Sixth Century CE Consequences In Ostrogothia

27 May, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have yet another report from Östergötland, in Swedish, and the excavation of a peripheral site, albeit in the central Linköping region. This time the farm site is a better place than Götala, cf. ‘Down by the Farm Hands’ 21 January 2013. Valla is situated just West of the town and today it’s on the University of Linköping campus.  In the 11th c. CE it was peripheral to the new town and thus regionally speaking central. In modern urban terms it is still a little peripheral.

Sköld, Katarina. 2012. En gård från yngre järnålder i Valla Östergötland Linköpings stad och kommun Kv Intellektet RAÄ 330. UV Rapport 2012:73. Särskild arkeologisk undersökning. Del 1-2. Linköping―A Farm from the Late Iron Age in Valla Östergötland … … UV Rapport 2012:73. (No summary in English).

Fig 00The Valla excavation was professional, but the report is blemished by a tendency to draw conclusions from the unknown or from the possible but improbable, supported by a very modest tendency to strengthen important interpretations by relevant comparisons, except when the references are local, i.e. Ostrogothic.

When writing about a small cultivated area, c. 100 sq m just north of the main building remains, the author suggests that this area might have been a kitchen garden. There are few facts supporting this interpretation, but since Katarina Sköld (KaSk) finds this croft too small for a growing cereals or flax, she suggests that cabbage and other hard-to-prove crops might have been grown there. They might, but there is obviously no evidence of this or anything that precise in a patch that has been used at intervals during hundreds of years.

A multipurpose marginal area northwest of the farm houses, next to some large embedded boulders and rocks, is seen a ritual place in addition to its being a dumping ground. Eventually in the report it becomes the Ritual Area. An impediment to any farmer, these bounds were used during a 1000 years period and may at some point in time have been used also in connection with rituals – since ritual will take place and find its form almost anywhere at any time, but apart from that, and the odd indication in connection with dumping, there is not much to support the interpretation. Interpreting a site as ritual during a millennium demands more specific contextual patterns. As a rule local and informal ritual sites have difficulties surviving for centuries. Boulders, rocks and bounds attractive as they may be are not enough.

Next to crofts and the dumping ground there are a number of house remains, as one might expect on a site to which farmers have returned. This plot is defined by topography and the repeated use of the site, but the author detects a main farm building c. 19 m long and no less than 8 m wide. This building has been standing on the plot for 700 years or more from the LRIA into the 11th c. CE. The obvious solution to such a cluster of post holes: several houses on more or less the same spot during a period with some breaks in the occupation, is not even mentioned.

Needless to say, the report hints that the farm may have been of central importance in the Late Iron Age. But in reality it is just a fine example of a peripheral site occupied during two major and separate settlement periods – in the Late Roman-Pre Carolingian Iron Age (LR-PCIA) and the Late Carolingian Iron Age (CIA). The latter period was extended into the earliest decades of the Middle Ages (MA). Moreover, the farm incorporates the iron working site by the brook Smedstadbäcken.

Fig 03

A minimalistic approach forgetting about never-ending possibility and continuity, but nevertheless a critical reading of the report must be recommended. The County Administrative Board in Östergötland (CABÖ) should consider asking the archaeologists in Linköping to keep speculation to a minimum and start looking for parallels that a large number of archaeologists outside Linköping will spot in their excavation plans. In Östergötland, contrary to the rest of Sweden, there are almost as many types or forms of houses — as well as confused and overlooked house remains — as there are excavated settlement sites.

Since the report blurs the biography of the site wishing to create something as odd as a millennium of continuous settlement at a peripheral site, is must, as far as possible, be reinterpreted. The CABÖ should ask for a revision of the report. Thanks to the good quality of the documentation, such a request is not impossible to grant.


