This week On the Reading Rest I have a letter by Sidonius Apollinaris, but I don’t read it without consulting relevant chapters in:

coverWaarden, Johannes A. & Kelly, Gavin. 2013. New Approaches to Sidonius Apollinaris. [Late Antique History and Religion 7] Peeters. Leuven – Paris – Walpola, Ma. Acronym: NatSa

Reading a letter by Sidonius Apollinaris is not just a matter of getting the words and their immediate meaning right. His nine books of letters must also be seen as a work in themselves, a series of instalments, nine books of letters, related to Sidonius, his life, conscious and unconscious decisions, plans and opinions in his ‘long decade’, encompassing the 470s. His letters, however, are not terribly annalistic. Consequently, arrangement, editing, his choice of addressees, composition, facts, mood and opinion, to name but a few factors, must be actively understood in order to grasp the contexts of the letters and a wealth of relations. The possible variables are neither reviewable nor well-defined and reading Sidonius in depth is in other words reassuringly impossible but nevertheless worthwhile.

Book 8 letter 6, probably written from Clermont-Ferrand to his friend Namatius the Visigoth King Euric’s admiral stationed in Saintonges, is a case in point. (Go to page 145)

Sidonius Apollinaris personifies Late Antiquity. He writes classical Latin (Rodie Risselada, NatSa:273f & 300), but he also promotes himself in a non-classical but definitely Late-Antique style full of pretentious mannerism that doesn’t chime in well with the ever-present alleged modesty and professed inferiority of the author. This kind of lip service is so common and so linked to topos that is no more than the equivalent of more or less harmless politeness. It need not bother us reading the letter as long as we remember that life in Late Antiquity was horrible to most. Mannerism, moreover, hasn’t completely left us.

SidoniusWhen it comes to the overall structure of the nine books of letters, Roy Gibson (NatSa:195ff.) has argue that Sidonius composed his nine books according to an overarching structure reminiscent of the way Pliny the younger organized his (1). This means that anxiety would be a theme we must not be surprised to meet in a letter in book 7 or 8. Contrary to Pliny, Sidonius, who was well aware of the bleak aspects of life, makes a point of not losing hope. Fond of staging the drama of his own life in a historical setting (cf. Sigrid Mratschek, NatSa:254), he is nevertheless confident that ultimately the very kind of intellectualism that he himself represents will lead the way out of our present problems. Composing a series of ‘Books of Letters’ doesn’t prevent Sidonius from writing personal letters reflecting the world he lives in, and in this setting the last two books, 8 & 9, are appendices to the first seven inasmuch as he ends book 7 and 8 telling his addressee that enough is enough. Needless to say on request he procures book 8 & 9 (and so did Pliny). Sidonius, true to his composition is acutely aware of all possible dangers, but obeys ‘the command and set[s] his ‘sails to the old winds’. He asks himself why he, who has ‘navigated oceans’, ‘shouldn’t cross this quiet water’ (Book 8, letter 1). The book is the answer, anxiety present, and Sidonius is not discouraged.

With Ralph Mathisen we can expect that Book 8 was circulated in some form or other c. 480 CE, that is a couple of years after Books 1-7 (NatSa:Tab. 3 p 231).

The structure of Letter 6 is not straightforward. But reading the very last paragraph we understand that the letter is an answer to a request by Namatius asking Sidonius to send him some books that his friend would like to read because he is in camp organising his campaign and could do with a little leisure. Sending these books would have been a logical way to end the letter, had it not been for the paragraphs 13 to 17. In paragraph 13, after the first sentence, there is a break because a courier arrives. Talking to him Sidonius is told that Namatius has already weighed anchor pursuing the Saxons. If the last paragraph had not already been written we would expect the last paragraph to have rounded up the letter. Something like this: I send the books with the courier and they will await your happy return – please write to me as soon as you can! In fact what we have is a post scriptum pasted into the original last paragraph once meant to state the following:

[13] But, joking apart, do let me know how things go with you and your household. THE POST SCRIPTUM: [18 ]In accordance with your request, I send you the Libri Logistorici of Varro and the Chronology of Eusebius. If these models reach you safely, and you find a little leisure from the watches and the duties of the camp, you will be able, your arms once furbished, to apply another kind of polish to an eloquence which must be getting rusty. Farewell.

Prior to this last paragraph there are two sections. To begin with a rather long one (paragraphs 1 to 9) dedicated to one of Sidonii role models Flavius Nicetius. This man is a towering intellectual and orator successfully involved in governing. Since Flavius Nicetius likes Sidonius too, we are not surprised. Moreover, paragraph 1 begins with a reference to Caesar and that is relevant in view of the books by Varro – himself an intellectual at the centre of power and an antagonist accepted by Caesar.

Understandably, inasmuch as self-promotion must be balanced, the second part (paragraphs 10 to 12) begins: ‘But no more of me and my friend’ and Sidonius then goes on to jokingly to tease Namatius while flattering him. They are palls, God bless them, and now when the conversation has been made public we cannot help eavesdropping because Sidonius has chosen to publish himself in a way that reminds us of someone talking loudly into his phone on the train.

When the letter was finished the courier from Saintonges entered – what a coincidence! He is not Namatius’ courier, but having talked to the man Sidonius has to write the post scriptum (paragraphs 13 to 17). Needless to say he may have invented the anonymous courier. Later when Sidonius edits the letter he puts the post scriptum where it has the most dramatic effect. The post scriptum serves Sidonius to show his concern for a Saxon-hunting friend, and although he need not tell Namatius of the dangers, he does so anyway because danger, concern and anxiety it is one of his themes in Book 8. This mean that we know why the Saxons entered the letter – they are an indisputable example of the ruthless chillingly capable and dedicated barbarians – the IS/Isis of the 470s. Sidonius writes about the Saxons exactly to describe what Namatius and the well-informed already agree upon when it comes to Saxons. Everything is factual – horrible and true.

[13] … [The inserted Post Scriptum:] Just as I was on the point of ending a letter which had rambled on long enough, lo and behold! a courier from Saintonges. I whiled away some time talking with him about you; and he was very positive that you had weighed anchor, and in fulfilment of those half military, half naval duties of yours were coasting the western shores on the look-out for small curved pirate ships of the Saxons in whose every oarsman you think to detect an arch-pirate. Captains and crews alike, to a man they teach or learn the art of brigandage; therefore let me urgently caution you to be ever on the alert.

[14] For the Saxon is the most ferocious of all foes. He comes on you without warning; when you expect his attack he makes away. Resistance only moves him to contempt; a rash opponent is soon down. If he pursues he overtakes; if he flies himself, he is never caught. Shipwrecks to him are no terror, but only so much training. His is no mere acquaintance with the perils of the sea; he knows them as he knows himself. A storm puts his enemies off their guard, preventing his preparations from being seen; the chance of taking the foe by surprise makes him gladly face every hazard of rough waters and broken rocks.

[15] Moreover, when the Saxons are setting sail from the continent, and are about to drag their firm-holding anchors from an enemy’s shore, it is their usage, thus homeward bound, to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery end, casting lots with perfect equity among the doomed crowd in execution of this iniquitous sentence of death. This custom is all the more deplorable in that it is prompted by honest superstition. These men are bound by vows which have to be paid in victims, they conceive it a religious act to perpetrate this horrible slaughter, and to take anguish from the prisoner in place of ransom; this polluting sacrilege is in their eyes an absolving sacrifice.

[16] I am in full of anxiety and apprehension about these dangers etc. etc. (Dalton 1915: Sidonius to Namatius: Book viii, letter vi, section 13-17).

The quotation describes fleets of small sailing ships full of oarsmen. The ships are many, quite fast and easy to manoeuvre, the sailors are capable.

Concerning the translation one may wonder about the word pandos translated as ‘curved’ in the expression Saxorum pandos myoparones—‘the Saxons’ small curved pirate ships’. The pirate ships, the myoparones, are light ships and thus easy to manoeuvre and dangerous to large men of war. Indirectly, Cicero Against Verres describes the character of these light vessels:

Is it because while you (Verres) were praetor, a most beautiful fleet, the bulwark of Sicily, the defence of the province, was burnt by the hands of pirates arriving in a few light galleys? Cic. Verr. 2, 3, 80, § 186

The ‘light galleys’ are the myoparones and their maritime strategy is based on their number (always several) the impossibility easily to foresee their movements and their speed, which makes them difficult to target. They are the equivalent of light cavalry attacking a formation of foot soldiers. Describing these light vessels as ‘curved’ is pointless. Most ships are curved and the shape of a myoparō not very important. It would be more reasonable, therefore, if pandos referred to the primary meaning of the verb pandere, that is, to spread out, extend; to unfold, or expand and described the ‘spread-out’ formation of the small ships when they attack heavy vessels. Moreover, if we believe that pandos refers to the shape of the individual vessel we tacitly imply that Sidonius is engaged in an ethnographic description of The Saxon Boat. Evidently he is not! boat, sail and anchor are instruments in the hands of the Saxons. He is concerned about these pirates’ naval skills, their landfall, their terrorising innocent people and murdering them in the most gruesome way – honestly believing that they do the right thing.

In Euric’s days coasting the Atlantic shores on his behalf as Namatius does, would be sailing all the way up to the mouth of the Somme hunting pirates in the sea and on land as the expression indicates when Sidonius describes the admirals assignment: atque inter officia nunc nautae, modo militis—‘and among assignments now naval, partly military’. Consequently, Sidonius describes the Saxon fleet as an effective naval force anchored in waters outside a coastal settlement making land fall although it is their seamanship that catches the eye. Since they are ‘setting sails from the continent’ to their homeland, these Saxons may have come from England as well as from the isles in the Wadden Sea or further north. Be this as it may, Sidonius relates second- or third-hand knowledge, which sounds very much like a narrative originally told by people who had encountered Saxons along the French coast and have had reason to be impressed by their tactics, because they were unusual and difficult to come to grips with. Sidonius’ description of the symbiosis between Saxon, ship and sea strongly suggests that 480 ce sailing ships existed in Northwest Europe.

Sidonius writes primarily to prove that he understands the perils of Namatius’ coast guarding and secondly in the end of his letter he demonstrates that he has complete confidence in the admiral. Nothing in the description of these terrorists seems wrong, and as Sidonius knows, taking more prisoners than one can safely bring home is a very good reason for sacrificing every tenth of them by chance if you are a rational and not just superstitious barbarian believing in fate. The prisoners are on the boats and thrown overboard just before the Saxons set out to sail home and decimation – as practiced by the Roman army – creates discipline.

If we look at the description of their setting sails:

Praeterea, priusquam de continenti in patriam vela laxantes hostico mordaces anchoras vado vellant, mos est—Moreover, prior to leaving the continent and enemy territory for their homeland, about to pull out their biting anchors and broad sails, it is their habit … .

we understand that they are living on their ships on the water as pirates making landfall. When Sidonius writes … priusquam de continenti in patriam vela laxantes hostico vado vellant, mos est …, he falls back on Vergil, Aeneid 1 169 (1) when Aeneas anchors on the Libyan coast. The 5th c. Afro-Roman author Dracontius, moreover, seems to have been drawing on both Vergil and Sidonius in his description of boats anchored on a shore, a very North-African situation. The fact that Sidonius writes to someone able to judge his description and that he inspires a poet to draw upon his formulation when describing a common phenomenon indicates that Sidonius’ second-hand description stood out as authentic.


