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Prone Burials and Modified Teeth at the Viking Age Cemetery of Kopparsvik

New Signs for Changing Concepts of Social Identities at the Threshold of the Christian Middle Ages

Publiziert in: Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia 10, 2015, S. 77–97.

Kopparsvik was the largest Viking Age cemetery of Gotland and lay on the western shore of the island, south of present-day Visby (Pettersson 1966; Mälarstedt 1979). It encompassed some 330 burials, lying in what appear to be two separate areas, most of them dating from ca. 900 to 1050 AD.

One of the two striking elements at Kopparsvik is the large number of prone burials. Around 50 deceased – mostly males – were buried in prone position, the majority lying in the northern area alongside the former shoreline.

The cross-cultural phenomena of prone burials (Arcini 2009) is often regarded as an indication of so-called ‘deviant burials’ (see Hirst 1985, 36–37; Wilson 1992, 82; Sherlock, Welch 1992, 26; Aspöck 2008, 28; Arcini 2009, 194–195; Reynolds 2009, 68–76; Gardeła 2011; 2013a; 2013b; this volume), indicating a pejorative and post-mortem humiliation, an exclusion of the dead or an apotropaic rite to avert supernatural threats such as the ‘evil eye’ (Wilke 1931, 205; 1933, 457; Hocart 1938; Lykiardopoulos 1981) or to prevent the dead from haunting the living as revenants (Wilke 1931, 205; 1933, 460; Kyll 1964, 178).

In general, the prone burials at Kopparsvik are missing the factors that are usually associated with ‘deviant burials’, such as beheading, stoning or twisted posture (see Philpott 1991; Boylston et al. 2000; Taylor 2008, 91–92; Reynolds 2009, 62–89; Zipp 2010, 233, 244). The majority of the prone burials differed from the supine burials merely in their ventral position (fig. 2). Many of the deceased were buried in their dress with fibulae, belts or knives and the prone burials lay between the ‘normal’ graves. However, they were clearly orientated towards the former shoreline.

Due to their disproportionately high number and the often carefully arranged interment of the deceased, the prone burials at Kopparsvik should not to be regarded as something ‘deviant’, but as a variance of the norm which in most cases seems to indicate an actively intended burial-rite with a cultural or religious significance and conferring a special identity.

Parallels to these prone burials are to be found in historical as well as archaeological sources. An important example is the description of the burial of the Frankish king Pepin III the Short, father of emperor Charlemagne, who wished to be buried prone, beneath the entrance to the cathedral of St. Denis in expiation of the sins of his father Charles Martell (Philpott 1991, 74; Speer, Binding 2000, 318–321; Arcini, Jacobsson 2008, 9; Reynolds 2009, 69).

Similar instances are known from some Merovingian cemeteries (Salin 1952, 221–222) and from high and late Medieval monastery graveyards (Ernst 1992, 142; Meier 2002, 147–148). A prone position seems to indicate a special gesture of humility towards God, a form of piety which is still visible in the Orthodox and ultraconservative Catholic Church in the so-called ‘Metanie’ or ‘Proskynese’, a prostration in front of the altar (Onasch 1981, 313–314; Kunzler 1999, 648).

The evidence for the existence of an early Christian community around Kopparsvik is provided by single Christian elements in some graves – e.g. a small cross pendant – and also by the mention of a first Christian church in the tenth century on the site of present-day Visby in Guta saga, a legendary compilation of the history of Gotland, written in the thirteenth century (Peel 1999, xlii–xlv, 9–10). A probable explanation for these prone burials can be found in historical accounts, as well as in Old Norse literature, with the ritual of the ‘Primsigning’, a first benediction which signifies a convert under instruction or catechumen of the Christian community before the final sacrament of baptism (Sandholm 1965; Gräslund 1980, 85; Staecker 1999 21, 341–342; Zimmermann 2003). The rite of the ‘Primsigning’ allowed the aspirant to trade at Christian emporia (Ebel 1987, 272; Blomkvist 2005, 492) or to be part of the retinue of a Christian king, two important aspects mentioned in several accounts in Old Norse literature:

Konungr bað Þórólf ok þá bræðr, at þeir skyldu láta prímsignast, því at þat var þá mikill siðr, bæði með kaupmǫnnum ok þeim mǫnnum, er á mála gengu með kristnum mǫnnum; því at þeir menn er prímsignaðir vóru hǫfðu alt samneyti við kristna menn ok svá heiðna, enn hǫfðu þat átrúnaði, er þeim skapfeldast.

The king asked Thorolf and his brother that they should take the primsigning, because it was custom among traders as well as among those people that were in service of Christian men; those men that had taken the primsigning could interact with Christian as with heathen men but had the faith that suited them most.

Egils Saga-Skalla-Grímssonar (50); Text after Sigurður Nordal (1933, 128), translation by Matthias Toplak

Based on this account, the burial rite of prone burials in Kopparsvik can be interpreted as a special gesture of Christian humility towards God, or one which was deemed necessary in the case of the death of a catechumen, who was not yet freed from original sin by the final sacrament of baptism. This interpretation is supported by regulations in Old Norse law collections on the burial of catechumen. These had to be manifest in their burial, either by a grave outside or on the edge of the graveyard, or through burial on the shoreline between the sea and consecrated ground, for example:

Ef barn andazk primsignt. oc hefir eigi verit scírt. oc scal þat grafa við kirkiu garð út. þar er mætisk vigð mold oc ö vigð.

