Down by the Farmhands and their Families

21 January, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have a report in Swedish from an archaeological excavation – i.e. a final archaeological investigation in bureaucratic terms – of yet another unspectacular site ‘finally’ erased from the face of the earth – this time in Ostrogothia rather than Uppland (cf. OtRR 10 Dec 2012).

SAUrapport2012_4_omslag-210x300Lindkvist, Ann. 2012. En ensam gård? Boplats från folkvandringstid vid Nedre Götala. Arkeologisk slutundersökning. Fornlämning Styra 44. Styra socken, Motala kommmun, Östergötland (”A Solitary Farm? A Settlement from the Migration Period at Lower Götala. Final Archaeological Investigation. Ancient monument 44, Styra Parish, Motala county, Ostrogothia”). SAU rapport 2012:4. Uppsala. Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis.

Scandinavian archaeology isn’t really interested in finding the poor. This attitude is understandable, given that archaeology was laid out c. 200 years ago as a nationalistic project underpinning a world view that aimed at harmonizing monarchies, their governments and their educated classes in times when democracy was imminent. When Scandinavian countries had become political democracies they went on to demonstrate that as such they could extinguish poverty because lack of poverty is an emblem of a Scandinavian democracy in which there are no poor citizens. Since prehistoric society, our unspoiled embryonic nations, decorates our display windows, poverty is not on show because we don’t sell it. We are not fond of Iron Age serfs either, but knowing that similar to the poor they are common elsewhere, we accept them, not as a social institution, but as misfortune catching up with captured warriors and the odd drop-out. Instead we continue to like free peasants on small or large farms, development, warriors, upward social mobility and of course the upper classes – everything on top of poverty.

Like any silent group, the poor are difficult to see and that allows us always to wonder whether they actually existed or whether it was positively horrible to be a serf; what exactly does it mean to be poor? Did people really live in pit houses (cf. OtRR 16 April 2012)? This is still a question to which ‘Perhaps!’ is often perhaps the right answer, since if they did their life must have been miserable.

Mårten StenbergerAs soon as Scandinavian archaeology began excavating Iron Age settlements it was taken for granted that they were the remains of the farms of free peasants. In Sweden Mårten Stenberger’s excavations on Öland around 1930 were ground breaking. He excavated four farms which he considered representative, but his choice of farms nevertheless led him to excavate two hall farms, the dominating farm in each their village. He didn’t recognize them as hall farms or manors because he took it for granted that they belonged to the free Iron Age farmer. Today we know that in order by chance to excavate two hall farms we would have to excavate ca 25 less impressive homesteads.

In the greater part of the 20th century, the prehistoric cultural landscape in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, was defined by monuments. This definition meant that most often the graves of reasonably prosperous settlements were excavated, since only those, who lived on that kind of farm, could afford to build the monuments on their village cemetery. Things started to change in the later part of the century when the ‘invisible’ human landscape (the one hidden by modern activities) became important. By definition Iron Age farms, destroyed and rebuilt by later farmers and turned into plough land and modern settlements, are important elements of the cultural landscape compared to surviving monuments that nobody bothered to erase. The former are central, latter peripheral. But to begin with in the 1980s and 90s archaeologists guided by County Administrative Boards investigated and excavated the invisible mostly because it was close to visible monuments. Around the year 2000, when the new legislation which wasn’t based on distance to monuments, had been around for c. 15 years, small ‘invisible’ sites hundreds of meters from visible monuments started to be excavated. With these new sites, the lower classes or ‘the poor’, became visible e.g. in Lower Götala (LG).


Ndr Götala orto

Ndr Götala cadastrial

Lower Götala is situated in the western part of the plain of Ostrogothia c. 110 m a s l. Before the Götala area was drained it was characterized by shallow perhaps intermittent lakes, waterlogged lands and meadows. Maps from the 19th century show that the excavated settlement was situated on the edge of a small spot of gravel c. 105 m a s l. bordering on low-lying meadows and wetland. Above the settlement, 100-200 m to the Northeast, there are two mounds, and on a cadastral map from the 18th century there’re three more next to the two extant ones. This suggests that on the plain, at the top of a diminutive ‘ridge’ next to a small cemetery, there was once an Iron Age settlement, probably a village. The excavated settlement belongs to this village and sits on its damp eastern border.

LG översikt 03 LG översikt

LG översikt 02

The structure of the site is simple. The ground slopes gently towards the south-southwest, the house is situated on the most elevated ground on a cleared surface. The settlement has a front facing south and its back to the North. Outdoor work went on mostly in front of the house in an 800 m2 area around a waterhole used up and until the 17th century when it was filled up. There were some groups of large hearths and pits suggesting that the corners of the yard were designated for special purposes although there was no obviously systematic ‘hearth distribution’. There are no signs of any specific crafts going on and no signs of tar or iron production. The bone material found in the layers suggests that the bones were more closely related to cooking than to slaughter. The material tells us that in this rural settlement cattle and sheep were the most common animals.

