Swamps of Sweden
Disclaimer: I was on the Southeastern Island of Gotland so, ok; I wasn’t technically on the Swedish mainland, so the ecology isn’t quite the same. But still.
In summer of 2015, I participated in two different field schools while waiting to receive my UK visa so I could start attending graduate school at the University of Bristol. That whole thing was another long story, which does not relate, therefore, moving back on topic…
The first took place on Menorca, Spain and the second was on Gotland, Sweden. In short, we were digging on the boundary of farmland, and going outside the boundary was a lake. Originally, when the Vikings were around (approx. 1000 AD) the area was a fjord, connected to the Baltic Sea, and perfect for fishing. Which explains why so many people living near that site would set up a market area for selling goods, and not a settled village as previously thought. We worked in the trenches for four weeks, finding all kinds of artifacts and intrusions and discovered a good boundary for the site. *
During the last week of digging, we were mostly back-filling in the new trenches where not much was found above the bedrock, using a metal detector to find displaced artifacts within the farm’s re- and replowed area (no historic context). While another group had an amazing cash of artifacts being found having to be extended in length there were the two trenches (one of which I worked on) that did not find nearly as much, which for you nay-sayers out there still teaches you important things, so we back-filled quickly and tried to find something else to do.
Since my pure passion is in marine archaeology (that’s what I worked on in Spain) I was dying to explore the lake that called out to me every day. I wanted to dive in it so badly, but we did not have any equipment, so I suffered, though not in silence. I constant asked questions about the more recent history of the lake area to the lead archaeologist Dan Carlson. He explained that after the Viking era generally came to an end there was still an oral history of the ships that would be constantly coming into port there to trade (as we confirmed based on man-made intrusions). After some time the water level fell enough that the fjord became a lake, no longer connecting to the sea. Because of that most of the larger ships that were stuck would have been stripped and reused. There was, however, local lore that during a dry day, if the water level was low enough, one could see the keel of a possibly ancient ship.
That story sparked not only my interest but also the interest of another archaeologist and now friend, Adam Shoalts (pen drop), the Canadian explorer. We talked to Dan about commandeering a small boat, just to do some survey recording, with a big stick… technically a long metal rod that we just would incrementally jab into the lake bed to see if we would hit anything. If we did find anything then we would use Adam’s camera to take pictures. This became our treat on the last day of work in the field as we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get the boat until seemingly the last second. So, in the meantime, we did some swamp exploring.
We were given aerial photographs taken using radar from prior planning and research of the area. There were areas scattered around that were denser, or higher than their surroundings. Because no one had gone to investigate these areas they could be anything, which made us ever more curious. While Adam and I were the first two that bothered Dan to let us go on this extra expedition we weren’t the only two. Most of the others didn’t really want to go trudging through a thick, muddy, and unmapped swamp. So the first day of adventure the group was Adam, Sara, Derek, and I. We only had a general idea of where we were going even with the map and the handheld GPS system that Adam was holding onto. While attempting to find the easiest way inside to the unknown mounds we walked along a nature trail that took us to a picnic area. We continued down a muddy trail (it had been raining) and eventually found that while it continued around the swamp there was no way towards the interior. It was surrounded by, probably, knee to waist deep water with cattails growing out of it. So, not the best trail.
We then walked back, past the picnic area, almost to the dig site, but turned right and ‘hopped’ a fence into a cow paddock, complete with calves and a fully-grown bull. Since we did not want to get charged at, we waited until the bull and its family were not looking at us from their placement on the other side and we did something between a tip toe and a sprint (I want to say, a scamper?) across the field and into the dense woods. I wish I could say that we were chased across the field because someone was wearing red and that we barely made it into the forest, with the bull stopping only because he couldn’t fit between the trees, but I can’t because none of that happened. I doubt that any of the cattle were actually paying attention to us, so I bet we didn’t even need to rush (probably just looked silly).
