Category Archives: Archaeology

An open letter to the Discovery channel about archaeological looting.

As some of you who have read this blog before will know I am an archaeology major and thus have very strong feelings about archaeology. Well to my horror my girlfriend informed me that the people on the show Ghost labs (a show where a couple of morons use fancy machines that go bing in inapplicable ways and call it science) decided to dig for something they saw under the ground using GPR (at night no less). There are so many problems with this that I’m not even going to try listing them. My girlfriend quickly composed a letter to Discovery urging them to stop this kind of activity. The letter can be found below and I would like to encourage you to send a copy to Discovery or to send a modified version. They have a word limit so there is only so much you can say unfortunately. Also be sure to let all of your friends know about this.
EDIT: Jan-2-2010
I suppose I probably should have explained rather than assume everyone who would read it would be an archaeologist…

The problem is that they were digging at a historical site where one would expect to find archaeological remains. They are most likely not properly trained how to use the GPR and certainly have no business attempting to excavate potential archaeological material. I’m interested in what they thought they were trying to do. Find bodies to explain non-existent ghosts? Depending on the state law what they did could actually be illegal.

Discovery Staff –
I’m watching an episode of “Ghost Lab” that has left a foul taste in my mouth, to say the least. The episode features a location that Blackbeard supposedly visited during his lifetime. In it, the Ghost Lab team uses Ground Penetrating Radar to find an anomaly in the ground, and the team proceeds to dig in the location of this “anomaly.” I have witnessed the downfall of good programming on the Discovery Channel in recent years, but this is offensive, unnecessary, and downright irresponsible. The ruin of the archaeological record in this way goes against everything that the Discovery Channel SHOULD be about. Not only are you jeopardizing the work of future archaeologists in what is obviously a site of some historical significance, you are preventing archaeologists, historians, and the public from learning from the historical material in that earth – you are preventing the “discovery” that your channel is named after! This is travesty! I am so offended by this blatant irresponsible action, I’m not only going to send this email to you, I’m sending it to my cable provider and every person I know who cares about our nation’s history and heritage. I want everyone to know that the Discovery Channel clearly does not value the “discovery” it is named for!

Please, for the sake of the people you serve, don’t let irresponsible programming run so rampant on your airwaves. Use the power of your position to bring people out of the muck of ignorance, not engulf them further in it.

A Concerned Viewer


Posted by on January 1, 2010 in Archaeology


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Is it ok for Archaeologist to Blame their Tools?

I was listening to episode 206 of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recently and guest Dr. Richard Prum who was interviewed in that episodes said this:

…I discovered a fantastic quote by Thomas Kuhn from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and kuhn was trying to define science in a modern and also cultural context; how does science progres, how are hypotheses tested by groups of real flesh and blood people arguing over ideas, and in that he has this fantastic quote where he says, “The man who rejects one hypothesis without simultaneously proposing an alternative is rejecting science itself.” The quote goes on, “He will be known to his colleagues as the carpenter who blames his tools”…

He was speaking about the evolution of birds and the scientists who claim that the evolution of birds can’t be determined (listen to the interview if you want to understand better). Dr. Prum was saying that these scientist rejected the evidence that birds evolved from theropods (dinosaurs) without any other alternative possibility for how they evolved and thus had no evidence that the hypothesis was wrong. This got me thinking about archaeology.

It seems that I have at least on occasion rejected hypotheses and not had a hypothesis of my own to propose. though I’m not sure if I can name any particular time. The thing that comes to mind is from a discussion I had on the last day of excavation at Angle Mounds this summer. A few of us were sitting around a table discussing the feature we had been excavating. I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but we were discussing some peculiarity of the feature and throwing around ideas for why it was this way. One person suggested that perhaps the occupants of the structure (though as far as I know there is no evidence that it was a house) were high class and that is why there is this oddity. My immediate response was “then why didn’t they live on a mound?” I almost instantly rejected her hypothesis because I did not believe that the evidence corroborated with it. But did I present an alternative? I suppose it is a given if I think they were not high class then they must have been low or middle class, but this did not explain the anomaly. So I am not sure that I did give an alternative hypothesis, but I do feel that I was correct in rejecting her hypothesis. I think this may be a bad example, but it is the one I have.

Can Archaeologist blame their tools? Can we there is no way for Archaeology to provide the answers to this question? I am quite interested in archaeological theory and I love to think about these kind of questions. What do you think of this?

I meant to include a bit more, but forgot about it half way threw so I’m going to write it here now. This kind of questions interests me because I feel that archaeology is a science and should be treated as one. Archaeologist should try to adhere to the scientific method as much as possible and any stray from it increases the odds of producing bad archaeology. Of course due to the nature of archaeology it is hard to follow it exactly If only disciplines which stricktly ahdered to the scientific method could be called science then only the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, and chemistry, (and some would suggest biology). I think it is ok to bend the rules to fit what you are studying as long as you do it with the knowledge that you are bending and you try to keep the same mind set. . But how much is too much? where can we draw the line? how do we decide what is an acceptable stray from the normal scientific method and what brings archaeology to be a pseudo-science?

