Skjoldehamn Find Project: Finding the Body

When we left off, I started to describe the location of the Skjoldehamn site and I promised a story.

One probably very cold day in June 1936 in the town of Skjoldehamn on the island of Andøya on the northern coast of Norway along the Norwegian sea, a man named Rikart Olsen was cutting peat to use as heat in the coming winter. That part of Norway is damn cold and under snow for most of the year. To get through a winter, a-lot of peat needs to be cut and dried.

If you have never seen a peat bog, they are unusual things. The bog gets drained and then the land is systematically cut up with long thin shovels into rectangular cubes. Peat, as I said in my last post, is compacted partly decayed organic matter found in bogs, peatlands, moors or what we in Louisiana call swamps.

Here’s a wiki-commons photo from 1905 of peat being cut and stacked to dry.

Peat_stacks_and_cutting
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peat_stacks_and_cutting.JPG

Do you see what I mean by systematic? You start cutting and continue cutting along a row. When the row is done, you go back to the beginning and cut one log deeper along the same row. So on and so forth until you have cut several feet deep. Then you start cutting on row two.When you are cutting up a peat bog, you don’t just dig willy nilly.

Back to a day in June in 1936.

Mr. Rikart Olsen was systematically cutting peat logs. A peat spade is a long, thin, flat shovel with a sharp end. Mr. Olsen plunged his shovel into the peat to cut a cube when he suddenly realized that he had cut through someone’s foot. He freaked the heck out! Wouldn’t you??

His freaking out caused a bit of an uproar and everyone stopped digging peat and came to see what Rikart had found. Finally someone called the chief of police to figure out what to do.

Bogs can preserve things really well. In the right circumstances, a bog can nearly mummify a body. Bog water is highly acidic and bogs have very little oxygen. Combine that with Norway’s very cold temperatures and things just don’t rot like they do in warm places. Since a bog can keep a body in good shape for a long time, these people had no clue how old the corpse was or if it was a recent murder.

The chief looked over the remains and decided that the body was old enough that it was not a crime he had to solve. He ordered the farmers to bury the body in a church cemetery.

They did not.

It is suspected that because Skjoldehamn is such a remote community, it was still Pagan at its core even in the 1930’s. Very remote northern European towns did not convert to Christianity early. Even when they did, they never fully left their Pagan practices.

Instead of giving the old corpse a “Christian burial,” a farmer named Hans Liavik re-buried the body in the marsh on his own property. Since digging up peat is systematic, he could not simply rebury it where it was found. In fact, the specific place where the body was found was immediately cut into logs for use.

Hans did have the forethought to contact the nearest museum to see if they were interested in the find.

Remember the year we are in. It is 1936. Remote communities like this one may not have had a telephone. Communication was slow. They wrote letters and the post man neither delivered nor picked up mail every day on this remote island.

Hans sent a message to the Tromsø museum about the find, but the word did not reach Tromsø until fall. Hans did his very best to describe what was found in as much detail as he could, but he was a farmer and not a trained archaeologist.

Professor Gutrom Gjessing, to whom Hans had written, thought that the body was from the 19th century based on Hans’s letter. The oldest he thought it might be was late 18th century. Awesome find that it was, Gutrom felt that is was not awesome enough to travel to Skjoldehamn in winter.

Skjoldehamn is cold and often snowy. Gutrom let Hans know that he would come to the site in spring or summer of the next year (1937) and asked Hans if he would ship the body using the post office. . .

Yes, you read correctly. “Please bundle that body up in a box and ship it to me on that mail boat you guys use.” And that is exactly what Hans did.

The way Hans described it, the body was originally in good condition. For being a farmer, Hans had an eye for details. The body was found slanting toward the north and laying on its left side. Its knees were slightly drawn up and its right arm was stretched down towards the knees.

Hans described a three-pronged skull fracture and said that the he could see the brain mass through the hole and a bright red spot just inside the fracture. At this point, the bones and the skull were preserved and even the brain was present. The organs may have also been there, but Hans did not do an autopsy.

Although bogs preserve bodies well, once they are unearthed, oxygen is introduced. By the time the body had been reburied, re-dug up, wrapped in a box and shipped two ferry rides and many hours by truck (if they didn’t use horse and cart) to the museum, the condition was not good.

Gutrom sent the bones to the Anatomical Institute in Oslo, and in a letter from Dr Gjessing dated Dec 11, 1936 to Professor K. E. Schreiner of the institute, he describes how badly the body had deteriorated:

“Dear Mr. Professor. I’m sending you today the sad remains of a skeleton found in the swamp on Nygård Skjoldehamn, Bjørnskinn, Dverberg pgd., Nordland. The skeleton was found dressed in clothing and buried ~80 cm deep in the bog, covered by its fists and a fur pelt. Of the bones, the skull was in somewhat good shape but has now crumbled virtually to dust. Letter showed however that the body was a medium-sized man ( Gjessing is referring to the description from Hans).

