In recent years I’ve been involved in some archaeological fieldwork at Skamby in Kuddby parish, Östergötland, Sweden. I like to get a handle on the names of places where I work, what they mean, how they used to be pronounced in the Middle Ages. I was particularly interested in learning about Skamby, because read in modern Swedish, this very uncommon name means “Shame Village”.
There are two explanations for the name: a less entertaining one supported by linguistic scholarship, and a funny folk-etymology of recent centuries. I’ll give you the scholarly interpretation first.
Names ending in “-by” were mainly produced in the later 1st Millennium AD, as seen in the Danelaw in England where 10th century Danish invaders re-named hundreds of farmsteads Whitby, Rugby, Ingleby etc. A brooch that we found with metal detectors shows that there was a cemetery at Skamby already in the 2nd century AD, at a time when the place is unlikely to have been named anything ending in “-by”. So centuries later, the place was renamed, and the new name still sticks.
A farmstead a few kilometres to the east is named Österskam (“Eastern Shame” in modern Swedish), suggesting that the two names refer to the same thing. What the two farmsteads have in common is their location along a little stream valley, and so the place name scholars suggest that “skam” goes back to the Old Swedish skamber, meaning “short”, as in “the short stream”.
Folklore has far more entertaining ideas. It holds that Skamby was originally named Hedersby, “Honour Village”, until one Christmas Eve when there was a snow storm. A woman from Dalecarlia (the people of that province were known to migrate for work) knocked on the door and asked to come in from the cold. The people of Hedersby refused to let her in, and so she stumbled off into the snow and froze to death. Thus the new shameful name.
A large fallen orthostat by the left-hand corner of the barn in the top photograph is known as Dalkullestenen, “the Stone of the Woman of Dalecarlia”. Folklore is uncertain as to whether she turned into the stone or was just found dead near it. The 2nd century brooch was found fairly near the stone, and standing stones are typical markers for Early 1st Millennium male graves. So it’s a ploughed-out Early Roman Period cemetery. But a cool site with folklore is even more fun than a cool site without any.
Update 8 February: Between Skamby and Österskam are two other farmsteads named Hageby (“Pasture village”) and Ängeby (“Meadow village”). It has been suggested that it all started with a single early 1st Millennium farmstead named simply Skamber after the stream, at a time with a lesser population density. Skamber had fields and pastures and meadows. Then, in the mid-1st Millennium, it was divided into four “by” units which received names according to where they were on Skamber’s territory. The westernmost one inherited the mother farmstead’s name, with the suffix “-by” to mark that like its neighbours it was not a primary farmstead.
The Early Roman Period cemetery at Skamby suggests that the mother farmstead may actually have been located near Skamby.
Photographs by Howard Williams 2005.