Not Another Saintly Chap?

31 March, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I continue discovering the Gulli-Langåker publications (OtRR 17 March, 2014) and read about the grave in the burnt-down house at the Sem prison in Vestfold, Norway. The publications are in Norwegian.

Ölfvin ölversikt 01

Illu00Grindkåsa, Line. 2012. Boplatsspor og grav fra romertid-merovingertid på Jarlsberg og Tem (lok. 8, 9 och 10)—[Settlement remains and grave from RIA-MP at Jarlsberg and Tem (sites 8-10)] In: Axel Mjærum and Lars Erik Gjerpe (eds). 2012. E18 prosjektet Gulli-Långåker. Dyrking, bosetninger og graver i Stokke og Sandefjord.  E18 prosjektet Gulli-Långåker, bind 1. Oslo Fagbokforlaget. In Norwegian. Acronym: LiGri

Jarlsberg is not just a cheese. Much more importantly, and as LiGri points out in her introduction to the historical context of her sites, it was the King’s manor Sæheimer – ‘the homestead by the sea’ and according to Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga (13th c. CE) an important place in the old Kingdom of Vestfold already in the late 8th c. CE, i.e. in the beginning of the Carolingian Iron Age (CIA). The Gulli-Langåker sites 8-10 were not part of the King’s manor, but part of a farm c. 3 km to the west at the bottom of Byfjorden, the Town Fjord, the ‘town’ being today’s Tønsberg.

Illu01Circa 500 CE the shortest path from the farm to the sea, but probably not to a suitable landing site, was already 600 m long running towards the southeast. Owing to the shore displacement caused by the isostatic uplift, the present-day farm Auli 600 m east of sites 8-10, became the prolific farm site either in the Early CIA, or in the beginning of the Late CIA. LiGri points out that the meaning of the name Auli – Ölfvin = alfr+vin, which means ‘gravel pasture’ doesn’t match today’s Auli, but well the farm at the sites 8-10, suggesting that sites 8-10 could have been the original Auli. Being a –vin name, the date of a farm once called Ölfvin would correspond to the chronology of the farm at sites 8-10.

Since, today, there is no farm called Ölfvin we may as well use the name for the sites 8-10. There was probably at least one more farm east of Aulielva, the Auli river, along the northern side of the fjord between Ölfvin and Sæheimer, that is today’s Jarlsberg, whose situation was the better.

Illu02Archaeologically speaking, the site Ölfvin has EIA roots, but the excavated sites represent the northern outskirts of a farm site used mainly after 500 CE. Sites 8 and 10 are almost empty indicating that more intensive EIA activities took place south of and above Site 9 and House 1. Ölfvin is situated at a crossroad where the north-south road coming from higher grounds south of the farm crosses the Auli river further north on its way to Jarlsberg. The east-west road passes from higher grounds in the west, south of Byfjorden and further east. The agricultural landscape of the Ölfvin farm stretches northwards between the Auli- and Merkedamselva.


Probably the excavation covers the northern part of the farm and its main building. Seen as a series of events, what has been excavated is a site that was to begin with a farm. The farm house which was designed as a South Scandinavian house and as far as it can be measured from the plan, the measuring rod, divided into feet, was used when the post holes were set out.

Ölfvin House 1 measures

When the house was burnt down, an inhumation grave was immediately dug down into the scene of the fire in what had been the dwelling part of the house more precisely in the center of its chamber, i.e. the southernmost room of the dwelling quarters. In the centuries that followed a small cemetery of grave mounds clustered around the inhumation grave and the house. The inhumation grave is in other words a founder’s grave and a rather peculiar one. The way the context builds up around the house-grave meets the eye and suggests that Ölfvin became a place with a history.


Situated 7 km west-southwest of the Oseberg grave as the crow flies from Ölfvin, we are in an area where the symbolic link between house and grave was exploited, inasmuch as the Oseberg ship in its capacity as a grave was organized as three rooms in one end the hall – the kitchen, the chamber, where the two women were buried – and the storage. The Oseberg grave is grave, ship and house in one. We may thus venture to look at the Ölfvin house and its inhumation in the chamber, similar for instance, to the male boat grave Valsgärde 8, as indeed both a house and a grave – a paired monument surrounded in its upper end by later grave mounds and a context explained by its development. Eventually the memorial scene would have stood out as an arena in front of, and slightly below the mounds.

As LiGri has stressed the inhumation grave was in all probability dug down into the remains of the house shortly after the fire that ruined the building, and she sees a possible connection between the house, the fire and the dead. This seems to be a plausible interpretation and since the context is so unusual it is difficult to see the scene as an example of a regular procedure in connection with someone’s death. On the contrary, it would seem more reasonable to reconstruct a series of related events eventually creating the context: (1) the fire, (2) the death, (3) the burial and (4) the subsequent construction of the scene commemorating the dead.

If we ask ourselves when this happened the possibilities to give a precise date are exceptionally good because the grave and not least the house has been so meticulously excavated and dated by means of no less that 23 14C tests.


