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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
During the late 800s, a new elite established themselves on the island of Funen in the Danish archipelago. Perhaps they rose from the ranks of local farmers, or perhaps they migrated there from wealthier parts of Scandinavia. But whatever their origins, they saw a need to set themselves apart from previous generations. They did so in part by burying their dead in a new set of places.
Grave ACQ at Køstrup inaugurated one of these cemeteries. The attention that ACQ received indicates that she was either a powerful matriarch or that her survivors had hoped she would become one. They buried her in the height of fashion. She wore a simple linen underdress, and on top of it, another garment dyed blue with woad. Pleats ran down the center. Not only was this a conspicuous waste of fabric in a period when textile production was labor intensive. The vertical lines also drew the eye upward from the blue garment toward the cluster of jewelry at ACQ’s breast.
Two bronze brooches provided support, pinned to the shoulder straps. These were in a garish style that archaeologists call JP 51a. They stood out like tortoise shells with intricate designs that could catch light from any direction. When ACQ was alive, these brooches would have sparkled as she moved. Now she was dead, but her brooches still caught fresh light each time the mourners moved around her, drawing their eyes back to the dazzling objects at the center of her grave.
Between the brooches lay a string of eight beads. This is the largest Viking-Age necklace currently preserved in the museums of Funen. ACQ’s survivors must have known that women elsewhere could boast much more impressive displays. Perhaps to make up for this lack, ACQ’s dress had a thin strip of fabric running from brooch to brooch, woven with designs to help make her modest necklace seem like part of a larger, more colorful display.
Each bead has its own story to tell. The darkest bead glows purple when held to the light. Similar beads have been found in towns like Ribe and Åhus, showing that ACQ had access to developing markets. Just as importantly, these other sites reveal how quickly this style went out of fashion after about 850, indicating that ACQ was not buried much later than 860. This was a period when viking activity was drastically increasing in the west, and it would be surprising if ACQ and the new elite were not somehow connected to the plunder and wealth of this so-called Great Heathen Army. This bead, then, offers tantalizing clues about ACQ’s place in the trading and raiding that defined the Viking Age.
The other colored beads would be more difficult to date if we didn’t have the short-lived purple bead as a point of reference. Several of these styles were especially popular during Funen’s glory days two centuries before, when the shrine of Gudme attracted pilgrims and may have inspired the earliest cycles of Norse mythology. Not only do these beads suggest deliberate connections to the past; so too does the burial site. Køstrup had already been used as a cemetery once before, and even though the people buried there must have been long forgotten, they left a distinctive burial mound in their place. The people who dug a grave for ACQ and started a new cemetery right next to this ancient mound were making strong claims about their abilities to dominate both the island landscape and its mythical past.
The clear beads also tell a story. These are made of rock crystal, a common variant of quartz. I’ve found this particular style—finely rounded, a bit larger than a centimeter, and almost perfectly clear—in a few specific spots: the boat burials of central Sweden, the merchant’s colony at Hedeby, and the aristocratic hoard of Lille Karleby, a site located suggestively close to homelands of the Danish monarchy. These diverse finds show that ACQ was linked into the major changes of the Viking Age: a thriving culture which treated warships as prestigious symbols, a network of trading towns promoting urban crafts and long-distance exchange, and growing kingdoms that would soon ally themselves with the Christian church, ushering in the end of the Viking Age and the dawn of the Middle Ages.
This week I finish the second stage of my research, so I’d like to take a few moments to sum up what I’ve seen. In previous posts, I’ve documented highlights from my visits to Copenhagen, Lund (SE), Bornholm, and Schleswig (DE). Since then, I’ve been on whirlwind trips to Ribe, Aalborg, Odense, and Langeland. At this point, I’ve completed a survey of over 6,000 beads from the Viking-Age, a large number of which have yet to be published.