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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Archaeology


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Archaeology is an entertainment business

I was having a conversation with an econ major friend of mine (something I wouldn’t recommend one do too often ;)) about the purpose of archaeology a few weeks as of this posting; so my memory is a bit faulty so I can’t go into details of the conversation. However I do remember thinking that my friend did not seem to think that archaeology was something that really advance society like engineering (or I guess economics) does. This is not to say that he claimed that archaeology was pointless, just that it serves a different role than other sciences. particularly the role he seemed to ascribe to archaeology was a role of entertainment (I’m pretty sure he didn’t use the word entertainment, but I can’t really recall). At the time I took this to mean entertainment for the archaeologist, which of course I saw as a selfish act. Being an archaeology Major I felt a need to defend myself and my discipline. So I mentioned an article I had read in the July/August 2008 issue of Archaeology called “Amazonian Harvest” (link not the full article, unfortunately) which disused research a Mr. Clark Erickson had been doing in the Amazon. In the research Mr. Erickson discovered a farming method used by ancient people which was far superior to the one the current population of the area use. Here are some results of archaeology which have/may/could directly improve the lives of people all over the world. It is this that makes this article one of my favourite I have ever read and is why I always keep it in my memory. My friend indicated that this research was useful and the conversation ended, but I have been thinking about what he said since.

I have for some time pondered the purpose/social benefits of archaeology and generally came to the conclusion that it was beneficial for things like the aforementioned article and to add knowledge of the past which may help people of the present understand the world we live in and make more informed decisions. While I still think that this should be a key part of archaeology, after thinking about what my friend has said, and a few off hand comments a few professors have made, I have come to the conclusion that archaeology is really primarily an entertainment business. For the most part archaeology is done for other archaeologist. Research is published for the use of other archaeologist doing more research. However, this doesn’t really fund archaeologist. Archaeology is mostly funded by government, or local people who are proud of their local archaeology/history. So Archaeology is funded by people who are not consuming archaeological research and are not benefiting very much. When archaeologists do try to involve non-archaeologists it is normally as an attempt to educate them about their research. Under this model archaeology’s purpose is to produce more archaeology for the sake of archaeologists. I am proposing that this model is not correct; that archaeology should go further. Archaeology should see itself as an entertainment business. The same level of academics would have to be achieved or the result would be bad science of course, but the difference should be in the presentation to the public. Instead of educating the public archaeologists should be trying to entertain the public, which education as a by product.

I suppose you could argue that the history channel or the discovery channel are attempting to do this. but there is one major difference in what I am saying. I’m saying archaeologists should do good archaeology and then present it to the public, who pay for it, as a form of entertainment, as is the history channel or the discovery channel just play inaccurate crap that gets good ratings.

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Posted by on July 16, 2009 in Archaeology


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Another paper: an Argument for Excavation at Thingvellir in Iceland

Yet Again I have written a paper for school and I am giving to you, the internet, for no charge. This one comes it at 13 pages of text so it is a long read and as normal I will also be providing a pdf for your reading pleasure. If you want to read the whole thing you will have to download the pdf because 13 pages of text is just to much to put in one blog entry. (also I am lazy and didn’t want to format all of it for the blog)

Before you read this you should know the assignment. This was an assignment for my Arh. 320 (medieval archaeology) class. The assignment was to choose a site that is either being currently excavated or has been recently excavated and write a persuasive paper arguing for further funding of the site (as as I got a 104% on this paper I think I did a pretty good job of it).

Thingvellir: One of the Most Important Medieval Sites

Vikings were not completely lawless, anarchical barbarians with a thirst for blood. They could be very civilized and even had a democratic like system of government which consisted of public assemblies of all free land–owning men called things. In Iceland There was an assembly of the entire country which was created in the ninth century called the Althing. The Althing was held at thingvellir, parliament plains (Chartrand et al. 27). Thingvellir is an extremely important site
which could change the study of medieval Europe if excavation were to continue. The site of Thingvellir is very important and excavation must continue there because it is one of the very few sites of its kind that have been excavated and it is likely to provide a great deal more information on an area of research which has hardly been studied at all. This site has a long history which can provide us with a great deal of information, however there is a extreme lack of archaeological
information, and this lack of information leaves open many questions that could potentially be answered with excavation.

When considering to excavate the site it is very important to gather as much pre-existing information available. The more one knows about a site the better he can prepare an excavation plan. There is no reason to answer questions with excavation that have been answered before. A better excavation plan means the whole archaeological process will be more efficient, and perhaps more importantly cheaper. History also is among one of the things which one should know when
planning an excavation.

Thingvellir was used as an assembly For the Althing, a national political gathering (e.g. a national thing), starting in 930 CE (Chartrand et al. 27). The site only stopped being regularly used in 1798 CE when the Althing was moved. Although the site was regularly used during this entire time the Althing did not stay the same. In the year 1271 CE Iceland came under the power of the king of Norway and would later by the king of Denmark. This change in power from local
to foreign lead to changes in the purpose of the Althing. The major change in the purpose of the gathering was that it no longer served as an independent political entity that ran Iceland, but as a provincial government which carried out the wishes of the crown (Thrsteinsson 19).

There are two contemporary historical sources which recount the founding of the Althing, the Islandingabok and the Landingabok. The first gives only a brief description of the events. It says only that a man named Ulfiot came from Norway and brought the Norwegian custom with him of a national assembly called the Gualthing with him. The Landingabok tells the same basic story but gives much more detail. It says that Ulfiot went to Norway with his uncle for three years
and there, working with King Hakon, established the Gualthing. Upon his return to Iceland he persuaded the chieftains to establish a national assembly for Iceland (Page 173-174). The Gualthing was almost certainly not the first assembly; it is likely that things had been held for hundreds of years prior to the creation of the Gualthing (Page 34-5) The Gualthing may have been the first National Assembly, however.