There is something Pirate or Viking about Sidonius’ Saxons. Their tactics described in section 14, match a piratic strategy and it is not surprising that traveller Widsith has been together with two kinds of EIA Vikings. Indirectly, we may infer the existence of Vikings from the function of the barrages in EIA Denmark and find support for Viking behaviour in the odd water-related name on early runic inscriptions, such as Sikijaz (one who lives on a syke) or Wagagastiz (a guest from the wave). There are also similarities between Sidonius’ letter and Beowulf. The poem touches upon sailing and raiding allegedly one generation after Sidonius. Beowulf and his 15 armed warriors sail. Probably they are arch-pirates to Sidonius, but heroes in the poem. These fifteen men do not set out on their expedition until they have observed omens (vv 204 and 217). Later in the poem we are told that King Hygelac was killed in an attack on Friesland and the Franks by a Merovingian force. His combined naval and military operation failed and from the first description of the strife in which Hygelac was killed, it is obvious that it took place at least partly on the ships. As it happens, Beowulf, having fought well, jumps overboard and swims home. Fate, disrespect for water and the symbiosis Saxon–ship–sea, which Sidonius pointed to, would seem to have found a fantastic and eloquent exponent in Beowulf (vv 2354-66). Although Sidonius’ letter and Beowulf value their material differently they describe the same technology-based warfare.

Given the complementarity of their perspectives the actual profile of the Grönån canal (OtRR 4 February, 2013), becomes chronologically interesting. As Jan Bill points out (Bill 1997:187f. finns i reflistan) referring to the shape of the Oseberg ship, its frames were made of several pieces of wood in a brace-shaped [ }] rather than curved [ )] section. This construction created a stability essential for sailing the ship. Curved sections on the other hand result in faster albeit crank ships. Sidonius/Beowulf, c. 500, the Grönån section, c. 600, the Salme ships, c. 700 (2) and the Oseberg ship circa. 800 ce indicate a long and gradual technological development of the sailing ship in a naval/military Scandinavian setting. It is this long-term perspective which suggests that the Saxons were in fact sailing home already c. 480 CE.


(1) Tizzoni, Mark Lewis. 2014. Dracontius and the wider world. Cultural and intellectual interconnectedness in late fifth-century Vandal North Africa. Networks & Neighbours: Vol. 2.1: ‘Comparisons and Correlations’. Pp. 87-105.

(2) Bill, Jan. 1997. Ships and Seamanship. In: Peter Sawyer (ed.). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford. Pp 182-201.
Juri Peets. 2013. Salme ship burials. Revealing a grim cargo of elite Viking warriors. Current World Archaeology vol 58. Pp. 18-24

This week On the Reading Rest I have a published article of which no parts may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. Since I have not been able to obtain a permission, and since I transmit something I have just read as I have read it, rather than contemplated and weighed it against a multitude of new and old opinions over a period of time, I cannot reveal the name of the publication because given what I have just written it is obvious that I have actually been quarrying information from a physical publication, which I then cannot transmit by this or indeed ‘any means electronic’. All this is understandable because buying the publication costs the consumer 0.25 € per page.

Fulham fig.00However, if you are able to follow this link:

you may be able to read the article behind the my acronym BaBroo.

You could also google: Vikings in Fulham.

The phrase ‘winter in Fulham’ gives c. 8,500 hits on Google, ‘summer in Ghent’ or ‘summer in Gent’ gives c. 15,000 hits. The reverse: summer in Fulham, winter in Ghent, is even more in favour of Ghent. The problem is Fulham. Despite the fact that bordered by Chelsea to the north and with the River Thames to the south, Fulham is one of the capital’s most popular residential enclaves and the properties are some of London’s most expensive. Although during the 18th century, city merchants flocked here for drinking, gambling and prostitutes. Today, however it is established and thriving – busy with shops, bars, boutiques and restaurants. (cf.

Fulham fig.01 The blog entry OtRR 8 August 2011 Pirate Settlements in England, listed a situation in Fulham 878-79 CE, as one of the few occasions when Vikings are mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Manuscript A 878:(2) 7 þy geare gegadrode on hlóþ wicenga, 7 gesæt æt Fullanhamme be Temese—and that year Vikings gathered in a band (a hloþ was defined as 7-35 men), and sat at Fulham by the Thames.

And there, starting as a gang, they sat the winter through until they had grown into an army, then they sailed to Ghent in Belgium. This at least is what we gather from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 878 and 879 CE.

The OtRR entry about the Fulham Viking winter is part of the quixotic struggle carried out on the blog to kill Vikings in general and let the rest be Vikings – that is pirates. Supported by BaBroo’s discussion, the present entry continues this hopeless fight.

Because there has been a tendency even in recent years among historians to relate Guthrum’s Danish army – which overran parts of England in the 870s, came to terms with Alfred 878 and secured East Anglia for themselves in 879 – to the Vikings gathering at Fulham, BaBroo discusses the Fulham scene in a number of perspectives starting with the meaning of the Old English word hlóþ. This word, however, is an Old Saxon one, hlōtha, which means booty in modern English (1).

Compared to Old Englishhlóþ, Old Saxon hlōtha has been unproductive. Old English hþ on the other hand came to designate not only the booty, but also a band of robbers and their crimes. Armed men, therefore, could come with the intention of robbing, mid hlóþe, rather than fighting, and not surprisingly the need for a verb was felt –hlóþian, to rob or spoil, i.e. what gangs or robbers – or indeed pirates – habitually do. Probably, the dynamics of the private initiative demonstrated by the hlóþ triggered a need for legislation and a hlóþ was thus defined as a body of 7 to 35 robbers.

In addition a specific terminology developed: hlóþere, is a gang member; hlóþbót, is a compensation or fine to be paid by a member of a hlóþ for the wrong committed by any one of them; hlóþgecrod, is a ‘crowd’ or small body of armed med and hlóþsliht, is the slaying of a member of a hlóþ. It’s all in Bosworth and Toller’s dictionary and that is why it seems fair to conclude that word was productive, exactly because the hlóþ phenomenon was common in England in the 9th century and onwards. Inventing the expression gegadrode on hlóþ—‘gathered on gang’ in the 9th century, is in other words a conscious use of language. On hlóþ describes the actions of robbers: they gathered gangwise, shipload upon shipload of pirates, e.g. at Fulham.

It is impossible, therefore, for anyone writing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to mistake a hlóþ for an army, i.e. a here, i.e. the word used to describe the men in Fulham 879. Rightly BaBroo concludes that a gang of pirates landed at Fulham in Dec 878. During winter and spring 879 they were probably joined by others and then they left for Ghent as an army. That is to say: the hlóþ of 878 had become the here of the year 879 at least in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The 878 and 879 entries indicate a change in number, but more importantly a change of status: a hlóþ is engaged in robbing, an army in fighting. The gang member will be punished for the crimes committed by the gang or any member of it, but a soldier will not, by law, be punished for the crimes committed by the army or one of its soldiers. Gang members are guilty by association, soldiers are not. Contrary to robbers, soldiers are ordered to fight while pirates and thugs do it as a lifestyle – except of course if they turn out to be Russian soldiers posing as a hlóþ.

Because there has been a tendency even in recent years among historians to argue that the gang sitting in Fulham on the left bank of the Thames attracting other gangs, was actually a way of organizing an army in order to attack Wessex on the right bank, BaBroo:32ff looks into the topographical, geographical and strategic scene. Afterwards they address our limited insight into winter and spring activities in Fulham 878-9 (BaBroo:42f.). This allows them to conclude that the pirates, whom we hear of at Fulham, stayed put before they left. As it happened their stay became no more than an episode with no strategic or political consequences for England whatsoever. It is comparable to successful repatriation.

Thanks to BaBroo’s article, it meets the eye that when the Fulham Vikings had stopped being a team, since they had grown into an army, they sailed off to Ghent passing and leaving Essex and East Anglia behind them rather than joining Guthrum in his colonial endeavour to organize his new kingdom. This, and the fact that they actually preferred Ghent oven Kent, was their strategic decision when the stirred down the Thames. The leaders of the newly formed army may well have argued that if Guthrum had a Kingdom in Essex and East Anglia, while Alfred ruled Wessex, establishing a node in Ghent may be prolific. Fulham fig.02

Insisting that pirates form bands and soldiers armies makes sense of the Fulham 878-79 entries. Although winter in Fulham may well have been relatively dull, although pirates may have flocked here for drinking, gambling and prostitutes, it nevertheless created a possibility to gather an army and leave piracy behind you and become an army based in the Ghent area.

Fulham fig.03From an Anglo-Saxon point of view the Fulham episode would have stood out as a significant detail worth an entry in the annals. Although the episode didn’t become interesting until the result became obvious, i.e. when the newly formed army of Northmen left for Belgium, it is not inconceivable that the chronicler, wise in the event, summed up the episode in such a way that a seemingly insignificant event – a shipload of pirates seeking winter quarters in Fulham 878 – gathered momentum developing itself into an army that decided to leave England in 879.

Since the army, wedging itself between Guthumian Danes and Alfredian Saxons, didn’t try its luck in Wessex or the Danelaw, it  caught the attention of the chronicler and others that this kind of military body and political decision, developed in six of months. The episode was noteworthy and perhaps even astonishing.

When it comes to Vikings, what BaBroo critizises is a number of researchers who do not differentiate between an army of Danes and a band of pirates with an agenda of its own, because they believe Vikings and Danes to be synonymous. Formally they know the difference in practice they don’t. That is why some believe that the Vikings at Fulham were actually part of Guthrum’s army, split for strategical reasons. It so happens they weren’t related, because the term Viking is intended to differentiate pirates from Danes. All sensible researchers know that ‘Viking’ is just a conventional term for Danes or Northmen, Scandinavians more or less, but when writing the history of Anglo-Saxon England, some sensible researchers do not hesitate to equate pirate crews with armies, comparing apples and oranges, and making Danes and Vikings one and the same, irrespective of what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tries to convey. Notwithstanding, they would seem to believe that what happened in 878 could not in the perfect world of annals be revised in the light of 879, which of course they don’t believe, except when they do.


(1) See Köbler, Gerhard, Altsächsisches Wörterbuch, (5. Auflage) 2014

The Reading Rest is collapsing under the weight of books, articles and manuscripts that must be read, but not written about. Owing to lack of time references will for a while be hinted only and subjects changed a bit – LIA. in Scandinavian being a focus.

Production sites are emblematic of the PCIA and most often they reveal very few links to the upper classes. Sometimes they are socially stratified villages such as Bejsebakken, but only seldom do aristocracy and lordship tie-in with production. In even fewer cases are halls or manors located at a landing site in a context involving production.


