The excavations in 2012 and 2013

The excavation area.

As early as the 7th century AD there was a densely populated community at Gamla Uppsala, this was before there were towns in this country.

Now, our understanding of what is perhaps Sweden’s most iconic ancient site is beginning to be increase.

Generally, Gamla Uppsala I associated with power, imposing burial mounds and sacrificial feasts on a grand scale. Now, the archaeologists have unearthed a broader view.

In 2012 and 2013 large areas a few hundred metres east of the mounds were investigated.

The excavations provide a unique insight into the diversity of the people who lived and worked at the site. Now, for the first time, we can put the royal mounds and the royal manor terraces into a larger context!

As early as from the 7th century AD and onwards there was a densely populated community at Gamla Uppsala, with great social diversity.

This settlement was teeming with men, women and children; there were textile craftsmen, blacksmiths, traders, aristocrats, farmers and thralls. A hundred houses and more than ninety graves have been excavated and thousands of artefacts from near and afar have been found.

Glass beakers, gold rings and runic engravings are contrasted by food remains, pottery and rusty knives. Also, traces of ancient cult, such as amulet rings and Thor’s hammers have been found, but some Christian artefacts lay hidden in the ground as well.

Here you can read a summary of the 2012 excavations.

Why excavate?

The excavations were necessitated by Trafikverket’s (Swedish Transport Administration) plans to rebuild Oskustbanan, a major railway line to the country’s North.

The excavations are a joint venture project involving Riksantikvarieämbetet (The Swedish National Heritage Board), SAU, an independent research foundation, and Upplandsmuseet (the county museum of Uppland).

Where was the excavation?

Most of the excavated areas were situated west of the Vattholma road, where extensive settlement remains were investigated. East of the road additional settlements and a large burial ground were excavated.

About 70 000 square metres (about 17 acres) were investigated by about 40 archaeologists in conjunction with various specialists, such as osteologists, archaeo-metallurgists and archaeo-botanists.

The opportunity of excavating as large areas has provided us with a unique opportunity to study how life was lived on the farms in Gamla Upsalaa and how the dead were buried from about the 6th and 7th centuries and up until the 12th and 13th centuries.

The period includes the Migration and Vendel Periods, as well as the Viking and Early Middle Ages.

What, actually, was Gamla Uppsala?

Gamla Uppsala was neither a village nor a town during the ancient times, but rather a so called central place.

These were linked to manors, seats of the society’s elite.

What did the settlement look like?

There was a settlement here already when the royal mounds were built in the late 6th and early 7th centuries, but it seems to have intensified and become more concentrated around 600 AD.

Archaeologists have investigated the traces of a hundred buildings, among them dwellings, outbuildings, smithies and so called sunken floor huts (se images at the bottom of the page).

A majority of the investigated houses were found west of the Vattholma road, the modern thoroughfare passing through the village. The road probably originated during Middle Iron Age, around the 7th century AD. You can see that houses from this time on are orientated along or at right angles to the road, with gables or side walls facing it.

Who lived and worked in Gamla Uppsala?

Among the dwellings archaeologists have found many artefacts indicating everyday life.

Vast amounts of bone reveal what was on the menu; beef, lamb, goat, pork and horse.

From the kitchens there were also a fragment of a soapstone vessel, wooden barrels, pottery and skewers. Pins, spindles, buffing glass, and loom weights are traces of textile work.

All classes of society seemed to have been represented here. Perhaps female thralls (slaves) from the south Baltic have made the Baltic pottery found, and ground serial with the rotary querns found.

The wealthy have feasted on moose, deer and crane. Finds of spurs and large dogs may suggest that hunting was a favourite pastime. Exclusive artefacts, including a gold ring, glass beakers, game pieces, gilded pendants and fittings, tell of their way of life.

Arrow heads and rings from chain mail could possibly be linked to professional warriors.

Some exclusive artefacts have reached Gamla Uppsala by way of traders, who have left traces in the form of silver coins, balance scales and scale weights. Many items have also been made locally, in instance in the three smithies.

The sunken floor huts have been used for various crafts. These structures, also known as pit houses, were small, usually covering 5-10 square metres (45-90 square feet). They were dug into the ground – the floor making up the bottom of a pit, and the sides of the pit forming the walls of the house.

