Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The Baptistery

View of baptistery location from our Airbnb appartment
I recently had the good fortune to renew my acquaintance with France. The Chapples were up in the foothills of the Alps for a family wedding, but before we headed home we decided to spend a day in Grenoble. Once safely ensconced in Belfast, I sorted through my photos and put a selection on social media. I was really surprised at the very positive responses I got from a wide selection of friends and acquaintances, so I have attempted to put together a selection for wider distribution.

The Musee de l'Ancien Eveche (Old Bishops’ Palace Museum) is a free museum, based (as the name suggests) in Grenoble’s former Episcopal Palace. While it displays and promotes the archaeological and historical past for the whole of the Isère region, I first want to look at the significance of the site itself. In 1989, archaeological excavations ahead of the installation of the tram system uncovered the remains of an early Christian baptistery. The baptistery was first built in the late fourth century and underwent many changes and developments over its 500-year life. As I understand it, the earliest phase consisted of a large, square pool about 0.75m deep to accommodate total-immersion baptisms. When liturgical changes reduced the baptism ritual to the simple sprinkling of water, the size of the pool was reduced, though the surroundings were decorated and embellished. Today, the site of the baptistery is marked out on the street while the archaeological remains have been preserved in situ directly below. Access is via the museum’s basement and the area contains other in situ material, including large portions of the city’s Roman walls.

Every time I visit here, I’m simply stunned by this remarkable survival. If you get the opportunity to visit Grenoble, I can’t recommend this place highly enough – it’s absolutely brilliant!

Section of Roman wall discovered in excavations
I would like to make a comment here that applies to pretty much all of the following posts regarding the treasures of the Musee de l'Ancien Eveche – all of the information cards I encountered were in French with no English in sight. This is not in any way a criticism of the museum, but of my own precarious memories of my schooldays and my tenuous grasp of the French language. To write these posts, I’ve relied on what little French I can muster. This has been augmented with Google Translate and a number of online OCR services, used on images of the museum’s signage. While these technologies are impressive, they still have quite a way to go and any errors of fact are mine alone.

Central baptistery pool. Photographed in 2003
Detail of lead pipe which fed the pool. Photographed in 2003

Overview of baptismal pool 

Grenoble 2017 Table of Contents

To act as an easy way of moving between each of the Grenoble posts, I’ve put together a Table of Contents. The links will go live as each is published.

Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The funerary stele of Caius Sollius Marculus
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Marble Gravestone
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Coin Hoard
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The funerary stele of Gaius Papius Secundus
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The parakeet mosaic
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | The Helmet of Clodomir
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Panels from an altarpiece
Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Two Capitals

Find the Musee de l'Ancien Eveche | Website | Facebook

Grenoble Archaeological Museum | The Church & graveyard
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Madonna & Child
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Doorways
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | The Saint-Oyand crypt
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Gravestone of Populonia
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Romanesque Capitals
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Carving of a Bishop
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Iron Cross
Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Two Oil Lamps

Find the Grenoble Archaeological Museum | Website | Facebook | Twitter

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ain't talkin', just walkin'. Carrying a dead man's shield

This decorated bronze shield was discovered in the River Shannon at Barrybeg, Co. Roscommon. When I was in university, it was taught that these beautiful shields (known as Yetholm type, after the discovery of three examples at Yetholm in southern Scotland) were ceremonial. How could they be anything else? They’re made of sheet bronze, just 0.6mm thick – a sword would cut right through that! If the inquisitive student questioned this dictum, they were quickly directed to Prof John Coles’ experiments from the 1950s. Coles had a replica shield made and then hit it with a replica sword. The result? Not good! The shield may as well have been made of tinfoil, as it was cleft in two with a single stroke. I have vague recollections of attending an Experimental Archaeology conference many years ago where Prof Coles spoke about his work.* While my memories of the gathering as a whole are somewhat hazy, I still clearly recollect the sound of the sharp intake of breath that ran through the room as Prof Coles described how he nearly clove a colleague in the name of science. I’ve told this story many times before, all with the tone of ‘well, that settles the argument.’

