Treasure Exhibition

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While staying in Sussex, I had the chance to visit my Treasure comic, which is on display at the Redoubt Fortress Museum in Eastbourne.

The comic is part of an exhibition on treasure, presenting artefacts, books and images from local collections.

There was plenty there to keep a prehistorian happy.

A palaeolithic flint axe…

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A bronze age socketed axe…

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Dr A’s favourite, an Iron Age chalk head:

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This was a thoughtful, beautifully designed exhibition, asking visitors to come to their own definition of treasure.

And it was great to see my comic printed on professional display panels – really big!

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Fran Hallaristninger till Hallmaninger

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Från Hällaristninger till Hällmåninger (och Fångstgropar)/From rock art to rock painting (and elk trapping pits)

In my last blog post I wrote about a field trip to a series of Swedish rock art sites including Nämforsen, Glōsa and Gärde – all situated near rapids or fast flowing water. On that field trip we visited another site at the end of the day, Fångsjōn, and that is where I’ll begin this post. Unlike the rock art sites discussed in the last post, Fångsjōn is a rock painting site. This distinction is important: hällaristninger (rock art) is denoted by carved or pecked rock surfaces; hällmåninger (rock paintings) are denoted by direct painting (usually using something like red ochre) on the rock surface. The two forms of art are likely to date from the same periods in the late Mesolithic, but the contrast in landscape location was immediately obvious: while the rock art in the region was located on horizontal rock surfaces near fast flowing rapids, the rock paintings at Fångsjōn were located on a vertical cliff surface on a still lake edge.

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The images at Fångsjōn are mainly of elk painted in red ochre. It was amazing to see these images – very like the Finnish rock paintings I’d read about. Obviously the preservation of these images in these northern climes is remarkable, but probably the most interesting thing for me was the significance of place: the repetition of a series of painted images at this location, each overlaying the other, to produce in places a smear of red ochre. Marking presence.

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On the following day we visited another rock painting at Hōgberget. Like Fångsjōn, the images at Hōgberget are painted on a vertical cliff, though this time presently located in thick forestry. Probably the most remarkable aspect of Hōgberget is the location of the painted images close to a curious crack in the rock surface. The crack has the appearance of a carving of an enormous reindeer, and the painted images seem to be located on its back. Again – like Fångsjōn – the images were overlaid and smeared, but were of a series of elk.

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As I said in the last post we were in elk-country, and at Hōgberget I had the chance to see an archaeological feature that I was unfamiliar with – the fångstgropar or elk hunting pit. There is not much call for these in Britain (as we don’t have elk!). The hunting pits are usually found in groups, each trap is funnel shaped, and is meant to hobble the unwary and stilt-legged elk before they can be dispatched by hunters. Excavated examples date from the Mesolithic to the Viking period.

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The fångstgropar at Hōgberget were situated more or less directly in front of the rock painting site, and are likely to be Mesolithic in date, suggesting an interesting connection between rock art and rock painting sites and the hunting of elk.

The trip to Northern Sweden was organised by Ingrid Fuglestvedt and Jan Magne Gjerde as part of the Meetings Make History Project. It was a great opportunity to be part of this project and see the wonderful rock art of Scandinavia.

I am now looking forward to my next trip north – to the ACRA III Conference in Alta, in the Norwegian arctic circle, next month. Look out for more blog posts on Scandinavian rock art!

Dr A

A Defensive Attitude

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We’ve recently returned from a visit to East Sussex, where we stayed in the town of Rye.

It is a beautiful town, packed with medieval buildings. But signs of a far-from-peaceful history are evident as you walk around the town and local landscape.

Rye was part of the confederation of the Cinque Ports, which provided men and ships for the Crown (before the existence of a standing navy).

Part of the defence of the nation, Rye itself came under frequent attack. After the town was set on fire by the French in the 14th century, substantial walls and towers were built to defend the town.

Still surviving today are the Landgate and Ypres Towers (now an excellent museum).

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The 16th century saw the construction of Camber Castle  to defend Rye Harbour – though the silting of the harbour soon made it obsolete.

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Camber Castle – Sussex Wildlife Trust

The  Napoleonic Wars saw the creation of two Martello towers on the edge of Rye – this one now standing rather forlorn on the edge of a caravan park.

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Even more recently, pillboxes or blockhouses were built to defend the coast from possible invasion during WWII. (We made an interesting discovery at this site, which I’ll write about in a future post).

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The final line of defence on the Rye shore is not against invaders, but against the sea itself.

