Prehistoric stirrups and spurs

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Some of us visited family and friends in Stockholm the other weekend. A nice detour to Uppsala was just one of the highlights. Uppsala is a beautiful town built on ancient history.

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The town centre with its waterways and tasteful old architecture is definitely one of the nicest in Sweden.

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Gustav Vasa, the first king of Sweden, is buried in the eight hundred year old church, one of the biggest churches in northern Europe.

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Just north of the city centre is the site of Kungshögarna; the epicenter of prehistoric Swedish civilization, symbolized by three giant manmade grave hills, one thousand five hundred years old, surrounded by almost three thousand minor graves from the same period.

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Next to these hills is a museum. That’s where we found them; a pair of stirrups and spurs from around 400 AD, along with other archeological findings. It seems like horses were very precious for some ancient Scandinavians once; so important that they even brought their riding gear to the final rest.

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A tale of the Fjaering tribe – 1

Previously I’ve warned you that I’m about to tell you more of this place where we live with our Nokota horses, who came all the way from the prairies of North Dakota. I’ve already told the story of the Nokota horses and how they can be connected back to Europe, as you can read in a series of earlier blog posts. This place is now the new home for three of them and the way the horses have settled in gave me a feeling of déjà vue; they are probably not the first horses to graze this pasture. I wanted to find the trail back in time to discover the connection to the ancient horses that once grazed our pasture and their human herd members, so I wrote this last spring but somehow I never got around to post it, so here it is: 

If you would like to come along on this journey in time I will tell you the story of an ancient Nordic tribe, the “Fjaeringar” on the west coast of Sweden.

The ancient Viking Age grave field Li at the west slope of Fjärås Bräcka. 125 bauta stones remains today.

The official history based on archeological and written evidence is untouchable, but lacks the imagination and logical speculation that brings history to life. The historical evidences from human activities right here are very fragmented and span from the stone age to present day, consisting of remnants from buildings, fireplaces, different kinds of grave remnants, a few findings of artifacts and chemical soil analysis.

The tradition of telling a story is as old as language itself and significant for a story which survives thru long periods of time is that it often includes both facts and fiction. Why is that so? Cold facts only paint half the picture and only involve one half of the brain. By adding imagination both sides of the brain gets involved, which fills in the gaps to complete the picture. A painting by one of the famous 19th century impressionists can give a sense of reality, more accurate than a photograph, because the paint sets the light and only selected unfocused details; the rest is filled in by the watchers imagination. So you not only see the painting, you feel it.

So this story I am about to tell is a mix of facts and fiction. It’s not the official story of a peaceful farmland we were taught in school and it is not pure fiction. It is a truthful tale that may well have been told by wayfaring northern pilgrims during dark winter evenings by the fireplace in ancient Scandinavian long houses, stories since long forgotten. I will start by drawing up a charcoal sketch of facts outlined by cold evidence, then the colors will be added by logical reasoning and speculation, finally the shadows of imagination will complete the tale.

The ridge Fjärås Bräcka. Lake Lygnern to the right and to the left the plain that stretches towards the ocean. On top of the ridge goes the ancient road Via Regia that runs down to the right in the picture.

We live near the south end of a majestic ridge of moraine and gravel deposits, formed during the latest ice age at a temporary suspension of the de-glaciation 13 000 years ago. (By the same time in history the first humans walked over the ice sheet of Bering Sound to colonize the American continent.) The mighty ridge that runs from north to south constitutes a significant feature in the landscape as it rises sharply over the plain of northern Halland across the lake Lygnern valley. At the western foot of the ridge a flat plain, previously a sea bed, stretches out towards the sea.

View from the ridge towards the west, the ocean in the background.

View from the ridge towards east, the Lake Lygnern

At the eastern foot the deep lake Lygnern runs from west to east, 12 miles long, thru a forest covered landscape. Fjärås is the name of the ridge as well as the county and the village. The place is a farmland known all over Sweden for its horseradish. During the era of railroad construction large amounts of gravel and sand was excavated from the ridge, but the golden days are since long gone. The gravel deposits are still in business but at a modest pace, though a brick factory has been added to the landscape. Today it’s a sleepy village for people working in Gothenburg and most farms are either wasteland, or transformed into family horse ranches.

Lufsen our English Cocker Spaniel (Discovery’s “Dressed to Thrill”)
A British sterling silver coin has been found on the ridge, imprinted in Canterbury for Henry III in 1251.

However the area has not always been as insignificant as it is today. When I stand on the ridge and look towards the sea in the west and turn around to see the long lake that stretches towards the horizon in the east, it strikes me that this place has all the features of an ancient strategic stronghold.

