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Opening the Oak-Coffins



In the above, functional and in particular stylistic traits
of various artefact types were interpreted in terms of
chronological horizons, long time-spans in particular
calling for such considerations. However, when
data are rich enough, also geographical distinctions
make themselves felt, as in the case of the larger
southwestern Sgel-Wohlde area and the eastern
Frdrup-Valsmagle development in traditional
Period I in the larger Danish/North German region.
The items under consideration are all of bronze,
personal in function and individually made, thus
unique, and usually very expressive and beautiful.
Interestingly, golden objects are more stereotyped in
character, including the cult objects referring to the
Sun, with a simple, in fact prescribed decoration. This
is hardly due to differing technologies of manufacture (casting versus hammering). Rather, the world of
man is seen as being in a cultural flux - depending on
changing relationships and positions in history - while
that of the celestial powers is stable, in fact rather boring. Common tools for crafts, being functional in design, also display little stylistic variation; sometimes
they are even mass-produced. Thus, in a sense, golden items are tools to understand the otherworld.


Both larger and smaller regions can be traced in the

artefact material and other cultural traits of Periods II
and III, even down to areas quite small, which may
represent petty kingdoms of perhaps 1-2000 km2 or
even less (Randsborg 1987, Fig. 1). Based on a variety
of criteria, including distributions of various forms
of decoration, and of various artefact types in the
graves, P. Rnne suggested the existence of eight such
smaller groupings on Sjlland in Period II (Rnne
1986). Groups mainly of a somewhat larger size (small
regions) have been suggested for Southern Jylland and
Fyn in Period II and III on the basis of combinations of
artefact types in male and female graves, respectively
(Asingh & Rasmussen 1989). Smaller areas are also
demonstrated for the north-western part of Jylland,
here on the basis of highly significant clusters of

Period III graves in the landscapes of southern Thy

and northern Salling, likely the very centres of two
kingdoms (Randsborg 1974).
In turn, the above smaller groupings or sub-regions
can be integrated into cultural regions proper. Such a
distributional structure, of both boundaries and communication across boundaries, presupposes mediating
organizations and supreme ritual and war leaders (cf.
Zimmermann 1988, Abb. 18) (Fig. 15). The smaller
core units make organized warfare between regions
less likely, while the regions would hamper warfare
between the smaller core units - therefore, a balance
of powers was supposedly achieved.
The island of Bornholm may also represent such
a kingdom, linked to a similar one in Southeastern
Skne/Scania (sterlen). In Period III, a unique type
of fibula - the so-called Bornholm Fibula with a
large lenticular bow, often decorated with spirals - is
characteristic for rich female graves and some hoards
or deposits on the island (AK III 1439, 1446, 1454B,
etc.; Oldeberg 1974 & 1976, nos. 75I, 631, 649, etc.)
(cf. Oldeberg 1933, 40f.). Such items also occur in
Southeastern Skne, but rarely; a single specimen is
even found on the island of Gotland way to the northeast (Oldeberg 1974 & 1976, 2204), another one in
central Germany to the south. In all these cases, communication is across the sea. In Southeastern Skne,
a similar but more rhomboid and less elegant Bornholm fibula was produced (partly) later in Period III;
however, this type (or sub-type) occurs only rarely on
Bornholm (AK III 1448, 1487B, 1537, etc.; Oldeberg
1974 & 1976, nos. 76, 709, 749, 752, 1050, 1291, 1292,
etc.). Thus, the two smaller areas, or kingdoms, were
probably linked through high-ranking mating networks, made visible archaeologically by costly and
elegant items produced by court-craftsmen to a shape
everywhere recognizable as belonging to women
from the particular larger region.
Indeed, going into such details with artefacts, the
issue is to what extend stylistic traits represent social
groups - the leading Bornholm and similar Skne Ladies perhaps representing two clans of patrilocal exogamic lineages. (The corresponding men used fibulae
of other types, not castigated as female.) Yet other


Acta Archaeologica

Fig. 15. Sketch map of Early Bronze Age concentrations of grave finds in Denmark and surrounding areas. Shading shows the density of find,
correlating with the degree of chronological resolution. After Zimmermann (1988).