Has it all been worth it? I’ll let you decide. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll sketch a quick chronology of early Viking Age bead consumption as it now appears to me. I’ve seen pre-Viking Age beads from ca. 700 at central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, as well as from the trading camps of Ribe and Åhus. And I’ve seen beads from the full flush of the Viking Age from the burgeoning emporia of Hedeby and Sebbersund, as well as from the small cemeteries of the Danish archipelago. These early and late beads look dramatically different, and not only do they come from different places, they also come from different kinds of places. Between 700 and 900, a whole new set of consumers gained access to necklace beads, and they were using them in a whole new set of ways.
Phase 1 (660-700). Scandinavian society revolved around central places during the early middle ages, otherwise referred to as the Germanic Iron Age. Elites who built their power at these sites distinguished themselves by showcasing exotic objects made from materials like glass and gold, which could not be obtained locally. They left glass and gold as votive deposits at places like Sorte Muld and Uppåkra, and they buried them with them when they died. Their societies stabilized with the rest of Europe as northern climates recovered from the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’, while the enduring strength of Eastern Mediterranean economies meant that access to exotic goods remained consistent throughout this period. This consistency contributed to a conservative sense of fashion, with styles of clothing and jewelry changing only slowly. Beads tended to be simple but made from high-quality glass. Favorite colors like blue, green, and white would have complemented the prominent blues of women’s dresses.
Phase 2 (700-760). Western Europeans built on the improving climate with agricultural reforms and commercial enterprise. North Sea merchants carried this prosperity into Scandinavia by partnering with Danish elites to establish a trading camp at Ribe, a sheltered spot where coastal traders could exchange wares with the deep-sea merchants who traveled around Jutland into the Baltic. Soon the camp at Ribe had a companion market at Åhus in Sweden. The old elites must have watched these sites carefully, but craftspeople increasingly worked on their own terms, outside the patronage networks of central places like Uppåkra and Sorte Muld. They engaged in traditional work with local materials like amber and antler, and for the first time Scandinavian craftspeople also gained proficiency with glass. The new markets secured steady access to this exotic good, while aspiring elites were eager to consume the new fashions being made. These beads—typically a translucent blue glass decorated with red, white, and yellow rings—moved out from the fledgling markets and into the most prestigious circles of Scandinavian society.
Phase 3 (760-790). This seems to have been a period of retrenchment. The glass in Ribe and Åhus came from major production centers in the Near East, which prospered as the Islamic conquests put an end to the perennial conflicts between Byzantium and Persia. But the caliphate overextended, and in the 750s, it began to break apart. Distant provinces revolted and a major coup rocked the center. This interrupted the supply of new glass to Scandinavia, where glassworking faltered. The ubiquitous blue beads disappeared and were replaced by thin ‘wasp’ beads—a style that maximized length and minimized material. Many of these beads were black with yellow rings, but they appeared in other colors as well. Access to glass was the determining factor, and bead makers weren’t terribly concerned with color. From this perspective, the late 700s were bleak. Ribe’s trade restructured and Åhus may have been abandoned. Craftspeople and merchants dispersed to a looser but more robust network of smaller trading sites. Some of these would later flourish, but in the uncertain years of the late 700s, most remained ramshackle affairs that have left few archaeological traces.
Phase 4 (790-820). Glass imports renewed during this period, and the loose network of small sites began to consolidate around a few urban nodes. These sites show intensifying relationships with the Near East, no longer mediated through Francia and the Western Mediterranean. Islamic coins were circulating in Scandinavian markets by the 780s, and in the 790s, bead imports spiked. These beads came in a few standard styles made from drawn glass, which couldn’t be replicated in the north. Scandinavian glassworkers could make exquisite beads by heating glass and wrapping it around a mandrel, but they lacked the technology or expertise to blow glass, draw it into tubes, and form it into a desired shape. Bead imports proliferated at Ribe and the revived settlement of Åhus, but they’re curiously rare at elite sites and cemeteries. In part, this is because a large number of the beads lacked perforations, which raises questions about what exactly they were being used for. Overall, it seems that although craftspeople were still occupying traditional places, Scandinavian connections and consumption patterns were beginning to change.
