Rök runestone

The Vikings erected the Rök runestone out of fear of a climate catastrophe

The Vikings erected a runestone out of fear of a climate catastrophe

Rök runestone
The Rök runes. Credit: Helge Andersson

Several passages on the Rök stone - the world's most famous Viking Age runic monument - suggest that the inscription is about battles and for over a hundred years, researchers have been trying to connect the inscription with heroic deeds in war. Now, thanks to an interdisciplinary research project, a new interpretation of the inscription is being presented. The study shows that the inscription deals with an entirely different kind of battle: the conflict between light and darkness, warmth and cold, life and death.

The Rök runestone, erected in Östergötland around 800 CE, is the world's most famous runestone from the Viking Age, but has also proven to be one of the most difficult to interpret. This new interpretation is based on a collaboration between researchers from several disciplines and universities.

"The key to unlocking the inscription was the interdisciplinary approach. Without these collaborations between textual analysis, archaeology, history of religions and runology, it would have been impossible to solve the riddles of the Rök runestone," says Per Holmberg, professor in Swedish at the University of Gothenburg, who led the study.

A previous climate catastrophe

The study is based on new archaeological research describing how badly Scandinavia suffered from a previous climate catastrophe with lower average temperatures, crop failures, hunger and mass extinctions. Bo Gräslund, professor in Archaeology at Uppsala University, points to several reasons why people may have feared a new catastrophe of this kind:

"Before the Rök runestone was erected, a number of events occurred which must have seemed extremely ominous: a powerful solar storm coloured the sky in dramatic shades of red, crop yields suffered from an extremely cold summer, and later a solar eclipse occurred just after sunrise. Even one of these events would have been enough to raise fears of another Fimbulwinter," says Bo Gräslund.

Nine riddles

According to the researchers' new interpretation now being published, the inscription consists of nine riddles. The answer to five of these riddles is "the Sun". One is a riddle asking who was dead but now lives again. The remaining four riddles are about Odin and his warriors.

Olof Sundqvist, professor in History of Religions at Stockholm University, explains the connection:

"The powerful elite of the Viking Age saw themselves as guarantors for good harvests. They were the leaders of the cult that held together the fragile balance between light and darkness. And finally at Ragnarök, they would fight alongside Odin in the final battle for the light."

Parallels with other Old Norse texts

According to the researchers, several points in the inscription have clear parallels with other Old Norse texts that no one has previously noted.

"For me, it's been almost like discovering a new literary source from the Viking Age. Sweden's answer to the Icelandic Poetic Edda!" says Henrik Williams, professor in Scandinavian Languages with a specialty in Runology at Uppsala University.

 

The Rök runestone. Credit: Helge Andersson

Links to article and other media

The Rök runestone and the end of the world (Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies): https://doi.org/10.33063/diva-401040

English translation of the inscription, with the answer to the nine riddles with textual parallels on Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon poetry (CC-BY: Henrik Williams, Per Holmberg, Bo Gräslund, Olof Sundqvist)
(Choose English): https://hum.gu.se/aktuellt/Nyheter/fulltext//svensk-oversattning-av-rokstenens-text.cid1668443

Audio recording of Henrik Williams reading the inscription (CC-BY: Henrik Williams): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:R%C3%B6k_runestone_interpretation_2020.opus

Press release from the University of Gothenburg.


Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta
Archaeological findings of Levänluhta in the Finnish National Museum's exhibition. In the front arm rings and necklaces found from the burial site, made out of copper alloy. Credit: Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä

The Levänluhta water burial site, dating back to the Iron Age (300-800 CE), is one of Finland's most famous archaeological sites. Nearly one hundred individuals, mainly women or children, were buried in a lake located at Isokyrö in SW Finland, during the Iron Age. Some of the deceased were accompanied by arm rings and necklaces made out of copper alloy, bronze or brass.

Style of jewellery domestic but material from abroad

"The origin of the metals used in these pieces of jewellery was determined on the basis of the objects' geochemical and lead isotope compositions. The jewellery of the deceased is stylistically typical Finnish Iron Age jewellery, making it probable that they were cast in local workshops. However, the metals used to make these objects are unlikely to be originally from the region, since copper ores had not yet been discovered here during the Iron Age," says Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a postdoctoral researcher.