From the point of view of production and trade these sites resemble towns or market places, but as communities they are production manors dominated by an owner, whose presence is marked by a hall. This hall-and-landing-place structure goes back into the PCIA and continues into the MA e.g. at Borgund near Ålesund in Norway where the production is based on cod fishing in the spring. Here the hall is a small building probably representing the Godøya-based owner of the site. Sites developed in the CIA and Gokstad in Vestfold may have had a strong emphasis on a manor-and-market structure. It is, nevertheless, characteristic of these sites that they are not autonomous urban communities.

Since the original relation between a manor and a landing or trading place is a certain geographical distance, emblematically expressed by the relation Gudme–Lundeborg, we may expect that manorial presence at a landing site belongs to an advanced part of the PCIA and to the best of our knowledge they do. Non-manorial production sites on the other hand are epcia inventions. In part the aristocratic presence patronizes the site for economic reasons, but aristocracy is also prone to bring with it a political dimension. We sense that in Aggersborg where the manor is leveled to the ground to give room for the CIA ring fort, but at Füsing we are coming much closer to this dimension because excavations and discussions by the archaeologist Andres Dobat have made it most likely that Füsing is indeed Sliesthorp.

Sliesthorp is related to King Gudfred, who is mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals and in the Life of Charlemagne. These two sources, the factual annals and the opinionated narrative about Charles’ life, cross reference each other. In terms of methodology, the latter is the outcome of the former and a typical way of writing history: having created a source material, a series of facts governed by the pace of time, consequences in the form of a Life may be drawn – biography being a prime form of history. Because in reality there is no clear line to be drawn between facts and interpretation, the lines none the less established become blurred and disappearing with deconstruction.

The story about Gudfred, who is introduced 804 and active 808-810 ce when he dies, is a case in point. In Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, Gudfred’s performance on the historical stage is summarized, but instead of ending with a negative judgement of his character, now that he is dead, it ends with a piece of precise but significant information – ‘since he was murdered by his own bodygard’ (nam a proprio satellite). In the Royal Frankish Annals he is murdered by ‘someone in his surrounding’ (a quodam suo satellite), which is correct but less significant. In the Annals, Gudfred is aggressive and in the Vita his is the end of a boastful king, who might just have put his inflated plans into action. In the Life, therefore, the significant fact rings a bell inasmuch as it is a perfect illustration of Proverbs 16:18: ‘arrogance precedes destruction and the spirit is exalted before fall’.

In the annals, before we are given the details of 808, we are told that the king is ‘insane’ or ‘mad’ – versanus – as if the annalist would like in advance to make sure that we understand the facts presented to us. As if we were reading the patient’s case book we may go back to the short notice from 804 where an undecided King Gudfred, having been advised by his people, will not keep his promise to meet with the Emperor. This is nothing very important, on the contrary it’s a small matter and the Emperor just sends a delegation to Sliesthorp where Gudfred sits with his fleet and army. The outcome is not mentioned. In 804 this is just a fact, but in 808 when Gudfred’s irrationality becomes apparent, 804 is an early, perhaps paranoid, sign of weakness. In 808 when he attacks the Obodrites commencing a series of irrational and stupid actions. In 809, on the pretext of hearsay he demands diplomatic negotiations with the Emperor. He agrees, but while much is discussed and nothing accomplished in extensive and fruitless talks, the Obodrites beat Gudfred’s allies, and his antagonist Drasco, defeated in 808, is raised to power again. In 810 the Emperor is informed that the Danes are attacking Friesland with 200 ships and considerable success, but also that Gudfred takes no part in this. And to the astonishment of the annalist this turns out to be true. Gudfred is sits at home – … vero Godofridum domi esse. Et revera ita erat. The Emperor, who sees this situation as threatening takes his elephant, crosses the Rhine by means of his fleet, awaits more troops and makes his camp where the Aller falls into the Weser, i.e. a little south southeast of Bremen and c. 60 km south of Hamburg. He awaits what will come of the threats expressed by the boasting Gudfred, who – taking out his victory in advance – wants to meet the Emperor on the battlefield. The Emperor waits, and then among a series of different intelligence he is told – almost by the way – that Gudfred has been killed.

From indecision in 804 to irrationalities in 808 and 809 to full-blown insanity and death in 810, so runs the entries in Mad King Gudfred’s case book. Gudfred, being at the receiving end of almost 40 years of Carolingian aggression trying to defend a border zone rather that attacking the Carolingians, probably saw things differently.

Be this as it may, annals are not fabricated and facts are facts. How then can we explain this particular 808 Gudfredian antic and paragon of irrationality:

‘Indeed, Gudfred, before he returned [from the Obodrites] destroyed a trading place – in the Danish tongue called Reric, which – set at the coast of the [Baltic] sea  – gives his kingdom great benefits from payment of taxes. Transferring all the merchants from that place, he came, with the whole army on board his fleet, to the port called Sliesthorp’—Godofridus vero priusquam reverteretur, distructo emporio, quad in oceani litore constitutum lingua Danorum Reric decebatur et magnam regno illius commoditatem vectigalium persolutione praestabat, translatisque inde negotiatoribus, soluta classe ad portum, qui Sliesthorp dicitur, cum universo exercitu venit.

Reric – today a landing place and ancient monument at Gross Strömkendorf  near Wismar – was an independent emporium on Obodrite territory. The place was favoured by the Carolingians when they wanted to trade with Scandinavian and Baltic countries bypassing Hedeby. A victim, we gather, of his troubled mind, Gudfred destroys the place. The itrrationality of this fact has been too much for many archaeologists and Medieval historians, who have suggested that Sliesthorp was indeed Hedeby. However, there is little reason to suggest that Hedeby should have changed its name in the 9th century and less reason to believe that an annalist, to whom Reric is a trading place (emporium), should believe that Hedeby was a harbour and a place (belonging to a king)  – portus and locus – rather than emporium, given that  it was already a well-established trading place. Moreover, it is odd to believe that Hedeby is in Denmark bordering the Saxons, rather than vice versa.

In addition, one must recognize that in the 8th c. the difference between old settlements called by and young ones called thorp was probably obvious and that the settlement next to present-day Füsing, in Denmark bordering on the Saxons, seems a reasonable thorp with a landing place. Likewise in Sliesthorp in Denmark bordering the Saxons there was a thorp-settlement and a harbour named after the settlement. The odd thing from the annalist’s point of view is the fact that Gudfred moves merchants from an urban trading place to a manor albeit with a harbour. Most archaeologists tend to share his opinion, but refuse to believe him and thus they come up with the equation Sliesthorp = Hedeby. This rational idea is wishful thinking given that the annalist knows that Gudfred is insane.

Instead we should look at Gudfred as a king rooted in the pcia. He doesn’t like independent towns, but he likes trade and doesn’t mind organizing it from his manors or any semi-rural site controlled by him. Taxation the Carolingian way is not his cup of tea – as it were he is busy defending his nation against it. He is nor raiding the Friesians either. In short he is old-fashioned and a relict. Trying to defend his country he uses his manor at Sliesthorp more or less the Charlemagne would use a one of his palaces as a strategic foothold in his mostly maritime warfare. He expects the merchants to thrive in Sliesthorp, probably he is mistaken and similar to the pcia lord at Aggersborg and his manor he and Sliesthorp will be wiped out. Be this as it may, strategic footholds seem to be the reason behind manor-controlled lia landing sites.

TFig 00his Week On the Reading Rest I have something very common, i.e. a report (again in Swedish, but with good pictures) concerning a ‘unique archaeological’ find. Presently, entering ‘archaeological’ returns c. 43 and ‘unique archaeological’ c. 21 million hits on Google, and among the latter the ironic usage is probably ‘quite unique’, i.e. ‘like uncommon more or less’. Nevertheless, the combination, “quite unique” + ‘archaeological’, returns 400,000 hits. Luckily, when scrutinized the archaeologically unique turns out to be trapped in contextual meaning and entangled in the commonplace.

Nordqvist, Bengt. 2011. Våtmarksfynd från the forna åbädden vid Grönån [Wetland Finds from the Ancient River Bed by Grönån (i.e. Green River)]. UV rapport 2011:11. Arkeologisk undersökning. Swedish National Heritage Board.


Select: UV Rapport 2011:124.


In Scandinavian discussions within maritime archaeology sails have always been important because they indicate technological progress and refinement (cf. OtRR 25 July 2011). As it happens maritime archaeology is still obsessed with the importance of rational technology and invention as the emblem of historical development, as well as the emblem of modern scientific maritime method. The sail and its consequence the sailing ship are technological inventions that changed society because the sail was the first event in a chain triggering the next: Sail → Sailing Ships → Vikings → End of Prehistory →…. Because development is supposed to be dynamic and because we already know that the end of prehistory didn’t happen until 1025-50 CE, sails mustn’t be introduced too early or History will run ahead of itself.

Despite our archaeological endeavor, there are but a few contexts dating the introduction of the sail. The sailing ship with its buried crew of warriors from Salme on Saarema has nevertheless been dated to the beginning of the 8th c. CE and when published in more detail it will set Vikings sailing the seas and getting killed purposeless for generations unable to get started with the ‘Viking Age’, which began only 793 CE, a year that used to be just after the invention of the ‘Viking ship’ (1).

Since mainstream archaeologists have a gut feeling that technological solutions will become popular only when they fulfill a purpose, they are usually not bothered by technological implications. They simply wait for new sources to come to light dating the introduction of the sail. When that happens, i.e. when introduction is redated, it means that theory-based interpretation has been corrected by simple empirical observations, and mainstream archaeologists, who are always prepared to find something by chance, cry: ‘Eureka!’ – and why not ‘unique!’ while they are at it. Accordingly, mainstream archaeologists are prepared to cry havoc when theory threatens to inform empirical observation, and urge the archaeological observer to cast doubt upon the obvious in the observed.

The wetland finds from Grönån are referred to by Bengt Nordqvist (BN) as unique, which means that there is a good chance that they are actually trapped in contextual meaning and entangled in the commonplace.

Fig 02Grönån is a tributary to Göta Älv, which is the most important waterway in Southwest Sweden. It connects backwoods and coastland. Together with its tributaries, such as Grönån, it also runs through and structures a number of fertile settlement areas. During the Iron Age (IA) the most strategic settlement areas along this river would seem to be situated on the left shore of the river just north of its bifurcation at Kungälv. Sitting here, able to subside between coast and inland, one could benefit from exploiting the hinterland as well as from incoming and outgoing traffic without the immediate risk of being descended upon. Although the area is thus inland, up the river and relatively protected, choosing a settlement by Grönån rather than directly by Göta Älv would suit the general tendency for Early Iron Age (EIA) settlements, contrary to Late Iron Age (LIA) settlement, to avoid the relatively speaking unprotected ‘coastal situation’ by the large river.

