Harbour of the Sheaf Kings


I've spent the day metal-detecting for a project called Vasakungarnas Djurhamn, that is, "Animal Harbour of the Sheaf Kings". This name may not make much sense to you, Dear Reader, so let me explain.

In the 1520s Gustaf Eriksson, the most successful of many ambitious young noblemen at the time who tended to end up decapitated, wrested Swedish royal power from the Danes with the aid of Lubeck. He soon implemented Reformation and used the riches of the church and monasteries to repay his debts and reorganise Sweden from the bottom up. A very good 2002 biography of the man has the subtitle "Father of a nation or tyrant?", and argues that Gustaf was both.

Gustaf's family crest depicted a crossbow-like thingy that may or may not have been intended as a sheaf of corn, vase or vasa in the Swedish of the time. Medieval historians like to mention such heraldic logotypes after the names of people to tell them apart, since pretty much everybody was named Gustaf Eriksson or Erik Gustafsson at the time. Thus Gustaf is called Gustaf Eriksson (vasa), and is currently known colloquially as Gustaf Vasa. The word vasa has dropped out of the language and most people now believe it was simply his surname. Gustaf's dynasty, which retained the Swedish throne for two centuries, is known as the "Vasa kings".

Djurö ("animal island") is a fair-sized island in the Stockholm archipelago, located right where the islands start to grow small and sporadic as one moves east. Written sources document an important harbour there from about 1450 to 1700, known as Djurhamn, "animal harbour".

Djurhamn was its era's equivalent of a major airport. Everyone who came to Stockholm from the south or vice versa by boat (and the roads were crap) passed this place, and many spent days or weeks there waiting for wind. While waiting, a lot of them took care of their paperwork, and so the archives of the time are full of letters dated at Djurhamn. Fleets anchored there on their way to attack Stockholm or from Stockholm to attack areas in the southern Baltic during the period's endless wars. Thousands of people would stay there at any one time, some on their ships, others in buildings or camps on Djurö. And that's where I come in.

The project aims to make Djurhamn a tourist attraction. The area is very nice in the summers and many people have summer houses there -- but there isn't really anything to show the tourists. The 1683 chapel is nice enough, but all of southern Sweden is dotted every few kilometres with far more venerable parish churches. From an archaeological point of view, all we currently know of at Djurhamn is a great big garbage dump on the bottom of the harbour basin and a cemetery revealed by house construction efforts near the shore. Also a heavily looted shipwreck site some ways off, the remains of the Riksvasa, a huge man-o-war. It caught fire in 1623 while riding at anchor in Djurhamn and was tugged away to keep it from setting other ships ablaze.

The project hired me as a consultant after I suggested that there must be remains of buildings, quays, jetties and wharfs on dry land around Djurhamn. The shoreline has receded two vertical metres since AD 1600, so all the land and shore installations' remains must be conveniently (and cheaply) available for study though no organic material is likely to survive.

Much of the harbour basin's shores are bare cliffs, some of them steep and all of them unable to hide any archaeological material beyond the odd rock carving. I thus started by scoping out where there are reasonably flat earth-covered surfaces. Turns out there are two sites, both of them now partly wooded, partly the gardens of summer houses, on either side of Gransberget Hill ("spruce mountain"). With the land-owners' and county archaeologist's gracious permission, today I went over the western area with my metal detector.

Sadly I found nothing that I can definitely date before AD 1800, and most of what I did find is 20th century stuff. Also, I discovered that a mysterious land formation that looks almost like the remains of a drydock and shows up clearly in the altitude curves on maps is in fact an old sand quarry dug inward from the shore, probably in the 1800s judging from coins and the size of trees growing in it.

So, scientifically no breakthroughs, but still fun and the weather was excellent. I watched two squirrels fighting and chasing each other up a tree, had some blueberries and raspberries, and made one rare and beautiful find that must be the material record of boys playing in the woods in the inter-war years: part of a toy soldier.


Next I've got to get hold of the landowner east of Gransberget Hill to ask for permission. His lawns are on a perfect level above the sea, and the cemetery I mentioned is partly under his barn.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , , .]

More like this

That is so freaking cool, Martin! Not only did you get contracted in a very beautiful area, seems it comes with its own entertainment!


This is a fantastic metal detecting story. If you have others.. let me know I'd love to post some of your metal detecting experiences on detectorbase.com. Let me know!


Is the biography available in English? Gustaf Vasa is known in Finnish as Kusta Vaasa, and the Vaasa is still kept. He's also apparently the guy responsible for the Finnish genetic diseases: he told the Finns to colonise central Finland, and only a few went.

Sounds like you're having a lot of fun, and we've finally got some good weather!


Sorry, the only translation so far of Lars-Olof Larsson's book seems to be an Estonian one from 2005. But if you know Finnish then perhaps you can read Estonian at a pinch?

Hello Martin
I think it's very nice to see a professional archaeologist that personally uses metal detector for research purposes. In Denmark we have a well functioning and fruitful cooperation between amateur detectorists and the archaeological museums. This has unfortunately led to the misconceptions that amateurs are the only ones who can do the job, or that metal detection is not something for the serious scholar. Both are quite wrong in my view. Locating and investigating new archaeological sites is a fundamental part of the science, both from a site protection and research point of view. And metal detecting is definitely a good way to do this. Keep up the good work!


Thanks Esben! I'm certainly not as good as the hard-core amateurs, but I'm learning all the time and I work a lot with amateurs. You will find quite a few entries about metal detecting both here and at my old site, Salto sobrius.

Oh, now this was interesting. So what we today call the "Vasa clan" actually didn't refer to themselves with that name? And we don't even know for sure that their crest is a sheaf?

Medieval families must have had some way to refer to themselves as they were very real political entities. But as I understand things, they didn't write about these power factions in the meagre sources they left behind. Historians can only make educated guesswork along the lines of "the noblemen opposing King Magnus Eriksson in this document all belonged to a family network going back to Earl Naeskonung the Smelly" And before Gustaf, his family hadn't been very big players.

True, historians aren't sure what the original Vasa crest depicted. But during the 16th century the stylized thing in the oldest surviving illustrations became fleshed out into a nice sheaf in royal iconography such as on coins.

Hey Doc, glad you got to find something besides tupperware. I'll take tin soldiers any day...seems like lots of folks consider toys thier best finds...I used to work for a fellow that told me marbles were not part of the archaeological record, but just lost and waiting to be found. About the confusion about the cross-bow/sheaf: I reckon most Americans wouldn't know what "sheaf" means either; my granddad said when he was a boy he always wondered why they were singing songs about "Bringing in the Sheets" and "The Cross-eyed Bear" in church. Hmm...a sandpit sort of implies that there are fills as well, so maybe you need the big yellow diesel shovel; the deepest I've ever found anything with a metal detector was less than a meter. I got to test under the Memphis Landing cobblestone pavement once; there was nothing photogenic or touristical to be had...muleshoes and barrelheads. I wonder what they think they can find to show folks? Pilings? One more item, a while back I was wondering if djur is cognate with deer.

Haha, the cross-eyed bear!

Sandpits do not imply fills anywhere near the pits themselves. People dig the pits to extract sand and move it to some other place. Here they used sailing ships, sandskutor, which is why the pit is on the shoreline.

Yes, djur is cognate with deer and Ge. Tier! Actually, I looked up Djurö yesterday and found that the place-name people believe the island was named for deer, not just any old animals.