Persistently Far from the Madding Crowd

9 December, 2013

Fig 00 översiktThis week On the Reading Rest I have a report in Swedish. The language is befitting. Prehistoric segregation is an important phenomenon easily niched in the Swedish landscape. Owing to the isostatic uplift that started when the ice sheet disappeared, settlements often sort themselves according to productivity and the less successful sit at higher altitudes than the successful ones. In Swedish, therefore, the present report presents four not very impressive sites in such a segregating Swedish landscape. Today, and since the Iron Age, they are situated at the margins of a relatively prosperous rural area.

FASEALASAndersson, F. et al. 2013. Fredrik Andersson, Susanna Eklund, Ann Lindkvist & Anneli Sundkvist. Med bidrag av (with a contribution by) Anneli Ekblom, Rasbo-Hov: From Bronze Age Shores to Iron Age Fields. Särskilda arkeologiska undersökningar inför omdragningen av väg 288, Jälla – Hov Rasbo 632, 634, 635, 659, 660, 668, 704 & 705, Hov 1:7, Uppsala kommun, Uppsala län. SAU rapport 2013:4.

I abbreviate it FASEALAS [Fa-sea’-las] and have based all illustrations upon it. Most of the illustrations are adaptation.


Along the present road section the very first trace of human activity is a cooking pit situated on a small island on the site Raä 634 (Andersson in FASEALAS). This island must have been a stopover for people entering or leaving the passage that begins or ends just north of the island. The place would have made a perfect camping site, a terrace on the beach below and between two small hills. If you wanted to sit in the afternoon and evening sun cooking and enjoying a meal a summer’s day in the 18th c. BCE pondering whether the Neolithic was drawing to an end or Bronze Age commencing, this was the place to sit.

In the millennium around 1000 BCE, the larger area to which the sites in this report belong, is characterized by two kinds of easily recognizable monuments: burnt mounds and cairns. Both are built and heavily dependent on stones either un-burnt in the cairns or fire-cracked and brittle-burnt in the burnt mounds. The other elements involved are air or earth in the cairns, but in the burnt mounds in which there is never any air, the earth is mixed with all kinds of remains related to all kinds of human activities. In the cairns the remains have to do mostly with burying humans.

Materially speaking burnt mounds are broad-spectrum and built over a considerable period of time with a large element of ´produced’ material, while cairns are narrow-spectrum and built during a short primary building phase with material that was ‘gathered’. Burnt mounds are often related to a boulder, cairns less so. Both monuments have a relation with the landscape. Cairns are often easily visible at a distance and often vantage points, while burnt mounds belong to small scale environments. Both monuments share a relation with waterways, but in a bay environment suitable for landing a canoe, and situated as an interface between productive lands and sheltered waters, the burnt mounds are more frequent than the cairns. Both monuments cluster, but as Ann Lindkvist’s analysis shows, clusters of burnt mounds are not as peaked as cairn cluster.

CLUSTERThere are two reasons for this. Burnt mounds are closely related to a production landscape and their clusters will reflect the size or productivity of niches or areas in the landscape. Cairns are related to the natural landscape and their clusters will reflect points in this landscape – visible points or vantage points.

In the eyes of human beings, seeking primarily to sustain themselves, the isotactic uplift in a landscape such as that of the Northern Mälar Valley will change a given environment from a prominent point in a natural landscape to a prominent niche in a productive landscape. This change will cause clusters of burnt mounds and cairns sometimes to overlap, but most often the fact that on a dwelling-site or local scale they do not overlap is the more striking.

Burnt mounds as well as cairns are connected with remains of cremated human beings. Cairns, which are often secluded monuments, have singular grave qualities, while the cremated remains in burnt mounds demonstrated ways of including the remains of the dead in the daily life of the living. The latter context, the daily interaction between the living and the dead, involves a third phenomenon: the fact that boulders attract the remains of cremated human beings as well as the produce of daily life. It would seem that if possible a dwelling site will involve remains of cremated human beings and ritual sites. Rather than being confined to graves the remains of the dead are integrated into the monuments as well as the life of the living.

Lastly it must be pointed out that building a cairn or a burnt mound is not a primarily something one does to sustain oneself, both monuments as well as the activities around boulders, represent ritual needs in prehistoric society. Cairns represent sporadic events, while bunts mounds refer to frequent events.