On the left side of Göta Älv between Lödöse (the Early Medieval town directly by Göta Älv) and Nol we find a suitable upstream settlement area characterized not least by its maritime finds preserved in the wet and clayey sediments along the rivers. The ships from Äskekärr, a boatyard from the Carolingian Iron Age (CIA, 750-1025 CE) and consequently situated directly by Göta Älv are the most well-known. After Bn’s excavations we may add a similar, but much older site by Grönån. I will call it Skepplanda 226 (Sk226) because the parish name Skepplanda is significant and because it is conceivable that there are other similar sites along Grönån. The name Skepplanda is composed of the words land (in the plural) and skip—ship or skipvidh, i.e. the lands or district that supplies boat timber. BN, doesn’t comment on Skepplanda, but shows that waste and wood chippings indicates that trunks were brought to Sk226 to be processed, making radially split planks (boards), oars, ribs, oarlocks, etc. In addition there are several tools, such as wedges and a mallet, as well as boat details that support the boatyard interpretation. Sk226 is a site that befits a skipvidh-land, but also a landing-place that belongs to one or more farms on higher grounds the odd kilometer north of the river. Situated at Grönån, rather than Göta Älv, the site is protected and comparatively peripheral, i.e. typical EIA compared to CIA Äskekärr. Grönån, contrary to Göta Älv, is an obvious artery for floating small amounts of timber to yards near its estuary. As it happens Äskekärr is situated just 3km downstream from the point where Grönån falls into Göta Älv making it easy to supply the boatyard at Äskekärr with Skepplanda timber.

Grönån skepplanda

The reason why we find sites such as Äskekärr and Sk226 is a combination of the need in prehistory to maintain ships and boats, and the fact that rivers because of sedimentation and erosion change their course within the riverbeds. This leads to sediments covering some of the old shores preserving wood and fibers once dropped there by the boat builders. Today the river fronts are protected areas usually not touched by contract archaeology, but in the Skepplanda case the new road E45 had to cross Grönån, and since the span of the bridge was made as short as possible, the edges of the stream had to be investigated.

The excavation was difficult, but very successful and thanks to the sedimentation the stratigraphy revealed two chronological phases divided by sediments deposited c. 375 CE when the river moved c.15 meter to the South. Above the sediments the site continued to be used to land boats. In order to do so despite the new circumstances characterized by a wet strip between the river and the dry land, short canals were dug making it easier to pull the vessels out of the water. BN argues convincingly that in this phase the boats and ships that went into the canal had keels and a cross-section that we usually recognize from ships belonging to the CIA – that is sailing ships. Since the upper Skepplanda stratum is dated after c. 375 and before the 600s it would seem that sails were introduced sometime during these centuries. Salme and Sk226 thus make it likely that sails, but not the Viking Age, were introduced well before 800 CE. The fact that the canals were dug to fit the cross-section of the vessels indicates that the boats were floating when they entered their canal and that the canals were similar to a dock yard from which the boats were probably dragged up on the dry land.

Fig 04

In the first phase the site was used much more intensively in connection with the maintenance of boats. The site was established in the 2nd c. CE, but the hundred years c. 260-360 CE were its heyday. It stands to reason that Sk226 was not meant mainly to give service to people punting and rowing up and down Grönån. Using the boats on Göta Älv and in the archipelago or for coastal trafic in South Scandinavia would seem more important – not least why the popularity of Sk226 in the 3rd and 4th centuries, i.e. the LRIA, coincides with an economic boom in tandem with a period of warfare in South Scandinavian. In the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries we may instead expect lower economic activities. Skepplanda circumstances must to some extent have brought about the boom, but places such as Sk226 must nevertheless boom if the boom is going to be as general as it was. Sk226 is a site that fits the types of boats one would have built in the first half of the first millennium CE. A long, narrow and light boat such as the one from Hjortspring or a long, broad and heavy ship such as the one from Gokstad would not have fit the yard. But a series of boats similar to the ones from Nydam (the pine boat) or Valsgärde might well have been maintained at Sk226 (2).


The report is an overview with an understandable, but nevertheless biased focus on the ‘unique’, i.e. so far in Sweden the oldest wooden artefacts of their kind, definition, character, and function. Thus influenced by the face value of the ‘unique’, the report lacks the systematic information that would have allowed the reader to interpret the character of the site, i.e. its commonplace context, in greater detail (3). Consequently, the report doesn’t discuss intra-site matters in relation to time or the three periods defined by the 14C-tests.


Two examples go to illustrate this: (1) Although part of the canals belonging to the upper layers cut down into the glacial clay below the lower layers, we don’t know precisely where these disturbances of the lower layers occur. (2) The chronology rests on 14C-tests, but it is difficult and sometimes impossible to find out where the dated artefacts were found. Despite shortcomings such as these, there are nevertheless clues here and there in the text; some conclusion can probably be drawn and some insights sifted from it. Despite the restricted attitude in the report to conveying contextual facts, contextualizing the site is worth a try.

If the lower artefact layer at Sk226 is a boatyard used with varying intensity during 2-300 years, then one may wonder, especially looking at the last 100 years of the LRIA, whether the find distribution reflects the structure of a yard. The hypothesis (i.e. a theoretically informed point of view that may be tested against empirical patterns sometimes overlooked) is the following: maintenance takes place when a boat is lifted out of the water and secured with props allowing the craftsmen to stand next to the boat working on. In this position, while working, they tend to lose tools and utensils and to drop waste and broken parts. We would expect these wooden objects to be trodden down into the humid clay by chance and perhaps eventually by intension making the ground more stable. Since there are planks that must be wedged out of trunks, dressed and cut by the ax, we can expect wooden chippings and bits of planks more or less all over the place, but not specifically under or next to the boats. This means that (1) where the boats stood finds ought relatively speaking to be few. (2) Next to the boats there would be concentrations of artefacts; and (3) between the boats there should be more chippings and pieces of plank than next to or under the boats. These hypotheses hold true only if some parts of the site are defined by their boat standings. In the long run they are unlikely to hold true given the general freedom to choose a boat standing as best you please.

In the report the artefacts are divided into groups and mapped. Insignificant pieces of wood were plentiful but not recorded. Wooden chippings were abundant and fragments of planks relatively common. Both categories were recorded and mapped because being marked by tools they might reveal something about craftsmanship. If we use the categories defined by BN and combine the artefact maps in the report to give an impression of density and complexity there emerges a pattern to some extent consistent with the hypotheses indicating where the boats stood when they were maintained and repaired.


The pattern is easy to see in the two peripheral distributions, but blurred in the dense central part of the site where the boats may have stood within a larger less specific area just west of the landing-place. The peripheral boat standings are characterized by relatively speaking fewer artefacts.

When we add the chippings and the planks to the artefact distribution it is enhanced inasmuch as the areas between the possible boat standings are filled up by signatures. Since wedging the trunks, and dressing and cutting the planks benefit from an open work space rather than a boat standing, the two distributions match each other. Obviously axes were used next to the boats too, but less intensely.

If we figure out where the four oldest, i.e. the 2nd century 14C-tests were found their distribution coincides with the dense central part indicating that over the centuries the ideal division at the center of the site – the landing and the standing – becomes blurred because of the activities going on. It seem fair therefore to conclude that in the centre of the distribution, next to the landing area, later marked by the canals, there were standings where for hundreds of years boats stood when they were not used. In the period after c. 375 CE when the boats had their standing above the landing-place, maintenance might well have taken place at Sk226, but in that case the dry conditions of this possible site has deprived us of wooden remains. Nevertheless, the analysis of time and space at Sk226 suggests that the central part of the site was used between the 1st and the 7th c. CE. In the LRIA, work in the yard was intensified and this intensification shows in the addition two or three peripheral standings left and right of the original site. Because the peripheral standings were not used during a longer period and because they were left undisturbed by additional landings, their find distribution is not blurred. It tells us that from time to time in the LRIA there was more than one boat being looked after at Sk226. The expansion indicated by the 14C-dates is in other words matched by a find distribution that suggests a growing demand for tonnage in a period of dynamic economy and warfare. Before the activities at the site come to an end they became less intensive and thus more similar to the activities of the ERIA.


Grönån is a small river and the boats and ships that landed at Sk226 in the RIA were hardly more than 12-15 m. Probably they were similar in size to the small LRIA (pine) boat from the war offerings at Nydam. Oarlocks and a number of oars suggest that they were rowing vessels. A helm indicates that it wasn’t just small boats that landed. Some of the finds parallel elements of the LRIA boats in Nydam and one detail, a block with no wheel and thus perhaps a kind of gutter ring, might fit a rig. Since part of an anchor was also found the object might perhaps have filled a function in that connection uniting rope and anchor. Because of the Nydam parallels, the boats probably had a cross-section similar to the large Nydam boat and according to the new reconstruction of this boat the hull must have been supported by props when the boat stood on its standing in the yard. Probably the weight of such a boat was c. one ton. If we imagine that boats were now and then to be dragged past waterfalls, and compare them to what we know about the capacity of the large Nydam boat, they had a crew of c. 18 giving each man 55-60 kg to drag. Speculating about the reasons for giving up Sk226 it is reasonable to point to the fact that if we are engaged in regional and inter regional transportation the ships that could be maintained in Grönån became too small. A sites such as Äskekärr would accommodate large boats and ships although it lacked natural protection and easy conditions for floating timber. Sk226 was probably too small-scale and too protected for the new dynamic times of the CIA.

Fig 05

Sk226, Äskekärr and Fribrödreå (on Falster in Denmark) make up a small series comprising a millennium of off-settlement South Scandinavian ship yards in wetland environments characterized by wood because iron is not preserved. Their complement, linked to settlements such as Lundeborg (on Fyn) and Parviken (on Gotland) and covering the same period, are the dry land yards characterized by iron rivets because wood is not preserved. Together these sites define an economic geography and it is comforting to know that just as they are few and far apart today, they were once commonplace.

(1) Salme

There is an abstract: Warrior Burials with Scandinavian Finds of the Late Vendel Period (ca 750 AD) from Salme in Saaremaa/Ösel (Estonia)

Jüri Peets, Raili Allmäe, Liina Maldre (Tallinn University, Estonia) and Ragnar Saage (University of Tartu, Estonia)

In autumn 2008 remains of human skeletons and ancient artefacts, including some deformed sword fragments, boat rivets and two antler dice, were brought to light while digging an electrical cable trench for the lighting of a cycling track. Deciding mainly by the shape of the weapon fragments they were dated to the Vendel Period or the beginning of the Viking Age (7th–8th centuries). The finds were of Scandinavian types. Some of them, including gaming pieces and single-edged swords, hadn’t been previously found in Estonia. Artefacts related only to Estonia or Saaremaa were missing. The excavations of the site were resumed in 2010 and 2011, revealing a second ship – a big warship about 17m long. The ships contained the skeletons of 43 warriors with weapons and other grave goods: about 40 swords, 12 shields, about 50 arrowheads, 12 horn combs and about 300 game pieces lated of whalebone and 20 bovine femur heads, 5 of them were ornamented. Alongside with humans, dogs and hawks were sacrified. As food offerings swine, goat/lamb and bovine bones were found. The most significant find beside the ancient artefacts were the discovery of the remains of the first prehistoric boats (ships) in Estonia.

And information in Estonian on

(2) Nydam: or Rieck, Fleming. 1994. Jernalderkrigernes skibe. Nye og gamle udgravninger i Nydam mose. Vikingeskibshallen i Roskilde
Valsgärde, the boat in grave 6 looks like this:

 Valsgärde 6

 (3) Seemingly, the County Administrative Board (CAB) didn’t ask for it. At page 74 the author refers to some questions, posed before the final excavation took place and they may well have been formulated by a CAB because they are so odd:

Why is the largest artefact group objects that can be connected with the production of planks? The whole process of production from trunk to plank is represented in the material. Do these remains emanate from the production of something specific – such as boats?

