Old Kingdom Tomb

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Old Kingdom Tomb

Saqqara, Egypt
January/February 2020

Top Ten Egypt Khuwy Tomb Paintings

(Courtesy Mohamed Megahed)
5th Dynasty Egyptian Tomb

(Courtesy Mohamed Megahed)

Top Ten Egypt Khuwy Tomb Painting Detail
Tomb painting detail
During investigation of the funerary complex of the 5th Dynasty pharaoh Djedkare Isesi (r. ca. 2381–2353 B.C.), a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology discovered the painted tomb of a high-ranking Old Kingdom Egyptian dignitary. After descending a narrow subterranean tunnel that opened up into a series of rooms, members of the team, led by archaeologist Mohamed Megahed, found hieroglyphs on the walls announcing that a man named Khuwy was entombed within the chamber. The writing also enumerates Khuwy’s many titles, including “Secretary of the King,” “Companion of the Royal House,” and “Overseer of the Tenants of the Great House.”

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Alongside the hieroglyphs are scenes painted in colors that remain vibrant even after 4,300 years. One of the main panels depicts Khuwy himself, seated before a table piled high with food, drinks, and other offerings meant to sustain him in the afterlife. “Scenes of the tomb owner are highly unusual in Old Kingdom tombs,” says Megahed. The high-quality paintings, the tomb’s proximity to Djedkare’s own pyramid, and its design—which mimics that of a tomb belonging to a 5th Dynasty pharaoh—all suggest that Khuwy played a prominent role in the royal court.

See the source image

See the source image

See the source image

Tomb of the Silver Dragons

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Tomb of the Silver Dragons

Arkhangai, Mongolia
January/February 2020


Top Ten Mongolia Silver Dragon Figures Horizontal

(Ren Xiao)
Gilded silver dragon figures

Top Ten Mongolia Equestrian Ornament

(Nie Fan)
Unicorn equestrian ornament
In north-central Mongolia, archaeologists have unearthed two lavish tombs built for nobles of the Xiongnu Empire. A nomadic people who dominated the eastern Eurasian steppes from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., the Xiongnu frequently waged war against China’s Han Dynasty (206 B.C.– A.D. 220). To defend against these incursions, the Han built fortifications that eventually became part of the Great Wall. Both of the Xiongnu tombs, which were excavated by a team from Ulaanbaatar University and the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology, contained sumptuous grave goods. In the larger tomb, researchers found wooden boxes that held silver rings, jade belt hooks, and a pair of gilded silver dragons that may once have served as handles on a vessel. The smaller tomb contained the remains of a man buried with a horse-drawn carriage, 15 horse heads, and 19 silver equestrian ornaments, each depicting a unicorn deity. The team also recovered part of a jade-decorated sword from this grave, the first to be found in a Xiongnu tomb.

Death by Boomerang

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Death by Boomerang

January/February 2017


Trenches Australia Boomerang Victim

(Courtesy Michael Westaway)
Skeleton with head wound
While on survey in a national park in southern Australia, archaeologists recently discovered a male skeleton eroding out of a riverbank. Dubbed Kaakutja, or “older brother” in a local language, the man had a fatal six-inch gash in his skull. When Griffith University paleoanthropologist Michael Westaway first examined the skull damage, he thought “it looked similar to steel-edged weapon trauma from medieval battles.” But radiocarbon dating of Kaakutja’s skeleton shows he died in the thirteenth century, well before Europeans reached Australia and introduced metal to the continent. Westaway concluded that the wound was likely caused by a heavy war boomerang or a sharp-edged club known as a lil-lil, both of which are depicted in Aboriginal rock art. “Kaakutja’s trauma is unique in that it is the first recorded case of edged-weapon trauma in Australia,” he says. The lack of defensive wounds to the man’s arms suggests he may have been attacked while he slept, which, according to nineteenth-century ethnographic accounts, may have been a common tactic in prehistoric Australian conflicts.

Blue Collar in Ancient Peru

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Blue Collar in Ancient Peru

January/February 2017


Trenches Peru indigo fabric sillo

(Courtesy Lauren Badams)
Fabric scrap dyed with indigo

Indigo, the blue dye used in modern times to make the first blue jeans, may have been associated with ordinary folk in ancient Peru as well. Archaeologists led by Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University discovered textiles at the Huaca Prieta mound that date from as far back as 5,800 years ago and, after being washed by conservators, revealed a blue tint. Laboratory tests confirm the coloring is indigo, a dye made from the leaves of a shrub of the pea family, says Jeff Splitstoser of George Washington University, a textile specialist who conducted the tests with Jan Wouters of University College London. It is the oldest known use of indigo in the world, he says. “Blue from sources other than indigo is rare, so it has always been assumed it was indigo, but until now we never had the proof.” Huaca Prieta has been notable for its lack of high-class goods, a pattern that extends to indigo-dyed fabric, too, according to Dillehay. “I don’t see its early use associated with elites or high-status people,” he says. “In fact there is no evidence of artifacts or contexts of high-status people at Huaca Prieta. The data suggest egalitarianism.”