Up to now, archaeologists have assumed that copper used in the Iron Age came mainly from the copper ores discovered in southern Scandinavia. However, this interpretation has in recent years been called into question, since the copper found in archaeological metal discoveries in Sweden has also been determined to be imported.

In a study conducted in collaboration between archaeologists at the University of Helsinki and the Geological Survey of Finland, the origin of the bronze and brass jewellery found at Levänluhta was investigated by comparing their geochemical composition and lead isotope ratios to known copper ores in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Copper tracks lead to southern Europe

"The results demonstrate that the copper used in the objects was not from Finland or the nearby regions; rather, it has travelled to Finland along extensive exchange networks, most likely from southern Europe," says Holmqvist-Sipilä.

Based on the lead isotope ratios, the copper in the objects has its origins in the copper ores found in Greece and Bulgaria. These regions produced a large quantity of copper in the Bronze and Iron Age, which spread around Europe as various object forms, distributed as presents, loot and merchandise. Metals were also recycled by melting old objects into raw material for new casts. It may be possible that metals that ended up in Finland during the Bronze Age were recycled in the Levänluhta region.

The findings of this project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, demonstrate that products of the copper exchange network of continental Europe also reached Finland across the Baltic Sea, thus making it possible to link the region with the extensive copper exchange system known to have extended throughout Europe. The results also illustrate the temporally and technologically multi-layered nature of prehistoric metal artefacts: raw materials found their way here through a number of hands, most likely over a long period of time and across very great distances. In domestic artisan workshops, these metals of international origin were manufactured into pieces of jewellery in domestic Iron Age fashion, perhaps embodying the local identity and place of residence of the bearer.

 

Press release from the University of Helsinki


birch bark chewing gums

Chewing gums reveal the oldest Scandinavian human DNA

Chewing gums reveal the oldest Scandinavian human DNA

birch bark chewing gums
This is an excavation of the site in the 1990's. Credit: Per Persson/Stockholm University

The first humans who settled in Scandinavia more than 10,000 years ago left their DNA behind in ancient chewing gums, which are masticated lumps made from birch bark pitch. This is shown in a new study conducted at Stockholm University and published in Communications Biology.

There are few human bones of this age, close to 10 000 years old, in Scandinavia, and not all of them have preserved enough DNA for archaeogenetic studies. In fact, the DNA from these newly examined chewing gums is the oldest human DNA sequenced from this area so far. The DNA derived from three individuals, two females and one male, creates an exciting link between material culture and human genetics.

Ancient chewing gums are as of now an alternative source for human DNA and possibly a good proxy for human bones in archaeogenetic studies. The investigated pieces come from Huseby-Klev, an early Mesolithic hunter-fisher site on the Swedish west coast. The sites excavation was done in the early 1990's, but at this time it was not possible to analyse ancient human DNA at all, let alone from non-human tissue. The masticates were made out of birch bark tar and used as glue in tool production and other types of technology during the Stone Age.

"When Per Persson and Mikael Maininen proposed to look for hunter-gatherer DNA in these chewing gums from Huseby Klev we were hesitant but really impressed that archaeologists took care during the excavations and preserved such fragile material", says Natalija Kashuba, who was affiliated to The Museum of Cultural History in Oslo when she performed the experiments in cooperation with Stockholm University.

"It took some work before the results overwhelmed us, as we understood that we stumbled into this almost 'forensic research', sequencing DNA from these mastic lumps, which were spat out at the site some 10 000 years ago!" says Natalija Kashuba. Today Natalija is a Ph.D. student at Uppsala University.

Exciting link between material culture and human genetics

The results show that, genetically, the individuals whose DNA was found share close genetic affinity to other hunter-gatherers in Sweden and to early Mesolithic populations from Ice Age Europe. However, the tools produced at the site were a part of lithic technology brought to Scandinavia from the East European Plain, modern day Russia. This scenario of a culture and genetic influx into Scandinavia from two routes was proposed in earlier studies, and these ancient chewing gums provides an exciting link directly between the tools and materials used and human genetics.

Emrah Kirdök at Stockholm University conducted the computational analyses of the DNA. "Demography analysis suggests that the genetic composition of Huseby Klev individuals show more similarity to western hunter-gatherer populations than eastern hunter-gatherers", he says.