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260,000 tonnes of rock have been shipped from Norway to protect the people and properties of Rye. And while these rocks defend, they also nurture the wildlife that lives on the shingle and salt marshes.

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Dr H

Photos: Mr X

Meetings Make History 2015: rock art and rapids

In 2013 I blogged about a trip to western Norway as part of the Oslo-based ‘Meetings Make History’ project. Last month the ‘Meetings Make History’ project team met for the last time (sadly) in the Jämtland and Västernorrland regions, eastern Sweden. Our meeting took place close to Nämforsen.

We began with a day of intense discussion at the Nämforsen museum. Our purpose was to discuss the book manuscript written by the director of the ‘Meetings Make History’ project, Ingrid Fuglestvedt. The book deals with rock art, process and identity in the Stone Age (particularly late Mesolithic) populations of northern Scandinavia. It was amazing to discuss the book manuscript in such detail, and I am convinced it will become a classic of Scandinavian rock art literature; it is sure to provoke debate and attract admiration in equal measure. After our discussion we were rewarded with fantastic views of the Ångermanälven River.

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One of the advantages of visiting Sweden in summer is the long hours of daylight. After the culinary delights of Swedish Pizza (a unique dish, unlike the Italian-style pizza I am accustomed to), in the evening we were able to visit the rock art at Nämforsen. Nämforsen is one of the key rock art sites in northern Scandinavia made famous by the pioneering work of Gustaf Hallström, and in the English-speaking world by the interpretative endeavours of Chris Tilley.

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The Nämforsen site consists of three separate sites on three large flat outcrops in the Ångermanälven River: Laxön, Brådön and Notön. The first thing that strikes you as you visit Nämforsen is the location: the sites are situated close to the rapids in the river; though the river is presently dammed for hydroelectric power you still gain a sense of the force, power and presence of the river. Two of the sites (Brådön and Notön) are inaccessible due to the force of the rapids, but the Laxön site alone is spectacular with its series of images of elk, boats and the occasional fish. Particularly clear is the transformative logic of the Mesolithic rock artists: one kind of image is quickly transformed into another, elks become boats, and boats become elk. Notice how the antlers of the elk on the right appear boat-like:

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Elk were to be the motif of the visit, as I was to find out the following day…..

The second day was to be a full-day fieldtrip looking at the rock art sites of Jämtland. Coming from one of the most manicured landscapes in western Europe (southern England), in which the wildest animal it is possible to encounter is the badger, I was struck by the scale and ruggedness of the landscape, and the variety of large animals we spotted on our travels: at least 4 elk, a herd of semi-domestic reindeer (Jämtland is part of Saami territory and the reindeer are partly domesticated but allowed to forage wild), several cranes.

Out first call was at Glösa. Here is the entrance to the Glösa outdoor-museum:

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Yes those are elks feet suspended above the entrance way: we were in the land of the elk people.

Our guide demonstrated the usefulness of the elk by dressing in replica prehistoric costume made from elk skins. He also wore an elk-tooth necklace. His scarf, by contrast, is a Pine-Marten pelt.

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We were treated to pit-cooked salmon (perfectly cooked and served with Mesolithic-style tools), and elk-stew (though this vegetarian author passed on this delicacy).

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The Glösa rock art site was the reason for our visit and it did not disappoint. Situated by a forest stream running into Alsen lake, the rock art site was all the more spectacular as the stream was in full spate, running over the images of elk. The elk images are especially detailed and several were carved with internal organs: heart, lungs, stomach. I’d read about this phenomenon but this was the first time I’d seen images like this outside the pages of a book.

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Again, like Nämforsen, the location of Glösa was astounding, and the theme of rock art and rushing water appeared to be a consistency of the region.

Our next site was Gärde, where again the location was spectacular. At Gärde two rock art sites are located next to the Gärdeforsen rapids in the Gärdesån River. The first site, dating to the late Mesolithic, is of a series of elk, complete with animal tracks:

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The second site, of early Mesolithic date, was situated in the centre of the River and was accessed by a bridge. Here a series of large animals were depicted: elk and bear. These larger animal figures, usually made by polishing and rubbing, are distinctive of an early period, and are typically considered to date from c.8000 BC. Again I’d read about them, but had not seen them before: they are strikingly different from the other later rock art images we had seen.

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Once again the Gärde site brought home to me one of the joys of studying rock art, and one of the key aspects of rock art sites: their spectacular landscape location. The landscape of Jämtland alone was amazing, but the rock art sites somehow crystallized the power of that landscape.

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Dr A