Fast forward to a little while ago when I shared the above image on social media. I was asked a couple of questions about it and the type generally. As I couldn’t remember some key facts (including the correct spelling of ‘Yetholm’ … I had a notion that it contained an extra ‘n’), I sought out the Wikipedia entry. While it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that scholarship had moved on in … you know … the last 25 years … I was rather taken aback that this particular cherished touchstone had come under scrutiny and revision. Recent work by Barry Molloy notes that Cole’s replica shield was only 0.3mm thick – two to three times thinner than the average shield of this type. Wikipedia also notes that Coles’ replica shield was made of hardened copper, substantially softer than the bronze of the original shields.  Molloy’s experiments suggests that while the thinnest shields may not have been effective in combat situations, the more robust examples would have functioned well. Not only were they effective, he notes that the three metal examples created for experimentation were ‘in most regards’ superior to their leather counterparts.

Molloy also notes a detail that had escaped me. The damage to the Barrybeg shield (above and to the right of the central boss in my image) may have been inflicted by a spear thrust. In his experiments, he observed that penetration by spear could happen, but mentions that in no instance did the spearhead penetrate far enough to pose a threat to the shield bearer. The Barrybeg shield also has some damage to its rolled edge that appears to have been inflicted by a sword. Experiment has shown that rolling the edge in this manner gave a broader area of contact that dented rather than allowing the sword to cut into the shield. In particular, the Barrybeg shield’s rolled edge incorporates a thick wire, further strengthening and supporting the edge.

I was initially attracted to the piece for the quality of its craftsmanship and the beauty of its design. In contemplating the shield, I was drawn to the hand grip – particularly visible as the central boss is now missing. There seemed to be something very human and evocative about that strip of metal meant to fit the hand of a long gone warrior. Whether it was carried with pride as part of a ceremonial occasion or gripped with grim determination against an oncoming enemy, a human hand held it there. These shields are dated to 1200-800 BC and their owners are long gone. Knowing a little more about the manufacture of the piece, how it was used, and the damage it suffered only brings the human element into sharper focus for me. Go see it for yourself and think past it as a piece of beautiful metal to the people who stood behind it …

* Long story. Don’t ask.

The Barrybeg shield is on loan from the National Museum of Ireland to the Ulster Museum. The Ulster Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays & is free! Go explore!

You can read a good introduction to the Yetholm shield type on Wikipedia, where I got much of the general substance of this post [here]

You can also read Barry Molloy’s excellent paper: ‘For Gods or men? A reappraisal of the function of European Bronze Age shields’ is available on his page where I got much of the rest of the detail for this post [here]

The title is taken from Bob Dylan’s song Ain't talkin', from his 2006 album Modern Times. But, of course, you knew that.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

‘Marrow mash’: the possible medicinal use of cattle bone marrow in Early Historic Ireland

Celtic Caludron by lemonade8 on Used with kind permission
I’m never quite sure how universal my experience of academic life really is (or was). For me, at least, I finished a Master’s degree in archaeology with lots of good intentions to get down to business and convert individual chapters into publishable papers. I didn’t do too badly – I got a few decent publications of core ideas out to the wider world. On the other hand – and this is where I’ve no idea whether I’m alone or part of a larger group – there were a few ideas that I had wanted to write up, but never got around to it. Perhaps the world doesn’t need to know my theory that the modern road system in west Clare dates to the Early Christian period*.

As some readers may be aware, my computer recently suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure. Although no data was lost, I’ve had to spend time going through various files and considering if I really need certain stuff on my new machine, or if it can’t be safely consigned to the archives. Seriously, if you’ve got a folder called ‘In Progress’ that hasn’t been touched in half a decade, it’s time to reconsider your priorities.

In going through this process, I found an outline draft of an article that I had almost completely forgotten about. It falls in this category of ‘peripheral ideas I had when writing my Masters’ and the sad reality is that I’m never going to get around to finishing it. The reasons for this are simple – for my Master’s I read a lot of the surviving corpus of Early Irish Law and other literature (albeit in translation). In the two decades since, I’ve not really maintained my interest and what little I knew then, I’ve largely forgotten. The other reality is that to pursue the research fully, I would require proficiency in such areas as biology and chemistry that I have never possessed and am unlikely to develop any time soon.

