Digs & Discoveries
Archaeology|September/October 2021
Roman marble cutters, anglo-saxon giant, neanderthal hearing… and much more

VIKING FANTASY ISLAND

On the southern coast of the small Danish island of Hjarnø, just east of the mainland lies a curious collection of stones arranged to form the outlines of boats. More than 1,000 such monuments, called ship settings, which often include burials, have been found throughout the Baltic region. Some of the oldest examples, dating to as early as 1300 b.c., are located in southern Sweden. Based on grave goods uncovered in a 1936 excavation, the Hjarnø ship settings are believed to date to the late Iron Age (a.d. 600–800) or Viking Age (a.d. 800–1000). The tradition, which had faded, was revived during this period, says Erin Sebo, a medievalist at Flinders University who led a survey of the Hjarnø settings in 2018.

At first glance, these settings, known as the Kalvestene, or “calf stones”—because they are located on a stretch of land fit only for grazing livestock—seem unremarkable. The 10 ship shapes are neither particularly numerous nor big. Each measure is around six feet long, with one exception that is 40 feet long. Yet, for reasons that have never been fully understood, the Kalvestene attained a surprising level of renown in medieval Scandinavia. The earliest surviving mention of the ship settings comes from Saxo Grammaticus, a twelfth-century Danish theologian based in Lund, which is now in southern Sweden. Saxo identifies the Kalvestene as the burial place of a legendary king named Hirani, a peasant who was crowned after writing a great poem upon the death of Frothi, the previous king. After Hirani was slain by Frothi’s son, Saxo writes, he was buried in a barrow, or mound, on Hjarnø.

Saxo likely never saw the Kalvestene, says Sebo, as no evidence exists that there was ever a barrow there. Still, his account was frequently repeated over the centuries. Among those to spread the tale was a professor and antiquarian at the University of Copenhagen named Ole Worm, who published a description and drawing of the Kalvestene in 1650. Worm recorded at least 20 settings, including three that were circular, along with what appear to be small cairns. “It’s very unusual to have an early modern description of a Viking site,” says Sebo. “Worm’s description had the potential to reveal what the site was like nearly four hundred years ago, perhaps before significant erosion had taken place or people had stolen stones for building.” However, neither the 1936 excavation nor a 2009 magnetometer survey had detected anything beyond the 10 ship settings currently visible.

In their recent survey, Sebo and a team of archaeologists documented all the extant stones took aerial photographs and used side-scan sonar to search for offshore remains. They detected two raised areas that might indicate previously unidentified settings and may correlate with some of those illustrated by Worm. When they compared their overall results with his drawing, Sebo says, they found that parts of the rendering are so accurate that Worm must have seen the site firsthand. But other parts appear to have been greatly exaggerated. This mix of faithful representation and invention is representative of the nature of academic inquiry of the age—and of Worm’s work in other fields. For example, he established that purported unicorn horns were actually narwhal tusks, but reportedly argued that folk wisdom attributing poison-neutralizing properties to the “horns” was sound. “In the early modern period, you are just starting to see the beginning of modern ideas of scientific accuracy,” says Sebo.

She suggests Worm embellished his drawing so the Kalvestene would resemble other landscapes of Viking Age ship settings in Denmark, which usually include cairns and settings of various shapes. In doing so, she argues, he ignored what she thinks makes the Kalvestene so interesting—the uniform shape and size of all but one of the settings. Unlike others in Denmark, they most closely resemble the much earlier settings found in southern Sweden. Perhaps, suggests Sebo, Swedish sailors who stopped at the island on their way to a nearby trading center on the mainland brought word of this style of grave field, which was then adopted by Danish locals. Centuries later, reports of the Kalvestene and the legend of King Hiarni may have been carried by sailors back to Saxo in southern Sweden, where he made them famous.

—DANIEL WEISS

KALEIDOSCOPIC WALLS

Researchers have gained new insight into the efficiency of Roman marble production and decoration strategies employed by Roman architects. Because marble was expensive, Romans often used thin slabs as veneers, attaching them to walls built of less valuable material such as bricks. A recent study led by Cees Passchier, a geologist at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, examined 54 marble panels excavated from a second-century a.d. villa in Ephesus, Turkey. Using 3-D modeling software, Passchier and his team found that 40 of the panels had been precisely cut into 0.6-inch slices from a single block of cipollino verde, a type of greenish marble known for its elaborate wavy folds, using a water-powered sawmill. The researchers determined that the slabs were not randomly hung on the walls. Instead, sections of the block cut one after the other was mounted next to each other in pairs, like opposing pages of a book. The marble’s natural patterns created kaleidoscope-like symmetrical designs. Passchier’s team also determined that the whole process, from cutting to polishing to transportation, was extremely efficient, resulting in only 5 percent of all slabs being broken, a figure on par with present-day marble production.

—JASON URBANUS

FOR ETERNITY

The remains of a man and woman who were buried in a loving embrace have been unearthed from a cemetery in northern China’s Shanxi Province. The burial dates to the Northern Wei Dynasty (a.d. 386–534) and is the first tomb with a couple embracing to have been discovered in China. According to Qian Wang, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University’s College of Dentistry, the man likely died first and the woman, who was buried wearing a ring on her left ring finger, then sacrificed herself so that they might be interred together. Wang notes that, at the time, the practice of committing suicide for love was featured in a number of popular stories.

—DANIEL WEISS

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