Archaeology in Cold Climate – On Modern and Prehistoric Archaeologists

10 December, 2012

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.


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:

(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.

Seiler, Anton and Appelgren Katarina. 2012. Inhåleskullen. UV rapport 2012:158 Arkeologisk undersökning.  AND


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