The Althing, which lasted for two weeks every summer, consisted of a committee of thirty-six chieftains from across Iceland who elected thirty-six judges every year and one lawspeaker every 3 years. The chieftains, called gothi, were also priests who had to perform religious activities during things (page 173-4). The lawspeaker could be called the chairman of
the committee as it was his job to lead the assembly. Another duty of the the lawspeaker was to recite from memory one–third of the law every year (so that during his 3 year term he will have recited all of the law), fulfilling these duties from the lawrock, a rock which was stood upon and used as a speaking pulpit (Chartrand et al. 27-8). However the lawspeaker was not the only person who could use the law rock. Anyone who had any business which they wished to the committee
did so from the law rock (Thingvellir). However, only a free land–owning man could present his business at the Althing for judgment by the committee (page 175). Much of this business had to do with legal disputes between parties (i.e. murder or theft) (Chartrand et al. 27) Though it was sometimes also used for other things, such as making changes to the calender or to establish things in each region of Iceland so that people would not have to wait for or travel to the Althing to settle a dispute (page 175-6). Nothing, the Althing included, actually had any power to enforce any of its decisions so it was up to the men who brought their cases before the thing to enforce the ruling given (Thingvellir).

Because of the lack of authority of the Althing one can come to the conclusion that the Assembly played more of a social role than a governmental one. Historians seem to have come to this conclusion using other historical documents (Durrenberger 53). Iceland was a political mess during the early Middle Ages; there was no central authority and every free landowning men (bondi) owed allegiance to a local gothar (Durrenberger 56-57). The thing was used as more of a
social gathering where ties were made and broken among the different factions, though the Althing did give a certain amount of unity to the otherwise chaotic system (Durrenberg 53,55). The people of Iceland came together in one place and all did business with each other; a regular meeting of people from all over the country would help to enforce or create a sense of community and national culture among all the people.

Despite the rich history of Thingvellir there is very little archaeological evidence for anything which the historical accounts claim. The official website for the site says only

“The Institute of Archaeology in Iceland, on behalf of the Snorrab` th thingvellir Commission, undertakes archaeological excavation at thingvellir. Excavations will also be carried out at selected district assembly sites around the country in 2002-2006 (Thingvellir)”

This is clearly out of date and of almost no use. The excavations must have occurred by now, yet due to the out of date webpage there is absolutely no indication of what was found. Though the site does say the excavation was lead by a man named Adolf Frithriksson (Thingvellir). If any information has been published about this dig it has probably been published only in Icelandic and in some obscure journal. The website says that the 2002-2006 research plan focused only on
the Assembly site itself and not on any of the surrounding countryside and that the site would be mapped using ground penetrating radar (thingvellir). The fact that no specific information is given on what areas of the site will be excavated is probably due to the lack of updates to the site since the research was begun; the areas excavated, if any, were probably decided after the GPR was done so that the best locations could be found and are thus not given on the web page because it was written before the GPR had occurred.

The little research that has been done at Thingvellir as been mostly biological and geological with very little of that dealing with the Middle Ages(Jonasson 15). Not only is there little archaeological information available for this site but there is extremely little available for an site of this type, despite the importance of things to many Germanic cultures during the early medieval period. It is known from historical sources that things were held all over northern Europe. They could be found across Scandinavia and the British isles (page 34-35, 177-180). Things were probably held for a very long period of time as well, perhaps going back a few hundred of years before the founding of the Althing (page 34-35). Its long use means that it holds a great wealth of information that could not be gained any other way. This information will not
pertain to just Iceland alone, but will give a better picture of the entire early Middle Ages. Little is known about the social structure of early Germanic people other than what little has survived from historical sources. All of this makes it very evident that the site of Thingvellir must be excavated.
An excavation at Thingvellir would be an invaluable resource to the study of assembly sites of all kinds across Europe. Excavating at Thingvellir could give a basis for excavation at other similar sites or even allow other sites to be studied without any need for excavation. Thing sites occur across Northern Europe from Gulen in Norway, where to gualthing was held, to thingwall Cheshire, Dingwall in Cromarty England, and Tynewald on the Isle of Man (page 35, 175). The wide spread nature of sites such as this one indicates that there must have been some kind of unifying feature among the different groups in these places. What exactly that feature is can not be known for certain without archaeological research.
Archaeological research is done to fulfill the natural human desire for knowledge; thus one of the most important reason that Thingvellir should be excavated is that it is so important to Icelandic history and culture, and the desire for information about a site so important is obvious. Thingvellir was the seat of government from 930 CE. until 1783 CE. Even after the seat of power had moved from the site it still remained important to Icelandic history and society; during the 19th c. Thingvellir was used as a meeting place for the Icelandic independence movement and has been used in more recent years as festival grounds for various different national celebrations (Thingvellir). Thingevellir is the most important location in all of Iceland in regards to Icelandic national identity and to have so little archaeological information for the site prevents a basic understanding of Iceland itself.
The site of Thingvellir in Iceland is one of the most important sites in all of Northern Europe, not just for Iceland. It is the ideal site for research into things because it is the most famous and best understood of them all. Excavation has already started to a limited degree at the site, and it has already produced more archaeological information than any other site of its type. The research that has been done (especially the ground penetrating radar mapping) should allow further research to be carried out more easily. The great importance and value of this site is why excavation must continue.
If this site is to be excavated it is important to put some consideration into what might be found and what questions can be asked. There are a few historical documents which give accounts that might be useful to get an idea of some of the objects which might be found at this site. These documents provide evidence that Thingvellir will likely contain religious, military, commercial, and other cultural material.
The Landnambok gives an account of meetings of the Althing and mentions laws which could be useful for this purpose. The book says that animal headfigures heads should not be placed on ships, but if they were they must be removed when in sight of land to prevent upsetting the land spirits (page 174). This shows that the people of Iceland must have been very superstitious, so thus it is likely that Heathen (this term is used because it is the name used by the
practitioners of the modern religion of Asatrú ) religious objects may be found, as superstition of this level often correlates to strong religious views as well. This is not the only, or even the best, indication that religious objects are likely to be found at Thingvellir.