Guide to the Afterlife

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Guide to the Afterlife

January/February 2017


Trenches Korea Silla block

(Courtesy Seokdang Museum of Dong-A University)
The Korean government recently designated as state treasures a group of sixth-century A.D. artifacts unearthed from a tomb dating to Korea’s Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.–A.D. 935). The tomb, which is located in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang, was first discovered during an archaeological exploration in 1990. Inside, archaeologists found the artifacts that gave it its name—Geumjocheong, “Gold Bird Tomb.” The relics include two extraordinary gold accessories shaped like bird’s claws, the first artifacts of this kind to be found in Korea. They are small, just over an inch long. The sharp claw tips, each a quarter-inch long, spread outward, as they would if a bird were about to take flight.

Researchers believe the claws were once connected to a figure of a bird’s body through three holes at the end of each one. The body, it is thought, was probably made of wood and decayed. Some ancient records indicate that people were buried with bird’s wings in their tombs, symbolic of the connection between this world and the next. Other relics from the tomb include a silver belt decorated with patterns of saw-toothed wheels, gold earrings with tortoiseshell designs etched on the surface, and a bronze pot used to boil or warm liquor, soup, or medicinal herbs.

Letter from Laos

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Letter from Laos

A Singular Landscape
New technology is enabling archaeologists to explore a vast but little-studied mortuary complex in war-damaged Laos
January/February 2017

Letter From Laos Stone Jars

(Jerry Redfern)
Ancient stone vessels of various sizes typify the thousands that are spread across more than 80 different sites on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos.

In the landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, thousands of massive stone jars dot the Xieng Khouang Plateau. Scattered across 2,100 square miles of steep slopes, grassy fields, and forested foothills, these ancient megaliths create an archaeological landscape known as the Plain of Jars. The jars, more than 2,000 in all, are distributed across at least 80 sites—some with just a few, others with nearly 400. Most jars sit on mountain slopes, and the largest, which can be as much as nine feet tall and six feet in diameter, are found in highland locations above 3,600 feet. The majority are carved from sandstone, and geologists estimate the heaviest weigh 25 tons or more. One of the biggest assemblages is found at a location called Site 1, where 344 jars sit in wide-open spaces on the windswept plains outside the town of Phonsavanh, the capital of Xieng Khouang Province.

Intriguingly, almost nothing is known about the people who created the jars 1,500–2,500 years ago. They left no written texts, inscriptions, domestic structures, or habitation sites. Few excavations have been conducted, and not many bodily remains have been found, compounding uncertainty about their identity, beliefs, and practices. Now, a newly formed five-year project funded by the Australian Research Council, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Plain of Jars, has come to northern Laos and is combining traditional archaeological excavations with new research technologies to create a picture of the people who have remained such an enigma for so long.

In February 2016, the team conducted its initial digs at Site 1 during an unusually frigid stretch of winter weather. One windy morning, archaeologist Louise Shewan of Monash University crawled across the ground, still damp after a drenching rain, into a pit only 6.5 by 6.5 feet. She grabbed a trowel and began to work beside two Polish researchers, one of whom was Joanna Koczur from the University of Szczecin. “Please don’t rain,” said Koczur. “Yesterday it was just crazy—it was like a swimming pool in here.”

Letter From Laos Burial Excavation

(Jerry Redfern)
Archaeologists recently excavated the skull of what they believe is a woman associated with one of the jar burials.
The three scraped away the red earth using brushes and tiny picks designed for precision. Their work centered on a round object on the packed dirt floor, which Koczur had found the day before. They worked meticulously to reveal more of what lay beneath. At first the object resembled a rock, smooth on top and caked with mud on the underside. But it was not a rock at all; rather, it was a small orb of bone, part of a fragile human skull, which they later named “Burial 5.” The skull was surrounded by other bits of bone, so maneuvering around the trench among the delicate remains was difficult and physically demanding. “After five minutes in the same position, you are so stiff you can’t move,” said Koczur, who was dressed in layers of hats and jackets. Later that day, the team uncovered fragments from a second skull, and skull fragments and the mandible of a child. “Multiple burials in the same place are pretty fascinating,” says project director Dougald O’Reilly of the Australian National University, especially when up to this time scholars studying this area had found so few.

