Back to the Bronze Age Again


Yesterday I began my return to the Bronze Age. For most of my career I've mainly worked with the Late Iron Age, a period that dominates the landscape of agrarian Sweden completely through its cemeteries and place names. But my first published piece of research, indeed the first research I ever did, concerned the Late Bronze Age. And now I'm thinking of going back there once my current book project in Östergötland is done.

My old Bronze Age studies, I'm ashamed to admit, involved no field trips and hardly any artefact studies, but lots of archive work. I had no driver's license, hardly any thesis supervision, and I was 19. Also, the sites I worked with were old contract digs that had been obliterated by suburban land development, so there wasn't much left to see there.

Yesterday, for the first time, I sought out a piece of the Bronze Age landscape I looked at back then, getting the coordinates for some burnt-stone mounds and cupmark sites at Älvesta in Botkyrka parish out of the on-line site register and plugging them into my GPS. My objective was to see the visible monuments and do some fieldwalking, in the hopes of finding some flint and pottery and possible even an axe.

A cupmark, a simple Bronze Age rock art type, diameter a few centimeters.

It was a perfect day for a field trip. Sunshine, vegetation at its absolute annual minimum, naked ploughed fields where rain had washed all stones clean, yet still slightly frozen so that it wasn't all mushy. A naked field is something deeply unnatural, cultivated if you will, a vast expanse of earth without a straw growing on top. Ploughing damages sites, but it's been going on since prehistory, and it also makes sites uniquely accessible to archaeology.

I am not a very good fieldwalker, though I hope to learn. Through many hours of metal detecting in ploughed fields, I have found very little by sight, concentrating instead on the drone and grunting of the detector's headphones. Some people, like Niklas Krantz who found the gold foil figure die last spring, can see and metal-detect at the same time, filling their pockets with flint and pottery. I cannot. But yesterday I practiced, hands on my back, stooping slightly, placing my concentration in my eyes, trying to disregard the input from my ears.

And what did I find? At first, mainly a lot of brick fragments. A little non-knapped quartz. Half a meter of iron chain. A piece of plastic pipe. A few bones. Part of the iron "tyre" of a wagon. A piece of a white clay pipe stem. Sherds of glazed China. A thrashed aluminium soda can. These are all obvious things whose colour and shape differ dramatically from the ploughsoil, and I kept none of them: they wouldn't be informative to any scholar I know of, and I am no pack rat.


Then I found something worthwhile, not far from a registered site with a cupmarked outcrop and a drove of burnt stone. From the ploughsoil I picked up a grind stone, like a smooth distinctly faceted rock tennis ball, and three pieces of knapped quartz. No museum is likely to want these finds when I offer to hand them in, but they're definitely worth describing and reporting. They're evidence of a ploughed-out settlement site of respectable dimensions. Situated at 20 meters above sea level, the site most likely dates from the early-to-mid-1st Millennium BC.

My future project, as I imagine it now, will treat the landscape situation of Bronze Age wetland sacrificial deposits in relationship to a coeval settlement pattern. My idea is to identify common landscape characteristics of such wetland sites as are known to date, and then apply that knowledge to hopefully make some interesting new finds under controlled conditions. Wetland archaeology is a huge underexploited field offering preservation conditions and modes of prehistoric behaviour unknown elsewhere. But I'm not averse to some more fieldwalking either. It's fun!


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What is the size of that cup mark? It's a nice photo, but I can't tell the size of anything without a scale, rock hammer, trowel, pen, or penny. Is the cup mark surrounded by a circle or circles carved in the rock, like a lot of them in England? Is there just one on that rock or more? Were such marks also made earlier, like the Neolithic, in Sweden? I'm afraid I'm not up on my Swedish archaeology (beyond what you post on the blog).

Ellery, the caption says a few cm. diametre, and the moss on the rock is a size clue to me. I don't know much about Swedush archaeology either (though I'm interested, and have read several books), and don't know what the significance of cupmarks are. I've always thought (with absolutely no educated reason to thinks so) such things as rockmarkings probably originated in restless energy dissipation (sittin' around because the weather sucks or waiting for someone to tell you where to go or what to do) and evolved into having artistic or spiritual significance.

And I would love to go fieldwalking in Sweden! I do lots of field walking in Nova Scotia, but it's just for fun, involves no tools but my eyes, and generally all I find are the bits and pieces people tossed on the rock piles at field edges: china sherds, broken farm tools, animal bones - and once a complete set of very mossy false teeth.

Ellery, the cupmarks are generally about five cm in diameter. They tend to occur in clusters on fairly level rock surfaces, often hundreds in one spot. Most belong to the Bronze Age, though a few are known from the roof blocks of megalithic tombs of the Neolithic. No circles.

In my opinion, the sheer number of the cupmarks indicate that the important thing was to make them, not use them once they were there. Like a rosary: a Catholic's religious duty is not to own a big rosary, but to say a lot of prayers.

In a few cases, cupmarks mark the vulvas of women and cattle in figural rock carvings. Thus it has been suggested that they represent the female principle, which is otherwise largely absent from Bronze Age art. Phallic men are ubiquitous there.