A roof and possibly an inner wall have been added. In total, 37 sunken floor huts have been excavated, most probably dating from the Vendel Period (550-800 AD) and the Viking Age (800-1050 AD).

They may have functioned as dwellings, workshops, weaving houses or granaries.

How were the dead buried?

Archaeologists estimate there to have been several thousand graves in Gamla Uppsala, but most have been destroyed by farming and quarrying down through the centuries.

East of the Vattholma road a burial ground, with over 100 graves, has been investigated, dating from the Migration Period (375-550 AD), the Vendel Period (550-800 AD) and the Viking Age (800-1050 AD).

The burial ground lay on a low ridge, nicely elevated. As the area had been farmed in later times the graves were to a lesser or greater degree destroyed by ploughing.

Superstructures such as mounds had all but disappeared and stone cairns had been damaged.

All graves were so called cremation graves, which mean the dead had been burned.

No Christian graves were found. These may possibly be located closer to the church, but we do not know when burials started there.

Those buried here were probably mostly those living in Gamla Uppsala. The archaeologists can see that the dead represent different social strata.The most exclusive graves contained glass beakers, gaming pieces, silver and gold jewellery, while some graves lacked any artefacts whatsoever.

How the latter group should be interpreted is not clear at the moment. Earlier scholars suggested that these were the graves of thralls or servants, but the link between burial goods and social status is probably more complicated than that.

An unusual feature was the large number of children’s graves. In one of these a German coin from the 11th century was found. It had been converted to a pendant.


Ancient cult

Gamla Uppsala is often linked to a golden pagan temple, consecrated to the gods Odin, Thor and Freyr, with worship involving animals and humans sacrificed to the gods. This is according the German church historian Adam of Bremen, who described the cult in the 1070s.

Now archaeologists have found traces ov a more everyday cult, including animal bones deposited, or sacrificed underground.

The most striking feature comprised the large number of iron amulet rings found on the settlement as well as adjacent to the graves. Some of these amulets are in the form of strike alights, on which pendants were attached, for example miniature sickles.

Amulet rings, usually iron, are quite common on settlements in The Mälaren region, but usually only two or three on the same site. In Gamla Uppsala, about 80 have been found, complete or fragmented. Few other sites have harboured large amounts of amulets. These include Borg in Östergötland, Hälgö Island on Lake Mälaren and Lilla Ullevi in Uppland.

We do not know how they were used – a ring on the Sparlösa rune stone in Västergötland has been interpreted as hanging on the door of a house. They may have been hung on special sacrificial poles.

A picture stone from Lärbo parish on Gotland shows men walking in procession with rings in their hands.

Christian objects

Artefacts linked to Christianity have been found as well. On the settlement a fragment of foil with barely legible runes, dating from around 1100 , was found. “Catherine”, “holy”, “help” and “Michael” are some of the words that could be deciphered. The runes may refer to the Arch angel Michael and the saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Another interpretation was that the foil belonged to a person named Catherine, an upper class name in the middle ages.

Another medieval fitting with the words “Ave Maria”, was found on one of the settlements - from the mid-1100s there was a cathedral at Gamla Uppsala. The fitting may have been part of some pilgrim’s attire.

The archaeologists also found a round metal object with a loop, decorated with a crowned Christ.

The 2013 excavations

The wooden post monuments

The most staggering discovery of 2013 was the wooden post monuments. Two long rows of large postholes, in which once wooden posts had stood, were found.

One row was orientated north to south, running east of the mounds for almost a kilometre.

The other row lay south of the mounds, running east to west, until it changed direction, running parallel to the Högåsen burial ground.

What are the current thoughts on the function of the monument? This question was put to some of the archaeologists who took part in the investigation of this marvel.

Robin Lucas dug some of the first postholes discovered by the Vattholma road last spring:

- We didn’t have access to an excavator then, so we had to empty the first ten postholes ourselves. This involved jumping into a metre-deep muddy hole and hoisting 90 kg stones to shoulder height. By hand. I also have this lovely image of my colleague Andreas Hennius getting stuck in a pit of muddy ice cold water, which slowly rose up his legs and mercilessly seeped into his boots. The expression on his face at that moment made me think of Munch’s “The Scream”!

