Iron Age Europe

Old Uppsala and Beyond

Kerstin Westrin and Jonas Wikborg, assist projectleader, excavating a pit house at Old Uppsala. Olle Heimer is looking through the contents of the floor layer. Photo: Asa M Larsson

Rescue excavations – the curse and boon of our profession. We may bleed for the heritage sites that are lost forever, but without the expansion of modern society we would get very little chance to peek into prehistory on a grand scale. This summer there are a lot of archaeologists crawling around Gamla (Old) Uppsala in Sweden, the idyllic suburb north of present day Uppsala, where the impressive great burial mounds of some undisclosed Iron Age VIPs still stand.

Urbanisation came late to this part of Northern Europe, but Uppsala was probably one of the first places in Sweden where this happened, sometime in the Early Middle Ages (or Late Iron Age as the period is still called here in Scandinavia). Exactly when – and how – is a matter of fierce debate, so you can imagine the gleeful joy with which archaeologists here greeted the fact that the railroad drawn straight through Gamla Uppsala needed to be expanded. It’s a massive project involving thousands of square meters of Iron Age and Medieval settlement sites as well as an Iron Age cemetery. It is also one of the most protected heritage areas in Sweden, so the project is a collaborative effort involving our own firm SAU, the Uppland County Museum, as well as the archaeological unit of the National Heritage Board. The more the merrier!

Sofia Prata, osteologist at SAU, is excavating a burial urn with a cremation from the Viking Age cemetery at Old Uppsala. Photo: Asa M Larsson

Not that I get to stick my fingers into the rich, dark culture layers with amulet rings and bear claw clasps, stuck behind a desk as I am doing administrative work as usual. But I manage to sneek out now and then and visit my colleagues in the field. So far the SAU team have found parts of a smithy and several pit houses, as well as long houses from the Vendel and Viking periods (c. 550-750 CE and 750-1050 CE respectively). The cremation cemetery that was identified in a field during last year’s test excavations has turned out to be much larger and more well preserved that we had expected – which is fun but, as we all know, also a bit of a headache for the County Museum that oversees the excavation. The osteologists from SAU will have their hands full, analysing all the cremated human and animal bones.

Celebrating with ice coffee and cherries – ’cause we earned it!

Still, contrary to popular opinion not all archaeologists are out in the field during the summer. Some  have been chained to their desk to finish up a report on sites in that we excavated a few years ago. These Bronze and Early Iron Age sites and burials in Northeastern Uppland were established during a perod where the region changed from archipleago, to coast, to inland due to the shore displacement going on since the end of the Ice Age. Today we were frantically double and triple checking the text and illustrations before handing in the manuscript to the Uppsala County Board, who will decide if it can be published.

Afterwards we celebrated. On Monday we continue with other projects at hand, or in a few cases, actually take a vacation…

If you find yourselves in the vicinity of Uppsala this summer and autumn, be sure to visit us – we have guided tours in English as well.

A brief visit to South Cadbury

Whilst working at Ham Hill in Somerset it would be a crime not to visit any of the other archaeology in the area so today I went on a brief visit with some of the students to South Cadbury. 

A cool site, very dramatic, as hillforts tend to be, and relativly easy to see and understand.  Its just pasture on top with some wooded areas on a limited area of the ramparts, making for good preservation and easy access. 

It is a shame that there is limited interpretation on site, with just one small scratched panel in the car park.   The local pub however have made us of this and have a small but good display all along one wall!  Heritage can bring in business!


Lunch eaten… More PhD stuff!

Unfortunately the camera has died on me, I’m an idiot for forgetting the charger so no more pictures or videos :(.  So here is a bit of improvisation instead…

This is a digitised version of Broxmouth, the excavation archive I am working on.  There were three entrances, two visible on cropmarks but a third was discovered in the west, having been blocked up after a short period of use.  Seven houses were identified in the interior however there are the remains of several structures both underlying and overlying the inner ditch in the west.  There are also structures overying the infilled south-west entrance ditches as well as more ephemeral postholes, pits etc scattered between the houses.  There is also a cemetery to the north containing ten individuals to nine graves.  This is unusual for an Iron Age site and it was found by accident when a trench was initially put on the north side to investigate the ditches on that side.  The project is currently awaiting radiocarbon dates to help flesh out the stratigraphic sequence of the site but we have occupation evidence tentatively going back to the early Iron Age, if not the late Bronze Age and the latest date we have so far is post 400AD which shows this site has a long history!


Back to my actual day… In typical fashion I have moved onto something slightly different.  It is quite easy when you are this close to handing in for PhD fatigue to set in so to prevent too much procrastination and boredom, I am currently re-assessing my area size analysis.  I have a specific study area in East Lothian to investigate the later prehistoric settlement in the area, broadly contemporary with Broxmouth.  I measured all the internal areas of the enclosed sites (note: I don’t believe in the hillfort/enclosure division, not in this particular area!) and analysed the varying sizes according to their shape and number of ditches to see if there are any notable patterns.  Right now I am pondering over whether large single ditched enclosed sites could be comparable to the Wessex examples.  The Wessex Hillforts Project found that large, single ditched sites tended to be devoid of internal features (seen from geophysical surveys) therefore may have been meeting places or ceremonial sites as opposed to settlements.  However care has to be taken in comparing two wildly disparate geopraphical areas, and also the Wessex examples are several hectares in size.  My sites are no larger than a hectare (with the exeption of Traprain Law).  However, it could be a useful analogy!

Introduction to a day of ‘post-ex’, research and education

I’m taking part in the Day of Archaeology to demonstrate that there’s more to archaeology than digging. I’m current involved in archaeological  research, although I also teach archaeology (primarily within the Adult Education sector, but I have taught workshops in schools). At present, I am preparing to teach a workshop on Derbyshire in the Roman period and early Middle Ages, writing up research I undertook whilst at the University of Sheffield, and completing post-excavation analysis on the late pre-Roman Iron Age (LPRIA), Roman, and early medieval activity at Crickley Hill, Gloucestershire, in order to write volume 6 in the series of site reports in this series. For more information on this work, I’ve started a website, but I’ve provided a summary of the site here.