Making Love in an Iron Age

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about how we feel. Whether it’s at the doctor’s office or in a relationship, physical and emotional realities can be difficult to describe. Language never quite captures reality, and clichés often take the place of sincerity. But when words fail to serve us, our actions can capture the ways that we feel through the things that we do.

The gulf between unspeakable feeling and meaningful action is ever present in the archaeological record. Behind the plexiglas and placards of museum displays are artifacts taken from cemeteries and graves. These are traces of people who gathered together for a final opportunity to express the things that words could no longer say. As a scholar who works with these artifacts, it’s often hard to know exactly what they mean—but sometimes it’s all too clear.

Iron-Age burial mound at Tibble, near Tuna i Badelunda.
Most of the cemeteries I study have been destroyed by farming or modern construction—or else they wouldn’t have been excavated. This unexcavated burial mound sits atop a ridge near Badelunda in central Sweden, giving a sense for how other cemeteries in the area may have felt during their period of use. (Badelunda Tibble, Västerås, SE.)

I was recently working with artifacts from Tuna i Badelunda, a cemetery from the late Iron Age in central Sweden (ca. 600–1100 AD). No two Iron-Age burials are alike, but at Tuna, there was a clear preference for cremations, with only some of the bones being buried, often a mix of burnt and unburnt artifacts, sometimes even ships, and then surface monuments made of large stones, often laid out to resemble the ships beneath them. These graves were not for everyone, but for a rich elite who could command large numbers of mourners drawn from the dispersed settlements of the Mälaren valley. In a few places, the graves were laid in rows, suggesting that a person’s place in the community could be just as important as their individuality.

Glass beads from Grave 11 at Tuna i Badelunda.
The beads from Grave 11 at Tuna i Badelunda. The plain beads are common styles of the late Iron Age, with the bead in the back right falling out of fashion around the year 700. The decorated bead is a bit more unique, and may have been in fashion during the early 700s. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

Grave 11 is one such burial, added to a growing row of ship settings. This must have been an impressive and demanding funeral. It began amid animal sacrifices and a large cremation pyre. The pyre burned hot enough to render most of the bones beyond recognition. Once the fire cooled, someone went through the bones and selected 100 g of fragments representing the deceased human and the accompanying animals. These were then taken to the grave, where unburnt objects were added—slag that linked the deceased to objects of iron not in the grave, a single shard standing in for the whole of a pot, and three-and-a-half beads, presumably selected from a larger jewelry assemblage. Then the mourners built a mound on top of the grave, and the person who had been placed in the fire was now gathered into a community of stone.

Glass beads from Grave 14 at Tuna i Badelunda.
The beads from Grave 14 at Tuna i Badelunda. Three of these beads have been melted in fire, probably during cremation. The two fragments on the left with yellow and white lines make up one complete bead. The similar fragment with only white lines on the right has its matching fragment in nearby Grave 11. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

Grave 14 came later, wedged into the row right next to Grave 11. The funeral was similar and echoed earlier events: cremation, a careful selection of bones and artifacts, the construction of a monument. There were few artifacts, although the two ends of a belt suggest that the deceased was male. Excavators also found five glass beads, leading some archaeologists to suspect this may have been a female burial, but I think differently.

Whereas the beads in Grave 11 are a typical mix for Iron-Age women in their prime—a smallish group of simple beads with one or two unique accents—the beads in Grave 14 are something different. They all have some sort of decoration, and they include no plain beads at all. These were probably not part of a woman’s necklace. Moreover, some of the beads are burnt while others are not, reinforcing the impression that these were treated as individual objects rather than as part of a group. Most importantly, one of the unburnt fragments precisely matches the fragment laid in Grave 11.

Artifacts from Graves 11 and 14 at Tuna i Badelunda.
Together at last. Artifacts from Grave 11 on the left and Grave 14 on the right. In the center are matching fragments of a single bead, found with one half in each grave. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

This bead was broken along its center, and it could not have been restrung. The edges where the bead was broken are more worn on the piece from Grave 14. Between the burial of Grave 11 and the funeral for Grave 14, this fragment must have been carried and handled. It was a public token of grief, visible when Grave 11 was buried with one half and brought to a fitting end when the other half was laid nearby in Grave 14. Indeed, while the artifacts from Grave 11 point to things left out of the burial and a sense that something was missing—slag leftover from an absent artifact of iron, half of a broken bead, and a thin selection of bones—the things included with Grave 14 point toward a desire for fulfillment—a hefty 680 g of burnt bone, the matching ends of a belt, the missing half of the bead.

Two matching bead fragments from Graves 11 and 14 at Tuna i Badelunda.
Token of a broken heart? Two fragments of a single bead, buried in separate graves and placed back together again for the first time in a thousand years. (Västmanlands läns museum, Västerås, SE.)

It can be difficult to speak definitively about how people in the past experienced their lives and relationships. Indeed, it can be difficult to speak of our own experiences of love and life. But in this case, it seems the signs are clear. Even in an Age of Iron, it hurt to be separated from your other half, and love could be as fragile, as enduring, and as achingly beautiful as a broken bead of glass.

A special word of thanks is due to my own better half, who is celebrating her birthday today without me. We’re both looking forward to being together again!

2 thoughts on “Making Love in an Iron Age

  1. Emily Sousa

    What a beautiful tale, Matt! It’s pretty amazing to see the timelessness of human emotions, love is love and loss is loss, throughout the eons. That’s must be a pretty incredible perk of your research.


  2. Pingback: Sailing the Viking Seas – text and trowel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s