- An aspect which has been overlooked is that we initially believed the postholes were foundations for standing stones. Now we know that at least 20 postholes contained pine posts, but I still think we can’t exclude the possibility that some posts may have housed standing stones. This of course raises the question of where these ended up, says Robin.

Through radiocarbon analysis, some of the post remains have been dated to the 5th and 6th century AD. More analyses are under way.

Another interesting aspect is the varying appearance of the posts:

- Most were round, but some had been shaped using an axe, leaving them square. Others are split down the middle, resulting in half round timbers, Jonas Wikborg tells us.

He suggests that the builders had reused old timber, perhaps from a building.

- About half the postholes contained animal bone, from horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and dogs. Some of the bones may have come from ritual meals. The southern row contained almost exclusively bone and teeth from horses. This is interesting, considering the central role given to horses in pre-Christian cult, at least according to written accounts.

Otherwise, artefacts in the postholes were scarce. Apart from animal bones, all that was found in the 165 postholes were two pottery vessels, a comb and a fibula brooch.

- These are of great importance for the dating of the rows, says Jonas.

So what has the wooden post monument been used for?

- I have two working theories, Jonas tells us. One is that both rows have flanked different roads. The other is that the rows are part of a vast enclosure, surrounding the area around the royal mounds and the royal manor, thus turning this into some sort of sanctuary.

- Egil Skallagrimsson’s saga and the Norwegian Frostating law, both written down in the Middle Ages, decreed that thingsteads should be sanctified and enclosed with so-called viband. According to medieval writers, such as Adam of Bremen and Snorre Sturlasson, Old Uppsala was a thingstead and cult site in ancient times, says Jonas.

Hans Göthberg has studied old maps and come up with an interesting correlation:

- I’m increasingly convinced that the wooden post monument marks a boundary. On a map from 1641, the row under the Vattholma road in particular corresponded to the boundary between land belong to the royal manor and that belonging to the rest of the village. At the same time, it is still an open question whether this post row lay along an existing road or if the road was a later addition. The first possibility is supported by the fact that the north row was oriented toward a section along the river Samnan which would provide an excellent natural ford, Hans Göthberg concludes.

Anton Seiler believes that the wooden post monument can be linked with various Iron Age phenomena:

- There are obvious aspects to mention even at this early stage. The monument is multifaceted and touches on many spheres of Society at the time, such as religion, transportation routes, power and the large scale mounumentalisation of the Old Uppsala landscape. Also, its erection seems to coincide with a period marked by changes in, for example, settlement patterns and burial customs.

- We archaeologists usually work with fragmented, incomplete remains, resulting in our accounts of ancient history being generalised, simplified and anonymous. If we apply a healthy dose of actor perspective to our work, the result really comes to life!

- The monument is, in the same way as a house or a well, the result of concrete chain of events within a narrow frame of time, a chain of events instigated by people just like you and me. At the moment, we know that the at least some of the posts were raised during the Migration Period, but actually it may all have happened in the course of a just few years of the 5th century!

- And during these short years, the monument affected the lives of a great many people, whose bodies may might have ached and been sore, but who also rejoiced and prided themselves in their achievement.

- And then we have all the people in the following centuries whose everyday lives were lived in the shadow of the impressive monument, which may have shaped some of their identity, Anton Seiler contemplates.

From the onset, Anton has been fascinated by the process leading the erection of the monument:

- Everything started with someone having an Idea, a Vision. Then came the erection of the monument with all that this involved in terms of planning, logistics, engineering and probably maintenance as well. The wooden post rows mirror a very complicated past reality, and it is our task to present as concrete and credible interpretations as possible, says Anton.

An interpretation of what the wooden post monuments actually meant will be forthcoming at the latest when project wraps up in 2017!  

What happens now?

At the conclusion of the excavation in late 2013 work began on analyses and report writing.

For instance, the archaeologists will examine the relationship between the royal manor by the mounds and the rest of the settlements. Did they live their lives side by side with the upper echelons of society, or did they have specific functions on the manor, such as servants, craftsmen, farmers or other food producers?

The project will run through to January 2017, when the scientific report is published, coinciding with the launch of a more popular book about Gamla Uppsala.

A sunken floor hut, or pit house, during excavation – and a sketched  reconstruction.