A discussion forum for history enthusiasts everywhere
 
HomeHome  Recent ActivityRecent Activity  FAQFAQ  RegisterRegister  Log inLog in  SearchSearch  

Share | 
 

 The Öland Island Mystery

View previous topic View next topic Go down 
AuthorMessage
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: The Öland Island Mystery   Sun 15 Oct 2017, 11:26

Öland is an island situated off Sweden's South-East coast (now connected by a road bridge) which today is a hugely popular destination for Swedish families seeking a camping or "hytta" break during the summer months. It has natural springs, natural harbours, and enough grazing and tillable land to have supported a relatively decent-sized community in the past, as the archaeological record also supports, though in winter its exposed location, then as today, would have probably discouraged many from basing themselves there all year round. So far the archaeology uncovered there seems to confirm that this traditional use of the area reached its height in the early centuries of the Common Era.

A taste of the habitat can be got from this brief video posted by the local Tourist Board.



From around the late 4th century however things changed, and seemed to have changed dramatically, even violently.

While its present association with modern Sweden might lead one to believe that the island's inhabitants must historically lie firmly within the "Viking" narrative, it appears that Öland was never quite that simple to classify, and especially from the 4th century CE onwards. This was the "Tumultous Period" in Europe (as it is classified still in Scandinavian historical studies) in which the north of the continent was the stage for several mass migrations, associated in the main with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but in truth much more difficult than this simple association suggests when ascribing actual specific cause or pattern and sequence to events. We tend to clutch at tribal names as originally defined by the Romans to group these people into historical communities, and this works particularly well for those occasions when territory previously under Roman control was invaded or absorbed by communities the Romans had previously identified immediately outside their general borders. However outside this area of control there was much going on of which the Romans seemingly had little or no knowledge - and though on several occasions they knew that an immediate threat of invasion by neighbours had originated with territorial pressure having been put on these people in turn by others further afield, they rarely recorded or probably just never were in a position to find out exactly who these "others" were.

It is also a commonly accepted theory that the great migrations were from east to west, and it is certainly true that this was a trend that the Romans could identify from their own perspective. But archaeology suggests that this was only a part of the picture. The Goths, for example, had originated as a migratory people moving due south, and amongst all those nameless "others" there was plenty of eastern movement, and even northern, as the tumult increased. The powerful Dal Riada "kingdom" carved out of Pictish territory by invading western tribes is a small British example of such movement during this period in which Europe increasingly became most typified by fluid motion of people, and in which all the old areas of demarcation and control became practically meaningless overnight, with just about everything - from territory to wealth, from religion to established culture - being suddenly "up for grabs". Within this fluidity existed a now almost impossibly complex pattern to determine of dynamic demographic distribution which included many non-Roman communities being deposited well within that empire's old boundaries, and in recent years a suspicion that several "Roman" communities could even have found themselves deposited well outside that old sphere of control.

During this period Öland, like everywhere else, became defensively militarised. The island is dotted with numerous "borgs" from around this time, and to this day these sites traditionally yield the richest archaeological finds throwing up clues as to what actually transpired over the next few centuries, and indeed who were the people affected by these events.

What distinguishes Öland from other Scandivian sites in the general vicinity is a marked Roman connection of a very specific nature. Roman finds - coins and jewellery etc - are not uncommon in Scandinavia of the period, but they normally tend to point to an incidental cultural exchange of an almost superficial kind. Coins had value mainly for their metal content but were not currency, at least not with the value and use intended by their minters. Roman goods, jewellery, and even arms (such as in Denmark) made their way into Scandinavian possession, but their acquisition is generally ascribed to incidental trade between these peripheral communities and the Roman world, neither proof of a wish to be assimilated into that sphere of control nor of a Roman wish to acquire their lands and people. In Öland however some burials suggest something else going on. In this general locality the finds have traditionally yielded a higher than average percentage of Roman material, mainly through grave goods deposited during the 4th and 5th century, but with subtle clues pointing to the fact that here the coins indeed had currency value, and the predominance of Roman over indigenous goods from basic pottery to high value items suggests that this in essence was indeed a community which may even have regarded itself as Roman in effect, and not just as a people whose location allowed incidental acquisition of these materials. In this way they were distinguished from the norm in greater Scandinavia, and what has been coming out of one particular dig on the island in the last year suggests one small community of people in particular distinguished even from their fellow island inhabitants of that time in how intensely they may have adopted that sense of their own identity.