So, rather than allow it to go to digital decomposition, sitting in splendid isolation on my hard drive, I’ve decided to share what I have in the hope that someone with more energy and ability might find it a topic worthy of further thought and research.

My idea is pretty simple – when we find split cattle bones on archaeological sites (e.g. Ballinderry Crannog no. 1 (Hencken 1937)), the general consensus is that they were broken to extract the marrow (smir) for human consumption. I don’t disagree with this (bone marrow is a good source of nutrition), but I wonder if this was the totality of the marrow usage. Perhaps bone marrow could have been used for its medicinal qualities too.

Where bones are recovered from archaeological sites, it may be surmised that they were deliberately broken open to extract the marrow. As Roche & Stelfox (1937, 231) note of the Ballinderry material: ‘The characteristic appearance of these broken bones is always the same. The centre portion of the shaft of the bone is always shattered but the ends of the bones are perfect, unless split by a subsequent operation’. While the extraction of marrow can be identified, the uses to which it was put cannot be so easily recognised. Therefore, we must turn to the rather wonderful, if somewhat disparate, collection of early Irish literature in the hope of getting some insight into what bone marrow could have been used for.

Although there are no known references to the consumption of bone marrow in the surviving corpus of early law, marrow is included among the list of food items in the 12th century satire Aislinge Meic Con Glinne:

‘Then in the harbour of the lake before me I saw a juicy little coracle of beef-fat, with its coating of tallow, with its thwarts of curds, with its prow of lard, with its stern of butter, with its thole-pins of marrow, with its oars of flitches of old boar in it.’ (Meyer 1892, 85.12; Jackson 1990, 33.1022)

Despite the comic vision context of the tale the underlying implication is that marrow was among the common foodstuffs of the period. (Pers. Comm. Fergus Kelly). In fact, this is the only surviving reference in the early literature to bone marrow being used as  a food.

There is, effectively, only one other reference to bone marrow in the early literature, and it's from the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The version of this text from the Book of Leinster has been translated thus:

‘So then Fíngin Fáithlíaig asked Cú Chulainn for a marrow-mash to cure and heal Cethern mac Fintain. Cú Chulainn proceeded to the encampment of the men of Ireland and brought from there all he found of their herds and flocks and droves, and made from them a mash, flesh and bones and hides all together. And Cethern was placed in the marrow-mash for the space of three days and three nights, and he began to soak up the marrow-mash which was about him. And the marrow entered into his wounds and gashes, his sores and many stabs.’ (O’Rahilly 1967, 105.3780-5)

Such a passage seems so filled with literary over-statement and exaggeration as to be of little value to the student of early historic society. However, the Recension I version of this passage is much less prosaic and appears to encapsulate the central premise that bovine marrow, when applied as a poultice had the ability to heal wounds:

‘Then Cú Chulainn asked for marrow for the physician to cure Cethern. He made a marrow-mash from the bones of the cattle he encountered. Hence the name Smirommair in Crích Rois.’ (O’Rahilly 1976, 100.3299-3300)

While such legendary tales and the feats of heroic warriors are undoubtedly fantastic, the question remains: are these the result of pure literary imagination, or do they possess within them a central kernel of veracity? Kelly (1997, 53) notes this use of marrow mash (smirchomairt or smirammair) in the Táin, but states his uncertainty as to whether this was merely a literary invention or evidence for a genuine medical treatment.

The Dying Gaul (By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5)

My point is that if we’re willing to accept the literary evidence for eating bone marrow from a single 12th century satire, then we should at least give some consideration to its use in early medicine based on its appearance in the Táin. Admittedly, the idea of eating bone marrow has the advantage of being well documented in many cultures up to the present day. According to the website, cattle bone marrow contains 126 calories and 7g of fat per 0.5oz (1 tablespoon) serving. The same source indicates that a 3oz serving of lean beef contains 180 calories and 9g of fat. To recalibrate this to make it clearer – a 0.5oz serving of lean beef would have 90 calories and 1.5g of fat, versus the 126 calories and 7g of fat offered by the same sized serving of marrow. We can be clear that bone marrow is a rich source of energy and would have been highly prized in the prehistoric and early historic periods.

