Landscape Archaeology, Muddy Boots

In front, a boulder upon which I found cupmarks. Behind, a Bronze Age burnt mound consisting of fire-cracked stones.

In order to study the landscape situation of something you need to know precisely where it is. This poses a problem when it comes to Bronze Age sacrificial finds, because they are almost never made by someone who can document the find spot. They used to be found by farmers and workers before anybody owned a map and before there was a national grid, and they are no longer found much at all.

Sacrificial finds, or "deposits", are defined by two negatives: they are not in graves and not at settlements. Typically they are in a bog or river, or rarely by the side of a large boulder, or even more rarely just sitting on a dry ridge somewhere. In order to find them you need to dredge, ditch, reclaim, plough and dig enormous amounts of random earth and sediment. Do that in temperate Europe, and sooner or later you will find a Bronze Age deposit - provided you're using a spade, not a mechanical excavator, or walking behind a horse-drawn plough, not riding a tractor in front. And archaeologists have never had the inclination or resources to dig randomly.

Nobody reclaims land in Sweden any more, no rivers are dredged for transportation purposes, nobody digs with a spade (unless they're archaeologists) and nobody walks behind the plough. And so we don't find these deposits any more. For most of the ones in the museum collections, we know only which hamlet in which parish produced each of them, but not which part of the hamlet's land. And that sort of information is difficult to use on a landscape scale.

I had a great time today checking up on five finds in Södermanland where we're lucky enough to know pretty well where they came from. Three are in the upper reaches of River Nyköpingsån between Lake Långhalsen and Christineholm manor. Two are on ridge tops east of Lake Sillen in Vårdinge parish. I've walked around, looked at sites, gotten to know the lay of the land, searched in the plough soil ("fieldwalking") and taken a lot of photographs. I found some knapped quartz, a grindstone and a piece of slate whetstone (as usual). But I left them where they were since they didn't really tell me anything useful and I didn't feel like contributing to the collective amassing of humdrum data today. I did make one really nice find though: checking a boulder on a known Bronze Age settlement site with burnt mounds I discovered eight cupmarks, and that was without removing any moss. Strange that the surveyor didn't find them back in the day. Judging from the dearth of known cupmarks in Vårdinge, I guess s/he was probably not very aware of them.


I encountered an elk, a lizard or slow worm, a flock of deer, sundry birds and a disgruntled gentleman farmer who didn't like my walking on his sprouting wheat. I found a tree-house ruin, a satanic graffiti mural, many beaver-gnawed trees and a morel. It was a good day!


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Having never heard of a cupmark, I located a the following definition: "Cup shaped depression carved out from stone. Often grouped together, they are the result of a repeated ritual gesture of unknown significance."

Wouldn't some archaeologists have ideas about what they represent?

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

There have been lots of suggestions. Fire symbol, vagina symbol, and then when used in compositions with pictorial rock carvings they can be just dots. IMO the important thing about cupmarks is that you make them, not own or use them. That's why there are so many of them. Like saying 20 Ave Marias.

That does sound like a good day! I'm a biologist, currently pursuing a PhD in a Soil Science department, with lots of fieldwork. I've long been of the opinion that I haven't really been to a place until I've walked around in it for at least a few hours. Turn over some rocks, smell some flowers (or dung, depending on circumstances), watch the sun crawl towards the horizon, go behind that thing just to see what's behind it, and generally get mud on my boots. Those days are the good days.

Archaeology question: my fieldwork is in the Canadian High Arctic, in the polar desert. We signed an agreement to get our research permit that specifies if we find anything potentially of archaeological significance (i.e. Inuit or pre-Inuit artifacts) we need to a) not disturb the site and b) report everything to the territorial government (Nunavut) as soon as possible. Besides obvious stuff like Inukshuk, what should I be looking out for? Chunks of flint, chert, slate, and other tool-making stones in areas where they appear not to belong? I'd never heard of cupmarks before, I don't know if people living in the High Arctic hundreds of years ago made them or not.

By TheBrummell (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

Brum, it's not my geographical area, but I'd say keep an eye on patches of broken turf and ploughed soil (if any) for knapped sharp-edged stone, and on conspicuous rock outcrops for carvings. Also check the edges of quarry pits for knapped stone and sectioned pits with dark fill. And try to get a liaison at the regional museum, somebody who can look swiftly at emailed photographs and classify finds.

Good work!

We will take a rock around later on.

/ Woger

Do you ever get tips from the local orienteering clubs? They certainly get into areas where most people would never go.

In my experience, orienteering clubs ask us for information about where not to put their field latrines etc. at major competitions, but rarely contribute archaeological data. I guess when your goal is to run as fast as possible from point A to point B, you're unlikely to notice much about your surroundings along the way.