A Christmas Gospel

24 December, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have a chapter or ‘fit’ from the Old Saxon poem Hêliand that tells us the story about the life of Jesus. I read:
Heyne, Moritz. 1866. Hêliand. Mit ausführlichem Glossar herausgegeben von Motitz Heyne. Paderborn. Verlag von Ferdinand Schöningh.
In prep school, one of the Saint Joseph sisters told us about the life of Jesus and while we listened to her oral gospel harmony we colorized line drawings,24 scenes as it were, illustrating the passage from Manger to Calvary. Selective gospel harmonies have these wonderful didactic qualities made up to make the gospels understandable and to catch the attention of the not-yet-educated – the sheep of shepherds. We continued with the Acts of the Apostles before illustrations, tales and a number of sheep disappeared.

The holy family colorized

The holy Saxonian family colorized, uncolorized

Hêliand (c. 830 CE) is composed in order to render the gospels reasonable to the newly conquered Saxons, when they needed to become Christians. Given Hêliand’s dubious agenda and its once strikingly 19th c Germanic qualities, there are a number of horrible editions with dubious illustrations to match the introductions and analytical epilogues. The illustrations are just waiting to be colorized and the poem’s attitude is worth a comment. The fact that my copy was published in Paderborn, a town not far from the monastery where Hêliand was probably composed, rings a bell to schoolboys reminding them of the joke about the comparison of the German adjective ‘black’ (referring to the frocks of clerics as in The Red and the Black) goes: Schwartz – Münster – Paderborn.
I read the fifth song or ‘fit’ of the poem – the Christmas gospel.
The Hêliand author (THA) was commissioned to rewrite the Gospels in a politically correct way holding in balance Carolingian political ambition and the loyalty of newly defeated Saxon leaders. To some, doing this, indicates a Christian theologian selling his pass. To others less naïve the author seems to be the first in a North European line of preachers eventually flogging their gospel to any congregation. Betraying one’s religious cause for another (in effect. taking steps to reform others) is often the beginning of their career. THA is interesting because his commission is political, his agenda radical, and his task delicate. That the poem might have had some dissonant qualities is implied by the fact that Hêliand was soon followed by Otfied’s Evangelienbuch, a much more orthodox and harmonic albeit less interesting harmony. Instead of translating Otfried we may simply compare Hêliand V to the familiar modern version of the Christmas Gospel.Heliand 01

THA tells us about the birth of Jesus, but adds some basic insights into the social order of the Christian society and the way Jesus fits into this construction to be sure that we understand. The Christmas Gospel is a suitable story because it starts at the top of the construction, with the emperor, and ends at its bottom with the shepherds. The biblical society is somewhat simple, but THA knows how to upgrade the description of a suitable social hierarchy. He starts
by expanding upon Luke 2:1-5. Luke gives us some seemingly innocent initial facts, coincidence it would seem, but of course we suspect the Lord in mysterious ways to have arranged the taxation, in order to let ancient prophecies to become true. But if so, he works in his New Testament style, i.e.  without direct interference the way he used to employ  in the Old Testament.

THA takes the opportunity to explain in some detail how taxation works and the reason why it is difficult to evade. Many have pointed out that his model is Carolingian taxation with the emperor’s emissaries send out to keep track of people who were forced to go back to their birth place, family and assembly places (in effect their traditional thing place. It has also be observed that since a Carolingian emperor would refer to himself as Augustus, THA has chosen Otavian (Augustus before Augustus) to impose taxation. Many Saxon chieftains may be expected to oppose Carolingian taxes, as nine hundred years earlier Roman taxation made Germans unite behind Arminius, and THA knows. To be completely sure that no one can accuse Carolingian emperors of having invented taxation, THA eventually tells us that God (i.e. Jesus’ father) is behind this – ‘Joseph … … went too, as the mighty God had ruled’.

Heliand 02

To Luke, Joseph and Mary are humble people, but to THA it is unthinkable that a King such as Christ could belong to anything but the upper classes. Joseph therefore goes with his household to his hall and Manor in Bethlehem. We are not told whence he came since that may have indicated that he was permanently living at Nazareth, and why should he? THA has already explained to us that Joseph kept a low political profile during the reign of Herod.


Bethlehem in Saxony

In the first section we are introduced to God, the heavenly ruler, the emperor the worldly ruler, petty kings and chieftains such as Joseph, emissaries and warriors with a seat in the assembly. This is almost the whole social order yet we haven’t reached Luke’s Joseph and Mary.

In his matter-of-fact style Luke sees to it that Mary give birth already in verse 7. But THA is in no hurry. He has a hall, a heritage and a social situation to describe. On this journey therefore
Mary is to give birth and it is Jesus as well as God who thinks this is convenient. Actually Christ is born because he want to come out since he is ‘strong’, ‘great’, ‘king’, ‘splendid’ and ‘mighty’ as soon as he enters this world – ‘the light of men’. Luke’s commonplace reference to the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, doesn’t bother THA. Gods are born when they want to be born. We have all reason to believe that Joseph is sitting in David’s high seat overlooking the world the way Late Iron Age kings used to. Needless to say there is no reference to Mary being great with child. The state of pregnancy is nothing the upper classes bother about or discuss.