Once we made it into the actual swampy part of the swamp, it seemed larger than what was shown on the map. Trees twisted around us, blocking much of the light, there were spots of green grass, which were the best spots to step on, usually. If you missed them or slipped off a branch that we were climbing on, your foot would quickly sink knee deep into the muck. Luckily we didn’t lose any shoes (though that did almost happen a few times).
On the first day, we didn’t make it all the way to the markers before running out of time and having to turn back. The next day Derek bailed, he didn’t want to get covered in mud like the day before but because Michael took his spot we were still a four-some. That was a bad day to bail because we did much more than trekking through a swamp.
That morning we got new instructions to walk around the other side of the lake to investigate a few other unexplained dense patches. For this direction, we walked down a nature trail, across a bridge, onto a loose gravel road. Though we didn’t exactly know where we were going we had all day so we paused every once in a while to munch on some wild raspberries growing over fences. On the way to the final location, we found another strange marker from the map. It turned out a really old stone wall, short and overgrown as it was, it was still visible. We chatted about how old it might be. Could have been a Viking wall, just because that sounds more impressive, or could be a later construction, but either way the facts were: it didn’t follow any boundaries according to present day maps, was on public park land, and because it was completely overgrown and partially buried obviously it was not maintained. Adam took GPS coordinates of where the wall seemed to begin and end and we continued walked to the other plots.
We walked down the main road past houses, inns, and small farms. Still following the aerial map and GPS direction arrow, we tried to find a way around the private land… at least where people can’t see us. We turned onto a thin dirt path, going back in the general direction of the lake, cross a farm field of wheat, and crawl under three electric fences, the first was covered in the wheat while the others were free and clear. After passing the second, which ran parallel to the lake, we saw that we were getting further from the mark, so we walked back, climbed back over the second fence went to the adjacent side and climbed that fence as well. The points of interest were in a muddy forest area (honestly I was surprised that we had four people for a two, or even one-person job, but it was more fun this way) and while we took pictures and took the exact GPS coordinates Adam and Michael took turns grabbing the metal rod into the ground. A few meters down the partly hollow rod did hit something harder than mud and soil, and we got slightly excited, but as they kept pushing down and then pulled it back up we just saw that it was wood. While this could be something interesting, the chances are that it’s simply old tree roots is extremely more probably, which is why even though we recorded it, it was ruled as not important.
Making our way back to an inn/café nearby we climbed back over the third fence. Adam, being the smart person that he is, decided that it would be a good idea to test out the electric fence. He even held it for a few seconds before letting go, I half expected him to shit himself, but he just stumbled backward while the three of us laughed at him. We crossed the field of wheat again and crawled under the partly broken fence, being very careful not to touch it. While crawling Sara’s butt grazed the top wire. I took a deep breath, but nothing happened. For some reason it did not occur to us that because the wires were basically drowned in the wheat plant the electric charge was grounded, so touching it had no effect. Which was why I just had to tempt fate and grab the wire.
Haha, bet I got you.
Climbing the fence ladder from the nature park to the yard, partially covered in mud, a few people sitting at the café tables turned to stare and puzzle at our existence. Especially since we were speaking English, they must have just been thinking, ‘tourists (sigh)’. Not caring what anyone thought we still spent our fika (coffee break in Swedish slang) at the café and Adam, most likely cause his brain got rattled (jk), offered to get us whatever we wanted. None of us were hungry especially after the wild raspberries we ate earlier so we just had a round of elderberry flower lemonade. Omygawdsodamngood
While chatting with the server we found out that she knew the dig that we were working on, because not only does she know the Dan Carlson and his family (best friends with Carlson’s daughter) but also because she was a student of archaeology as well, just working at the inn/café as a side job during the summer. She took pictures of us, and once we figured we should get back to swamp walking, and actually working we headed back to the dig site.
-To be continued-
*For more information visit “http://www.gotland-fieldschool.com/“