“A ring of at least two ounces [of silver] should lie on the altar of every main temple. Every ‘priest’ should have such a ring on his arm at all legal moots that he had to inaugurate himself. First it must be reddened in the blood of the cattle that he himself had sacrificed there. Every man who needed to take part in pleading before the court must swear an oath at law. So help me Freyr and Niord and the Allpowerful God that I shall pursue this case–or defend it– or bear witness–or give verdict–or pass judgment, as I know to be just and most true and most in accordance with the law. And all matters that come under my jurisdiction I shall determine lawfully as long as
I am at this meeting (page 174).”

This is the best evidence that objects associated with religion will likely be found at Thingvellir. This passage provides us with a great abundance of information on the activities at the Althing
and what an Archaeologist might find and what he probably will not find. It seems unlikely that one of the silver rings mentioned would be left laying around for an archaeologist to find one thousand years later. however, the alter which the ring was placed on might be found. This would be a very interesting find indeed. What kind of an altar might it have been? A pyre seems out of the question, unless the point was to destroy the ring. A find like this could give great insight into the religious practices of the time. Perhaps something of one of the mentioned cattle would be found. The question of what was done with an animal once it was sacrificed is a very interesting one. Was it eaten? burnt? thrown in a ditch? We can not tell from the historical sources alone, but a find such as this could greatly further our knowledge of religious practices. The vagueness of this passage is yet another reason why excavation is needed. This book was obviously meant to be read by people who were familiar with the concepts being discussed and so the author left out information which a modern reader can not fill in. The only chance a modern reader has to fill in these parts is to excavate the site and try to gain some of the knowledge which has been lost over time. The significance of dipping the silver ring in the blood of a cattle is one of these things. Perhaps if the altar (or the place where the cattle was sacrificed if these are different places) can be found it might shed some light onto this.

Works Cited
Andrews, Charles. A Short History of England. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912.
Charles-Edwards Thomas M. Gorsedd, Dadl, and Llys: Assemblies and Courts in Medieval Wales via email. March 31, 2009. Published in Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe. Pantos, Aliki, and Sarah Semple. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2004.

Chartrand, R., keith Durham, Mark Harrison, and Ian Heath. The vikings: voyagers of Discovery and Plunder. New York: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2008.

Driscoll Stephen T. The Archaeological Context of Assembly in Early Medieval Scotland – Scone and its comparand via emial. April 2002. March 31, 2009. Published in Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe. Pantos, Aliki, and Sarah Semple. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2004.

Durrenberger, P. The Dynamics of Medieval Iceland: Political Economy and Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Jonasson, petur. ”Thingvellir Research History.” Nordic Society Oikos 64. 1/2 (1992): 14-31. 27 Feb 2009 .
Page, R.I.. Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials and Myths. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Thingvellir. August 12, 2007. Thingvellir Thjothgarthur. March 2, 2009

Thrsteinsson, Bjon. Thingvellir: Iceland’s national shrine: a visitor’s companion. Orn og Orlygur Publishing House, 1986.

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Posted by on April 27, 2009 in Archaeology, school, writing


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The Viking Age Town of Birka and the Life and Death of its Inhabitants

If you read this blog very often you will know by now that I occationally post papers I write for school. this post is going to be one of those. This paper was written form my intro to Archaeology class, and I happen to think it is pretty good. It is a long one and as always I will be offering it as a pdf which I strongly recommend you download if you actually intend to read much of this paper.

Before you read this paper you should probably know what the assignment was. The assignment was a 7-10 page paper on any site (which has had recent excavation) of my choosing. There was no specific topic which I was required to talk about so I just talked about whatever I wanted (e.g. whatever I could find information on).

Birka, located on the island called Björkö, was a key trading city in Sweden during the Viking period (Anna et al, 2008 p118). Excavation began at Birka in the 19th century and has continued to the present. Two of the major excavations are those conducted by Hjalmar Stolpe in the 19th century and Björn Ambrosiani in the early 1990s (Riksantikvarieämbetet). This city can provide a wealth of information about both the way the inhabitants lived their lives and how they were buried once they died. Birka can tell us how the Viking age people lived, what they ate, and what they believed, as well as how they treated their dead.
According to a study of the isotopes found in graves at Birka the people of Birka were fairly heterogeneous group when it came to their diet (Anna et al, 2008 p.454). However, other isotopes show a clear relation which may indicate that they came from a common geographic region (Anna et al, 2008 p.455). Birka was a very important trade city in Sweden during the Viking age, so it would not be surprising to see a mixtures of people from all classes and regions of Sweden here (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.118). There is some speculation that one of the graves, BJ496, may even be the grave of royalty (Anna et al, 2008 p.455). Where the people who lived at Birka came from may not be certain, but it is certain that they were there for a long time (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38). Discoveries made during the 1990-95 excavations have actually pushed back the date of the beginning of the Viking age culture by 50 years or so from 800CE to the mid eighth century (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38–39).

Houses at Birka were built in groups divided by refuse ditches (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38). The areas which were used for building houses must have been used for a very long time, as the foundations and floors of many houses overlap (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.28–29). The houses seem to have been made of either daub and wattle or wood planks. Some fired daub and a massive amount of ash in the area of the homes which could only have come from wood were found (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.38). It is known that the ash must be from wood structures, as it contained calcite, which is formed from wood ash (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.90-97). The topsoil around Birka is often called black earth, because the large amounts of ash were deposited during the occupation of the city, which was plowed into the dirt by later farmers. During the time of occupation the residents of Birka often spread ash from their hearths across their floors to level them out, which also makes them very easy to spot in the archaeological record. The ash in the black earth must have come from an occupation layer which is no longer visible, as it has been ploughed up.(Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.28). The black earth contain many broken artifacts of both modern and ancient origin (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.24).