To effectively make the case that bone marrow could also have been used for healing and medication, we certainly need more evidence – and that’s where I’ve rather run aground. Failing the sudden appearance of a newly discovered early Irish manuscript that clearly states: ‘we used bone marrow for medicine, no, really!’ we, to my mind, need two strands of evidence. The first of these would be to document the medicinal use of bone marrow in other cultures. Outside of Ireland, I’ve been able to find reference to the use of bone marrow to treat coughing (seryt) by the ancient Egyptians (Numm 1996, 161). It’s fine, but it would be better to have more of this type of evidence. While being able to point to other times and cultures to say: ‘these all used bone marrow in a medicinal context’ would be lovely, it would not of itself be evidence that this was the case in early medieval Ireland.

What would be better – though still not conclusive – would be to have evidence of the healing properties of bone marrow. And this is where I've really run aground … I just have no idea as to how one would go about such a course of research. Even leaving aside the question of whether there would have been differences in the bone marrow of different breeds of cattle, I’m not entirely sure what we should look for or how we could go about it. Could there be antiseptic qualities in bone marrow? Perhaps it could aid in coagulation or in some other way that would speed up the healing process. In researching around this topic (read: Googling aimlessly) I’ve seen many websites that claim bone marrow as a rich source of collagen, but I have been unable to find any quantifiable data on this. The role of collagen in wound healing process appears to be well understood [here & here] and collagen wound dressings are popular. Could the collagen-rich bone marrow have been effective in speeding up healing? Could this seemingly exaggerated reference in our heroic literature actually preserve some knowledge of ancient medical practices? Perhaps there are further components of bone marrow that could aid healing, of which I am unaware.

I suppose that this is my point here – if this draft sits on my computer, unlooked at and unresearched, I’ll always remain unaware. It will languish there lost and forlorn and none of us will be any the wiser. That’s why I’ve taken the decision to turn what I have loose and set if free, in the hope of attracting the attention of someone with better science knowledge and an interest in pursuing the topic in ways I am just not able. Even after nearly 20 years, I maintain that this is an interesting question that deserves to be investigated further. Anyone willing to have a go?

Works cited

Hencken, H. O’N. 1937 ‘Ballinderry crannog No. 1.’ PRIA c 43, 103 - 240.

Jackson, K. H. 1990 Aislinge Meic Con Glinne. School of Celtic studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Kelly, F. 1997 Early Irish farming: a study based mainly on the law texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD. School of Celtic studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Meyer, K. (ed.) 1892 Aislinge Meic Conglinne: the vision of MacConglinne. D. Nutt, London.

Nunn, J. F. 1996 Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London.

O’Rahilly, C. (ed.) 1967 Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

O’Rahilly, C. (ed.) 1976 Táin Bó Cúailnge: Recension I. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

Roche, G. & Stelfox, A. W. 1937 ‘Appendix II: the animal bones from Ballinderry crannog No. I’ in Hencken, H. O’N. ‘Ballinderry crannog No. 1.’ PRIA c 43, 103 - 240.


* It totally does! I don’t have any excavated evidence or actual dates, but if you draw lines between the high-status ringforts (and go around the boggy area known as “the place of wolves”), you pretty much have today’s road network. See Chapter 7 [here].

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Five copper axes ...

A hoard of five copper axes from Lough Ravel, County Antrim. Now in the Ulster Museum.

I just liked the composition of the display and the prominence of the museum accession numbers ... to me they speak of the importance of collection, curation, and study - all the things a good museum facilitates and fosters.

The Ulster Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays & is free! Go explore!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Archaeology in Social Media | Chronicles 18

It has been a while, but here’s my take on what’s the best and most interesting in (mostly) Irish archaeological and historical material on … have a read, find and follow the authors most relevant to your research interests … when you’re done, come have a look at some of my stuff [here].

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Audleystown neolithic bowl

Audleystown megalithic tomb lies on the south shore of Strangford Lough, near the back entrance to Castle Ward. It is a ‘dual court tomb’ in that it is essentially two court tombs, placed back to back. It was excavated by A.E.P. (Pat) Collins in 1952 and the disarticulated remains of at least 34 individuals were recovered. The burials were of both males and females of various ages, indicating that formal burial here was not restricted by sex or age.  I know I do bang on about this, but when we see reconstruction drawings of Neolithic life we almost exclusively see images of males - the fact that women and children were afforded high status burial should alert us to the understanding that they would have occupied similarly high social positions in life too. Of the 15 pottery vessels recovered from the site, most were plain Western Neolithic carinated (shouldered) and uncarinated (unchouldered) bowls.

