Anonymous Artefacts and Revealing Runes, ch. 4

4. Analysis and Discussion

4.1 Engendering archaeological material

The use of grave goods as an indicator whether the interred individual was male or female has long been the standard in archaeological research. The “masculine” and “feminine” aspects have been stated in relation to the biological sex of the deceased, not necessarily the role the person had in life. Yet grave goods are present in Scandinavian pre-Christian graves, whether they are a reflection of the dead individual in life or the people who performed the burial. However , the use of grave goods when determining sex or gender can be complicated. Two of the most common groups of items, like jewellery for women and weapons for men, can present substantial challenges if the boundaries are rigid (Hjørungdal 1998:88 ). Despite reservations regarding the use of grave goods as significant in determining gender, someone placed or deposited grave goods in the tomb of the deceased with purpose (Moen 2010:6 ). Costin elaborates on this point of view :

Some have argued that mortuary analysis can be problematic because mortuary practices sometimes mask organizational structures and aspects of practice actually operating in a society. Yet the grave goods displayed and then deposited with an individual clearly must reflect someone’s version of reality: there must be an underlying ideological, ritual, sociological, or political, if not operative, reason why the dead and/or those who have buried them would choose to mark a person in death in a particular way. (Costin 1996:119)

Following Costin’s statement, grave goods and other artefacts that have been linked to gender roles cannot easily be dismissed solely on a theoretical basis. The material should rather be evaluated and reflected upon before drawing any conclusions with regards to gender attributions. In addition , several studies of Viking Age grave goods display a high degree of correlation between the biological sex of the deceased and gender attributed grave goods (Jesch 1991:14). Stray finds are more complex to analyse because a “closed” context is not present, especially while studying questions of social status (Imer 2007a:35). The classification system must be evaluated in order to reach any conclusions of gender attributed items. The presence of runic script is of great importance in regards to stray finds, as runes occasionally contribute a narrative quality to an artefact by providing clues to its maker or user.

4.1.1 Social gender and biological sex

While social gender is considered to be a cultural product including categories like “feminine” and “masculine”, biological sex is determined in relation to genetic and physical differences between males and females. While biological sex is limited to two categories, gender can present itself in numerous one as numericalones , depending on the cultural and sociological context (Costin 1996:133)[/annotax] . The term “gender” and its definition implies that the biological sex is not considered important in what makes a person “feminine” or “masculine”, other than the physical similarities/differences. The notion of two biological sexes, with pre-determined specific traits, is a form of essentialism (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:30f). In archaeological practice, human remains are still often determined on the basis of biology even when the aim is to study gender of deceased individuals. The gender might not correspond with the “essential traits of the sex” (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:31f). Osteology also has methodological limitations when determining the biological sex of an individual (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:7f). Due to state of preservation there is not always skeletal material present in a grave that can play a decisive role in determining biological sex, like the pelvis or skull (Jesch 1991:13).

Nevertheless , the effect of disregarding the biological sex in determining gender of deceased individuals eventually leads to evaluating grave goods, which has been questioned as suitable for gender determinations (Arwill-Nordbladh 2003:10). This obviously creates a dilemma for researchers interested in how prehistoric gender roles were constructed. Kulick has a pragmatic solution: that human behaviour can have both social as well as biological factors (Kulick 1997:230f). Proposing a middle-way, Hjørungdal explains:

The use of ‘gendering’ instead of ‘sexing’ in the archaeological classification of prehistoric burials help to make the point explicit that we should not look upon humankind and its genders as determined by biology (alone). (Hjørungdal 1994:143)

Hjørungdal clearly explains why gender is a more adequate term to use than sex when discussing how prehistoric society might have constructed gender roles. She stresses the fact that while there might be two biological sexes, gender has no such limitation and consequently offers further possibilities for interpretation.

4.2 Artefacts as gender indicators

This chapter examines specific types of artefacts commonly used in archaeological practice when identifying individuals as females or males. The discussion constitutes the base of comparison with types of artefacts analysed in this paper and the possibilities regarding a theoretical gender approach to the material.

4.2.1 Clothing

Scandinavian Viking Age dress fashion has been considered conservative and unvaried geographically, particularly the female dress (Arbman 1939:100ff). Jansson called it “standardized”, suggesting that a small material is representative for most of Scandinavia when it comes to dress fashion (Jansson 1985:9). The presence of oval brooches is one of the most significant details of Viking Age female dress (Larsson 2008:182, Dommasnes 2001:106, Jesch 1991:14f, Jansson 1985, Graham-Campbell 1980:102, Arbman 1939:102 ). Of all the assorted types of Viking Age brooches, the oval type is the most common (Jansson 1985:12). In Birka, oval brooches were found in most burials belonging to biological females (Gräslund 1980:81). Other types of brooches like trefoil, box and disc brooches are also frequent in female graves and in some cases, hoards (Kilger 2008:325ff, Jesch 1991:14, Jansson 1985:11).

