‘Nearly all Mounds and Megaliths have been Excavated and Destroyed by Forester Bang and Lieutenant Vilstrup’ (0)

15 October, 2012

This week on the Reading Rest I have a dissertation from Stockholm University. It’s about non-invasive archaeological methods, and 160 years ago Worsaae, quoted in the heading, would have advocated them.

Viberg, Andreas. 2012. Remnant echoes of the past. Archaeological geophysical prospectiation in Sweden. Theses and Papers in Scientific Archaeology 13. Stockholm University. Stockholm.

Andreas Viberg’s (AV’s) dissertation consists of a synthesis corroborated by five articles that deepen its perspectives. I comment on the third article a case study of the Oelandic ring fort Sandby borg and the technical report behind the article(1).

Making conversation, archaeologists and astrophysicists will sometimes point out that their disciplines attract the most mono-thetic oddballs to whom the meaning as well as the rise and fall of practically the lot has become obvious. Whatever their quest, the success of their endeavour is guaranteed by our limited knowledge about the remote past. Archaeology is their obvious field of interest because its past, judged by present standards, must have contained a lot of oddballs driven by belief rather than proof. Since we know but a little, there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot to understand that isn’t self-evident, i.e. not possible to see as meaningful. And if we do see it as indeed possibly meaningful and worthwhile, should we look for a rational or irrational meaning and see normal or deviant behavior behind the material patterns – or both? Is the odd and deviant less important than the commonplace?

Since archaeologists must themselves lay bare the rare and unknown patterns they are looking for, most of what we perceive or could possibly perceive is overlooked and uninteresting. Indirectly this is the reason why imagination and new ways to see, are crucial to archaeology – they teach us the leap from becoming aware of to understanding. At the same time, seeing and believing sets the oddball rolling.

In his dissertation, AV’s discusses new ways of perceiving patterns as well as the reluctancy among archaeologists to accept geophysical methods. These methods are threatening because they might easily contradict the usual, highly selective, archaeological method of excavation and autopsy. Furthermore, they questions the social role of the archaeologist in today’s society – Sherlock Holmes at the crime scene explaining to the unseeing and apprenticed Watsons what happened here in the past. Therefore, only when the methods confirm what we as Archaeologists are prepared to see, will we accept them.

Theoretically speaking, we understand that the quality of these methods is their ability to perceive differently, but in practice we are cautious because we fear the oddball’s imagination seeing things that aren’t there. Nevertheless, when praising our cautiousness and traditional excavation styles, we shouldn’t forget that 40 years ago in the most excavated part of Sweden, the Stockholm area, hardly any archaeologist was able to detect and excavate the remains of Iron Age houses and farms. We needed a turn in excavation techniques and another way of looking for patterns in the ground to see these farms and understand that in the 50s, 60, and 70s, during the development of modern Stockholm, the remains thousands of Iron Age farms disappeared unnoticed.

AG has conducted a number of successful case studies not least to support his idea of how to organize a suitable and prolific Swedish subdiscipline of geophysical archaeology. One of these cases, in which the correspondence between Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) and archaeological autopsy is very good, opens up a window towards imaginative interpretations of empirical patterns that may be completely wrong or in some way right – a worthwhile case of oddball archaeology highlighting the fact that in archaeology a lot of possibilities must be taken into account although they may turn out not to be true.

In South Scandinavia, settlement planning becomes more and more important during the Iron Age (IA). Initially, planning was needed because members of small autonomous communities shared a limited subsistence area. In some ways, the way they shared had to be balanced against the right of those admitted into society have to sustain and reproduce themselves. Since the agricultural systems changed little during the period, despite the growing population, the right to form a household and a farm was eventually restricted. Restrictions had to do with the fact that the earliest IA farms consisted of a one-house farm occupied by a nuclear family farming the land surrounding it during one house-generation only. The farm house was never rebuilt and after some 30 years it was pulled down because its inhabitants had moved out to new farms or died. Since there were no radical agricultural reforms to implement, it became reasonable to reform the household. Farms became larger and fewer, but also more stable and fenced. Communities organized themselves as villages, and similar to the farm houses the number of farms became more and more stable. Even if a farm was not occupied its plot and thus the farm as an estate would still be maintained.

