|15 June 2010
What's a Stone Age axe doing in an Iron Age Norwegian tomb?
In 2005 archaeologists Olle Hemdorff and Eva Thäte investigated a grave at Avaldsnes in Karmøy in southwestern Norway, supposed to be from the late Iron Age (600-1000 CE). Avaldsnes is rich in archeological finds. Archaeologist Olle Hemdorff at the University of Stavanger's Museum of Archaeology was responsible for a series of excavations at Avaldsnes in 1993-94 and 2005-06. "It became clear to us quite early that the grave had been plundered. The material in the grave had been messed up and now contained brick and porcelain fragments from younger layers of soil," Hemdorff says.
The latest research project carried out by Hemdorff and Thäte is on finds of older artifacts in younger graves. In the grave at Avaldsnes the researchers found seven handsome glass pearls in the dirt. "In the late Iron Age glass was the most common material for making pearls, and therefore glass pearls are often found in men's and women's graves from this period," Hemdorff says. "But then we suddenly found a stone axe. It was in the same layer of soil as some of the pearls. The axe is from the Stone Age and more than a thousand years older than the pearls! All the other indicators suggested that the cairn was from the Iron Age and belonged to a buried woman. So why was there an old axe from the Stone Age in the grave?," the archaeologist asks.
During the last three years documented discoveries of artifacts have been made that are typical for the Stone Age - marks from flint, flint fragments, quarts, axes, etc. in younger burial mounds. "We have made many enough discoveries of Stone Age artifacts in younger graves to say that they make a clear pattern," Thäte says. Starting with the finds around the grave at Avaldsnes and taking the other finds into account, it is not likely that the axe ended up in the grave by accident. Why was it deposited there? "People probably considered old objects as a heritage from their ancestors. Recycling of old burial mounds for new graves is an indication of this relationship. The idea was that the mounds were memories from a distant past, and written sources indicate that recycling of mounds had a double function. Apart from providing a grave for the dead they also legitimized property and rights. People asserted their control over an area by burying their family in a gravesite belonging to their ancestors," Thäte explains.
The archeologists think that the axe was deposited in the grave as a part of the burial ritual. "People believed that the lightning created thunderstones and that individuals who owned such stones would not be hit by the lightening," Hemdorff says. "According to folklore a flint axe might protect against lightening and function as a kind of charm," Thäte says. Two things seem to be important when choosing thunderstones: The form had to be similar to an axe or a hammer, that is a ground stone or flint, or the stone had to have 'flaming' properties, which flint and quartz have," Hendorff says.
"Both the form of the axe and the flint stones to make fire may be associated with fertility. Thor's hammer is clearly linked to fertility and prosperity. The hammer is a phallus fertilizing the soil, which gives it apotropaic quality, i.e. it has the ability to protect against evil and accidents," Thäte explains. Since people imagined that thunderstones fell to the ground in connection with lightning, it is possible that the rocks incorporated some of the qualities of lightening or had the power to create a bright light.
But now back to the axe at Avaldsnes and the question why it was in the plundered grave. "If you consider how widespread the idea of thunderstones was all the way up to the 19th century, and how common superstition was, it is not unlikely that the grave robbers left a protective amulet to make up for their misdeed. After all they opened a grave and committed sacrilege. Maybe they hoped that the axe provided protection against the spirit of the dead and their ghosts," Hemdorff says. More excavations of graves and houses with unusual artifacts and comparing them to data from different places will probably yield an even clearer pattern.
Source: Science Daily (14 June 2010)
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