The "mystery" this dig has posed however does not primarily concern these people's ethnic or cultural affiliation and what they might have called themselves - though this is indeed a question as yet to be properly answered in Öland. Current theory is that the inhabitants were related to other island dwellers at Bornholm and Gotland who by the 4th century had insinuated themselves into the Roman hegemony as mercenary soldiers and bodyguards - Roman finds abound in their graves too - though some crucial differences still remain between their graves and those typically found on Öland. That very same question of actual identity can be posed in fact for many other such communities from the period identified through grave goods and dotted across all of Northern Europe in particular, where we simply do not know from whence and how they had arrived at that geographical location in the great tumult, or even how they had evolved as separate communities at all, let alone how they saw themselves at that moment in terms of ethnic identity or affiliation. Anomalies abound - Scandinavian graves in Romania, "Silesian" finds in Ireland, Gaelic communities in Anatolia, and now - in Öland - what appears to be a very Roman community isolated on an island several hundred kilometres distant from the next such community we know about. However in this case the "mystery" is very specific indeed, and concerns what happened to this island community next.

In February 2016 the excavations around one of the island's borgs were stepped up following reported looting by metal detectorists. Local archaeologists had been pressing for funds since 2010 for this very reason and by the time these were made available they were afraid that they would find a corrupted site with little to be done except log finds whose context had been destroyed. What they found in Sandby Borg however was a site not only surprisingly still rich in good archaeology but of a totally unexpected nature. Skeletons were found in abundance, but to the astonishment of the archaeologists none of these had in fact been buried. Instead these remains, showing all the evidence of extremely violent deaths and including men, women, children and even farm animals, had all been preserved in shallow graves naturally formed by time and the deposit of material above them. Even more remarkably, when compared to other borg excavations, Sandby threw up Roman finds in a quantity and of a quality which even in Roman territories would be deemed remarkable. The borg, a ring fort with some substantial earthworks and buildings, had obviously been used to intentionally deposit these goods - apparently to hide them from a perceived threat - with a multitude of coins sorted by value and denomination, jewellery and other luxury goods carefully packed and secreted accordng to type, and none of these artefacts - human remains or possessions - apparently ever having been disturbed in the intervening 1600 years.


A young woman lies where she fell on the flagstones outside a dwelling in the borg

It was apparent that a massacre had occurred. But by whom? And why? Nothing points to immediate neighbours, but then nothing points to anything much logical or generally expected anyway. Theft did not seem to be a motive - even the animals had been slaughtered - and anyway if it had been an unsuccessful or interrupted raid by "outsiders" why is there no evidence of similar raiding from the period in this area? Why did so many of the coin artefacts point in particular to Milan and Arles, two cities connected as an economic and fiscal centre of coinage and trade which had started operating independently of the empire's base in Ravenna by the early 5th century - something we had previously thought only relevant to the citizens of Gaul? And why was it that Sandby, despite its defensible location on an otherwise exposed island, was obviously never used again, even thoiugh all the other evidence suggests that the inhabitants and their neighbours were in the middle of a very successful period of military and political solidification in which all such defences and local populations were enrolled in avoiding infiltration and invasion, a process hitherto understood by historians as having been so successful that the islands withstood military invasion and occupation up to and throughout the Viking period when very few areas were unaffected by such activity? But yet Sandby Borg was never again to play a role in this long period of organised defence after this calamitous event that had occurred there, despite its strategic value, and even though only a few kilometres from a neighboring borg shown to have been in continued in use for quite a while afterwards didn't even seemingly attract the curiosity of that nearby community. In fact so completely abandoned was it that the dead would be interred by nature itself in a process which took some centuries from when they had originally fallen on that fateful and terrible day in antiquity, and this during a period when Öland enjoyed its longest and largest continuous inhabitation. More to the point then, who were these people who alone of those dwelling on the island had seemingly suffered such a cruel and sudden fate, and why had the evidence of their extinction and even their valued goods been left completely and seemingly very intentionally undisturbed by their fellow islanders?

The resolution of this mystery if ever discovered, purely local and unique in nature as it may first appear, could actually have serious implications for what we traditionally have assumed in relation to what happened in Europe during the Western Empire's final days and in its immediate aftermath. It has always been known that small isolated oases of Roman culture and community, stubbornly persevering with life as they had known it,  were left marooned as the empire shrank - Britain abounded with such instances at the same time - but so far north, in an area traditionally deemed hundreds of kilometres outside the empire at its furthest extent? This small community, who apparently did not quite conform to the traditional view of all such geographically remote populations situated well outside Roman hegemony as being mercenaries or traders, but instead conforms much closer to known Roman communities elsewhere deemed "satellite" only as their empire dissolved around them and retreated into the distance, may prove to be a valuable key in advancing our knowledge of this period and fundamentally changing our received assumptions.