The clothes were tolerably well preserved, and as far as I can tell it is a Norwegian costume from later Middle Ages. He was wearing a “kaprun,” a medieval cap that went far down the shoulders. That the man was wearing stocking implies that it is a Norwegian and not a Lapp costume. The Lapps have never used these.

This find is of very great interest in costume history, it would be of great importance if the remains by themselves could determine whether the man was a Norwegian or Lapp … “

 p111-112: Holek, Per. “Myrfunnet Fra Skjoldehamn- Mannlig Same Eller Norrøn Kvinne?” Viking: Tidsskrift for Norrøn Arkeologi 51 (1988): 109-16.

In a letter back to Gjessing, Professor Schreiner said that he could not identify whether it was Lapp or Nordic because the bones were in such bad shape.

I often think about what would have happened if Dr. Gjessing would have immediately gone to Skjoldehamn and brought the body back and preserved it better. How much more would we have learned if we had the brain tissue of a 1,000 person?

I wish I could say today that this would never happen, but I really don’t know.  We all do the best we can with the knowledge that we have at the time. I’m sure that Gutrom wondered the same thing.

More next time!

Esperanza de Navarra

Skjoldehamn Find Project: Where is Skjoldehamn

Almost a year ago, King James and Queen Joan of Gleann Abhann announced that Baron Gellir Gunnarson, one of my best friends, would be elevated to the Order of the Pelican, one of the highest honors in the SCA. Being me, I wanted to dress him.

That started my Skjoldehamn project, which is thankfully coming near an end. The end will be at Kingdom A&S in September. At which point, poor Gellir will get to take the dang thing home with him.

 

Not that I did not love playing dress-up, but this simple tunic has taken so many hours that I now hate this shade of blue, which was once my favorite!

Granted, I am a slow seamstress, but the main issue was making this tunic entirely authentic to the Skjoldehamn find, including the itty bitty stitches they used in the seams. Not realizing how tall my friend is (in my head all people are either shorter than me, taller than me or way taller than me), I had not realized how many linear yards of internal seams there would be.

Since I don’t even research half-assedly, I also translated enough research on the Skjoldehamn find to use as a masters degree dissertation! Be prepared to be overwhelmed with as many aspects of the Skjoldehamn find as you can imagine.

Why my fascination with the outfit from the Skjoldehamn find?

Much of the background information on the find itself and the clothing is not in English, but in Norwegian. Most of what I now know and now find fascinating, I didn’t know when I first started researching it. The Skjoldehamn outfit initially appealed to me because it is one of the most complete Viking-age outfits that we have ever found.

The clothing items include:

  • Overtunic
  • Undertunic
  • Pants
  • Hood
  • Leg wraps
  • Woven belt

And that’s just the cloth items!

The items individually are well enough preserved that there is a wealth of information to gain from them. Even with all of this, the clothing, until recently, the Skjoldehamn clothing was not well researched or documented. Why?

I do not know for certain why this find has been ignored, but by the end of this journey I will share my thoughts on the subject.

Let’s start with some background.

Background on the Skjoldehamn Find

Timing

The body was discovered the same month as the first Viking-age clothing was found in Sweden – June 1936. This is 2 years before Agnes Geijer writes her definitive work on Viking-age textiles focusing on the Birka find, Die Textilfunde aus den Gräbern. Clothing and textiles, at this time in archaeology, were not considered important. Everyone focused on the weapons and artifacts.

Place
Skjoldehamn is located on the northern tip of Norway on the coast of the Norwegian Sea. Thanks to Google Maps, we can get an idea of how far north this place is.

 

I’ve circle Skjoldehamn in red. Skjoldehamn is located on the island of Andøya in the cluster circled.

It is not a very pleasant place. Saying it is cold is an insult to cold places.

For example, today here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana the high was 84°F, felt like it was 93, and it rained almost all day. Hot and rainy is typical southern Louisiana weather in June. 84°F for June is actually fairly cool, but I suspect that most places in the US are closer to the mid 70’s.

The high in Skjoldehamn today was a whopping 45°F and felt like 39°F. It also rained there, but, while our low tonight will be 70°F, their low is 27°F and feeling like 5°F. 5°F!! In June!!