Letter From Laos Excavating Jar Burial

(Courtesy Louise Shewan from Monash University)
Archaeologists excavate at Site 1 on the Plain of Jars.

By the end of the first season, more bones and numerous teeth had been uncovered from at least six burials of three types: primary burials, where the location is the original burial spot; secondary burials, a common form of burial rite often associated with megaliths, in which the remains have been reinterred; and, finally, inhumation jars, which are buried ceramic vessels containing bones. This variety adds to the complexity of the site and offers researchers the opportunity to consider questions they had never been able to examine before: Were the burial types contemporaneous? How long was Site 1 used as a mortuary landscape? Do the different types of burials belong to different segments of the society? Is this variation repeated at other sites across the plain? Were the people who carved the jars local, or were they visitors from a faraway place?

While many of the bones are in poor condition and extremely brittle, the teeth, which are in better shape, can be very useful in beginning to respond to some of these questions. Shewan intends to conduct isotopic analysis of the teeth to determine whether the people who created the jars came from the area. By comparing the strontium isotope ratio in the teeth with that of the local soil, plants, and water in the region, and in animal teeth from nearby archaeological deposits, researchers can tell if a person had obtained their food and resided locally.

Twenty years ago, the Plain of Jars was even less accessible than it is now. Back then, travelers—few and far between—arrived on noisy, old Soviet twin-turboprop Anatovs, or on all-day overland rides through the twisting, precipitous mountainous terrain outside Phonsavanh, about five miles from Site 1. For years, Phonsavanh was a rough, dusty town that went to sleep by 10 p.m., when the electricity quit. Today it’s still a small city of about 37,000 people, but power stays on 24 hours a day, ATMs dispense Lao currency, trucks and motorcycles roar through the streets and stop at newly installed traffic lights, and most people have access to the Internet. There are also more visitors now, with restaurants, bars, and hotels catering to them. Yet Phonsavanh still doesn’t attract the influx of tourists seen at the Lao capital, Vientiane, or at the ancient city of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its gilt Buddhist temples. “It astounds me how few people know about this fantastic archaeological landscape,” says Julie Van Den Bergh, a Belgian archaeologist who spent years working with UNESCO and the Lao government to protect the area’s cultural heritage and to prepare it for World Heritage status and sustainable tourism. Only a very few archaeologists have ever excavated on the Plain of Jars and, therefore, precious little is known about the people who inhabited the plain. Yet, piece by piece, scientists have begun to assemble the story of how they were honored in death. Scholars now agree that the Plain of Jars is a prehistoric mortuary landscape composed of the burials of people who likely lived during Southeast Asia’s Iron Age, between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500.

However, it is not just the scarcity of remains or the poor condition of the few bones that have been found that has hindered investigation. Research has long been hampered by the extreme remoteness of the jar sites, as well as the danger in reaching them. The Plain of Jars has, at times, been called the world’s most dangerous archaeological site. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the Vietnam War, the area was pummeled with American-made bombs. It was a prime target during the U.S. bombing campaign in Laos, when Xieng Khouang was ground zero in the fight between the North Vietnam–backed Pathet Lao communist insurgency and the United States–backed Royal Lao Government.

From 1964 to 1973, more than two million tons of bombs (including more than 270 million cluster bombs) were dropped on Laos, more than on all of Europe during World War II. An estimated 80 million of those bombs did not explode when they fell, and they continue to imperil the lives of people throughout the country. Of the millions of bombs remaining in the soil, the majority are small submunitions, often called “bombies,” which are about the size of baseballs—but deadly nonetheless. They frequently look like rocks, indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. Bombies make digging, both for farmers and for archaeologists, very dangerous. “It’s hard to even comprehend the scale of destruction that was wrought here,” O’Reilly says. “You can still see bomb craters in the ground. And many of the jars were blown over or smashed by the bombing. Fortunately, though, the majority of the jars weren’t destroyed.” Every day in Laos, people still find bombs. And every year, dozens of Laotians are injured or killed by them. “We don’t have any interest in working at sites that haven’t been cleared,” O’Reilly says. “It’s just too dangerous. It’s frightening. You have to be vigilant and stick to the paths.” Xieng Khouang remains one of the most heavily contaminated provinces, and the presence of so many bombs continues to be one of the greatest challenges both to further study and development throughout the region.

