Alvastra in the 1st Millennium

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I really enjoyed my work yesterday. The forenoon saw me in the stores of the Museum of National Antiquities looking through Otto Frödin’s uncatalogued finds from the “Sverkersgården” site near Alvastra monastery. Not only did I find all the elusive 1st Millennium stuff that’s mentioned in the literature but never illustrated, but I was also able to identify for the first time two small pieces of iron military equipment of the same date. These strengthen the case for counting Sverkersgården among the province’s rare Vendel Period elite settlements. After lunch at the Chinese place where I once learned my first word of Mandarin, zhacai, I spent the afternoon in the library, writing up Sverkersgården for the gazetteer part of my book manuscript.


Västra Tollstad Parish: Sverkersgården at Alvastra

The Alvastra area around the southern end of Mount Omberg at the shore of Lake Vättern is exceptionally rich in unusual archaeological sites (Browall 2003). Among the most well known are Östergötland’s only megalithic tomb, a unique and well-preserved Middle Neolithic pile dwelling, a fine Bronze Age rock art site, the province’s largest and richest inhumation cemetery of the Roman Period (briefly mentioned in chapter 3), an extremely large 11th century Christian cemetery with a very early little crypt church, and finally Alvastra monastery with surrounding installations.

The crypt church site is of particular interest within the context of this book. It is located on the higher of two natural terraces on the southern flank of Omberg. The site is known as “Sverkersgården”, a name coined by archaeologist Otto Frödin (1918a; 1918b) who believed that this had been the site of the Sverker family’s ancestral manor in the later 1st Millennium. That is in my opinion not unlikely, but certainly not established with the kind of rigour that would make it a good name. Still, there is no other name for the site unless you wish to use its number in the sites and monuments register, Raä 2.

Excavations at Sverkersgården were directed by Otto Frödin in 1917-21 and Lars Ersgård in 1992-1995. I directed 19 person-hours of metal detecting there in 2006. Sverkersgården is a multiperiod site with thick stratigraphy. The earliest known phase is represented by a black settlement layer where six charcoal samples have given radiocarbon dates in the interval 90-640 cal AD (Ersgård 2006c). The intrinsic age of the samples is unknown, but it appears safe to place the start of the activities no earlier than the Late Roman Iron Age. Some perforated sieve ware would date from this period or the Migration Period. The site has also yielded large amounts of undated habitation and craft debris, demonstrating work in antler (Frödin 1918a:119-120; 1918b:46), copper alloy casting (Ersgård 2006c) and the production and/or use of edged steel tools judging from the unusual number of whetstones. There are several Helgö type crucibles (fig. XXX), but no casting moulds representing identifiable object types have been found.

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Newly identified: a loop mount from the scabbard of a single-edged sword and a strap end from a bridle, both c. AD 540-700.

Sverkersgården becomes interesting for our current purposes with the Early Vendel Period. This is the first phase that has yielded datable metalwork: two small equal-armed brooches and a little fish-head sheet-metal pendant of the type endemic to Gotland (fig. XXX). Here or in the Middle Vendel Period we also have two small items of military equipment: an iron suspension mount for the scabbard of a seax sword (fig. XXX) and a profiled iron strap end for a bridle (fig. XXX). A gilded fragment of a finely sculpted copper-alloy object (fig. XXX) probably also belongs in this time frame and may be part of the hilt of a display sword.

Ersgård excavated a clay-lined hearth used for copper-alloy casting. Charcoal from the lining dates from AD 660-820, 840-860 (Lu-3998, 1290+-80 BP, 1 sigma). Charcoal from a layer associated with the hearth dates from AD 690-880 (Lu-4000, 1240+-60 BP, 1 sigma). The samples’ intrinsic ages are unknown. This places the use of that hearth in the Late Vendel or Early Viking Period, though the amount of debris recovered suggests that the metalworking may have gone on for quite some time before that date.

On the terrace below the crypt church is a ploughed-out cemetery identified by Frödin (1919a:2; 1919b:44), who could date it no closer than the Late Iron Age. My metal-detecting team found a key, a disc brooch and a trefoil brooch in this area, all dating from the Middle Viking Period (fig. XXX). Our finds bear no trace of fire damage though the grave Frödin found was a cremation. We thus appear to be dealing with a mixed-rite cemetery.

From about 1040 cal AD a very large Christian inhumation cemetery began to cover the former settlement and craft site (Ersgård REF). It is large enough to have been a regional “minster-like” cemetery and has yielded Eskilstuna-type grave monuments. Clas Tollin (2002:223) suggests that some great landowner or other powerful person may have centralised the burials of his subjects to this site. Some time about AD 1100 the little crypt church was added to the site, incorporating Eskilstuna monuments into its structure. In his 2006 book about Alvastra, “The Saint’s Dwelling”, Lars Ersgård suggests that the church may have been built in an attempt to establish a deceased member of the Sverker family as a dynastic saint along the lines of St. Canute and St. Erik.

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Comments

  1. #1 llewelly
    April 18, 2009

    The top picture clearly proves the Norse grew peanuts in Sweden during the Medieval Warm Period.

  2. #2 Jocke
    April 20, 2009

    Kul och intressant information Martin. Som sagt finns mycket intressant i dessa trakter Alvastra och Sverkersgården har man ju själv besökt ett flertal gånger.
    När finns det möjlighet att köpa din bok förresten. Hör av dig…..

  3. #3 Martin R
    April 20, 2009

    If all goes according to plan, I will submit the manuscript in autumn and the book will appear from the printers in 2010.