Chasing Ancient Kings


Dear Reader, let me tell you about my on-going research.

Written history begins late in Scandinavia. The 1st Millennium AD is an almost entirely prehistoric period here. Still, Scandinavian archaeologists have long had a pretty good general idea about late 1st Millennium political geography. The most affluent and powerful regions show up e.g. in hoard finds and expensively furnished graves. The distribution of Romanesque stone churches from the 11th and 12th centuries appears to correspond closely with the political heartlands of the preceding centuries, and with where there's good arable land for Medieval agriculture. We know where the petty kings held sway: Jutland, Funen, Zealand, Scania, Bornholm, Västergötland, Östergötland, Öland, Gotland, the Lake Mälaren provinces, the coastal provinces of southern Norway.

But knowing that there were major centres in a certain province isn't very satisfying. We want to know where the actual royal manors stood and what they were like. We want to stand on the site of the mead hall and delve into the royal household's rubbish pits. And in recent decades, work with metal detectors (most of it performed for free by Danish amateurs) has pinpointed a number of such places. Gudme on Funen, Uppåkra in Scania, Sorte Muld on Bornholm and Helgö on Lake Mälaren are among the wealthiest. But in most of Scandinavia's central areas, we haven't conclusively identified any central places of the 1st Millennium yet.

And that's where I come in. I live in the Lake Mälaren area, where there are lots of academic archaeologists. Two hours by car from my home, though, begins Östergötland, a really beefy central area, where there isn't a single research archaeologist to be seen. My skilful colleagues in that area all work at excavation units, doing rescue digs for highway and railroad projects. Such projects avoid promising central places. So I'm pretty much the only scholar active there at the moment who can choose sites to study solely on scientific grounds.

For a bit more than two years now, most of my work has been directed toward three main goals, all regarding the political elite of the late 1st Millennium AD in Östergötland.

  1. Surveying the available evidence for the presence of the elite.
  2. Finding elite settlement sites.
  3. Finding out in detail what such sites are like and comparing them to their peers in other central areas.

The short version, when I need to explain quickly what my research is about, is that I'm looking for the Iron Age kings of Östergötland. (There were most likely lots of petty kings at any one time.)

I'm pretty much finished with step 1, having collected a lot of data and read through the literature. This process has actually killed off a number of candidate sites that I have found wanting in evidential weight. Step 2 is on-going, with fieldwork touching upon elite graves and a number of ploughed-over sites. In this work I have collaborated with my dear learned friends Howard Williams, Tim Olsson and Marie Ohlsén, as well as with a large number of other people who have largely taken part without remuneration.

Here are a few links to my blogging of the past year, reporting on our discoveries.

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That sounds almost unbearably cool. When I was a teaching assistant I taught several units of ancient history and read up on the independant peoles beyond the edge of the Greek and Roman world. Most of what I read was about the steppe tribes--Scythian, Hun, Cimmerian, and Sarmatian--so I'm eager to hear about some new lost nations.

I thought studying elites was out of vogue in archaeology, smacking too much of Indiana Jones and Schliemann's gold. Isn't how the common people lived the archaeological order of the day?

Lost nations? Oh, you mean lost to written history. (-;

But you're right, it is almost unbearably cool.

Studying common people is the order of the day simply because such sites are the most common ones and often get hit by land development. I've spent twelve years studying elite sites and finds, and my work has been seen as interesting enough to generate adequate funding. The potsherds and burnt daub left behind by poor prehistoric people are boring. (-;

Two things.

  • Yet another Indiana Jones film is coming up! Mr Ford claims he's up for it.
  • Did you hear about the recent find of an iron age (romersk järnÃ¥lder) boy's grave on Lolland south of Sjælland? It was on the danish radio news yesterday. Apparently the local archaeologists have found the grave of a boy of aprox. 10 years' age buried with his fine stash and... wearing his spurs!This might spawn some discussion....

By the way, the fact that such a rich ('elite') grave in Lolland is dated as roman iron age is surprising, as Lolland is only known for it's riches in the following period; the germanic iron age (yngre järnålder). We might just need to revise our view of Lolland-Falster in the roman iron age, too.

Lolland is a fine place for obscenely rich Early Roman Period graves. The Hoby burial with the silver cups comes to mind. I'd love to learn about the new find!

The area of Lolland is 1243 square km and the Early Roman Iron Age is only 150 years long. How many stinking rich graves per century and square km do you expect to find? (-;