A Spell for Old Bones

26 May, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have a report on the excavation of some LIA graves (and not a book by Eric Linklater).

figur 00Hulth, Helena. 2014. (H Hulth med bidrag av Ylva Bäckström, Emma Sjöling, John Ljungkvist & Elisabeth Pettersson). Den skyddande logen. Brandgravar från yngre järnålder samt en och annan medeltida och efterreformatorisk grop på Ultuna. Arkeologisk för- och slutundersökning Fornlämningarna Uppsala 401 & 653, Ultuna 2:23 Uppsala stad (f d Bondkyrko sn), Uppland. SAU rapport 2014:1. Pp 203. Acronym: HeHu&Co

Saving and excavating the monuments in the Ulltuna area south of Uppsala, Sweden, has kept archaeologist busy for a number of years with excavations and monuments of varying complexity and preservation (cf. OtRR 14 October, 2013) In the present case, many of the graves, and the ones I shall focus upon, were built into a barn belonging to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. This happened already in 1860s when the university was still an agricultural school. Since the barn was to be rebuilt in 2011 and thus not pulled-down — its exterior being a valuable heritage in itself — large parts of the excavations had to be conducted inside the building.

figur 01

The barn stood in the middle of the remains of a cemetery, and because the roof might fall down and kill the archaeologists when its supports were undermined, excavating the graves proved difficult. This, and the fact that the building and its concrete floor had fragmented as well as preserved the graves, sharpened the awareness of the archaeologists. They excavated carefully and controlled solving all kinds of stratigraphical sequences, technical and logistic problems.

figur 02The artefact contents of these cremation graves and their dates are interesting in themselves and fills a chronological gap in Ulltuna’s prehistory (cf Ljungkvist in HeHu&Co:97 ff.). Nevertheless, I have chosen to concentrate on bone material of a small group of graves that are part of a cluster and compare them with a small solitary grave monument situated at a short distance from the clustered ones. Stratigraphy as well as artefact chronology suggests that all the graves belonged to a period stretching from c. 700 to c. 950 CE, that is, a period in the Pre Carolingian- and Carolingian Iron Age (PC- & CIA).

Schematically the chronology of the four graves in the cluster and the solitary grave looks like this:

figur 03

The artefacts from the cremation graves belong to the standard material characterizing the period, and variation between the graves seems not to indicate anything more than the expected. But the way the pyres were (1) characterized by animals and humans, (2) sampled and/or rearranged to become grave installations and (3) made to link-in and differ from each other mirrors complex ritual practice significant choice.

The osteological ananlyses (Bäckström and Sjöling in HeHu&Co:48ff.) showed that on the pyres there were all the bodies parts of humans, horses, dogs, pigs and the odd bird. Small samples could of course blur this picture. Nevertheless, these remains should be looked upon (1) as the diseased, (2) as offerings and (3) as followers of the diseased. Despite large samples, other animals were represented by parts only suggesting (4) their food character. The former, being complete bodies, would have been relatively easy to recognize in the remains of the pyre when preparing the final installation of the remains. I shall focus on these the five ‘common’ individuals: humans, horses, dogs, pigs and birds. As a typical example of food I shall also note bones of sheep/goat because their post-pyre usage differs from that of the common individuals.


In the solitary monument A100019 there were two concentrations of cremated bones in a small cremation layer consisting of burnt bones and charred remains – only charcoal had survived. On top of this layer there were a few small stones marking the site rather than covering the cremated remains. Bones and charcoal had in other words been deposited on the ground marked by the scantiest of monuments – a few stones. A horse nail dropped or trotted down into the cremation layer in early modern times makes it likely that the grave was never covered except by the few stones.

figur 04

The cremation layer contained a minimum of bones compared to the two bone concentrations. There may have been an intended difference in the composition of the two bone concentrations (the horse:dog balance), but the general impression is a post-pyre bone collection emphasizing the diseased over the animals. Sheep/Goat seems only to have been indicated, perhaps by chance – perhaps not. Given that the grave was 2.5×1.8m and that several different animals were found although there were precious few bones preserved, suggests that the remains may represent an unprotected pyre site. In that case, however, human activities and taphonomic processes such as weather – wind and rain, frost and snow – would almost have destroyed the pyre site before it was covered by vegetation. Alternatively, the remains may have been brought to the site from the pyre before they were weathered. Routinely a earth beneath a cremations layer should be checked in order to establish whether or not it has been influenced by fire.

