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05.01.17, Ilkjaer, Illerup Adal

The Medieval Review

05.01.17, Ilkjaer, Illerup Adal

From 1975-85, Jørgen Ilkjær directed rescue excavations at the Danish bog site of Illerup Ådal in eastern Jutland, continuing investigations that had been carried out two decades earlier from 1950-1956. The site located near Skanderborg in the Illerup River Valley had been a lake 1,800 years ago, but gradually silted up and was drained for agricultural use. War booty consisting of deliberately damaged weapons and other military equipment was sacrificed in this watery context from c. A.D. 200-500, but mostly around A.D. 200 during the period that in Denmark is called the Roman Iron Age. Although the Romans never reached Scandinavia, their weapons, especially the two-edged Roman sword found in excavations at Illerup Ådal (and commonly found throughout Scandinavia), help to illuminate connections between the north and the Roman world in this period.

Ilkjær describes the discoveries at Illerup Ådal in this 151-page translation from his Danish synopsis of the excavations. The Danish work was intended for an educated lay audience in Scandinavia that is knowledgeable about archaeology. It is less clear for whom the English translation is intended for it certainly is not a scholarly book, yet it assumes more than a casual interest in archaeology. The scholar wanting detailed data should consult the planned 14-volume scholarly series published in German, of which ten volumes have already appeared. There are no chapters in the summary presentation but rather fifty-two unnumbered headings with no organization into subheadings. The headings range from "preface" through "list of illustrations," but also include non-parallel categories as "the world of the Romans," "weapons and dating," "a magnificent sword," and "the combs," with few sections longer than three or four pages. Also lacking footnotes, bibliographical references, and an index, the summary account does not assist the reader in finding specific information.

The author places the Illerup finds into the regional context of approximately fifty war-booty sacrifices discovered at twenty bog-sites spread across Schleswig, eastern Jutland, and the Danish island of Funen. Best known are the finds from Thorsbjerg and Nydam in Schlesvig, discovered by Conrad Engelhardt around 1860. Because chemical properties of bogs vary, preservation conditions and thus the contents at various sites differ; for instance, wood, bone, and antler were extremely well preserved in the alkaline environment at Illerup but no textiles or leather; on the other hand, textiles and leather but no wood remain in the acidic bog at Thorsbjerg.

Excavating Illerup Ådal was an "archaeological jigsaw puzzle." Deliberately destroyed swords, shields, and lances were strewn over an area at least 200 meters in length. Ilkjær explains the deposits at Illerup and the other bog-sites by referring to what Orosius wrote in the sixth century about the Cimbri destroying the Romans' weapons and accoutrements in 105 B.C. in return for victory (136). Restorers have re-assembled many Illerup fragments belonging to a total of approximately 15,000 artifacts that are preserved in Moesgård Museum outside Århus. Only 40% of the sacrifice area has been excavated. Before the present analysis of the data, it had been assumed that the weapons and other military equipment had been tossed from the shore into the lake, but many objects had apparently been transported by boat to the middle of the lake and then thrown overboard, thus a larger area was covered with material than expected. Although no textiles survive at Illerup, cloth impressions are preserved on iron shield-bosses, demonstrating that some objects had been gathered together in cloth bundles that were then dumped overboard. The distribution of artifacts in the bog showed that most artifacts from individual heaps did not spread very far when the cloth rotted away.

The finds included swords, lances, spears, and shields as well as personal equipment such as belts, horse trappings, knives, keys, hair combs of antler, fire-steels, sharpening steels, and tools. Of the metal objects, 89% were iron, 9% bronze, and 2% silver and gold, showing that elite status metals were rare. Wood was particularly well preserved, including 748 lance-shafts and 661 spear-shafts that together would extend about four kilometers if placed end-to-end. Over 300 shields were constructed of several wooden boards with metal mounts, mostly iron but in five cases made of silver. Bones of small horses survived the alkaline bog, revealing that the animals were sacrificed along with the weapons and other equipment. From the placement of metal mounts, the excavators estimate that there had been around 300 individual leather belts (which did not survive) equipped with suspension mounts. Of sixty sets of baldrics (that is, shoulder-slung sword belts), forty-four were Germanic and sixteen Roman, with each Germanic baldric made for a specific individual and the Roman ones adjustable for warriors of different heights. From the numbers of horses, weapons, and belts, Ilkjær proposes that there had been an invading army of 1000 men, including around twenty-five cavalry.

After Tacitus wrote Germania in A.D. 98, there are no further extant Roman written sources that deal with the Roman Iron Age in Scandinavia. However, among the discoveries at Illerup were ten artifacts with runic inscriptions in Proto-Norse, the common predecessor of the Nordic languages. All the runic inscriptions from Illerup consist of one word except for NITHIJO TAWIDE, meaning "Nithijo made," on a silver shield handle. All the other inscriptions are most likely personal names. Two lance blades from Illerup are stamped with WAGNIJO, and three related inscriptions come from a bog find at Vimose on the Danish island of Funen, thus indicating at least limited mass production. Ilkjær suggests that Wagnijo (modern Scandinavian Vagn) is a maker's mark indicating either the name of the smith who made the weapons or the name of a leader in charge of the smith (120). Stamped makers' marks are also found on Roman swords at Illerup (and elsewhere), and we do not know whether the Scandinavian Wagnijo learned of the practice from the Romans themselves or from their swords. Some other names of individuals that rise from anonymity are Gauthi on the shaft of a fire-steel, and Swarta and Laguthewa on shield hand-grips.

