Ongoing Studies into the Borgund Finds: The Clay Pipes
This week Natascha Mehler is visiting Bergen from Germany to look at the more than 300 fragments of clay pipes found in the excavation. With tobacco becoming a commodity in early modern Europe, clay pipes became a common sight and they are one of the defining categories of archaeological finds of the period. The post-medieval period in places like Borgund is often poorly understood and artefacts like clay pipes can help illuminate this era.
Natascha studying clay pipes
A clay pipe bowl found in Borgund
The Borgund Kaupang Project Workshop 2021
On November the 10th to 12th, the Borgund Kaupang Project held its midway project workshop. We invited all colleagues involved in the project to Bergen in order to take stock of the progress so far, chart the future of the project, and to get a chance to socialise after a long period of pandemic-related isolation from each other. However, the pandemic is not over, and several of our colleagues had to join us online. The Borgund Kaupang Project's first hybrid meeting went off without a hitch.
The workshop taking place in Bryggens Museum
After two days of papers and discussions about the different sub-projects at Bryggens Museum, in the heart of medieval Bergen, we retreated to Osterøy Museum in Gjerstad, who had invited us to hold the third day of the workshop on the premises of their open air museum. We used the day to inform ourselves about the textile-related research and experiments that form part of the BKP, as well as to discuss the overall project.
Monika demonstrating weaving on the upright loom for the workshop attendees
Discussion on the last day in Østerøy Museum
Thank you to our hosts at Bryggens Museum/Bymuseet and at Osterøy Museum/Museumssenteret i Hordaland and thank you to all the participants of the workshop (and the collaborators who unfortunately couldn't attend) for an interesting and intellectually stimulating three days!
The participants of the workshop
Ongoing Studies into the Borgund Finds: The Wooden Material
The Borgund Kaupang Project is nearing the mid-point of its original project period and we are checking in with our collaborators during a three-day conference later this week.
Some researchers are already in Bergen, in order to use the chance to work with material from Borgund while in town. Lísabet Guðmundsdóttir has arrived from Iceland to study wood utilisation practices in Borgund (as well as in the wider North Atlantic world). She is recording wooden objects from the excavations and analysing wood species through optical microscopy.
Lísabet studying wooden artefacts from Borgund
Lísabet studying wooden artefacts from Borgund
Lísabet explains her process to Gitte in this short video
Lísabet explaining her process
Documentaries on Borgund in Ålesund
The production of soapstone spindle whorls. An experimental approach
Last autumn I started work on my MA thesis, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to join the Borgund Kaupang Project. I will work with an exciting archaeological material, consisting of spindle whorls made of various materials from Borgund. My thesis will discuss the production of spindle whorls of low-fired pottery. This production is unique in a Norwegian medieval context, because it appears likely that the whorls were produced locally and on quite a large scale in Borgund. I will write more about these spindle whorls later, starting this autumn, when I will take a closer look at my empirical material. This spring my task is to write an article relating to my thesis, which gave me the chance to do some experimental archaeology and explore how spindle whorls of soapstone could have been produced in medieval times.
My hypothesis was that the beautiful and evenly shaped soapstone spindle whorls from Borgund (fig. 1) were made with a spring pole lathe, a primitive type of lathe without a flywheel. These spindle whorls appear to have been shaped with care, using a fine-grained soapstone. Among the artefacts from the same archaeological dig, I also found spindle whorls which were more coarsely made; these I hypothesised were made in a different way, maybe without a spring pole lathe. What I failed to consider was how the raw material, the rock itself, affected how the whorls could be formed. As a novice stonemason I assumed that soapstone is soapstone and that’s that. I could not have been more wrong! This has obliged me to revaluate my hypothesis, and with newly acquired knowledge more questions have emerged than got answered by my little experiment.
Fig. 1: Spindle whorl from Borgund.
The first step of my experiment was to make a spring pole lathe. As you can see in my video (see link below), the lathe is not constructed with historically accurate methods and materials, rather it is made to fulfil the same function as medieval springpole lathes. In her book Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Wood and Woodworking in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York (2000), Carole A. Morris describes four essential attributes a spring pole lathe must have. These are: 1) two metal centre pivots which point toward each other on a horizontal plane that the turned material spins around; 2) a rope connected to a treadle that acts as the means of rotating the blank; 3) rigidity in the lathe, whether the lathe is permanently or temporarily set up; 4) a tool-rest which helps the craftsperson resist the great downward force subjected to the tool during turning. My spring pole lathe fulfils all these criteria, even though the set-up where my driving rope passes through a pulley to a birch-tree anchor further up the hill is less traditional than the flexible pole we see in illustrations from medieval manuscripts. This flexible, or springy, pole is what has given this type of lathe its name, and you can find a lot of interesting videos on the web explaining this tool in further detail. My video quickly shows what my lathe looks like and how it functions.