In the cluster there are two types of graves: (1) the covered ones constituting a protected monument and (2) unprotected remains similar to A100019. The latter ones, the early A100493 and the late A100537, are miniature depositions. A100493 is 45 cm in diameter and A100537 is 50. They were both placed directly on the ground and there is nothing to suggest that they were ever covered or marked out. Although there are only a few bones in the cremation layers there is nevertheless many species. In that respect these two graves are similar to A100019.

It stands to reason moreover, that the old grave, A100493 (average preservation: 5 fragments per spices) would have disappeared altogether had it not been protected in the early 10th century by the grave A4206. Likewise the slightly better preserved A100537 (average preservation: 13 fragments per spices) was probably saved by its ‘sheltered’ position between the low monuments A4018 and A4206. There is nothing to suggest that A100493 and A100537 represent pyre sites or bone concentrations in a larger layer of cremated material. More probably they are just remains taken from a pyre – a small collection moved to a suitable site and left there to be preserved or disappear by chance – dispersed by the wind and dissolved by rain.

Although there are at least 5 generations between the two unobtrusive but nevertheless monuments, A4018 and A4206, they were made into one context when A4206 was constructed. As pointed out in HeHu&Co the old monument A4018 was altered to accommodate the pyre site eventually becoming A4206 and its urn, which was places on top of the old monument when its cover had been made to bulge out to the West. Moreover, a ditch was dug around A4206 so as to attach it to A4018. Finally A100537 when was placed between A4602 and A4018 along their mid-axis it would seem to complete the monument as indeed a chain of burials anchored in deep time.

figur 05There are at least two humans, one pig, one dog and a horse in A4018. The horse is extremely badly represented indicating that it was not moved from the pyre other than by chance or mistake. In the urns there are almost exclusively human remains – one person in Urn 1 and at least one other person in Urns 2 and 3. Around Urn 2, one of the followers, the pig, is well represented in the cremation layer. It was essential to preserve human remains in the urns and separate one of the humans from the other. The three fragments of pig probably got into Urn 3 by accident.

figur 06

What we see in A4018 is a sorting and a selection of material from a pyre. The humans and the pig are essential in this representation and show that the closer to the urns the better the representation of the diseased. The urns represent the humans and Urn 1 is depicted as less central. Keeping the pig out of the urns seems to have been intentional. The centrally placed  remains are in Urn 2 and 3 while the person in Urn 1 is peripheral.

The bone fragments in A4018 represent the same spices as in A100537, but they do so through 1540 rather than 66 fragments. Moreover, there is a very strong emphasis on the two humans. This shows, not least, in the fact that the contents of the urns is virtually 100 percent human. For technical reasons it seems irrational originally to have place one of the dead bodies, the one later filled into Urn 1, in the periphery of the pyre. The preripheral position of urn 1 therefore seems intentional. Eventually A4018 was domed over the Urn 2 and 3 (F335 and F336) and that suggests that grave installation was the arranged remains of a pyre that stood somewhere else. When integrating the bones with the monumental pattern one of the humans became central and the other (Urn 3 F334) was made peripheral. The pyre, therefore, was a means to create a specific symbolic pattern – not the intended pattern itself. The intentional pattern was a the result of a rearrangement of the remains on burnt-down pyre. Moreover, the animals that followed the diseased on the pyre, that is the usual ones – horse, dog and pig – were down-played to a minimum. The individual in the peripheral Urn 1 was young (juvenilis/adultus) the other person was middle aged. Taken together the person in Urn 1 seems to have been the follower of the person(s?) in the urns 2 and 3.

Since old and young are not likely by chance to die at the same time, A4018 is p0erhaps an example of ‘double death’ being more common in graves that in daily life.