The pot in today’s image is one of these plain, uncarinated bowls. It caught my attention precisely because it’s not one of the most interesting looking pieces and, consequently, is not one that would be regularly chosen for display. The second reason I find it charming is that the object on display is largely modern, with only a relatively small portion being original, Neolithic ceramic. To me, at least, it is testament to the conservator’s art in demonstrating how fragmentary excavated remains can be accurately extrapolated to give a clear understanding of what the vessel would have looked like when new and whole.

The Audleystown vessel is on display at the Ulster Museum, Belfast.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Malone Hoard - Neolithic Axe Heads in Belfast and Car Crime in Carolina

The Malone Hoard is a collection of 19 polished axe heads. They were found on the grounds of Danesfort House on the Malone Road, Belfast. The present house was built for Samuel Barbour to the designs of William J Barre in 1864 and takes its name from an earlier rath or earthwork on the site. Although nothing survives of the archaeological site today, it is likely that it post-dated the deposition of the axe heads and was not directly connected to them. It was during the digging of the foundations that the axe heads, along with a number of urns, were found. When discovered, some of the axe heads were reported to have been found placed vertically in the earth. Once the house was completed, they were displayed in cabinets in the library. When Samuel died in 1879 his widow married Charles Duffin and the house remained in the family until the 1940s. After passing through a number of corporate owners, the house was refurbished in the late 1980s and is the current home of the United States consul-general in Belfast.

Coming back to the hoard itself, the axe heads are made of porcellanite, a stone with two main sources – Tievebulliagh, near Cushendall and Brockley, on Rathlin Island. It is generally thought that the axes are too large to have been used for any practical purpose and, instead, may have had ritualistic or ceremonial uses. The apparent lack of edge damage would seem to support this thesis, but I’m of a mind to question the ascription of everything we can’t fit in to being entirely functional and pedestrian as ‘ritual’. Like the peacock’s display of tail feathers, I can easily visualise a determined swain producing the largest, finest axe heads that he could possibly manage, to turn the head of his desired. Kind of a ‘you know what they say about chaps with giant porcellanite axe heads *wink wink nudge nudge etc*’.

Alternately it could have been a case of ‘What do you mean ‘centimeters’? … the design drawings clearly said ‘inches’! … Oh, I may as well just dump them in a hole in the ground!’

The axes are today on display in the Ulster Museum, on the Stranmillis Rd., Belfast – just a mile away from where they were found.

Crime & Punishment
In doing what may be laughingly called ‘research’ for this micro post, I googled ‘Malone Hoard’ and found a 2012 news report from Charlestown County, South Carolina, that mentioned a teenager arrested for breaking in to cars. This magnificently monikered young man is none other than Mr Travis Malone Hoard - a name that many an archaeologist would love to sport. After a little further research, it would appear that the young Mr Malone Hoard was sent to jail in 2014 for possession of Cocaine and Unlawful carrying of a firearm. Things haven't improved for him as he was charged in April 2016 for robbery, a weapons offence, two counts of kidnapping, and assaulting/resisting arrest. At one level, I do hope this guy gets his act together & gives up on a life of crime … but the other side is that I wonder how many times he googled himself, only to be presented with a collection of rather magnificent stone axes …

My knowledge of the history of Danesfort House is largely based on the Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland blog, for which I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Irish Elk at the Ulster Museum

The entrance to the archaeological section (i.e. the best bit) of the Ulster Museum is guarded by two Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus). One is a skeleton of that iconic beast and the other is a reconstruction of what the animal most probably looked like in life. I love both of these … not just because they mark where my main interests in the museum begins … but because together they literally put flesh on the bones of an extinct animal. And, whether animal or human, isn’t that exactly what a museum should do?

Go check out their web page for opening times and all related information [here] … it’s well worth the time and the trip!