If planks are what you find and boats what spring to you mind then you obviously know something that has already provoked the affirmative. The following question is thus not really surprising: Do even abandoned boats occur? But then again you better ask yourself because you wouldn’t want to miss them just because it hadn’t occurred to you that there might be boats, do you?

The next on the other hand is puzzling:

Is the agglomeration of the processed wooden objects a natural deposition? One might think that there is no need to talk of natural or unnatural depositions when we may talk of what is presumably meant namely primary or secondary depositions, but then again perhaps not; you never know with CABs. The right answer may actually be: ‘No, it’s an unnatural deposition!’ because you are not allowed to reformulate the original question, are you?

This week On the Reading Rest I have an excavation report in Swedish:

Stenbäck & al. 2012. Niklas Stenbäck, Marcus Eriksson, Michel Guinard and Roger Wikell, Stenålder vid Påljungshage. En sörmländsk lokal med nedslag från tidig- och mellanneolitikum—Stone Age at ’Paul Young’s Pen’. A Site in Södermanland visited in the Early and Middle Neolithic. [SAU rapport 2010:8, pp 184]. Uppsala 2012. (cf.   )

Once again, a site, excavated because society needs to transform itself and exploit its assets, reveals a micro history easy to grasp. The excavation results, moreover, makes it obvious that a simplistic answer to a wrongly posed but popular Stone Age question, cannot survive the complexity of Prehistory and the straightforward contexts which it gave rise to.

Let’s start with trivia: the dimension and size of log boats is determined largely by the logs from which they are made. Indeed, and for two reasons this means that in the future, Swedish log boats will be very narrow and little used.
(1) Today, when it comes to the exploitation of its assets, Sweden is turning woods into squared production surfaces where firs are planted in an even pattern and expected to grow for 70 years only before they are harvested. Woodlands are rapidly turned into monoculture fir fields and seventy year old firs are still slender trees – useless when it comes to log boats.
(2) All wood production surfaces are eventually ploughed and planted with fir, which means that soon there will be no suitable pines either.

In bygone days when woods were dense with a variety of vegetation and trees grew straight for non-cultural rather than mono-cultural reasons, biological diversity ruled. Trees grew tall and their wide trunks made wonderful log boats or canoes. Some prehistoric boats are impressive.

The rapid loss of biodiversity and ecosystems in Sweden is not trivial, and in most of the world, not least in Sweden, it has become too late to hug the trees of a primeval forest. Instead the loss of everything but firs, young or young adult trees, has resulted in fir field monuments to narrow-minded greed and irrationality. We should accept neither the loss nor the monuments.

During the Stone Age at Påljungshage—Paul Young’s Pen—they didn’t build log boats, but they used them to go there from the mainland in Early Neolithic times. Owing to the high water levels Paul Young’s Pen was not a pen at all, but a protected coast facing south on a small rocky island in the outer archipelago with a good landing place. The landing place was a sandy beach cleared from stones, perfect for canoes.

Those days are behind us. Because of the shore displacement starting when the Scandinavian inland ice and its weight melted away, the water disappeared, the beach became a meadow and eventually a marginal pen before the highway was constructed and the agricultural land replaced by brushwood in a narrow and badly drained corridor between the road bank and the once Neolithic beach. Today, having blown away the bedrock that once formed the top of the island and crushed debris and blasted stone into valuable gravel, the place has become a shopping mall as commonplace to the outskirts of a modern town as ever a beach site in the Neolithic archipelago.

But the excavations conducted before the construction of the shopping centre were excellent. And for once money wasn’t a problem – in part because of all the gravel.

The Stone Age site was a nuisance to the exploiters and not much to bother about, but the Bronze Age – Early Iron Age cemetery on the very top of the former island, once monumentally marking the border zone of the Bronze and Early Iron Age settlement north of Paul Young’s Pen, sat on valuable bedrock and had to go. The whole scene was potent modern exploitation: an end with a bang to the lee and protected beaches of the outer Stone Age archipelago.

Although Paul Young’s Pen was been visited several times in prehistory, the visits in the Early Neolithic, 4th millennium BCE, meet the eye. Careful excavation and interpretation of archaeological variables as well as a number of sophisticated analyses – wear on stone artefacts, lipids in pot shards, thin sections of ceramic ware and analysis of decoration, analysis of macro fossils and diatoms as well as osteology and 14C dates, tell us the following about the Early Neolithic site: Facing the south there were three small sandy shelves close to the shore. They were used simultaneously for similar yet somewhat different purposes. On the eastern shelf the use of fire was important and so was cooking and quarts/quartzite napping. On the western shelf grinding played a prominent role. The central shelf was the better landing site and the arena of the commonplace of daily life when the level of the water was c. 30 metre above today’s sea level. The western and central shelf had direct contact with the water, but the eastern one was isolated.

The central shelf represents the dwelling area, the eastern shelf a rather smoky specialization related to processing, and the western a ‘non-smoking’ area with an element of craftsmanship. The report is built around the systematic presentation and interpretation of a number of artefact categories in view of distribution and density. There are a number of categories: quarts, quartzite, flint, whinstone, rock type, slate, mica slate, sandstone, ceramics, burnt bone, fire cracked stone, lipids and diatoms and they give the reader a typical report insight into the settlement. Moreover, they suggest the mapping of these variables according to their presence in different square metres thus mapping the complexity to the usage of the site. We may do this by representing each category with a certain degree of opacity. If we do so, the colour of the square metre will deepen with the number of variables represented in it. Thus, an opaque red represents the most complex square metres, and clusters small centres of diverse activities.

Obviously Neolithic man used to nap quarts when he produced his tools, and fire cracked stones were endemic to the use of fire. We may therefore expect these categories to be constantly present on a settlement site and weigh them less important than ceramic, slate or flint, which must have been imported to the site by means of more complicated networks. Burnt bones too are significant because they mirror division of labour.

If we map the site in this way, the central and western shelves are characterized by small-scale clusters. At the eastern shelf, repeated activities blurred the complexity—the small-scale clusters—over a relatively large area in the western side of the shelf. Eventually, if the site had been continuously occupied for hundreds of years the small-scale clustering on all the shelves would have disappeared. Since this development didn’t happened we may Suggest that the site was visited at intervals a relatively small number of times. Eventually the coastline fell below 30 m above sea level, but that didn’t prompt Prehistoric man to follow the displaced shore. On the contrary, the few times the area was revisited people sat down on the dry and sandy sheltered shelves.

Bones, lipids, diatoms and macro fossils allow us to infer some basic facts about the Early Neolithic diet. What animals were eaten? What food was cooked and stored? What algae were trapped in the grinding stones? By chance, what plants were charred? The answer is simple: Those who ate at Paul Young’s Pen were farmers as well as hunters. They brought grain and a large grinding stone from their sweet water inland settlement out into the archipelago where diatoms that thrive in brackish water were grinded into whetstones, but not into the grinding stone. In their pots, people cooked vegetables and ruminants, as well as other terrestrial and maritime mammals. They ate wheat and barley as well as fish, seal, pig, and sheep/goat. It looks as if they mostly did this on the eastern shelf, but in reality this was where their use of fire included burning their garbage.

And when did they go there? Two times a year – before and after the farming season. They came in late winter/early spring for the seal hunt – no doubt the brutal hunt that became traditional – and returned in the autumn to fish. Topography, the year cycle and their own traditions seem to have guided their occasional visits during a 500-year period mainly in the early part of the 4th century BCE.

One thing they didn’t do in the archipelago was reading ‘Science’ and that was probably just as well since if they had read Vol 336 no. 6080 pp 466-469 and the comment pp 400-401, they would have felt as cross, neglected and misunderstood as ever a First Nations people.

The authors of the article Origins and Genetic Legacy of Neolithic Farmers and Hunter-Gatherers in Europe (pp 466-469) end up cautiously stating that ‘[o]ur results suggest that migration from southern Europe catalyzed the spread of agriculture and that admixture in the wake of this expansion eventually shaped the genomic landscape of modern-day Europe.’ In News & Analysis, under the heading Ancient Migrants Brought Farming Way of Life to Europe (pp 400-401), this nevertheless becomes ‘evidence that farmers personally took the technology across Europe, and that the first farmers of chilly northern Europe came from the continent’s sunny Mediterranean south’. The rest is www (9,960 hits at Google for the phrase “Ancient Swedish Farmer came from the Mediterranean”) and ‘Science’-true only.

Yet everything is based on a splendid analysis of ancient DNA from humans who died c. 5000 years ago, one of whom may personally have come from southern Europe. Yes, 5000 years ago, i.e. 1000 years after the first peasant-hunter-gatherers at Paul Young’s Pen dropped dead. There is of course no doubt that the forefathers of the people who visited Paul Young’s Pen could have been Europeans and that Europeans continued to find their way into the Scandinavia blind alley, but there is no reason to suggest that coming from somewhere a thousand years too late made anybody the first farmer and certainly not either farmer or hunter-gatherer. No wonder First Nations people usually don’t accept anachronisms.

It is not inconceivable that immigrants in the 3rd millennium BCE ‘catalyzed the spread of agriculture’ and many other things such as cabbages and kings, but that might and might not have happened any time before and after. None the less, well into modern times, coastland and archipelago agriculture was often a node in balanced networking with other nodes such as hunting, fishing and gathering. Such diversity is often a reasonable way to adapt to an environment and make it a human landscape without completely destroying it. Trivial but true.

This week on the reading rest I have an archaeological field report.

Björck, Niclas & Larsson Fredrik. 2011. Stenålder längs nya riksvägen 56. Sträckan Stringtorp Tärnsjö. UV rapport 2011:41. Arkeologiska förundersökningar. 178 pages. UV Mitt Hägersten.

This report can be downloaded as a PDF file on the from:

When the Ladykillers explain the economic effect of their coup to Mrs Wilberforce, their fragile landlady who has just exposed them and their deceitfulness, they define the loss to the public, i.e. the loss brought about by their robbery of a money transport belonging to an insurance company, as no more than a farthing on everyone’s insurance policies. That kind of trifle, in this case on every tax payer’s declaration, goes also for the report on the rest. Only when we figure out our cost in terms of our most basic needs, such as breathing, does cost become significant, since we may be required to hold our breath for an unpleasant while, dependant on our income, to cover the loss we, the tax payers, have had financing this report. We pay for the report instead of holding our breath, but we do hold it at little because, on the one hand this report is as daft as they come, and on the other, we paid for the project, didn’t we? Since we were taken advantage of we hold our breath to gain a little time and compose ourselves before we complain.
To begin with, because of language and redundancy. there is a waste of paper.

