Digging at the Finnestorp War Booty Sacrificial Site

i-fffd99f1f2c3b97c54c585dd57fa6716-Tva praktbleck in situ.JPG

Sösdala style silver sheet fittings. Image from the Finnestorp project's web site.

Among the many things Swedish archaeologists envy our Danish neighbours are their splendid war booty sacrifices mainly of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries AD. These are silted-up lakes whose anaerobic peat deposits are full of vandalised military equipment taken from less fortunate invading armies (more here). In Sweden, we know of only two major sites in this category: Skedemosse on Ãland, which was unfortunately drained and ploughed out long before archaeologists came to work there, and Finnestorp in Västergötland, which is still a shallow lake for part the year. I have just spent two happy days as a fieldworker on Bengt Nordqvist's dig at Finnestorp.

The site was discovered about 1903 when a road was built across the Katebrobäcken streamlet right by its confluence with River Lidan through a sizeable fen. Bones and pieces of fine metalwork were found and an excavation was mounted by Otto Frödin and Gustav Hallström. As is still the case today, it proved impossible to empty the Finnestorp fen of finds as it measures several hundred meters across. But the site was then largely forgotten. In the 1970s the road was rebuilt and moved slightly, and a new straight channel was dug for the lower reaches of Katebrobäcken. All this was done without archaeological supervision. Only after the fact could a small-scale fieldwork campaign be mounted by Ulf Erik Hagberg (who wrote the book on the aforementioned Skedemosse) and Eva Bergström. In 1992 Katebrobäcken's new channel was re-dug and deepened, again without the benefit of archaeological attention. Ulf Viking rushed to the site and did some fieldwork, but his project was tragically cut short by a lethal stroke. Bengt Nordqvist and the Gothenburg Historical Society began the current fieldwork campaign in 2000.

The Iron Age war booty at Finnestorp has spent most of the past 1600 years in a black smelly stratum full of leaves, sitting on top of the glacial clay and covered by thick silt. Most of the preserved objects are bronze and silver fittings for horse gear and swords. Spearheads and sword blades are few, shield bosses to my knowledge absent. There is an abundance of high-quality 5th century metalwork, much of it bronze strap mounts onto which gilded and punch ornamented silver-sheet decoration in the Sösdala style has been soldered. They appear to be thinly scattered all over the erstwhile lake floor with a few concentrations. The dates and quality of the objects are the same as those of the fabulous Danish Ejsbøl find, but the find density so far appears less high. Hearths have been found on an island in the fen which have yielded 5th century radiocarbon dates, sheep bones and molten silver droplets, evidence of feasting and systematic damage done to the war booty before sacrifice at these sites.

The main reasons that the on-going project has been able to collect so many fine things are that a) considerable parts of the find-bearing stratum have been lifted to the surface through the three main destructive digging events in the 20th century and deposited on top of the silt layer, b) the metal detector section within the Gothenburg Historical society (with which I have collaborated extensively in Ãstergötland) with their great skill have been on site for years searching through these dump layers. Most of the finds at Finnestorp are not made in situ.

My two days on site were spent in a 4 by 2 metre trench between the old and new channels of Katebrobäcken. At the top was a find-bearing layer resulting from the 1992 event. A few steps from the trench, this layer yielded a madly overdecorated bandolier buckle a few years ago, found by metal detector. Today Tim Olsson found a tiny bronze buckle for a Migration Period fanny pack (!) here while I shoveled the dump soil away for him in 10 cm increments. In adjoining parts of the trench, team members had also removed half a meter of dirt representing the 1970s event without finding anything before reaching the undisturbed find stratum containing a fine bronze sword pommel and two or three other things. Meanwhile Kenth Lärk followed the streamlet's erosion scarp with his metal detector and picked up a gorgeous strap joiner with a direct parallel in the Högom burial's bridle. He didn't have to shift an egg's volume of dirt.

A large trench across the road, sited exclusively from study of the topography with a view to investigating the ancient lake's shore where the people behind the sacrifice would have stood, produced only a few small flint implements from several millennia before the sacrifices. This demanded a lot of hand-digging and sieving by many people.

So Finnestorp offers a conundrum of fieldwork methodology. Ideally we would of course want to know where each ancient object is in the undisturbed parts of the black stratum. But find concentrations are few and far between in that layer, and reaching it is labour intensive. It is much more profitable to search by metal detector in the redeposited dumps on the surface, which is exactly what Bengt Nordqvist has the Gothenburg detectorists doing. The team's non-detectorists are collecting a small number of finds with exact original context info through digging and sieving. But the detectorists are raking in finds. They are from secondary positions, but are known to have moved only a few meters each in x-y-z direction when the road workers' mechanical excavator lifted them. Bengt Nordqvist's fieldwork campaign will thus prove one of the 21st century's greatest advances in Swedish Migration Period studies.

Monday evening I had the pleasure of talking for two hours without a script about my Ãstergötland project to an audience of ~50 in Trävattna parish hall. The place was packed, and as far as I could tell nobody fled during the intermission. I take this to mean that everybody enjoyed themselves almost as much as myself. At times like these I allow myself to think that it's actually a bit of a waste that (though not for lack of trying) I am not employed as a university teacher.

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Nice write up. Very cool, very informative.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 21 Jul 2009 #permalink

ra i XYZ-riktningen när vägarbetare "mekanisk grävmaskin lyfte dem.
Hallå !
Det var jag som var förare på den mekaniska grävmaskinen och årtalet var nog snarare 1960 talet.

/ Bengt /f 1929)

By Bengt Gabrielsson (not verified) on 13 Feb 2012 #permalink