Heliand 03

Before Luke has reached the cowshed and the end of verse 7, THA has marched off in the opposite direction. The whole scene with the manger has become impossible and fully booked inns not much to bother about if you are giving birth at home in your hall. Swaddling clothes are not used in halls either.

To THA, the amazing thing, well worth to point out, is the care with which this upper class mother takes of her child. She is actually doing things herself. The jewelry and laying the ‘lord of mankind’ with ‘God’s power’ in a crib is perhaps overdoing it, but Mary, who in Hêliand is an emancipated woman,  wanted to do so and her loving affection was spoken of.

Heliand 04

Even when they are on duty, it is prudent to inform one’s housecarls, i.e. one’s bodyguard, when the lady of the household has been delivered, since the housecarls come second in rank in their lordship’s household. This opens a window of opportunity for THA – he can get out of the hall, put the shepherds on hold for a while, and use God’s housecarls, the angels, an awe-inspiring troop coming directly from God’s manor in Meadow of Heaven, to convey the message to Joseph’s housecarls who are out looking after the horses in the fields around Joseph’s manor. Having hooked up with the Gospel by means of his excursion into the fields and the manorial use of household troops, THA is ready to follow the gospel praise the Lord and point to the child in the crib.

Heliand 05


Saxon ‘Horse shepherds’

Political and power based theology, is be it 9th century Catholic or 21st century Muslim Brotherhood is always appalling and its interpretations doubtful. Nevertheless, interpreting and harmonizing the Scriptures gives us a clear picture of politics and society.  If these insights concerns 9th c. Saxony, they become interesting because their affinities with Carolingian and Pre Carolingian Iron Age in Northwest Germany and among Scandinavia become obvious. And we know little about that, and don’t want to embrace what we think we  know.

It has often been suggested that Christianity was an upper class religion, strongly defending the upper strata of society leading the lower ones as flocks of sheep behind a member of the brotherhood, but it is revealing that the ideological consciousness of these upper classes as they are represented e.g. by THA, was so well developed and conceptualized. If one reads all the songs of Hêliand, tends to about the authors ulterior motives, because he emerges as a good poet in addition to being a cleaver propagandist. That was probably why he was chosen or volunteered to do the job, but then again many dictatorial regimes have engaged good authors to write the right epics.

Be this as I may just don’t forget that the comparison of the Egyptian word for black’ (referring to beards of the clerics) goes: Suda  – Brotherhood – Salafist.


This week On the Reading Rest I have a small standard archaeological report on the excavation of a solitary grave, technically speaking a Bronze Age stone setting, probably constructed in the 15th century BCE and revisited in the Pre Roman Iron Age in the 5th-4th century before the common era. A stones setting is one of the most commonplace ancient monuments in Uppland. There are tens of thousands of them, numbered and mapped, but still a detailed new survey of any two square kilometers with known Iron Age monuments will in all probability result in more stone settings.

Eklund, Susanna. 2004. Kumla en nyupptäckt stensättning. Slutundersökning och osteologisk rapport. Danmarks-Kumla 2:2 Danmarks socken, Uppland. SAU Rapport 2004:8. http://www.sau.se/filarkiv/rapporter/sau_rapport_2004_8.pdf


Map of the three sites mentioned in the text.

Before the construction of the highway stretching North from Uppsala a large number of ancient monuments were excavated and published in reports and 6 impressive volumes – everything in Swedish. A small isolated stone setting, c. 16 m2, nevertheless, was almost overlooked. But in January 2003 a keen road worker spotted it between the heavy caterpillars and dumpers that removed the topsoil when the construction of the road started. For once heritage management reacted immediately and between 27 and 31 January, during 104 hours, archaeologists excavated and documented the monument. They also searched the immediate surroundings for more monuments without finding any. The conditions were truly horrible, starting in a humid weather just above 0 degrees Celsius and ending at minus 15 degrees Celsius – at least there were machines enough. Eighteen finds were recorded in the field and a concentration of cremated bones, c. 320 grs, was lifted en bloc and investigated and sieved indoors.

Kumla excavation 2003

Kumla 2003: Archaeology in cold climate, on a clayey site, Jan 2003. Photo Per Falkenström.

In the concentration of cremated bones in this insignificant stone setting, two 14C-dates once again (1) revealed the fuzzy character of burials from the Late Bronze Age (LBA) and the Early Pre Roman Iron Age (EPRIA). It seems that 4.2 grs of skull from a 5 to 14-year-old child,was buried in the 4th-3rd century BCE in what was originally the remains, 225,3 grs of cremated bones in a container, of an 18 to 44-year-old, buried in the 15th century BCE. Next to the concentration of cremated bones in the northeastern part of the monument there were another 15 small agglomerations of cremated bones. Needless to say there were other scattered fragments of human bones in other parts the grave.

