Living an Afterlife, What does it Take to be Dead?

20 August, 2012

This week on the Reading Rest I have the second report from the excavations at ’Paul Young’s Pen’(cf. May 28 2012). This time on a well-dated site created between the 11th and the 3rd century BCE.

Eklund, Susanna, Lindkvist Ann and Wikborg, Jonas. 2012. Påljungshage – kremerat, paketerat och respekterat. Ett gravfält från yngre bronsålder-äldre förromersk järnålder. SAU Rapport 2010:11. Uppsala. Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis. Pp 356 (1).

For decades Swedish archaeology has had difficulties coming to terms with the grave concept. Discussions started in the late 1960s on formal source critical issues nourished by doubts about atefact combinations in graves mirroring a certain point in time, i.e. the funeral date. During the 70s and 80s the importance of contextualizing graves became obvious, and by the 90s the ‘naïve hypothesis’ became a household term among the critics of traditional grave archaeology. It was used when they wanted to point fingers at these archaeologists, their self-fulfilling prophecies and anachronisms. Graves as a proxy for all kinds of social matters and conventions were questioned, and contextualizing the traditionally unimportant became the important. The traditionalists didn’t bother and the in wake of post modernism they thrived and allowed themselves to avoid the complications of the empirical turn in the 2000s.

Today, in the 10s, as well as during the last decades, it’s within contract archaeology that old and new attitudes to graves oppose each other in a series of texts more informed by practice, tradition and chance than by theoretical considerations (2). This is especially true among the scholarly low-skilled archaeologists in the County Administrative Boards (CABs) and  their guidelines. Thus, in order not to bite the hand that feeds you, the stated goals of the excavation plans given in to the CABs are still heavily marked by traditional views. But now and then the actual results will frustrate the planned goals in a subtle and stimulating way.

The site at ’Paul Young’s Pen’ is a case in point. It was excavated as a cemetery – the CAB would not have allowed any redefinition of or fuzzy theoretical discussion about that concept — but close reading the report, not least between the lines, the ridge at Paul Young’s Pen stands out as a Late Bronze Age (LBA) arena where the past, commemoration and afterlife were cherished – i.e. deposited, nourished and preserved. It was a place for spirits, less complicated than many others and thus easier to grasp. When reading the report the average CAB will mistake the site for a cemetery.

Sometime in the beginning of the Bronze Age (BA) when, after a mellinnium, the water level started to drop the from 20 odd metres above sea level (20 masl), the Stone Age island with the cosy protected beaches (On the Reading Rest May 28 2012) disappeared and became a peninsular. Three hundred years later, when the sea level reached c. 15 masl, the peninsular was a prominent rock or small ridge in the local landscape. As Ann Lindkvist (AL) shows in her analysis of visibility, the site and the top of the ridge was one of several prominent points in the landscape behind and above a subsistence area, a farm land, to the east and southeast. Here settlements may well have been located. Already in the EBA it was decided to build a monument on the top of the bare rock – a very BA thing to do.

The event started with a bonfire. The remains would soon have disappeared, but in a small shallow cleft a little soot happened to be preserved until a monument was built. The monument was a low round stone setting delimited by kerbstones and filled with gravel and earth. When this new ‘top cap’  was ready a central pit was dug in and filled with burnt, cleaned and crushed bones as well as a little coal from the cremation and ritual treatment of a human body, c. 127 grs of bones, less that 10 % of the expected. Later on this procedure was repeated a little to the south southwest of the center, c. 87 grs, less than 5% of the expected weight, went into this deposit. From a number of cremated and crushed bones, c. 25 grs from one or more human beings, scattered in the southwest quadrant of the monument, we learn that the monument now and then attracted remains from cremations.

At Paul Young’s Pen, combining the sacrality of the rock top with a stone setting, BA man created a suitable place where local spirits, represented by a part of their cremated remains, could dwell in afterlife.

The two pit depositions with cremation remains are 14C dated (3).


If there is no shortage of money on the contractor’s part (i.e. if time is valuable) and if a team of archaeologists tell a CAB that they want date the graves they hope to excavate, then the CAB will probably allow a large number of 14C dates, given that artefact combinations are not to be expected. Burnt bones are common and they can be dated quite well if we think they are LBA — a period in which the calibration curve drops steeply. In the transition LBA-PRIA, nevertheless, the curve has a well-known plateau prolonging the calendar year, i.e. the  sister of the 14C year. Dates are thus not very sharp even if their standard deviation is no more than 25 14C years. Notwithstanding, 14C dates are the best.