To begin with, trying to understand the archaeological context one may look at the overall organization of the site and its immediate surroundings. Surveys and trail excavations have shown that Valla is situated on a small slope at the very lowest settlement level in the local landscape. Higher up, i.e. to the north there are other possible settlement sites and of course the historical village Valla is also a prime candidate for prehistoric settlements. Be this as it may, Valla is peripheral since in this landscape there is no settlement below it, i.e. south of it. Ninety meter south of Valla, by a small brook called Smedstadbäcken (Smest) there was a small site without house remains, but with indications of iron working – that is an open air ‘smithy’. The site was used mainly during two periods as shown by the 6 14C-dates, which indicate that the Smest was visited now and again during the Late Bronze Age and PRIA (LBA-PRIA) as well as in the 4-6th century CE, i.t. the LR-PCIA (01).

Fig 04BIf we combine the 6 dates at Smest with the 19 14C-dates from Valla they fit each other in the following way: There is one isolated date at Valla corresponding to the three LBA-PRIA dates at Smest when both sites were visited at intervals. There are six dates at Valla that correspond to the three 4-6th c. dates at Smest when the site was in continuous use. While Smest ceased to be used in the 6th c. CE, Valla was revisited and perhaps resettled already in the 8th c. with a peak in the 9-10th and an aftermath in the 10-11th c CE. The artifact dates do not speak against the 14C-dates; on the contrary, among the Valla artefacts the end phase is well represented. This probably has to do with the growing material wealth in the end of prehistory and the tendency for end phases not to be tidied up, thus leaving more artefacts to be found with a metal detector. Metal detectors were systematically used at Valla with very good results.  After the Middle Ages both Valla and Smest were visited occasionally, probably because the northern part of the Valla settlement stood out as a fertile spot while a path leading down to the brook close to Smest facilitating dumping by the brook.

The dates of the small Valla-Smedstadbäcken settlement are typical of IA sites inasmuch as sporadic visits in LB-EIA are followed by a permanent farmstead. Permanent Valla is a late-comer and part of the settlement expansion during the RIA. Although this expansion comes to an end in the 5th c. it runs into the 6th century in a few places. In the Valla case the settlement period is late and short – c. 150 years compared to the usual 250-350 years. Nevertheless, the Valla settlement stands out because the site is resettled in the CIA in such as way that, as pointed out by KaSk, it becomes part of the new expansion characterizing this period. Most peripheral settlements are not resettled.

Fig 01KaSk’s general understanding of the Valla structure is well argued and the Smest component easily fitted into the overall picture. The main settlement sorts itself into three areas from the north to the south. The sorting follows the landscape, gently sloping from a slightly higher to a slightly lower level, from the centre of the settlement with its larger houses, over two small cabins where people dwelled engaged in handicraft, to the outskirts of the farm area and a small house with an unspecific relation to rural economy and farm life. In the handicraft area and the outskirts, activities are less marked by subsistence than in the larger central part of the settlement. Circa 100 m south of the farm itself, but linked to it, we find the small iron working site down by the brook where nobody lived.

This enhanced farm pattern is building up and slightly changing during the whole settlement period.

The 4th-5th century farm

The 4-5th century farm

More or less well preserved CIA farm houses

More or less well-preserved CIA farm houses

If we look at the central part of the settlement there is an obvious spot where farm buildings have stood at intervals. KaSk is right in saying that the site is difficult to sort out, but three to five houses can nevertheless be traced. The oldest is a house from the LRIA – a relatively large building c. 27 m long probably containing all the farm-house functions under one roof. As discussed by KaSk the western part of the house is the dwelling. There may of course have been EIA houses too, but in that case they are difficult to see. It is much easier to detect the typical CIA houses with plank walls between the upright wall posts that also supported the roof. They cover the dwelling part of the earlier house and revive the old farmstead with houses that belong to a new approach to rural economy. This means that there is no LPCIA house — with its typical narrow mid aisle — to fill the gap between an early and late settlement phase.

It would seem, therefore, that the house types support the 14C-dates as well as the artifact dates. As KaSk shows there are four small crofts around the main farm houses. In addition to the dumping ground 20 m west of the farm buildings there is a farm-yard just south of the main buildings. If social-climbing is your goal, Valla’s the place to be born.