Ann Lindkvist (AL) has made a study of the hearths at LG classifying them according to morphology and function, and analyzing their charred contents. This has resulted in a lot of useful information supporting the interpretation of the site. One would have thought that the hearths were used repeatedly, and that is also the case, but only when it comes to the two indoor hearths and one of the many outdoor ones. The analysis of all other open-air hearths indicated that they were used once or a few times only. In some cases their construction leads to this conclusion, in other cases it is suggested by the fact that each hearth is completely dominated by fire wood from one kind of wood only – either birch or alder or hazel of oak. In 6 out of 7 analyzed outdoor hearths this is the case.

It is difficult to imagine that the people at LG would have created such a pattern by chance if they reused the hearths as they pleased and took their fire wood in their surroundings where they could find it. It is more likely that the pattern emerged because the majority of the hearths were used but once in one of the loosely defined hearth areas. The selection of firewood, therefore, suggests that those who made the fire collected the firewood they needed in a systematic way before they went home, packed their hearth with fuel and bridled burned stones and set fire to their construction.

By chance, a sample might contain just one species. For indoor usage birch could have been selected because of its quality as fire wood. Because of its ember oak could be suitable when drying and roasting grain and so forth. But since the pattern is general it is hardly random – on the contrary, function explains the indoors hearths, but the outdoor pattern it is best explained by a tendency to use an outdoor hearth only once for a relatively small job that made it easy to collect the fire wood each time the job had to be done. If we combine the need for firewood with a duty of the farmhand within forestry to thin out stands of alder, hazel, birch or oak, we can imagine a situation that will result in the pattern we observe. Nevertheless, the pattern is odd if we think that job and hearth mirror daily life on a farm characterized by self-subsistence.

Another oddity leading to a similar conclusion is the pattern that results from the analyses of macro fossil in the samples from 10 hearths. In these there was an abundance of charred remains of fire wood, more than 3000 pieces, but only 2.5 grains (1.5 from an indoor hearth fired with oak). Considering that thrashing, roasting and grinding cereals was customary on the Iron Age farm, the number of charred grains is very low. Again chance may explain the situation, but the impression that the household at LG was not engaged in self subsistence, nevertheless, finds support in the lack of macro fossils as well as in the homogenous fire wood and the tendency for the bone material to be related to cooking rather than slaughter.

In the Iron Age, if you use open-air fire places only sporadically, usually get your firewood from thinning, roast grain once in a century, and tend to bring home meat from whoever slaughtered the animals and parceled out the meat, then you are probably not a farmer and landowner. On the contrary you depend upon the landowning farmers for your subsistence investing your man power in their agriculture and forestery.

The three houses

Even the houses that stood one at a time on the LG site, give some insights into the character of the household. Three dwelling houses were excavated. They are dated according to their type and by means of 14C-tests. The three houses form a series, but there is a chronological gap between the first house and the two last ones. The houses are equal-sized, small and far from well-built. They consist of two rooms. One is a dwelling room the other a combined entrance room and shed. Actually, they are all the same kind of two-room house with an entrance facing South. Each house exemplifies the gradual change in building traditions, as gradually from one house to the next their mid aisles become narrower.

The first house belongs to the Early Roman Iron Age (ERIA) and since it was never rebuilt it probably stood no more than c. 30 years. There are no sharply dated artefacts and no 14C-dates associated with this period. The second and third house constitute two consecutive house phases: The second house (House 1A) was rebuilt and in the process moved a little to the East becoming the third and last building on the site (House 1B). Moving you house a little in this way while rebuilding it, instead of building a new house somewhere else on the plot, suggests that simultaneously the old house was pulled down and the new one erected. In fact, this is an obvious and popular Iron Age way to facilitate the recycling of building material when giving your house a total make over. Furthermore, the procedure allows people to stay in the left half of the old house while starting to build the right half of the new one.


Eventually the family would move temporarily into the right half of the new house while the left half of the old one was pulled down and the new house completed. Since this didn’t happen when the first house (House 2) was replaced by the second one (House 1A), and since House 2 was never rebuilt, the house series is consistent with a chronological gap between House 2 and House 1A. Consequently the settlement site stands out as a peripheral part of a village – settled when necessary by people who were neither landowners nor farmhands.

At LG the houses in the RIA were small. As it happens, they fit the needs of a the 5-600 years old Pre Roman Iron Age (PRIA) household with a dwelling area of c. 25 m2 indicating that the inhabitants made up a family of 4-5 persons living in a cottage, perhaps with a few animals in their shed.

Although there were rather thick layers of household waste in the water hole area, nearly all the finds were animal bones. Only a post hole in the dwelling part of house 1B stood out because it contained two pot sherds from a perforated pot suitable for kitchen purposes. Given the way House 1 was rebuilt it is not surprising that material from the old earthen floor got buried in the new post hole.