Turning a spindle whorl in soapstone
Making the spring pole lathe was a relatively quick and easy process, thanks to great help from my father, Hans Christian Rentsch. The following days of experimentation were more challenging. I experimented with roughly forming the soapstone into spindle whorls using chisels, gouges, and a rasp before mounting them in the springpole lathe. I quickly learned that turning the spindle whorl on the lathe was tricky. I don’t want to reveal my results in detail, as I plan to write an article on the experiment, but I will divulge that the rasp quickly became my favourite tool. With the rasp I was able to make a nice and even spindle whorl, even without the lathe. Two of my turned spindle whorls ended up splitting in two, which was a disappointment – until I discovered that the fragments looked a lot like fragmentary spindle whorls from medieval Bergen and Borgund. These arguments for and against the use of the springpole lathe will be interesting to explore further, and I will hopefully, based on my experiments, become wiser in the field of soapstone spindle whorl production.
Fig. 2: The spindle whorls produced in the experiment.
Borgund Kaupang Project at the DigNation archaeology festival
The 13-14 June 2020 we participated in the international archaeology festival DigNation (for DigVentures) with a video contribution. Take a look above and learn more about our project!
Iron and slag as archaeological artefacts and how to study them from home
By Brita Hope
The previous blog post gave us a nice peek into Mathias’s PhD-project concerning pottery and soapstone use in Borgund. This weeks’ post will give a short view into the other PhD-project in BKP, which deals with processing and consumption of iron in Borgund. The main goal of this project is to get new insight into the role small towns like Borgund played in the economy of iron, and at the same time how the exploitation and economy of iron played out in the society of Borgund. The high amount of slag and iron objects from the excavations in Borgund leave the impression that iron played an important role in the economy in Borgund and provide a good opportunity to get new insight into the exploitation of this resource.
The amount of iron objects and slag in the archaeological material from Borgund is high compared to what have been found in other medieval towns of Norway. According to Borgund’s find-database c. 23 % of all objects are catalogued as metal. In comparison, the extensive excavations that took place at Bryggen in Bergen simultaneously (known as The Bryggen Excavations) revealed less than 4 % metal objects of all collected items. Both these numbers contain all types of metals as the find catalogues do not provide a detailed overview of the different object categories. For both sites, however, the vast majority of all the metal objects are artefacts made from iron or pieces of slag.
The situation in Bergen has been discussed by Gitte earlier. Bad preservation conditions in layers that have been exposed to salty water might explain some of the low representation of iron objects in Bergen. Nonetheless it seems that in the higher dry layers there is still a low representation of iron. Gitte argues that it is mostly due to extensive reuse of the material. A starting point for my project will be to investigate why iron objects and slag is this heavily represented in the Borgund material compared to other towns.
One question is whether there were different methodological approaches to how the two sites were excavated. Both excavations started off in the mid 1950’s and are considered to be the two first modern medieval archaeological excavations of Norway. Until these two excavations, production waste like slag and fragments of nails and other common or indeterminable objects of iron were not considered to be of scientific interest. Perhaps not all such material was equally considered in the two projects? However, both excavations were directed by Asbjørn E. Herteig, who brought these new methods into medieval archaeology. It is therefore likely that they were based on the same collecting principles from the beginning.
It seems, however, that not all slag from Borgund was in fact collected. Some of the slag exist only as a number in the find-database with a note on how many pieces there used to be before most were thrown away. This page from the find-catalogue of 1973 shows a few examples of inventory numbers representing several pieces of slag, where only a small portion has been kept.
Screenshot of a page from the find catalogue of 1973
It says for instance that no. 5172 represents 86 (83) slagger fra 1 .. 2 til 12-14 cm’s lengde, herav 76 kastet, 7 bevart, meaning only 7 out of 83 pieces of slag measuring from 1-14 cm have been kept. No. 5184: 23 slagger små, vekt 0,270 kg. Alle kastet shows a case where none of the 23 pieces, with a total weight of 0,27 kg, has been kept. The examples show that I have quite some work to do, before making more refined estimates of the actual amount of slag found in Borgund.