Phase 5 (820-860). During this period, a new set of settlements left the old ones behind. Elite women stopped losing their beads at the central places of the Germanic Iron Age, which gives them a sense of abandonment. Ribe and Åhus also disappear from the archaeological record—if these communities persevered, they moved to new sites yet to be identified. Meanwhile, a different set of settlements began to take off. Places like Sebbersund and Hedeby had been among the trading posts that popped up in the late 700s, but only in the mid-800s did they became complex and densely populated sites. Their expanding trade included a new style of drawn bead—tiny rings of blue, yellow, white, and black. These beads rarely made it into elite graves, although hundreds were found in the so-called Hedeby harbor purse. This set of beads was found packaged with a handful of coins, suggesting that they might have served a monetary function as well. If so, they add a new dimension to our understanding of this period. Islamic coins were still rare, and most coins from this period came from Western Europe. But the Hedeby harbor purse suggests that Scandinavians were also forging connections east, well before the silver fever began in the 850s.
Phase 6 (860-900). This was another period of extreme disruption in the Islamic world, as short-lived caliphs struggled to control the Turkish slave-soldiers whom they had empowered. Silver imports slowed, as did glass. Meanwhile, Christianity was taking root in Scandinavian towns, and the new Christians quit burying their dead with grave goods. This led to a declining demand for beads in some places, even as a new demand sprang up in the Danish archipelago. A form of Norse paganism was taking shape there, building its mythology around the old cultic site of Gudme. People in the area started burying their dead with grave goods like necklaces, even as their Christian counterparts were giving it up. These cemeteries tend to be modest, suggesting limited material wealth, but several graves contain an extra body—presumably a slave sacrifice. These island burials contrast to the trading towns, which evidence economic distancing from the Islamic world and cultural convergence with the West. The appearance of glass beads in the Danish archipelago conversely suggests that not only did some Scandinavians maintain contact with the Islamic world, but that these Scandinavians also had access to extra human bodies—at the same time that vikings were reaping captives from the west and Islamic elites were seeking a new source of slaves for their harems and armies. This gives much food for thought about the role these island communities played and the potential extent of human trafficking in the Viking Age.
I must note that this chronology is only tentative—a working framework as I continue to analyze data and conduct new research. In particular, I am uncertain about the changes of the late 700s and whether this should be seen as a period of retrenchment, at least with regard to long-distance trade. Nevertheless, the glass evidence points to strong connections with the Islamic world beginning around 790 and intensifying in the early 800s. This indicates that these connections existed well before Scandinavians began to import Islamic silver in large quantities. Moreover, the ways in which the glass was being used gives us clues to what Scandinavians were doing to acquire it.
An archaeologist’s skills lie in uncovering the relics of the dead. But an archaeologist’s art rests in bringing these people—or at least their stories—back to life. Both aspects of the discipline require precision and insight, which is part of what makes archaeology so exciting. As a historian, I face the added challenge of getting an archaeologist’s fragments of the past—the stuff of settlements, cemeteries, and hoards—to speak to the textual traces that we call “primary sources.” It’s my assertion that archaeological finds have similar value, and that they give us opportunities to breathe fresh life into our stories about the past.
At Nørre Sandegård Vest, a small field on the east coast of Bornholm, I’ve been trying to do just that. Local farmers have been churning up artifacts for centuries, and the celebrated Danish antiquarian Emil Vedel started scouting the area back in 1884. In 1901, he excavated at Nørre Sandegård itself, finding eleven graves that spanned from the height of the Roman Empire to the cusp of the Viking Age. But Vedel didn’t get it all. In 1986, as the landowner was moving dirt for a garden, new artifacts began to appear. An initial investigation discovered three graves, and a large campaign the next year turned up 47 more. Most of these burials (and their beads!) date from the late Iron Age to the early Viking Age, or about 600-750, which is perfect for my research. And a published report of these finds (sponsored in part by Queen Margrethe of Denmark and the Carlsberg Breweries) has made the results accessible to researchers like myself.