All depositions of human bones at Paul Young’s Pen are 14C-dated and these dates give us an overview of the use of the site during the last two millennia BCE. There’s an obvious beginning and end to the c. 800 years when monuments were built and human remains deposited. There’s a central period too, covering 100-150 years centering on the 7th c. BCE. Compared to at the calibration curve, the central period reminds one of the time period itself, which means that the 7th c. was a period of frequentl depositions. Since the trend of the calibration curve is falling while the trend line of the depositions is raising, we can infer that the depositions were more common in the end of the 7th c. than in the beginning. Around the central period there are century-long buffers with but a few depositions, and in the 10th and 4th c. there were none.

It stands to reason that the top monument was created to inaugurate a potent place in nature by fire, monument and a deposition of human bones. Later on when depositions began again, the top monument became the root of a more communal place. Eventually the depositions stopped. In the 3th c. BCE someone recognized the place, and put a modern rectangular stone-setting end to the site making it a recognized ancient monument — a former spirit site tagged with a geometrical monument typical of its day and age.

Chronologically, the two depositions in the top monument are wide apart, and it would have been interesting to date the scattered bones in its southwest quadrant to see if they would have filled the gap and enhance the spiritual biography of the monument. Feel free to convince the CAB that another five or so 14C tests are needed, if you think you can.

In the end, the site consisted of 36 deposition in 56 monuments in stone, two (perhaps three) activity areas and the odd hearth. The contextual situation is neatly summarized and discussed by Susanna Eklund (SK). Depositions and monuments are often combined, but one deposit is without a visible monument. Nevertheless, the deposition defines the centre of a possible monument that was never built. One monument was heaped around a bolder.

More importantly, 24 stone settings are without depositions. As pointed out by Jonas Wikborg (JW) a deposition, whether in a monument or not, may traditionally be called a grave. As it happens this is true even though the buried remains, often less than 50 grs of cremated human bones, are extremely pars pro toto. If the pars is no more than c. 100 gram, then the totus of an adult would allow a spirit to be deposited or spread at 25 odd places.

Were such places ‘the grave’ of someone or twenty five? Were people ‘buried’ next to themselves, as well as strategically in the subsistence area?

Or did they, in afterlife, simply inhabit the space where they once lived? And/or were they, as spirits, rooted in their community on the ridge?

It is not difficult, therefore, to agree with JW that monuments without depositions are not someone’s grave in our sense of the word although they may well be memorials. As it happens, a complete LBA or PRIA deposition site is unthinkable without positively ‘empty’ monuments.

Looking at the distribution of the monuments, two of them stand out because they occupy the primary and secondary top point and because they alone are situated directly on the bed rock. The rest of the monuments have a tendency to cluster next to the bare rock. Given this distribution, the site can be divided in two parts along a north-south line. The southeastern part, in its turn, may be divided in two, albeit less obvious parts.

If we look at the chronology of this tripartite site, each part was opened up as one in a series during a hundred year period (indicated by the arrows in the below diagram). The southwestern and the central parts refer to the prime top monument and the northeastern to the secondary top monument. In the beginning of the deposition period the southern part is the most popular, later on, the central and the northern part grow in popularity.

It quite possible that the depositions belong to local settlements and settlers who think of themselves as clusters related to a specific beginning represented by a deposited spirit. The interpretation of the place as spiritual is enhanced when the activity areas are taken into consideration. They are stone constructions abutting the monuments, a heap of fire cracked stones, a cultural layer and a hearth in the northern part of the site with no apparent connection to the bone depositions. These constructions are related to fire and the use of stones. It is possible, moreover, that there was a site specifically use to burn flint in the slope 60 metres southeast of the of depositions. This site is contaminated by medieval activities, but a bronze pin and ceramics link it in time and place also to the depositions.

The contents, composition and construction of monument and deposition vary within narrow limits, and there are indications that deposit as well as monument may be visited and somewhat changed over a time period. If we are into grave archaeology this is problematic because traditionally it is important for the chronology of the past that the dead are buried only once, in a way that reflect the time of their death – not constructed as remains and spirits during a period of afterlife.