Access osvTo get a general feeling for the landscape when it starts to attract people we may compare the clustering tendencies among burnt mounds and cairns respectively to the isostatic uplift. This demonstrates that the cairn clusters in the northeastern part of the larger area have to do with the access from the north and a landscape in which the shores have a sharp inclinatrion and heights suitable for cairns. There is little fertile land in this area and thus no burnt mounds. In the western part of the greater area the picture is reversed, access is from the South. The concentrations of burnt mound in the northwest are situated along to a bay behind a narrow sound. On the shores around the bay it is easy to make landfall and the soils are fertile.

In the central part of the area, which is accessed from the south, the cairn and burnt mound landscapes overlap. And the area should be understood primarily to consist of three phases of usage governed by the isostatic uplift. The northernmost part is accessed through narrow sounds which dry up early especially the eastern water way. The southernmost part has the longest history because it is a broken landscape that attracts burnt mounds as well as cairns, probably at different points in time.

Between these two landscapes there is a small intermediary one situated at the southeastern passage to the northernmost landscape. This passage dries up c. 1200 BCE creating the shorelines followed by the new road, which in its turn caused the excavations to take place. During the following centuries, shorelines rapidly disappeared southwards creating a flat and wet landscape difficult to access. Two sites with burnt mounds, Raä 634 and Raä 668, nevertheless survive as coastal into the 8th c. BCE.

Rasbo-hov 800 BCE

Inlet and cemetery

Originally Raä 668 belonged to a small cluster of burnt mounds facing north towards the bay accessed from the southeastern passage. We may in other words conclude that c. 1200 BCE the isostatic uplift brought an end to a small marginal niche in the maritime Bronze Age landscape. Circa 1000 BCE Raä 668 was revived, but this time from a shoreline southwest of the monument because the bay to the north could no longer be accessed. At the same time even the burnt mound at Raä 634 was built on a shore facing southwest. Consequently, the changing landscape in tandem with the traditional subsistence system favouring coastal settlements created two marginal 9th c. sites. Both Raä 634 and 668 are Bronze Age settlements, without house constructions since the house remains found at the sites and situated exactly where one would prefer to build one’s house, are Iron Age.

Although deceased people were taken care of on sites characterized by burnt mounds, a small cemetery, Raä 659, was added to the landscape c. 1100 BCE situated in a cove a couple of hundred metres west of Raä 668 and 1.5 km east of Raä 634. This site was almost overlooked by the archaeologists responsible for survey and trail excavations and thus also by the heritage authorities at County Board, None the less this cemetery is by far the most interesting site in this part of the road section and accordingly, loosing information about it, while gaining conventional knowledge about a host of others, would have seemed a very high price to pay for conventional knowledge. Although the County Board was unable to take the right decision: the total excavation and precise chronological understanding of the whole cemetery — archaeologists eventually managed to record and excavate some of the monuments. This allowed them to conclude in general terms that the site was a peripheral burial ground used occasionally during c. 1500 years. Over time, its position changed from one next to a sound, over one in a cove next to a possible landing place (completely destroyed by road building) into becoming an ancient burial ground revived c. 500 CE. By then it was situated on a shelf below a ridge at the edge of the forest. The site is a diminutive ritual place of a surprisingly long-lasting importance to prehistoric man.

Rasbo-hov 400 BCE

During three centuries the water withdraws causing the section where the road runs today to become inland and a more and more marginal part of a flat agricultural country around a center with low hills, a country surrounded by peripheral. But owing to a change in subsistence economy, which allows smaller family groups to survive during a longer period at a given site, the three sites are reestablished in the Pre Roman Iron Age and a new site is added (Eklund in FASEALAS). Raä 635 is a farmstead next to suitable pastures and arable land. Raä 634 gets an annex, Raä 632, bordering on the southern side of the same arable land. These small settlements are not permanent. On the contrary they are occupied at intervals for no more than a house generation or two. The farm houses are small, but the sites are used by minor households from the 5th c. BCE to the 6th c. CE. The four sites Raä 634, 632, 635 and 668 represent locations where is it possible at intervals to settle a family or at Raä 635  two families (Eklund in FASEALAS). Probably these settlements have kept the cemetery Raä 659 in living memory. At least some graves on this cemetery belong to the 6th c. CE.