clans or lineages, likely of lower standing, might also

have been characterized by discrete elements, perhaps very difficult to identify and define today due to
varying circumstances and limited numbers of find, as
well as highly individualized data sets. However, the
abovementioned bi- or tri-modal distribution of burial
wealth, observed from male graves, may provide a
help also in the study of kin-based social structures.
The point obviously is to try to isolate the highest
echelons of society in terms of particular stylistic traits
in artefact repertoire.
In fact, the exquisite full metal-hilted swords of
Period II in their beautiful wooden scabbards - no
doubt some the highest priced items in Bronze Age

society - suggest the existence of court workshops,

likely linked, producing regional styles of weapons,
which in turn were widely distributed, probably
through alliance networks (Struve 1971, 60f. with
Taf. 25) (Ottenjann 1969) (Fig. 16). Clearly, handles
covered with deeply cut vertical spiral and concentric
circle decoration are dominating on Sjlland
(Zealand) and in other eastern areas such as the islands
to the south of Sjlland, the pommels being pointed
oval to rhomboid. In Southern Jylland/the South
Slesvig (Schleswig) region, half the swords are of
Sjlland type. In Southern Jylland/the North Slesvig
(Schleswig) region, handles, which display a surface
decoration in horizontal zones, typically of light

Opening the Oak-Coffins


Fig. 16. Distribution of various types/classes of full metal-hilted swords from Period II. After Struve (1971), as based on Ottenjann (1969).

grooves, even flutings, spirals etc., are dominating,

the pommels being round or rounded. Such swords
are also very common in Holstein (two-thirds of all
full metal-hilted specimens) and, to a lesser degree
(half of the specimens), in north-western Jylland (and
even on Fyn). By contrast, swords also with round
or rounded pommel but various usually cut vertical

decoration (even spirals, etc.) make up about half the

specimens of north-eastern Jylland (and Fyn).
Thus, Sjlland seems to be linked with South Slesvig and to a lesser degree with Northeast Jylland and
Holstein. North Slesvig (behind Fyn, as seen from
Sjlland) is linked with Holstein and to a lesser degree with north-western Jylland and Fyn.


Acta Archaeologica

Fig. 17. Common highway-dependent distribution of burial

mounds (all supposedly of Early Bronze Age date) in an area of
southeastern Jylland. After Holst & Breuning-Madsen (2001).

Fig. 18. Distribution of burial mounds (all likely of Early Bronze

Age date) in clusters around the huge Borum Eshj (No. 2), East
Jylland: a settlement pocket situated between three brooks. After
Schulz (1993), Randsborg del.

The stylistic patterning of full metal-hilted

swords therefore reveals relatively little contact
between neighbours but close links to next-neighbours. This probably reflects (1) a regional demand
for similarity, (2) an inter-regional demand for dissimilarity (identity), and (3) a need for alliances
against neighbouring regions. Significantly, Skne
seems to differ somewhat from Sjlland, while full
metal-hilted swords of the Sjlland type occur on
the distant islands of Bornholm and Rgen (North
Germany). Incidentally, apart from South Slesvig,
Sjlland type swords are also quite common in the
far West, along the North Sea coast. Such distribution probably reflects sea-born transportation and


Into the regional perspective come considerations

about routes and means of transportation. Early Bronze
Age burial mounds were lining ancient routes and
roads as was clearly demonstrated already a century
ago by observing rows of mounds approaching fords
at a right angle to the river and continue on the other
side along the same angle (Mller 1904). In the main,
however, the routes would stay on the dry soils, in
particular watersheds. Thus, an overall map of land
communication may be drawn for Jylland, with a
main route going North-South on the backbone of the
peninsula (no doubt inviting control-points between
petty kingdoms and regions). Another route goes in
the same cardinal direction, but further to the West.

Opening the Oak-Coffins

Fig. 19. Very large Period II farmhouse from Brd. Gram,

Skrydstrup parish, Haderslev County. Two phases. Living quarters to
the west, stable to the east. The large pits are basements for storage, the
smaller pits for cooking. After Ethelberg et al. (2000).

East-West routes are also noted, while junctions

see clusters of mounds, including very big and richly
furnished one, as in several places along the Konge
(river) in South Jylland (cf. Holst, Rasmussen & Breuning-Madsen 2004) (Fig. 17), at present-day rhus
around Borum Eshj (No. 2) (Schulz 1993) (Fig. 18; cf.
Fig. 2 & Pls. 14 &19-20), etc. In a number of areas and
places with many burial mounds, routes are clearly going towards the coast, as at the present-day cities and
towns of Slesvig (Schleswig), Flensborg (Flensburg),
benr, Haderslev, Esbjerg, Horsens, rhus, Gren,
and at several places near the Limfjord waterway in
North Jylland, in particular in the densely populated
West. These are obvious places to look for Bronze
Age harbours (cf. Karte 1-4 in Zimmermann 1988).
Also the North Frisian Islands (off the western coast
of South Slesvig) were densely populated, according
to the many burial mounds, while the mostly low and
thus rather wet western mainland was not (cf. Kersten
1935, Taf. XXIXf.; Zimmermann 1988, Karte 1).
Large coastal zones in East Jylland ( Jutland) were
seemingly heavily forested (as they have been until
recent times) and poorly settled, adding to the cultural boundary between most of the Jylland peninsula,
linked to Holstein, and the Danish Islands. The inte-


