Unearthing Ancient Sweden Through Archaeology

With over 25,000 Iron Age graveyards and burial mounds, 1,140 megalithic structures of all sizes, and about 2,500 large rune stones, Sweden is an archaeologist’s paradise. While recognized predominantly for its colorful Viking past and picturesque medieval towns, Sweden has a history that extends far beyond the the Middle Ages. In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Martin Rundkvist, a Swedish archaeologist, about his most recent work in attempting to locate a Geatish mead-hall in the archaeologically rich province of Östergötland. With humor and insight, Rundkvist shares his thoughts and enthusiasm.

geatsswedesJW: Dr. Martin Rundkvist, it is my immense pleasure to welcome you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! Your work related to ancient Geatish elite structures in Östergötland is most intriguing and I am thrilled to present your expertise with our international audience.

I wanted to begin with a simple question as to why you chose to focus on the Geats (Götar) and their archaeological remains in recent years? Is it because far less research and inquiries have been made on the Geats when compared to the ancient Swedes (Svear) or the Gotlanders (Gutes)?

MR: Thanks for inviting me to speak with you. I studied the province of Östergötland mainly because little had been done about 1st millennium CE elite culture there. This in turn was probably because there is no archaeology department at the University of Linköping.

SverigekartaJW: Scandinavian archaeologists and historians have increasingly recognized the province of Östergötland as one of Late Antiquity’s “political hot spots.” Why is this the case and how should we understand this appellation?

MR: Östergötland has probably always been a political hot spot–that is a populous and wealthy area–because it is so rich in natural resources. It has a rich archaeological record starting in the Scandinavian Mesolithic Era (c. 9300-4000 BCE). And when the Kingdom of Sweden is formed about c. 1000 CE, Östergötland is one of the original provinces onto which later acquisitions are then tacked on through the centuries. (This process culminated about c. 1700 CE when the Baltic Sea was on its way to become a Swedish inland sea, after which our little empire collapsed rapidly.)

JW: As I read your book, Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats: Elite Settlements and Political Geography AD 375-1000 in Östergötland, Sweden, I was likewise astonished to learn that the Swedish province of Östergötland–the eastern heartland of the Geats–has historically been one of Scandinavia’s “breadbaskets.” I have always thought of the southern Swedish province of Skåne and Denmark when thinking of agricultural wealth in Scandinavia.

figuredieAnd yet, Östergötland has a low archaeological profile during the Migration Period (375-540 CE) when juxtaposed with those of the nearby provinces of Västergötland and Södermanland, and indeed the rest of northern and northwestern Europe. How can this paradoxical situation be explained in your opinion?

MR: The area’s low Migration Period profile is mainly due to a modest burial custom where few goods were put into graves. It is also due to a lack of political connections with the lineages in nearby regions that controlled access to the northern share of the gold peace-payments the Romans were helplessly handing out as the Empire slowly crashed.

JW: For several years now, you have been trying to locate elite settlements and mead-halls across this region of Sweden. Could you explain what constitutes a mead-hall and mention the roles they played in ancient Germanic Europe?

Additionally, I was also wondering about the uniformity of the mead-hall: would a mead hall in Östergötland differ significantly from one in Yorkshire in England for instance? I realize that the functionality of such buildings likely changed and evolved over time.

SkambygamingpiecesMR: The mead-hall was an unusually large long-house with a large room at its center, containing a large fireplace and a high seat. We usually find various imported luxury items in them. It was the main type of high-status residence in mid- to late-1st millennium CE Scandinavia. The first two-thirds of the Beowulf poem (c. 750 CE) is about the importance of such a hall to a sixth century CE Danish king, and how distressed he is when two ogres keep him from using his hall and doing his “kingly thing” there.

The hall is where leaders perform their political, military, religious, and social roles. This is also where raids are planned, booty is divided and dynastic marriages sealed, where skalds sing the praises of the petty king, and where high-born ladies incite political violence or (less frequently) plead for peace.