Letter From Laos Buried Jar

(Jerry Redfern)
A massive stone jar lies half-buried in an area where the surrounding ground was contaminated with unexploded bombs from the wars of the 1960s and 1970s.

When Van Den Bergh worked on the Plain of Jars between 2001 and 2010, she did so alongside the Britain-based Mines Advisory Group, which cleared bombs from seven of the sites with the greatest potential for tourism. Although she spent several years in Xieng Khouang, Van Den Bergh was not able to excavate because her project was classified as research, and she didn’t have government permission to dig at the time. However, her team was able to map more than 80 jar sites using tape measures, compasses, and handheld GPS devices, and to make traditional paper surveys. “Most of our photographs are pre-digital, too,” she says.

The team began by visiting villages across the province and asking whether locals knew of any jars. Every time someone said “yes,” team members surveyed the site. The results, Van Den Bergh says, pushed researchers to view the bigger picture and recognize the individual sites as components of a whole. “Jar sites are mainly on the edge of the central plateau and on the slopes of the inland valleys connecting to east, west, and south,” she explains. When taken together, the seemingly disparate sites on the Plain of Jars appear to form a complex interconnected landscape.

Today, Shewan and O’Reilly, along with Thonglith Luangkhoth, their partner from the Department of Heritage at the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism, are conducting extensive research using more technologically advanced tools than were previously available to examine another mystery—how the massive jars were created and then set in place. “The jars themselves are quite impressive,” says O’Reilly. “You can’t even get your arms around them.”

Letter From Laos Jar Quarry

(Jerry Redfern)
Stone jars dot the hillside at the location known as Quarry Site 2 on the Plain of Jars outside of the small city of Phonsavanh
Geological research conducted by Van Den Bergh suggests the jars were carved from existing blocks of stone in quarries close to each jar site. Eight years ago, a British geologist named Jeremy Baldock, who was recruited to help Van Den Bergh’s project, took measurements on a shady ridge called Phou Hin Moung, several miles southeast of Site 1 near a village called Ban Buatai. His aim was to create a 3-D model of the quarry in order to estimate the possible number of blocks that could have been taken from the site. Baldock determined that the quarry could have been the source for 57 blocks that were used to fashion 37 jars found in the nearby village, along with eight others scattered around the area.

During this work, Van Den Bergh and Baldock also learned that the jar makers understood geological principles such as tectonics and sedimentation. “They approached areas of bedrock that had naturally fractured in large rectangular blocks,” says Van Den Bergh. “This might mean that the size of the jars is likely less an expression of status than of the size of available blocks.” Still, it’s clear to researchers that the jars reflect importance in some manner. “The logistic and time investment alone—for jars of all sizes—indicates how people felt about their community and the importance of mortuary ritual,” Shewan says. “People are consciously ascribing significance to their burial landscape.”

Letter From Laos Site 3

(Jerry Redfern)
A local villager totes bundles of firewood past the Plain of Jars Site 3.

The quarry nearest the team’s initial excavation pits at Site 1 is about five miles away from the Site 1 jars. Investigating how the jars were moved will be a focus of upcoming seasons. “The jars may have been dragged or rolled—we don’t know,” Shewan says. “However, the logistics required to shift up to 25 tons of carved rock must have had an impact on the landscape somewhere.” She hopes to use lidar in the future to virtually strip away the tree canopy and grass to look for drag marks or gouging in the topography and to map possible transportation routes. Being able to examine the ground free of growth—a task that, in the past, required local volunteers with machetes—will allow her to look for evidence that would indicate where or how the jar people could have lugged multi-ton rocks across miles of downward-sloping terrain between quarry sites and jar sites. “It must have required a huge amount of effort to produce them and bring them from the quarry,” O’Reilly adds. “It’s an incredible feat.”

Ever since pioneering French archaeologist Madeleine Colani first explored the region in the 1930s, many sites on the Plain of Jars have become even more inaccessible to scientists. But today, technology enables what was previously inconceivable. “We are fortunate to have a suite of recording methodologies and innovative analytic tools,” Shewan says. “Colani’s corpus of research is truly inspiring; it makes you realize what we take for granted.” In addition to the isotopic analysis of skeletal remains from Burial 5 and the child found nearby, the team is geo-mapping every jar and every associated archaeological feature to create an extensive and expandable GIS database.