“If a child dies after the primsigning but has not been baptised yet, so should it be buried at the margin of the graveyard where consecrated and unconsecrated ground meet.”

Text after Finsen (1852, 7), translation by Matthias Toplak

This correlates quite well with the spatial location of many prone burials in Kopparsvik – and also with sporadic burials on some other Viking Age cemeteries on Gotland – alongside the former shoreline. The importance of the shoreline as liminal space can also be seen in a passage from Landnámabók (S 110) about the burial of Auð in djúpúgða who asked to be buried at the shoreline, because she did not want to lie in unconsecrated ground, as she was baptised (see Almgren 1904, 345).

An interpretation of the majority of prone burials as graves of catechumen emphasises the strikingly insignificant heathen character of the whole cemetery and taken in conjunction with the reference to a first church “under the cliffs” near Vi in Guta saga (Peel 1999, 9), confirms the existence of a consolidated Christian community around the harbour of Almedalen by the tenth century. The special act of prone burial as a sign of Christian humility and piety might have resulted from the endeavours of orthodox missions at Kopparsvik (see Sjöberg 1985; Staecker 1997).

The second outstanding feature of many of the Kopparsvik burials remained unknown for many decades and was discovered only recently by the Swedish anthropologist Caroline Arcini (2005; 2010). More than three dozen male burials showed horizontal filing in the form of filed grooves on their front teeth (fig. 3). Teeth modifications are established in several cultural groups as a common form of initiation rites (Stewart, Titterington 1944; 1946; Romero Molina 1970; Milner, Larsen 1991; Alt, Pichler 1998; Finucane et al. 2008; Vuković et al. 2009; Garve 2011), but similar cases were unknown in the Scandinavian Viking Age, as in the whole of Europe until the recent discoveries in Lund and Kopparsvik. In the last few years more and more individuals, all of them male, with filed teeth have been detected, mostly in eastern Scandinavia (Arcini et al. 1991; Arcini 2005; Mortágua 2006; Arcini, Jacobsson 2008; Kjellström 2014). The majority of the hundred known cases come from Gotland, mainly from Kopparsvik.

First popular interpretation in newspaper articles and television documentaries presented teeth modification as the mark of a Viking Age warrior elite, which was intended to give them a peculiar and grim appearance. Although this assumption fits very well with the popular image of a wild and gruesome Viking Age warrior, the hard facts point in another direction. Except for two or three individuals – such as the decapitated man in the famous mass grave from Weymouth in southern England (Loe et al. 2014) or the young man in one of the chamber graves at Birka (Kjellström 2014, 48) – none of the men with filed teeth showed evidence of warrior activities. Hardly any were buried with weapons or showed traces of (healed or lethal) fractures on the skeletal remains (Arcini 2005, 732; Mortágua 2006; Loe et al. 2014) that could indicate the participation in armed conflicts. In addition, the filings would have been scarcely visible beneath upper lips and moustache, even if they had been coloured with some kind of black paste, perhaps made of soot (Arcini 2005, 732). Based on the actual state of research on tooth modification and the available skeletal material, there is only one real pattern perceivable in the distribution of teeth modification apart from their limitation to adult males. The majority of these men were buried at important trading places such as Birka, Sigtuna, Kopparsvik near present-day Visby, Slite torg, Othems sn at the north eastern shore of Gotland, or the area of southern Sweden around Trelleborg. This potential relationship with early emporia and trading activities, and the limited visibility of the tooth modifications which unobtrusively denote a particular identity and legitimacy, allows the formulation of the thesis, that the teeth modifications should be seen as a rite of initiation and sign of identification for a closed group of merchants, similar to the later guilds. The existence of early trading communities or guilds is proved by the so-called ‘Gildesteine’ at Sigtuna and Östergötland (Friesen 1911, 117; Ruprecht 1958, 138; Düwel 1987, 341; 2001, 127–128; Jansson 1987, 95; Jesch 2001, 241) which explicitly mention ‘Frisian gilds’ and ‘gild brothers’ (see Floderus 1927). Following this assumption, members of this closed group of merchants could identify themselves through the teeth filings and thus received commercial advantages, protection or other privileges which were relevant to the development of the concept of trading guilds in high medieval times (see Hoffmann 1989; Anz 1998; Kattinger 1999).

The burials at Kopparsvik confirm the assumption of a close, immediate relationship between the cemetery and the establishment of the predecessor to the later Visby as a central harbour and trading place on Gotland. They indicate the existence of a heterogeneous, structured society shaped by different social communities with important external contacts and influences. In this, Kopparsvik differs considerably from the typical rural burial sites of Gotlandic farmsteads and resembles more closely those of such proto-urban settlements as Hedeby and Birka.

These conclusions can be seen as evidence for a far earlier urban consolidation of Gotlandic society and for an earlier differentiation between the urban periphery of Visby and the rural communities, than has so far been postulated in scientific research (for the discussion about Visby see Svahnström 1984; Westholm 1989; Carlsson 1990; Kyhlberg 1991; Yrwing 1992; 1994; Roslund 2001; Thunmark-Nylén 2004) The new social construction of identity at Kopparsvik, in contrast to rural traditions, points to an early establishment of Visby as a supra-regional, proto-urban trading place by the end of the 10th century and offers new stimuli to scientific discourse on the development and function of early Visby. This social transformation from a decentralised rural structure with a quasi-aristocratic warrior elite as its highest ideal into a proto-urban stratified community without the traditional reference to a warrior culture can be considered as marking the threshold of the Middle Ages.


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