Bronze Age Mortuary Cult In Viborg

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Yesterday I went to Jutish Viborg by train, plane and bus. This took a bit less than eight hours. Exiting Aalborg airport into the icy sleet I managed to walk straight into the glass wind breaker outside the turnstile, banging my forehead and knee. Everybody around studiously avoided noticing my antics. On arriving in Viborg I found the museum, met some colleagues and received a key for the visiting scholars’ building at Asmild that I’m staying in. Then to the city library where there is warmth and (flaky) wifi, and where I am now sitting again. Wednesday ended in good company with colleagues at the Chinese buffet place The Great Wall. (I complimented the cook in bad Mandarin and asked about the mantou.)

Sadly I have a Danish language problem. I read it all the time and I can usually follow a public talk in Danish unless the speaker is from rural Funen. But I find it really hard to pick up more than about every third word of an informal multilateral conversation in a noisy environment. And people here don’t understand my Swedish very well either. So I’ve been speaking slow Swedish with many pauses and as many Danish words as I can remember, or falling back on English.

This morning was lovely and sunny. I walked across the isthmus into town and treated myself to a hotel breakfast and speedy wifi. Then a nice walk back clockwise around half of the South Lake to the South Mill where the seminar I’d come for was.

It’s been an interesting day and I’ve talked to about a score of people, several of whom I’ve been corresponding with for years but never met before. Notable among the latter are Skalk’s editor Christian Adamsen, Bronze Age nestor Henrik Thrane and my fellow sacrificial finds scholar Lise Frost. The list of attendees numbers 55 people, mostly Jutish contract archaeologists and museum curators.

The theme was Bronze Age mortuary cult in the local cultural landscape. It is common knowledge that the inhumation barrows of the Early Bronze Age tended to be re-used for urn burial in the Late Bronze Age. But here we got to see how elaborate this re-use could be. Various structures were often built along the foot of such a re-used barrow, including paired post holes suggesting little wooden altars or pulpits to communicate with a given burial, large semicircular ditch features and entire post-borne buildings. Often LBA people actually preferred Neolithic barrows to the more recent EBA ones. Urn burials were not just inserted into a barrow’s fabric, but also often extended onto flat ground around it, particularly in the Early Iron Age.

Our charming host Martin Mikkelsen explained something that made me face-palm. Of course all ancient monuments sustain damage if you plough them. And if you plough over a BA barrow, you will destroy a lot of the LBA urn burials inserted into its upper layers. Keep at it long enough, and in the end you will of course hit the primary EBA burial too. But…

When the Danes realised these threats, they scheduled a lot of their best-preserved barrows, which meant that the farmers couldn’t plough over them. Instead they ploughed around them, since the visible monument was what enjoyed protection. (In bad cases they would plough the barrow square.) This means that a scheduled barrow is usually better-preserved today, but whatever was around it under flat ground is pretty much gone. Whereas an unscheduled barrow in tilled soil is usually hard to even find any more, but the subterranean LBA and EIA features around its foot are well preserved – because the farmer has ploughed out the barrow to form a protective layer of deeper plough soil over the flat ground features!

The landscape archaeological theme that ostensibly binds this series of seminars together (I reviewed previous report here) was almost entirely absent from the proceedings. One guy from Odense did make some comments on such aspects, but since Odense is on Funen I couldn’t quite understand what he said.

In other news, I received the brand new report from last year’s seminar, titled Bebyggelsen I yngre bronzealders lokale kulturlandskab (Eds Sanne Boddum et al., Viborg 2012), and an off-print of a new paper where they have radiocarbon-dated cremated bones from furnished graves to test the absolute chronology of the Danish Bronze Age. No big surprises turned up there, showing that Oscar Montelius got it about right in the 1880s by means of cross-dating with Mediterranean and Near Eastern written dynastic chronology. The main piece of news in Bronze Age chronology since then is that the period starts closer to 1700 than 1800 BC as Montelius thought.

I shall now buy some breakfast for tomorrow, eat some kebab and wend my way back to Asmild for an off-line evening of reading. Tomorrow I’ll hit the museum exhibits (to me, an archaeological museum is otherwise primarily a finds storage facility, where some objects can be unavailable for study because they are in the exhibition) and then take the half-past-five bus back to Aalborg. And I’ll try not to walk into that glass wind breaker again.

Comments

  1. #1 thomas ivarsson
    March 8, 2012

    The Danes are funny. The ones living in “Stor Byen” claim that they cannot understand our Scanian dialect, that is actually a form of east Danish, talked on Bornholm. They prefer the Stockholm Swedish accent. Danish from Fyn/Funen and southern Jutland is impossible for me to understand but I have no problem with the accent spoken on Danish TV and on Sealand.
    if you have time I would like to hear more about Oscar Montelius but keep on with what is discussed in Viborg.

  2. #2 Peter N
    March 8, 2012

    It sounds like an absolutely splendid day!

    I’m curious about: “Oscar Montelius got it about right in the 1880s by means of cross-dating with Mediterranean and Near Eastern written dynastic chronology.” Was there contact between Scandinavia and the Near East?

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    March 9, 2012

    Densely populated agricultural areas do not mix well with archaeology :-(
    Did you remember to sample the Danish beers? Late in the evening everybody’s speech get intelligible, so you won’t feel outside.
    — — — — — — — — —
    (OT) The bones of slaves:
    “DNA testing on 2,000-year-old bones in Italy reveal East Asian ancestry” http://www.physorg.com/news184269403.html
    “Archaeologists unearth slave burial ground on St. Helena” http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-03-archaeologists-unearth-slave-burial-ground.html

  4. #4 Martin R
    March 9, 2012

    Montelius established links by means of chains of find combinations, starting e.g. with a German grave containing a Danish dagger and moving south in this manner.

  5. #5 Monado
    March 18, 2012

    Have you any information about this one?

    Ancient, unparalleled pre-Christian temple discovered in Norway.

    Located at the site of Ranheim, about 10 kilometers south of the Norwegian city of Trondheim, the astonishing discovery was unearthed while excavating foundations for new houses and includes a “gudehovet” or “god temple.” Occupied from the 6th or 5th century BCE until the 10th century AD/CE, the site shows signs of usage for animal sacrifice…. Over 1,000 years ago, the site was dismantled and covered by a thick layer of peat, evidently to protect it from marauding Christian invaders. These native Norse religionists apparently then fled to other places, such as Iceland, where they could re-erect their altars and re-establish the old religion.

    …Now the unique sanctuary of Ranheim may be removed forever to make way for housing.

  6. #6 Martin R
    March 18, 2012

    I’ve read about it. “Temple” gives you the wrong idea. It’s a small sanctuary for a single farmstead. Post-holes, stones and bones. No very interesting artefacts. The excavators are overselling it in my opinion.