Martin; you're field finds are nice, but let's discuss this. The river rock (there is no other way to create that form), may have had adaptive reuse to grind grain, but I'll bet the hand got tired pretty soon thereafter. But those pieces of quartz, well, they are pieces of quartz. There is no striking platform, nor any bulb of percussion, to be found; simply put, they are not flakes. There is an old saying in field survey, that lithics find you, you don't find them. Keep looking. If there is a site there in that field, the frequency of lithic recovery will present itself.

By Gary Turnquist (not verified) on 05 Mar 2008 #permalink

Gary Turnquist said: "... But those pieces of quartz, well, they are pieces of quartz. There is no striking platform, nor any bulb of percussion, to be found; simply put, they are not flakes..."

Since this is a field, plowed (sorry, gotta use the American spelling) for decades or possibly even a few centuries, plow blades have probably struck a lot of rocks, making them appear flaked. It is a common problem even during excavation: Was the rock flaked before or after the pickman hit it? At least a pick-induced break will be fresh -- in this field, a plow could have struck the rock over a hundred years ago.

Though no knapper myself, I do know that Stockholm-area quartz is the world's worst lithic raw material, fracturing in random ways and only extremely rarely displaying any bulb or wavies. People used it because it was there and flint was not.

As for the grindstone, it is of course hard to convey its shape and texture in a photograph, but I can assure you guys that no natural pebble ever had that shape. There are no rivers in the area. Faceted grindstones and hammer stones are a common find category on our settlement sites.

"Though no knapper myself, I do know that Stockholm-area quartz is the world's worst lithic raw material, fracturing in random ways and only extremely rarely displaying any bulb or wavies..."

I didn't mean to imply that your finds are definitely nothing -- I simply meant that plowed fields are hard on rocks and stone tools. Plows can make unworked rocks look flaked and turn stone tools into unrecognizable debris. Plows aren't kind to archaeology... And neither are glaciers, causing the current controversy in Minnesota.

"As for the grindstone, it is of course hard to convey its shape and texture in a photograph, but I can assure you guys that no natural pebble ever had that shape..."

Several people -- both academics and members of the public -- have brought in "unnaturally" spherical objects to the Geology Dept. In many cases, they were clearly natural formations, and only a few of them we couldn't conclusively assert either way. One was so large and round (and almost black in color), we nicknamed it "the cannonball" but it was a perfectly rounded rock -- I wish I had a photo of it. Another example is here -- it was a "ball" found near a Viking site.

Hej och grattis till fyndet av löparen.
Skålgropslokalen upptäckte jag själv på 1970-talet och jag har observerat att det finns bränd sten i åkern nedanför hällen. Därför är fyndet av löparen inte oväntat. Jag har själv funnit ett 25-tal löpare m fl fynd i närområdet västerut. Hoppas att få ta med ditt fynd i vår fyndlista över Botkyrka.I vår kommer man att göra en arkeologisk utredning kring Hågelby i samma dalgång.

Hälsningar från fieldwalkingkollegan Sven-Gunnar

By Sven-Gunnar Broström (not verified) on 06 Mar 2008 #permalink

Ellery, stone spheres occur naturally, e.g. in potholes. Irregular stone polyhedrons with polished facets, however, are not produced by the geology in my neck of the woods.

Martin said: "... Irregular stone polyhedrons with polished facets..."

Ah, I didn't initially get its polyhedral shape or the facets from the photo... but knowing that and reexamining the photo, I see what you mean. Cool. It also looks nicely hand-sized. So the facets do suggest grinding or polishing, not use as a hammerstone. Do you find ground stone tools around Sweden (axe heads, etc), or do you think that this was more likely for food processing and such? Out of curiosity, how does its size and angles compare to the cupmarks?

We get lots of ground stone tools from the Late Mesolithic through the Bronze Age. This grindstone, however, is the convex partner of a much larger concave underlier. Most likely used to grind grain. It doesn't fit the cupmarks.

The grindstone, a "runner" (SWE Lopare), is very classic.
But the Quartz. Not convincing at all. I can take a look next time we meet Martin. Dont be disappointed...

/ Rogge

Well, Roger, you know how it is with people who don't know the finds -- better that they collect too many bits of irrelevant stuff than that they discard interesting finds on their own. (-;

Martin, that´s true. Better collect all white stones. Look at them closer later. Keep the artefact and return nature to nature. Maybe some of the pieces you found are good, because quartz in eastern middle Sweden is close to beutiful during the Mesolithic but generally very ugly in later periods.

It is about time I got a reaction from you guys, and sparked a good discussion on the topic, to boot.
First, plowing. The moldboard plow (remember Jethro Tull?), folds the earth over one year, then back again, the next, but creates little real damage to lithics. I surface collected a site in Northern Virginia, years ago, with points and flakes of the same quartzite grain structure as the stones that Martin displayed. This field had been in production for at least 200 years, but the lithics were as undisturbed, structurally, as when then were created. In the field in Martin's photo, the loam seems deep, with little rock. In Minnesota, the glacial till would grind even large tools into grist after while!
Secondly, the sphereical stone tool. There may not be a river there, but there is a river somewhere. If there is a need for that tool, trade will provide that need. But I still think that the form would be hard on the knuckles.
Become sensitive to the past that surrounds you.

By Gary Turnquist (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink