Gustavslund by Helsingborg – a potters’ village trading with trappers?

12 January, 2015

This week On the Reading Rest I have a report in Swedish from a rescue excavation in an urban exploitation area. During the last 10-15 years archaeologists from UV Syd have pieced together the history of a number of Early Iron Age (EIA) villages and farms in the hinterland of historical Helsingborg, One of these is Gustavslund.

ILLU 00Aspeborg, Håkan & Strömberg, Bo. 2014. H. Aspeborg (red.) Gustavslund – en by från äldre järnålder. Skåne, Helsingborgs stad Husensjö 9:25 (Gustavslund), RAÄ 184. UV Rapport 2014:132. Riksantikvarieämbetet. Acronym: HASB

Today, an area in the outskirts of the town. The present Gustavslund farm (18th c. Mårtenstorp – Martin’s thorp) was founded in 1792 when surveyors established the boundaries of the property and eventually, in 1810, carried out a land consolidation.

ILLU 01By 1810 the EIA settlement area was situated in the grassland at the eastern border of the estate and the westerns border of neighbouring farms. Probably the settlement remains had been invisible and forgotten for more than a millennium. Protected by its peripheral situation in the historical landscape, in itself typical EIA situation, the location of the prehistoric settlement was model – homesteads sitting between two water causes, c. 3 km from Öresund, a little below a flat hilltop, on a slope facing the SW, above a small wetland and brooks suitable for water-meadows – model, but not exceptional. Today, large parts of the settlement area have been excavated accommodating infrastructure, housing and private company offices along a road. This road follows an old N-S divide in the landscape, a parish border as well as the border of Gustavslund. When this zone was made a ring road, Österleden, in the late 20th century no excavations took place at Gustavslund and some parts of the settlement area were damaged prior to the investigations in the early 2000s. The southwestern parts of the settlement have not yet been excavated probably because they are not yet threatened by the growing town.

ILLU 02 Similar to the excavations at Västerås – the focus of OtRR 6 October 2014, 1 December, 2014 and 3 November, 2014 – once begun by Håkan Aspeborg, HA in the above acronym, the excavations in the outskirts of Helsingborg have been archaeologically most rewarding. And the present report adds considerably to the overall picture.

HASB has identified four settlement sites – three in the present report and one in an earlier publication (1). They conclude that in the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era the settlement area was a small village consisting of (at least?) four farms and covering c. 400×200 m or 8 ha. This village may be described as a settlement phase in which suitable, but spatially loosely defined sites, which had been used sporadically in the preceding centuries, were now permanently settled for a longer period.

The 14C-dates give a general picture of the chronology of settlement in the area with a strong emphasis on the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era. Precisely dating the beginning of this village period is difficult, owing to the flat calibration curve, but the end of the village phase is less difficult to pinpoint.

ILLU 03Because of the general character of the 14C-dates we may add the ones from the earlier excavations in the eastern part of the village and look at the chronology of the 4-farm village, as HASB do when they sum up Gustavslund (HASB:73-88). The site was used sporadically for hundreds of years before the village was established in the late PRIA and given up in the ERIA. Nevertheless, the area that was once the central part of the village saw stray presence as late as the 5th century CE.


Analyzing the 14C-tests in Bcal (2), we can date the end of the village relatively sharply, modelling it in three ways. First (A) we may consider that the tests that belong to the last 20 14C-years of the village period represent the end of the settlement. There are six tests dated between 1953 and 1933 bc. Modelling the end of this phase returns the period 31 to 137 CE with a 95% probability and 56 to 94 CE with a 68% probability.

We may also (B) consider that these last six dates represent the same end date and pool them. In that case the pooled date is somewhere between 22 to 85 CE with a 95% probability and 52 to 75 CE with a 68% probability. This analysis neutralizes the probabilities stretching into the 2nd c. CE, induced by the calibration curve, but the basic hypothesis is nevertheless questionable.

Lastly (C), we may ask what the probability is that a certain year is older than the end of the village phase. This analysis returns the most reasonable understanding of the end date – a date in the last half of the first century CE. Method one and two match each other supporting the interpretation that the village was abandoned in the later part of the 1st c. CE. When we know this we may start wondering why it existed for c. 200 years.