The 14C dates from House 1 and 2 capture the sporadic presence on the site up and until c. 500 CE when House 1 was built. There is a small time gap between the first house dates and the last four, which dates the fire. The samples behind the dates were taken from the shallow ditch, which drained the water falling off the roof towards the north – hence the opening in the northwest corner of the house. The ditch nevertheless was also a temporary garbage heap. The time gap among the 14C dates represents the fact that the farm was continuously kept tidy allowing only a few charred fragments – that is a very small part of the garbage – to be trapped in the ditch. However, when the house burnt down it was impossible and pointless to clean out all the charred remains which also filled the ditch together with fragments of its wattle and daub walls. LiGri thinks that the latest 14C dates associated with the house were part of the wattle in the daub wall, but some indications speaks against this interpretation: (1) a small twig of Salix was found in a post hole; (2) the wall was burnt at very high temperatures, 850-1000 degrees Celsius, which no wattle in the wall would have survived;(3) the sample consist of Juniperus, alnus and salix. The two fist species are not particularly well-suited for wattle; (4) the most significant indication speaking against the samples representing a late reparation of the wall is the time gap, the frequency of the late dates – they are relatively speaking many – and the very similar dates of the four youngest samples. Moreover, they and the gap belong to a period when the calibration curve falls relatively steep and thus there ought not to be very many dates belonging to this section of the curve and certainly not either none or several.

In order to explain this gap LiGri suggests that the wall was completely rebuilt shortly before the fire broke out, but that is not likely. A wattle and daub wall is built in relatively short sections – panels c. 1 metre wide between vertical posts below a horizontal wall beam – and there is no need to wait for the whole wall to collapse before starting to repair it. On the contrary, the wall construction makes continuous reparations the most probable. It would seem more likely, therefore, that the four last contemporary dates represents the fire and that the gap mirrors the general character of depositions on settlements. That the ditch was relatively empty, that is, open when the fire broke out is suggested by the presence in the ditch of the burnt remains of the wall.

The distribution of the dates therefore allows us to model the time of the fire in two ways:

Illu06(1) we may take the four dates to represent one date in which case they theoretically represent bp 1466 +/- 15 or


(2) we may wiggle match the four dates to the calibration curve. In both cases their likely date is slightly before 600 CE. Given the fact that the samples are young branches, on average less than 20 years old, the fire at Ölfvin House 1 would seem to have taken place circa 615 CE. This is some decades earlier than suggested by at LiGri, but well within the chronological frames of the artefacts that equipped the grave.

Since it was not possible to excavate the whole farm at Ölfvin, villas and prison surrounding it to the south, we cannot know when a place name such as Ölfvin could have been given to a farm on the site. It may have been prior to 500 CE, that is, the time when House 1 was erected. Since the 6th c. is characterized by a number of new large farms and settlements, such as Old Uppsala (after a settlement hiatus), Lejre, Tissø, Stavnsager, as well as slightly less impressive places such as Valsgärde or Mørup (0) it is not inconceivable that the excavation has dated a -vin name to c. 500 CE.

Illu08Although we do not know, who was buried in the grave it would seem that the house and the human being in the grave came to an end simultaneous. We may, however, argue that the dead man wasn’t killed in the flames and high temperatures that would have acted upon his body as a pyre. Although the grave is a weapon grave, it hardly belonged to a grown-up man because the body, probably in a supine position, was confined to a narrow and short pit, 0.7×1.5 m. The weapons were arranged on top of the body partly below the shield, i.e. not next to it or in positions that would imitate the way weapons were supposed to be worn. The sword was 90 cm long and would have been difficult to handle for anyone short enough to fit a narrow grave length of 1.5 m. It is thus not a warrior’s grave. On the contrary, it is a symbolic installation of a martially equipped man – probably a young person of rank. Rather than preserving the warrior the installation exhibits social norms.

The link between house and grave would seem to indicate that the deceased belonged to the house, living in the chamber where he was buried, but instead of doing the usual, letting a grave imitate a chamber or a house, the remains of the building itself make up the memorial scene. We are entitled to say that instead of being rebuilt, the house and perhaps the farm site too, came to an end. Needless to say the events that led up to the fire and the burial may have been so traumatic that they in themselves stood out as a reason to create the memorial.

In the centuries that followed, it became important to attach grave monuments to the memorial and thus in all probability also to the person in the primary grave. The vi-character of the layout, that is the V-shaped design of an Old Norse sanctuary, meets the eye although the symmetry isn’t perfect.

Similar to the horn blower at Ellekilde (OtRR 6 February, 2012) the man or boy at Ölfvin attracted a flock of graves, and we may argue that he probably had attractive social or other qualities. He may not have had them to begin with, but in that case they developed over the years creating a legend about him and making him one of those who went before the rest of us and from whom we may benefit in death. It doesn’t take an installation such as Ellekilde or Ölfvin to commemorate or create such a person. A founder’s grave or in principle any grave in a cemetery may be considered to contain a person valuable to descendants and linked to legend. Nevertheless, it is interesting that as late as 600 CE a material narrative about an individual can be employed to create an outstanding dead, who eventually came to represent a growing group of dead. This group may consist of a limited number of kinsmen and the man’s fame of an accordingly a limited saintliness, but kinship groups will vary in size and popularity attracting and adopting larger and smaller numbers.

A devil’s advocate may have gormandized in ‘de-hallowing’ South Scandinavian Iron Age paragons of virtue, but that is of little importance because contexts such as Ellekilde and Ölfvin already suggest that even in Scandinavia a saint could be more or less outstanding, and his otherworldly abode – in Norse terms his ‘helgafell’ – thus more or less capacious (1). The answer to ‘Not Another Saintly Chap?’ therefore, is: Yes! The man at Ölfvin is yet another outstanding saintly Iron Age chap from South Scandinavia! And there may be many more. And they may be part of a tradition already 350 years long from Ellekilde to Ölfvin. If so, I suggest they be called ‘hallows’ commemorating an archaic word and usage with roots in Old English hálga—saint.



(0) These sites are well-known on the www or mentioned in

(1) there is a book chapter on helgafell by Odd Nordland on the net:,%20Valhall%20and%20Helgafell.pdf


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