Barrow Building Rituals

Sun Spurge

My friend Dr Jens Heimdahl is a Renaissance man. He’s a quaternary geologist, an urban archaeologist, a palaeobotanist, a talented painter and a writer of essays on weird literature. He’s co-translated Lovecraft’s novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath into Swedish and illustrated it.

Jens recently studied the plant macrofossils me, Howard and Libby got out of a barrow in Sjögestad parish we test-trenched back in September. According to radiocarbon, the barrow was most likely built in the late 8th or the 9th century AD, that is, the Early Viking Period. With a diameter of 35 m and a height of 4,5 m, it’s a pretty serious barrow indicating control over some pretty serious labour. The people who had it built clearly also had the right to do ostentatious things to the landscape, which is a power in itself.

Our trench, out on the barrow’s periphery, measured only 2.5 by 1.5 meters. We found that the barrow had a typical Late 1st Millennium structure: a cremation layer covered by a stone cairn covered by an earthen mound. And in the mound fill, not far above the surface of the cairn, we found four splotches of charcoal, at least two of them clearly the remains of small fires lit on the spot while the barrow was being built.

Finding plant macrofossils is easy. Jens taught me the flotation method: mix an ample soil sample with water, churn it up vigorously, allow it to settle for a while, and then decant the water into a wire sieve. Carbonised seeds and other plant matter floats, and so the stuff ends up in the sieve, whence you collect it and put it in zippy bags. This way you don’t have to bring loads of soil home to the lab.

Writes Jens of the seeds he identified:

“The hearth appears to have been fed fresh spruce twigs that very likely made a lot of smoke and crackling sounds. … The sample … contained remains of a few juniper berries, a few wheat grains and a seed of Sun Spurge (Euphorbia helioscopa, Sw. revormstörel). The absence of juniper needles allows us to interpret the berries as a grave gift, not as part of juniper twigs put on the fire. The same applies to the wheat grains.

The Sun Spurge is harder to interpret. It’s probably a field weed that’s come in with the wheat … But perhaps it may have been deposited intentionally for ritual purposes. Sun Spurge is known from recent folk medicine (17th and 18th centuries) when it was used to treat diseases of the skin such as warts.” [The plant’s Swedish name means Ringworm Spurge, thus hinting at its uses.]

So what we’re seeing here is most likely traces of complicated rituals during the raising of the barrow, much as my Norwegian colleague Terje Gansum has suggested.

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  1. #1 Hans Persson
    February 2, 2007

    Sun spurge is still used to remove warts. I’ve used it myself.

  2. #2 Martin R
    February 2, 2007

    I gather the idea with warts is to get rid of the accumulating skin through “keratolysis”. That’s why duct tape cures warts. How do you apply the sun spurge?

  3. #3 Hans Persson
    February 2, 2007

    You break off the stem and apply the white fluid that seeps out over the wart.

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