One of the main topics discussed by HASB in connection with the EIA settlements around Helsingborg is the production of ceramics during the LPR- and ERIA – the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era (3). Potsherds are abundant on these sites and together with several ovens at Gustavslund as well as nearby Backen and Ramlösagården, they indicate a production in excess of household needs. On the two former sites there was probably no, or very limited, iron production, which means that hearth areas, wells, pit shelters/houses and the odd lump of fine clay are more clearly linked to pottery production.

Since most people made their own, selling ceramics (or for that matter iron tools) in the PRIA was probably not big business. The production therefore begs the question: to whom would the potters at Backen, Gustavslund and Ramlösagården have sold their pots with a profit? And: could the people at Gustavslund pack their wagons and set out on a tour selling ceramics to the coastal population between Halmstad and Malmö competing with their neighbours from Ramlösagården?

The answer is: No! In order for producers or traders to distribute household ware it takes a regionally developed infrastructure, suitable wagons, large scale pottery firing and not least market places where people would buy all kinds of commodities. There is no archaeological evidence for such a complex economic system, investments or power-structured society in the PRIA. Alternatively, bearing in mind the settlement expansion east of today’s Helsingborg, we may argue that in the end of the PRIA pottery production and settlement, such as the 4-farm village Gustavslund, were two sides of the same coin.

The chronological settlement pattern of Gustavslund as well as that of the Backen settlement, 1.5 km North of Gustavslund, are typical: sporadic – concentrated – stray, but also characterized by pottery production in excess of household needs (4).

ILLU 07Nevertheless, Backen and perhaps also Filborna and Påarp (5) were closed down in the first part of the EIA expansion. However, 14C-wise, it would seem that Backen could have been moved to become the North farm in Gustavslund when settlements were concentrated to the village. This is obviously difficult to prove, but is it likely that the seemingly instant foundation of the 4-farm village was not the result of a growth of population, but rather the result of farms (and people) moving to a certain location at a certain point in time. The village was founded and four settlement sites that had been used now and again over the years were permanently settled.

ILLU 06This patterns implies a clue to answering the question: to whom did the potters sell their pots? Instead of thinking up an anachronistic economy with markets, transportation and exchange of simple commodities such as pots, it is more rewarding to understand villages such as Gustavslund to be markets in themselves or trade stations where good quality pots are produced and bartered or sold to people who arrive there from the inland to sell their products and as a fringe benefit buy good quality pots difficult to produce in the woodlands. What the trappers would sell is not necessarily sold to the people of Gustavslund, but rather to people who would move valuable the goods out of Scania. Villages such as Gustavslund and Ramlösagården are attractive to trappers, locals and traders, since villages facilitate transhipment and trade as well as the production of pots.

But is there any indications of inland Scania and Småland being exploited by trappers settled in the inland at this early date? Indirectly there is a find pattern suggesting this.

ILLU 08The low value Roman coins minted in the centuries around the beginning of the Common Era are typical in their distribution (1) in the coastland, (2) the inland and (3) possibly along routes of communication between inland and coastland (cf. OnRR 23 January, 2012). The presence of these coins and their distribution can be explained if we look at them as counters, tokens or IOUs in transactions between, a trader, a trapper and a middlemen. Limited and controlled, as such a system needs to be in order to be fair, it is nevertheless, a system that could turn products such as good quality ceramics (as well as iron tools) into a commodity. In such a system there is a point in concentrating potters and craftsmen in a village, because it will make the village more interesting to those involved in the system. The low-value or, in terms of real metal value, almost worthless Roman coins, have the advantage of being difficult to counterfeit. On the other hand: the closer South Scandinavia gets to Roman economy, the easier the access to low value coins. However, if the introduction of this coinage into the system cannot be controlled, then the system will probably collapse after having been sabotaged by coins that have not been introduced as payment for commodities traded within the system. If this happens, that is, if stakeholders get the feeling that there are more coins in the system than they have agreed, then Roman coins will tend to cause distrust within the systems. Thus enhanced economic activity in EIA society will probably lead to the introduction of weighed bullion as payment, as indeed it does in the LRIA.