"DNA from these ancient chewing gums have an enormous potential not only for tracing the origin and movement of peoples long time ago, but also for providing insights in their social relations, diseases and food.", says Per Persson at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. "Much of our history is visible in the DNA we carry with us, so we try to look for DNA where ever we believe we can find it", says Anders Götherström, at the Archaeological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University, where the work was conducted. The study is published in Communications Biology.

birch bark chewing gums
This is a masticate being examined. Credit: Natalija Kashuba/Stockholm University

Press release from Stockholm University


Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Toss it if it’s 481 years old – but not if it’s a year older

Norway conserves archaeological finds from 1537, but not when they’re from 1538 or later. That means we know less about people’s everyday lives during the last 481 years.

Stoneware from around 1700. This was thrown in a bin. Photo: NIKU, Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research

These have been the rules since Norway set the protection limit for archaeological deposits in the country’s first cultural heritage law in 1905.

This law deemed that archaeological material originating before 1537 should be protected. Anything later was no big deal.

The chosen date was anything but random.

The Protestant Reformation came to Norway in 1537, and with it both the Middle Ages and a large part of the country’s self-determination disappeared. The Catholic Archbishop was key to providing a kind of balance of power between Norway and Denmark, but that soon ended when he was chased out of the country.

When the first Cultural Heritage Act was adopted as a new and independent Norway was being formed, the archaeological heritage and material history originating during Danish and Swedish rule weren’t seen as worthy of protection.

"The individuals who designed the law had a perception of the Middle Ages as Norway's golden age," says Christopher McLees. He recently completed his doctoral degree at Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) with a thesis that addresses this seemingly strange protection limit.

The age limit for buried archaeological deposits hasn’t changed since the original law was passed and remains part of Norway's current cultural heritage law. McLees believes this is a problem.

The scope of historical knowledge that we are losing is steadily widening as the material remains of the lives of previous generations are being neglected and destroyed.

People are surprised

In recent years, excavations of cultural layers containing newer objects and building remains have been occurring at Trondheim Torg, right in the heart of the city. This is only happening because archaeologists received a rare exception to the rule. Normally, excavators would have free rein to go ahead with construction in the post-Reformation deposit layers here.

“Passers-by who hear this are surprised – and appalled,” says the new Doctor McLees, who works as an adviser and researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). He has been familiar with the issue for decades.

He and others have had to watch while several-hundred-year-old history was destroyed forever at construction sites. This time, archaeological finds from the 16th century and later are also being recorded. They include trash, products, tools and built objects left by craftsmen and other ordinary people, who lived and worked in what were then the city outskirts before Cicignon's reconstruction of Trondheim after the great fire of 1681.

Archaeologists have been granted an exception to the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act in downtown Trondheim and can save objects that date from after 1537. Photo: Steinar Brandslet, NTNU

Others besides random people on the street are surprised as well. Archaeologists from other countries are often astonished when they hear about the strict distinction, where objects from one year must be conserved, but objects from the following year are not. Denmark implements a flexible age limit, in which archaeologists argue for conservation on a case-by-case base. Sweden’s limit is currently set to 1850 and adjusted over time.

Economic reasons

The age limit for conserving cultural remains set in 1905 went beyond merely historical and national-romantic reasons, and those were the economic aspects. Norway was full of objects and buildings that were several hundred years old. Not everything could be protected if room was to be made for our current age.

“Then, just like now, society didn’t want to incur additional costs,” McLees says.

And it costs money to take care of old things. Impinging on property rights and imposing constraints on development were factors that probably also contributed to retaining the 1905 age limit.

Special rules

But several other types of protection and special exceptions besides the Cultural Heritage Act exist. These include shipwrecks and cargo more than 100 years old, and all Sami cultural remains originating prior to 1917. Exceptions are made for special cultural monuments and environments of more recent vintage – so they can’t simply be destroyed.

It’s quite paradoxical that standing buildings from before 1650 are automatically protected, while cellars – and sometimes the foundations of buildings that burned down or that people intentionally let fall into ruin because they were in the way of something else – are not.

Norway Cultural Heritage Act 1905 1537
Baby crib. All Sami objects older than 100 years are protected. But they are among the exceptions in Norway. Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum

Everyday life disappearing

In the past, protection has often focused on conserving special or grand objects rather than preserving the history of the common folk. Ethnologists, historians, architects and cultural historians have dominated the decision making in terms of what to conserve. They have often prioritized and valued written, aesthetic and visible sources more highly as sources of knowledge about our recent past.

