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Bronze Age Cairns


Large tumuli for burials, consisting of stones or turf, are widely characteristic of the Scandinavian Bronze Age, c. 1700–500 b.c. Bronze Age tumuli still form a meaningful part of modern cultural landscapes in many regions of Scandinavia, even if the number has decreased drastically since the Bronze Age. A cairn is a tumulus built of rubble stones collected in the vicinity of the burial. A mound, by comparison, is a tumulus built of earth and turf, which has been cut from adjacent grassland. In general, tumuli hardly ever represent an entire population but were burial places for the privileged few.

Mounds and cairns are parallel phenomena with similar functions and meanings. Owing to natural conditions, stone cairns occur primarily in the rocky north of Scandinavia, whereas turf mounds characterize the agricultural lowlands of southern Scandinavia. Zones of overlap exist, however—for example, in the central Swedish lake district. Moreover, mixtures of cairns and mounds occur: it is not altogether unusual to find a cairn with a thin external layer of turf or a mound with a massive inner core of fieldstones. Likewise, there are cases where a monumental cairn stands solitary in a typical mound region and vice versa.

Such entanglements are rooted not directly in nature but rather in culture and social practice: clearly, the deviating visual effects of turf and rubble were brought to bear in the creation of social identity. More generally, both types of burial relate in different ways to the surrounding landscape, materially and symbolically. According to pollen analyses, the bulk of southern Scandinavian mounds, for example, were built in a period in which there was a predominance of open pastures created by grazing cattle and sheep. Quite possibly, the building of turf mounds mediated and celebrated social power, which was connected to land and livestock. In a similar fashion, cairns may have symbolized domestication of the stony wilderness outside the settlement.

time frame, construction, and organization

The majority of tumuli were erected during the earlier Bronze Age, in the periods IB–III (1700–1100 b.c.). For Denmark it has been calculated that the
original number may have been as many as one hundred thousand mounds, most of which were constructed within a fairly short period of about two hundred to three hundred years. In the Late Bronze Age, that is, in periods IV–VI (1100–500 b.c.), existent mounds typically were reused as burial places, but new tumuli to some extent were still constructed. Cairns of the north tend to be slightly later constructions than the mounds of the south.

Tumuli normally were built to cover inhumation burials in oak coffins or stone cists, but they continued in use when the burial custom began to change toward cremation c. 1300 b.c. Apart from the primary, centrally placed burial, a tumulus thus usually includes several graves—inhumations as well as cremations. When new burials were added, the tumulus often was enlarged in height and width, exhibiting several building phases with old and new barrows. The inner structure often is complex, perhaps incorporating a core of stone or clay and frequently one or more circular ring walls of fieldstones at the foot of the tumulus; even dry masonry and wooden posts occur. Tumuli thus embody complicated life histories in addition to the shifting connotations of meaning applied to them by people through the ages.

The shape of most tumuli compares to a cupola or a bowler, but flattened forms also are known. The size of these monuments varies considerably, from about 10 meters to almost 80 meters in width and from about 1 meter to 12 meters in height. A diameter of 15–20 meters and a height of 3–4 meters are most common. The largest ones represent an enormous investment of work, such as: the Bredarör cairn at Kivik in Scania; the Uggårda Röjr on the island of Gotland; the Linkulla cairn on the peninsula of Bjäre in northwest Scania; the Hohøj mound at Mariager Fjord in northeast Jutland; and the Tårup mound and Borum Eshøj in eastern Jutland.

Tumuli typically occur in groups or in rows, occupying the ridge of hills to increase visibility. In this way they dominate the landscape and its inhabitants. Small clusters of tumuli appear to form the cemetery of a single farmstead or a hamlet controlling a larger territory. Such a scattered settlement pattern prevails in the earlier Bronze Age (1700–1100 b.c.), but there also are larger clusters of tumuli. The latter might have been central places of cult and communication and may perhaps have related to a larger, cooperative settlement comparable to what we call a village.

the bredarÖr cairn at kivik

The Bredarör cairn at Kivik in southeastern Scania in Sweden is a monumental cairn situated in a region otherwise predominated by mounds. This position underscores the exclusiveness of the cairn, its builders, and the person(s) who were buried in the inner grave chamber of rock-carved stone slabs. Otherwise, the location of the cairn in the landscape is strangely inconspicuous, and the Kivik region is marginal in a larger Bronze Age perspective. Our understanding of this extraordinary monument is severely hampered by its unhappy destiny with successive plundering and early excavations. Cult houses, later cemeteries, and other remains of ritual activities surrounding the cairn suggest that the place was attributed central functions.

The cairn has a considerable diameter of 75 meters. It seems to have been flat on top, but the original height can no longer be estimated. Masses of stone covered a cist of about 4 meters in length. The inside of the cist was carved with pictures referring to the life of its first inhabitant(s), funerary games, and a wider Bronze Age cosmology found on rock carvings and on bronze work. The original order of the slabs has been disturbed, and some of them are damaged or have disappeared. Likewise, the burial chamber has been plundered, probably in the Bronze Age as well as in the recent past. A few fragmented remains suggest that in period II of the Bronze Age, c. 1400 b.c., a man was put to rest in the chamber. The size and form of the cist, however, recall a wider tradition of communal gallery graves originating in the Late Neolithic period. This might suggest that the cist at Kivik was intended for a family or leading clan members, rather than one person, and that it was built before period II of the Bronze Age. If not unique, Kivik is at least distinctly removed from the ordinary.

social commemoration

In all likelihood tumuli were constructed for and by a social elite, but this identity should not be understood in an absolutist or static way. The graded content of the burials, among other things, suggests ongoing rivalries internal to the elite and also hints that the border between the elite and non-elite might have been fairly negotiable. Men, women, and children received burials, but the two latter groups are somewhat underrepresented. Males typically were depicted as warriors with swords and other paraphernalia, whereas the personal appearance of females was more peaceful. The social commemoration of certain persons in death—and the overt presentation of certain people in life—evidently were the foremost idea behind the building of tumuli and the material wealth invested in the burials.

The tradition of building tumuli, along with conspicuous consumption in metalwork and other valuables, connects to a larger European trend in material culture and social conduct, which began around 1600 b.c., with the so-called Tumulus culture. Similar material styles and ideologies were emulated effectively across geographical space, indicating the existence of an "international" elite network.

See alsoBronze Age Britain and Ireland (vol. 2, part 5); Bronze Age Scandinavia (vol. 2, part 5).


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