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Excavations in Hedeby’s Flat-Grave Burial Ground – A Preliminary Report (Februar 2018)

Excavations in Hedeby’s Flat-Grave Burial Ground –

A Preliminary Report

by Sven Kalmring

In April to October 2017 a larger section of Hedeby’s Flat-Grave Burial Ground (Flachgräberfeld; Busdorf, Kreis Schleswig-Flensburg; LA No. 31-3; excavation ALSH 2017-32) was subject to an archaeological investigation. For the successful implementation of the project the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology cooperated with partners at the Archäologisches Landesamt Schleswig-Holstein, the Archäologisches Landesmuseum and the Wikinger Museum Haithabu. Next to a small core-excavation team the project was supported by an international crew of experienced interns from Kiel- and Aarhus University, as well as other German universities and even students from Belgium, France and England. The declared aim of this research-excavation was to relocate the exact position of an earlier, unfinished excavation trench from the eve of World War II, an enhancement of a larger section immediately around it for a modern, state-of-the-art investigation of the burial ground including aDNA-extraction, and finally a monitoring of the present-day preservation conditions for human remains. For the first time in Hedeby’s history of research the excavation-tent also was made accessible for visitors including a small poster-exhibition about the site as such, prevailing burial customs and targeted old excavation as well as aims for the current survey. This publicity was greatly appreciated by the general audience and during the six month of fieldwork c. 80,000 visitors found their way to the excavation (fig. 1).

Fig. 1

The old, unfinished excavation aimed for had been conducted in between August 9th to September 2nd 1939 under the lead of the Finnish archaeologist Helmer Salmo, who just had finished his doctoral thesis on »Die Waffen der Merowingerzeit in Finland (Helsinki 1938)«. Until the start of the current survey in 2017 it was the last to be conducted on this particular burial ground. Already in 1938 Salmo, Holger Arbman from Sweden and Roar Skovand from Denmark were won by Herbert Jankuhn and the Ahnenerbe to execute minor surveys at the hillfort Hochburg respectively at the so-called Königshügel. However, while Arbman and Skovmand subsequent to their surveys left head over heels, Salmo stayed even in 1939 and only then was allowed to excavated inside the ramparts itself – “in order to get to know the on-site developed methods“ (extract from the excavation report) by surveying a small section of the Flat-Grave Burial Ground. On August 25th Salmo and his wife left the German Reich hastily and already under great difficulties. Ultimately due to the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II on September 1st 1939 the excavation was aborted and the trench backfilled under, as witnessed in a letter from Haseloff to H. Jankuhn penned 1939-08-28, quite dramatic circumstances. The original examined trench measured 5 x 5 metres and was enhanced by Günther Haseloff by another 1.5 m before it final abandonment. While the drawn documentation of this efforts seem to be lost, photos, reports and excavation diaries are comprised in the archive at Schloss Gottorf. Many recognised features could only become registered, but no longer excavated. Instead, in order to facilitate their later examination, they were marked out by covering them with strips of roofing cardboard. Only two inhumation burials (without coffins?) could become fully excavated; a preservations of bones already back then was not given in this particular area. Burial 318 contained a golden pendant with filigree ornamentation, to which the gemstone itself was missing. Burial 319 featured an Anglo-Saxon sword of Petersen type L as a proper grave good recovered in the enhancement of the trench (fig. 2). Among the remarkable stray finds there was a globe-headed silver pin with filigree, an Irish gilded belt-buckle with chip carving and a Byzantine solidus minted in AD 830/31-840, reworked as fibula (cf. U. Arents & S. Eisenschmidt, Die Gräber von Haithabu. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 15 [Neumünster 2010]).

Fig. 2

The current excavations started off with a 12.5 x 12 m large trench roughly centring on the 1939-trench, covering the north-eastern half of the excavation tent. The area was sub-divided into 1 x 1 metre grid squares; artefacts found on spot were measured in three-dimensionally by tachymeter, while the excavated earth was water-sieved and the containing small-finds recorded after grid square and layer. The unveiled basic stratigraphy was relatively simple: The turf was followed by a c. 30‒40 cm thick plow-layer excavated in two cuts only. Each cut of the plow-horizon was first survey by metal-detector and then removed by shovelling. Underneath the plow-horizon it was worked with trowels exclusively. The underlying undisturbed “browning” or cultural layer of another c. 20‒40 cm in thickness, excavated in 5 cm-cuts, was extremely homogenous and did neither permit the differentiation of individual features nor the implementation of single-context recording. One of the reasons for this hindered observation condition was due to a very heavy bioturbation caused by resident moles and root voles. Since coffin nails appeared in great numbers right in the plow-horizon – indicating very flat, disturbed burials – already in the “browning” the edges of imperceptible interments had to be expected. At this point a georadar-survey was conducted by D. Wilken and the Institute of Geosciences at Kiel University on short notice. However, this effort unfortunately did neither give early evidence on the location of burials. During the ongoing excavation – and pretty much as in 1939 – only in the natural ground the dug-in features were clearly visible as dark discolorations against the yellow sand. These were submitted to single-context recording during their further excavation. In some fortunate cases, however, their prosecution above the natural ground became visible later on in the profiles. In awareness of the observed procrastination of artefacts due to bioturbation as a last step in the process even the sterile natural ground was subjected to a final metal detecting survey.

