Finding And Classifying Forgotten Sites

I haven't blogged much about my research lately. One reason is that I am only working with it at ~50% this academic year since I'm teaching in addition to my usual 25% editor's job. Another is that I'm in an intensive desk-based data collection phase, which gives rise to a lot of hypotheses and hunches but not much in the way of analytical conclusions. Here's what I'm doing.

I've got a great big database of about 400 Bronze Age finds from the Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren provinces. This sample is delimited thusly:

a) datable finds
b) that are not demonstrably from graves or settlements
c) which have enough location info that I know at least which hamlet's land they came from. In many cases I know what land parcel within a hamlet, or even the find-spot's coordinates to within a few tens of meters.

Most of these finds appear to be “deposits”, which may be called “sacrifices” if you decide to ignore a two-century-long debate over their interpretation.

What I'm doing now is to establish as exact location info as possible for each find, measure its distance to the nearest burnt mounds and rock art, and plot it on the Geological Survey's interactive map of ancient shorelines and lakes. Finding sites often takes historical detective work, since the only information I may have is the name of a 19th century meadow or a measurement from a named but long-deserted crofter's cottage that is no longer on the map. Most of these riddles I can solve on-line. Indeed, one reason that nobody's done this before is probably that it would have taken way too much time and travel between libraries and archives.

Having pinpointed a site, I classify it into one of a few groups that I've come up with inductively. I've now done all the sites with known coordinates, most of the parcel-level ones and some of the hamlet-level ones. At this moment I have located and classified 101 sites which have seen only one documented deposition event each. They break down as follows.

39% are in Bronze Age lakes or near their shorelines.
23% are in the Bronze Age Baltic Sea or near its shoreline.
20% are in Bronze Age rivers and streams or on their banks.
8% are in Bronze Age bogs.
7% are well pinpointed sites without any interesting characteristics that I can identify.
3% are on inland hill tops.
1% are in sources.

In addition to these sites I have four that I regard as the key to the whole area of research. They are cumulative deposition sites, that is, places where people have returned repeatedly to deposit objects despite time distances that would make them unlikely to retain any accurate information about earlier deposition events. Rather than reflecting memories of individual events, these sites in my opinion demonstrate long-lived traditional landscape rules for where sacrifices should properly be made. And they share some important traits.

During the Bronze Age, each of the four cumulative sites was in or next to a river at the point where it entered and/or exited major bodies of water. At least three sites were white-water gorges with rapids or waterfalls. And all four were in settled areas, 1–4 kilometres from registered burnt mounds and rock art.

I look at the single-use sites in the light of the cumulative ones. Most are as you can see above associated with water, and an important rule seems to have been that deposition was appropriate at sites where a river or stream changed states. Put differently, if the water interrupts its steady flow to do something interesting, then that's where you need to sacrifice an axe. This supports and extends the observation that my collaborator Christina Fredengren has arrived at by less data-crunchy methods and published last year: "... metalwork depositions were placed at exits of waters such as river mouths and the confluence (meetings) of different waters, sweet and salt".

Image from Lenas fotoblogg.

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Interesting field, so one technical question: How do you distinguish between "intentional deposition" and "spot where currents deposit material"? Aka the deep pool formed aeons ago where stuff washing down the river ends up, removed from the currents?

Mu, my understanding is that bronze pretty much stays put where you drop it into the river. The density of bronze is 7-9 times that of water. And a pool like the one you mention would soon fill up with stones if the flow was strong enough to move those far. "River" is actually too big a word in the study area, by the way. The largest streams are less than 100 m wide.

" if the water interrupts its steady flow to do something interesting, then that’s where you need to sacrifice an axe."

It's also where you would go fishing.. I wonder if there is any connection..

Unfortunately, due to the Vattenfall hydroelectric company, much of the interesting sites will now be deep underwater :-(

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

Not around Mälaren and Hjälmaren where I work.

One way to home in on interesting sites might be to look for human-specific sterols in continuous sediment deposits upstream or downstream. If there is a "signal" in bronze-age levels it will be a good place to search for deposition sites.
"Using biomarkers from prehistoric human feces to track settlement and agriculture…

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 08 Dec 2012 #permalink

I have noted your comments regarding early burials of victims of clandestine or public executions. I am currently in Stockholm and would be very interested to find where an early ancestor is buried who died after an execution on Gamla Stan in Stockholm in 1576. His name was Gilbert Balfour, and he was a Scottish nobleman who commanded the Scottish regiments in the 30 years war with Russia. I don't know how he was executed, assuming he was beheaded. Could you advise me where he is likely to be buried in Stockholm as I am interested to visit the grave during my visit here, or maybe point me in the right direction in terms of available records. Thanks in advance, Ferdinand

By Ferdinand (not verified) on 11 Dec 2012 #permalink

I have no info about Gilbert's execution and burial place. But a bit of googling turned up info on another man tried for the same alleged treasonous plot about the same time: Charles de Mornay. He was executed on 4 September 1574 in Old Stockholm's main square, Stortorget, and buried in the Riddarholmskyrkan church.

Thanks for that. I already had a feeling I needed to go to that church to have a look this weekend. The Balfour family was quite prominent in Scotland, and Gilbert's eldest brother James is quite well known in history. De Mornay and Ruthven were all accused to be plotters with Gilbert Balfour, so you are correct, it is one and the same historical incident which has been written up in a book called "The Scots in Sweden'. Will report back if I find my ancestor at Riddarholmskyrkan church. Best regards, Ferdinand

By Ferdinand (not verified) on 12 Dec 2012 #permalink

Funnily enough, I read parts of Scots in Sweden last month! Because of the Frans G. Bengtsson essay it contains. He's one of my favourite authors.

” if the water interrupts its steady flow to do something interesting, then that’s where you need to sacrifice an axe.”

Doug K is right about those being good fishing spots, but for most of us the tradition is to stop and buy souvenirs.