The apotheosis of prehistoric settlement planning is a number of ring forts created during the reign of Harold Bluetooth in the late 10th c. CE. Judging from their mostly short-lived existence it seems fair to conclude that as monuments, rather than being cherished, they were left to deteriorate as soon as the King’s power diminished and he died. There was nothing wrong with their planning, except perhaps that is was too strict and formal – rigid as it were – with very little room for adaptation to local or future needs. They are fine examples, nevertheless, of what a master builder with access to a pair of compasses and rulers can do if he is invested with power and principles (2).

Since we know what these houses looked like we are able especially to appreciate how the postholes in the corners where two houses met were set out. Since the outer posts support the walls at an oblique angle there are limitations to their position and thus a great demand for precision when figuring out where one should dig their postholes. In real life setting out all the small differently marked staffs indicating postholes of different dimension and slope, such as outer postholes, long wall postholes, roof support postholes, short end wall post holes, partition wall postholes, and so on, isn’t always easy.

This is why it makes one sad to see that in one of the forts, which actually housed a number of people for quite a while, there is a blemish on the plan – a house squeezed into an empty space as best it could, destroying the master builder’s beautiful plan. Some may have hoped that those, who spoiled this geometric monumentality, were punished, but probably the house only shows that day-to-day practice got the better of the powerful message of formal rules and order in the architectural display. One may even suggest that King Sven, who ousted his father Harold Bluetooth, maliciously applauded the extra house.

If we go back 500 years to 6th c. Öland in the Baltic, we find planned settlements, once again ring forts, that share an element with one of Harold’s. Harold’s trelleborgs (‘thrall burgs’) were completely planned fortified spaces, but in the fort that bears the name Trelleborg there is an additional fan of houses outside the rampart, planned along a periphery, a segment of a circle, in such a way that each short end occupies a certain number of foot along the circumference although the axes do not point towards the centre of the circle.

This kind of planning along a curve, known from the southernmost Oelandic ring fort Eketorps borg, can be found it also in the contemporary Pre Carolingian Iron Age (PCIA) fort Sandy borg, because of AV’s geophysical survey — in Eketorp it took years of excavations before the planning was understood. AV’s survey has in other words made it possible for us in advance to test interpretations that ought to be kept in mind before one starts traditional excavations.

When Sandby borg was mapped in the 1930s, it became apparent that the inner periphery of its stout lime stone wall was an ellipse, more or less. Later in the 1970s aerial photos suggested that there had been houses in the fort because the grass would seem to ripe and wither above the concealed remains of the lime stone house walls a little earlier than above the earthen house floors. The settlement plan, nevertheless, was flimsy.

When AV made his survey a number of structures were detected among others precise wall lines, which were singled out. With access to this precise plan we can advance the discussion of the planning of the ring fort.

The GPR suggests a central East-West axis and a perpendicular axis defining the centre of the ring fort where the two axes intersect. Since AV has mapped the centre of the settlement plan we can define the end point of the perpendicular axis as the distance from the intersection to the inner corner of the northern gate. Since an ell on Öland is one and a half East Roman foot or 47.03 cm the distance is c. 70 ells.

We may then proceed to construct two reasonable foci on the central axis. In all probability prehistoric man would have been guided by a wish to create a circumference of a certain recognizable length based on simple numbers. If we chose to place the foci 75 ells from the centre point then the circumference of the ellipse will be c. 564 ells or indeed 94 rods (1 rod is 6 ells or 282.2 cm). Instead of figuring out all this, the planners on Öland probably had a rule of the thumb which said that if you make an ellipse based on two foci, 150 measuring units apart, by means of a closed robe measuring 205 units, then the circumference will be 564 units.

Probably the planning needed yet another ellipse to solve part of the planning namely the need to define the façades of the radial houses and thus their length. There seems to be one such ellipse, which fits the central houses. This smaller ellipse can be constructed using the following rule: if you make an ellipse base on two foci, 80 measuring units apart, by means of a closed robe measuring 110 units, then the length of its perpendicular axis will be 75 ½ units. This ellipse would seem to fit the central part of the ring fort, but eventually, in practice, the houses become too long and the façades are set back.

Sanby borg is odd because the master builders contemplated planning an oval settlement, and executed their plans, although the procedure is bound to face a number of problems that may turn planning and execution into chaos. But if you succeed c. 400 CE on Öland, the elegance of the Roman amphitheatre will spring to the educated mind. We may find this comic, but in the Eketorp ring fort they actually built a portcullis gate (and did it work?) as a small tribute to their Romano-Oelandic mentality. We may find that comic too.