They are also using drones to design an interactive 3-D presentation for a Monash University–funded project called CAVE2. The CAVE2 room consists of a curvilinear wall with 80 high-definition screens, a high-powered computer that enables 30-frames-per-second playback of 84-million-pixel images, delivering one trillion computations per second for each of the 80 screens. Visitors wear lightweight 3-D glasses to explore all of the team’s digital data. “You can actually walk through the landscape,” Shewan says. “Being in CAVE2 places you right in the middle of the Plain of Jars, excavating alongside us at Site 1. We can measure distances between the jars, walk amongst them, step into the excavation trench to continue our research, and zoom in to areas of interest. We can watch the removal of each 10-centimeter layer, revealing the artifacts and burials as each layer is peeled away.” The best use of CAVE2 is yet to come, says Shewan, when drones will gather data from bomb-riddled sites too dangerous to explore in person.

In February 2017, the Unraveling the Mysteries team will return to Laos, to the high-elevation Site 52. It’s about 20 miles from Site 1 as the crow flies, but twice that distance by vehicle or foot. “Site 1 is the anomaly,” Shewan says, “being on a flat, cleared plain.” Site 52 sits near a modern-day Hmong village called Ban Pakeo. Only six years ago, the trek to Ban Pakeo took most of a day of hiking on a steep trail that branched off an old road. Now a new road brings visitors much closer. Van Den Bergh and her team previously measured and mapped the jars there, but no one has ever excavated. “Site 52 is untouched by any researchers, so it’s going to be quite exciting,” Koczur says.

The site encompasses four known jar groups, the largest of which contains at least 371 fine-grained sandstone jars, as well as a number of stone discs of the type often found at jar sites. “Sometimes those stone discs are said to be lids,” says O’Reilly, “but I don’t believe that they are. I think they are burial markers.” The team will also be looking for any skeletal material for DNA comparisons and isotopic analysis, as well as grave goods such as tools, beads, or ceramics that might be evidence of trade.

Despite all this—new research tools and technologies, better access to sites, and the somewhat decreased threat of unexploded ordnance—so many questions remain. But stand on a mountaintop or fly over Xieng Khouang, and it’s easy to see—the ancient jars will remain a defining presence across this land.

Karen Coates is a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her latest book, with Jerry Redfern, is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.

Hoards of the Vikings

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Hoards of the Vikings

Evidence of trade, diplomacy, and vast wealth on an unassuming island in the Baltic Sea
January/February 2017

Gotland Viking Lummelunda Hoard

(Gabriel Hildebrand/The Royal Coin Cabinet, Sweden)
This array of silver coins, bracelets, and other forms of Viking wealth typifies the hoards found deposited at numerous sites across the island of Gotland.

The accepted image of the Vikings as fearsome marauders who struck terror in the hearts of their innocent victims has endured for more than 1,000 years. Historians’ accounts of the first major Viking attack, in 793, on a monastery on Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England, have informed the Viking story. “The church of St. Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God,” wrote the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York, “stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans….Who is not afraid at this?” The Vikings are known to have gone on to launch a series of daring raids elsewhere in England, Ireland, and Scotland. They made inroads into France, Spain, and Portugal. They colonized Iceland and Greenland, and even crossed the Atlantic, establishing a settlement in the northern reaches of Newfoundland.

But these were primarily the exploits of Vikings from Norway and Denmark. Less well known are the Vikings of Sweden. Now, the archaeological site of Fröjel on Gotland, a large island in the Baltic Sea around 50 miles east of the Swedish mainland, is helping advance a more nuanced understanding of their activities. While they, too, embarked on ambitious journeys, they came into contact with a very different set of cultures—largely those of Eastern Europe and the Arab world. In addition, these Vikings combined a knack for trading, business, and diplomacy with a willingness to use their own brand of violence to amass great wealth and protect their autonomy.

Gotland Viking Frojel Site

(Daniel Weiss)
At Fröjel, a Viking Age site on the west coast of Gotland, archaeologists search for evidence of a workshop that included a silver-smelting operation.
Gotland today is part of Sweden, but during the Viking Age, roughly 800 to 1150, it was independently ruled. The accumulation of riches on the island from that time is exceptional. More than 700 silver hoards have been found there, and they include around 180,000 coins. By comparison, only 80,000 coins have been found in hoards on all of mainland Sweden, which is more than 100 times as large and had 10 times the population at the time. Just how an island that seemed largely given over to farming and had little in the way of natural resources, aside from sheep and limestone, built up such wealth has been puzzling. Excavations led by archaeologist Dan Carlsson, who runs an annual field school on the island through his cultural heritage management company, Arendus, are beginning to provide some answers.