During the 1990-95 excavations large amounts of dirt were put through sieves and floatation to in order to find small bones and other objects (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.82). Most bones found in the soil samples were fish bones. Of those not found without the need of soil samples the most common were cow, pig, and goat/sheep bones; these bones show clear signs of butchering. A large number of fox bones were also found, which may have been from foxes killed for fur. Bird and small mammals which were used for fur were found in every part of Birka. This may indicate that they were of some kind of importance. In contrast, very few horse bones were found. From this it can be determined that the main sources of meat at Birka were cattle,pigs, goats/sheep, and fish, while other animals were probably used for other purposes (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.84-86). Isotopic analysis shows that a marine diet seems to correspond to individuals of high status (Anna et al, 2008 p.446). Pollen was also found during sieving and flotation. Most pollen found was from weeds, but some was from grain. This indicates that some farming must have occurred around the city. This grain pollen is very interesting because it is mostly from wheat, which was very rare in the south of Sweden during the Middle Ages, but was very common in the eastern central portion of Sweden where Birka is located, even though conditions are no better for its cultivation (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.110-119).

Three major types of religious artifacts have been found at Birka: amulets, fire-steel rings, and miniature weapons (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.72). These are very clearly heathen symbols (it should be noted that heathen is not used as a derogetory term, but is what modern followers of this religion call themselves) which represent the Scandinavian religion which was dominant at the time (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.70). Three religious objects, two ring amulets and a miniature axe, were found under a street within a 3m^2 area, though it is not clear whether these artifacts are related to the street or the houses next to it. Either way, the small area in which these artifacts were found seems to indicate that they were not simply dropped but placed here on purpose. A major significance of these artifacts is that they date to the late period at Birka, which is well after the first arrival of Christian missionaries (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.76). A Thor’s hammer was also found during the 1990 season in the plough soil, which may have come from a street that had been disturbed (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.73). Finds like these help to show the difference between religious grave goods and the religious objects of a city (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.71).

Birka was a key trading city, so trade would have affected the life of every person in the city (Riksantikvarieämbetet). Around 930 coins were found during excavations at Birka, with most of them having Dslamic origins. A few were of Roman origin. Roman coins have been found in large quantities in other parts of Sweden and may have been used for currency. If this is so, it would be likely that the foreign coins at Birka were also used as money (Anna et al, 2008 p.79). A less common trade item found at Brika is jewelry imported from the continent which is decorated with filigree and granulation, a type of decoration that consists of patterns formed from shaped wire (Wladyslaw, 1985 P15, 30). Two shells were even found that could have only come from the tropics (Anna et al, 2008 p.124).
Information about the life of the inhabitants is not the only information to be found at Birka. No fewer than 2300 graves have been on Björkö. More graves probably existed in the past, but many have been destroyed by agriculture (Gräslund, 1980 p.4) The largest of the cemeteries on the island is Hemlanden. The cemetery north of Borg, a fort outside of the city, is the next most important cemetery on the island..(gräslund, 1980 p.5). The cemeteries once contained many groups of graves, which over time grew into the large cemeteries which are present on Björkö today (gräslund, 1980 p.86). Both cremation graves and inhumation graves are found around Birka, with both being divisible into further categories. Cremation graves are devisable into cremation deposits and urns without a cremation deposit (gräslund, 1980 p.51). Inhumation graves are further divisible into Coffin’s graves, graves with coffins, and chamber graves (gräslund, 1980 p.7).

A map of cemeteries on Björkö (gräslund, 1980 p.4).

Cremation at Birka should probably be associated with heathen as the Ynglingasaga says

Thus, he [Odin] bade that they burn all the dead… They should bear the ashes out on the sea or bury them in the earth; for a renouned man they should build a howe as a mark of remembrance, and for all men in whom there was some manliness they should raise standing stones.

This quote shows why it is not possible to determine exactly how many cremation graves occurred at Birka. It can not be determined if ashes were borne out to sea at all or how often they might have been if it did indeed happen (gräslund, 1980 p.63). If this practice was common, the cremation may have been far more common than inhumation. A majority of the cremation burials at Birka are covered by mounds so it would seem that they often employed burial practices which were meant to emphasize the dead (gräslund, 1980 p.64). It is clear that not all burials had mounds built over them. Some were flat and must have been marked in some other way, as there is no overlap between these graves in most cases (gräslund, 1980 p.63). If this practice was common it seems possible that the practice of a more honorific burial at sea may have also been fairly common. It should also be noted that the graves at Birka correspond to other contemporary graves in central Sweden and probably represent native people and not foreigners (gräslund, 1980 p.86)

About one half of all burials at Birka are cremation burials. Most of those burials are cremation deposits (gräslund, 1980 p.50). Cremation deposits are characterized by the remains of a cremation pyre with an urn buried in the middle. Many of these deposits are circular or oval shaped and are at ground level with a mound, with an average height of 89cm, built over them. (gräslund, 1980 p.51). Of all cremation burials about two-thirds have an urn. The most common kinds of grave goods associated with urns are rings, which were normally placed on top of the urn, and Thor’s hammers, which is yet another indicator that these graves should be associated with heathens. Other items sometimes found at cremation deposits are eggshells, unburnt poultry bones, bread, and other kinds of food. It is possible that eating may have taken place during the cremation process, though it is also possible that these are grave goods (gräslund, 1980 p.53-54). Iron rivets are also a common feature of cremation deposits. Some archaeologist have suggested that these rivets are from boats which were burnt along with the deceased, but it is not clear if that is the case (gräslund, 1980 p.55).
Cremation deposits represent 86.5% of the burials at Birka (gräslund, 1980 p.58). The rest are cremation burials in which the body was not burnt on a pyre at the location of burial (gräslund, 1980 p.51). Many of these graves may simply represent individuals who died during the winter and were cremated and until spring when the ground thawed enough for them to be buried (gräslund, 1980 p.61). Burials without cremation deposits are just holes dug into the ground with the ashes placed inside. This is no different from burials with cremation deposits, except for the lack of the cremation deposits (e.g. no pile of ash from a pyre) (gräslund, 1980 p.58).