This is an example of the text:

And this is a test, rewriting and compressing it for the benefit of clarity:
Within the area of investigation was taken all together 74 phosphate tests (Fig. 14). The result gave a span from 0-91 phosphate degrees (P⁰) with an average value of 13.57 P⁰. The 74 phosphate tests spanned from 0 to 91 P⁰. Forty were below the average 13.57 P⁰.   34 of the 74 tests were on or above the average value, the other 40 consequently below the average value. The spatial distribution of these tests gave the opposite picture compared to the artefact distribution. The said distribution have been observed on several of those sites where phosphate mapping was being carried out , which makes it probable that it has its origin  in how traces of different activities have been organized on the sites. A circumstance that indicates that within Digerholmen there are subareas of different character. As expected on a site covering 5400 m2, the distribution of quarts quarries, hearths, artefacts and phosphates suggest a heterogenic site (Figs 13 & 14).

True to the definition of ‘redundancy’, the crossed out italic sections are indeed ‘repetition of linguistic information inherent in the structure of the language’. There is no need for that, and if we venture to expand the contents of the section a little we can shortened it substantially  from 708 to 240 characters (the fat black text substituting the crossed-out text). Potentially, rephrasing may thus have saved us 65% of the text. Had we been more fortunate we would have read c. 40 pages rather than c. 125.

Since shortening is a pain killer rather than a cure it avoids the real problem, i.e. is the unconscious attitudes and lack of understanding hiding behind the text. This problem surfaces already at page 15 in a diagram intended to show us what knowledge production looks like during the excavation of a site – knowledge grows exponentially.

The fat line is the learning or knowledge curve. The X-axis represents the site and size of the excavation

In the diagram, by chance or mistake, more that 100 percent of a site is actually excavated and the amount, load or burden of knowledge produced in these non-existent 100+ percent square metres surpasses the amount produced during the excavation of the first 90 percent of a site. The prospect is frightening because there seems to be no redemption from exponential knnowledge growth.

Luckily, to most archaeologists no simple graph can shows how knowledge grows during an excavation and few would believe growth to be constant, let alone exponential. In fact, sensible archaeologists believe that now and then they get it wrong during their excavation. Often they are able to correct themselves, happily losing their initial and deficient knowledge. And some of the assumptions formed in the field may become wrong when the documentation is analyzed and new opinions formed at the archaeologist’s desk. Although being wrong  is commonplace when we explore the past, Niklas Björk and Fredrik Larsson (NB&FL) seem unfamiliar with this experience. They are as convinced as can be that they have been excavating shore bound Mesolithic sites (all sites are ‘settlements’, although, if that was the case, they are also landing places.  ‘Landing place’ [1] as it happens is not in their vocabulary). NB&FL knew what they were looking for before they started to excavate and they have chosen to overlook, minimize, obscure and explain away any indication that they have misunderstood anything.

In fact, with a minimum of understanding of a coastal cultural landscape they have proceeded to excavate a number of promising shores. Every bit of knowledge produced is thus exactly what they expected and precisely what they were looking for, even when they actually came upon something else. Before their time team started, they knew what they knew and afterwards they knew more or less the same. Since in reality their knowledge production has been a matter of reproducing their pre-understanding, they have learnt little from their excavations. In this respect their curve of knowledge production is horizontal rather than exponential.

The (red) level of pre-understanding compared to the (fat) proposed learning curve and the (blue) 100+ knowledge benefit

On their road show, the leaders of the NBFL time team thought that by means of any number of 14C-tests they could verify their central dogma: Mesolithic settlements are located on the beaches and shores of their day and age.

The team invested in no less than nine tests to prove themselves! Eight of these were not even remotely Mesolithic.

The singular Mesolithic date belonged to a piece of charcoal found among brittle-burned stones quite deep in layers on a beach 12 m from the shore. However, this Mesolithic date is late suggesting that when the wood was burned and the charcoal deposited, the beach was situated 100 metres or more east of the find spot and lower than the site. This means that the only Mesolithic 14C test speaks against the general model that guided the NBFL time team. The date suggests that the water (and the landing place) was nowhere near the site when Mesolithic man insisted on staying there.

Discrepancies threatening the dogma of the team’s pre-understanding are not discussed in the report. Instead we are told, opaquely, that in one case a date was obtained of the Mesolithic phase reflected in the artefacts (p. 104:2nd col). Since the phrase refers to something as chronologically imprecise and besides the point as ‘the Mesolithic phase’ and phase-reflecting artefacts, we would expect that the phrasing was designed to obscure an important fact without actually lying. But given the present field-report lingo what reads like a half truth may actually be the whole truth – to the authors.

Given the importance of chronology and the costs for carbon-14 tests, the eight dates that are simply wrong must be commented upon. But instead of suggesting the obvious – contamination of Mesolithic sites by later intrusions – the authors (p. 104 f.) end up arguing that the likely is probably the unlikely. Of course they don’t deny that in the unlikely event of later visits to the sites these visits would have taken place in later times. In fact the authors circumstantially point out to us that ‘later’ in this case may mean a visit in periods such as ‘the latest part of the Bronze Age’, ‘the Migration Period’ or ‘the Early Middle Ages’. Blimey!

In the end NB&FL emphasise that the natural phenomenon: forest fire, is actually a most relevant explanation for five of the dates. This is a bold idea that makes a reader think and ask him- or herelf why forest fires were so very common in the first millennium CE compared to every other 500 year period: Was it the climate or was it the wind, was it grill parties gone wrong?

Obviously the authors’ discussion of the 14C-dates is a smokescreen of rubbish. In addition to some obvious later disturbancies, the dates demonstrate (1) that contrary to the author’s opinion there has been a considerable number of invisible contamination of the Mesolithic sites in later periods and they suggest (2) that contrary to the author’s opinion some Mesolithic settlements were not shore-bound.

Random sampling of 14C tests is always methodologically refreshing where convention reigns, and so is every sign of Mesolithic man going astray.

The negative learning curve

The report started out protesting an exponential learning curve. Soon, the reader understood that the curve was rather horizontal, eventually, close reading revealed it to be negative.

In the film, the lady killers killed off each other and mrs Wilberforce ended up with the lolly – just our tax payer’s luck to end up with nothing but an embarrassing report.

[1] Lately Kristin Ilves has written a number of articles on landing places and among other things presented a general model of the landing place as a social space. See:
Ilves, K. 2009. Discovering harbours? Reflection on the state and development of landing sites studies in the Baltic Sea region. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 2: 149-163 [DOI 10.1007/s11457-009-9050-5 Published online: 27 October 2009].
Ilves, K. & Darmark, K. 2010. Some Critical and Methodological Aspects of Shoreline Determination: Examples from the Baltic Sea Region. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 147-165 [DOI 10.1007/s10816-010-9084-x Published online: 15 June 2010].
Ilves, K. 2011. Is there an archaeological potential for a sociology of landing places? Journal of Archaeology and Ancient History  2011 No 2:1-25. ISSN 2001-1199

This week on the reading rest I have an article from a Swedish journal:

Sven Kalmring. Of thieves, counterfeiters and homicides: Crime in Hedeby and Birka. Fornvännen 2010:4, pp 281-290.

Attuna District Court AttundaTingsrattStockholm.htm

Attuna Tingsrätt—the Attuna District Court – is modern cube with aluminium, steel and  glass façades, opaque and impenetrable, a modern material metaphor signalling that justice is something taken care of by civil servants behind maximal security out of sight – not a public matter. This may be wrong or right, or just an unfair interpretation, but at least during
the Carolingian Iron Age, cia  (750-1025 ce) crime, justice, sanction and gaining legal force were an open social concern in any community, probably not taken care of as well in the Attuna District Court.  Nor were the names of the accused kept secret till they were convicted.

The 14th word in Sven Kalmring’s (SK:s) article and the first in the second sentence is Archaeo-Criminology. In some way this concept, a neologism as it happens, is the theme of the article. Notwithstanding, it is absent from both abstract and summary, but evidently linked to the caption of the section following the introduction: Worth Punishing: Normative-social Criteria of Injustice – which soon leads us, not to a theoretical discussion, but to the Hedeby Harbour and some contexts that may be indicative of different crimes such as theft, counterfeit and homicide, i.e. crimes that stand out as most probable even in prehistory because they are all too human. The last category, arms smuggling, would have been interesting if arms smuggling could in any way be proved, which it cannot. Nor can homicide. To be fair, SK, who is very well read and takes source criticism seriously, doesn’t argue that homicide or smuggling can in fact be attested.

The reason why it is difficult to prove smuggling and homicide rests with the fact that crimes classified as ‘smuggling’ and ‘homicide’ are denotations of very specific concepts difficult to define inasmuch as they are indicative also  of very common-place cultural patterns of behaviour, i.e. distributing goods and killing people, which may or may not be a crime. The demand for significance in the material context is in other words high if we venture to document such very specific crimes. Not even intentionally killed bog people are clear-cut cases. Actually, it took the context of the Bocksten man so make homicide likely(1). Proof is difficult because we often take death caused while offering or fighting or punishing the unfree or base to be extenuating circumstances if someone is charged with murder.

It would seem from the emphatic text: on trabu nurminr o kniri asbiarnaR, which may nevertheless be an allegation, that the murderers cleared out and could not be prosecuted.

This is not to say that CIA Scandinavians did not commit murder since we must at least suspect early 11th century Northmen to have killed Gerbjorn (2). Nor is it to say that going home from abroad, Scandinavians refrained from bringing whatever they could and fancied, be it purchased objects, gifts, contraband, stolen goods or any item that would fit the notion of external acquisition, even if acquiring and bringing it with them would mean breaking one or two laws and paragraphs.

Thieves, counterfeiters and Viking bandidos are to be expected as soon as goods are put in locked chests and coin circulations a fact. Innumerable coins bear witness of Scandinavian fear of counterfeit coins. SK:s example, the cast lead coins from the harbour is an interesting one, but cheating with metal – passing pewter for silver or gilded copper for gold, is nothing new to a harbour district such that of Hedeby .

The Hedeby chest long after and before it was broken into HedebyChest.htm

The last part of the article tries to establish a parallel between Hedeby (and its criminal harbour scene) and Birka (and its perhaps, if excavations continues, criminal harbour scene). It is a very legitimate wish to compare Hedeby and Birka in any way possible. It is nevertheless doubtful whether the methodology sketched in the article, taking a criminology for granted and pointing to the earliest Scandinavian towns and their harbours as prolific criminal environments, is actually worthwhile.

Both the robbed wooden chest, loaded with a heavy stone which prevented it from causing suspicion bobbing up and down in the harbour basin, and the series of identical counterfeit coins that were thrown into the water, presumably because they were about to incriminate their owner, are wonderful curiosities. They exemplify the concept ‘dispose of evidence’, which in its turn indicates the importance of evidence and indeed exhibits. There’s a detective story to Hedeby crimes. Lack of incriminating evidence, of course, is a prerequisite of those who want to swear to the innocence of a man – criminal or not – on a medieval thing.

Or as the cross ‘conversation’ goes behind the Attuna District Court glass façade:

—Did you throw your counterfeit coins into
the harbour basin?

—Don’t remember nada, sorry – pissed!


