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Pre-Roman Iron Age
Iron production in Norway began around 500 BC. It was a colder climatic period, and life was harsher, poorer. Burial customs seem to be changing, and graves are usually The first part of the period is traditionally interpreted as poor, caused by a climatic colder period. At first, the graves are more or less empty, but the custom of burial is changing with more and more grave-equipment, closer to year 0. The main archaeological evidence from this period is traces of settlement (sites), graves, sacrifices, fortification, stone quarries and iron.
Further south in Europe, Celtic groups were working iron, and it is possible that southern and central Scandinavia learned iron production from them. In Denmark, small towns begin to appear.
Written evidence for this period includes the writing of Pytheas, a Greek who travelled widely around 330 B.C., from Marseilles to the northern shores of Europe. Roman writers Julius Caesar and Tacitus tell about the customs of sacrifice in the north of Europe, which helps us to understand finds in the South of Scandinavia. Information from Tacitus' Germania (ca 100 AD) helps us to interpret evidence of sacrificial rites from this period, including human remains in bogs and wetland. One explanation is linked to the cult of the earth goddess Nerthus, who travelled among the people in a covered wagon into which only the priest was allowed to look. On her return to her shrine, her cultic equipment was washed in the lake by slaves, who were drowned when their task was completed. Human sacrifice played a part in the public cult.
Interpretations of the culture in this period are mainly based on grave-findings, a consequence of a lack of traces of settlement. Yet there are signs that settlement was getting more permanent.
Before 1970, houses from this period where unknown in Norway, but then traces of settlement where discovered both in the south (Ogna) and in the north Vestvågøy of Norway.
The graves are few, and due to the manner of burial the graves are hardly visible above the surface. Burial custom varies between north (Sámi custom) and south. There are also contrasts between Bronze Age society's material self-expression and that of the pre-Roman Iron Age. The Bronze Age left huge burial mounds with quantities of prestige artefacts, sacrificial offerings and rock carvings; graves in the Iron Age are smaller, poorer, with fewer sacrifices.
This may be because Bronze Age the society was ruled by chieftains whose power and wealth was rooted in their control of one scarce commodity: bronze. When bronze was replaced by iron, this made a great impact on the Scandinavians. Now they met a society where bronze was of no huge importance. The advantage with iron was that it was found in easily accessible resources. The power that had been concentrated among the elite of the society becomes more dispersed.
Archaeologically there are more traces from this period, and more to build our theories on. Now we can support our archaeological research with written sources, place-names and inscriptions. The cultural historical landscape is more visible, with burial-fields, huge mounds, fortifications, and remains of buildings and farms with farmyards, houses, fields and fences.
Politically, Germanic forces put pressure on the western border of the Roman Empire, but these contacts also led to increased trade and material and cultural exchange.
At this time a rich chieftain was buried in Flagghaugen in Karmøy, Rogaland. This mound was excavated in 1835. Archaeological methods were not well-developed at that time, so some important information is lost, but we can still make some observations about this man:
- His grave is proof of high status. The mound was 43 m wide and 5 m high, with a spectacular view over the Karmsundet. It contained a chamber of slate, with an oak coffin. He was equipped with a huge amount of gold, his necklace of pure gold alone weighing 590 grams. From written sources we know that fyrster used armrings as a symbol of power.
- The chieftain in this mound may have been involved in a Norwegian-Swedish attack against Denmark in the period 200-400 AD. Interpretations of a well-known archaeological treasure, the rich sacrificial site at Illerup in Denmark, include the theory that it was made by an army of 1000 warriors who came from western Norway.
In this period it becomes possible to trace a clearer division between ethnic groups in the Northern part of Norway: the Norse and Sámi population. Along the coast of North Norway we have strongly visible cultural remains, like boathouses, court sites, and the farm at Borg step into its 1.period of settlement. Stones with runic inscriptions occur all over Norway, dated back to around 300 AD.
Court sites can be found all over Norway - in the North - at least five were in use at this time.
Contact across the North Sea can be traced considerably earlier than the Viking Age. In the Eastern part of England, archaeological material illustrates contacts with the Vest coast of Norway as early as 400 AD. But when did direct contact occur with the islands of the Western Sea, Scotland and Ireland? We know that the western inhabitants of Norway crossed the Skagerak in larger boats; but did they need sails to cross the North Sea?
In Norway cruciform brooches are the leading artefact and define the start of the period. Settlement is common both for the Roman period and for the Migration period, but in the latter we now also find deserted farms. In the north of Norway the building material was mainly peat, in the south, mainly wood.
Farm mounds are traces of settlement characteristic of the north. Created by centuries of continuous settlement, they consist of accumulated remains from buildings, everyday life, garbage and peat. In the north of Norway there are around 1500-2000 farm mounds, some of them 2000 years old. They are connected to areas of Norse settlement, but also occur in other areas.
We can see a huge variation in burial customs. Archaeological excavations show a variety of imported artefacts, vessels of bronze, glasses and other products of trade. The material indicates contact with French areas, Rhine and Germania.
The oldest farm names are from this period, still in use today, i.e.: Haug, Berg, Nes and Vik together with Bø or By.
The period gets its name from the contemporary ruling dynasty of France. In Norway it is a period of further cultural change. Our understanding of this Viking Age is rooted in our understanding of the preceding centuries, offering an overview of the archaeological material and the written sources. But there is economic, political and ideological development, and perhaps a crisis of some sort, involving poverty and a degree of isolation from neighbouring countries.
There was contact across the North Sea, however, including ideological or cultural influences. including possibilities of early Christian influence in the North of Norway. Important studies in this context are material culture as symbols and ethnic or ideological markers.
Most of the graves are small mounds, or invisible under flat earth, but from around 700 AD the archaeological material gets richer.
Key evidence for this period includes:
- The runic inscription from Eggum, Sogn and Fjordane. This is the longest inscription we know from this period. The stone covered a grave.
- 789 AD: attack in Portland, England. Then, in 793, attack at the monastery in Lindisfarne. This is seen as the start of the Viking Age
- Large burial mounds - often these mounds are interpreted as an expression of a more regulated society, organised with chieftains and "principalities". Two areas in Norway illustrate this: Borre in the county of Vestfold, and Avaldsnes at Karmøy. Two ship-burials are now dated to around 690-750, and a chieftain in the Norse ship is dressed and equipped as a Frankish aristocrat!
- All over over Scandinavia we find ports, trading-places and towns, and a new organisation of defensive structures. Research shows that an area on the west coast of Norway (the county of Rogaland) could have been a core-area for a kingdom that was established so early as the 6th century, perhaps influenced by Frankish ideas.
Burial customs are getting simpler: rock-coffins disappear and the mounds are diminishing in size.
Of imported material we find glass of different shapes and colours, jewellery, beads (amber and glass), shells from as far afield as the Indian Ocean, women's graves, and weapons.
Technological improvements are also a significant factor during this period.
Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll
This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.