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.

West Coast Lighthouses

View from Hamneskär - The medieval fortress Carlsten on Marstrand

Our Nokota horses emigrated from the prairies of North Dakota to our small horse ranch on the west coast of Sweden in late November and are now true members of our ancient seafaring Viking tribe.

Thinking about these three Nokota horses and how they truly light up our lives, it crosses my mind that there are three other light sources not so far from our ranch that’s had an important impact on the life at the Swedish west coast for a long time.

I had the rare opportunity to visit some of the lighthouse islands along the coast a few years ago when I was involved in doing some technical designs for various building restoration projects including reverse osmosis fresh water systems (turning sea water into drinking water) and other HVAC installations. I had the chance to take some photos and now I cannot resist sharing them as a way to show you the surroundings, which we share with our Nokota horses.

 

The lighthouse Pater Noster is situated on the island of Hamneskär at the coast, north of Gothenburg. It belongs to a group of 97 islands known by the medieval mariners to be particularly difficult to navigate, full of treacherous reefs and strong currents. Thus requiring many a prayer for a safe passage, thereof the name Pater Noster. It is still only possible to land in calm weather. At one time we had to use a helicopter to reach the island at an urgent construction inspection. 

The lighthouse was thoroughly restored a few years ago and the island is open for visitors. The old buildings contain a small conference center and a hostel.

View from Hamneskär - The easternmost part of the North Sea

Pater Noster - The lighthouse was recently renovated

View from the Pater Noster lighthouse

The buildings on Hamneskär as seen from the Pater Noster lighthouse

Nidingen - the old twin lighthouses

Nidingen is the next lighthouse island, situated 5½ nautical miles off the coastline, which is just a few miles from our horse ranch.

Nidingen is a small flat grass covered island surrounded by treacherous sand reefs that has always been a danger for mariners. Built by the Danes in 1635 as the first twin lighthouse in the world. In 1645 it became the first Swedish lighthouse. The stones from the old lighthouses is believed to come from the medevial fortress of Varberg.

Nidingen is also an important bird watching station and every year 10 000 birds are ringed. Nidingen is a nature reserve and the only place known in Sweden where there are nesting kittywakes (Rissa Tridactyla). It is however open for visitors and has a modest conference center and a hostel. Highly recommended for any visitor.

Nidingen - the newer lighthouse is still operational

Nidingen - well kept buildings

Tylön lighthouse - as seen from the mainland

Tylön, the final lighthouse island situated 70 miles south of our horse ranch, just off the coast from Halmstad. The Tylön island is mainly covered by green meadows and is a nature reserve well known among nesting birds like eider, black-backed gull and herring gull. Tern, eared owl and peregrine falcon are also among the visitors.

The lighthouse was built 1870 but is no longer in use, it was closed 1968. The island was used by fishermen during the seventeenhundreds and there are also ancient remnants on the island dating back to the bronze age.

Visits to Tylön is prohibited during most of the year for the protection of the birds and the buildings are more or less decaying.

Our transportation the Sea Rescue vessel - coming in to Tylön

The shores of Tylön

Tylön - Birds only

Tylön - residence of the former lighthouse keepers

Tylön island with the lighthouse

The lighthouse on Tylön