Traces of around 60 Viking Age coastal settlements have been found on Gotland, says Carlsson. Most were small fishing hamlets with jetties apportioned among nearby farms. Fröjel, which was active from around 600 to 1150, was one of about 10 settlements that grew into small towns, and Carlsson believes that it became a key player in a far-reaching trade network. “Gotlanders were middlemen,” he says, “and they benefited greatly from the exchange of goods from the West to the East, and the other way around.”

Gotland Viking Brooch

(Courtesy Dan Carlsson)
Brooches found in a graveyard in Visby, Gotland’s largest town, were used by Viking women to hold their clothing in place.

Situated between the Swedish mainland and the Baltic states, Gotland was a natural stopping-off point for trading voyages, and Carlsson’s excavations at Fröjel have turned up an abundance of materials that came from afar: antler from mainland Sweden, glass from Italy, amber from Poland or Lithuania, rock crystal from the Caucasus, carnelian from the East, and even a clay egg from the Kiev area thought to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And then, of course, there are the coins. Tens of thousands of the silver coins found in hoards on the island came from the Arab world.

Many Gotlanders themselves plied these trade routes. They would sail east to the shores of Eastern Europe and make their way down the great rivers of western Russia, trading and raiding along the way at least as far south as Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, via the Black Sea. Some reports suggest that they also crossed the Caspian Sea and traveled all the way to Baghdad, then the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Entire Viking families are believed to have made their way east. “In the beginning, we thought it was just for trading,” says Carlsson, “but now we see there was a kind of settlement. You find Viking cemeteries far away from the main rivers, in the uplands.” Other evidence of Scandinavian presence in the region is plentiful. As early as the seventh century, there was a Gotlandic settlement at Grobina in Latvia, just inland from the point on the coast closest to Gotland. Large numbers of Scandinavian artifacts have been excavated in northwest Russia, including coin hoards, brooches, and other women’s bronze jewelry. The Rus, the people that gave Russia its name, were made up in part of these Viking transplants. The term’s origins are unclear, but it may have been derived from the Old Norse for “a crew of oarsmen” or a Greek word for “blondes.”

Gotland Viking Comb

(Courtesy Dan Carlsson)
Combs such as this one, excavated at Fröjel, were made locally of antler imported from mainland Sweden.
To investigate the links between the Gotland Vikings and the East, Carlsson turned his attention to museum collections and archaeological sites in northwest Russia. “It is fascinating how many artifacts you find in every small museum,” he says. “If they have a museum, they probably have Scandinavian artifacts.” For example, at the museum in Staraya Ladoga, east of St. Petersburg, Carlsson found a large number of Scandinavian items, oval brooches from mainland Sweden, combs, beads, pendants, and objects with runic inscriptions, and even three brooches in the Gotlandic style dating to the seventh and eighth centuries. Scandinavians were initially drawn to the area to obtain furs from local Finns, particularly miniver, the highly desirable white winter coat of the stoat, which they would then trade in Western Europe. As time went on, Staraya Ladoga served as a launching point for Viking forays to the Black and Caspian Seas.

These journeys entailed a good deal of risk. The route south from Kiev toward Constantinople along the Dnieper River was particularly hazardous. A mid-tenth-century document by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus tells of Vikings traveling this stretch each year after the spring thaw, which required portaging around a series of dangerous rapids and fending off attacks by local bandits known as the Pechenegs. The name of one of these rapids—Aifur, meaning “ever-noisy” or “impassable”—appears on a runestone on Gotland dedicated to the memory of a man named Hrafn who died there.
Gotland Viking Spillings Hoard

(Courtesy Dan Carlsson)
Silver arm rings with a zigzag pattern, believed to have been manufactured on Gotland, are part of an enormous hoard unearthed on the island.

People from the East may have traveled back to Gotland with the Vikings as well. At Fröjel, Carlsson has uncovered two Viking Age cemeteries, one dating from roughly 600 to 900, and the other from 900 to 1000. In all, Carlsson has excavated around 60 burials there, and isotopic analysis has shown that some 15 percent of the people whose graves have been excavated—all buried in the earlier cemetery—came from elsewhere, possibly the East.

