A Fit of Formalism

14 October, 2013

Today On the Reading Rest I have a report in Swedish on excavations south of Uppsala in the Campus of the Swedish Agricultural University at Ultuna.

Ultuna fig 00Huldt, Helena. 2013. Att återvända. Arkeologi I olika skeden från Södra Gärdet I Ultuna. SAU rapport 2013: 6. Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis. (Returning. Archaeology in different phases from Södra Gärdet in Ultuna).

This site area is interesting for two reasons. (1) Once it was one of the manors established in the nucleus of the Uppsala kingdom in the 6th century. (2) In modern times it has been the playground of the government authorities establishing and subsequently expanding the agricultural university. In this process, The Heritage Conservation Act didn’t bother the executive authorities until the County Administrative Board (CAB), and not least one of its antiquaries, came up with the novel idea of asking the agricultural university to follow the law. The Ultuna heritage experience has made excavations difficult, fragmenting the monuments, and one of the great achievements of the present report and others from later years is the competent way in which they show how archaeologists have manage to bring some order into a rural context destroyed by 160 years of campus building.

As always when archaeologists investigate an area they come across something unexpected in addition to the expected. This time in Ultuna it was a long row of hearths from the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age. (LBA & EIA) These hearths were situated in an open terrain parallel to the southern shore of a once small peninsula.

Ultuna fig 01

Seventeen of the 45 hearths are 14C-dated, but since they belong to the transition from the LB to the EIA, the plateau in the calibration curve make most of them look contemporary (1). Two dates are contaminations hundreds of years older and younger than the 15 central values.

Ultuna fig 02

Among the fifteen dates there is an early outlier date suggesting a start c. 650 BCE, and there seems to be a gap in the central probability values c. 550-490 BCE.  On average in each end of the row the dates are younger than the bulk of dates in the centre. The average before present 14C-year in the centre is bp 2446 and in the margins it is bp 2404. This difference defines the time gap in the 6th c. BCE and we may suggest that activities in each end of the row were begun and brought to an end later than the similar activities in the centre. This means that the row was formed during more that two centuries when the hearths reused. Despite their long use and period(s?) of construction and maintenance, it meets the eye that they are so regularly spaced that one may wonder whether this impression is the result of chance or intention.

Now and again in Scandinavian prehistory there are times when material expressions of formalism seem to become important. A case in point is the 4th-5th c. CE when widely different phenomena such as written poetic metre and measurements in buildings were formalized. It may be argued that formalizing architecture, standardizing the foot, was rational — in addition giving architecture an aesthetic quality — but the metre was clearly an aesthetic way of writing and talking standardizing sound and prosody in a distinctly non-Latin way. Germanic rather than Latin, defining an epic and a lyrical metre was nevertheless an adaption of Latin poetic diction – a Germanic echo of Latin verse.

Employing formalism as guidance rather than simply reproducing functional structures, is a powerful mode of thinking, closely related to mathematics, often striking humans as linked to divine order despite its human form and origin as a description of the world. That is why we tend to consider formalism to be related to progress and rationality as well as linked to the ascendency of a civilization. But we are also afraid of overdoing it because undue formalism will obstruct rationality. Although formalism may inspire arts as well as making art commonplace it stands out as a prerogative for an outstanding civilisation and for that reason we look for it also in the past. Showing formalism to be recurrent rather than progressive is part of the archaeologist’s critique of simplistic history.

Chance, function, intention or formalism – what’s behind the Ultuna row pattern of hearths?

Chance, i.e. randomness, can easily be ruled out, inasmuch as following a shore line is not random behavior. But aleatoric chance, i.e. randomness among a limited number of outcomes such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 when throwing a dice (L. alea) – a function of its structure – could still be imagined. However, looking closer into the hearth pattern it becomes apparent that the row is sometimes broken, and if we count the number of hearths between the breaks, it becomes evident that the sections consist of four hearths or a multiple of four. In addition, there may be a few pairs, rather than quadruples, in each end of the row. This part of the pattern points to function i.e. structure and intention.

Ultuna fig 03

There is not much in the hearths themselves that points to their function other than controlling the fires that were burning on them and it is thus impossible positively to say whether they burnt for light or cooking or heating or a combination of functions. Their construction nevertheless is relatively standardized given later disturbances by the plough. They are constructed as shallow pits lined with stores and quite often the lining end in a ring of kerbstones marking the hearth on the ground and making it manifest.

Ultuna Fig 04Many hearths show signs of having been used repeatedly as well as maintained and it would have taken many more 14C dates to understand the time depth of each hearth and of the system as such. That would have been interesting to know, but as always in contract archaeology, science and research are completely dependent on the benevolence of the CAB when autocratically it sets the economic — in effect scientific — standard of the excavation project. Seventeen 14C dates are many, but given the given the problematic calibration curve probably a hundred would have been necessary.