This then is the grave that those responsible for the monument A4206 wanted to attach to. A4206 does so, for instance by means of several concentrated depositions – a kind of ‘urns with no pots’. The differences, nevertheless, are also obvious.

figur 07

Contrary to A4018, A4206 is a pyre site. There is at least one human, one pig, two dogs, one horse and a bird (at least parts of it) as well as parts of a sheep in the monument. In the urn, human, horse and bird were collected and that is an intentionally biased sample of the general mixture on the pyre. By chance a single fragment of sheep was put into the urn where otherwise the followers: horse and bird are over-represented. It meets the eye that the pig and two dogs were kept out of the urn. Because of the burnt sand beneath the cremation layer it was concluded by HeHu&Co that the pyre foregoing the creation of the monument stood at least partly on the spot where the monument was eventually constructed. Obviously there was no intention to cover up a scene represented by the material that was once put on the pyre and cremated. On the contrary, the cremation layer is a result of selection and rearrangement of material. As in A4018, the pyre was a filter and a means, which makes it possible that Bone Concentration A was meant to have relative few human bones and many horse bones. The opposite is typical of Bone Concentration B. These concentrations may thus represent a horse concentration next to a human concentration, indicating a bond between the two and not only proximity in the installation as well as perhaps on the pyre.


One would have imagined that the contents of a layer or an urn would have been more or less similar, with only minor variations. And if variation occurred it should primarily be among contexts with a small number of bones, which would have made it likely that species represented by just a few fragments, such as sheep, would have been missed in selection. That however, is a truth with modification. There are six main species to be found in the material, which means that if we find only six fragments in a layer it would be odd if they represented all the six species. If, on the other hand, there was 100 fragments in a layer we would expect all the species in the grave to be represented by chance at least with a few fragment mirroring general frequencies. However, if we make a diagram where we look at the number of species in a layer in relation to its total number of fragments we get the following result:

figur 08There is a tendency that very few fragments mean fewer species, but this tendency is weak and already when the sample is larger than 50 fragments the core species are present despite some species being very scarce. This indicates that those who picked out the bones did it with the intention of representing the animals on the pyre and that limited concentrations, as well as small layers, or layers poor in bone fragments, were intended to mirror the species on the pyre. The relevant species were present not by chance, but by intent.

When we turn to urns it becomes apparent that, contrary to the concentrations, selection limiting the number of species is crucial. If, therefore, we check the relation between the number of fragments and the number of species we see the capability of Iron Age undertakers to select some species and avoid others, that is, a wish to select specific species even when the number of fragments is large, despise the fact that a high number of fragments makes it more likely that a species would be picked by chance:

These patterns makes the difference between the urn in A4206, containing man horse and bird, and the urns in A4018 containing humans (252 fragments and three small fragments of a sheep), very significant. The differences between the simple uncovered graves and the complex ones are equally significant.

There is a great potential in the osteological material and its distribution in cremation layers and pyre sites. Piously covering up whatever was on the pyre seems not to have been an option. Analyses promise to trace a series of choices and events related to burial practices, much more specifically than grave good artefacts. What differences and similarities mean is still difficult to say, but there are obviously patterns to be found in cremation graves from the Late Iron Age and these patterns may easily be understood as intentional.

The trick is to combine the osteological variables with a better understanding of their spatial distribution. The reasons why osteological & spatial analyses have not yet become a pair are purely economic. Osteologists are competent and perfectly able to record, analyze and understand the distribution of cremated bones in graves in detail producing new knowledge. As it happens, their ability is much greater than the County Administrative Boards (CABs) will allow them to demonstrate. The CABs prefer to make sure that time and money is securely wasted in a traditionally and to their mind acceptable way emphasizing the osteological variables and their quanta, rather than variables, quanta and distribution, the CABs effectively obstruct knowledge production. Rational archaeology produces more knowledge to lower costs and thus it saves money. Waste on the other hand comes with a price and it must not be an end in itself.


Closed for renovation?

12 May, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article on an excavation in Carolingian Iron Age Ribe, Southwest Jutland,discussing its market place.

