A Perfectly Decent 5th c. Hall
23 March, 2015
This week On the Reading Rest I have a report from a road section excavated by archaeologists before the road was built.
Larsson, Fredrik et al. 2014. Skeke – gudar, människor och gjutare. Rituella komplex från bronsålder och äldre järnålder samt en höjdbosättning från yngre järnålder med gjuteriverkstad. Utbyggnad av väg 288, sträckan Jälla–Hov, Uppsala län; Uppland; Uppsala kommun; Rasbo socken; Skeke 1:3, 2:6; Rasbo 55:1–2, 654, 655, 669, 695, 696, 697, 626:1–627:1, 682–688 samt delar av Rasbo 628:1 och 629:1 UV rapport 2014:53 Riksantikvarieämbetet. Stockholm.
It is difficult to know what the place name Skeke means, but it could in principle refer to a landscape element characterized by oak trees or less likely contain a word meaning ‘to spread’ (Larsson et al., p. 42 with references). In this entry I shall use the very unlikely but at least pronounceable Spread-Oaks or Spreado for short.
All kinds of things are dated at Spreado. 14 C-wise ‘everything’ gives rise to a number of questions and looks like this:
Spreado is inaugurated with a grave indicated by the earliest date of cremated human bones. This monument is probably a pre-settlement manifestation although there may of course be some kind of settlement outside the excavated road corridor. For 400 years one burial seems to suffice, but c. 1000 BCE graves start to become more common. Sometime during the 3rd c. BCE this grave period comes to an end. As expected in this kind of ‘cemetery monument’ there are structures that did not contain any burial remains. Perhaps, and in that case typically, there is a small burial-revival during the Carolingian Iron Age (Spreado:55; 65).
The first dwelling house, House 16 doesn’t convince the reader although on can naturally build something makeshift on a random distribution of post holes. Not until the late Bronze Age are there any typical dwelling houses at Spreado. They are just two but in all probability there were many more in the environment owing to the temporary character of the one-house farms of the period. Nevertheless, grains, animal bones and houses covariate although many of the grain finds are intrusions in much later houses build on top of the earlier temporary farms. Spreado is a good example of the Early Iron Age habit of resettling a place that has already been settled albeit hundreds of years earlier.
The situation at Spreado reflects the fact that Late Bronze Age and Early Pro Roman Iron Age living produced a lot garbage that wasn’t moved out of the settlement as well as holes and layers in which to trap garbage and ecofacts. Later settlements at Spreado are not characterized in the same way.
The dates of the dwelling houses at Spreado reveal the expected pattern: a few short dwelling periods during a millennium and then the establishment of a more stable settlement during several hundred years. This often happens before or the beginning of the Common Era, but in Spreado it happens late. The farm, which may at times have had two households, is eventually characterized by a small hall, House 2. The precise date is difficult to give owing to contaminations, but c. 400 CE is a plausible date. The farm on which House 2 is the emblem doesn’t survive the turbulent 6th century. Exactly when House 2 was rebuilt as House 21 is difficult to know since it is dated by an animal bone in a layer. The bone has little precise linkage to the house.
The interesting thing about House 2 is its measures. they are formalized in a way that is characteristic of the end of the Early Iron Age. Although the house may not have been an elegant or well-proportioned building – it was, however, a well-measured edifice, which shares some common South Scandinavian traits and perhaps some sort of architectural norms emphasizing measure and structure rather then function, in a way that would not have suited the general functionalistic norms of the Early Iron Age.
At the same time there are some local characteristics in the post setting and wall height and in the fact that the building was erected on a terrace on top of a small hill in order to be seen from afar. This landscape statement was deemed important because older graves had to be removed in order to give room for the building (Spreado Fig2:6 p:25; p:61ff.).
As an ideological statement, the hall at Spreado is older than the middle of the 6th century and the 536-45 CE dust veil, that is earlier then the new large halls characteristic of Lejre and Tissø. It is in other word a manifestation of the old upper classes, their inter-Scandinavian hall-designing network as well as their wish to prove themselves locally.
The contrast between Gilltuna (On the Reading Rest: 6 October, 2014: 536 and all that – the Gilltuna case) and Skeke is in other words model: Gilltuna, a traditional village closing down in the 6th century, happened to become one of the new large estates of the Late Iron Age characterized by its large 27-metre hall; Skeke, a traditional village formed in the 3rd century, developed into a 5th-6th century estate with a 20-metre hall. Both sites are exceptional: Skeke because it survived long enough to become a hall farm giving us a glimpse of an Early Iron Age success that came to nothing; Gilltuna because it was Late Iron Age success that came to nothing. The two farms happen to mirror something significant: the social change among the well-to-do in the 6th century.
Since the fate of the Spreado hall and events central to Beowulf or Codex Regius as a synopsis (cf. On the Reading Rest 9 March, 2015) exemplify the way real-time archaeological past on a hillock in Uppland link-in with the fictional pan-European alleged time perspective in Beowulf and Codex Regius, it stands to reason that the Spreado hall, like many other halls, was the home of local real-life Hrothgar, Unferth and Beowulf as well as Sigurðr, Guðrún, Gunnarr and Brynhildr loving and hating each other. Although Spreado was a small place — the spiral gold ring buried outside the hall (house 2/21) (Spreado:241, A26) was actually made of gilded copper — there is nevertheless a chance that when Guðrún from Spreado left for Denmark and married Jonakr she went to Dejbjerg on Jutland.
Today, little by little archaeology in Scandinavia excavates both the large halls where the heroic epics were recited as well as the small ones in which the historical events that formed the backbone of the epics took place.