Gullhögen Barrow Report On-Line

i-05f691b6b2b5dddb77b10a5c0fc6e355-gullhogen-sword.jpgAs an undergrad and PhD student in the 90s I heard a lot of rumours about the 1988-93 excavation of Gullhögen, a barrow in Husby-Långhundra parish between Stockholm and Uppsala. These rumours held that the barrow was pretty weird: built out of charcoal (!), unusually rich, and sitting on top of unusually rich Roman Period graves. Supposedly, someone was out here re-sieving spoil dumps to collect individual gold filigree grains.

Few really knew much about Gullhögen. In a 2001 Fornvännen paper, Kent Andersson could make only the briefest of mentions of some Roman glass and a gold ring found at the site. (More about Kent below.) But that's changed now: a full 127-page report in Swedish (10 MB pdf file) is on-line! Gunilla Eriksson of the Archaeological Research Laboratory has edited it and it's full to the brim of specialist reports.

As it turns out, the barrow (diameter 31 m, height 4.8 m) was actually mostly built out of turf, which is a common barrow material, with a central cairn. But under the barrow were three concentric ring ditches filled with charcoal that had apparently been charred in situ, and there was also a charcoal layer on part of the central cairn. Must have been quite a spectacle when it burned!

The barrow (in itself a huge labour investment) was erected in the Viking Period (c. AD 900) like the Sjögestad barrow I took part in dating a few months ago. Its date is given by a damascened sword with a silver-sheeted, brass-encrusted type H hilt stuck into the top of the central cairn. The burial deposit was all cremation and not very rich: three ugly local pots, a young woman with a whetstone, and a man with a horse, a dog, some beef and mutton and unburnt poultry.

i-6b3cd5188ea156ba393d53d361a9b952-gullhogen-gold.jpgAppropriating the apex of the cemetery hill, the Viking Period folks at Vackerberga farm built the barrow on top of two small cremation graves of the Early Iron Age. One turns out to be among the richest Late Roman burials known from Uppland, dating from phase C2 in the late 3rd century. Its furnishings were fragmented: a chopped-off piece of a golden snakehead ring, Sweden's first circus glass beaker, one or two Schlangenfäden glass beakers, a ruined silver object, a bone comb, an amber bead, at least two glass beads, a knife with a bronze-trimmed handle, phalanges from a bear skin and potsherds. No bone-sex data.

The oldest burial under the barrow dates from the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age, probably the 1st century BC. It harboured an adult individual with two iron spiral-head pins, a bone toggle (?), a resin-caulked bark box and and some mutton. A fourth burial down the slope from the barrow has a similar date and gave two lance heads, a bridle bit, and some pottery.

Nice dig, good report, I'm glad it's on-line now.

In other news, my buddy Iron Age scholar Kent Andersson of the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm has announced that he will replace Neolithic scholar Jan Apel as head of the SAU contract archaeology unit in late 2007. As for Jan, he only mumbles mysteriously about believing that "something will probably chrystallise". I wish him the best of luck and I hope (vainly) that he doesn't chrystallise into any job I'll apply for!

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Very interesting report about Gullh�gen! Some interesting questions seem to be worth further consideration, though. Burial context is something very important of course. But the plausible context of life of the buried persons maybe should be considered a bit further, I think.

Two examples: 1. The whetstone buried with the remains of a young woman, might not at all have anything to do with the need of care of the sword of the man in a neighboring grave.
2. That sword has a very small barrel and might have been given to the man of a great family when he was quite young and buried with him when he was grown up.

As far as I can understand, although I am not an archaeologist, it is great archaeological find, the details of the finds being possible to use for further research. For us able to read swedish the report is a very interesting reading.

Good Evening Martin, this sounds like an interesting report, I should give it a look--Gullhogen, is that "Gold Mound"?--but the Swedish will probably get the better of me.
It wasn't quite clear, but it sounds like the burial mound over the Roman graves was on a natural topographic high, so the association is most likely fortituous?
We have been having a discussion lately about humic-enriched horizons on multi-stage mounds, whether they indicate hiatus in construction when grass grew, or, as one fellow suggests, that turfs were used to face the finished mound stage. Of course soil formation is different in subtropical vs. subartic conditions, but how is turf construction recognized there, as opposed to earthen? Thanks.