rior of Fyn and Sjlland, as well as the poorer interior

areas of Skne (Scania), were also thinly populated,
and no doubt forested, in contrast to the rich open
lands of the western and southern coast of Skne (including the Kristianstad region in the northeast). On
Sjlland, most burial mounds and graves are found in
the northern half of the island. Also on Bornholm are
many grave find, nearly all near the coasts. Indeed,
in the Baltic-Kattegat basins, the settlement is clearly
orientated towards the coast. Many burial mounds
line the resund, for instance, and are still clearly
visible from the sea, like many monuments along the
Limfjord in North Jylland.
Interestingly, in eastern Holstein, also devoid of
coastal finds, an inland concentration of graves in the
Bad Segeberg-Pln area is noteworthy. It coincides
with an area of salt, utilized in historical periods. In
the west, the low coastal areas are again devoid of
finds, whilte there are very many indeed from the
inland South of the Ejder River, the Meldorf-Heide
area (Kersten 1935, Taf. XXIXf.; Zimmermann 1988,
Karte1). Thus, also in this area several kingdoms
(concentrations of settlement and various cultural features) make themselves manifest.
Bronze Age waggons comprise both a heavy, yet
developed ox-drawn vehicle for heavy transportation, and a fast horse-drawn chariot (Schovsbo 1987;
Randsborg 1992; 1993a). Large (and smaller) paddled boats - or canoes - are know from the legion of
rock-carvings and other images, and from the light
fast and sea-going Hjortspring boat of the Pre-Roman
Iron Age, clearly derived from Bronze Age models,
although about 150 years later than the close of the
age (Randsborg 1995). Clearly, communication was
central to Early Bronze Age society, even though lack
of proper maritime research is the likely reason for
the dearth of Bronze boats, whole or just in parts.
Travel beyond southernmost Scandinavia with certainty went to Norway and the western and southern
coast of the Baltic, as well as up the Weser, Elbe, and
Oder rivers. Vis--vis Central Scandinavia, as well as
North Germany to the South and East of Holstein,
Southernmost Scandinavia clearly plays the leading
part (cf. below, and Fig. 32). Interestingly, no North
Scandinavian imports are recorded, while Danish
artefacts travel way to the North, seemingly being
very attractive. South Scandinavian artefacts are quite


Acta Archaeologica

common down to a line about present-day HannoverBerlin, which probably indicates a series of meeting
places between the North and the South (cf. Thrane
1975, Fig. 128 for the Late Bronze Age). Towards the
East, along the southern Baltic coast, there are clearly
contacts as far as present-day Lithuania: Baltic artefacts commonly found in Denmark, perhaps a reflection of raids. The main bulk of imports, however,
clearly stem from Central Europe, rich in metals and
information about countries further to the South and
Southeast. There is no or next to no contact across
the North Sea. Some links are with Northwestern Germany, but rarely further on, towards Western Europe.
Evidently, this area is of lesser interest, except, perhaps, for its gold and, possibly, even tin.
Further communication, even expeditions, were
no doubt necessary - putting the material dimension
first - to ensure the vital import of copper, tin, bronze,
and gold, as well as certain foreign artefacts and articles by participating in exchanges and commerce. On
the related level, acquisition of information, participation in crucial ritual gatherings, establishment and

maintenance of regional and supra-regional alliances,

marriage networks, etc. were no doubt at least equally
important. The latter phenomenon is revealed, for instance, by female foreign jewellery, as in the grave
from Smidstrup, Prst County, with items from
Lower Saxony (AK II 1264A; Lomborg 1968, 129f.).
Indeed, the charm of the exotic, and the ability to
travel far, typically by boat, were highly important
parts of social staging, as was all exclusive knowledge,
for instance about cosmos, as we shall see below.