As you stop and admire the conserved skeleton and the reconstructed one (seemingly caught mid yawp) reflect on these magnificent animals that once roamed across Ireland and as far east as Siberia and China. Reflect too on the fact that my instinct led me to imagine them as producing a ‘yawp’ when, if they were anything like their modern relatives, they would have produced a rather disconcerting bugling sound.

In doing a (very) little reading for this post, I discovered that the Irish Elk is part of the Coat of Arms of Northern Ireland ... which is pretty cool! Read more about this magnificent animal here

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Enigmatic Artefacts of the Irish Bronze Age

As regular readers of this blog may be aware, I’ve been publishing a series of small posts based around some photos I took on two trips to the National Museum of Ireland, in 2016 and 2017. My usual approach is to manipulate the image in Instagram and publish the result to social media – I’m hardly Man Ray! Usually this goes fairly well/unremarked. That is until I posted one of a pair of gold-covered lead objects from Killyleagh, Co. Down. The Museum’s information card describes them as Bullae (Single: Bulla) and dates them to the period from 800-700 BC. Another archaeologist noted that the item more closely resembled ‘ring money’ and thus developed a rather interesting discussion, taking in contributions from several professional archaeologists and assorted non-specialists.

The crux of the matter is that the term ‘Bulla’ is usually used to describe a more ‘bag-like’ object, such as the famous example from the Bog of Allen [here | here]. Like the Killyleagh examples, this is a gold-covered lead object of uncertain function. Although we’re not completely certain what they were used for, it has not stopped archaeologists (and the antiquarians before them) from indulging in heavy- to industrial-strength speculation. Bullae are frequently thought to have been worn as pendants – whether for personal decoration, religious identification, or as the insignia of power, it is impossible to say. The name ‘bulla’ derives from the lead (and occasionally, gold) seals attached to medieval Papal documents. Ring-money appears to have taken its name because were thought to be a form of proto-coinage. Well, the gold ones, at any rate … the gold-covered lead ones, somewhat less so. Even after so much investigation, thought, and research, opinion is still divided and no single postulated use is universally accepted. In our Facebook discussion, the possibility of ‘ring-money’ being used as temporary nose rings was discussed, as well as the possibility of their being used to adorn animals … there was even one spirited suggestion that they fulfilled the role of what is politely known as a ‘marital aid’ … though the individual was (thankfully) silent on the exact method of utilisation.* Whatever the truth of how these enigmatic items were used and the ideas they represented, there can be no denying their beauty. While the academic arguments and speculations will surely ebb and flow – with certain ideas holding sway before yielding to a better theory – there is little doubt that the artefacts themselves will continue to fascinate professionals and the public alike for some time to come.

* This is, of course, different to the Bronze Age objects known as ‘crotals’. These were clearly used as butt plugs.

This post was written some time ago and was intended for publication ahead of a post that became ever so slightly notorious. Between one thing and another, this post fell between the cracks, but I'm throwing it out there now for your delectation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Swastikas from the Oseberg Ship Burial, Norway & Time Travelling Nazis ...