JW: I understand you are something of an expert when it comes to ancient Scandinavian metalwork. Some of the artifacts you highlight in your publication–in particular items from the Late Roman Period (150-400 CE), the Vendel Period (540-790 CE), and the Viking Period (790-1100 CE)–are not only beautiful, but of tremendous importance to archaeologists and historians. I wanted to ask you what these artifacts reveal about elite lifestyles and the exercise of political power over the centuries: what changes and continuities stand out?

AskasilverbeadMR: The finds my metal detector team unearthed and that I have studied in older museum collections show that Östergötland’s jewelery-makers were well-educated in the complex pan-Scandinavian animal art and other designs of the era. However, they also cultivated a regional repertoire that we do not find anywhere else. Some of this material is so distinctive that elite connoisseurs would have been able to peg the owners as “Östergötland folk” on sight.

JW: Where would you like to take the “Mead-Hall Project” in the next couple of years? What areas of research are you currently undertaking?

MR: I am planning nothing big in Östergötland at the moment, just a small geophysical checkup of an important Viking Period site where one might want to look for the foundation of a mead-hall. Since finishing my Östergötland book, I have been working on one about the Bronze Age (c. 1700-500 BCE).

Specifically, it is an attempt to find out some of the rules regarding where in the landscape people would sacrifice bronze objects in the provinces around Lakes Mälaren and Hjälmaren. In order to do that, you need to pinpoint a lot of known sites accurately on detailed maps, and this has just been made possible thanks to some new online data sources.Sattunabarrow

JW: Given the availability of new technologies and sources of data, where and when do you think we will uncover a mead-hall in Östergötland? Is it only a matter time rather than luck?

MR: Dr. Björn Hjulström and his team found one on a contract dig ten months after my book appeared. They were there to dig an ordinary Viking Period and later farmstead site, and bang, there it was. Great big post-holes and a smashed Migration Period drinking glass were uncovered at Ströja in Kvillinge parish–this was not one of the nine parishes where I predicted there would be a hall, but a neighboring parish of one of them. I was very pleased. Also, they found some really odd human skull deposition from the Viking Period–which we had seen before at Herrebro in Borg–but nobody had made much of it previously.

JW: So it was a mixture of luck and time! How exciting. Dr. Rundkvist, I thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts (and humor)! It was a pleasure to speak with you and I hope to do so again in the near future. Please keep us posted with your latest work as time goes on.

MR: Thanks again, James!

Photo Key:

1.1. Map of ancient Sweden with relation to the Geats, Swedes, and Gotlanders. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is public domain. Image created by Ningyou, 2007.

1.2. Map of Swedish provinces. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 (Unported license). Image created by Koyos, 2009.

5:2. This die from Sättuna near Linköping, Sweden was used to make tiny gold foil figures of a goddess or female potentate (c. 7th century CE). Image: courtesy of Dr. Rundkvist.

6:4. Gaming pieces are common in Viking Period graves, but only very rarely are they made from amber. These were found in a boat burial (c. 9th century CE) at Skamby near Norrköping, Sweden. Image: courtesy of Dr. Rundkvist.

9:1. This bead from a cemetery at Aska near Vadstena, Sweden is an example of fine silver filigree work (c. 9th century CE). Image: courtesy of Dr. Rundkvist.

9:6. The Sättuna barrow near Linköping, Sweden was probably built after c. 7th century CE. Image: courtesy of Dr. Rundkvist.

martinDr. Martin Rundkvist received a doctorate in Scandinavian archaeology from the University of Stockholm in 2003. His doctoral thesis dealt with burials on the Swedish island province of Gotland, looking particularly at social roles discernible in the grave furnishings. Other publications of his cover various categories of first millennium CE metalwork, a Neolithic settlement, Bronze Age burnt mounds and metalwork depositions, a Viking Period boat burial, and an Early Modern harbor. Rundkvist is an active participant in debates and prolific reviewer of books. He has also served on the editorial board of Fornvännen–Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research–since 1999, and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Chester in England. Among his other activities, Rundkvist is the Chairman of the Swedish Skeptics Society and the author of the wildly popular Aardvarchaeology blog.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners and are copyrighted. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Rundkvist, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.