Crossing next the line to armed conflict, we take up

yet other dimensions of life in the Early Bronze Age.
Chariots, fine boats and the exquisite and plentiful
weapons of the Early Bronze Age speak their own
language about relations gone awry in fighting for
honour and resources. In these martial matters, boats,
with a crew of 10-20+, perhaps even 30 fighters,
would have served both as training grounds and the

TORSTED (Period I) - weapon deposit, here arranged as boat crew:

1 spear (prow) + 16x2 spear + 3x2 spear, axe + 1 spear, axe (steersman, aft) = 40 paddlers/fighters
RRBY (Late Period I) - manned boat, picture on bronze scimitar:
1 (prow) + 16x2 + 1 (steersman, aft) = 34 paddlers/fighters
SIMRIS 19 (Period II+) - several manned boats, rock-carvings, examples:
5x2 + 1 (steersman, aft) = 11 paddlers/fighters
1 (prow) + 6x2 + 1 (steersman, aft) = 14 paddlers/fighters
8x2 + 1 (steersman, aft) = 17 paddlers/fighters
1 (prow) + 3x2 + 1(?) + 4x2 + 1 (steersman, aft) = 17 paddlers/fighters (?)
FRJK (Period II) - weapon deposit, arranged as boat crew
10 axe + 4 spear, axe + 1 dagger, spear, battle-axe = 15 paddlers/fighters
= 5x2 + 2x2 + 1 (steersman, aft)
HJORTSPRING (Early Pre-Roman Iron Age) - preserved boat & distribution of weapons
1 (steersman, prow) + 9x2 + 1x2 (on deck) + 1 (steersman, aft) = 22 paddlers/fighters
= 1 spears, sword, shield + 18 spears, shield + 2 spear, sword, shield + 1 spear, sword, shield

Fig. 20. Chart of real and supposed boat-crews and their weaponry: Torsted (AK X 4761), Rrby (AK II 617), Simris 19 (Althin 1945, 72f. &
Taf. 1f.), Frjk (AK X 4809), Hjortspring (Randsborg 1995). Randsborg del

Opening the Oak-Coffins

organizing element behind an elite forces on the attack
(cf. Randsborg 1995). Quite a different picture would
have been formed by a mixed local militia forces,
even armies, rallied for the defence, even if these
were also led by commanders supported by smaller
elite forces or retinues. Here tools - like bronze axes/
palstaves - no doubt would have been a substantial
part of the weaponry.
The Period II Smrumovre deposit, Kbenhavn
County (AK I 354) holds weapons (lances & axes)
for a force of about 50 fighters, or even more, if some
would fight with merely a single weapon (in addition,
perhaps, to bow-and-arrow). Of these fighters, about
ten had fine weapon-axes, the rest merely work-axes
(Randsborg 1995, 45f.). There were only one, or at
most two, commanders, or swords/dagger-men, like
the personages we meet in the burial mounds and
oak-coffins. The rest were simple combatants, most
of these would never show up in the oak-coffin graves
(or, if so, without weapons and in the lowermost status group). Such force is likely a militia contingent,
perhaps from 25-50 farmsteads, defending home territory. Fighting on the defence, such militia forces, if
necessary, could no doubt be much larger than revealed by the Smrumovre deposit.
A similar, though slightly smaller force might be
indicated by the Period I deposit from Torsted, Ringkbing County of 40 spearheads - metal-tipped spears
being the new mass weapon of the Bronze Age - and
seven flanged axes (AK X 4761). This may refer to a
small militia force, even a small army with standardized weaponry, made up of seven lance-and-axe men
leading 33 lancers, or a similar army with a wing, or
rather centre, of lance-and-axe men (Fig. 19). The reference may also be to a boat-crew - similarly composed - for one very large vessel, or a group of smaller
canoes. Actually, the boat on a late Period I scimitar
from Rrby, Holbk County (AK II 617) has a crew
of 34.
A Period II deposit from Frjk, Ringkbing County
(AK X 4809) perhaps reflects an elite force consisting
of one commander (battle axe, dagger, spear), with
four men of the retinue (spear, axe), and 10 ordinary
fighters (axe only). This group might represent the
crew of a standard Early Bronze Age vessel, as naturalistically depicted on some rock-carvings, including
Simris 2, Skne (Althin 1950, XXX) (Fig. 19).


