Note: every fact in this text is from the top of my head. If some of it looks interesting, take time to double check it with reliable sources.
Another week is coming to its close. I’ve been working mostly on the Vikings, partly due to the blessings of audiobooks, and because my health doesn’t allow for bold chunks of other activities. The streaming service I’ve subscribed to gives me access to a lot of academical works. Not dissertations and papers, but good public facing books from solid scholars. I check up the author before I dive in. After all the service is a general one, leaning towards entertainment, and probably picks up less useful texts for my research. And sometimes the author has a name that screams tin foil hat. Robert N Spengler III had me do a doubletake, probably because I associated to Norton I, Emperor of the United States (real name Joshua Abraham Norton, a San Francisco trader who proclaimed himself emperor 1859). To my relief professor Spengler proved to be an established archaeobotanist, and his “Fruit from the Sands” is really good.
One of the things I have for free by living in Uppland – very much the former Viking mainland – is that I can study large chunks of the landscape they lived in. Up until roughly the 18thC changing the environment was a Major Commitment, and even when things like motorised excavators became common most of the area has been left alone. While there was a period during the 19thC when (rich) people ran amock, most of the stuff here have been left as it is. Hence if you know what to look for you can read the surroundings like a book. You know where the burial mounds will show up, and where you’re likely to find a runestone or a medieval church.
I live in a small village roughly 30min by car from Uppsala. I usually go by bus, and the road happen to pass “behind” Old Uppsala and the large mounds. Was this planned when the family got the house? No, we had to pick the one we could afford. But in Uppland Vikings have poked every stone, and it was more a question of which historical landmarks I’d have close than if I’d have them there. So I’m not surprised. Instead I’m grateful for the opportunity to do some left hand research every time I have to go downtown for shopping or work.
I should probably explain the “behind” part about Old Uppsala. The site’s current public facing side is directed to another major road than the one I travel (they’re parallell yet situated a few miles apart). From that road you reach the visitors centre, the parish’s communal house, and the hiking roads leading up to both the mounds and the Old Uppsala church. In the communal mind this is the front side. On the other side of the mounds you don’t have much if you’re a visitor. A snippet of the old village reaches to the place, and since people are living there it consists of modern houses – not reconstructions. Behind the village there are vast fields where the local farmers grow wheat and rye. This is the side I see from the bus, the “behind”.
My hypothesis is that this was the real front side during the Viking Age (and earlier times). It’s probably not a controversial one among scholars. It’s more a question of the communal mind being slow in the uptake, since everything front facing is on the other side. The reason I think this is the front side is mainly because the Fyris river makes a loop around the site, and the river Samnan joins the stream within walking distance from the church. In a time when people prefered to travel by boat it would be far easier to get to the site this way.
Another reason is that both the church and the mounds presents with far more pomp when you see them from “my” side. Adamus of Bremen, who lived in the 11thC, interviewed people who had been to Old Uppsala for his text (he never went to Sweden himself), and he describes the temple as being situated against a fond of mountains as if on a theater stage (if my memory is correct). When you travel down to Uppsala you see the church and the mounds, and a plateau in front of them. I’ve yet to check whether the plateau is added later, but the majestic look of the rest makes me think there is something there.
Interestingly this only works if you go down to Uppsala – which is the direction you would take if you travel downstream the Fyris river. If you leave the town on the same road you hardly see the mounds. A large hill obstructs the view untill you’ve almost past them. However the river flows behind the hill, so you would see it in another way from a boat. You bet I have plans for canoeing this summer! I’m not sure what I’m looking for though. Proof that the site was bigger than we count on now? More Vikings? That the Old Uppsala temple suddenly will jump from the soil shouting “Peekaboo! You FOUND me!”?
Mostly I want to understand the place. It’s so easy to fall in love with a detail – like the plateau I mentioned above – and run with it, building an entire essay out of it before realising it was a fluke. This is a prominent danger when you’re a “freelance” researcher like I am. My access to academic papers is limited, and I don’t have anyone who can be an academic voice of reason if I fall in love with an idea.
To take it down to a more practical level though, the Old Uppsala site is a prime suspect when it comes to gardens. For two reasons even; the first one being that the place was a kind of proto city. The farms at the place were placed closer than usual, and their inner yards were scaled down. In one way a garden is a very small farm, so here we have some possible examples. But there are more than one kind of garden. Another one is the ‘pomp garden’ – the area around a manor or a temple that may be huge as a park. Its function is more ritual – it’s supposed to show off riches, and may be a site for actual rites. The roman temples often had these parks, where there could be race tracks and altars. The Old Uppsala temple would probably have some similar features. The finds of the pillar rows and the communal “bbq” sites speaks for it. Here it’s more a question of how to connect the dots, and if we’ve found all of them.
Before I go, a small update on Alea the Black Cat. She was out in the coldest day of the year so far (-12¤C/10.4¤F), and while I worried she’d freeze to a popsicle she instead went into a HUGE fight. I have no idea who the enemy was, but she got bitten pretty badly, and won. She was perky as normal when I let her in, and didn’t understand at all why she suddenly had to stay indoors. I cleaned her wounds, with the help of bribery, and checked that everything on her head stayed where it should be. So far she’s perky, and doesn’t seem to be affected by any infections – fingers crossed. Hopefully indoor rest will be enough, and her fur will cover her scars.
Take care and stay on top of Christmas!
(This is the letter written for last week. If you want a letter fresh from my keyboard with pretty pictures you can support me on patreon https://www.patreon.com/marthacrimson NB: due to health issues I may not be able to moderate comments on this post – be patient if you comment and nothing happens.)