Vestfold Barrows and Mead-Halls

The Midgardsenteret visitors’ centre at Borre invited me to give a talk about my Östergötland elite settlement project. This went well, with a sizeable and appreciative audience last night. One gentleman explained that they had all learned Swedish from watching kids’ TV when they were little. Today I went on a royal Late Iron Age binge.

This is Vestfold, home of the Norwegian branch of the Ynglingar dynasty, with sites like Oseberg, Gokstad, Kaupang, Huseby, Gulli – and Borre. The ancient cemetery starts right outside the main entrance to Midgardsenteret with some low mounds of respectable diameter. And then, as you walk down the slow slope towards the shore of Viken, the place goes absolutely nuts with absurdly huge barrows.

One of the largest ones was quarried away for road-building in the 19th century, yielding the first known but poorly preserved major ship burial, dating to the early 10th century. There’s been debate over whether Borre is really the dynastic burial site of the Ynglingar whom Snorri Sturluson tells of in the Heimskringla. I’ll just say this. If that line of Viking Period kings was an historical reality – which no historian seems to question seriously – then there is no way in Hel that they would have allowed anybody else to accumulate a uniquely huge barrow cemetery anywhere west of the Scandinavian mountain range – let alone at Borre, smack bang in the middle of Vestfold. The minute another family tried to build their barrow number two, or a slightly too large barrow number one, their mead hall would be burning merrily and surrounded by the Ynglingar retinue on a cleanup mission, swords in hands. Also, each barrow at Borre presupposes control over huge labour, which equals political power.

I scaled all the major barrows and cairns including the isolated Fiddler’s Barrow to the south, saw the sunken traces of Bjørn Myhre’s 1980s/90s test trenches (no archive report, no publication), saw the tricorn, saw the site of the great hall foundations revealed by GP radar, and looked unhappily at the huge robber trenches in the barrows. I really hope they’re 13th century (and thus evidence for behaviour among people I study) and not 18th century (and thus modern vandalism). Then I checked out the unusually early and unusually oriented church nearby. That’s what the Borre family built after they quit erecting barrows. And finally I was shown the new mead hall reconstruction near Borre, huge and ornately carved in the Oseberg style, with a twelve metre roof and narrative relief panels on the four central roof posts. The tale of Beowulf is illustrated by the same Vendel helmet warrior images as grace Fornvännen’s cover!

After lunch the Midgardsentret’s master blacksmith Hans Johnny Hansen drove me to the Oseberg ship barrow, sitting next to a little stream at the bottom of a wide valley, the least monumental location possible. On past the Traveller’s Barrow to Tønsberg where H.J. showed me the new replica of the Oseberg ship – blew my mind! Also lovely replicas of the smaller Gokstad rowboats and a replica of another mid-size ship. The master smith, who personally made all the thousands of clench nails for the Oseberg replica, pointed at the brass screws holding this latter ship together and made skeptical noises.

I spent my last two hours in Tønsberg at the museum, checking out the Klåstad wreck of a 10th century trading ship, the collection of whale skeletons, finds from the two 12th century battlefields at Re and an exhibition about the resistance against the German occupation in the 40s. I was chilled to read an account by their regional leader of how two young local women were found through phone wire tapping to have taken lovers in the Gestapo. The resistance immediately kidnapped and jailed both women. “We were debating whether to terminate or deport them. But finally we sent them by boat to Sweden, largely because they had made themselves useful in jail, cleaning the place up and cooking for the guards. They later sent Christmas cards from Sweden to their lovers, which we intercepted, but they didn’t seem to abuse their situation over there. So I’m glad we decided to let them live.” After the war, the children born to such women during the occupation were infamously poorly treated.

Comments

  1. #1 Birger Johansson
    February 15, 2013

    “The children born to such women during the occupation were infamously poorly treated” which is why a child that grew up to become an ABBA singer was raised in Sweden. Women were judged much more harshly than men. You could be a member of Waffen-SS operating in Finland and get a short jail term after the war, but there was no amnesty for women who objectively had done no harm.
    -I wonder how modern “acid rain” has affected the preservation of the as-yet unexcavated artefacts. Is Vestfold outside the major fallout pattern of acid rain in northern Europe?

  2. #2 Kevin
    February 15, 2013

    The Oseberg ship is spectacular, great pictures! And that gorgeous cart, and tapestry fragments showing them driving just such carts — one could hardly ask for a better find. Thanks for the hot tip on the museum in Tønsberg, had no idea it was there and it sounds awesome.

    My mom was born in ’43 a stone’s-throw from Gokstadhaugen. The story is that her father was a neutral-Swedish fisherman living there who took care of Grandma while Grandpa was stuck out of the country due to the war. But one wonders. The shame is largely why they emigrated and why I’m here in America.

  3. #3 Martin R
    February 15, 2013

    Birger, there’s work published showing that acid rain across SW Sweden does indeed damage underground ancient metalwork. All the more urgent to get honest detectorists onto those fields.

    Kevin, harsh story! The lot of women in Scandinavia has certainly improved since then.

  4. #4 Jakob Øhlenschlæger
    February 16, 2013

    Martin, guess you’re talking about this publication: http://samla.raa.se/xmlui/handle/raa/69 .