(2) On the Uplandic runestone U 258 (Straight end style, c. 1000 CE) it says: Gunnarr and Sassurr, they had this stone raised in memory of Geirbjôrn, their father, Vittkarl/Hvítkarr of Svalunes’s son. Norwegians killed him on Ásbjôrn’s cargo-ship (my emphasis). Check at Samnordisk runtextdatabas:

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article:

Kershaw, Jane. 2011. Vikingernes bosættelse i England – ‘Viking settlement in England’. Skalk, Nr 3, 2011, pp. 18-26.

Often the biased usage of a word or concept becomes obvious if we exchange it for one that ought to be its equivalent. Originally, the below quotation was about understanding women; changing it to target men, therefore, makes its prejudice against women apparent (and its obsessive ‘digging’  backfires):

Every woman I know is baffled by the amount of thinking and overthinking that men do. Why can’t things be straightforward and simple, the way they are in a woman’s brain? Women seem to ignore anything that doesn’t actively threaten the safety of their loved ones or their egos, but men dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, looking for reasons and answers that sometimes don’t even exist.

Similarly, exchanging ‘Viking settlements in England’ for ‘Pirate settlements in England’ makes prejudice against Vikings stand out. Is that fair? Are they at all equivalent pirates and Vikings? Yes and no!(1)

In the introduction to her article Jane Kershaw (JK) points out that Vikings in 9th and 10th c. sources were alternately called pagans or Danes rather than Vikings. And she is right.

Because ‘Viking’ most often means ‘Pirate’, i.e. something uncommon even among pagans and Danes, the word seldom finds its way into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (A-SCs) and when it does it seems that chroniclers try not to use it as a synonym for pagan, Northman or Dane. To be precise ‘Viking’ is used only at three occasions: two times in the 880s; once c. 920 and once in the 980s.

The presence of Pagans, Danes, Northmen and Vikings in the A-SCs

Pagans and Danes, on the other hand, are commonly referred to and tacitly implied in expressions such as ‘the army’ because they are invaders and a serious problem compared to pirates. Danes and Northmen see invasion as a means to promote external acquisition (going back home) and eventually to conquer land and power (staying abroad).

If we look at the usage in the A-SCs, ‘Vikings’ stand out as something different, a specific subset: pirates and at the same time pagans or Northmen or Danes.

Manuscript A 879:(2) 7 þy geare gegadrode on hloþ wicenga, 7 gesæt æt Fullanhamme be Temese—and that year Vikings gathered in a band (a hloþ was defined as  7-35 men), and sat at Fulham by the Thames.

Obviously it is not un-Danish behavior to sail up the river and attack, but at Fulham it is a matter of small number of pirates convening at a strategic point to benefit in whatever way they can. They are not many and they sit at Fulham in their pirates’ nest, on their naval base so to speak, overlooking the Thames and the ferry crossing between Putney and Fulham.

A-SC, Manuscript A, 885: 7 þy ilcan geare sende Ælfred cyning sciphere on Eastengle; sona swa hie comon on Stufe muþan, þa metton hie .xvi. scipu wicenga, 7 wiþ ða gefuhton, 7 þa scipo alle geręhton, 7 þa men ofslogon; Þa hie þa hamweard wendon mid þære herehyþe, þa metton hie micelne sciphere wicenga, 7 þa wiþ þa gefuhton þy ilcan dæge, 7 þa Deniscan ahton siges;—and the same year King Alfred sent a host of ships (a fleet) into East-Anglia. As soon as they came to Stourmouth, sixteen Viking ships met them. And they fought with them, and took all the ships, and slew the men. When they turned homeward with their booty, then they met a large Viking fleet (since it is a sciphere it is probably more than 35 ships), and they fought them the very same day; but the  Danes (i.e. Vikings) had the victory.

The situation at Stourmouth

Sheltering in creeks and bays, lurking in Wantsum and in Stourmouth, staging successful or unsuccessful ambushes, is typical pirate behaviour in waters similar to the ones in South Scandinavia and Denmark where Viking strategies were developed already in the Early Iron Age(3).

A-SC, Manuscript A year 919: … þæs ilcan hærfestes gegadorode micel here hineof Eastenglum ægþer ge þæs landheres ge þara wicinga þe hie him to fultume aspanen hæfdon— ... this same harvest, a great army gathered itself from East-Anglia, both of the land forces and of the pirates, which they had persuaded to support them.

The situation at Maldon

The text indicates that there is a difference between the East Anglian army and the pirates. The latter are reluctant to join the campaign, which aims at attacking Maldon. The attack fails and when army and pirates are killed at flight, the pirates are called sailors (æscmenn, lit. men who belong to a ship, but also glossed as pirates). This situation at Maldon, therefore, indicates that normally pirates, now running to reach their ships, belong to the maritime landscape of Essex. From this most suitable Viking zone they may easily operate in the Thames and in Wantsum or vice versa, i.e. in areas characterized by creeks, bays, and sounds.

Scandinavian Viking activities are mainly in the maritime zone connected with the Thames.

A-SC, Manuscript C year 982: Her on þys geare comon upp on Dorsætum .iii. scypu wicinga 7 hergodon on Portlande.—Here in this year three pirate ships came up to Dorset and plundered on Portland.

The situation at the isle of Portland

Since these ships ‘came up to Dorset’, they probably sailed north from Brittany or Normandy. There is no good reason to believe they were Northmen or Danes, on the contrary, in the late 10th century Danes and Northmen came in large armies often under named leaders. With three ships only, plundering the isle of Portland (6×2.4 km) having landed in the Northeast, seems a manageable albeit un-Danish task. To a limited number of pirates the island is nevertheless strategic, a  place to harbour and keep a good outlook.


The Viking quotations from A-SCs combine to explain Vikings to be pirates usually, but not by necessity Danes or Scandinavians. They are linked to maritime landscapes and sometimes they form smaller or larger bands occasionally joining the land forces. Chroniclers used the word with discrimination to designate just that and to separate pirates from non-pirates.

When JK draws attention to Danes rather than Vikings, she makes a much greater point inasmuch as her subjects are as non-pirate as they come – women in Eastern England who wore simple Scandinavian jewellery on their dress during the 9th and 10th century: before, during and after the area obeyed the Danes’ law.

Her corpus is the result the model work within the Portable Antiquities Scheme(4) and it consists of 500 odd artefacts retrieved mostly by the public and mostly by metal detector archaeologists and recorded mostly in recent years. JK looks at the material in several clever and source-critical ways that prevent her from jumping to favourite, albeit naïve, archaeological conclusion such as:

Those who wore Danish jewellery rather than Anglo-Saxon
were ethnic Danes and vice versa


If your bring a female Danish dress to England
and wear it, then we must expect exogamy.

Instead, being well-aware of the alternative patterns suggested by the written sources, JK finds rather a homogeneous expression of material female culture marked by heterogeneous relationships with Denmark, Scandinavia, jewellery production, dress code, trade, immigration, settlement, etc. In essence JK discusses expressions in England of originally Danish traditions which have given rise to imported, echoed and hybrid female dress codes. Since this has little to do with pirates and piracy, not even when they join forces with the armies of East Anglia, there is almost nothing Viking in JK’s discussion, just Danes, Danish and Norse.

Actually, Viking is written in inverted commas when conventionally the term is correct, but still obviously odd, such as ‘a handful of ”Viking female graves”’ or ‘traditional signs of ”Viking activities”—place names and stone sculptures’. Nevertheless, writing in a popular journal, the overall perspective of the past must centre on Viking Reformed – once horrible marauders slowly becoming civilized landowners, their farm hands doing the ploughing and the tilling, as pointed out by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles c. 876 CE, when the Danes’ law is about to be established(5).

This is the perspective of chronicles as well as poems(6), reproduced again and again in modern analyses even by some of those who use Viking as a practical and conventional modern term only. Viking Reformed is a story about integration and the development of prehistoric man from pagan barbarism to Christian order. But JK tells us about a century or more of non-integration of a foreign fashion, something non-Anglo-Saxon, now and then something hybrid – a story the chroniclers had no intention to tell us. She also compares the distribution of stray finds and place names.

Chronicles and place name distribution (despite all the problems with the latter material) suggest that Danes and Northmen took over the land they had occupied when it was safe to do so. In principle, this colonization is a Scandinavian landnám, a colonizarion in which a leader such as Halfdan (876) subjungates a region and distributes land among his followers. The result, in our case the place names, reflects a regionally centralized and urbanized power structure. These Danes did not turn to ploughing as a step in their development, they fulfilled their Scandinavian dream of becoming landowners with hardworking farm hands; not very different from the ones they left in Scandinavia.

To the left:Scandinavian place names (red/black), stray finds (white/yellow) and some important towns in Danelaw, scales equal 25, 50 and 100 km. To the right: the relation between Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon stray finds, after Kershaw 2011.

Comparing the stray finds, mostly simple female jewellery, to the settlement names, there are two things to point out: (1) Generally speaking the two distributions are similar, but the centre of gravity of the stray finds is situated southeast of that of the village names. It is also true that the fewer the Scandinavian place names the more frequent the stray finds. (2) Important towns, such as York and the five boroughs are often situated in the periphery of dense place name distributions or surrounded by a denser distribution (York).

Referring to Viking Reformed, we may explain these characteristics in the following way: Simple female dress has a tendency to preserve a kind of Scandinavian identity especially in Eastern England, i.e. in the immigration area. Valuable farms and villages are much more integrated in the society of the majority than females in Scandinavian Look. Thus the rich village or farm owners seem more smoothly to integrate themselves.

But is that really true?

Could the strength of the distribution of parish and farm names not be the sign of a very significant change in society – a reformed society rather than a reformed Viking – and a change in principle the same, but in practice different from the change signified by the dresses behind the stray finds? The farm owners are few, but important and they express their colonization of a new area by means of names. Those who happen to lose their jewellery are many especially in immigration zones. Probably they are poorer and thus more likely to lose their jewellery. Both, nevertheless, represent new structures in society rather than integration.

JK’s observations on Danish, Norse and hybrid settlements in England (there’s an impossible title for an article) opens up important new and Viking-free perspectives(7).

(1) When it comes to semantics and ‘Viking’ almost everything in this contribution is based on Christine Fell’s seminal article Old English Wicing: A Question of Semantics. Proceedings of the British Academy vol 72 1986 pp 295-315.
(2) The quotations from A-SC comes from

(3) See The Early Iron Age in South Scandinavia pp 535-60.

(4) See for yourself at

(5) The A-SC manuscripts express themselves in two slightly different ways:
Manuscripts A, C, D and E, 876 or 877 CE: 7 þy geare Healfdene Norðanhymbra land gedælde, 7 ergende wæron 7 hiera tilgende wæron—that year Halfdan divided the land of the Northhumbrians, and they were ploughing and they were their tilling.
Manuscript B, 877 CE: 7 þy geare Halfdene Norðanhymbra land gedælde þæt hie syþþan ergende 7 heora tilgende wæron—that year Halfdan divided the land of the Northhumbrians. That they (were) afterwards ploughing and they were their tilling.
‘Ploughing’ and ‘tilling’ (the preparing of land for the raising of crops, e.g. by ploughing and harrowing) are almost synonymous and used to clarify the situation in an accurate way striving to put two separate expressions: ergende wærontilgende wæron, next to each other thus by amplification making it clear that the new land owners, the Danes whom Halfdan gave each their lot, did no hard work whatsoever. The author behind Manuscript B felt that this situation ought to be clarified and stressed the fact that because of this division of land it fell to the Northhumbrians to work as farm hands.