The old excavation trench, treated as feature 1 and emptied as a single context, became immediately visible after removal of the plow horizon, almost enframed by the natural sand as part of the backfill.

Its actual location proved to deviate only some 20‒50 cm from the reconstructed position according to the local coordinates within the Hedeby-coordinate system. The excavation started well: Only one week into the new campaign the first gold bead was found immediately above the old trench and three more should follow. Even more important, by the end of this week two golden pendants with filigree, one with finely cut rock crystal, the other with an amethyst, were retrieved from the backfill where they were overlooked some 80 years before. Amazingly these, together with the golden beads, can be assigned to grave 318, too, with the earlier recorded golden pendant and the missing gemstone. The therewith complete necklace today certainly turns burial 318 into one of the most outstanding female interments from late Hedeby (fig. 3).

Fig. 3

As luck would have it just the year before very close parallels were found in context of the discovery of the Fæsted hoard some 12 km west of Ribe in Denmark. It was even suggested, that the rock crystal pendants from Fæsted and Hedeby might actually have been produced in one and the same workshop (cf. L. Grundvad & M. Kundsen, Fæstedskatten – dynamisk guldsmedekunst i 900-årenes Danmark. By, marsk og geest 29, 2017, 30–49). When reaching the bottom of the 1939-trench in eight cases the brittle remnants of doormat-sized roofing cardboards could become recorded. These also allowed to relocate the exact positions of the already excavated burials 318 and 319 with otherwise missing drawings; for the latter even the spared pedestal to the sword – as pictured in one of the old photographs (!) – was identifiable.

All-in-all 69 features were recorded during the excavations. While a detailed analysis has to be reserved for future studies, it can be pointed out that, as expected, most of the features were about ENE-WSW orientated graves with nailed coffins and without grave goods. The overwhelming majority, however, did not feature preserved human bones. Even if this might have been critically red out of the excavation report from 1939 itself, the documentation of the main trench of the Flat-Grave Burial Ground excavated between 1900 and 1912 in contrast and very differently featured very well preserved skeletal remains in only some 15 metres distance. Seeing the original intention of extracting aDNA samples in order to learn more about the provenance and composition of the population in late Hedeby, this constituted a dilemma. It was attempted to compensate this circumstance methodologically by a consequent soil sampling at the bottom of the grave-pits in hope to catch some putrid juice suitable for aDNA-analysis. Here, 23 sets of test specimens have been taken under sterile conditions in the field. Also from three of the main profiles soil samples were taken for further soil-chemical analysis in order to follow up the question for the prevailing erratic preservation conditions. Towards the latter part of the campaign and parallel to the last works in the main trench in August 18th a minor supplementary trench of 3 x 5 metres was opened at the far side of the excavation tent. Here, in the southern corner of it, the intention was to capture the limits of the main excavation area from 1900-1912 and to screen, if the preservation conditions for human remains were still accordant to the state as recorded at the beginning of the last century or had turned equally bad since then. While the first target could not become archived the preservation conditions only 10.50 metres from the main trench effectively proved to be far better with both preserved skulls and long bones (fig. 4).

 Fig. 4

The encountered artefact-spectrum was vast and the finds still being sorted almost reach as many as 12,000 entities. The vast majority of the finds were about coffin nails, sometimes even with remnants of the coffin boards, which survived in the corrosion product. Yet even other objects hid among the corroded iron artefacts, such as e.g. coffin fittings, knifes – in one case corroded onto a whetstone! – one flick knife, scissors, a key, parts of padlocks or a crampon. To the mass material certainly also belonged potsherds, local and Pingsdorf ware, as well as many beads of precious metal, glass, carnelian and rock crystal and even amber. Here, chance finds of a few extremely small but pierced micro-beads of less then 2 mm in size might in fact be the first evidence for embroidery in Viking contexts. Single artefacts can only be highlighted randomly and numbers might still change, but are able to give a first, general idea on the general spectrum. Among the brooches there were two pairs of gilded oval brooches (unrestored, probably P51) plus seven disc-brooches in silver, gilded silver, with glass inlay and in gold. Above that there was a rhomb-shaped brooch in Borre style, one arm of a trefoil brooch as well as coiled springs of fibulas. Amongst the group of pendants a small Thor’s hammer from lead, two silver- and two amber-pendants can be mentioned. Other pieces of personal equipment encountered were three fragments of ring-pins, a belt buckle, several rare hooked tags for puttees, a decorative silver fitting of the Bootkammergrab-type and finally even a Rus’ bronze button. In just one single case a piece of preserved tablet weaving was met. Rather about settlement finds were the bead-makers’ bone pin with glass drip, a stone “anvil” for pre-heating glass as well as a set of three beads fused during cooling. Apart from that there was only one small fragment of a decorated comb side-plate, half of a conical spindle whorl and each one piece of schist and jet as unprocessed raw material. Several coins and pieces of hack silver, among them some Hedeby KG 9b’s dated to c. AD 976, an arm of a folding scale and two cubo-octahedral weights complete the set.