But more farmwork has turned up more artifacts, so Bornholms Museum is digging again. The dig has been contracted to Christina Rein Seehusen, and it has become a thesis project for two doctoral students from the University of Gdansk: Karolina Czonstke (Baltic silver and jewelry) and Bartosz Świątkowski (ceramics). Together, they’ve discovered that the 1987 excavators explored only a few meters in each direction from the graves that they found. If they hit something, they excavated it, but when their test trenches turned dry, they stopped digging. The problem is that they occasionally shot their trenches between two graves without hitting either, so when they called an end to excavations, they left a number of undisturbed graves along the edges of the cemetery.
The numbers aren’t final, but since excavations resumed in 2014, about thirty new graves have been found. The archaeologists aren’t relying on test trenches anymore. Instead, they’re opening up large sections of earth, sometimes assisted by a mechanical excavator that strips away the top layers of agricultural dirt. (The preferred technique—using ground-penetrating radar to look for magnetic anomalies—has proven ineffective at this site.) Unfortunately, this churned up farm soil often includes the top layers of graves. As ongoing erosion has carried topsoil to the sea, the ploughs have been digging deeper and deeper each year. In just a few more years, there may have been nothing left for archaeologists to find.
My own minor contributions to this project consisted mainly in removing surface dirt that covered archaeological layers. Modern plough soil has a uniform appearance from being repeatedly mixed together, but more ancient soils look mottled. Once the top layer is cleared away, we can study the underlying soil for signs of human activity. The people who used Nørre Sandegård as a cemetery liked burial mounds with the occasional cremation. Cremations leave a dark char in the soil, and the trenches that mourners dug around burials to build mounds on top of them were filled many years later by differently colored soils blown in from the sea. These dark patches tell archaeologists where they should focus their efforts.
For many graves at Nørre Sandegård, soil discoloration is all that’s left. Ploughing has stripped some artifacts away, and chemicals and microbes in the soil have consumed others. But sometimes soil colors are enough. Take, for example, graves K99 and K100. A large dark ring surrounds these graves—the telltale sign that once a burial mound was here. A few surviving artifacts let us deduce that K99 was male and K100 female. His grave is deeper, nearer the center of the surrounding trench. Hers is more shallow, but still well within the trench’s perimeter. Perhaps K99 was buried first, the mound built above him. When they laid K100 beside him, they dug deep, but not much deeper than the original surface. Either the mound had been built large enough in anticipation of K100’s burial, or K99’s funeral was recent enough that filling the old trench and digging a new one left no noticeable changes in the soil patterns.
The people who buried K100 were able to respect K99’s grave—there’s no overlap, and the two burials are closely aligned. Although the mound disappeared centuries ago, this is a good sign that K99’s burial was marked and tended in the years after his death. Many of the ring trenches at Nørre Sandegård include small round rocks that were carried there from the sea. These must have been placed atop the mounds, with some tumbling into the trenches for archaeologists to find, and the rest being scattered by ploughs. Karolina Czonstke, who excavated these graves, reminds us that the grave can be a doorway to the afterlife, and she suggests that these sea-worn pebbles might have carried a special ritual meaning, perhaps signifying a sense of eternity.
These ideas seem well suited for the people buried in K99 and K100. We can imagine what must have been the grief of a moment—a prosperous and well-respected man laid to rest, his grave carefully marked out, a beloved companion following him soon into death, and a grieving community that respected her wishes to be buried alongside him, placing her in the same mound overlooking the sea for centuries to come. And now, although the mound is gone, the graves themselves unearthed in a last-ditch effort to save them from erosion and the plough, K99 and K100 remain with us through the traces they left in the soil, touching us in life and death across the centuries.