Fragment of Oseberg tapestry showing horse-drawn covered wagons (source)
When I first thought about reviving the late Prof Rynne’s lecture on the swastika in Irish art and archaeology I didn’t have many concerns. I though I may (occasionally) have to explain that I’m not an actual Neo Nazi or in some way using the research topic as a vehicle for some form of anti-Semitism. As it turns out that’s never happened, though I do know of one instance where my lecture was boycotted because of the ‘controversial’ nature of the subject. What I hadn’t anticipated was the response of my friends and acquaintances on social media that now see a swastika and immediately post it to me. I genuinely can’t thank you all enough – your contribution to my research is so very much appreciated. Some of the examples sent are known to me, some are new, but all are accepted with gratitude.
Tapestry fragment possibly showing sacrificial victims hanging from trees (source)
Recently my friend James K posted a swastika to my Facebook page from the Oseberg Ship burial in Norway. The Oseberg ship is among the most famous Viking age sites ever investigated – even if you only have a passing acquaintance with all things Viking, you probably know this site. At the very least, you probably know many of the iconic finds recovered during the excavation. The ship housed the remains of two women and was buried in 834AD. However, parts of the ship date to around 800 AD and may be considerably older. Anyone with an interest in the swastika symbol is familiar with the ship because of what’s known as the ‘Buddha Bucket’. The bucket dates to around 750AD and is decorated with a cross-legged figure that bears cloisonné enamel ornament. The latter is in the form of 16 T-shapes, arranged into four groups. Each group of four T’s interlocks to form a swastika shape in the void between them. This item is of particular interest to my research as it is commonly thought to be of Irish manufacture. How it ended up in Norway is, of course, speculation. It’s easy to suggest that it was taken on a Viking raid, but it could as easily have been traded or have been a prestigious and cherished gift. Admittedly, my usual explanation that the figure may one day, of his own volition, have decided to go see the world and hitched a lift with some passing Scandinavians is among the less likely possibilities.
Tapestry fragment of two spear holders near dragon-decorated houses (source)
I had rather though I knew the excavation and its contents well enough, so when James’ post popped up on my screen I read ‘Oseberg’ and though ‘I know this!’ … apparently I don’t know the site quite as well as I thought. I was unaware that Gabriel Gustafson’s early 20th century excavation – amongst the myriad wonderful items – uncovered a series of tapestry fragments. They are in pretty poor condition, but are sufficiently clear to deduce that they include a representation of a procession of horses, carts, and people. The Wiki page on the fragments notes that the late archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad (best known for her discovery of the L'Anse aux Meadows site in Canada) believed that the two ravens depicted on the tapestry represented “Huginn and Muninn flying over a covered cart containing an image of Odin”. Although difficult to see on the original, close examination has revealed a number of swastikas placed within the design. Another portion of the tapestry appears to depict several human figures hanging from a tree. This is frequently interpreted as a human sacrifice and paralleled with Adam of Bremen's description of the temple at Uppsala, with the bodies of sacrificial victims hanging in a sacred grove. I’ve also found an illustration by Sofie Kraft, reproduced as part of a webpage dealing with the Oseberg tapestries showing two spear carriers standing outside two small houses decorated with dragons’ heads on the gables. The space between one of the spearmen and one of the houses is filled by a swastika.
Interpretive reproduction of Oseberg tapestry (source)
In my lecture on swastikas [here], I’m always keen to stress the difficulty in ascribing meaning to an individual swastika and how that meaning probably varied widely over space and time. It is no different here. In a Viking context, it is commonly thought that the swastika is an allusion to Thor. For example, the inscription on the Sæbø or Thurmuth sword was famously read by Stephens as ‘ohmuþ’ or "Owns [me], Thurmuth" with the swastika used as a rebus for the name ‘Thor’. The issue here is, of course, that the allusions in the tapestries appear to refer to Odin, not Thor. The other issue is that the swastika is not the only small figure composed of straight lines that peppers these scenes. Even a cursory examination of the tapestries shows a number of different designs. Probably the most common of these can be described as an arrangement of five squares where the central square has a further shape appended on each corner. It’s a push, but the argument could be made that this is another form of swastika as it retains the rectilinearity and the division of four in the classic swastika. It is, however more difficult to see many of the other symbols in the same light – the ones composed of just three squares, or especially the design under the arm of the individual with the horned helmet. In case of the latter example, I felt that one could argue that there were four squares on either side of the vertical dividing line, making it effectively a double swastika ... but I thought that it was pushing at the limits of credulity and my heart wasn’t really in it. The way I see it, either we have to take the position that all of these symbols have meaning (even if we can’t be sure what it is) or they’ve just been included for stylistic reasons, to balance the composition or just fill out what would otherwise be whitespace. While my position as an individual interested in swastikas draws me towards the idea that they have – wherever and however used – have meaning, but it is an argument that lacks any depth or validity. All I can offer is Etienne Rynne’s oft-used phrase “You pays your money, you takes your choice”.
Enlarged left-hand section of interpretive reproduction (source)
Another recurring theme of my research that is of relevance here is what I describe as the Nazi usage of the symbol now traveling backwards through time, tainting the meaning of the symbol from other contexts and eras. I can’t be certain, but I think that’s what’s happening here too. Thankfully, no one is advocating attacking the original tapestries to unpick the swastikas, but that’s kind of what’s happening in other ways. In my search for images of these tapestries, I encountered the webpage of a now-defunct Norwegian company called Memory who specialised in creating Viking and medieval-themed souvenirs and gifts. Two of the product lines they developed (in conjunction with the staff of the Viking Ship Museum) were based on the Oseberg tapestries. These were a reproduction tapestry and a multi-function cushion cover/placemat. Both items are based on the leading portion of the ‘Odin’ procession. They’re gorgeous and I’d genuinely love to have them in my own home. However, it is clear that the souvenir reproductions all lack the swastikas that appear in the original.
Souvenir tapestry produced by Memory (source)