 Illu 01

By marsk geest 25Alrø Jensen, Michael. 2013. Udgravningerne i Sct Nicolaj Gade. By, marsk og gest. Vol 25. Pp. 9-27. Summary. The excavations at Sct Nicolaj Street (Pp 26-27). Acronym MiAl

The origin and early development of the town Ribe in the 8th to the 11th century, is complex, and excavating Ribe is in itself a science as well as an art. In 2006 Claus Feveile summarized the excavations carried out in the oldest part of the settlement, i.e. north of the river Ribe å. Feveile discussed what looked like a time gap in the urban settlement. In 2006 an overall assessment of the excavations north of the river suggested that there was a hiatus in the settlement during the late 9th and the 10th c. CE. In this period the settlement north of the river was given up before the settlement south of the river began. The settlement south of the river grew to become the Medieval town centre still today dominated by the Cathedral (0).

 Illu 02

In 2010 excavations south of the river next to the Cathedral revealed a number of Christian burials dated from the late 9th to the middle of the 11th c. CE. This meant that although there seemed to be no settlement either north or south of the river in the late 9th and early 10th c., there were nevertheless Christian graves south of the river (1). Even a fragment of a rune stone was found and we may thus envisage an early Christian cemetery with inhumation graves and standing commemorative rune stone(s) – a typical transitory Scandinavian situation in which Christians adopted the standing stone to their display of faith making it possible to anchor death the usual way with a network of commemorators, thus pushing for themselves in what was later considered a very un-Christian way.

Among archaeologists, continuity in terms of human presence is the preferred cultural state. When we analyze a context such as the floor in a house or a well-defined plot in a market place, such as the plots in early Ribe, we also tend to fill-in the chronological gaps between the dated artefacts. If we have some finds from the later part of the 9th c. and some from the middle of the 10th, and believe the plots to be used when the artefacts were dropped, then most would suggest that the plot was used continuously in a period from the 9th to the 10th century. If we combine contexts such as houses and plots as in an EIA Danish village, then continuity becomes almost obligatory. Continuity rules even though the actual artefacts, which date the context, are very limited in number and the gaps between their dates i.e the gaps in continuity, thus wide.

With the growing number of excavated settlements, not least in Jutland, it has nevertheless become apparent, when analysing the stratigraphic relations between fences and houses, that plots in villages were not continuously occupied. Our belief that an IA farm was a place where people in a household organized their lives and supported themselves generation after generation is no longer valid. The plot is no longer a proxy for the family and its household. Instead, a plot defines an estate rather than a household consisting of people and animals. An estate may or may not occupy a plot, but none the less, its fields and meadows are managed because in the village the plot defines a farm – abstract continuity, but not human presence (2). In reality the houses that we excavate may have been empty for most of their life time – not as a rule, but in practice because IA society is no longer always as simple as we used to think.

There is little doubt that Carolingian Iron Age Ribe highlights the dyad: context – time. And since the contexts, such as plots, are badly preserved it is the relative precision of the 14C-dates of carbonized grain that has developed the relationship between context and time. Dating grains, dates the moment they were charred and discharged. Archaeologically speaking, therefore, a grain has no cultural life time. Its life is a moment measured as a probability distribution and the centre of this distribution is the most probable date of the moment. This moment may of course be preserved contextually, but in that case mostly by chance rather than intent. That is why the date of a grain is so different from the date of an artifact. The artefact date is difficult to define because artefacts are rooted in time. Their production dates are archaeological moments, sometimes possible to date as indeed moments, but the cultural life of an artefact is a span of time with no measurable probability to it. Mixing grain dates and artefacts dates can make almost any archaeological context an interesting quagmire in which probable grain moments mix with floating time spans.

MiAl shows that the excavations in Sct Nicolaj Street concerned two layers from the CIA, an older and a younger one. The older was related to the plots and the younger may well have been so too although it is difficult to prove in this specific excavation. Dated by means of artefacts the older layer belonged to the 9th century CE and the younger one to the 10th.

MiAl draws the conclusion that there was a Ribe north of the river also in the 10th c. and sees continuity in the settlement, and he explaining the lack of evidence for this in other excavations by suggesting that here the layers representing the late 9th and 10th century have been badly damaged by modern activities in the area. In Sct Nicolaj Street these layers happened to be preserved under the street (cf. MiAl:24).