Ideally these next weeks should have been spent in The University Museum’s ‘Finds-laboratory’ Funnmottaket working with classifying and weighing metal objects and pieces of slag. However, there are ways to work with the material from home. To be able to measure more accurately the range of iron working in Borgund, it is necessary to go through the archive documentation to clean the data and to find ways of estimating the weight or amount of what was found but not collected. I am also looking for information in the documentation that might indicate activity related to iron working, such as a higher concentration of slag in certain areas. This is a nice way to dig deeper into the old excavations with all data and related documentation. By creating ArcMap distribution maps of the find location for slag and iron objects, I hope that some places in Borgund will stand out as possible iron working areas, and by this reveal more about how the economy of iron was organized in Borgund.
Pottery and soapstone finds from Borgund
In the late nineteenth century the great Arts and Crafts designer, social reformer and devotee of the Nordic Middle Ages, William Morris, called pottery “the most ancient and universal, as it is perhaps (setting aside house-building) the most important of the lesser arts”. Despite his deep interest in the Middle Ages, Morris was not an antiquarian. He did, however, grasp the importance of pottery studies for antiquarianism, the discipline that would later become archaeology. He went on to say that the art of pottery was “one, too, the consideration of which recommends itself to us from a more or less historical point of view, because, owing to the indestructibility of its surface, it is one of the few domestic arts of which any specimens are left to us of the ancient and classical times.” As Morris correctly understood it is the resilience, as well as the relative fragility of pottery that makes it ubiquitous in the archaeological record and that has rendered it one of the most important categories of finds for establishing chronological sequences, as well as the type of find, besides human remains, that is probably most associated with archaeology in the public mind.
This week for the blog we are taking a closer look at the pottery and soapstone finds from Borgund. In keeping with other town sites in Norway pottery makes up a large amount of the finds spectrum in Borgund. At first count c. 10,000 individual sherds of pottery are registered in the project database. In the Middle Ages pottery was not produced in Norway, the need for cookware, tableware and drinkware was rather filled by importing pottery from established large-scale production centres in Germany, England, France and the Benelux region. In addition to these imports, locally produced cooking pots carved from soft soapstone would have been a ubiquitous sight in medieval Norwegian kitchens and vessels made of glass, metal and wood would have graced the tables alongside the ceramics. All in all the Borgund excavations have yielded c. 600 pieces of soapstone that can be identified as having come from pots. Investigating these two categories of finds, pottery and soapstone vessels, is the purview of one of the BKP’s two PhD projects. It is what I spend my days doing. Chronology is without a doubt one of the most important roles pottery serves in archaeology, and in the BKP the establishment of a chronological sequence is a major aspect of work with this category of finds. However, pottery and soapstone can tell us much more about the past than just when things happened. The vessels made from these two materials had to be brought to Borgund; in the case of pottery from far-away kiln sites in the south and in the case of soapstone from quarries in Western Norway. These sherds thus serve as witnesses of trade. Because in many cases we know their points of origin and where they ended up, Borgund, they can be used to reconstruct trade networks both international and domestic. As we know from other studies in Norway and elsewhere, the decorated pottery of the high Middle Ages could also serve to signal their owners’ socio-economic status or even a regional or national identity. Furthermore, drinkware and especially kitchenware reflect changing practices in cuisine and in habits of consumption.These questions and many others can be approached on the basis of pottery and soapstone material that can be properly identified and provenanced through typological and geochemical means. Traces of sooting, food incrustations and general use wear can aid in reconstructing cooking practices.
A pottery sherd from a vessel imported from Belgium
In practical terms, in the last weeks Gitte and I were in the process of establishing a system for identifying, classifying and registering pottery finds from select plan squares, in order to establish a first detailed chronology of the excavation. The current pandemic situation has put a stop to working in the storerooms, as well as stopping me from presenting the Borgund material at two international gatherings of pottery experts, so I am temporarily turning towards other aspects of my project. Nonetheless, even if it is confined to the home office for the time being, the exciting work on the Borgund pottery and soapstone finds is only just beginning!