Given the ritual practices of the period, it is worth asking oneself, whether the remains of one of the three human being in connection with the block A1342 (In total c. 370 grams of bone) on the cemetery Raä659 (Eklund in FASEALAS), dated (Ua-40848) 2164 ± 31 BP (360–110 f.Kr.) is the same being as the remains (40 grams of bone) in connection with the block A4149 on the settlement Raä 668 (Lindkvist in FASEALAS), dated (Ua-41796): 2199 ± 37 BP (380–180 f.Kr.). The question is rhetorical, but nevertheless worth posing.


At one level the story about the sites in the road section is a function of the general change in more dynamic parts of society, at another it is a distorted reflection adding a critical light to the general picture. At a third level we get a glimpse of peripheral social values.

Although some of the places are very old in their landscapes they are neither abandoned nor developed – they are simply open or common places befitting needs that may occur in any society. Outside the road section and perhaps in the immediate vicinity of the excavation trenches, there are perhaps more populous and lively places characterized by the commonplace, but the sites as we know them were nevertheless unimportant and undecided during thousands of years. This doesn’t mean that there was no drama here – actually both House 1 and House 3 at Raä 635 were  burnt down (Eklund FASAELAS:146) – it just means that so little happened on these settlements that the life lived there didn’t bother to erase the traces of an event as dramatic and yet as commonplace as a fire. Instead of tidying up the scene and rebuildung House 1, which occupied the best location at Raä 635, people preferred to build something next to the ruined house.

Rasbo till Hov dateringar

If we sum up the dates related to these outskirts there are two intensive phases c. 800 and 300 BCE and a long less intensive phase covering the first five centuries of the first millennium CE. In addition to these phases there is occasional and sporadic presence signified by the odd 14C-test. There are no remains of buildings to counteropint the burnt mounds of the intensive presence c. 800 BCE, but c. 300 BCE the first house remains start to occur. This shift is a reflection of the common shift in subsistence economy, but socially speaking settlements are still short-lived exploitations of resources. In the beginning of the Common Era something new, a function of general social change, starts when subsistence economy in the road section gains sustainability and when some new settlement locations are added to the old ones. If this period, 0-500 CE, had been the most intensive, the 14C-diagram would have resembled that of the prolific Roman Iron Age farm, which often occupied a place that had been settled several times before it became the location of a permanent and successful farm. In the road section the typical picture is in other words distorted. Contrary to success, the persistent low-frequency presence indicates that the periphery works as an expansion vessel, albeit in a settlement rather than hot water system: when settlement pressure in central areas becomes too high and the settlements too crowded, people drop off into the outskirts and margins of rural landscape and society.

We may look upon this expansion as something positive suggesting that indirectly it shows the right to found a family still to be respected. There is little doubt on the other hand that this right was never meant to result in social segregation and since segregation is at play, we can easily imagine that not everyone living in the outskirts enjoyed a model family life – if one can live in an outhouse in the Eketorp ring fort (OtRR 25 Nov 2013) one can do so too in the settlement at Raä 635. In the long run, inability to prevent segregation from growing will harm society (O).

Raä659 There are obviously too few graves in the road section, if we expect those who lived there to be represented in monuments, but more importantly there is the uncommon cemetery, used from the Early Bronze Age, EBA, to the Pre Carolingian Iron Age, PCIA. It would seem that this cemetery was inaugurated by a stone setting representing a ship at the shore of the EBA sound or LBA cove.

Although this monument is at the bottom of a slope it dominates the cemetery in a way quite opposite to the normal monumentality, which could well have been a cairn or two at one of the obvious locations in the immediate vicininty. There is nothing wrong with the symbolism of the ship, given the BA landscape, but scunnering hights and cairns or diminishing their value is deviant BA behavior and almost impossible to excuse with reference to building a cairn being too much labour for a few outskirters. On the contrary, the boat-on-the-shore cemetery seems a most significant contribution to a new and this case outskirt identity in a shore-bound newly marginalized area (cf. Eklund162 ff.). A break with traditions, it seems significant that the site continues to be part of the human landscape even after the water disappeared c. 600 BCE (cf. Lindkvist 2013:153;fig 119). The road section Rasbo to Hov runs through the traditional lands of the prehistoric outskirters — the Commons?.

(0) Since this topic has been relatively frequent On the Reading Rest, I have added the category ‘Iron Age Segregation and Poverty’ to the existing ones.

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