Monday, February 20, 2006

Viking Period horse gear revealed

As previously mentioned on Salto sobrius, me and my friend Howard dug a Viking Period boat grave at Skamby in Östergötland last summer. Well, actually, Howard's students and a vintage-car expert from Norrköping did, and we bossed them around.

The grave had really bad metal preservation, but near the south-western end of the boat were a few iron objects. We took them up in soil blocks and I brought them to conservatrice extraordinaire Åsa Norlander of the Board of National Antiquities in Stockholm. Writes Åsa:
"They had an extremely hard corrosion crust that had to be removed by grinding and sand blasting. The hook 343 and the ring 303 have small mineralised remains of wood."

Åsa promptly sent me X-rays of some objects, showing them to be a shaft hook, a hoof spike and a ring. This morning, she sent me a photograph of the stuff as it looks after she's removed surface corrosion, but before she sticks it into distilled water for several weeks to leach the chlorides out. (Finally she'll dry the iron out and soak it in wax.)

Look at the smithwork! The spiralling end of the hook, the spindly steel antlers of the hoof spike. All done with hammer and pliers at a lo-tech charcoal furnace 1150 years ago.

Find 343 is a very finely wrought hook from one of the shafts on a sleigh or small wagon, about half the length of my hand. It was used to hook the vehicle onto the harness of a draught animal. Similar (although centuries older) ones were found at Vendel and Valsgärde.

Find 442 is a hoof spike of a kind common for a few centuries in Scandinavia before horse shoes were introduced in the 11th century. They keep the horse from slipping when you ride or drive a sleigh across frozen lakes and marshes. Roads were almost non-existent in Sweden at the time, so winter was the best time for travel. Hoof spikes are very common in graves, suggesting that the road to the Otherworld was believed to be icy too.

Finds 303 and 309 are iron rings of identical and rather small size, one of them with a straight iron bar looped onto it. The wood remains on one of them may be from the boat. They look a bit like pieces of a bridle bit, but the rings are far smaller than any bridle rings I've seen. On the other hand, I haven't seen any annular brooches looking like this from the Viking Period either. So I don't know what the rings are. They may also have to do with horse gear.

Summing up, these objects look a lot like a pars pro toto version of the full horse gear in the boat inhumations of Uppland. They form an abbreviated symbol, evoking a larger idea with a small part of it. You won't get far with your one-horse open sleigh if you've got only one shaft hook and one hoof spike. Skamby is smack bang in one of the wealthiest agricultural areas of Sweden, so this understated symbolism was clearly not dictated by poverty. As is underlined by other finds from the grave...

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Blogger Arkeologen said...

Det är sånt här spännande som gör att jag vill vara klar med min examen imorrn och bara börja jobba, jobba, jobba, jobba...

21 February, 2006 13:32  
Blogger Martin said...

Well, true to my pessimistic outlook on archaeology as a profession, I must say that very few field archaeologists ever get to see their metal finds after conservation. Usually, your summer contract ends while the finds are in conservation, and then only the project director gets to see them when they're done sometime in February.

21 February, 2006 20:10  

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