“Archaeology and the invisible buried material remains of daily life have ended up low on the list of priorities,” McLees says.

Archaeologists are interested in more than impressive churches, the king's gold or flashy buildings. They want to uncover the history hidden underground and how ordinary people like you and me actually lived in the past – the kinds of clothes they wore, what they ate, the tools they used, and the things that occupied them in their daily lives. In this context, a cooking pot or a shoe can tell just as exciting a story as a gold ring or a beautifully painted portrait.

“This is also a part of history that people today can relate to,” McLees says.

Often, it’s probably easier to understand conserving a striking mansion than the buried ruins of buildings and backyards in parts of the city where people on the lower rungs of society lived and died. But what would tell future archaeologists most about your everyday life – your mobile phone or a Picasso painting?

Protections changing – for some things

Internationally, cultural heritage agencies have long been aware of the need to conserve the material history of our most recent past. Norway is also undergoing an awakening in the academic and management realms of heritage protection, and post-Reformation archaeology is gaining greater significance.

The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage has prioritized ten themes in recent history and plans to protect important cultural monuments within each of them. The conservation strategy includes defence and war history, industry, old traffic routes and particularly important post-1537 archaeological sites, including cultural layers in cities and towns. Separate rules have been established for national minorities, such as the Kven and Roma peoples, who are entitled to extra protection of their past.

"The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s proposal is at least in part a delayed response to the fact that the Norwegian authorities have actually committed to conserving more of our cultural heritage through the European Malta Convention," McLees said.

Hermetically sealed

Although McLees welcomes this much delayed measure, he is not optimistic about the effectiveness of the conservation strategy or the future management of Norway’s recent archaeological heritage.

“The criteria for selecting the objects for permanent protection haven’t been specified. This form of protection will put a hermetic lid on the selected cultural monuments. They’ll continue to gradually deteriorate, and won’t be able to be used as sources for research or historical writing,” he says.

The 1537 age limit will also stand in most cases, and the remaining material sources of the past 500 years of history will continue to disappear and be neglected.

McLees believes the stories written about our near future will still have gaps and be inadequate.

“They’ll leave out what has always been indispensable in the lives of human beings through the ages – material objects.

Source: McLees, Christopher. Materialities of Modernity and Social Practice in Trondheim c.1500-1800: An Archaeological Contribution to the Study of Post-Medieval Norway.

 

Press release from Gemini Research News, by Steinar Brandslet / NO


Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

Megalith tombs were family graves in European Stone Age

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international research team, led from Uppsala University, discovered kin relationships among Stone Age individuals buried in megalithic tombs on Ireland and in Sweden. The kin relations can be traced for more than ten generations and suggests that megaliths were graves for kindred groups in Stone Age northwestern Europe.

Agriculture spread with migrants from the Fertile Crescent into Europe around 9,000 BCE, reaching northwestern Europe by 4,000 BCE. Starting around 4,500 BCE, a new phenomenon of constructing megalithic monuments, particularly for funerary practices, emerged along the Atlantic façade. These constructions have been enigmatic to the scientific community, and the origin and social structure of the groups that erected them has remained largely unknown. The international team sequenced and analysed the genomes from the human remains of 24 individuals from five megalithic burial sites, encompassing the widespread tradition of megalithic construction in northern and western Europe.

The team collected human remains of 24 individuals from megaliths on Ireland, in Scotland and the Baltic island of Gotland, Sweden. The remains were radiocarbon-dated to between 3,800 and 2,600 BCE. DNA was extracted from bones and teeth for genome sequencing. The team compared the genomic data to the genetic variation of Stone Age groups and individuals from other parts of Europe. The individuals in the megaliths were closely related to Neolithic farmers in northern and western Europe, and also to some groups in Iberia, but less related to farmer groups in central Europe.

Paternal continuity through time

The team found an overrepresentation of males compared to females in the megalith tombs on the British Isles. Credit: Göran Burenhult

The team found an overrepresentation of males compared to females in the megalith tombs on the British Isles.

"We found paternal continuity through time, including the same Y-chromosome haplotypes reoccurring over and over again," says archaeogeneticist Helena Malmström of Uppsala University and co-first author. "However, female kindred members were not excluded from the megalith burials as three of the six kinship relationships in these megaliths involved females."