Comparing the Memory tapestry with the interpretive reproduction it is clear that the souvenir version confines itself to, essentially, the lower order of the leading portion of the ‘Odin procession’. On the left there is an open horse-drawn cart with two people, while on the right a single horse draws a covered wagon, or similar. In each case the space below the horses’ belly is filled by a single spear carrier. Above each horse and carriage is a group of people (nine in total, four on the left, five on the right), some of which are carrying spears. In the scene on the right one of the five individuals is clearly holding the reigns of the horse pulling the covered wagon. So far so good and, barring an added or missing spear here and there both the original and the souvenir are pretty much in sync. Where the major differences lie is in the placement of the rectilinear motifs. As far as I can make out, the only one that survives in its original position is the vertical stack behind the tail of the horse on the right. The remainder of the rectilinear motifs are all moved about from their original positions, but still include the 5-box and 3-box patterns, along with a horizontal dentilesque pattern that is presumably turned through 90 degrees when it was borrowed from elsewhere. If the souvenir version had wished to remain completely true to the original, there should be a swastika between the leading horse and the open carriage, just ahead of the leading wheel. At the very least, we could reasonably expect the inclusion of the symbol somewhere in the composition – but it’s just not there. As an aside, I would note that comparing what I term the interpretive reproduction with photographs of the original tapestries indicates that there are many more rectilinear motifs than are depicted on the modern version. While it would appear that these do include more swastikas, it is also true that the condition of the tapestries is such that they are difficult to be sure of their form ... and they do start to make your head hurt after a while.

Interestingly, the drawing on the Memory webpage labelled as ‘Fragment of the original’ is of a portion of the tapestry that includes a swastika. I have been unable to definitely ascertain, but I think it hardly pushes the limits of reason to suggest that the swastika was dropped from the souvenir version because of the Nazi connotations of the symbol. As it is unlikely that many people would want to purchase a rigorously authentic souvenir of an historical artefact that’s emblazoned with a swastika, I imagine that it was quietly left out of the composition. Historical accuracy is great and all, but when you’re in the business of selling tourist merchandise, every pound and Krone counts. I would see this as similar to the abandonment of the symbol by certain Native American tribes once the US joined the Second World War. Up to this point they were a commonly-used symbol and a selling point that chimed well with the early 20th century obsession with the swastika (itself stemming from the popularity of Schliemann’s excavations at Troy). But once the firm connection to Nazism was made, it became a problematic and dangerous symbol for many, leading to its eventual fall in popularity for everyone except the far Right. To be clear, I am in no way advocating for some form of ‘reclaim the swastika’ movement, nor do I wish to see it brought back into common usage. However, I do feel that we should be aware of how the Nazi pollutant still influences our lives today. Hitler may have ended his life in the bunker in Berlin in 1945, but his decision to use the swastika as the symbol for his regime has had far-reaching consequences that cannot be easily resolved. How we negotiate the presence of swastikas from archaeological and historical contexts is an issue we will have to deal with for some significant time to come.

Souvenir cushion covers/place mats produced by Memory (source)
I am available for lecturing engagements on a range of topics, not just swastikas ... but the swastika one is quite popular ... just saying ...

I've also taken the decision not to highlight the images with the locations of each and every swastika. The main reason for this is that these are gorgeous tapestries that repay detailed attention and appreciation as a whole, not just for their inclusion of individual symbols. It's also fun to play 'hunt the swastika' ... it's character building ... or something ...

Illustration of original fragment of the Oseberg tapestries as shown on Memory webpage (source)