  5. #5 Martin R
    February 16, 2013

    Yep Jakob indeed.

  6. #6 dustbubble
    Bordor
    February 23, 2013

    Those whale foetuses would look epic, cast cire-perdue in gilt-bronze, and rivetted to a shield.
    Or carved into a pictish symbol-stone. Well spooky.

  7. #7 bonor
    Norge
    March 9, 2013

    When Shetleig dug the Oseberg burial-mound, before uncovering the ship he found two spades – both well used, one more the other less broken. Lucklily he saved the spades too – since they were evidence of what he got confirmed – the grave-chamber had been plundered.

    A couple of years ago the spades came out of the closet and a dedro proved them to be very close to 1000 yrs old. Which plays inot the period of Olav Tryggvasson, Norway’s first known Quisling…

    http://www.arkeologiforum.se/forum/index.php/topic,3920.msg31366.html#msg31366

  8. #8 bonor
    March 9, 2013

    I’ll just say this. If that line of Viking Period kings was an historical reality – which no historian seems to question seriously – then there is no way in Hel that they would have allowed anybody else to accumulate a uniquely huge barrow cemetery anywhere west of the Scandinavian mountain range – let alone at Borre,”

    Borre lies east of the Scandinavian mountain-range, downhills into ‘Vestmare’ – the old name for the western shores of the larger Oslofjord. This is why the norwegians ca the area around the Oslo-fjord for “East-country” (Østlandet) – contrary to “Western-land” (Vestlandet) – on the western side of the highets and largest part of the Scandinavian Mountain Range.

    The Oslo-fjord area used to be gouverned from the mounth of its largest river (Glomma) – which used to end in a waterfall, meeting the sea at Sarpsborg. Anyone who have experience the archipelago – and the mesolithic settlements – just outside and south of Sarpsborg – will understand what side of the fjord that were the more productive in basic foods.

    Beside a gouverning centre with a (petty) king, it seems they have had dukes (“herser”/”lendermenn”) as well – in each shire, from Lindesnes to Buhuslän. Vestfold would primarily be one of these shires – and most graves should be from the lesser nobility, i.e. regional dukes or local earls. This doesn’t imply that none of the old royals of the area could be buried in the Vestfold. A few probably did, but the main contingent wold be regional and local heads.

    “… smack bang in the middle of Vestfold. The minute another family tried to build their barrow number two, or a slightly too large barrow number one, their mead hall would be burning merrily and surrounded by the Ynglingar retinue on a cleanup mission, swords in hands.”

    The first rpoyal line in this areais called “Raumer”, who made “Raumariket”. The viking-time sea-kings from the ynglinga-line of Ragnar Lodbrok is a peculiar phenomenon from the viking-time – when the old petty-ingdoms of Scandinavia had to elect a common Admiral – called “Sea-king” – that were given the duty and the rigthws nesseacary to mobilize, train and build a naval fleet of warriors – good to move and figth – on borh sea and land. Without these common commanders from the Ynglinga-family – like Ragnar Lodbrok and his famous sons and grandsons – there wouldn’t have been any viking interferences, invasions and attacks, in neither England nor France, Spain and Italy. But that never meant that the old kinglines and their regional nobility was drivn away or killed. They still existed and still took care of the traditional (civil) part of the royal duties. Before more details can be deducted about the iron age nobility of Norway there’s no way to tell which of these families have been buried there.

    Yoiu ma notice that the first of these ynglings – Halvdan Svarte – lived from about 820 to 871. 872 his son Harald was cheered as the common head of all the armed forces of the Oslo-bay kingdom, as well as the other petty-kingdom (Håleyg-family), that used to rule from Lindesnes to Lofoten, sed in front of the largest river of west-coast Norway, at he north end of todays Trondheimsfjord. When both these tribes – with all their “free men” (of middle and lower nobility) – could join forces the Norwegian Fleet happened to become the most dreadful of them all – since they already had the skills and materials to build really large and speedy longships – able to consistenly cross the waves of the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the English Channel – with raids down to Biscay, Gibraltar and the Meds.


    “Also, each barrow at Borre presupposes control over huge labour, which equals political power.”

    A huge grave-mound equals “a widely appreciated deceased”. The violent tyrrant commanding people to heavy slave-labour – to build a gravemount to himself – is a factoid from the murky days of social-darwinism. So you may have to come up with a better buzz-word than “control” to explain why these people made all these artwork and grave-monuments. What else than to bear witness about themselves and their various tasks and walks of life?

    When a highly appreciatd head of the family passed away the entire family would participate in making these small mus-ol-eums. Now at that time the entire community – and even a shire – could belong to the family of a deceased chieftain or deity. So – again – if the appreciation was high and wide enough – the hands would be many and the mound become impressive, even when the gravegods could be poor or non-existant.

  9. #9 Jonathan Jarrett
    Oxford, UK
    March 18, 2013

    Good gracious, that comment about the whale foetuses belonging on a Pictish stone is altogether too close to the mark. But how many foetal whales could be brought ashore in the early Middle Ages? They could hardly have been familiar sights… What are these ones doing in the collection, Martin?

  10. #10 Martin R
    March 19, 2013

    The collection policy seems to have been “funny stuff we find when we butcher whales”. On the wall near the fetus jars is a severely malformed whale mandible.