Ndr Götala datering

Seven 14C-tests make up a chronological framework that covers the second phase of the LG settlement. Because of the calibration curve, this period equals 100-120 years between 440 and 570 CE. The period doesn’t cover activities connected to House 2, which is several hundred years older, but the period defines the continuous occupation period of House 1A & B. The chronology indicates that the cold climate 536-546 CE didn’t put an end to the settlement. One might have thought that a decade of harsh conditions that made subsistence more difficult would have caused the small households to vanish, to be absorbed by  larger households when the population decreased or moved into abandoned farms. Maybe it did, but in the LG case people continued to dwell in their badly built cottages.

Describing the LG context in the above way leads to a number of conclusions, obviously practical rather than logical, that fit the small dependent Iron Age household in peripheral South Scandinavia. First of all one must point to the fact that this kind of cottages existed. In South Scandinavia proper between the 1st c. BCE and the 5th c. CE they didn’t. A few ring fort settlements on Öland may be the exceptions that prove the point, but they are exceptional contexts in very many ways. In densely populated South Scandinavia there are no RIA cottages and thus nothing substantial to reflect the limited right for some to form a household. Instead, the landless are incorporated into larger households. The fact that we find small cottages in the periphery indicates that PRIA ideology and rights tended to prevail, to some degree no doubt because the landscapes were sparsely populated and land thus available.

The ambiguous satisfaction of being the master of one’s own house survives in the commonplace and ironic wisdom of the poem Hávamál:

A dwelling is better    be it but small
a man is all of us at home
though two goats he owns    and taugreptan sal*
that is still better than begging.

*When a house is it taugreptan it means that the horizontal rafters in the roof (reptan) are flexible because they are composed of slender ribs and lath in a wattle, i.e. a taug –tow, like the cells in a musle. Taugreptan indicates that you are not a landowner with a forest where you will collect your straight high quality rafters, but only someone allowed to take coppice shoots in the brushwoods – tying your rafters together. You are in other words a poor man. Sal in the expression is ironic since real sals, i.e. ‘halls’ were never taugreptan.

The cottages at LG may well have been taugreptan and their masters may have envied the well-fed serfs of South Scandinavia imagining their cozy corners on prosperous Zealand farms, rather than freezing in his own Ostrogothic abode. Be this as it may, in order to survive their Ostrogothic reality the members of the LG household would have to work on the farms in the village on the basis of some sort of contract that allowed them to live modestly. It would seem that they didn’t have fields and thus no possibility to produce their own porridge. The meat they ate was not always from animals that they owned and slaughtered in their farm yard and we may thus expect that their compensation for working was partly in kind. The family may have owned more than two goats, since grassland in Götala was probably abundant, and all the family members may well have been free, but they were nevertheless poor, generation after generation. This means that they must have been visible as ‘the poor’ that lived down by the waterhole on a wet plot later on cut by a drainage trench.

It is probably significant that when society experienced a ten-year subsistence crisis the social effects were not the expected ones, if survival had been a matter of defending the commonweal when crisis threatened peoples’ lives. Had ownership of land stayed PRIA  collective and society thus not become stratified according to sharply defined private ownership of the means of production in agriculture or craftsmanship, then the century long cottage settlements would not have existed. Instead, the households would have been enlarged family households, or communities made up of equal sized nuclear family household. Since not even a crisis could bring the poor cottage dwellers into the farms, it seems reasonable to suggest that RIA dynamics and stratification according to ownership had gone so far that allowing the poor back among the farm owners was not an option. In fact one of the points in some being poor and dependent on others in this society may well have been their visibility. The display of poverty is reassuring to the upper stratum of any stratified society because it allows those who are not poor to accept, pity and blame those who are, as best they please.


The County Administrative Board asked the archaeologists to find out about the function of the remains, their character, distribution, date and composition. If any house constructions were found their type should be defined. This is of course either straight forward or impossible – a pit is a pit, but what exactly is the ‘character’ and ‘composition’ of a hole? And if we decide that its form and fill explains what it was, can we really afford to excavate and process the details needed to answer the question? Since the report is a good one it answers the County Administrative Board question most faithfully – exactly as correct as expected, but it also poses a rhetorical question: ‘Is LG a solitary farm?’ The question is shrewdly constructed because it may also be read: ‘Is LG solitary?’ or ‘Is LG a farm?’ Close-reading the report the answer to both is No! LG has to do with settling the landless and demonstrably poor as close to the village and its farms as befitting.

The stylish VästergårdenBut ‘No!’ is not a good answer on the fertile Ostrogothic plain where poverty rings false. And that is easy to prove. In neighbouring Götala the large 150 year old main house of the ‘West Farm’ – Västergården was on sale in Octobre 2012. In the description of the property, LG figured underpinning the long and proud agricultural traditions of farmers such as those who built and owned the West Farm. The correct answer therefore is: Yes, LG was a farm! When poverty is looming over the wrong place it is never wrong to be in doubt and for a lot of reasons archaeologists highlight just that.


One Response to “Down by the Farmhands and their Families”

  1. […] senast har Frands läst och refererat Ann Lindkvists rapport från Götala i Östergötland som publicerades förra året. På denna […]

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