Bredaror on Kivik: A Monumental Cairn and the History of Its Interpretation

By Goldhahn, Joakim | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Bredaror on Kivik: A Monumental Cairn and the History of Its Interpretation


Goldhahn, Joakim, Antiquity


Introduction

The Bronze Age cairn Bredaror on Kivik, which is situated in Scania in south-east Sweden (Figure 1), is one of the largest burial monuments in northern Europe. The cairn, looted in 1748 and excavated by Gustaf Hallstrom in 1931, famously contained a stone cist with elaborate rock art in which survived some fragmented bronze objects. Following its excavation the cairn was restored and now measures 75m in diameter with a height of 3.5m. In spite of what the name of the cairn suggests in Swedish (Bredaror--'broad cairn'), several researchers have claimed that the original height of this Bronze Age cairn was between 7-15m (Hallstrom 1932; Norden 1942; Larsson 1993; Randsborg 1993). For the modern visitor, the sense of awe is enhanced by the restored monumental stone-built entrance and a protective door made of solid copper, intended as a reference to the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae in Greece (Figure 2). The decorated slabs formed the inner sides of a stone cist that was about 4m long and 1.5m broad (Figure 3).

Bredaror is one of the few Scandinavian prehistoric monuments that is regularly mentioned in textbooks on the European Bronze Age, often in the same sentence as the sun-disc from Trundholm, the women and child from Egtved, the bronze lures from Brudevaelte and the rock art from Bohuslan (Briard 1979; Coles & Harding 1979; Kristiansen 1998; Harding 2000; Kristiansen & Larsson 2005). On the basis of the over-sized decorated cist, scholars have interpreted Bredaror as the tomb of a chief and/or a shaman. Accordingly, the road signs in the village of Kivik direct a visitor to 'the King's Grave'.

Using the first analysis of the human bones that were discovered during the excavation in 1931, I intend to question this interpretation. At least five human beings are represented in the cist, four adolescents and one adult. Radiocarbon dates from the bones distinguish at least three different episodes of deposition, ranging from 1400 to 800 cal BC. The only adult individual dates from the ninth century cal BC, that is, much later than both the rock art and the bronze objects which are used to support the traditional interpretation. The tomb can therefore be shown to have had several phases of use, and could command a number of different interpretations.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Interpretation history

At the time of its rediscovery in the middle of the eighteenth century the interpretation of Bredaror was grounded in folklore (Jensen 2002b; Baudou 2004); horses had refused to pass the cairn at dusk and dawn, and lights from dead souls had been seen flickering over the cairn during the night. Stories about hidden treasures flourished and had been passed down from one generation to another. On 14 June 1748 two local farmers--Lasse Parsson and Anders Sahlberg--discovered and looted the cist. They were not in search of treasure, but had plundered the cairn of stone for the purpose of building stone fences around their fields. When people in the vicinity heard about the discovery of the large cist in the giant 'broad cairn', rumour started to flourish. Soon Lasse and Anders found themselves arrested and were later charged for robbing the cairn and withholding the treasure from its proper owner--the Swedish State. The court gathered in August and October 1748 and the trial against the thieves was partly held at Bredaror itself.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Strangely enough, nobody at these hearings mentioned the decorated slabs, neither did the famous natural scientist Carl von Linne when he passed the cairn in late May 1749 (Linne 1975: 158-9). Parsson and Sahlberg were finally released on 8 June 1749 for lack of evidence and by giving oaths. According to their statements at the trial, they did notice some artefacts in the cist, but none of these were saved or taken care of, and accordingly, they are only known through historical sources (Randsborg 1993: 11-23). …

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