The central part of the farm occupies two-thirds of the total settlement area and the farm-yard seems eventually to have been enclosed by the well, a possible cattle pen, the crofts and the dumping ground. South of central part there is a multipurpose area where a lot of different activities have been going on. There are no early 14C-dates in this area, but if we look at the houses there seems to be two chronologically different types among the three obvious house remains.

Fig 06The southernmost house is a small three-aisled building with three trestles. It is smaller than the houses at Götala (cf. On the Reading Rest, 12 Jan 2013). The length of the Valla house is two-thirds of the Götala houses, but the post setting is the same indicating a minimal house with two rooms – one slightly larger than the other. Probably the houses at Götala and Valla are more or less contemporary, 4-5th c. buildings. There may be a house similar to the Valla house in the iron working site at nearby Mjärdevi.

Fig 05

The two other houses, i.e. the ones in the northern part of the southern multi-purpose farm area, are small houses with a post in each corner supporting the roof and framing the wall planks. As a construction, one of the houses is almost identical to the best preserved small house at the central part of the farm.

When it comes to size and activities the small houses at Valla are the equivalents of pit houses. The huts are housing people who live and work just outside the farm-yard. They are workers dependent on the main household for their subsistence. Since iron working played a role for those who lived here, we may expect that now and then workers occupied themselves down by the brook already during the 4-5th century. In the CIA, when the site at the brook was given up, work seems to have been concentrated closer to the central part of the farm around the small CIA huts just south of the farm-yard.

Götala and Valla show us how the settlement crisis in the PCIA is reflected at peripheral LRIA sites. In Valla a temporary EIA one-house farm with no cemetery can sustain itself and attract the odd worker. As a substitute of a grave, there could be an informal pars-pro-toto ‘grave’ consisting of an upper arm ‘buried’ in a pit eventually covered by the croft just northwest of the main house. This farm doesn’t survive the first part of the 6th century, but the site has qualities that attract a new farm and probably more workers in the beginning of the CIA — in effect the revival of an ancient site that was not completely forgotten. The short distance to Linköping before the town was firmly established may explain the temporary success of this marginal CIA farm and its significant handicraft. In the 11-12th c. when Linköping becomes a regulated urban economy, i.e. when the workers have become townsmen, part of the economic foundation for the revived farm, with its broad production originally targeting the new market in the proto town, disappears — and so does the farm.

Götala is an even less fortunate peripheral site that was never resettled after the PCIA settlement contraction. Or we may turn the perspective around and admit that the economic expansion in the CIA could not revive a settlement that was marginal already in the middle of the first millennium.


Starting in the LBA and continuing up and until the RIA the economic capacity of nearly every place in the human landscape is defined. Many places become known in such a way that they attract people because the sites are valuable in a given economic situation.

Since remains significant of workers become visible in the middle of the first millennium, it would seem that in many parts of Southern Sweden there was no free access to land after the end of the RIA.

If we think that the abandonment of settlements or the end of expansion is a sign of a crisis in society, then the 6-7th c. CE is a significant crisis period eventually turned into a new, albeit modest period of expansion combined with a much enhanced material wealth in the CIA. There is little doubt that the stratification of society grew continuously from the RIA and onwards and that is created a drop out already in the 5-6th c. while the abandonment of farms was still an ongoing process. It seems that the ongoing social stratification checked the expansion of the CIA, eventually creating a group of landless people ready to become the first town dwellers. As soon as society had learned to see small townships as viable economic zones and societies, with at least some reproductive capacity, even rural society could change.

(01) Survey and trail excavation east of Valla and south of Smedstadbäcken has shown that the settlement doesn’t extend into these areas, cf. Ählström, Jan. 2012. Valla, Linköping inför kommande byggnation och bomässa. Stiftelsens Kulturmiljövård, rapport 2012:75.

Smedstadbäcken was excavated by the Museum of Östergötland Linköping, cf. Räf, Erika. 2009. Smideslämningar vid Smedstadbäcken. Rapport 2009:15. Östergötlands Museum


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