A likely parent-offspring relation was discovered for individuals in the Listhogil Tomb at the Carrowmore site and Tomb 1 at Primrose Grange, about 2 km distance away from each other. Credit: Göran Burenhult

The genetic data show close kin relationships among the individuals buried within the megaliths. A likely parent-offspring relation was discovered for individuals in the Listhogil Tomb at the Carrowmore site and Tomb 1 at Primrose Grange, about 2 km distance away from each other. "This came as a surprise. It appears as these Neolithic societies were tightly knit with very close kin relations across burial sites," says population-geneticist Federico Sanchez-Quinto of Uppsala University and co-first author.

The Ansarve tomb was used by distinct groups

Megalith tombs Ansarve site Listhogil site Primrose Grange Carrowmore site archaeogenetics
The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is embedded in an area with mostly hunter-gathers at the time. Credit: Magdalena Fraser

The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is embedded in an area with mostly hunter-gathers at the time. "The people buried in the Ansarve tomb are remarkably different on a genetic level compared to the contemporaneous individuals excavated from hunter-gather-contexts, showing that the burial tradition in this megalithic tomb, which lasted for over 700 years, was performed by distinct groups with roots in the European Neolithic expansion," says archaeogeneticist Magdalena Fraser of Uppsala University and co-first author.

"That we find distinct paternal lineages among the people in the megaliths, an overrepresentation of males in some tombs, and the clear kindred relationships point to towards the individuals being part of a patrilineal segment of the society rather than representing a random sample from a larger Neolithic farmer community," says Mattias Jakobsson, population-geneticist at Uppsala University and senior author of the study.

"Our study demonstrates the potential in archaeogenetics to not only reveal large-scale migrations, but also inform about Stone Age societies and the role of particular phenomena in those times such as the megalith phenomena," says Federico Sanchez-Quinto.

"The patterns that we observe could be unique to the Primrose, Carrowmore, and Ansarve burials, and future studies of other megaliths are needed to tell whether this is a general pattern for megalith burials," says osteoarchaeologist Jan Storå of Stockholm University.

 

 

Publication

Sánchez-Quinto et al. (2019) Megalithic tombs in western and northern Neolithic Europe were linked to a kindred society, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1818037116 (Open access)
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1818037116

Facts

This study is part of the Atlas project, a multidisciplinary effort to understand Eurasian and Scandinavian prehistory, funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg foundation.

Press release from Uppsala University, by Linda Koffmar.


Breaking down Beowulf

Breaking down Beowulf

Researchers use statistical technique to find evidence that Old English poem had a single author

Illustration from Hero-myths & legends of the British race, by John Henry Frederick Bacon

It's been a towering landmark in the world of English literature for more than two centuries, but Beowulf is still the subject of fierce academic debate, in part between those who claim the epic poem is the work of a single author and those who claim it was stitched together from multiple sources.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, a team of researchers led by Madison Krieger, a post-doctoral fellow at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Joseph Dexter, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard, turned to a very modern tool - a computer.

Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem's meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, Krieger and colleagues found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author. The study is described in a April 8 paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In addition to Krieger, the study was co-authored by Leonard Neidorf from Nanjing University, an expert on Beowulf whose numerous studies include a book on the poem's transmission, as well as Michelle Yakubek, who worked on the project as a student at the Research Science Institute, and Pramit Chaudhuri from the University of Texas at Austin. Chaudhuri and Dexter are the co-directors of the Quantitative Criticism Lab, a multi-institutional group devoted to developing computational approaches for the study of literature and culture.

"We looked at four broad categories of items in the text," Krieger said. "Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in Modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice."

"But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter-combinations," he continued. "So we counted all the times the author used the combination 'ab', 'ac', 'ad', and so on."

Using those metrics, Krieger said, the team combed through the Beowulf text, and found it to be consistent throughout - a result that lends further support to the theory of single authorship.

"Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous," Krieger said. "So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn't act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity."

The study is just the latest effort to pin down Beowulf's often-mysterious background.

"There are two big debates about Beowulf," Krieger explained. "The first is when it was composed, because the date of composition affects our understanding of how Beowulf is to be interpreted. For instance, whether it is a poem near or far in time from the conversion to Christianity is an important question."

The second debate among Beowulf academics, Krieger said, is related to whether the poem was the work of one author, or many.