Yet other deposits, with swords and other fine

weapons only - often just a single specimen - no
doubt relate to commanders. Such finds includes a
deposit from stofte, Holbk County (AK II 771)
with six fine Period II swords, three full metal-hilted ones, two blades with metal pommels, and one
flange-hilted sword. The latter three items have been
re-sharpened, thus clearly used in battle. Perhaps we
are dealing with a set of parade weapons and actual
weapons. Finally, the two chronologically highly important deposits from Valsmagle, Sor County (AK
II 1097 & 1098), of the closing Period I, should be
mentioned. The first one holds a sword-blade, a battle axe, a large flanged axe, and one large and one
smaller spearhead: weapons, perhaps, for one senior
and one junior commander. The second Valsmagle
deposit holds a full metal-hilted sword, two battleaxes, one palstave axe (re-sharpened), and one large
and one smaller spearheads, plus a large fishing hook:
equipment, perhaps, for two senior commanders plus
an aide, or just some tools for the former?
The weaponry was not standardized in the Early
Bronze Age, but bronze-tipped spear and palstave
axe (if not just the common palstave tool) would have
been legion in Period II. (In Period III, the decorated
weapon palstave axe disappeared altogether.) Commanders were also equipped with sword (or dagger),
those of the highest rank with fine full metal-hilted
specimens, even though the flange-hilted swords cast in one piece - would have been more reliable
in serious fighting. Bow and arrow were certainly
known, but hardly figure in archaeological grave
finds and deposits, perhaps they were considered
hunting implements.
The seeming lack of shield (at least before Period
III) and the rather heavy spear- or lance-heads would
indicate that fighting typically was at close quarters,
in the final stage with the axe (or the sword/dagger).
Thick woollen caps would serve as helmets (a normal pixie cap is also known), while the mantles,
possibly rolled up, may somehow protect the left
side and the left arm, like a shield. Fur or leather
capes may also have seen protective use, even fur- or
leather caps; such are - as mentioned above - known
from a bog-body found at Emmer-Erfscheidenveen
in the north-eastern Netherlands and being from a
period contemporary with Period III in the North


Acta Archaeologica

(van der Sanden 1996, 124 etc., with Figs. 170, 173 &
205). Use of large screen-shields, on the contemporary Greek model, can not be ruled out, but there
is no evidence (including no images of such). From
the later Early Bronze Age in the middle Elbe area
(contemporary with the later Late Neolithic in the
North), bossed bronze pendants are known that look
like large shields with a mushroom-shaped upper part
and a pointed lower part separated by two powerful notches (von Brunn 1959, Taf. 29:3, Gda-Birkau,
Bautzen County).
Metal bosses, perhaps for a smaller round shield
of organic material (wood), have been found in a
grave at Hagenau, Southern Germany, contemporary with Period II in the North (Randsborg 1995,
149 Fig. 41). This rich interment also held an axe,
a long sword, a shorter sword (or long dagger), and
various other items, but no spear, even though there
was room for such in the grave. In a Period II grave
at rskovhedehus, Vejle County, three heavy obviously ornamental bosses, 3.0 cm in diameter, with
large conical heads (1.8 cm tall) and powerful nails
were found a flange-hilted sword imitating Aegean
ones (Randsborg 1967; AK IX 4510A). Clearly, the
bosses were once nailed onto a powerful flat smooth
and likely wooden object, at least 1.2 centimetres
thick. Such may well have been a small shield (Iron
Age shields were this thin). Interpretation of the
bosses or studs as decoration at the end of a ferrule seems much less likely, since such would have
been very large, the bosses likely four in number,
and have moved considerably in the grave. On the
other hand, this might in fact be the case if a nearby
arrow head is the tip of the sword blade.

Thus, the order of battle would quickly have turned

into massed duels, difficult to control, and difficult to
end. Horns and metal lurs, the latter at least from Period III onwards, would have provided military signalling. No doubt, fine cult items - the very identity of a
kingdom - would have been displayed before the battle
began, to fire the troops. Sacrifices would have been
made, towards the same end. Kinsmen likely fought
alongside kinsmen, commanders as surrounded by
their retinues of boat-crews, or even their farmers. Perhaps thus, fighting would eventually stop, with a winner and a looser, or a draw. Only with the Iron Age
standardized weaponry on the shield-plus-two-spear/
lances-plus model, phalanx warfare emerged. The phalanx is a battle-formation apt for inclusion of even less
skilled fighters (who were even prevented from escaping the line of battle) and designed for breakthroughs
and quick ends to the fighting (Randsborg 1995).
No doubt, both regional and social dimensions
- the latter minted in horizontal as well as vertical
dimensions, along with communication and conflict,
should be given further attention in Bronze Age studies. Still, it is about individual Early Bronze Age men,
women, and children, their bodies, life-styles, and beliefs that information seems to flow more willingly at
this stage, not least thanks to the oak-coffin graves.
We hardly get any closer to Bronze Age man than
through these fascinating interments. Yet, one puzzle
remains: the seemingly mindless depositing of large
amounts of metal artefacts in the ground: each larger
hoard surpassing the amount of burial wealth in even
the richest graves by far. It was on the basis of the
composition of some of these finds that the above
military reconstructions were established.

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