In their voyages, the Vikings of Gotland are thought to have traded a broad range of goods such as furs, beeswax, honey, cloth, salt, and iron, which they obtained through a combination of trade and violent theft. This activity, though, doesn’t entirely account for the wealth that archaeologists have uncovered. In recent years, Carlsson and other experts have begun to suspect that a significant portion of their trade may have consisted of a commodity that has left little trace in the archaeological record: slaves. “We still have some problems in explaining what made this island so rich,” says Carlsson. “We know from written Arabic sources that the Rus—the Scandinavians in Russia—were transporting slaves. We just don’t know how big their trading in slaves was.”

According to an early tenth-century account by Ibn Rusta, a Persian geographer, the Rus were nomadic raiders who would set upon Slavic people in their boats and take them captive. They would then transport them to Khazaria or Bulgar, a Silk Road trading hub on the Volga River, where they were offered for sale along with furs. “They sell them for silver coins, which they set in belts and wear around their waists,” writes Ibn Rusta. Another source, Ibn Fadlan, a representative of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad who traveled to Bulgar in 921, reports seeing the Rus disembark from their boats with slave girls and sable skins for sale. The Rus warriors, according to his account, would pray to their gods: “I would like you to do me the favor of sending me a merchant who has large quantities of dinars and dirhams [Arab coins] and who will buy everything that I want and not argue with me over my price.” Whenever one of these warriors accumulated 10,000 coins, Ibn Fadlan says, he would melt them down into a neck ring for his wife.

It is unclear whether the Vikings transported Slavic slaves back to Gotland, but the practice of slavery appears to have been well established there. The Guta Lag, a compendium of Gotlandic law thought to have been written down in 1220 includes rules regarding purchasing slaves, or thralls. “The law says that if you buy a man, try him for six days, and if you are not satisfied, bring him back,” says Carlsson. “It sounds like buying an ox or a cow.” Burials belonging to people who came from places other than Gotland are generally situated on the periphery of the graveyards with fewer grave goods, suggesting that they may have occupied a secondary tier of society—perhaps as slaves.

Gotland Arab Coin Vertical

Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand/The Royal Coin Cabinet, Sweden)
A silver coin from the early 10th century (obverse, top; reverse, above) is one of tens of thousands excavated on Gotland that had originated in the Arab world.

For the Gotland Vikings, accumulation of wealth in the form of silver coins was clearly a priority, but they weren’t interested in just any coins. They were unusually sensitive to the quality of imported silver and appear to have taken steps to gauge its purity. Until the mid-tenth century, almost all the coins found on Gotland came from the Arab world and were around 95 percent pure. According to Stockholm University numismatist Kenneth Jonsson, beginning around 955, these Arab coins were increasingly cut with copper, probably due to reduced silver production. Gotlanders stopped importing them. Near the end of the tenth century, when silver mining in Germany took off, Gotlanders began to trade and import high-quality German coins. Around 1055, coins from Frisia in northern Germany became debased, and Gotlanders halted imports of all German coins. At this juncture, ingots from the East became the island’s primary source of silver.

Interestingly, when a silver source from the Arab or German world slipped in quality, Jonsson points out, and the Gotlanders rapidly cut off the debased supplies, their contemporaries on mainland Sweden and in areas of Eastern Europe did not. “Word must have spread around the island, saying, ‘Don’t use these German coins anymore!’” says Jonsson. To test imported silver, Gotlanders would shave a bit of the metal with a knife so its contents could be assessed based on color and consistency, says Ny Björn Gustafsson of the Swedish National Heritage Board. He notes that many imported silver items found on Gotland were “pecked” in this way, and that Gotlanders may also have tested imported coins by bending them. By contrast, silver items thought to have been made on Gotland—including heavy arm rings with a zigzag pattern pressed into them—were not generally pecked or otherwise tested. “My interpretation,” Gustafsson says, “is that this jewelry acted as a traditional form of currency and was assumed to contain pure silver.”

These arm rings are among the most commonly found items in Gotland’s hoards, along with coins, and experts had long assumed they were made on the island, but no evidence of their manufacture had been found until Carlsson’s team uncovered a workshop area at Fröjel. “We found the artifacts exactly where they had been dropped,” says Carlsson. There are precious stones: amber, carnelian, garnet. There are half-finished beads, cracked during drilling and discarded. There is elk antler for crafting combs. There is also a large lump of iron, as well as rivets for use in boats, coffins, and storage chests. And, providing evidence of a smelting operation, there are drops of silver.