That they were extinguished so suddenly and that the site of their mass murder was so perfectly preserved over 1600 years represents probably the best feature of this site which might aid us to that end. Significant Roman hoards are found often within their abandoned provinces, and even outside of them. But such a hoard hidden in its equally well preserved domestic context is a rare thing indeed, no matter the location, as is a hoard which cries out for new interpretation based on its quite unique constituent elements, none of which show signs of random accumulation in their context as is usual for such finds, even in Öland. And a hoard still with its actual hoarders also preserved in situ is simply one of a kind - nothing quite like this has ever been found before in the Roman world, let alone in a location long assumed to have been well outside of that world. Could examining this little snapshot of a community and their treasured belongings now frozen in time, a time which otherwise is so obstinately vague to our view, at last reveal something of much more significance merely than what might have happened to these particularly unfortunate people on that fateful day for them in antiquity? Might it help finally form a picture of European ethnic self-perception in a time of great tumult and disorder hitherto obscured from good historical assessment? Will it eventually provide a glimpse in sharp focus of exactly who was struggling to survive and how they did so as Roman rule and influence withdrew from Europe, and a clue perhaps that the full extent both geographically and demographically of this phenomenon's repercussions has hitherto been seriously underestimated and misunderstood?
Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
Triceratops
Censura
avatar

Posts : 3313
Join date : 2012-01-05

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 16 Oct 2017, 13:30

An article from an archaeology magazine about this (4 pages):

Sandby Borg Massacre
Back to top Go down
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 16 Oct 2017, 14:06

And one about Eketorps Borg on the same island by a friend of mine, Wenche Frølich.

Middelalder-Oslo  - Eketorps borg på Øland

It's in Norwegian, but Google can handle that these days ...

Eketorps is a close neighbour of Sandby and is by far the best excavated of the ring-forts there. A hundred or more years after Sandby's destruction, with corpses and valuables left exactly where they respectively fell or had been stashed in Sandby, Eketorps supported a community of some hundred families, all living their entire lives within a few hundred metres of the massacre. Eketorps was by no means obscure or unknown to Swedish Vikings either - it played a big role in fending off two attempted mass invasions, in the early Viking period by Slavs, and later by Danes in the race to control the Skagerrak/Kattegat straits.

It is amazing that such a prominent and well populated location could exist side-by-side with such a gruesome and positively curious "twin".
Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
Triceratops
Censura
avatar

Posts : 3313
Join date : 2012-01-05

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 16 Oct 2017, 14:31

I had to post a youtube about Eketorps;

Back to top Go down
LadyinRetirement
Censura
avatar

Posts : 951
Join date : 2013-09-16

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 16 Oct 2017, 16:09

A more recent (end of the 1960s) "ghost town" namely Cuervo, New Mexico, USA. Apparently what happened was that the townsfolk were going to be charged for the construction of a ramp into the town and another out of the town when an interstate highway was being built and being a small town where the inhabitants were of modest means the townsfolk just couldn't afford it and gradually upped stakes and moved. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgbNUbg2Lgc
Back to top Go down
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Tue 17 Oct 2017, 10:18

Sandby is probably the epitome of the "ghost town" phenomenon in that the massacre, although only recently verified, has apparently always lived on as a folk memory amongst locals, and not a pleasant memory at all. The ghosts of those killed there still stalked their imaginations, even if the event itself had long been forgotten ...

This Swedish newspaper article from last year when the find was first properly excavated, and which likens the Öland event to a modern terror attack, finishes with this observation:

När man pratar med den äldre generationen här, berättar de alla att de som barn fått höra att Sandby borg är en farlig plats dit man inte ska gå. Själva ursprunget till det har man glömt, men traumat har levt kvar.

