My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I’m not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we’re getting the second worst possible results.
The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We’re certainly not there.
The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We’re not there either.
The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.
What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It’s like winning a year’s supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.
When you strip a field in Sweden’s southern third, there is an overwhelming chance that you will run into an Early Iron Age settlement from c. 500 BC to AD 400. They are characterised by innumerable small pits filled with dark soil, a little charcoal and nothing else. Among them, you will find a good number of hearths, and if you’re lucky, a few house foundations made up of post holes. None of these features are likely to contain any small finds. The great majority of them can’t be ascribed any functional interpretation at all: they’re just pits. These settlement sites are the main occupation of Swedish contract archaeologists. I had the misfortune of spending the field season of 1992 on one of them, right under the current direct railway to Arlanda airport.
What has happened at Sättuna is apparently that the part of the mid-1st Millennium metalwork scatter that we have stripped is located on top of typical humdrum Early Iron Age settlement remains with a light dusting of lithics from shore-based activities in the
Middle Neolithic . The 6th century activities I came to study have apparently taken place on that era’s ground surface in this part of the site, not involving the digging of any deep pits, and so that material is now contained entirely in the ploughsoil, where it is for all practical purposes only accessible through metal detecting. The post holes of the 6th century buildings are very likely to be found under the adjoining field, where the metalwork scatter’s centre of gravity is, and where the land owner has just planted a crop of wheat-rye hybrid grain that cannot under any circumstances be disturbed.
But we soldier on bravely, cleaning the surface to find more pits and hearths, sectioning them, sieving the fills and finding almost nothing worth sticking in a zipper bag. We’ve done more than half of the sunken features already, but there is of course always the possibility that the next one you uncork is different from the rest. In the light of previous experience, though, this does not look at all likely.
BTW, today I came up with a pun.
Q: What do you call an archaeologist with nothing to ex