Update on the Borgund Kaupang Project, March 2020
It has been a while since our last update on the blog, and a lot has happened since December. Now, the University of Bergen has closed down and as of Friday March the 13th the staff has to work from our homes, at least for two weeks. This has led to a break in the team’s work in the storerooms and archives but gives an opportunity to catch up on work waiting on our computers.
In January, Brita Hope (iron) and Mathias Blobel (pottery and soapstone vessels) started their PhD projects. In addition, Ben Allport, who is a post doc at UIB, has joined the project. Ben studies community and social networks in Viking Age and medieval Møre. We welcome them to the team! You can read more about their projects in sub-studies.
In January, Heidi came to Bergen to study leather and shoes from Borgund. We now have the results from ZooMs investigations of leather used in several Borgund shoes. Heidi has studied the results and compared them with her morphological studies of leather. In addition to the shoes which Heidi has studied morphologically, we have species identification on an additional number of shoes where the hair follicle pattern was so worn that species could not be identified.
Heidi also returned a car-load of objects and building fragments from the old permanent exhibition in the Middelaldermuseum at Sunnmøre to Bergen. The small objects are now back in the storerooms of the University Museum. Alf Tore has identified some of the building fragments as part of documented buildings from the Borgund site. With some luck the wood can be sampled for C14 and perhaps also for dendro-chronology and dendro-provenance.
Building timber from Borgund
In addition, there are boxes and bags containing finds and small notes of context information found in the University Museum’s storerooms. We have identified these as finds from Borgund. These are different types of samples taken from cultural layers and waste pits, and production waste such as burnt and unburnt clay, slag etc. The finds have been catalogued and are now part of the source material from Borgund.
A charcoal sample stored in a Jernia-bag and a crumpled note with context information. The sample is from Nordre felt/Northern site
Since Christmas Gitte and Therese have continued working on research tools for the team to use. Databases for digital information on objects and their context have been established, as well as topographical data to be used in GIS. We are making the first digital surveys of the spatial distribution of object groups. This will help us understand how meaningful this distribution is: Have objects been moved around in an arbitrary pattern e.g. by agriculture activities or are there meaningful patterns in the distribution? Homogenization of object classifications still has to be completed before spatial survey can be a really powerful tool, but we are getting there. Of essence is also the efforts to date contexts, and the first overview of contexts ordered by 7 x 7 m grids and mechanical layers has been established. Also objects which can be dated typologically or are diagnostic for the Viking Age or the Middle Ages are identified in the dataset. Such objects are for instance pottery, soapstone vessels, combs, jewelry, bakestones. We can use the ‘diagnostic finds’ to date the culture layers, as well as buildings and objects in the same contexts.
There is a lot of imported pottery found at Borgund (about 10.000 shards). If we can identify specific types, some such have known production time, and can be dated to relatively narrow timespans, so they are valuable for dating purposes. Last week Mathias and Gitte started the classification job on pottery. During the week we managed to establish working routines for the enormous job. During the starting phase of the job we got assistance from specialist colleagues on pottery. Both Gitte and Mathias felt we were getting into a good flow… But then, we had to pack up due to the Corona situation, and now must work from home for a while.
Mathias and Gitte study pottery in the Medieval collection's storeroom
We hope to still have good progress on the Borgund Kaupang Project from home and continue our work on sub-studies, dating contexts and spatial analysis. Take a look at our Facebook page for more pictures.
A December greeting from the Borgund Kaupang Project
Some very busy weeks have passed since the Borgund Kaupang Project’s KickOff-workshop at Borgund. Here is a short update on our progress.
An important part of the first phase of the Borgund Kaupang Project is the scientific curation of the finds and the documentation from the Borgund excavations. The aim is to establish a research platform for the archaeological primary data. One of the main tasks is to date the site through different archaeological and natural scientific methods. Gitte has been working with the complete set of raw data from the excavations. This consists of reports from 20 field seasons, field diaries, over thousand plan drawings, and context information on the ca. 90.000 archaeological and osteological finds. Based on the complete set of data Gitte has established a first version of a matrix that shows us where we lack finds that can be dated through archaeological typological methods, and thus where we need to get samples for C14-dating. We have taken 63 samples for C14-dating from different organic materials (mainly leather and textiles of wool, but also some wood). We finished sampling the day before the Christmas holiday! This will be our first ‘batch’ of samples – and more will be sent in the beginning of 2020.
