Eketorp House T – A Humble Abode from the Sixth Century CE
11 November, 2013
This week On the Reading Rest I have the material needed to publish an Iron Age house from the mid-first millennium Ölandic ring fort Eketorps borg (0)
House T, excavated in the early 1970s, is a dwelling house in the North-east block of the ring fort. It is a primary house radiating from the ring wall, i.e. a free-standing building later accompanied by the neighbouring houses S and U. The description of the house will approach it from its entrance, speaking of its outer and inner parts – the ones closest to the ring wall – looking left and right. The house was ruined and partly pulled down already in the Late Iron Age. But not until c. 1200 CE, when the medieval settlement was laid out, was the ground completely leveled and the skins of the walls of House T knocked down to what was by then the surface of the ground. In this process, the Iron Age floor levels were sealed off by debris from the ring wall, new wall foundations supporting wooden sills, and limestone paving.
Interior Constructions. The entrance is simple and there is neither an entrance paving nor post holes to support its construction. The roof-supporting foundations are few and uncertain: two post supports (C and D) and one posthole (A). Probably the lime stone packing below the floor supported most of the roof and the four posts needed to construct the entrance. It seems significant that the only posthole is situated in an earth-filled depression in the limestone packing. The flat hearth for the open fire (E) is located a little behind the centre of the house and next to it farther into the interior there is a cooking pit filled with brittle-burned and fire-cracked stones (G) where the glow could be kept. The outer part of the house is characterized by a hearth refuse (F) consisting of brittle-burned stones, charcoal and some ashes. Adjacent to F and around E and G there are ash concentrations (H, J and K). In the interior, in the right corner, two pieces of a charred plank had been preserved (L).
The limestone packing below the earthen floor is characteristic of the houses in the eastern part of the ring fort, i.e. the part that borders on the intermittent lake east of the ring fort. The ring wall encloses a small section of this lake around a small spring, which was built-in to become the well of the settlement. In order to create dry and drained conditions this area was filled up with limestone – a packing on which the house, its cavity walls with their two limestone skins, stood. Later on more packing within the walls was added as a foundation for the floor constructed just above the packing.
In House T, as in most Iron Age houses there are intended constructions such as the limestone packing, the hearths, the posthole and post supports. The fill that levels out the depression in the packing is also a primary construction, but in addition to proper constructions there are features that were made semi-constructions by daily life. The ash concentrations are a case in point and so is the inner right corner where so little happened that charred planks, eventually concealed in the floor, were not trodden on. Daily life, moreover, results in a number of things that were lost on the floor and preserved as distributions.
Stratigraphy. The house has only one floor – a seemingly continuously growing floor level. The floor lies directly upon the packing or, in the partly filled-in depression in the interior right side of the house, somewhat above it. The floor varies in thickness from c. 5 to c. 15 cm. Stratigraphically the floor is sealed between the packing and the so-called gravel and garden slug layer, which represents the end-phase of the LIA settlements, i.e. the period when the roof was dismantled and the walls partly pulled down (1).
Several factors have contributed to the characteristics of the floor layer. First there is a tendency, albeit not a very strong one, for the floor to follow the lever of the packing. Secondly, there is a tendency for the floor more markedly to grow in the inner part of the house than in the outer part owing to the way the house was used. Thirdly, the remains of the first ring wall in the outermost part of the house served as a kind of threshold for the inner part of the house – a threshold on which only a very thin occupation layer was deposited. The result of these factors working together is a leveled floor, with a tendency for the central parts being slightly higher than the floor level closest to the long walls.
If we interpolate a corridor of bones and charcoal pieces on a schematic profile in the inner part of the house, covering the depression in the packing, it becomes apparent that the levels where bones have been found are deeper than the levels containing pieces of charcoal. Since it is difficult to preserve bits of charcoal on a floor when people live and walk on it, it is conceivable that the charcoal (pieces with a length above 1 cm) represents quite recent floor levels with few pieces in the deeper and older layers. Bones, which survive much better than charcoal, may be found in deeper layers too, suggesting that the floor layer as we see it, is the result two kinds of behavior: Daily life producing a growing earthen floor tidied-up on a daily basis, and the habitual digging out the floor, i.e. the throwing out the upper floor layers before spreading a new earthen floor. In the process charcoal tends to be come fragmented or dust while some robust objects such as pieces of bone, the odd bead or potsherds are left in or pressed into the deeper otherwise untouched the new layers of soil. In tandem with a wish now and then to clean out the floors there was also a continuous retrieval of things dropped on the floor, such as bones.
One third of the artefacts found in the house were beads, and if we look at their accumulation in the floor in relation to other finds it is obvious that beads do mainly belong to the upper part of the floor. This indicates that in daily life beads are often found and retrieved before they disappear buried in the floor. Since the floor represents the end phase of the settlement, the distribution indicates that the beads were dropped on the floor shortly before the house was given up. Correspondingly, the representation of potsherds is fairly constant suggesting a propensity in Iron Age man not to retrieve a potsherd when seeing it trodden into the earthen floor.