Some of the grave goods that are found in cremation burials have already been mentioned, but there are many more beyond the few mentioned. Items such as Thor’s hammers, rings, combs, pottery, and western European glass and pottery are common grave goods which are found in cremation burials at Birka, regardless of type. (gräslund, 1980 p.77). Other burial goods which are common to all burials at Birka are beads, fire-stearls, rivets, nails, wet stones, combs, knives and keys (gräslund, 1980 p.54). Beads were found very commonly during the excavation of houses at Birka during the 1990’s (Ambrosiani, Clarke, 1995 p.52). The prevalence of beads at Birka in both living and burial space suggests that beads may have held some kind of cultural or religous significance to the inhabitants of the city, but it can not be determined what that significance might be. It is possible that they were just used for their appearance.

Combs are some of the most interesting burial goods at Birka. They are the second most common grave good from the Viking Age and are found in both male and female graves (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.12). Most of the combs found at Birka were well made and repaired when they broke instead of being thrown out. Also, a historical account of an Arab called Iban claims that Vikings used their combs everyday (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.13). All of his information indicates that combs probably held a great importance. At Birka 325 combs were found in 269 graves (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.89) This is extremely useful to archaeologists as comb styles tend to only last one generation so they are a good indicator of time, as well as a good indicator of the importance of combs (Ambrosiani, 1981 p.15).

Other than cremation graves three different kinds of inhumation graves can be found at Birka. One of those kinds is inhumation graves without coffins. Out of the known 425 non-chamber-grave inhumation graves at Birka, 185 of them are known to not have coffins (gräslund, 1980 p.26). However, it is often impossible to determine if a grave actually had no coffin or if the coffin decayed to the point that it could not be found. It is, in fact, very common for coffins at Birka to have rotted away and left nothing but the nails which held them together. Some coffins have been found which were built without nails by looking at stains in the dirt. If the coffin is built without nails and rots completely and also does not stain the matrix, then it will be impossible to determine that it was ever there. It is known that graves without coffins did exist, because graves have been found with bodies in positions that could not be achieved if they were in a coffin, such as being crammed between rocks (gräslund, 1980 p.12).

The pits in which bodies without coffins were placed in are rectangular and normally have outward sloping walls. It is interesting to note that these graves did not seem to indicate the status of the buried person at all. Some coffinless burials have no grave goods and some have many grave goods (gräslund, 1980 p.13). The deceased was probably wrapped in a burial shroud of linen, wool, or birch bark, or covered with a covering of some kind; one grave, BJ 597, even shows evidence of a feather bead. Evidence for the wrapping of the dead can be found on the Bayeux Tapestry in England. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a man being lowered into a grave who is wrapped in a birch bark, and as it was made only 100 years after the abandonment of Birka it is likely that similar practices would have gone on there. It is possible that coffins were not used because the dead were buried so soon after dying, usually two to three days after, that they were not needed (gräslund, 1980 p.14-15).

Another kind of inhumation burial that can be found at Birka is a grave with a coffin. Two hundred and eighteen of the known 425 inhumation graves, other than chamber-graves, at Birka are known to be graves with coffins (gräslund, 1980 p.26). The average depth of pits with coffin burials is 0.1m-2.0m (gräslund, 1980 p.16). Most of the pits with coffin graves have small depressions under the coffin. It has been hypothesized that these depressions were somehow important to the process of lowering the coffin into place. One possibility is that these depressions faicilitated the removal of the ropes used for lowering the coffins into place. It is also possible that the depression may have helped to stabilize the coffin which may have had boards in a cross shape attached to the bottom, probably making it easier to remove the ropes once the coffins had been buried. Cross-shaped pieces were found on coffins in Jutland as well as on the continent; however, the cross pieces on the continental coffins were probably used as handles for carrying the coffins, while the ones at Birka could not have been used for this, as they do not extend beyond the side of the coffin they are attached to (gräslund, 1980 p.20-21).

All remains of coffins that have been positively identified as coffins during digs at Birka are made of oak. This does not mean that oak was the only kind of wood used or even that it was the most common kind used. All that this means is that oak was the only wood which could survive the soil. The fact that so few remains of coffins are found would seem to actually indicate that oak was a fairly rare building material. Most coffins from Birka are simple rectangular boxes between 0.35m and 0.8m wide and 1.55m-2.4m long for adults. As most coffins do not survive at all this size is determined from nails found in the ground. The coffins were for the most part built with the side boards butted to the top, bottom, and end boards and nails driven horizontally through the side boards into the other boards. Though nails seem to be the most common means of building coffins, many were found which had few nails at all. It is likely that other means were used to construct some coffins which did not require nails, i.e. mortise and tenon joints or wooden pegs (gräslund, 1980 p.15-17). One coffin was found that was even held together with rivets; this was common in Denmark, but not Scandinavia (gräslund, 1980 p.24). Though most coffins from Birka are rectangular, 29\% are trapezoidal. They are constructed in the same manner except that the foot and head widths differ by 5-10cm. Some archaeologists have suggested that these coffins represent the coffins of Christians as some church graveyards on the continent have trapezoidal coffins such as these (gräslund, 1980 p.19-20).