NTNU University Museum National laboratory for dating in Trondheim will analyze the samples. We are very happy for this collaboration, and very much look forward to the results!
Also, check out our Facebook-page for more pictures!
In addition, after the KickOff, Michèle and Alan visited the Medieval Collections at the University Museum of Bergen to study textiles, which also is a part of Michéle’s sub-study for the Borgund Kaupang Project.
Merry Christmas from the Borgund Kaupang Project, and a happy new year!
The BKP-kickoff at Borgund in Ålesund
The 20.-22.-November 2019 the Borgund Kaupang Project had a KickOff-worksop at Borgund in Ålesund. We have more info on this on our Norwegian pages, but also check out our Facebook-page
The Borgund Kaupang Project has a logo!
One of the many interesting finds from the Borgund excavations is a triangle-shaped, flat object of soapstone with inscribed decorations and runes (see photo, top of this page). One side of the object show that it has been broken off from a larger unit. On another side is the rune inscription: “IONGAFHÆINNR…” “Jon gave (this object) Heinrek…”. The rest of the inscription is missing.
Based on the meaning of the inscription, and that the object originally was part of a larger unit, the object is interpreted as part of a “jartegn”-couple: an object that would prove that a message sent by a messenger was real and came from the named sender. If this were the case, the inscription would indicate that Heinrek, who probably was German, owned the stone. Jon was the sender, and probably owned the other part of the stone. Maybe the two of them were together in business. The stone is dated to the end of the 13th or 14th century.
The possible “jartegnet” has been chosen as a logo for the Borgund Kaupang Project. Trade and exchange of goods from near and far, and the interaction between people are some of the themes the research team of BKP will study. The physical remains from the people who visited or lived in the Borgund Kaupang are especially valuable when considering these themes. The possible “jartegn” is one of many objects from the Borgund collections that can increase our understanding of the medieval people’s lives and chores at Borgund Kaupangen.
The Borgund Kaupang Project has officially started!
The NFR-funded part of the Borgund Kaupang Project started 5th of August 2019, and will last throughout 2023. But even if the official start was in August, several studies in the Borgund Kaupang Project have been ongoing for a while.
Heidi Haugene is studying which types of leather were used for the shoes in Borgund during the Viking Age. Through a study of hair follicle patterns and by analyzing peptides (ZooMs) from small samples of leather it is possible to determine which animals were used to make leather items. Was the leather from domesticated animals, or did they also use leather from wild animals? How many types of leather would one encounter on one shoe? In 2018 the study of hair follicle patterns was finished and is now supplemented with the ZooMs-analysis. We are collaborating with the University of York, who will do the peptide-analysis.
This spring Monika Ravnanger and Marta Kløve Juul experimented with different weaving techniques to establish which technique was used to produce the “varafell”-type, a type of pile woven cloth. In June, they initiated a collaborative project with Elisabeth Johnston from Shetland, UK who is an expert in ancient spinning technologies. Together they are trying to determine which method was used to make the yarn and pile behind the production of a specific type of varafeld- or pile weave.
Michèle Hayeur Smith has studied and classified the textiles from Borgund. Michèle found that there are more textiles in the Borgund corpus than we knew from the old catalogues. In June, we took samples for Strontium (Sr) isotope analysis, and for AMS (Accelerated Mass Spectrometry) dating from some of the textiles. Through Sr isotope analysis it is possible to determine the provenance of the wool the textile is made of. Department of Earth, Environmental, and planetary Sciences at Brown University is analyzing the Sr-samples in collaboration with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, and with the help of Brown University students. Preparation was carried out in a PicoTrace clean lab.
Sam Walker has finished his analysis on animal bones from Borgund and has found a range of different bird species.
And.. in the near future, two PhD-candidates will be hired!
Read more about the different ongoing and upcoming projects, and research under Sub-studies in the menu!
From the 5th of August, the project manager Gitte Hansen and the scientific assistant Therese Nesset have been working on the development of the webpage for the Borgund Kaupang Project, and are organizing a Kick-off workshop for the research team in Ålesund in November. They are also systematizing and digitalizing field documentation and archaeological sources from the 20 years of excavation that took place at Borgund. This will provide the basis for research conducted during the next four to five years. With aid from the University Library at UiB, special collections, who has kindly lent us their A2-scanner, we have scanned field drawings and have begun geo-referencing these sources.
We are very happy the project has begun, and are looking forward to its continuation!