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CAIRNS OF THE DEAD

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Forgotten monuments of Northern Sweden

The larger of the Spir Mountain Cairns from NW. Photo by Carl L. Thunberg 2014-06-26. (CC BY-NC)

The larger of the Spir Mountain Cairns from NW. Photo by Carl L. Thunberg 2014-06-26. (CC BY-NC)

Carl L. Thunberg
Carl L. Thunberg is a Swedish archaeologist and historian, born in Stockholm 1963, with master’s degrees completed at the Universities of Gothenburg and Uppsala. His two main areas of specialisation are ancient Scandinavian monuments and the transitional period between the Viking Age and the Nordic Middle Ages. Academia Page

The Spir Mountain cairns are located near to the Swedish city of Örnsköldsvik in Norrland. These two exceptionally well preserved Early Bronze Age cairns are arguably the finest examples of this region, and aesthetically, they are equal to the best prehistoric monuments that Sweden has to offer.

The Spir Mountain; the view in a southeasterly direction. Photo by Carl L. Thunberg 2014-06-26. (CC BY-NC)

Forgotten monuments in a wild landscape

Norrland’s ancient monuments are often – in comparison to southern Sweden – relatively inaccessible, and to reach these particular examples one must climb a rugged mountain covered with pine trees.

In the main, the information concerning the most northerly Swedish prehistoric sites is outdated, and was brought together in the 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g. Ekdahl 1827-1830; Sidenbladh 1864, 1867, 1868; Olsson 1911, 1914). However, these inventories are often the only references available, as can be seen from the FMIS system of the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Monuments to the dead

Map over the Spir Mountain (Spirberget) with the cairns marked. Through the FMIS system by Carl L. Thunberg 2015-02-28. (CC BY-NC)

The vast majority of the cairns appear to have been built as monuments to the dead, mainly during the southern Scandinavian Bronze Age; circa 1800-500 BC. They occupy prominent positions overlooking the surrounding area, and some researchers speculate that they had a function as tribal markers for family group territories (Baudou 1959, 1968; Burenhult et al 1999).

Unlike the cairns from the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age which appear to contain cremation burials, the Early Bronze Age examples like one of the Spir Mountain cairns (RAÄ Grundsunda 109:1), have internal burial chambers with cists containing skeletal remains, accompanied by various grave goods. In some cases the cairns have been used repeatedly, and have been expanded out from their original structures (ibid).

Many of the cairns were constructed near or overlooking what was once the sea shore; some 30-50 metres above present sea level (ibid), and it is interesting to note that Spir Mountain had once been an island within a bay during the Bronze Age.

Norrland’s coastal cairn-zone is usually considered to extend from northern Uppland to Piteå in Norrbotten, a distance of about 860 kilometres. The coastal cairn-zone in Ångermanland is particularly rich, and includes about 700 registered sites.

Carl L. Thunberg by the larger of the Spir Mountain Cairns. Photo Sven Käll 2014-06-26. (CC BY-NC)

Two remarkable structures

During the investigations of prehistoric sites in Ångermanland, the project reached the Spir Mountain and its cairns in 2013. The first visit was an overwhelming experience, standing before two remarkable structures of dry stone masonry with spectacular views across the surrounding landscape. The larger of the cairns (13m in diameter) is exceptionally well preserved, and almost perfectly circular. The stone required for construction must have required an immense investment of labour. The smaller cairn is just to the east and is 6m in diameter.

There are few known settlements that can be associated with the coastal cairns, but it is likely that the area’s inhabitants must have had an economy based on fishing and seal hunting (Baudou 1968). In Västernorrland there are cairns dating from the Earlier Bronze Age through to the Iron Age, with some still in use as late as the Viking Age, long after the tradition disappeared in many other places in Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia (Baudou 1959, 1968; George & Vinberg 2006).

Although the groups of coastal cairns in Norrland, with their contextual continuity, must represent the cultural remnants of a resident population, until further modern research takes place in this landscape it is difficult to fully interpret the sites and identify the cultures that created them.


