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




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