"When talking to the older generation here, they all relate how as children they were told that Sandby was a dangerous place, where one should never go. The actual origin of this reputation had long been forgotten, but its trauma had survived to this day."
Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
Meles meles
Censura
avatar

Posts : 3257
Join date : 2011-12-30
Location : Pyrénées-Orientales, France

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Tue 17 Oct 2017, 13:35

From what you're saying Nordmann might not Sandby have been left untouched - while life blithely continued in the surrounding villages - because it was indeed untouchable? Cultural memory, if not initially personal experience, had recorded that it was a place where something very, very bad had happened ... it was not a propitious place on which to build, and to even to go there was perhaps taboo.
Back to top Go down
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Tue 17 Oct 2017, 13:54

It certainly seems to have been the case, yes. What is remarkable is how strictly this was observed for 1600 years. No attempt even to bury the dead or to hunt round for their loot. A remarkable bit of tabooism if that's what it was!

For the record there are 16 ring forts on Öland Island and all show signs of having been involved in scrapes over the years, right up to the 13th century when they were finally abandoned as dwelling places. But whatever happened all that time ago in Sandby - when it was still relatively new - was obviously seen as very different indeed.
Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 23 Oct 2017, 08:46

I met someone this weekend who had worked on the excavation mentioned above and she could give me some extra info not in the reports I'd read. If anything, Sandby only gets ever more intriguing the more one learns about it.

She says in fact that it is now believed the island contained over 20 such "fornborg" settlements, which distinguishes them from the more typical "byggeborg" defensive settlements on the Scandinavian mainland by their proximity to sea level, even when a higher and more easily defendable alternative often existed. They are not unique to Öland, but on other islands are much less evident and numerous. In addition it can be surmised that Öland in fact set something of a prototype for the "fornborg" model in the area, the others being built later.

However even on Öland each fornborg follows a pretty standard pattern regarding earth and stockade defences, as well as internal earthwork creating artificially elevated platforms, presumably used as the base for defensive structures or look-outs. Sandby, unique amongst these, did not. In fact it was situated absolutely adjacent to a stony strand (without a thought for defence at all, it seems), and its maximum ground height above sea level never exceeded 3 metres.

A notion therefore that it was simply a badly designed borg however is contradicted completely by the rest of the evidence, which suggests that of all the borgs that these islanders had invested time, effort and resources into constructing, this was by far the most elaborate. Taking Öland in isolation therefore the picture is remarkably one of a peacetime settlement of which Sandby is acting as a sort of capital city, and its whole raison d'etre rests with easy access to the sea - indicating trade as its primary function and concern.

Which of course makes its sudden destruction all the more puzzling regarding who did the bloody deed and why. That it was a complete surprise attack on the day seems evident. However the inhabitants had taken great trouble to hide their valuables beforehand - systematically having sorted these by type and value, and then each in an area of the several abodes within the defensive town wall under the floor and just to the right of the dwelling's main door. Any raid from the sea - its most vulnerable and therefore likely source of invasion - simply does not make much sense. Butchery abounded on the day - it looks like a concerted effort to kill every dweller there - but no evidence of physical destruction or looting can be found, even though the loot itself was eminently easy to find. A massacre performed by fellow islanders doesn't sit easy within any theory either. No attempt to seize the territory, no attempt to loot, and no desire to even set foot in what once had been their foremost trading centre just doesn't square with typical patterns of aggression at all.

She, like me, is intrigued by the Roman aspect to the finds. Besides the finds themselves of course there is no evidence whatsoever - archaeological or philological - that a self-styled Roman community ever did (or could) exist so far north in the late Iron Age period. However Öland's unique pattern of finds in a Scandinavian context, and Sandby's unique pattern in an Öland context, certainly points to something rather unique in how this settlement had come into being and acquired an identity in the century before the massacre, and just what this uniqueness may in fact have been.

EDIT: I almost forgot the most important thing she told me - one deposit of hidden valuables consisted entirely of small Roman religious votive figurines. Different materials were present from precious metal to base metal and ivory (and traces remained suggesting wooden figurines had also been present too). In all about 25 of them, and not assembled for their monetary value or aesthetic appeal, as far as could be made out. Interestingly she reminded me that the only equivalent collection of such artefacts to be found in one deposit outside of the Roman world (and in fact there were two instances) had been found in Ireland, once in Brú na Bóinne quite close to the Newgrange passage grave and once not too far distant from there in County Cavan at the site of a traditional "holy" well. The assumption I had always read was that this represented some sort of "tourist trade" with visiting Romans from Britain. However even before I knew about Sandby I'd had my doubts.
Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
Triceratops
Censura
avatar

Posts : 3313
Join date : 2012-01-05

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 30 Oct 2017, 14:47

Are they going to try Strontium Isotope analysis of tooth enamel to find out where these people came from?
Back to top Go down
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 30 Oct 2017, 15:26

Yes, if they can get the funds. The excavation was carried out by a mixture of local archaeology groups and students who were ages waiting even for the funds to excavate at all, and even with a lot of voluntary labour only enough to stretch the excavation alone over two summers. Now that their finds have started exciting interest in Stockholm and further afield they're hopeful the national university will take up the expensive end of things. At the moment the skeletal remains are being stored on the mainland under university supervision.

