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Antiquity Vol 79 No 306 December 2005

Excavation of a Viking period boat grave at Skamby, Östergötland, Sweden, summer 2005 - an interim report

Howard Williams & Martin Rundkvist

Background and research aims
In 2004, Swedish archaeologist Dr Martin Rundkvist and Exeter lecturer in archaeology Dr Howard Williams initiated plans for a project investigating the little-known and unique monuments at Skamby in Kuddby parish on the peninsula of Vikbolandet in the county of Östergötland, southern Sweden. The excavations in the summer of 2005 were conducted with students from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.

Survey work
Building upon the existing survey of the Skamby burial monuments conducted in the 1940s and a metal-detector survey by one of the authors (Rundkvist 2004), an earthwork survey of the ridge was undertaken during the early part of the field season using a total station. As well as ten oval structures with characteristic boat-shaped depressions and the ten round stone settings recognised in the 1940s, the survey covered additional features noted in the 1980s registration for the Ancient Monument Register. In total, there are 13 visible round monuments. Most appear to be stone settings located at the north-west end of the ridge while some mounds are situated along its south-western flank.

Figure 1

Figure 1. 1. An evening view of the boat grave prior to excavation, view looking north-west. Click to enlarge.
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2. A view of the monument during excavation, view looking north-west.

Excavation methodology
The excavation took seven weeks and began with the survey of the surface of the structure, followed by the removal of turf by hand from the entire stone setting and the cleaning of the soil overlying and surrounding the stones by trowel. All turfs and soil were sieved through a 4mm screen. The stones were recorded by vertical photography to create a plan of the entire excavation. This took place for the entire monument apart from the boat-shaped depression at the centre of the monument: the turf on this area was left intact to limit disturbance to the grave during the excavation of the surrounding monument.

This was followed by the removal of the stone setting and the sample-excavation of the pre-monument soil down to natural. The outermost stones of the stone setting were left in place to provide a guide for the reconstitution of the monument following excavation (figure 2). It was only once the stone setting had been removed from the rest of the monument that the area of the boat-shaped impression was investigated. The methodology adopted was to excavate the boat in half-metre sections from both ends, so as to ascertain the shape and depth of finds precisely by three-dimensional recording.

Excavation results
The granite stone setting was revealed to be an irregular octagonal structure, one stone in thickness, measuring 11.5 x 9m (figure 2). At least three large stone blocks along its edges may originally have been standing up. A further orthostat seems to have been placed adjacent to the grave cut, standing in a position that may have alluded to the location of a ship's mast.

At the centre of this distinctive monument was found the grave cut, filled with collapsed stones from the covering stone setting. Once the turf was removed from the depression, it became clear that there were two lines of intact stone collapse into the depression, stones still slumping inward (figure 3).

Beneath these stones, the boat and its contents were revealed to be untouched but in a very poor state of preservation. Numerous iron rivets and staples allowed the charting of the shape of the boat in the grave, although towards the bottom of the boat these had survived as little more than iron stains. The boat had been c. 5m long and 1.5 to 2.0m wide.

Other objects were also discovered. These include an iron ring and an iron hook that may belong to a simple horse halter, a hoof spike, a small belt knife, and nails and iron staining that may represent a small box. Non-metallic finds included a pendant whetstone, a single red glass-paste bead and animal tooth enamel. Unfortunately bone preservation was very poor and no human remains were recovered.

The final discoveries are by far the most remarkable. Within the centre of the grave, mixed with the stones of the collapsed stone setting, were found twenty-three domed amber gaming pieces (figures 4 and 5). The fact that these rare artefacts were mixed with the stones suggests that they formed part of a gaming set placed by the mourners on top of the grave chamber rather than within it. By the eastern edge of the stone setting, during the cleaning of the monument, a silver alloy pin was discovered.

The excavations also uncovered evidence that the cemetery was preceded by settlement activity during the first millennium AD. The culture layer beneath the stones contained pottery, burnt bone and hundreds of pieces of burnt daub - remains of the walls of a burnt house that still preserve the impression of the wattle to which they were attached. Beneath the layer were traces of hearth-pits, pits and a single post-hole.

Discussion
1 - Preservation
Unlike the exceptional circumstances where some boat graves have been well preserved, the Skamby boat grave was revealed as undisturbed but very poorly preserved.

2 - Date
The gaming pieces are of a diagnostic shape and size and known parallels suggest a ninth century date.

3 - Material culture
Due to the poor preservation, many of the grave furnishings did not survive. A central standing stone and a single bead are male gender attributes in this period, while gaming pieces are a clear indication of the aristocratic status of the occupant. But what is absent is also noteworthy. The lack of weapons, the presence of aristocratic male-gendered objects but equally the lack of any diagnostically female-gendered material culture prompts speculation as to whether the burial contained a juvenile individual.

4 - Burial rites & monumentality
The grave yielded evidence for a different variation on the boat burial rite; namely the provision of a covering stone setting augmented by orthostats and shaped into an irregular octagon and an unusual selection of furnishings. Overall, the burial displays an unwillingness on the part of the mourners to conform to symbolic rules governing the design of contemporaneous boat graves in the Lake Mälaren area (Vendel, Valsgärde etc.) Rather, the Skamby cemetery appears to be intended as a local variation on a prestigious theme, possibly interpretable in ethnic terms. The rich display provided by the interment of the boat grave was memorialised by the building of the monument on a prominent ridge overlooking a wide valley. The Skamby boat graves serve as examples of elite commemoration in the first millennium AD through both ritual display and monumentality (Williams forthcoming).

Figure 3

Figure 3. The boat-shaped depression after turf removal, illustrating the undisturbed collapse of the burial chamber. Co-director Martin Rundkvist provides scale.
Figure 4

Figure 4. Co-directors Howard Williams (left) and Martin Rundkvist (right) discover an amber gaming piece.

Conclusion
This paper represents tentative suggestions concerning the significance of the Skamby boat grave excavations in 2005. It has hoped to report the basic elements of the excavation season and put them into a context concerning the significance of the field season for our understanding of Viking Period society.

Prior to excavation, there was no clear knowledge of the graves' state of preservation, their date, nor the range of material culture buried and the burial rites performed at the Skamby boat grave cemetery. The 2005 excavations not only provided our first tangible evidence to address these questions, but it is hoped it will providing a stepping stone for further collaborative research at the site and in the region (Rundkvist in prep).

Acknowledgements
Thanks go to the superb excavation team of undergraduate students from the University of Exeter and postgraduates from the Universities of Exeter and Leicester. Thanks also go to a number of Swedish archaeologists and volunteers and in particular Arne Danielsson who provided support and enthusiasm throughout the excavations. Supporters of the project included the British Academy, The Royal Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in Stockholm, the Helge Ax:son Johnson foundation, the Rausing foundation and the Berit Wallenberg foundation.

References

  • RUNDKVIST, M. 2004. Survey work at Skamby: An Untouched Boat Grave Cemetery in Östergötland, Research Paper Presented at The 55th Sachsensymposium: University of Cambridge, 11th-15th September 2004.
  • RUNDKVIST, M. in prep. Central places and aristocratic manors of late 1st millennium Östergötland.
  • WILLIAMS, H. forthcoming (2006). Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Figure 5

Figure 5. The 23 gaming pieces made of amber found during the 2005 excavations at Skamby.

Howard Williams: Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, UK (email: h.m.r.williams@ex.ac.uk).
Martin Rundkvist: Editor, Fornvännen; Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter, UK (email: arador@algonet.se).

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