To the west was a marshland, to thick to drink, too thin to plough, only accessible by flat bottomed canoes during short periods of the year. To the east, the only option was to go around the lake, which means several days of travel thru impenetrable deep forests undoubtedly inhabited by hostile tribesmen.

Whomever controlled the ridge determined who may pass and of course, the fee that had to be payed. Combine this insight with the archeological findings that points out one of the largest ancient settlements at the time in this part of Sweden and the historical importance of this place comes to light. At the time of the first settlements there were no central government and no laws. Where ever life is present, the urge to gain power over resources grows, as well as the will to defend it. Without the laws of civilization the struggle knows no limits. So the official conception of an ancient peaceful farmland is crushed to the ground and an adventure of power and treachery can begin.

Via Regia, a 5000 year old dirt road just outside our doorstep.

But first we will look into the archeological findings that will support the base of this tale; At the transition between the Bronze and Iron ages the area west of Fjärås was a flat, occasionally flooded meadow of marshland type, in ancient Nordic language; “fiara”. Since the Swedish word for ridge is “ås”, Fjärås means “The ridge by the marshland”. The oldest written Swedish reference is “Fiaerae”, from A.D. 1250. Nowhere in Halland has so many ancient archeological remains been found as in Fjärås, which shows that Fjärås was central for the Bronze- and Iron Age cultures, clearly evidenced by the huge grave field at Li.

West of the ridge, four identified places with archeological remains were destroyed during the first part of the 20th century, as huge amounts of gravel were removed to be used for railroad construction. In 1913 some ancient graves where examined as well as the remains of a smithy from the age of the Vikings. The year after, remains of potsherds, nails, bronze plates, iron slag and flint from the same period was found at a nearby site, along with about twenty millstones in the gravel pit itself. Previously millstones had been observed in the coal mixed soil over the gravel deposits.

In 1925 Elof Lindälv examined another site with black soil and found ceramics, burnt clay, iron slag and flint, interpreted as a settlement or a fire grave field from early Iron Age established on top of a Stone Age settlement.

In the south end of the ridge a grounded flint axe is said to have been found, according to a story told by the village elders. Below on the west slope is a cholera graveyard from the middle of the 18th century. A closer examination of the area would surely result in the discovery of more unknown graves.

More ceramics, grave urns and burnt bones have been found from pre roman iron age 14C-dated to 360-100 BC and the coal has been determined as alder (alnus), still the most common leaf tree in the area. At least 30 dark spots interpreted as pole holes were found in the soil when the road on top of the ridge was remade.  The ancient dirt road Via Regia runs from north to south on top of the ridge, it ends at our ranch and continues south only as an overgrown path thru the forest.

One day in late spring 1945 a railroad worker found a clay pot in the gravel deposit and Gothenburg Archeological Museum was contacted. The clay pot contained burnt human bones, soil and small objects made of iron, bronze and green colored glass. When the area was examined seven fire pits was found, two feet deep and four feet wide, filled with coal mixed soil and burnt stones covered by flagstones. One of the pits contained ornamented bits of a broken clay pot. The pot was dated to late Iron Age.

The pits was described and catalogued as ”fire pits under flat ground”, but only some of them were actual graves while others were remnants after settlements. The chronological connection between the graves and the settlements seems uncertain.  There are indications that an Iron Age settlement was situated on the west slope. Minor remnants after what is believed to have been a Viking age smithy, notes about the finding’s, rapid surveys of settlements/graves, besides presumed cultural layers discovered as the gravel pit progressed; these are the only documented evidences, except for the 1975 survey of the Li grave field. Whether it is remnants of an iron age settlement or a field of fire pit graves on top of a Stone Age settlement is uncertain.

In the book Hallandia Antiqiuia from 1752 the field of grave stones is described as: “like a forest of withered tree stubs.”  The 14C-method dates the grave on top of the ridge to pre roman iron age as well as the remnants of the settlement. Written accounts tells that graves from both Bronze- and Iron Age has been found on the west slope. The present day Li grave field is only a minor remnant of a once monumental grave field.

The Frode stone, a 16 feet tall bauta rock

Fjärås is one of the county’s most well publicized and visited cultural sites. Unfortunately it can also be described as one of the most exploited and destroyed ancient environments in Sweden. The destruction is foremost to be blamed upon the vast gravel deposit excavations during the first half of the 20th century, but also earlier residential buildings are intruding on this sensitive site.

So people lived in the area alright, but how can that justify the claim of an ancient central culture? There is much more evidence to unveil. The next part will tell about the discovery of an ancient settlement that lasted for a thousand years, just half a mile from our horse ranch.