Find distributions. The stratigraphic analysis suggests that most of the objects found in the floor reflect a relatively short period of usage, which happened to become the end-phase of the occupation. Occupation habits including furnishing and cleaning habits are also reflected in the find distributions.
If e.g. we look at the distribution of the complementary categories charcoal bits and bones in relation to hearth, cooking pit, hearth refuse and ash layers, it become apparent that there is a deposition of ashes, charcoal and hearth refuse in the outer part of the house. If checked against the artefact distribution which mirrors daily life around hearth and cooking pit in the inner part of the house, it is obvious that the amount of ashes etc. in the outer part isn’t matched by a sufficient number of artefacts. The amount of preserved pieces of charcoal on the other hand is greater than in the interior. This means that the outer part of the house serves as a (temporary?) dump for waste related to the fire place rather than dwelling. The distribution, moreover, indicates that the lifetime of a hearth before it is maintained is less than that of a floor. The hearth and its immediate surroundings are cleaned up at least once before the general cleansing of the inner part of the house.
The find distribution and the finds reveal the routines of a short period of everyday life as well as boundaries and paths or floor space that look empty either because it were covered and/or little used. Cooking, eating and work related to textiles as well as other kinds of activities on the floor took place in the inner part of the house especially in its right side next to the hearth area. To the left, i.e. north of the hearth area, less has fallen to the floor and its top level is thus a little lower. It stands to reason that in this part of the house some kind of furniture such as beds have to some degree prevented the accumulation of charcoal and artefacts.
The movement pattern in the house is indicated by the empty ‘corridor’ – a path where little is dropped and bits of charcoal not preserved – leading from the entrance into the interior of the house. There is an equally empty space dividing the house into an inner and an outer part and it is tempting to suggest that this space represents a partition wall and a storage area next to it. The absence of finds in the floor could indicate the presence of furniture such as chests.
The find distribution fits the idea of a house divided into two: an outer entrance room and a passage leading into the interior, a family room or kitchen dwelling informally divided into different areas around the hearths in its centre. Preservation forces us to interpret the find distribution as positive as well as negative indications forming a tentative picture of the way people lived in the house.
The artefacts. Given the relatively large number of beads, the rest of the artefacts indicate a variety of different dwelling-room activities not by frequency but by presence. There is thus one knife, one piece of charred cake (2), one spindle whorl, one loom weight, one whetstone, one comb, one piece of slag and one piece of forging waste. Potsherds are more numerous, but without fittings. The artefacts on this scene in the kitchen dwelling indicate a compact and multi-purposed living. Cooking activities south of the hearths and perhaps spinning and weaving along the south wall are the most visible activities. The most obvious absence is the lack of complete artefacts such as those one would have stored in chests, on a shelf or on top of a wall: no jewelry, no weapons, no gaming pieces, no belt buckles, no cups, no glasses etc. This no doubt has something to do with the way the people moved out of the house, but probably also with the relative humble life lived on a limited space by those occupying House T. We may even suggest that they sat in their beds in the interior, along the northern wall, when they ate,
The size of the dwelling area is c. 25-30 square metres. That equals the size of the kitchen dwelling on a nuclear family farm in South Scandinavia during the Pre Roman Iron Age, i.e. a farm 500 years older than House T. When the floor in House T was lived on there was nevertheless no byre or cowshed belonging to it in the houses surrounding House T and the household wasn’t part of a farm. Compared to a contemporary farmhouse on Öland, the house is just the dwelling part, i.e. half a house. There is, so to speak, no door in the ring wall leading into the byre. Instead of a household on a farm, we should imagine a family living in the ring fort trying to fend for itself perhaps engaged in herding sheep (given the general economy of the settlement), but mostly in keeping warm, cooking food, spinning and weaving, mending a tool and using the outer room as a dump. The people might have had a bench to sit on just outside their door almost in the ring street, but in the summer climbing the ring wall and sitting in the afternoon sun might have been a pleasant alternative. Eventually, the people left with their belongings.
What the excavation has revealed is only a little of what resulted from a short period just before the house was left and pulled-down. In reality the house was used for hundreds of years, but in the end it was but a humble abode in which the last noticeable event before leaving the house might well have been when the string in a necklace snapped and beads were spread all over the floor.
(0). ‘Eketorps borg’ can be googled. Following the link http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:287406/FULLTEXT01.pdf and searching for ‘Eketorp’ will lead to some more information.
(1).General descriptions of the three ring fort phases is found in: Borg, K, Näsman, U & Wegraeus, E (red). 1976. Eketorp. The Monument. KVHAA, ALmqvist &Wiksell International, Lund.
(2). Hansson, A.-M., 1997. On plant food in the Scandinavian peninsula in Early Medieval Times. The Archaeological Research Laboratory, Stockholm University. Thesis and Papers in Archaeology B :5 (diss.).