Researchers found that the metalworkers of Fröjel used an apparatus called a cupellation hearth to transform a suspect source of imported silver, such as coins or ingots, into jewelry or decorated weapons with precisely calibrated silver content. They would melt the silver source with lead and blow air over the molten mélange with a bellows, causing the lead and other impurities to oxidize, separate from the silver, and attach to the hearth lining. The resulting pure silver would then be combined with other metals to produce a desired alloy. The cupellation technique is known from classical times, says Gustafsson, but so far this is the first and only time such a hearth has been found on Gotland. Only one other intact example from the Viking Age has been found in Sweden, at the mainland settlement of Sigtuna.

Gotland Viking Imported Silver

(Photo by: Ny Björn Gustafsson/The Swedish History Museum)
This imported silver piece found on Gotland shows signs of “pecking,” where a bit of metal was gouged out to test its purity.
Traces of lead and other impurities were found embedded in pieces of the cupellation hearth among the material excavated from the workshop area at Fröjel. The hearth has been radiocarbon dated to around 1100. Also unearthed from the workshop area were fragments of molds imprinted with the zigzag patterns found on Gotlandic silver arm rings, establishing that they were, in fact, made on the island—and that the workshop was the site of the full chain of production, from metal refinement to casting. “We have these silver arm rings in many hoards all over Gotland,” says Carlsson. “But we never before saw exactly where they were making them.”

During the Viking Age, Gotland seems to have been a more egalitarian society than mainland Sweden, which had a structure of nobles led by a king dating from at least the late tenth century. On Gotland, by contrast, farmers and merchants appear to have formed the upper class and, while some were more prosperous than others, they shared in governance through a series of local assemblies called things, which were overseen by a central authority called the Althing. According to the Guta Saga, the saga of the Gotlanders, which was written down around 1220, an emissary from Gotland forged a peace treaty with the Swedish king, ending a period of strife with the mainland Swedes. The treaty, believed to have been established in the eleventh century, required Gotland to pay an annual tax in exchange for continued independence, protection, and freedom to travel and trade.

Stratification did increase on the island as time passed, though. Archaeologists have found that, throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, silver hoards were distributed throughout Gotland, suggesting that wealth was more or less uniformly shared among the island’s farmers. But around 1050, this pattern shifted. “In the late eleventh century, you start to have fewer hoards overall, but, instead, there are some really massive hoards, usually found along the coast, containing many, many thousands of coins,” says Jonsson. This suggests that trading was increasingly controlled by a small number of coastal merchants.

This stratification accelerated near the end of the Viking Age, around 1140, when Gotland began to mint its own coins, becoming the first authority in the eastern Baltic region to do so. “Gotlandic coins were used on mainland Sweden and in the Baltic countries,” says Majvor Östergren, an archaeologist who has studied the island’s silver hoards. Whereas Gotlanders had valued foreign coins based on their weight alone, these coins, though hastily hammered out into an irregular shape, had a generally accepted value. More than eight million of these early Gotlandic coins are estimated to have been minted between 1140 and 1220, and more than 22,000 have been found, including 11,000 on Gotland alone.

Gotland Minted Coin Horizontal

(Nanouschka Myrberg Burström)
An example of one of the earliest silver coins minted on Gotland (obverse, left; reverse, right) dates from around 1140.

Gotland is thought to have begun its coinage operation to take advantage of new trading opportunities made possible by strife among feuding groups on mainland Sweden and in western Russia. This allowed Gotland to make direct trading agreements with the Novgorod area of Russia and with powers to the island’s southwest, including Denmark, Frisia, and northern Germany. Gotland’s new coins helped facilitate trade between its Eastern and Western trading partners, and brought added profits to the island’s elite through tolls, fees, and taxes levied on visiting traders. In order to maintain control over trade on the island, it was limited to a single harbor, Visby, which remains the island’s largest town. As a result, the rest of Gotland’s trading harbors, including Fröjel, declined in importance around 1150.

Gotland remained a wealthy island in the medieval period that followed the Viking Age, but, says Carlsson, “Gotlanders stopped putting their silver in the ground. Instead, they built more than 90 stone churches during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” Although many archaeologists believe that the Gotland Vikings stashed their wealth in hoards for safekeeping, Carlsson thinks that, just as did the churches that were built later, they served a devotional purpose. In many cases, he argues, hoards do not appear to have been buried in houses but rather atop graves, roads, or borderlands. Indeed, some were barely buried at all because, he argues, others in the community knew not to touch them. “These hoards were not meant to be taken up,” he says, “because they were meant as a sort of sacrifice to the gods, to ensure a good harvest, good fortune, or a safer life.” In light of the scale, sophistication, and success of the Gotland Vikings’ activities, these ritual depositions may have seemed to them a small price to pay.

Daniel Weiss is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.