Already in 2006 Feveile was aware that there were contexts representing activities in the 10th century, for instance a pit house, also in the area north of the river and the new excavations have certainly confirmed these activities to be more common than one could reasonably have supposed in 2006. Nevertheless one wonders whether there is continuity in the layers in Sct Nicolaj Street. MiAl thinks so and he refers to the evidence of the nine 14C test taken in the trench that cut through the CIA layers. When the dates are presented (Fig. 3) they are shown as probability distributions and understood as dates with in a span of time representing 68 or 95 percent of the probability – covered by +/-1 or 2 sigma.

Illu 03

Contamination of layers either by an older item, lifted into younger layers, or younger items buried in older layers are difficult to handle, but naturally discussed by MiAl (pp 20-21) and he explains four of the nine tests as either residual (early material introduced into later layers) of intrusions (later material introduced in to earlier layers. The problem with seeds is the difficulties we have to link them to any single context related to their deposition. Their contexts are corrupted ones such as “in the fill of pit DFR”, or “in layer ZXS”, which are significant mostly of the imagination of the archaeologist and not of a context that defines the deposition of the seed or the grain. Because of our understanding of context, the grains were found by means of flotation that is by decontextualisation. Economically, decontextualisation was the only option.

When such finds are dated they often create confusion not least when the site is a complex one such as Ribe.

MiAl sees his 14C dates as a strong indication of continuity in the use of the plots on the market place in Ribe. There are activities dating to the beginning of the 8th century in the sample P1:1 and dates representing the 9th and 10th century as well as the 11th. If we look at the bars representing +/- 1 and 2 sigma there seems to be continuity on the plots. But if we analyze the tests in a slightly different way focusing on the central date, i.e. the most likely, although not very likely, date of each test and the overall probability that a year may be dated by the tests, then there is an obvious lack of central dates and probability in the late 9th and early 10th century (Fig. 3). Moreover, samples P1 and P3 show signs of residue and intrusion as it could be expected in a settlement with a relatively undefined plot structure an open space where all kinds of things happen, perhaps on a seasonal basis, without leaving any archaeological traces as long as we do not start to date the grains. If we do we shell probably have to explain what we cannot explain. In a market place invisible activities are probably common and must often be inferred.

If, as it is the case in Sct Nicolaj Street, more or less half the tests are significant of some kind of contamination, then one wonders why there are no traces, neither in artefacts nor in 14C-tests, of the late 9th and the early 10th century. Since the layers in Sct Nicolaj Street are sealed, we must conclude that there was either no activity in this part of the market place or the layers representing the period were meticulously removed in the middle of the 10th century as a result of the way the plots were used. This amount to saying that in order to explain the gap, we must propose an invisible CIA archaeological activity hard to imagine.

There is no doubt that MiAl may be correct when he suggest continuity in Ribe north of the river, but if so it shall have to be proved by future excavations. Ribe, the location is not abandoned, but for c 60 years or more the market place is still closed for renovation. At the same time and perhaps earlier too, a Christian activity is going on south of the river. This, rather than continuity and urban unity is interesting. And so is the rune stone, which is an offence to Continental Christianity – a blatant attempt to make a tradition that stems from the polytheistic IA society compatible with Christianity.



(0) A central chapter in Claus Feveile’s study of early Ribe is: Feveile, Claus 2006. Ribe på nordsiden af ån. In: C Feveile (ed.) Ribe studier. Vol 1.1:13-63 Højbjerg. This chapter in Danish is followed by a translation into English of the Danish text.

(1) The graves by the Cathedral are published by Morten Søvsø. Søvsø, Morten. 2010. Tidlig kristne begravelser ved Ribe Domkirke – Ansgars kirkegård? Arkæologi i Slesvig/Archäologie in Schleswig. Vol. 13:147-64.

(2) See: Holst, Mads Kähler. 2010. Inconstancy and stability – Large and small farmsteads in the village of Nørre Snede (Central Jutland) in the first millenium AD. Siedlungs- und Küstenforschung im südlichen Nordseegebiet Vol 33:155:79