Turn out to pasture

The summer came early this year. After days of rain that blowed in from the sea, the heat finally swept up from the south giving the pastures a perfect green finish. The horses has been walking up and down along the fence that divides the summer pasture from the higher, naturally well drained pasture, the horses lived in during the winter. When we finally opened the gate to let them out in the summer pasture, they hesitated at first of respect to the fence, then Bluebell jumped boldly thru the imaginary forbidden line. They immediately began to graze, taking one mouth full here and there while walking forward at a slowly increasing speed. 

After tasting all the different grass dishes, Bluebell took the lead and began a gallopp around the pasture in all possible routes. As they ran free, memories from their previous home on the vast North Dakota prairies came over them and we could see their smiling faces from a long distance, gosh these horses are happy! After a while the pace slowed down to a slow walk and they began exploring their new pasture, walking in under the trees, smelling the flowers and checking the borders. 

For Bluebell an expanded pasture feels like a relief and a reward for being patient. She has been throwing long looks out into the summer pasture for weeks. She lived her first three and a half years at the Kuntz in North Dakota and has many good memories of friendly humans, countless fellow horses and good vast pastures of tasty prairie grass. To run free on open range as the leader of a small herd of mares is what she dreams of. Now she can feel a taste of that again. A thougt comes into my mind as we stand in the middle of the pasture surrounded by breathing horses; There are too many horses living a stable bound life, with very little chances of getting anything that even resembles a natural horse life at all. My eyes get wet, it’s the strong smell of grass that sticks in my eyes, I won’t admit to anything else.

For Wild Prairie Rose, this is her second summer. Last summer she spent as a newborn exploring the world along with many other horses and her mother Lucky Dust, probably the last true Nokota mare to luckily escape from the TRNP wild-horse-policy. Rosie is strong and happy to be together with her older half sister Bluebell, who truly treats her like a baby sister and we love her like our little baby too. She is learning and growing every day, but always keeps her sweet and friendly personality.

Windflower is now two years old and has developed immensely. When she came to us she was a shy little girl. Now she stands almost as high as Bluebell and she is as smart as she is cool and brave.

When one looks into those big brown horse eyes and she looks back, one can feel how she sees right thru your soul. That friendly and intelligent glimpse, her calm personality and her eager to teach us how to get along with horses, makes you feel special and fortunate.

The connection between Windflower and Alexandra is wonderful, almost spooky. Sometimes when Alexandra walks out to the barn, Windflower spots her and walks up from the pasture, comfortably leaving the small herd behind. As Alexandra picks up a halter and holds it in front of herself, Windflower sticks her own head into it, begging for a moment of fun and learning. If someone asked me 15 years ago how I would like to see our children grow up, I wouldn’t have imagined it could be like this.

The horses just loves fresh grass, they even try to rub it into their skin. If the grass keeps growing out here it might be difficult to find the horses in a month or so, at least if you look at the above picture.

After a long day out in the pasture, the horses always walks back up to their stable by themselves, round it up with a few straws of hay and a sip of cool fresh water. As the sun sets they soon fall asleep and dream nice dreams, of wild horses running free on open range. Early in the morning when we walk out to see them they still lie down inside the stable all three of them, yawning. Horses like to be free, but they also has a natural urge to live in coexistance with humans. Humans all have a long history together with horses, dogs, cats and more. I’m not sure who domesticated whom…

If you look at the picture below Windflower reveals she is just joking about the height of the grass 🙂

Thru the ages there has been different ways to relate to horses. The famous Monty Roberts describes in his book “Shy Boy” his fathers brutal ways of breaking horses. Monty himself represents the opposite, as a boy he befriended wild mustangs out on open range by imitating the horses own ways, the join-up-process as he calls it. The awesome Curt Pate brilliantly teaches the ways of ranch horsemanship and the importance of turning horses out to pasture, living horse life and letting the herd do the job, raising young braves.

Ranchers prefer geldings for ranchwork as they are easy, mares are primarily for raising horse babies and so are stallions. Keeping horses for work on a ranch or for competition means you must find effective ways to prepare a horse for the job that he must learn, there’s no time for spending weeks in a round pen. The oldtime horse cultures actually had a similar lack of time, spending the day working for survival, but as they brought their favourite horse along 24-7 their souls grew together.

Keeping horses for no particular reason, other than the cher joy of it, or because some inner voice tells you that a human soul needs to be with horses, gives you more options as the time factor is taken out of the equation. Well, one still has to work for a living and be away from home for long hours, but one can use several months instead of days to get a horse ready. Giving both horse and human time to think and adapt, eventually it all comes natural and you realize there are no tricks or methods, just common horse sense. Something thats already there, embedded in our consciousness for thousands of years of coexistance.

