Welcome to Bronze Age Scandinavia

In this first installment, we start at the top with a look at the lives of pre-Viking chieftains

Bronze Age Scandinavia

Photo: Ruth Kvernplassen
Petroglyph image of a free farmer-warrior at the famous Bronze Age petroglyph site of Tanum in southwestern Sweden. Here we see the warrior holding up his shield with his left arm. His sword hangs at his belt.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Again we return to how life was lived during the core era of the Nordic Bronze Age, 1500 BCE to 1100 BCE. Last time (Feb. 8: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/bronze-age-scandinavia) we met the chieftains of the era. Now let me introduce you to the free farmer-warriors, the “salt of the earth” in Bronze Age Scandinavia.

Most of the people who lived in Scandinavia during the central Bronze Age were free, independent farmers. Free farmers were the backbone of Bronze Age society in Northern Europe. These independent farmers lived on widely spaced farmsteads scattered across the landscape of southern Scandinavia. Their farms constituted the primary productive and social units of the age. They tended to be stable over long periods of time and were inherited by generations over many decades. Each household would have contained from eight to 10 free men and women and up to three to four slaves. In the more fertile parts of Denmark, the population averaged as many as 30 people per square mile, whereas in the rockier and forested lands of western Sweden and southern Norway, the numbers were probably closer to 10-15 people per square mile. Denmark, with its rich, open agricultural lands had an estimated population of 220,000 people by the middle of the Bronze Age, southern Norway and Sweden, in turn, may have shared an equivalent number between them.

The most important structure on the farm was the longhouse. Though some were smaller and some larger, the average longhouse was about 60 feet long and 20 feet wide. The longhouse was often built of wattle and daub walls (woven branches and sticks covered by a mixture of mud, animal dung, and straw) and roofed by rafters covered with thatched grasses. These rafters were held up by two parallel rows of sturdy posts that divided the house into three distinct aisles. Most houses had two doors, one on either long side. At one end were one or more circular fire pits for cooking and generating heat. The main house was usually surrounded by two or three smaller outbuildings that offered storage or provided specialized working areas, for example, a space for shaping and firing ceramic pots.

The larger farms of the era controlled or had access to up to a square mile or more of farmland and pasture. On the whole, the individual agricultural fields were small and oval in shape; roughly 130 by 80 feet to allow for easier tilling with primitive ard-type plows. Common crops of the era included barley, emmer wheat, bread wheat, spelt, broad beans, and gold of pleasure (an oily seed crop). Equally important to the economy, if not more so, were domestic animals. Cattle were particularly popular, along with sheep, goats, and pigs. Because the climate was relatively mild during the central Bronze Age, large numbers of cattle were easy to keep; they did not need to be sheltered or to be fed stored fodder during the winter.

If you were a man, you would wear either a short kilt of wool held up by a leather belt or a “wrap-around,” a large blanket-like garment that you would wrap repeatedly around your body starting at the left shoulder and ending at the knees. Like the kilt, it would be cinched by a leather belt at the waist. You would keep warm with a woolen shirt and a large kidney-shaped or oval cloak worn over your shoulders and clasped by a bronze pin or brooch. For your feet you would have woolen wraps and leather shoes. On your head you might wear a round or acorn-shaped hat made of pile-stitched wool.

Hanging from your belt might be both a bronze dagger and a bronze sword in a wooden scabbard. In a small leather pouch on your belt, you most likely carried a bronze razor and a set of tweezers. Clean-shaven cheeks appear to have been the rule for the free farmers, and unruly hairs were not tolerated. Combs of either horn or antler were popular with both men and women.

If you were a woman, you would wear a long woolen skirt with a woolen blouse. Your hair would be long but carefully styled so that your head was covered in an elaborate woven net of hair. Your belt would be decorated by a large, shiny shield-like bronze disk decorated with spirals. Your unmarried teenage daughter would wear a short knee-length corded skirt and woolen top. She too might have a belt sporting a bronze disk. If she was among the upper 20% of the free-farmer women she might also possess a neck ring or collar of bronze, along with other items of Bronze Age “bling” such as earrings and arm rings.

Free farmers of the period appear to have thrived on a diet of grains, herbs, dairy, meat, and fish. And we know from residue found in ancient ceramic pots that like many Scandinavians today, they ate brunost (brown cheese). At this time people were slightly taller than their counterparts in the later Viking Age and much taller than 19th-century Scandinavians. Men averaged 5 feet 7 inches in stature and women of the time averaged 5 feet 4 inches.

Like the Vikings, the free farmers were also warriors and probably engaged in significant raiding and warfare on behalf of their communities and chieftain leaders. Weapons of war included axes, swords, and spears along with round shields. Most free farmer-warriors seem to have wielded deadly short bronze swords; these were not just for the richest among them. At this time southern Scandinavia was a land of exceptional metal wealth in Europe. Between 10,000 and 20,000 swords were left behind in the soils of Denmark during the central Bronze Age, and many of these double-edged blades show nicks from combat and evidence of repeated sharpening.

When the man of the house was away raiding, the women probably took over the household as did their Viking counterparts. Women, based on their burial goods, seem to have enjoyed high status in society, and thus most likely inherited property separate from their husbands. Did any of them join the men as warriors as some clearly did in the later Viking Age? Thus far, there is no evidence of Bronze Age women warriors, but who knows; perhaps archeological proof of such a role is just around the corner. Archeological research is always full of surprises, for the past does not yield its secrets easily.

If the reader is as intrigued by Bronze Age Scandinavia as I am, I recommend the website of the National Museum of Denmark. It offers a stunning tour of the museum’s Bronze Age collections and exhibits at en.natmus.dk/historical-knowlege/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age (or just use the search words “Danish National Museum, the Bronze Age”).

 

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway.  He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.

This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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