Digging from the present down to antiquity

30 August 2022

Two young men scrape away soil in a trench.

Felix Wigström and Alvin Anderling carefully scrape away the soil in the trench using trowels.

Welcome to the Viking Age! The archaeology students, with their trowels and their scrapers, have dug past the medieval layers and made their way down to the 11th century, approximately 30 centimetres below today's ground level. During the seminar excavations in the old coastal town of Västergarn, 25 kilometres south of Visby, first cycle studies in archaeology are combined with scientific work.

Keylie Seth with a piece of bone.
Keylie Seth has been sifting soil and has just
found a bone. Photo: Daniel Olsson

“Here is a bone.”

Keylie Seth, a first-year student in the Bachelor's Program in Archaeology and Osteology, picks up a small brown and angular object from the sieve that, to the untrained eye, could just as well be a stone.

“We make lots of finds. It is mainly bones that turn up. We did find a bead earlier, but it is usually bones,” she says as she examines what is left in the sieve after the soil has passed through.

The reason that the soil is full of bones is that there was once a settlement here, beside the sea, where cattle grazed between houses and kitchen waste was thrown straight out the door.

Semi-circular embankment

The settlement was enclosed by a semi-circular embankment which is still visible in the landscape. It was there during the Viking Age and perhaps even earlier, says Christoph Kilger, who is teaching coordinator on site.

One of the best finds they have come across is a
medieval double-sided comb.
Photo: Daniel Olsson

In the 12th and 13th centuries, two churches were built: one Romanesque and one Gothic. The Gothic church is still in use, while the Romanesque church has fallen into ruins that the grass has taken over. The same fate has befallen the kastal, or fortified tower, alongside it.

Most of what could reveal what life was like here is therefore hidden under the ground and the students are tasked with mapping out a small, staked-out area of the site. They take a methodical and thorough approach in order to learn the archaeological craft and to avoid missing any objects.

Archeology students doing fieldwork
Deep in concentration. The students have dug down to the Viking Age layers using trowels.
Photo: Daniel Olsson

“What we have learned is that an excavator is used when you carry out a commissioned excavation when a new road or building is to be built, but here we have time to carefully sift the soil for any finds and to document them in detail. It is a luxury to be able to excavate and see things in a way that is not normally done like this in this line of work. Usually, there is not enough time,” says Keylie Seth.

Pottery fragments

Seminar excavations are also carried out a few hundred metres closer to the sea, down by the Västergarn river, in what archaeologists believe was the harbour area where clinker-built Viking ships would berth. The 62-meter-long trench that has been excavated is not resulting in quite as many finds although bones, flint, fish scales, nails and pottery fragments from the 12th century have been found.

“We found a coin over there,” says Felix Wigstrom, pointing at the other side of the narrow trench he is examining with his trowel.

Danish skilling

The coin is a Danish skilling from the 1530s, says Christoph Kilger, who is a coin expert. At that time, Christian III was King of Denmark and also controlled Gotland.

“It is fun. It is a bit like winning the lottery when we find something. You never know if you are actually going to find anything,” says Felix Wigström.

One of the finds – a 1 öre silver coin from 1667
with a hole, probably for use as a pendant.
Photo: Daniel Olsson

Inside a building protected from the chilly spring winds, we find Oliva Bartholdson, Felicia Lillieholm and Sara Viktorsson organising the finds which are weighed, measured, documented, catalogued and placed in small, carefully marked plastic bags. They all think the field work has been fun, interesting and educational. Now, at the documentation stage, they can get more of an overview of what has been found than during the actual excavation when they quickly become absorbed in their own tasks.

“You know a lot about your own little area, but you have no idea what is happening outside it. Although, when someone finds something exciting everyone comes over,” says Sara Viktorsson.