Link to map and satellite photoshttp://www.hitta.se/karta/partner?s=014c725f

Link to the archaeological search engine of FMIS: http://www.fmis.raa.se/cocoon/fornsok/search.html

Link to the RAÄ page for Carl L. Thunberg and the Spirmountain Cairns: http://www.raa.se/aktuellt/vara-evenemang/arkeologidagen/till-arrangemangen/angermanland/spirbergsrosena-en-majestatisk-fornlamningsplats-i-ornskoldsvik/

Link to Carl L. Thunberg’s Academia.edu page: http://gu-se.academia.edu/CarlLThunberg

References

  • Baudou, E. 1959. Till frågan om de norrländska kuströsenas datering. Fornvännen: Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research (1959): 161-176. KVHAA.
  • Baudou, E. 1968. Forntida bebyggelse i Ångermanlands kustland. Arkeologiska undersökningar av ångermanländska kuströsen. Arkiv för norrländsk hembygdsforskning XVII. Härnösand.
  • Burenhult, G (ed.). 1999. Arkeologi i Norden. Bokförlaget Natur & Kultur. Stockholm.
  • George, O. & Vinberg, A. 2006. Arkeologisk undersökning av gravröse vid Älandsfjärden. Rapport 2006:10. Länsmuseet Västernorrland & RAÄ. Härnösand.
  • Ekdahl, N. J. 1827-1830. Berättelse till Kongl. Witterhets, Historie och Antiqvitets Academien om de Wettenskapliga Forskningsresor, som blifvit företagna åren 1827, 1828, 1829, 1830 i Norrland … (etc). Antikvarisk-topografiska arkivet: N. J. Ekdahls samlingar.
  • Olsson, E. 1911. Berättelse öfver arkeologiska undersökningar i Ångermanland. KVHAA.
  • Olsson, E. 1914. Översikt av de fasta fornlämningarna i Ångermanland. Fornvännen: Journal of Swedish Antiquarian Research (1914): 49-80. KVHAA.
  • Sidenbladh, K. 1864. Några fornminnen i Norra Ångermanland, antecknade sommaren 1864 av Karl Sidenbladh Phil.stud.Norrl. KVHAA.
  • Sidenbladh, K. 1867. Berättelse till Kongl. Witterhets, Historie och Antiqvitets Akademin om de antikvariska undersökningar gjorda under 1867. KVHAA.
  • Sidenbladh, K. 1868. Fornlemningar i Ångermanland och Medelpad 1864-1868. KVHAA.

GOBLEKI TEPE

Having been following this discovery for awhile now I am very, very doubtful this is man’s “First or Oldest Religion.” Or even the oldest Neolithic religion. It may be however the oldest yet discovered example of the ruins of a place involving complex, organized religious practice.

As for gaming and fiction. discoveries like this would make for amazingly good story settings and plot generation origin points. As a matter of fact now that I think about it I’ll likely incorporate a Göbekli Tepe type site into either my  Other World or Paneden gaming milieus(s), and into my short story, The Vengeance of Tôl Karuţha.

The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion

Is Turkey’s “Stonehenge” evidence of the oldest religion in the world?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in December 2012. It has been updated.—Ed.


On a hill known as Göbekli Tepe (“Potbelly Hill”) in southeastern Turkey, excavations led by Klaus Schmidt have uncovered several large megalithic enclosures that date between 10,000 and 8000 B.C.E., the dawn of civilization and the Neolithic age. Each of these circular enclosures, which many have described as Turkey’s “Stonehenge,” consists of ten to twelve massive stone pillars surrounding two larger monoliths positioned in the middle of the structure. There are no village remains at or near the Göbekli Tepe ruins, suggesting that the unique site was a ceremonial center exclusively used for the practice of the Neolithic religion of local hunter-gatherer groups.Given the early age of the site, equally surprising are the varied and often highly elaborate carvings that adorn the pillars of the Göbekli Tepe ruins. Among the pillars are detailed and often very realistic depictions of animal figures, including vultures and scorpions, lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes, and other birds and reptiles. In addition, some of the massive monoliths are carved with stylized anthropomorphic details—including arms, legs and clothing—that give the impression of large super-human beings watching over the enclosures.

The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.


In his article “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization,” Biblical scholar Ben Witherington III presents Göbekli Tepe. With his article “The Search for the Holy Grail: Misguided from the Start” in Mysteries of the Bible: From the Garden of Eden to the Shroud of Turin, Witherington joins an international team of experts presenting the Bible’s greatest enigmas.


Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins have uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones have also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.*

To learn more about the Göbekli Tepe ruins and Neolithic religion, read Ben Witherington III’s article “In the Beginning: Religion at the Dawn of Civilization” as it appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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