Investigating the Field of Saint Olaf


Certain place names over most of agricultural Scandinavia suggest that sacred fields were once prominent features of the landscape there. This was in the 1st Millennium AD, the period I work with. We have places named Field of Thor, Field of Freyr, Field of Frigga, or just Field, and all tend to be central locations in their districts, often lending their names to Medieval Christian parishes after the end of the pagan cult. Place-name scholars are uncertain about exactly what these sacred fields were used for, but it seems likely that they were the sites of seasonal rituals having to do with fertility and rich crops. Perhaps each year's harvest began with ritual reaping in the sacred field?

In the province of Uppland is a hundred (a judicial and military district) named "Field of Thor": Torsåker. One of the parishes in this hundred is named "Central Place of Thor": Torstuna. Near the parish church is a great barrow. Very likely, Torstuna is an abbreviated version of Torsåkerstuna, "Central Place of Thor's Field", and chances are that the hundred assembly convened there in the Viking Period.

In his 2001 PhD thesis, Gudarnas platser, "The Places of the Gods", my buddy Per Vikstrand discussed Torstuna and a discovery he made about the place. Just north of the village, within clear view of both church and barrow, is a field with a very funny name on the oldest 18th century map. It's named The Field of Saint Olaf. This is, to my knowledge, a unique field name: pieces of land in Sweden are hardly ever named after saints. Per suggested that this might be the old Field of Thor, renamed with Christianisation. The step from a hammer-wielding pagan god to an axe-holding Viking saint may not have been very great.

At my suggestion, Per and I have gotten permits to metal-detect a number of fields with suggestive names that he has identified in the early maps. Today we went to the field of Saint Olaf in Torstuna and put in six man-hours of detector work plus six man-hours of fieldwalking (we only had one metal-detector between us). Our idea is to turn the sacred fields from a hypothesis among place-name scholars into an object of archaeological study.

The field adjoins an area full of earthworks and house foundations: they belong to a Bronze Age settlement site (like the one at Ãlvesta in Botkyrka) and a 19th century crofter's holding. The former may explain a burnt flint chip that we picked up and a certain amount of quartz debitage, dating from before our period of study. As for later centuries, we found two large sherds of fine glazed wheel-turned stoneware of the 19th 14th century.

But what about the 1st Millennium? Pieces of a strike-a-light flint with characteristic crush damage and a slate whetstone probably belong there. And a Viking Period padlock key certainly does! We managed to make contact with the Viking Period on our first try!

The finds are too few so far to support any detailed functional interpretation. But they do have one thing in common: they're small portable objects that people are likely to have brought with them on trips. To the hundred's sacred field, perhaps? The road to Torstuna is lined with rune stones. There is very little burnt stone and no visible charcoal in that field, so it doesn't look like a ploughed-out Viking Period settlement site.

I'm really tired now after a day walking in the sunshine on Saint Olaf's field.

Update 19 April: Dear Reader Dreikin posed a good question: "... how do you detect that these rocks are created by humans and not natural?"

Firstly, it's harder when you can only see a photograph. Secondly, it takes a certain amount of practice. Compared to natural pieces of rock, these two really stand out as modified: one by knapping and strike-a-lighting, the other by honing steel blades against the surface of the slate.

Also, I picked these two out when fieldwalking: I was standing up and they were half-buried in the surface of the earth. At that distance, I couldn't see the details that convinced me that they are artefacts. But I could see that the material was unusual: flint and slate. If the entire field had been littered with natural pieces of those materials, chances are I wouldn't have picked the modified ones up.

I've been a small-finds geek for 16 years. But I still don't have a good handle on the dreaded quartz, because of its unpredictable fracturing behaviour. If you give me a bag of quartz frags, I'll have to sort it into a small pile for "certainly modified", a middling one for "certainly unmodified" and a big pile for "maybe modified".

Update 21 May: I know nothing about historic-period pottery. The beautiful stoneware that I placed in the 14th century is in fact 19th century packaging for mineral water, seltzer bottles, made in the Rhineland. Thanks to pottery guru Mathias Bäck for setting me straight!

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Now it's unintentional that I sound like a creationist here (too much time on PZ's blog if I'm thinking of inserting things like that preface, methinks..), but how do you detect that these rocks are created by humans and not natural?

Congrats on the sweet key and the other knick-knacks!

Ah! Thank you. I'm more of a computer and lab guy, so I'm not too familiar with what would look natural vs man-made.