The South Scandinavian Barrows with Well-Preserved Oak-Log Coffins

By Holst, Mads Kahler; Breuning-Madsen, Henrik et al. | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The South Scandinavian Barrows with Well-Preserved Oak-Log Coffins


Holst, Mads Kahler, Breuning-Madsen, Henrik, Rasmussen, Marianne, Antiquity


Introduction

Barrows dominate the South Scandinavian Early Bronze Age (1700-1000 BC), both in quantity of data and by research tradition. Even today after several centuries of systematic destruction of the monuments caused by intensive agriculture they are still present everywhere in the South Scandinavian landscape.

The barrows of South Scandinavia had a local basis in the Neolithic, but the marked increase which the Bronze Age saw in the intensity of barrow construction is indisputably also connected to the general accentuation and spread of barrow building within large parts of Europe at that time, represented not least by the Tumulus Culture.

The mere amount of work invested in barrow construction points to the decisive role of these monuments in the formation of South Scandinavian Early Bronze Age society and, together with the amount of available data, this justifies their central position in the research tradition. Furthermore, a small, exclusive group of finds, which attracted special attention even at an early stage of antiquarian activities in Denmark, has spurred the intense interest in the barrows of this society.

In 1823 the Royal Commission of Antiquities in Copenhagen received an account of an unusual discovery made in a Jutish Bronze Age barrow when road authorities destroyed the monument in search for building materials. In the middle of the barrow a large rust-coloured stone setting filled with water was uncovered, and on the bottom of this stone setting stood an extremely well preserved oak-log coffin (Boye 1896: 1f) (FIGURE 1).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

During the following decades several similar accounts reached the antiquarian authorities in Copenhagen, and a few professional archaeological investigations of barrows with well-preserved oak-log coffins were also conducted, which led to the recovery of organic grave goods including whole costumes and preserved parts of the skin and hair. The remarkable preservation makes the oak-log coffins a unique group of burial finds within a European perspective.

At the end of the 19th century, Vilhelm Boye could present an impressive monograph on the oak-log coffins of Denmark, and where information on the composition of the mounds was available, striking similarities were revealed (Boye 1896). The outer part of the mound, the mantle, was dry and brownish in colour and without particularly well preserved organic remains. At a certain depth the excavators met an upper iron pan, which was often difficult to break through. Beneath the upper iron pan the mound was wet, sometimes to an extreme degree causing flooding of the excavation. Bluish and grey colours characterized this wet core and the conditions of preservation were remarkably good, with clearly distinguishable plant remains on the sods of which the mound had been built. It was also here in the wet core of the mound that the well-preserved oak-log coffins were uncovered. Below the core a lower iron pan was found, and thus the core of the mound was totally encapsulated by iron pans (FIGURE 2).

[FIGURE 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Only relatively few finds of well-preserved oak-log coffins have been uncovered since Boye published his survey in 1896, but among the new discoveries are some of the most famous localities: the Egtved barrow, excavated in 1921 and containing a young woman (Thomsen 1929); and the Skrydstrup mound with another young woman, excavated in 1935 (Lund 1936; Broholm & Hald 1939). Today approximately 30 barrows with iron-pan encapsulated mound cores and well-preserved oak-log coffin burials are known in Denmark and the present-day German province of Schleswig. Of these finds 20 contained datable artefacts, which all belong to the South Scandinavian Early Bronze Age.

Already during the excavations in the 19th century it was becoming obvious that the remarkable conditions of preservation in the oak-log coffin mounds were somehow connected to the formation of the iron pans; however, it was difficult to assess the exact nature of the connection. …

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