Horses and roe deers

Late this afternoon a roe deer came for a visit and a snack of fresh grass. The horses made no business of that, probably didn’t want to scare her off. After a while the roe deer walked under the electric fence and back into the woods. Last summer she (or some of her “collegues”) had two kids grazing in the pasture all summer, we saw them last week too. Good grass tends to be popular.

A new weekend

The horses are advancing in a steady pace. When we saddle up Windflower she stands quiet without resistance, without being tied up, looking forward for some attention just the way it should be.

Alexandra can now stand up in the stirrups to let Windflower feel the shift of load, she is getting the hang of it, she does not look surprised at all any more. One of the first things she got accustomed to was things moving around her head, so that is no concern at all. Very soon it’s time to get mounted. 

The dandelions are  blooming so the spring is also advancing, even if this one was found on an unnatural “hot spot”.

The fruit trees we planted last fall are waking up, apple, plums and cherries.

The grass always seems better on the other side of the fence, one mystery horses has been wondering about ever since fences were invented. (I wonder if there will be a genetic predominance of horses with long necks and flat noses in a thousand years from now? 😉 Soon it’s time to open up the summer pasture, give it a couple of weeks so the grass has a chance to be ahead of the “herbivores”.

Bluebell Star has become a real lady and her temper and personality is as sharp and sweet as she looks. She is also advancing in her training at a slow but steady pace, not as easily as Windflower though, she needs to think more, not so suspicious only careful and thorough.

Our good neighbor south of our ranch are taking out the spruce timber that fell down during the storms last winter, a new (?) repeated weather standard the last seven years.

In the evening some clouds rolled in from the west as the sun was setting behind the forest.

And the horses finished their supper on the front porch in their usual places, Windflower to the left, Bluebell in the middle and Wild Prairie Rose to the right. Funny how horses and humans share the same compulsive liking of habits and procedures, it’s probably something about the herd life.

We have company

As we came out to feed the horses at dawn this Sunday morning the horses had company of a moose cow and her yearling. Our alpha mare Bluebell stood in front of her “herd” watching their moves with pinpointed ears and full concentration.

When we first came to settle down at the south end of Sotardalen in an old steers pasture six years ago the locals told us the area was known as a frequent moose habitat and warned us about keeping horses up there by the woods, because horses and moose usually don’t get along. A moose with calves can be aggressive.

Nokota horses still speak fluent wildlife lingo, so they don’t have the difficulties to communicate as domesticated horses might have :-). (I’ve seen moose at the same spot when the neighbor’s horses stood watching on the other side of the fence, the horses didn’t react at all so the moose looked confused not knowing whether to stay or leave.)

When we were building the house the pasture was an open range. We often saw moose and roe deers grazing at dusk and dawn. There were a few occasions when we saw moose sleeping in the tall grass fifty yards from the site. Later we set up fences to host horses from the local riding school at summer, but left a corridor unfenced so the moose could cross. That’s where the mooses were seen this morning. Moose has also been grazing inside the fenced pasture and we have seen them jump five feet tall fences from a standing position at ease, magnificent animals. In Sweden it’s the Eurasian Elk that is the correct nomenclature (Alces Alces), but there are more subspecies, like the Western Moose in North Dakota.

Every autumn in October the moose is legitimate for hunting and there are a few weeks of hunters, gun shots and runaway dogs all over the place, we usually invite the moose for a safe refuge here on our pasture, but so far they have managed by themselves. No fallen moose has ever been carried out our road, what we know of.

This morning a moose cow and her yearling stood grazing the bushes and probably came out of the woods from the west and were crossing our pasture to get to another of her yearlings that we saw and heard on the dirt road north of our stable. Our Nokota horses and the moose family both reacted with curiosity and caution.

Buebell took the lead and curiously walked up posing proudly and telling the moose to back off. The moose and her yearling eventually made their way, crossed the dirt road and walked into the forest. Just a few minutes later another yearling came out from the west and crossed the pasture. It is unusual for a moose to have three calves.

It took a while before the horses came up to eat hay by the stable, but then they did not seem much bothered. This moose family now knows that the proud Nokota alpha mare Bluebell Star will not let any trespassers enter her territory without appropriate action, the word may spread across the forests of Sotardalen.

The moose and roe deer still have the forest south of us where they can roam free. The storms early this winter brought down a whole lot of trees. The last week the timber has been cut up and that is probably why the moose felt anxious about crossing there, but that will go by.