A similar development can be seen in the transition from E- to LCIA. In the 8th century low value coins (sceattas) were minted in Ribe and used with a nominal value on the market – being the coins of this market, which was under some sort of control (6). Nevertheless, in the economic boom of the 9th and 10th c. silver weight economy carried the day in South Scandinavia. In most of the 10th c. Arabic dirhams and fragments down to a quarter were used in market places in order to speed up transaction time without losing track of their real value. They were thought of and represent a certain, small, amount of pure silver. In the end of the 10th c. coins with a nominal value are reintroduced as a royal coinage sometimes strongly linked to a market as in the Swedish case of King Olof Skötkonung and Sigtuna (7) .

To sum up: in a fairly low structured society with a limited power control and little spatial authority, booming economies make it difficult to handle economically sound notions such as nominal values. The reason for this is simple: during a boom transactions cannot be confined to organized markets and production places large enough to create and sustain their own coinage. Instead prices can be negotiated everywhere – not in relation to the commodities of a controlled market, but in relation to the value of a precious metal such as silver.

Owing to initial contacts with the Roman world economy, the economic raison d’être of a potters’ villages as an embryonic production and market place or trade station may well have become a fact. If so access to good clays, skills and local control of power were behind this possibility to satisfy a demand. When these contacts boomed local economic raison d’être disappeared. This change could be expressed in many very different way. That is why we may describe it as the end of the village as well as the ability of trappers, potters and middlemen to organize themselves in inland settlement areas during the prosperous RIA.



(1) Aspeborg, Håkan. 2012. Österleden vatten, etapp 2 Skåne, Helsingborgs kommun, Helsingborgs stad, Husensjö 9:25, RAÄ 261. Arkeologisk förundersökning 2011. Uv rapport 2012:31.

(2) The BCal team comprises Caitlin Buck, Geoff Boden, Andrés Christen, Gary James and Fred Sonnenwald. The URL for the service ( The paper that launched it was Buck C.E., Christen J.A. and James G.N. 1999. BCal: an on-line Bayesian radiocarbon calibration tool. Internet Archaeology, 7. (

(3) There is a thorough formal analysis of the ceramic from Gustavslund by Thorbjörn Brorsson that analysis adds significantly to the value of the material.
(Brorsson, T. 2014. Den förromerska och romerska keramikens kronologi och funktion – exempel från Gustavslund I Helsingborg. Appendix 8 in HASB:190-222).

In view what will probably be included of her PhD. dissertation, Katarina Botwid has written an innovative preliminary assessment of the ceramic craftsmanship in EIA Gustavslund, with but a short discussion of the empirical basis for the qualitative categorizations of the craft.
(Botwid, K. 2014. Hantverkstolkning av keramik – en undersökning av forntida keramikers hantverksskicklighet, Appendix 9 in HASB:223-246).

(4) Strömberg, Bo. 2011. Österleden etapp 3, Helsingborg. En hantverksgård från äldre järnålder vid Backen, Helsingborg. Fördjupad förundersökning. Skåne, Helsingborgs stad, Husensjö, fornlämning 265. Uv rapport 2011:138.

(5) Larsson, Rolf and Söderberg, Bengt. 2004. Filborna by – Gård och by i ett långt tidsperspektiv. UV SYD Arkeologiska för- och slutundersökningar Rapport 2004:26.

Aspeborg, Håkan. 2012. In: H. Aspeborg med bidrag av Nathalie Becker (red). Arkeologisk undersökning. En storgård i Påarp. Skåne, Välluv socken, Påarp 1:12, RAÄ 22 och 43. UV Syd, dokumentation av fältarbetsfasen 2002:1. .

(6) Feveile, Claus. 2008. Series X and coin circulation in Ribe. In: Tony Abramson (ed.) Two Decades of Discovery. Studies in Early Medieval coinage. Vol. 1. Woodbridge. The Boydell Press. Pp 53-66.

(7) Herschend, Frands. 1992. What Olof had in mind. Fornvännen vol. 87. Stockholm. Pp. 19-31.

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