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.
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