I’ve never expected to say a sentence like “oh, I’ve found another piece from my grave!”. But here I am, celebrating goals by getting things “from my grave”. Some people look really confused when I say things like that, and some people understand immediately. But it might just be that I’ve been bombarding them about this for way too long, so to ease their burden, I’ll now bombard you guys instead!
It began the first year of the plague. I had my eyes set on a new pair of Viking Age tortoise brooches, the kind of brooches you use in pairs to hold up an apron dress with, since I felt my old pairs didn’t do it for me anymore. These new ones were bigger, shinier and from a model found at Birka. They didn’t come cheap, but I started saving whatever I could.
Hjalmar Stolpes sketch of Bj 644, 1878
While waiting for them, as usual, I kept looking for pretty feastgear, and noticed that a glass that I’ve been wanting to get for a while, had a number in it’s description that I recognized. 644. I felt that weird tingle you get when connecting things, and rushed back to the description of my brooches. And yes! They both came from the same grave on Birka. I started to feel that this was a connection I wanted to keep building on.
But maybe I should give some background to all of this. Birka is the Latin name for the island Björkö (hence the Bj). A settlement starting growing there in the mid 700’s and during two hundred years Birka was a thriving city and Sweden’s most important place for trade throughout northern Europe. The city had a perfect location because it was centrally located, but also well protected in the Baltic Sea. Merchants and tradesmen came to Birka with goods from all over Europe and other parts of the world. The material information we have about Birka is mainly through archaeological excavations. Over 3,000 grave sites are located in Birka, including both cremations and burials in coffins or chamber graves.
Bj 644 is a chamber grave, north of the hillfort, it’s 2,6 × 1,9 meter and on a 1,8 meter depth. The dating is estimated to the years 920-975 and the grave has one man and one woman. The grave has a lot of objects, both ones that are normally connected to men, such as weapons, and objects normally connected to women, such as the brooches and textile tools.
Content of Bj 644, original drawing from Arbman, 1943
Bj 644 is one of the graves that shows the connections and trade Birka had with other areas and people. Finds from Birka shows connections with the Carolingian Empire, the Frisians, Dorestad, the west Slavic coast and the areas that today are Finland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Bj 644 is one of 13 explored graves that has costume details from Finland. The grave is said to be one the graves with the greatest wealth of artefacts. It’s even been called lavishly furnished in an article which gives the people in it a elite status and that using objects from other cultures helped to assert and increase status and social position. The set of scales in this grave also indicates that these persons belonged to groups involved in the trade and exchange of goods.1 The objects of the male is quite comsmopolitan/international with influences of Magyar, Baltic and Slavic cultures, whilst the female coded objects are distinctively norse. This is a common pattern, even in Scandinavian graves abroad. There are also some theories about the man not being local to the region, but it seems like research is still being done in that area.
When it comes to the clothing, there’s pretty much no fabric in this grave, so I’ll be using a more general information about pieces and weaving techniques from Birka to recreate what she could’ve been wearing. But I’ll circle back to that in a another post!
The more I read about the grave and for every replica I found that was possible to get, I sank deeper into the project. I want to get as close as I can get to that woman by having and using the same things as she could’ve been using. Sometimes it’s hard to say if a piece belonged/was used to the man or the woman, so some guessing will be used.
Right now I have 4 replicas of items from the grave, and 4 that I can quite easily get my hands on. After that it’ll become a bit more difficult; require some research, special ordering and some more financial planning. But I see this as a long term project, so I don’t have to get it all done right away.
1 Gustin, Ingrid (2016). Elites, networks and the Finnish connection in Birka