"The first edition that was widely available to the public was published in 1815, and the unity of the work was almost immediately attacked," Krieger said. "From high school, everyone remembers the battle with Grendel and Grendel's mother, and maybe the dragon, but if you go back and read the whole poem, there are weird sections about, for instance, how good Beowulf is at swimming, and other sections that go back hundreds of years and talk about hero kings that have ostensibly nothing to do with the story. So the way we read it now... seems very disjointed."

Beowulf dragon stylometry Harvard University
"Now he belched forth flaming fire." An illustration of Beowulf fighting the dragon that appears at the end of the epic poem. Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1908), Stories of Beowulf, T.C. & E.C. Jack, p. 93

One piece of evidence that has factored into debates about unitary composition can be seen just by looking at the text.

"The handwriting is different," Krieger said. "At what I would call a random point in the poem, just mid-sentence, and not really an important sentence, the first scribe's handwriting stops, and somebody else takes over. It's clear that the second scribe also proofread the first scribe, so even though currently nobody really things that these two guys were different poets, or were joining together parts of a poem at this random mid-sentence location, it has helped contribute to a narrative according to which the writing of Beowulf, and maybe its original composition, was a long and collaborative effort.

For the nineteenth century, the prevailing view among academics was that the poem must be the work of multiple authors. It wasn't until the early 20th century that another author - one whose name is all but synonymous with epic storytelling - began to challenge that idea.

His name? J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Tolkien was one of the greatest champions of single authorship," Krieger said. "He was a very prominent Beowulf scholar, and in 1936 he wrote a landmark piece, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," that really revived the idea that it was the work of a single person."

At the heart of Tolkien's argument, Krieger said, was the way in which Christianity is reflected in the text.

"The Christianization of Beowulf is very interesting, because every single character in it is a pagan, even in these odd digressions" Krieger said. "Beowulf is from southern Sweden and goes to Denmark to help other pagan Germanic peoples fight monsters... but it's overlaid throughout with a Christian perspective and infused with Christian language." Computational evidence from the study supports Tolkien's view, from a new perspective. "Arguments based on the poem's content or its author's supposed belief system are vital, of course, but equally important are arguments based on the nitty-gritty of stylistic details. The latter also have the merit of being testable, measurable."

Though he acknowledged it's unlikely the new study will be the end of the debates about Beowulf's authorship, Krieger believes it can shed important new light on English literary traditions.

"If we really believe this is one coherent work by one person, what does it mean that it has these strange asides?" he asked. "Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then. Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story."

Going forward, Krieger and colleagues are hoping to apply the stylometry tools developed for the study to other literary traditions and other landmark works.

"Even works as well-studied as the Iliad and the Odyssey have yet to be analyzed using a full array of computational tools," Krieger said. "The fine-grained features that seem to matter most have never been examined in a lot of traditions, and we're hoping to spread these techniques that we think could change the way similar problems are approached."

Krieger also hopes to use the techniques to understand the stylistic evolution of English across history.

"Putting Old English in context is the springboard," he said. "This is the birth of English literature. From here, we can look at what aspects of style evolved - not just grammar, but at the cultural level, what features people enjoyed, and how they changed over time."

Aside from their ability to shed new light on works of literature, Krieger suggested the stylometry tools used in the study might also have some thoroughly modern uses - including spotting troll farms and fake news online.

"In retrospect, we know many thousands posts on Facebook were written by the same Macedonian troll farm during the 2016 election," he said. "If we had some way to identify that posts were likely written by the same author, that would obviously be very useful in deterring misinformation campaigns."

Ultimately, though, Krieger believes the study is a prime example of how ancient texts still hold secrets that can be uncovered through the use of modern tools.

"This is the first step in taking an old debate and refreshing it with some new methodology," he said. "It's a new extension of the whole critical apparatus, and it's exciting that an area probably assumed to be very traditional can in fact be at the cutting edge of work that spans the humanities and sciences."

###

This research was supported with funding from a Neukom Institute for Computational Science CompX Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Neukom Fellowship.

