the Northwest. If we would like to perform rituals or rallies at the cemetery, the open space to the west of the central grave is the obvious place. The cemetery is thematic [1] inasmuch as several groups in society cluster around a hero’s grave and thus his qualities. They do so in different ways and we may discuss the pattern in terms of position in society.

Probably the battle in which the horn blower was killed was eventually won by the armed men and pillars of his society, those who made him a hero. At least that would explain the burial and also the will to build up a thematic cemetery around him. If the victory had regional consequences then the people buried in the outer crescent may represent non-local. This of course, may also not be the case, but having identified thematic cemeteries we can no longer take a local catchment area only for granted. The man from Ellekilde is the first commemorated Roman Iron Age hero and his status reminds one of saints and martyrs.

When it comes to horns and horn blowers, three patterns have become obvious during later years. (1) There were two kinds of horns, the straight wooden trumpet and the aurochs horn prolonged with metal fittings. (2) These two types are both found in war offerings. (3) When blowing horns and horn blowers do not relate to offerings, they are found in connections with heaths, i.e. open areas where signaling is essential – from the heath to the farm or vice versa. In Jutland this patter is made up by a number of wooden trumpets in wells (wooden horns must be kept wet in order to be tight). On Zealand, the Ellekilde man looks towards the Heath (between Høje Tåstrup and Roskilde) and later in the Viking Age a rune stone, the only one commemorating a horn bearer, was erected just north of the Heath.

Living next to a heath in a livestock economy obviously forces many young men to try the horn and cattle herding, and the relation between the ram lamb and the horn blower in the grave points to the significnce of this economy and way of life. Moreover, if these boys were gifted they could end up as horn bearers/blowers in an army. In the Ellekilde case we may suggest that the horn blower warned his thriving society in the western outskirts of today’s Copenhagen of an enemy attacking from Roskilde Fjord over the Heath. Since he was probably killed from behind by blows and an arrow in the head we can suspect that he was sounding his horn from the heath to the farms – sacrificing himself while warning his community and calling on it to attack. The Ellekilde man therefore is more of a real than fictional Roland. Be this as it may, blowing his horn rather than running away was probably the point.

The Iron Age settlement in central Jutland around the Heath, black dots, and the horns found in wells on the settlements. All in all there are seven horns.

Signaling to your friends in a troubled situation is known also from Beowulf where horns are heard a number of times, e.g. in vv 2943-44, when it dawns in Ravenswood and the gruesome Swedish King Ongantheow is just about to finish off some hard pressed Geats sheltering in a hill fort. Much to their relief hīe Hygelāces horn ond bўman gealdor ongēaton – ‘they began to hear the (enchanting) singing of King Hygelac’s horn and trumpet’. Hygelac comes to rescue them and two instruments are heard: the horn and the bўme. In Latin, the former is the cornu (the aurochs horn) the latter the būcina. When Anglo-Saxons translate from Latin, e.g. the story about the Battle of Jericho septem sacerdotes clangent buccinis becomes seofan sacerdas blāwon mid bўmon i.e. ‘seven priests blew the trumpets’. Since a bўme is a Latin būcina, it is a straight wooden trumpet. It stands to reason that sounding the two instruments in tandem enables King Hygelac to signal in way sufficiently precise to let his fellow Geats understand exactly who is coming to rescue them and how to react. The signal makes sense and the passage is an example of the strategic usage of a pair of horns during field battle, but also of the ability to convey a precise message. It stands to reason that the man from Ellekilde could express himself clearly even when he was attacked.

Rune Iversen is careful to refer to the difficult concept of the ‘princely grave’ as an archaeological label referring to an elite (pp 82 f.), and in a concluding discussion, pp 100 ff., much to his credit, he discusses the idea that grave goods reflect the person buried in his social capacity. Iversen argues that the equipment of a grave is not an image of the individual, but an installation mirroring ‘society’ or ‘kin’ in the broadest sense. The individual is chosen to illustrate something. Given the archaeological community in which Iversen works, and must refer to, this is a great step forward. Naturally, he doesn’t go as far as the above interpretation, which opens up the possibility that a herdsman or platoon leader in his thirties, who blew himself into heroic fame, was buried with the status markers that he became entitled to only in death when his skill, strategic understanding and courage could be used and rewarded. Rune Iversen’s discussion is nevertheless a significant step forward, rightly and effectively criticizing a naïve position.


[1] See Herschend, The Early Iron Age in South Scandinavian, 2009:120 ff.


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