Nine Sacrificial Sites

I'm writing a paper for the conference volume of the Helsinki meeting I attended back in October. Here's an excerpt from the manuscript.

In April and May of 2010 I visited nine sacrificial sites in Uppland and Södermanland provinces, selecting them by the criteria that I had to be able to ascertain their locations closely, the finds should preferably be rather rich, and I favoured sites located within walking distance of each other. The winter had been long and cold, and so vegetation was still sparse and much plough soil remained open to field walking. This ensured the best possible conditions for observation.

The people under study here primarily sought out wet sites for their sacrifices. The hilltop deposits in VÃ¥rdinge are particularly eloquent: they were put in high places, but in bogs up there. Yet as the title of this paper suggests [Gods of High Places and Deep Romantic Chasms], it also emerges that Bronze Age people had a strong predilection for landscape locations that a modern visitor would find dramatic or even sublime.

In their-pre-regulation states, the river-gorge sites of Hyndevadsfallet and Täckhammarsbro would have called to mind Coleridge's deep romantic chasm [An excerpt from "Kubla Khan" is the paper's motto]. Each is at the narrowest point downstream from a major lake system. And they were deep as measured in time as well. Sacrifices had begun there in the Middle or Late Neolithic, and at Hyndevadsfallet they continued up into the 17th century.

The Pukberget cave deposit is to my knowledge unique, being inside a jumble of enormous stone blocks from a collapsed cliff side. A more sublime location is hard to come by: the site's name means "Devil's Hill", and it has probably born it since the Middle Ages. A similar association between spearheads and the innards of mountains can be seen in a find from a crevice on Oxeberget Hill near Frändesta in Helgesta, Södermanland.

Yet there is also a major find from a dry apparently domestic site: Lilla Härnevi. When interpreting the Härnevi deposit's landscape location, however, we must keep in mind that it is extremely late in the Bronze Age and may even have been buried in the first century of the Iron Age. If the many settlement-indicating burnt mounds of Lilla Härnevi hamlet were heaped while the area was shore-bound, then they are about a thousand years older than the deposit. The burnt mounds are still visually prominent today, the plough soil around the hamlet full of fire-cracked stone and quartz. It looks as if people returned to the ruins of a storied ancient settlement site and buried their last multi-period collection of mixed bronzes there, right about the time when society left the Bronze Age behind and moved on. The Hjortsberga torque deposit, while also quite near burnt mounds, has a different relationship to the settlement site, being above and beyond the shore zone where the burnt mounds and graves are. I discovered a cupmark boulder among them.

The sites discussed above demonstrate the attractiveness of wet, high, topographically dramatic and ancestral locations to Bronze Age sacrifices. Let me finally point out another class of sacrificial site that, like the wet locations, is also well known from other periods than the Bronze Age. To my knowledge, at least five dry deposits from Uppland and Södermanland were found under or in contact with eye-catching boulders. Four of them are multi-object deposits, including the great hoard from near Spelvik church in Södermanland, and these are rare. It has been argued, irrefutably, that such a location with a prominent and durable marker would make it easy to retrieve the objects. Yet the fact remains that these deposits were never retrieved. This leads us to the perennial question of whether we need to distinguish between rationally motivated temporary and cultic permanent metalwork deposition.

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That's really interesting, because you have several different types of location so you can be surer than many that you're countering any obvious excavation bias. You know what I mean, I guess, like the work a friend of mine did with dense mapping that showed inter alia that, yes, a majority of Anglo-Saxon sites in East Anglia do indeed occur on light, well-drained soil but so have a majority of all archæological digs in East Anglia... Sounds like you're avoiding that and so can start to ask questions that are really about site choice. But will you be able to answer them? :-)

I don't know what I'll come up with! But there's gonna be fieldwork as well, so even if I can't answer my main questions I will hopefully be able to contribute new data of a kind that is unlikely to be forthcoming from contract archaeology.

"at Hyndevadsfallet they continued up into the 17th century"

That's amazing, or seems so to my uncultured mind. A few words of commentary on that would be greatly appreciated.

By Sandgroper (not verified) on 25 May 2010 #permalink

The late stuff is small bits & bobs, a coin and a belt buckle if memory serves. They may have ended up in the river for reasons that were quite different from what motivated the Bronze Age sacrifices. We cannot know. But 19th century folklore is full of funny little sacrificial traditions, coins & pins left in cupmarks for the elves, even stories of coitus interruptus on cupmark sites to conjure a rich harvest.

Thanks, now I understand. Those kinds of quaint token sacrificial traditions seem very common among different cultures, and some persist to the present.

By Sandgroper (not verified) on 25 May 2010 #permalink