A diagram of common coffin designs found at Birka (gräslund, 1980 p.16).

Most bodies in coffins at Birka were found lying on their back with their heads pointing West or North. However, some bodies were crouched, lying on their sides, and others were pointing east. Pointing the head west was a Christian tradition while pointing the head north was a heathen tradition. Pointing the head east was fairly rare and may have had some kind of significance. It is possible that Christians believed that pointing the deceased toward the east would make it impossible for them to rest in peace (gräslund, 1980 p.26).

The last kind of inhumation burial that can be found at Birka is the chamber-grave burial. One hundred and ninteen chamber graves have been found at Birka, all of them in Hemlanden and North of Borg (gräslund, 1980 p.27). It is interesting to note that though this type of burial is fairly common at Birka, it is extremely rare in other parts of Sweden during this time period (gräslund, 1980 p.34). Chamber graves only differ from coffins in that they were built on location, are larger than coffins, and are are often constructed differently (gräslund, 1980 p.7). The major difference in the construction of a chamber-grave is that the walls of the chamber graves were often attached to posts in the corners of the chamber and not to each other (gräslund, 1980 p.31). The length of chamber-grave vary between 1.8m and 3.25m, while the width is often between 0.9m and 1.15 meters (gräslund, 1980 p.7,30). It is interesting to note that length of chamber-graves with weapons generally seems to be dependent on the length of the largest spear in the graves. Forty-two different grave were found which had spear points stuck into the wall of the chamber, indicating that it must have taken up the entire length (gräslund, 1980 p.30-31).

The bodies in chamber graves were generally arranged in the same way as the bodies in coffins, facing west, except that they sat instead of lying prone (gräslund, 1980 p.37,39). Some of the grave goods which accompany the bodies include sets of weapons, horse equipment, glass, game pieces, weights, scales, belt-mount, small crosses, coins, wetstones, purses, needles, beads, scissors, brooches, keys, and horses (gräslund, 1980 p.77). Twenty chambers had platforms built onto the foot of chambers for the body of a horse (gräslund, 1980 p.39-40). A man who was buried with more than one horse was probably a member of the royal guard, so in this way horses may have been a status symbols (Riksantikvarie\”ambetet).

Birka was a very important city in viking age Sweden. The years of excavations at Birka have revealed much about the lives of the people who lived there. The people of Birka were mostly homogenous and thus were probably native of the area. They lived in groups of houses that were divided by refuse ditches and probably eat mostly fish, beef, and wheat. Most of the people from Birka were also heathens. The excavations at Birka do not only reveal information about the life of the inhabitants but also about their deaths. Both cremation and Inhumation were common at Birka. Cremation was probably more common than inhumation, but it is hard to say this for sure, as ashes may have been buried at sea. inhumation burials can be broken down into three different categories as well: coffinless burial, burials with coffins, and chamber graves. Chamber graves are very similar to coffins but differ in that they are built in the burial pit and not lowered in already built like coffins. Birka provides a wealth of knowledge about the people who lived their and new discoveries will probably continue to come from this site for quite some time.

A map of northen björkö form Birka Vikingastaden, Vol. 1, 1991.

gräslund, Anne-Sofie (1980). Birka IV: The Burial Customs a study of graves on björkö. Stockholm,Sweden: Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm.

Ambrosiani, Björn, & Clarke H. (Ed.). (1995). Birka Studies: Excavations in the Black Earth 1990. Stockholm, Sweden: The Birka Project Riksantikvarieämbetet och States Historiska Musser.

Linderholm, Anna, & Jonson, C.H., & Svensk, O., & Lidén, K. “Diet and status in Birka: stable isotopes and grave goods compared,” Antiquity 82, no. 316 (2008): 446-461.

Ambrosiani, Kristina (1981). Viking age combs, comb making and comb makers in the light of finds from Birka and Ribe. Stockholm, Sweden: Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm.

Duczko, Wladyslaw (1985). The filigree and granulation work of the viking period: an analysis of the material from Björkö. Stockholm, Sweden: Dept. of Archaeology, North-European, University of Stockholm.

Riksantikvarieämbetet. Birka — The Viking town. Retrieved November 14, 2008, form the Riksantikvarieämbetet (The Swedish National Heritage Board) website:\_to\_visit/birka/birka\_the\_viking\_town.html

a note on the sources: All of these sources are pretty rare and can probably only be found in a few libraries in the country (which are willing to inter library loan them to you anyway) so if you get your hands on any of these it is probably the same one I used (assuming you are in the U.S.A.). If you would like to know for sure the Random viking left his mark (rv) on page 42 of every book except Viking age combs, comb making and comb makers in the light of finds from Birka and Ribe, which I believe came from Georgia state (I’m hopping to get this one back so I can read more of it so maybe I will mark it then). If you disapprove of this behavior feel free to be a party pooper and erase the mark.


Posted by on December 22, 2008 in Archaeology, school, viking


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A Paper on the Bronze Head of Augustus

As I have done in the past I am going to put up some of the paper I write for school. I won’t be putting up all of the papers as some of them are either stupid or might be used for cheating (for instance I wrote a paper last weakend for a problem in the Archaeology handbook which would be very easy for someone to turn in as their own.)