In accordance to earlier studies the burials in this part of the Flat-Grave Burial Ground chiefly seem belong to the 10th century AD or later. One of the youngest finds is the hack silver-fragment of a short-cross penny of Edward the Confessor minted in AD 1044-46. It is this penultimate Anglo-Saxon king whose death triggered the events depicted on the Bayeux tapestry, ending with the battle of Hastings in AD 1066, which also happens to be the historical date for Hedeby’s demise. Even though only very few finds of personal equipment can actually be allotted to individual burials, as e.g. in several cases tiny threads of gold passementerie, one pair of oval brooches, the 10th century belt-fitting type Hedeby variant 2 or the bronze hilt of a knive, there seems to be a clear Christian impact – not only indicated by the general orientation of the burials and the absence of true grave goods in contrast to personal equipment. As earlier known from the burials 226 and 236 from 1911, another cross-shaped coffin fitting was found (fig. 5), thereto a looped and Fig. 5hallmarked silver arm of a cross pendent and, for the first time in Hedeby, two very fine shroud pins from bronze. In one case even charcoal-patches could be observed in a burial-context, which elsewhere had been suggested to be connected to the veneration of Saint Lawrence. This saint became devoted by Emperor Otto after his victory against the Magyars in the battle of Lechfeld on August 10th 955, the very day of the festivity of the saint; in AD 962 Otto even received one bar of the grate the Saint Lawrence suffered his martyrdom on from Pope John XII. Very close parallels to the pattern starting to emerge in Hedeby seem to be found not at sites as e.g. Birka, but in its putative Christian successor Sigtuna (cf. A. Wikström (red.), På väg mot paradiset. Arkeologisk undersökning i kvarteret Humlegården 3 i Sigtuna 2006 (Sigtuna 2008)). The many gold- and gilded finds certainly point to a wealthy merchant population in 10th century Hedeby.

Apart from the cemetery itself two other, older and largely unknown phases could also be reviled by the excavation: A settlement phase with a few refuse pits plus a disturbed bead maker-workshop, cut by a later burial, was found and predominately recorded at the north-eastern margins of the main trench. This phase seems to go well together with a large amount of production waste scattered over the whole of the excavated area. Furthermore, there are good indications for a (pagan) mound of eight metres in diameter, which mostly becomes apparent in the geomagnetic from 2002, but also is indicated by a more or less featureless empty space as Fig. 6 well as the very restricted remains of what might have been a stone circle surrounding it. If so, we yet have to consider that the principal burial against all hope was gone. Again based on geomagnetics another mound of nine metres in diameter seem to have existed in the south-western part of the tent which was reserved for exhibition and visitors. It seems not by coincidence that just here, with the female interment grave 45, the only known chamber-grave of the Flat-Grave Burial Ground was recorded in 1905. Thus it appears that the feasibly in its latest phase Christian cemetery rather organically developed from a heathen barrow cemetery. In this context the results of the geomagnetic surveys from 2002 should be systematically reviewed for further circular anomalies pointing to the existence of additional mounds. The youngest documented phase is about three square pits with straight walls and even bottom, reaching below the cultural layer and deep into the natural ground. At least one of these pits clearly cut through a burial, and they contained quite some precious finds such as a pair of oval brooches and another exquisite, gilded globe-headed silver pin in Borre-style (fig. 6). These pits might very well be about unrecorded trial pits as known to have been laid out in a dense grid all over the interior of Hedeby at the beginning of the last century.

Two main questions seem to be relevant to ponder further in the future: One is the apparent antagonism between seemingly far too low-lying inhumations as witnessed by the coffin nails appearing right underneath the grass turf and, at the same time, a rather uncommonly thick plow horizon as a possible result of plowed-down mounds and eroded settlement debris from higher reaches. The other question is rather of universal nature for Hedeby in general and the Flat-Grave Burial Ground in particular: If the preliminary interpretation of the latest phase of the burial ground as proper Christian cemetery can be confirmed, one certainly has to ask for the position of a corresponding church. Having said this, the latter does not necessarily has to be identical with Saint Ansgar’s missionary church from AD 849/860, for which the Romanesque Saint Andrew’s church in Haddeby still seems to be a strong candidate. What we are looking for is rather for an Ottonian church associated to the Flat-Grave Burial Ground, maybe even connected to Hedeby-bishop Hored (AD 948) and his successors. For such a task the highest elevation in all of Hedeby, only some 30 metres apart, behind the hedge bank of the south-western adjacent lot, seems to be a suitable candidate.

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