It stands to reason that coming back to the monuments and the grave after some hundred years, and being able to find the old heap of bones, must have been done by someone with an archaeological mind as well as an archaeological perspective – someone who knew that by lifting the stones at the ‘top’ this unobtrusive monument (0.5 m) the cremated bones would be exposed. This, the first Kumla excavation, may not have been the first Swedish archaeological excavation ever, but presently it holds the record, because only the shape of the monument, and that is not obvious, suggests where to dig. The aim of the excavation – to bridge past and present – is as post modern as it gets and so the first Swedish archaeologist was a post modernist. And it took no more than 104 hours of horrible weather to find out. The crime, breaking the peace of the grave, is probably statute-barred.

the stone setting

The stone setting at Kumla. The arrow points to the cremated bones and the first excavation.

Revisiting a grave in order to reuse a burial incorporating the new one in the old is interesting enough and probably not that uncommon in the LBA and EPRIA, but at Kumla they have perhaps taken it one step further. The most interesting find in the monument located at the periphery of the stone setting the archaeologists found an unburnt glass bead. Although one may easily consider this find to be insignificant and nothing to bother about, it may also be the sign of an other kind of revisiting the monument and reusing the monument.

Two other revisited burial sites have been excavated in the immediate surroundings. One at just 40 metres at Kumla I south of the stone setting and another one 1.2 km to the northwest at Inhåleskullen (2). The both contains unburnt glass beads and they are both revisited LBA burial grounds.

opaque beads

Late Iron Age opaque glass beads are simple but popular.

If you find an unburnt glass bead in a cremation grave it has obviously not been on the pyre and although it might have, it is unlikely that it has fallen off at an early stage and been preserved unburnt. Nevertheless, unburnt beads are found in connection with cremation graves and their monuments. One in grave no 1 at Kumla I (in loose association with cremated bones) and one in grave A680 at Inhåleskullen under the lid stone among the cremated bones. It seems a fair hypotheses that such beads were associated with the deposition of cremated bones as a pars pro toto in or on old monuments.

At Inhåleskullen there are two graves with clay sheet and find contexts suggesting that part of the burial or a secondary burial was once situated on top of the sheet while a slightly earlier grave or deposition was situated below the sheet, A523 and A900. In the report Inhåleskullen, clay sheet graves are considered to represent one cremation and one burial only, but in the Uppsala area there are more of these graves, among others some with much better preserved surfaces, with many more burial remains on top of the sheet.

A 900 Inhåleskullen

Clay sheet grave A900 at Inhåleskullen. After Seiler and Appelgren 2012.

Graves situated on top of each other, and revisited ancient burial monuments are probably a Late Iron Age (LIA) vogue with its own traditions, but nevertheless part of a long-term tradition. Locally and even regionally, this tradition may have died away in the Roman Iron Age (RIA), but in that case the practice was probably revived in the LIA.

Although the phenomenon has not yet been studied in detail it is worth suggesting that the cemeteries of the LIA would now and then have displayed the remains of cremation on the ground and the top of monuments – as cremation sites and as scattered cremated bones and burnt as well as unburnt artefacts. We may find it odd or revolting to walk around in the remains of our forefathers. But speaking of the Uppsala Area, one of the most famous cemeteries is actually called ‘Valsgärde’. This toponym may of course be understood in several ways, one possibility, however, being gärde=‘the field of’ and vals=’the dead’. Needless to say there is at least one clay shield grave at this cemetery.

Since top burials on sheets are very easy to dig away when clearing the monument, it would seem that in the future archaeologists must be even more careful when they excavate Iron Age grave monuments. If carefulness can arise from the excavation experience of 27-31 January 2003 at Kumla, perhaps the 104 hours were among the very important ones. More important, nevertheless, is the insight that in some periods prehistoric man had a keen archaeological interest, well integrated in a heritage-based society. ‘Well integrated in a heritage-based society’ sounds nice, but in reality it was probably horrible.


(1) See On the Reading Rest 20 August 2012: https://floasche.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/the-time-and-toil-it-takes-to-live-an-afterlife/

(2) The following reports: Andersson Fredrik, Guinard Michel, Lindkvist, Ann and Persson, Maria. 2002. Bronsålderslämningar i Kumla Gravar och gropar. Arkeologisk slutundersökning. SAU skrifter 3, 2002. http://www.sau.se/skrifter_03_a357_s37.html

Seiler, Anton and Appelgren Katarina. 2012. Inhåleskullen. UV rapport 2012:158 Arkeologisk undersökning. http://www.arkeologiuv.se/cms/showdocument/documents/extern_webbplats/arkeologiuv/publikationer_uv/rapporter/uv_rapport/2012/0_uvr2012_158_text.pdf  AND http://www.arkeologiuv.se/cms/showdocument/documents/extern_webbplats/arkeologiuv/publikationer_uv/rapporter/uv_rapport/2012/uvr2012_158_bilagor.pdf