Despite the time depth of the hearths it seems that use and maintenance didn’t change their form or their centre. If this kind of pattern survives for hundreds of years one would expect that knowledge of the position of hearths was kept alive. This need not be a great problem if, e.g., the hearths were used regularly. But the fact that they kept their centre and circular form suggests strict regulation supported by a habit of marking out and maintaining the hearth periphery e.g. with kerbstones. All in all, it stands out as reasonable to ask whether all this long-term structure was combined with measured formalism rather than just structural presence.

It is difficult to measure the distance between the individual hearths because we cannot know exactly where their centers were, but if we measure the extremes of the sections and calculate the average distance we may succeed. There are five sections consisting of 4 + 8 + (12 = 11+1 empty space) +12 + 4 hearths. In addition there are some pairs in the east end of the row.

Ultuna Fig 05 and 06

From the ‘hole’ in the third section, i.e. a missing hearth, t can be seen that one of the 12 hearths provided for was never constrructed. From the anomaly in the fourth section – a forgotten hearth module – it is obvious that owing a miscalculation two hearths had to be fitted into the space of one in order to obtain twelve hearths. It can be seen that befittingly this is done by dividing the available space into three rather than two. Thus we should expect only 11 modules in this section and we understand that the mistake in measurement was made when defining the position of the extreme hearths suggesting that the space of a section was defined before the hearths were filled in. The fault was detected, but impossible to correct because the surrounding hearths were already in place.

Ultuna fig 07

Ultuna fig 07A

Ultuna Fig 07BCalculating the module, weighted in relation to the length of the sections, suggests a length of c. 3.8m and that is the same as 12 foot or indeed a measure that much later was called a stång, i.e. a rod or pole. A rod divided into 12 parts seems also to have come in handy when the mistake in section 4 was corrected. The two hearths were evenly distributed within two modules – 8 feet apart. The anomalies in sections three and four suggest that the hearths in each quartet were set up from the East to the West. It seem particularly significant that for some formal reason no hearth east of the easternmost hearths in section Four could be established. The identity of that hearth and the four next to it could in other words not be changed. One might say that it was already defined as the First and the ones next to it as the Second, Third and Fourth.

Ultuna fig 08

The layout of the evenly distributed hearths in the row at Ultuna is clearly governed by formalism. In principle irreparable mistakes were made because a hearth can be dug down into the natural subsoil only once. In practice repairing at least one mistake was done with reference to formal measurement and we may therefore ask ourselves why it was important to make four hearths formally spaced in a row and why it was important to return to them and keep track of their precise position?

A definite answer is difficult to come by, but that has never stopped archaeologists from speculating and why should it? Theory after all is the speculative way of pointing out an understanding that may later on be supported or refuted by the contextuality of that which is observed on the basis of theory.

Since returning to the hearths was a habit we may suggest that the space between them represented time as well as module. One hearths could therefore be the first in the row followed by the others all together representing a series such as solstice – equinox – solstice – equinox. In due time when there is a tendency for the hearths to form pairs they may be solstice – solstice or equinox – equinox. What happens in the row is a representation of the cyclic in the linear.

If a community needs to emphasize a time period, such as the year, in this way, why must there be a series of hearths quartets and not just four? And why are there small hearths rather than the remains of large bonfires?

If the point is to gather around the fire in some sort of community the scale of the hearth quartets fits a situation in which each farm or family – constituting a (family) line in history – would gather around its hearth in half circle, i.e. at a seasonal station, e.g. facing south.

Ultuna Fig 09

Since the Late Bronze Age LBA coast at Ultuna is a south coast we can imagine a 12 or 6 o’clock fire in late December, March, June and September. The hearth represents the family’s source of warmth and light and the seven original row quartets seven families on the LBA peninsula. The additional quartets and pairs represent the changing system and changing family structures.

This kind of reconstruction is obviously speculative — a fit of formalism — and far from the practicalities of constructing the row. As any theoretical construction it nevertheless serves as a model for further investigations of other rows of hearths.


(1) On the platau in the calibration curve, see Fig 3 in the text at:  http://www.lcm.rug.nl/lcm/teksten/teksten_uk/a_high_chronology_uk.htm.


3 Responses to “A Fit of Formalism”

  1. Bernard Mees said

    Where on earth did you get the idea that Germanic verse was formalised in reflection of Latin poetry?

    • For instance from pp 372-374 in:
      Kontinuitäten und Brüche in der Religionsgeschichte : Festschrift für Anders Hultgård zu seinem 65. Geburtstag am 23.12. 2001. Ergänzungsbände zum Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, Bd. 31. Michael Stausberg; Olof Sundqvist; Astrid van Nahl (eds). Berlin ; New York : De Gruyter, 2001.

  2. […] undersökningen vid Ultuna by finns  också på vår hemsida: 2008, 2009. Frands Herschend har bloggat om härdraden på Södra gärdet och vad det avslöjar om bronsålderns […]

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