By Mary Starr (not verified) on 14 Jun 2007 #permalink

Correct, Gullhögen means "the gold mound". It's a common name for Swedish barrows: not because they tend to contain gold, but because there was a a lot of folklore about gold-owning trolls & dragons living in barrows etc. The same kind of story is found already in the final section of Beowulf!

Correct again, the VIK people went into a clearly recognisable Early IA cemetery and erected their barrow at the prime spot up top. Quite blatant appropriation of the symbolic space. This was most likely not fortuitous, though they cannot have known that the individual graves they concealed contained anything unusual. The gold & glass grave was 700 years old at the time of the barrow's erection.

Turf construction is seen in the section, where you get sort of a checkered or wavelety pattern due to the uneven distribution of organics in a decomposed turf. There's a beautiful photograph of it in the report.

As for building hiati, I guess an artificial turf-covered surface is a hiatus as well, innit?

Thanks, Martin. So the Iron Age cemetery had some above-ground markings still evident, stones I reckon?

That "blantant appropriation" sounds a little pomo-punk to me; you/they are following the party line that barrows were a sign of continuity of ownership placed on the landscape so as to be highly visible? Were they then, you think, "claiming" the Iron age dead as their own ancestors and showing thier neighbours or intruders that they themselves were the ones with the right to pasture/farm/hunt the land visible from the ridge? Now how in the world does a material science test something like that? Distribution maps? I know in a vauge way that the Englishmen and Dutch have done a world of this reasoning about territories and boundary/center markers, but I don't follow that literature.

About the turf, yeah sure, but the intention and sequence of events seems possibly significant, allowing grass to grow on a mound (Mississippian, i.e. Neolithic, elite domestic and/or temple/charnel house substructure platforms) is one thing; we often see evidence of dumping debris off the back/west sides. Dated sequences show new stages were added 10-15-20 year intervals, presumed the lifetime of the holder of the position and/or primary resident of house. However, finishing with turf indicates 1) there is prairie or old-field to supply sod, and 2) that the Mississippian folk knew slope was steep enough that it would wash and gully if it wasn't quickly grassed over. Then you get further from the material and start arguing over their intentions/reasoning, looking around in myths, or for culturally and temporally distant analogies-like me looking at Scandinavian mound reports.

Well, I looked at your Norwegian rock art link and was surprised I could make out about every 5th word, so now I will go bumble around in the burial mound report.

Free education everyday!

Considering the harsh employment prospects of even the best archaeologists (perhaps especially the best), one cannot help being awed and humbled at Janne's brave decision. That said - he has rarely looked so HAPPY! Smiling, pleasant and filled with energy. Not that he does not love SAU and his colleagues - he does - but its ironic that the more you succeed, the further away from true archaeology you come. It's all been administration for him, and that is soul-destroying in the long run. Losing him at SAU is tragic of course, but having Kent as a replacement has certainly made people more at ease with the coming changes.

As for Janne, he is musing about becoming a taxi-driver...only until his Grand International Reseach Project gets its deserved fundings, I hope :-)

Mary, yeah, these cemeteries are marked by large geometric flat stone pavements and standing stones.

Cool to be called a pomo party liner! The reason I find symbolic appropriation to be a strong interpretation in cases like these is this. Rune stones and High Medieval law codes suggest strongly that Viking Period Scandy land rights were tied to the concept of odal, having to do with length of inheritance measured in generations. To claim odal rights to land in the face of e.g. royal attempts at appropriation, you were required to know the names and burial locations of your ancestors.

I have no doubt that most of this "documentation" was completely bogus and constructed at need, but it seems that people really believed in it. The Viking Period displays a changed attitude to ancient monuments: before, they were largely respected and avoided, but in the VikP people start re-using older monuments and incorporating their substance into new ones. I believe that this has to do with the perceived ideological threat from Christianity and the novel ambitions of increasingly Europeanised royal power.

Åsa, the reason that the best people like Kent & Janne end up doing boring administrative tasks is that those are the only ones that matter to other people from a practical point of view. If you or I or the recently liberated Janne produce crap scholarship, then this is a problem only to ourselves.

Actually, it's not even much of a problem to us, because we won't get any fun jobs no matter how good scholarship we produce. The best we can hope for is that good scholarship will land us boring administrative jobs. (-;