(6) See One the Reading Rest, June 13 2011. Vikings in Latin Poetry.

(7) Except for the poem about the Battle of Maldon (991), in which we may expect the locals always to suspect the involvement of their neighbouring pirates when it comes to conflicts, and thus to use the word in a more general sense about anyone who attacks them from the sea, there is but one case in which ‘Viking’ is used in a more general sense. In a homily, no. xxxiii, Archbishop Wulfstan of York  (†1023) speaks of thralls who run away from their lords and Christendom to become Vikings. In this highly emotional text W wants to show his readers as well as listeners how violence, horror, blasphemy, abuse, cowardice, pestilence and indeed a distorted legal system signifies his and their day and age. W tells us that the thrall becomes thane and vice versa and one way of bringing about this awful situation is for the thrall to run off and become a Viking. This is outrageous because Vikings are such a despicable persons. ‘Viking’, therefore, is used metaphorically to designate society’s vilest enemy. W refers to the burning of Canterbury Cathedral in 1011 and probably wrote his homily in 1014. To his mind the enemies of society, ‘the wolfs to the English’ as the homily has it, are Danes, but there would be no point in saying that the thralls ran off to become Danes, which technically speaking they can’t (Moreover, in a matter of minutes, W will tell us that the English are such cowards that one Dane can put ten or more of them to flight). But thralls can run off to follow a pursuit as base as the mind of a thrall or a Dane. Vikings, Huns and Fundamentalists belong in the same rhetorical toolbox.

Nevertheless, things changed in 1016 CE when the war was over and Canute became King of England.

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article:

Crumlin-Pedersen, Ole. 2011. Viking Age Iconography and the Square Sail. Maritime Archaeology Newsletter from Denmark, No 26, Summer 2011, pp. 12-16.

The porch of Nysätra Church. Bloom’s Day 2011. Photo Åsa Larsson.

The church porch at Nysätra, Uppland, reveals a Beowulfian detail that may or may not be relevant. From the poem we gather that King Hrothgar’s hall is kept together by an iron band preventing the walls of Heorot, the world’s most impressive mead hall, to fall down and out into Denmark when Beowulf and Grendel are fighting.  The staves of the curved wall are kept in place by the band in the same way as the staves of a barrel are kept together by a hoop[1]. Today, we like to think that supporting walls stand by themselves and consequently the Beowulfian solution appears primitive or ‘poetic’—a dream of Walter Mitty’s: a cooper’s apprentice who steps in to save the Iron Age master builder at a loss—or perhaps not. In theory one may infer that the band matches prehistoric ideas on the strength and mechanics of materials and it is thus a good idea if it works, but did it and could it? Is it symbolic and/or naturalistic? Can we trust prehistoric man to express himself in such a way that we understand him? Well, in Nysätra at least they did their best. The band is there. Ought we try it reconstructing Iron Age halls?

This question marks a classical stage in the art of archaeological reconstruction: To begin with we base ourselves on archaeological records, but quite soon the few descriptive prehistoric sources and possible historical echoes of a prehistoric reality must be taken into account – posing the above question marks this step. Surprisingly often we are prepared to combine the archaeological record and the historical echoes disregarding prehistoric descriptions. Or in the odd case, paying homage to Levi-Strauss’ concept of Inversion, to trust prehistoric descriptions blindly.

The psychology of the general situation is nothing but simple: As modern academics we are pleased to leave science and desktop, go practical and low-tech reviving among other things the ingenuity of techniques we thought were lost. Much to our satisfaction, we detect a number of marginalized craftsmen with a fund of sophisticated and helpful knowledge. Combining this knowledge and our strict interpretations, suggests that lost traditions were in reality not lost, but just a historical sequence of change, gradually falling into oblivion. And together we, academics and craftsmen, a brotherhood hitherto unknown to ourselves, have rescued technique and indeed History as palimpsest of events. Today the Landscape is our best beloved palimpsest metaphor because everything happens again and again in largely the same landscapes. To archaeologists, actions, the result of actions and painstaking documentation of actions, don’t lie, but other sources may indeed. In fact the loss of the ‘knowledge of the hand’ is at the heart of archaeological cultural criticism[2].

Nevertheless, aided by post-modern criticism, the ability of material culture, past and present, to err repeatedly and lie habitually and proceed rationally or irrationally as best it pleases, has become part and parcel of intellectual, if not popular insights.

Today, the past poses a problem since it has become post-modernized to fit the present society, and traditional archaeologists have lost their exclusive rights to point to the ingenuity of the practical, noble or savage past criticizing the present. Moreover, anti intellectualism, the vulgar companion escorting post modernism, has taken the lead and archaeologists who want their criticism of modern projects to succeed shall thus have to form alliances with moderate or nationalistic politicians, heritage management and journalists who defend traditional values.

In maritime archaeology, reconstruction is of paramount importance and public interest, and reconstructions a cardinal step forward in the late 20th century. Because building is such a technique-centred occupation it is based on the interaction between archaeological documentation and historically documented and traditional craftsmanship, in themselves difficult to value. Habitually disregarding the somewhat ambiguous near-contemporary descriptions is cardinal to the trade, but in maritime archaeology at the beginning of the new millennium, inspired by post-modern critique, exactly this material was introduced into the art of reconstruction (reconstructing houses it happened in the 1980s). The critique pointed out that during the Carolingian Iron Age (CIA) and Early Middle Ages (EMA) different sails and thus sailing techniques were in use, because different sails can be seen in a number very different of depictions of rigged ships[3].

In the CIA or EMA, ships could be rigged in ways that would have reminded us of Nordlandsbåtar, fishing in Lofoten c. 1900, with high and narrow sails on tall masts. But they could also be rigged similarly to the ships on the Hedeby coins, i.e. with lowly and broad sails on shorter masts.

In this summer’s Newsletter Ole Crumlin-Pedersen (OC-P) sets out to refute the value of CIA and EMA depictions of ships. His arguments are in part the same as in 2005, stating that the boats illustrate mythological phenomena such as Nagelfar, Skiðblaðnir or the ‘Ship of Luck’, i.e. phenomena as surreal or fantastic or poetic as Sleipner with his eight legs[4]. This is not much of an argument since similar sails are depicted in very different contexts and contexts made meaningful by means of subtle maritime differences. Moreover, representations of myth need not be fantastic, they may as well be naturalistic or an ideogrammatic (hieroglyphic) representation of the real world. Even if we argue, as it has been done, that the Oseberg ship was built for rituals only, why not the unlikely Ship of Funeral eventually buried in the mound, this seems not to deprive it of its real-ship qualities.

OC-P’s second argument concerns the relation between realism, iconography, and aesthetics. Both his arguments are constructed to nullify the arguments in the article De gotlandske billedsten og rekonstruktionen af vikingeskibenes sejl – The Gotlandic Picture Stones and the Reconstruction of the Sails of the Viking Ships, by Ole Thirup Kastholm (OTK).

This theoretical discussion concerning the above relation is difficult to follow, but both OTK’s and OC-P’s arguments are nevertheless based mainly upon the authors’ notion of common sense. Perhaps one might say that they share the same theoretical problem, i.e. understanding how the expression of a figurative pattern balances between naturalistic and symbolic dimensions. Their quest for clarity is such that both find it an epistemological problem and a dilemma that ‘in monumental art a form of conservatism may prevail’ (an opinion quoted by OTK and probably embraced also by OC-P). Prevail! Well, not only in art, not only in monumentality, not only conservatism, not only a form, and not simply prevail.

Ironically the material under discussion was introduced, by OTK in the most traditional of journals, Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed og historie, 2005 (2009), and thus a fine proof that a framework befitting the backlash-return of traditional archaeology, which loves simple revealing pictures from prehistory, lent itself to criticizing the scientific archaeology of shipbuilding techniques (founded on the law of Rationality, Progress and Development) from a post-modern angle. Needless to say such criticism cannot be expressed overtly in Aarbøger and properly not ostentatiously in an academic thesis supervised by Ulla Lund Hansen. OTK’s Aarbøger–version is thus model: A good overview and an investigation, firmly located in maritime as well as traditional archaeological practice, blurring the theoretical discussion nicely (iconography isn’t really that important), wrapping up its primary discussion on the proportions of the sails in an analysis of picture stones, eventually revealing the important archaeological issue:

During the last 20 years, the reconstruction of the five ships from Skuldelev has created the stereotype Viking ship. This must not be taken to mean that they are all the same – the unmatched quality of the original Skuldelev ships is indeed that they are widely different when it comes to origin and type representing 11th century navigation in Scandinavia in a general way. On the contrary, it means that they have all been reconstructed based on the same fundamental idea, needless to say with regards to the growing competence among researchers at the drawing-table as well as the craftsmen involved. (OTK p 132, my translation)

This is classical post-modern critique, worthy of the 1970s, pointing out the self-fulfilling prophecies and the standardizing, simplifying and stereotype character of nomothetic research—and the Skuldelev ships are by no means the only stereotypes of contemporary Danish archaeology. This quotation is not a proper Aarbøger-preamble, not even forty years too late. In other journals, other countries or other disciplinary contexts voicing this critique may be of historical interest only, but in Maritime and Danish Archaeology OTK’s contribution, OC-P’s answer and the columns of Aarbøger and Newsletter make up the only possible road to emancipation and the end of traditional archaeology. Ninety percent of the contributions are ritual, covering-up their central messages.

So, can we trust prehistoric man? Trust him always to get it wrong drawing broad sails when she knows we know they are narrow? Or trust him deliberately to go for non-existing solutions, just to make this point, because people may otherwise believe the ships to be real. Believe her to draw a sharp divide between Myth and Reality. The answer is No! We can’t trust prehistoric man any longer. She has stopped being primitive and become us, writing meta-textual critical articles and critical answers[5].

[1] This point is discussed in The Idea of the Good in Late Iron Age Society, 1998:42f. In Beowulf, bands, iron bands and bindings are effective, high-tech and magic.

[2] There are well-known mantras to this end, such as: ‘Modern man can walk the moon, but never weave the linen of King Tut’.

[3] OTK doesn’t argue for a shift of paradigm, replacing one sail with another. In the festschrift to Arne Emil Christensen, 2006, Klink og sejl, Vegard Heide, Eldar Heide ( and Terje Planke in a trilogy of articles, did just that.

[4] There are very many metaphorical ships: the ark of faith, the ship of Good Nature, ship of death, the ship of Jesus Christ, the rulers frail bark (holding on to) the ship of the people, the Ship of State and the (ever renewed and puzzling) Ship of Theseus and so on—in short, a ship for any kind of weather.

[5] A meta text is a text about a text.  In reality OTK and OC-P write about the question ‘can we trust prehistoric man (to express himself in such a way that I understand him)?’ OTK’s and OC-P’s texts are thus ‘meta-textual’ because they comment upon this question without explicitly posing it.