With out further ado I present to you a paper I wrote for Roman Archaeology on a bronze “bust” of Augustus found in modern Sudan. (note this paper is as it was when I turned it in and has not been Aurthur edited. Also take into consideration that I am only a freshman)

a PDF is available here

Taken from the British Museum

Taken from the British Museum

The Hisorical and Archaeological Value of the Bronze Head of Augustus

Artifacts are one of the most important, if not the most important, thing which draws visitors to a museum which is why it is important that an artifact be thoroughly considered before being added to a museum’s collection. An artifact of intrest could bring hundreds of new eyes to a museum, but if that artifact turns out to be fake, then it may cause a drop in attendance rather than an increase. The artifact I will be presenting for the consideration of purchase is a Bronze head of Augustus, which at one time was part of a larger bronze statue of the emperor. A few of the areas that must be considered before acquiring a new artifact are What this artifact is,its historic value, the ethics of acquiring it, and its authenticity.

The head of augustus was part of a larger statue that was once located at Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia (Bard and Shubert, 1999 p.515). The head extends down to the bottom of the neck where it was broken off during antiquity. The larger-than-life bronze statue of which the head was once a part, was made sometime between 27–25BCE and depicted Augustus as a young man (British Museum N.D.). The bronze has oxidized over the years making the head a grey color; however, the glass and stone eyes are still white (British Museum N.D.).

This piece has much to offer a museum; it is a fragment of one of the most important times in Roman history. Found under the steps of an ancient temple in Sudan, it shows just how far the reach of the Roman empire was (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 p.282). After Augustus defeated Antony in 30BCE, Egypt was annexed to rome (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 p.288); between 25BCE and 20BCE the people from the neighboring kingdom of Nubia, modern Sudan, revolted against Roman rule of Egypt and took the head and many other objects as spoils of war (Dowling, 2006 p.313). This artifact gives us not only insight to Rome but to their relation with neighboring kingdoms. When Aelius Gallus invaded Arabia with a portion of the Roman army stationed in Egypt, the Nubians saw their chance to invade (Jones, 1932 p.139). Though they were not successful in driving out the Romans, they did manage to keep some of their spoils, such as this one (British Museum N.D.). The head was then placed under a stairway leading to a temple celebrating the victory over the Romans so that anyone who entered the temple would walk over it, disgracing the emperor (Dowling, 2006 p.313).

Beyond history, the bronze head of Augustus can also tell us something about the political and social-economic atmosphere in the Roman world at this time. On the political side, this artifact is an example of Augustus’ attempt to bring the empire under his control. Augustus had only just become emperor after the defeat of Antony and needed to secure his power and authority through out the whole of the Roman empire to ensure that he wouldn’t suffer the same fate as his adoptive father, Julius Caesar (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 289). The location of the artifact can tell us something about what it was meant to do; Egypt was a new province of Rome, and Augustus needed to show the power of the Roman empire to his new subjects (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 289). What does this better than a larger than life statue of a young, strong ruler? Being that Augustus was born in 63BCE (Buchan, 1947 20), at the time of the statue’s construction in 27–25BCE, Augustus could not have been younger than 36; this statue is clearly not a 36 year old man (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 p.289). This image of eternal youth and power is consistent with Augustan portraiture, and is thus also a good example of this for the museum (British museum N.D.). The socioeconomic significance of this object is obvious, it shows the technology and skill of roman craftsmen; the ability to cast a larger-than-life statue of a man is a testament to their technology not to mention the logistics of it.

No matter how important this peace may be to the history of Rome or what it would add to the museum, the ethics of purchasing this artifact must be taken into consideration. If an artifact does not have a provenience going back to at least 1970, it would be unethical to purchase; however, this artifact is known to have been excavated in Meroe, Sudan in 1910 (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 page 282); The museum that currently owns the head has had it since 1911, as indicated by its identification number, GR1911.9-1.1 (British Museum N.D.) thus it is perfectly ethical to purchase. Though, another important thing to consider before purchasing an artifact is whether it is real or not. This artifact is in fact very real. The only way to be certain that an artifact is real is to know where it was excavated: the bronze head of Augustus was excavated in 1910 from the former capital of Nubia, Meroe in modern day Sudan (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 282). The head was found under a staircase leading to a temple in honor of a Nubian victory in a war against the Romans, during which the head was obtained and was then sold to the British museum in 1911 (Dowling, 2006 313). There is no doubt at all as to where this artifact was found or has been for almost the past one hundred years. After considering the value of this piece, the ethics of purchase, and the authenticity, I would strongly recommend that the museum accept MR. Burns’ offer to purchase the bronze head of Augustus

The bronze head of Augustus is in very good condition, thought it is not entirely intact as it was once part of a larger bronze statue of Augustus. However, this gives us a window into the world at the time of its construction: the Nubians rebelled against Roman rule of Egypt and took this artifact, as well as others, to their capital and placed them under the entrance to one of their temples (Dowling, 2006 313). The Romans had only recently conquered Egypt after the civil war that put Augustus in power (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 p.288). This artifact is direct evidence of Rome’s conquest of foreign lands as well as the great skill of the Roman artisans who made it. The head of Augustus would be an excellent display for any museum, and as it has a provenience going well beyond 1970 (Boatwright, Gargola, and Talbert, 2004 282) and is definitively real, I do strongly recommend that the museum acquire it.


Bard, K.A., & Shubert, S.B. (1999). Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt. Routledge.

Boatwright, M, Gargola, D, Talbert, R (2004). the Romans: From village to empire. New York: Oxford University Press.

Buchan, J. (1947). Augustus. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

British Museum N.D. Bronze head of augustus. Retrieved September 18, 2008, From The British Museum website:

Dowling, M. B. (2006). Clemency & cruelty in the roman world. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Jones, H.L. (Ed.). (1932). the Geography of strabo. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Posted by on October 19, 2008 in Archaeology


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