Current theory is that the inhabitants of Öland itself were a mish-mash of people pressed northwards from what had been the Friesian limes area, but the hope is that what transpires is that the Sandby community may even have been a sort of local "elite" comprised of the same people but with some ex-Roman mercenary or indigenous to empire regions thrown in who had ended up as community leaders. They definitely seem to have to been the most Roman of all, not only on Öland but for several hundreds of miles around where they all ended up. In that case the DNA and dental analysis will hopefully throw up Friesian links certainly, but also hopefully ancestral links with much further afield, if not even direct links with areas far away from Northern European origin.
Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
ferval
Censura
avatar

Posts : 2602
Join date : 2011-12-27

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 30 Oct 2017, 20:03

What an intriguing story nordmann, thank you for telling it to us. Of course the first thing that occurs is the archaeologists' best beloved explanation for the inexplicable, 'ritual', but it really does have so many of the features that might suggest it as such.

The questions it poses are legion and very difficult to elucidate: why were the goods sorted before being interred? That must have taken time, time which could perhaps have been used to make an escape. Were the hoards hidden or deliberately put out of use? Is it even certain that it was the inhabitants that did this? Is there any possibility of it being a mass murder-suicide of a Masada or Jamestown type?
Were the votive figures a common feature of the other settlements on the island?

Don't worry, I don't expect you to rattle off any answers but these are just a few of the things that came to mind and I am quite aware of the difficulty, or impossibility, of resolving them in the ground. Do keep us informed of any progress though and if they are ever looking for a bit of crowd-funding, I might be tempted.
Back to top Go down
nordmann
Nobiles Barbariæ
avatar

Posts : 6020
Join date : 2011-12-25

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Mon 12 Feb 2018, 13:23

Two small updates:

Strontium isotope testing has been carried out apparently, Trike. It revealed quite a mix of origins - unusual in a Scandinavian context but unfortunately not in an Öland context. The islands here during this period, and for many years before and afterwards, seemed to operate as an ethnic sump-pit of sorts as migrations, trade, and indeed slavery criss-crossed this maritime region. Other graves on the island show the same pattern, and it appears that there was a traditionally high incidence of women arriving from elsewhere, as was also the case at Sandby. This isn't in itself of huge significance - it is a pattern that tends to confirm maritime activity and shows up in fishing communities as much as trade ports, apparently. Two of the women were possibly Irish, I was interested to read in one report.

The other news is that there is no more money being allocated by the authorities unfortunately, which is a real shame as the next phase is to extend the analysis of the site northwards along the shoreline where some evidence was found of what looks like a substantial satellite suburb - something that seems to contradict Sandby's own design and all the assumptions that had up to now been made about its exact use, its population, its extent of occupation etc. The team leading the dig are considering doing what they did a few years ago - using Kickstarter (they aimed for 400,000 SK last time and ended up raising almost 500,000 so they're hopeful for similar success this time). The catch is that this phase will by its nature involve much more expensive resource usage - it is a much larger area with more scattered and sparse points of excavation to be located. However it is also hoped that the eventual answer to what exactly happened that day back in the Dark Ages might in fact be found there, rather than within the fortified part. Current speculation is that whoever conducted the massacre may have been aiming at a rather more obvious target in an extended port settlement that up to now no one really knew could have existed and in which Sandby might have been considered a defunct "citadel" within a larger trading complex. The next phase might hopefully help clarify this - and in fact I am reading the word "slavehandel" (slave trading) cropping up more and more in the speculation regarding what Sandby was all about.

Back to top Go down
https://reshistorica.historyboard.net
Triceratops
Censura
avatar

Posts : 3313
Join date : 2012-01-05

PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   Tue 13 Feb 2018, 13:26

Thanks for the update, Nordmann.
I hope that they can get funding to continue.
Back to top Go down
Sponsored content




PostSubject: Re: The Öland Island Mystery   

Back to top Go down
 

The Öland Island Mystery

View previous topic View next topic Back to top 
Page 1 of 1

Permissions in this forum:You cannot reply to topics in this forum
Res Historica History Forum :: The history of people ... :: Civilisation and Community-