That area of Norway is bleak, even for Norway, and under snow a good portion of the year, yet it does have a long history. Traces of a medieval road connect Skjoldehamn it to southern areas in Norway. Even back in the Viking-age, people traveled to this remote location. In the 1930’s, Skjoldehamn was a fairly sparsely populated farming village. It was old, but not as old as many other villages.

The island of Andøya, where Skjoldehamn is located, does not have much lumber for burning. Most people burn bricks of peat for warmth. Peat is compacted partly decayed organic matter found in bogs or peatlands. Bogs are pretty common in northern Europe and burning peat is common too. Scotland is well known for its peat bricks, and it is the spring water filtering through the peat that gives Scotch its earthy flavor.

That’s where I’m going to leave you today. Next I’ll tell you a nice bedtime story of why the find got so f’d up.

Esperanza de Navarra

Random Ranting for June

I have been quiet here. Not really busy and life hasn’t thrown any curve balls. Let’s say that this little hiatus is a result of a pile of obsessions.

What is a pile of obsessions? Maybe you never get piled on with things that hold your interest so deeply that you can’t talk or think about anything else, but in my world it happens a few times a year. In the past Hogwarts camps have been a culprit.

Hogwarts camp is where I spend two weeks with other Potter Heads being a Professor and sometimes Head of House for various Harry Potter themed summer camps. Meet Professor T. N. Crumpets:

I have more alternate personas than my SCA one. I can think of 5 off-hand, and I’m sure there are a few others out there. Not multiple personalities. Thankfully I don’t have that problem, at least. They are simply a result of a very full, well-lived and well versified life.

Back to my pile of obsessions . . .

My best friend Brigida, current Baroness of Axemoor (i.e. New Orleans), gifted me with a lampwork kit that belonged to the late Baron Ladislaus du Brody, an extremely talented artist. It was simply a Hot Head torch, some tools and some glass, and I have fallen in love! And I am rubbish at it.

Horrible, just horrible. Here are a few of my beads, and these are not even ones from the first couple of weeks. These are some of my best!! Sad, huh?

Lumpy, lopsided, lemon-shaped beasties, and I love them!!!

Do I really love sucking at something so much? YES!! But not for the reason you think.

Most of the topics I speak about here, although I’m not an expert, I’m not new either. I’ve been such a dilettante for so long, there isn’t much I haven’t tried. Yet I have never, ever tried lampworking. Brand new arts can be very addicting, something I had forgotten. Setting aside the addiction part, learning something totally new can be such a rush!

Hopefully, I will not suck forever. Nor am I saying that there are things I do all of the time that I don’t completely suck at.

Driving:
There is a rule when I am driving that all of my kids know and many kids who aren’t mine know. Be silent when Mommy makes a left turn. Not only do they hold all questions to me, but they stop talking to each other.

I’m so bad at it, that friend’s children, who were riding in a totally different vehicle, have cheered me on when I have successfully made a left turn in heavy traffic, and they didn’t even mean it sarcastically!

Singing:
5 years of chorus in primary school, and I am still tone deaf and sing like Scuttle from the Little Mermaid. Yet, that does not stop me.

Generally, I’ll misquote Algernon from The Importance of Being Earnest and say, "It’s not the talent with which I sing but the enthusiasm that is important."

Actual quote:
“I don’t play accurately–any one can play accurately–but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.”

There are other things I’m rubbish at, but on to more fun things!

Add to the bead-making, after nearly 22 years of promising my husband, I finally started Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Even though I’m only listening to the unabridged audio-books, that is one friggin’ dense series. I got all the through book 8, realized that I couldn’t remember which minor characters did what, and I had to start back at the beginning. I’ve finally got through book 6 again, and now my brain needs a break.

Great series!! But man, oh man, it is full of lots of little details and it is not something I can casually listen to and know what is happening.

There are certain things I can do while listening to it. Hand sewing, simple embroidery, cleaning house, but I can not do anything that requires actual thinking. My research and writing has been suffering the most. Even lampworking is too much thinking for keeping up with the goings-on of those folk.

The conclusion I reached is that I will have to bite off smaller chunks of the Wheel of Time and not marathon listen to it. Another conclusion: I do not multitask. That is not how my ADD works. Yet another conclusion: I’m not flaky, but I am really flighty. Think Toreador from Vampire the Masquerade 2nd edition, "caught in the grip of constantly shifting passions."

I do have a ton of stuff that I need to post about. A whole series on the Skjoldehamn find is nearly ready. I’ve translated and written a bunch of information on Viking-age Russian clothing. Now that Robert Jordan is not being heard every waking moment, including during my insomnia episodes, and sometimes when I go to sleep, I can share more.

To have such passion for life and art can be both a blessing and a curse,
Esperanza