Since the autumn of 2009, I’ve spent most of my research efforts studying sacrificial finds in the Bronze Age local landscape. I was thus pleasantly surprised (though a little disappointed because I missed the whole thing) when I learned that there had been a symposium on the theme “Sacrificial finds in the Late Bronze Age local landscape” at the museum in Viborg, Jutland, in March last year. Recently, only about a year after the event, a fine proceedings volume (104 pp., A4 format, 2-column text, colour printing) was published, and I was kindly sent a copy for review here on Aard.

The volume contains seven papers ranging in length from 5 to 26 pages. All deal with the Danish Late Bronze Age. Three don’t actually say much about sacrificial finds, but concentrate on other aspects of the landscape (mainly traffic routes, graves and assembly sites with many cooking pits) and mention the sacrificial deposits only briefly in relation to these. The shortest paper is a poorly referenced contribution by a revered senior scholar who mainly opines on why the metalwork deposits were made and says little about their landscape situation. This leaves three solid papers for me to comment on that fit the volume’s title and are relevant to my own work.

The longest paper, by Martin Mikkelsen, takes the Fårdal find as its point of departure. This large mixed bronze hoard from central northern Jutland dates from about 800 BC and is mainly known for a handful of rare and intriguing figurines that may once have adorned a ceremonial ship model, as depicted in the period’s rock art. Railroad workers found it in 1926, and Hans Kjær commented in Aarbøger 1927 that the site appeared to have a peripheral location: “The manner of deposition seems to emphasise the general trait that gifts to a deity are placed at spots where no-one goes.”

Mikkelsen recounts the results of excavations and collections since Kjær’s time and shows that he was quite wrong. The deposit was actually buried on one of the aforementioned assembly sites with many cooking pits, and within a few kilometres are several others of the same kind as well as coeval burial sites, settlements and sacrificial deposits. This brings the location of the Lilla Härnevi hoard to mind, that was buried about 500 BC on a probably recently abandoned very large settlement site in Uppland.

Lifting his gaze, Mikkelsen proceeds to look at five other sacrificial finds in their landscape situations. This is where it gets really interesting to me, as I’m interested in the generalities here, in “landscape rules”. And sadly, Mikkelsen concludes,

“The picture that emerges from this attempt is ‘motley’. … By extension from these results, we must conclude that those sacrificial finds that have been found ‘near’ assembly sites [with many cooking pits] display such variation that we cannot operate with any simple relationship between sacrificial finds and assembly sites.” (pp. 57-58)

In other words, the situation at Fårdal cannot be generalised, and though Mikkelsen’s study collects lots of interesting information about six individual sacrificial sites in their landscapes, it does not arrive at results applicable to the entire class of sites. Nevertheless, it’s an honest attempt and a good paper.

*

In 2008, Lise Frost defended a PhD thesis on the landscape situation of Late Bronze Age metalwork deposits in the Himmerland (Cimmeria!) region of northern Jutland. Her contribution to the book is an 11-page summary of that unpublished work, with particular reference to four areas with evidence for repeated depositions. She sees a recurring (though far from universal) preference for bogs next to prominent hills, and for the vicinity of fords and probable road corridors, concluding in her summary,

“… depositions must be seen as an aspect of the spatial structure of a settlement complex. Centrality in this way can be connected to concentrations of hoard finds in areas significant for rituals. Areas, that can also lie close to important lines of transport and communication.” (p. 71)

This contact with settlement is something I see as well in the Lake Mälaren provinces of Sweden.

*

Martin Mikkelsen returns with five pages about a fine bronze sword of c. 1000 BC found in 1930 near Rødding, Rødding hundred, in central northern Jutland. The find spot has long been misidentified in the literature as a parish with the same name in another nearby hundred. Now Mikkelsen has re-identified the spot with great accuracy and gives it the same thorough treatment as he did the Fårdal find. There is settlement nearby, but possibly centuries later, and the spot is a nondescript and rather steep slope below the spot of a destroyed barrow. Mikkelsen argues, quite well IMHO, that this find is likely to be a non-ritual deposition intended for retrieval. But we can never know.

*

It really isn’t good enough for archaeology to continue sitting around waiting for the public to locate Bronze Age sacrificial sites, then look at each one in isolation as an interesting anecdote. We need to take a general look at the landscape situations involved, like Martin Mikkelsen and Lise Frost do, so that when someone makes a new find we can say “This is an expected spot” or “This is unusual”. And more importantly, we need to build models so that when given a piece of landscape to study, we can point to a spot on the map and say, “This is the most likely spot for a Bronze Age sacrifice”. The symposium publication discussed here contains much food for thought to anyone interested in this work.

Annual thematic symposia on Late Bronze Age landscape archaeology are planned to continue at Viborg and Holstebro museums until 2016. The next one, on burial, will take place in Viborg on 8 March 2012.


Boddum, S. et al. (eds). 2011. Depotfund i yngre bronzealderens lokale kulturlandskab. Yngre bronzealders kulturlandskab vol. 1. Viborg Stiftsmuseum & Holstebro Museum. ISBN 978-87-87272-94-0. [Order the book from Martin Mikkelsen.]

Comments

  1. #1 tenine
    July 20, 2011

    So the Bronze Age people of Scandinavia buried numerous caches of valuables. In the U.S. the only similar prehistoric sites are Paleoindian or Mississippian (as far as I know). The Paleoindians cached points and preforms. This was originally considered storage for future use, but this explanation is questioned. They might reflect some religious or magical cultural pattern. One Mississippian cache, found in Tennessee, is the Duck River Cache. This was a large collection of fine symbolic chert artifacts, including “swords”. These artifacts date to Late Mississippian times, 1450 A.D. or so. This cache was found by workmen and is likely considered to have been buried for future retrieval but was lost or forgotten.

  2. #2 Birger Johansson
    July 21, 2011

    “…We need to build models so that when given a piece of landscape to study, we can point to a spot on the map and say, “This is the most likely spot for a Bronze Age sacrifice”.

    But with such a fragmented record, due to sites being destroyed by later activity, is this realistic? It might work in the far north where sites have escaped being disturbed, but the really interesting bronze age communities were in regions that are densely populated today.
    Figuring out the criteria for choosing sacrifical sites would be as if the Rosetta stone had had 90% of its characters erased.

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 21, 2011

    No, I don’t think so. The Bronze Age record isn’t obliterated except in heavily built-up areas like the cities and their suburbs. Some of it (mainly the settlement sites) has been ploughed over, but is still there when you machine off the top 30 cm of ploughsoil. And the wetlands of the Lake Mälaren provinces are almost untouched as there has never been great demand for peat here. Boggy ground isn’t attractive for construction.

    My main worry is actually that the choice of sacrificial spots may turn out to have been haphazard, and that no specific landscape rules are there to be found.

  4. #4 Jakob Ø
    July 23, 2011

    Just a short note: The two pieces by Martin Mikkelsen can be found here as pdf: http://www.viborgstiftsmuseum.dk/da_c/arkaeologi/artikler/

    Btw, couldn’t help to notice that the prize of the publication is rather low compared to what you often have to pay for such “narrow” publications: 60 Danish kroner plus shipping.