Monuments 662 and 792 form an instructive pair that highlights this dilemma. They are old and contemporary – the second and third deposition, in 14C terms, situated next to each other and similarly constructed. The bones were deposited in an urn at the center of each monument, and the urn surrounded by stones that supported a capstone above the urn. Removing these lids gave immediate access to the urns. In the top of both, there was resin and a fragment of a bronze neck ring – in all probability, in each grave a fragment of the same ring (JW p.58f.).

One of the questions that the project was able to add to the original ones was the dating of bones as well as resin rings when found together in the depositions. Resin, used in bentwood vessels to cover the seams, can be quite old because it may be reused in a new vessel when the old one is discarded. Thus, from a source critical point of view it is interesting to compare resin dates to bone dates. Resin from the three old bone depositions — the second, third and fourth deposition according to 14C — was thus dated parallel to the bones.

When the resin was obviously part of the bentwood container (the ring in the bottom of deposit 5988) the dates were overlapping, but in monuments 662 and 792 the resin in the top of the urns was younger than the bones! In fact the resin was the same age as the second bone deposition in the top monument. This indicates that during the central period of deposition there was a need to revisit the earliest monuments and bone deposits. If it was meaningful to add a small bentwood box to the contents of the urns, then the neck ring fragments could have been added too – comforting the spirits of the dead in their afterlife – effectively sabotaging a traditional archaeological presumption.

From a landscape point of view the northern part of the deposition site constitutes an arena with a heap of fire cracked stones in front of a number of monuments related to the bare rock. The secondary top monument, the heap of fire cracked stones and the flint burning site align, and thus the spirit site ‘Paul Young’s Pen’ consists of a southwest-northeast axis following the ridge and a northwest southeast axis following the slope. The site opens towards the southeast and was probably meant to be approached from that direction. In the end the solitary PRIA stone setting marks the end of the first axis along which the deposition site tended to expand.

Talking to all the spirits in their monuments on the ridge is easily done from the flint burning focus at the bottom of the slope. From their dwellings on the ridge the spirits will form an audience looking at the flint exploding in the fire. Indeed the explosions may bring them to attention and some may smile attractively.


The spirit site at Paul Young’s Pen is an afterlife dwelling site. It belongs to one of those periods in Scandinavian prehistory when spirits were not confined to graves, coffins or chambers — when unsepulchered they enjoyed each other’s company. As everyone else they lived in society and had their places contextualizing the fact that there’s a great theological point in knowing whether a spirit must be confined to a grave, e.g. waiting for resurrection, or whether it will live on in an afterlife rooted in the world of the living, even if the spirit is also dispatched from the pyre to the next world. It would seem that an active unconfined afterlife is essential to the LBA, but also that building society on religious faith is human and sometimes bizarre.


(1) The title translates: ’Paul Young’s Pen’ – cremated, packed and respected. A cemetery from Late Bronze Age-Early Pre Roam Iron Age and the short summary states the following:

During the summer and autumn of 2007 Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis (SAU) conducted an archaeological evaluation and an archaeological investigation of the monument Helgona 220, in Helgona parish, Södermanland. The investigation was necessitated by Nyköping Municipal Council’s plans to build a shopping centre on the site. The investigated site was located just outside Nyköping. Prior to the evaluation, a solitary tone setting on a natural rise in the terrain was known on the site. The evaluation showed that there were late Bronze Age cremations in the stone setting, as well as a large number of other stone settings adjacent to it. The excavated features consisted of 57 stone settings, 1 boulder grave, and 1 unmarked grave. In total, 36 burials were found, all of them cremations. Using radiocarbon and artefacts, the graves have been dated between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Pre-roman Iron Age. Finds consisted of burnt bones, ceramics and resin, as well a small number of bronze and iron artefacts. Also, the burial ground contained a cultural layer, a heap of fire cracked stone and a hearth. In the southeast slope below the actual burial ground, a Late Bronze Age clasp was found, as well as ceramics and burnt flint, all within a confined space, limited by shallow ditches. This area is presumably linked to the burial ground. The slope also harboured a hearth and two postholes.

(2) Those who want to look further into these matters can read Anders Kaliff: Fire, Water, Heaven and Earth. Stockholm. Riksantikvarieämbetet 2007.

(3) One of the defence lines of traditional grave archaeology has slowly become a mantra:

Iron Age 14C-dates of graves are not worthwhile because artefact combinations give better dates
Iron Age 14C-dates of graves are not worthwhile
14C-dates of graves are not worthwhile.

The purpose of an opinion turned mantra is obviously not to convey a simple fact, but rather to concentrate on not-being-bothered by change.

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