Among the remarkable discoveries at Illerup is a set of goldsmith's tools that contains the equipment necessary to fabricate most of the elaborate mounts from the site. Among the tools is a file used to make beaded wire, which previous to this excavation was known only from the descriptions of the twelfth-century monk and metalsmith Theophilus.

Four periods of deposits have been identified at Illerup: Illerup A, with bundles of objects that were rowed out and dumped in the center of the lake c. A.D. 200; Illerup B, with artifacts thrown from the shore c. A.D. 230; Illerup C, also thrown in c. A.D. 375; and Illerup D, with only a dozen artifacts deposited at one end of the lake in the fifth-century. Illerup A was dated to shortly after A.D. 200 by coins and analysis of tree-rings on wooden shield boards. An oak downed in A.D. 187 and a repair made after A.D. 205 pinpoint the possible time period of this weapon sacrifice (48), the largest deposit, which is the focus of this book. Illerup B-D were also dated by dendrochronology. Besides numismatic and dendrochronological analysis, dating based on typological studies has been very important. Piecing together fragments of the same artifacts from different bundles was crucial for establishing a relative chronology for separate deposits. Also by considering comparable material at other bog-sites in southern Scandinavia, Ilkjær has developed a fine-tuned weapon chronology of swords and lances, showing that the invaders of Illerup fought with up-to-date weapons rather than old, inherited ones, and that there were different periods of weapon sacrifices in various regions.

Roman connections are evident at Illerup Ådal. The earliest sacrifice, Illerup A, contained almost 200 Roman silver coins issued by the emperors Nero through Commodus, with the most recent from A.D. 187/188. Denarii presumably collected in organic cloth or leather purses that have not survived were found associated with twenty-five belt-sets--one had seventy coins and some had as many as twenty each. Until the analysis of the Illerup finds, it was assumed that few coins circulated in Scandinavia around A.D. 200; however, Ilkjær proposes a revision in light of these finds (122). Connections with the Roman world are also evidenced by pattern-welded, two-sided swords. Around 150 Roman sword blades, many of which have makers' marks and inlaid images of Roman gods and goddesses, were found at Illerup A. These blades were produced only by Romans, although the hilts of many Illerup swords may have been added by Scandinavian craft workers. Roman sword blades are found throughout northern Europe, most likely distributed by the elite to select warriors. Roman makers' marks imitated in runes demonstrates that not only were artifacts traded but that the cultural practice of adding makers' marks was adapted from the Romans.

The casual reader may assume that the defeated invaders with Roman swords deposited at Illerup A came from the south; however, the author identifies their origin in what is now the south and west of Norway, illustrating the complex cultural interactions of the period. Weapon types of the Roman Iron Age are ubiquitous throughout northern Europe and thus not helpful for locating the origin of the defeated invaders. On the contrary, personal equipment including combs and fire steels are more helpful for pinpointing origins. The author traces the Illerup A invaders to south and west Norway and the Illerup B attackers to Uppland, Sweden, believing that the latter could have been those described by Jordanes in the sixth century. Ilkjær specifically proposes that the king who invaded Illerup A would have lived in a large hall such as at Karmøy, north of Stavanger, where Norway's third richest Iron Age weapon grave was excavated in the 1930s. He goes on to conjecture that Wagnijo--mentioned on one of the artifacts from Illerup--might have been a "King" of Trøndelag who attacked Illerup A around A.D. 200 (146-147). While this is pure speculation, it is a brave attempt at introducing the concept of agency by individuals into this period of nearly anonymous masses.

In conclusion, this summary of the Illerup Ådal excavations is fascinating and can be read at one sitting. The English translation is nearly flawless, and the volume is well illustrated with maps, drawings, and photographs, as well as reproductions of sixteen evocative but occasionally inaccurate paintings by a contemporary Scandinavian artist. It is odd that the paintings (for instance, p. 42) show lance types not found at Illerup and bearded warriors in helmets not attested there. Ilkjær extrapolates the appearance of the warriors at Illerup from clothing and bog bodies preserved elsewhere since no bodies were discovered here, but he explicitly states that they would have been clean-shaven (50) and that "there is no trace of helmets, which would have been preserved if they had existed" (51). Ultimately, the work is frustrating to the scholar who must depend upon the scholarly publication. The parts already published include volumes 1-2 dealing with the chronology of the spears and lances; volumes 3-4, the distribution of finds and identification of their origins; volumes 5-8, the elite equipment; and volumes 9-10, the shields. Ones yet to appear include volume 11, Roman sword blades with associated hilts and scabbards; volume 12, beads, pendants, fibulae, coins, tools, and miscellaneous objects; volume 13 an international symposium; and volume 14, a summary. Not only those who study Scandinavia, but also classical scholars interested in contacts with the provinces and beyond the Empire anticipate the completion of this series. In this summary, Ilkjær makes eighteen years of excavations come to life and successfully engages the reader to follow details of typological argumentation while courageously offering suggestions about the larger picture by suggesting the origin of the invaders and pinning the name Wagnijo to their leader. The Roman Iron Age is not as well known as the Viking Age, but perhaps this book will draw attention to the period and make it more accessible to scholars outside Scandinavia.