Both Eketorps borg and Sandby borg are examples of a geometrical idea that wasn’t carried out completely, and probably the planning was never intended to be strict. Instead, planning echoing a military Roman experience gave some guidelines as to how the space, if necessary, could be filled with houses. We wouldn’t like to think that they planned the way they did just because they could, and as we have seen, the radial planning of house façades surfaced again in one of Harold’s fort. It may not have been forgotten and Harold was probably in the habit of borrow historical elements and incorporating them into his monuments (3).

If we go back another 500 years to the first c. BCE we find an even earlier example of settlement planning at Hodde in Southern Jutland. Hodde was a fenced farm later expanding into a village and its perimeter seems difficult to explain if its purpose was fencing one or a small number of farms. When the settlement developed the new farms were aligned to the fence to keep the center free of houses. A possible way of explaining the settlement layout may be found in a reference to the landscape surrounding the village, inasmuch as it would seem that its outline is modeled on the outline of its topographical surroundings or subsistence area. Linking the settlement to its surrounding is not exceptional, but designing the settlement as a 1:10 map of the landscape is hardly necessary or rational. It is just odd – so odd in fact that we may wonder whether it is true.

Not surprisingly, there are no other examples of a simple correspondence between settlement and surrounding. The Oelandic ring forts are deviant to say the least. Harold’s fortifications were failures. But nevertheless, the will to plan according to a formal model, signifying order, popped up now and then during the IA and that makes the examples significant – significant of a preconception or miniature utopia that wouldn’t go away although it failed. Perhaps we should believe the patterns and see them as a sign of a slowly growing wish to manifest order in a formal way, despite some examples being weirder than others. Perhaps the development of the strictly formal is the most significant thing that happened in during the IA. Perhaps the fact that none of the examples discussed here were successful should be seen as the result of a resistance to accept this kind of development. Perhaps we are still caught between a quest for and a protest against a similar kind of social engineering.

(0). Næsten alle Høie og Dysser under Høfdinggaard ere, ligesom de omtalte, udgravede og ødelagte af Skovrider Bang og Lieutnant Vilstrup—Nearly all mounds and megaliths belonging to Høfdinggaard have, like the ones mentioned, been excavated and destroyed by Forester Bang and Lieutenant Vilstrup. This is a quotation from the Danish archaeologist Worsaae in the middle of the 19th century when the development of standard archaeological methods was still problematic. In those days, as pointed out by Michel Notelid (2000 Det andra påseendet, Part I. En studie av övergångar i den arkeologiska disciplinens historia. Occasional papers in archaeology, ISSN 1100-6358; 22. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala), Worsaae, fighting the unscientific, was always keen to turn archaeology into a discipline governed by objective methods and sensible norms. Thus, when he noticed questionable excavations he didn’t hesitate to hint destruction.

(1). The dissertation can be found at DIVA: http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:su:diva-79239 And the report, in Swedish, is: Viberg, Andreas., 2012. Sandbyborg: Teknisk rapport. Magnetometerprospektering av Sandbyborg, Raä 45:1, Öland, Sverige. Rapporter från arkeologiska forskningslaboratoriet 19. Archaeological Research Laboratory. Stockholm University. Stockholm.

(2) During later years the geometric and monumental oddities of Harold Bluetooth have caught the interest of Danish Archaeology. The Jelling Project and its sub-projects give some insights into the way Harold furnished the country with his geometrical monument: straight dykes and bridges, circular ring forts, monumental ship settings and enormous court yards. http://jelling.natmus.dk/

(3) This kind of borrowing has been pointed out by Dagfinn Skre referring to the monumental IA context excavated at Avaldsnes in Norway and its affinities with Harold’s Monuments at Jelling. An update of the project results so far (in Norwegian) can be found at http://www.khm.uio.no/prosjekter/avaldsnes/nytt_fra_utgravningen/Hovedresultater_2011.html

or in print in the journal Frá Haug og Heidni 2011:4:3-7 Dafinn Skre: Noen resultater fra utgravningene på Avaldsnes 2011.


One Response to “‘Nearly all Mounds and Megaliths have been Excavated and Destroyed by Forester Bang and Lieutenant Vilstrup’ (0)”

  1. […] Läs mer om georadar som arkeologiskt hjälpmedel på professor Frands Herschends blogg On The Reading Rest. […]

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