 

 

Press release from Harvard University


barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

A 5,000-year-old barley grain discovered in Finland changes understanding of livelihoods

barley Sweden Finland agriculture farming hunter gatherers Pitted Ware Culture
Researchers determined the age of millennia-old barley grains using radiocarbon dating. Credit: photo by Santeri Vanhanen, CC-BY 4.0 licence

New findings reveal that hunter-gatherers took to farming already 5,000 years ago in eastern Sweden, and on the Aland Islands, located on the southwest coast of Finland

On the basis of prior research, representatives of the Pitted Ware Culture from the Stone Age have been known as hard-core sealers, or even Inuits of the Baltic Sea. Now, researchers have discovered barley and wheat grains in areas previously inhabited by this culture, leading to the conclusion that the Pitted Ware Culture adopted agriculture on a small scale.

A study carried out in cooperation with parties representing the discipline of archaeology and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, as well as Swedish operators in the field of archaeology (The Archaeologists, a governmental consultant agency, and Arkeologikonsult, a business), found grains of barley and wheat in Pitted Ware settlements on Finland's Aland Islands and in the region of modern Stockholm.

The age of the grains was ascertained using radiocarbon dating. Based on the results, the grains originated in the period of the Pitted Ware culture, thus being approximately 4,300-5,300 years old. In addition to the cereal grains, the plant remnants found in the sites included hazelnut shells, apple seeds, tuberous roots of lesser celandine and rose hips.

The study suggests that small-scale farming was adopted by the Pitted Ware Culture by learning the trade from farmers of the Funnel Beaker Culture, the latter having expanded from continental Europe to Scandinavia.

Other archaeological artefacts are also evidence of close contact between these two cultures.

"The grains found on Aland are proof that the Pitted Ware Culture introduced cultivation to places where it had not yet been practised," says Santeri Vanhanen, a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki.

In the study, the age of cereal grains found at the sites tagged with numbers in the map were determined with radiocarbon dating. These findings demonstrate that hunter-gatherers adopted farming on the Åland Islands on the southwestern coast of Finland and in eastern Sweden already 5,000 years ago. Credit: Santeri Vanhanen, CC-BY 4.0 licence

Cereal perhaps used to brew beer?

The 5,000-year-old barley grain found on Aland is the oldest grain of cereal ever found in Finland. The researchers also found a handful of barley and wheat grains a few hundred years younger, representing either common wheat or club wheat.

"We also dated one barley grain found in Raseborg, southern Finland. This grain and the other earliest grains found in mainland Finland date back some 3,500 years, some 1,500 years behind Aland according to current knowledge," Vanhanen explains.

In prior studies, it has been extremely difficult to demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer population would have adopted farming during recorded history, let alone in the Stone Age. Research on ancient DNA has in recent years proven that the spread of agriculture in Europe was almost exclusively down to migrants.

"We find it possible that this population, which was primarily specialised in marine hunting, continued to grow plants as the practice provided the community with social significance."

From time to time, an abundance of pig bones are found at Pitted Ware sites, even though pigs were not an important part of their daily nourishment. For instance, the bones of more than 30 pigs were found in a grave located on the island of Gotland.

"Members of the Pitted Ware culture may have held ritual feasts where pigs and cereal products were consumed. It's not inconceivable that grains might even have been used to brew beer, but the evidence is yet to be found," Vanhanen continues.

Santeri Vanhanen is a doctoral student of archaeology at the University of Helsinki. Credit: Marko Marila

Grain age determined through radiocarbon dating

The research relies primarily on archaeobotanical methodology, which helps examine plant remains preserved in archaeological sites. In this study, soil samples were collected from the sites, from which plant remains were extracted using a flotation method. The plant remains are charred; in other words, the grains and seeds have turned into carbon after having come to contact with fire.

Plant remains can be identified by examining them through a microscope and comparing them to modern plant parts. The age of individual grains can be determined with radiocarbon dating, based on the fractionation of the radioactive carbon-14 isotope. This way, the age of a grain aged several millennia can be determined with a precision of a few centuries.

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The study was published in the Scientific Reports journal on 20 March 2019. The research article, entitled "Maritime Hunter-Gatherers Adopt Cultivation at the Farming Extreme of Northern Europe 5000 Years Ago", is freely available on the journal's website: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41293-z

This is how the Inuit culture of the Baltic Sea was born. Read more on the University of Helsinki website: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/news/language-culture/a-5000-year-old-barley-grain-discovered-in-aland-southern-finland-turns-researchers-understanding-of-ancient-northern-livelihoods-upside-down

Press release from the University of Helsinki