The island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea has box- and animal head-shaped brooches complementing the Viking Age female dress (Carlsson 2003:116, Petré 1993:152). It has been proposed to symbolize the Gotlanders aim to distinguish themselves from other people in the trading world (Carlsson 2003:116). In the material there are 13 brooches connected to the feminine gender. There is also 1 pennanular brooch (no. 46), considered being part of Viking Age male dress fashion (Jesch 1991:14, Jansson 1985:11). A silver needle found in a hoard (no. 26) has been interpreted as being part of a pennanular brooch (Gustavson & Snædal 1984:251ff). In contrast to previous opinions, Petré has gathered together all brooches as belonging to women, including pennanular brooches (Petré 1993:151). Pennanular brooches can however occur in both male and female graves (Liljeholm 1999:147ff). Acknowledging this fact , some have interpreted the presence of pennanular brooches in female graves as a sign that women were sometimes buried with their cloak in the tomb. Generally however , the brooch type is considered a part of male attire (Jansson 1985:11). In this thesis the single pennanular brooch and the pin have been labelled as belonging to the masculine gender, despite reservations since little is known about which context the single pennanular brooch belonged to originally.

4.2.2 Jewellery

There are four pendants in the material. Three are finds from hoards and one silver pendant was found in a female grave in Birka (Bj. 552). As an indicator for gender, jewellery like pendants have been interpreted to belong to the female gender (Kilger 2008:323ff, Petré 1993:151, Jesch 1991:14, 45, Gräslund 1980:82, Arbman 1939:104). Claims have also been made that one of the pendants belong to a “female hoard”, which is one of the contexts examined in this thesis. Kilger brought forth the notion of the importance of intentional hoard composition with regards to hoards containing standardized female jewellery (Kilger 2008:323ff). The artefact in question, no. 23 , is a coin transformed into a pendant. This type of coin pendant is significant when identifying female hoards (Kilger 2008:331).

4.2.3 Tools

Viking Age craftsmen and women used a number of materials, like textiles, leather, stone or wood (Ljungkvist 2008:187). In the Old Norse sagas, Ljungkvist argues that the handicrafts are clearly divided between feminine and masculine gender (Ljungkvist 2008:186). Blacksmithing and a smith’s tools were considered “masculine” while work connected with textiles, like weaving and spinning, were attributed to the feminine gender (Ljungkvist 2008:186, Jesch 1991:21f). The same division of work tools can be seen in graves belonging to biological males and females (Ljungkvist 2008:186, Jesch 1991:21f). In the rich burial of two women at Oseberg, artefacts belonging to textile work have been found, including four looms and other tools for spinning and weaving (Jesch 1991:33). Before the skeletal remains in the Oseberg ship were analysed, excavators had already reached the conclusion that the buried individuals were female because of the grave goods (Arwill-Nordbladh 1998:32f). Most scholars agree that textile work was connected to the feminine gender in the Viking Age (Larsson 2008:184, Ljungkvist 2008:186, Dommasnes 1991:71, Jesch 1991:19;22, Hjørungdal 1991:98, Graham-Campbell & Kidd 1980:82). Neverthelessit has been suggested that gender attributed crafts and tools might have been more flexible and open to transgressions of different sorts (Ljungkvist 2008:184).

Seven tools for textile work are present in the material. The tools served different purposes connected to weaving and spinning. The three spindle-whorls come from different geographical contexts. One was found Birka and two were found in Norway. The spindle-whorls have mainly been associated with textile work in the countryside, while other tools like thin needles and scissors have been found in richer contexts (Larsson 2008:184). Evidence suggests that smaller spindle-whorls might have been used in urban centres as well (Larsson 2008:183). The Birka spindle-whorls for example differ in size from those found outside the trading centre (Andersson 2003:135). The difficulty with several types of Viking Age tools is that a majority of them belong to exceptionally rich burials, where there are an abundance of most things connected to craft and production (Ljungkvist 2008:187, Dommasnes 2001:107). A survey of textile tools and cooking utensils in graves containing weapons, done by Anders M Rabben (2002), showed that attributing artefacts related to crafts can be more complicated than previously believed.

4.2.4 Functional artefacts

Utensils and vessels appear in different shapes, types and sizes in the studied material (see fig. 2). There are dishes, like a dipper and a kettle, but also a copper box that originates from Ireland (Jesch 1991:46). Boxes like the Celtic one from Irske (no. 25) were originally used as reliquaries in their native country but were probably transformed into a jewellery box after its arrival in Norway (Imer 2007a:226). The bronze bowl from Kaupang is another “domesticated” liturgical item that has been reused as a hand basin (Price 2010:129, Imer2007a:225). Vessels are represented by a kettle from the Gokstad burial belonging to a man and a bronze dipper from Trå, found in a grave belonging to a woman. In the Oseberg mound , a bucket was excavated. This shows that cooking supplies can appear in graves belonging to both males and females, despite some scholars taking it for granted that women handled the food (e.g. Graham-Campbell 1980:82). Others have highlighted the fact that while the Vikings were travelling, they had to be able to cook for themselves without the assistance of women (Jesch 1991:27).

4.2.5 Weapons

If tools for textile production have been associated with women, the presence of weapons has almost exclusively been interpreted as belonging to male individuals. Weapons of various kinds are by far the most common artefacts associated with males, often considered being “typically” male (or masculine) (Price 2002:149, Petré 1993:150, Jesch 1991:13f). This normative interpretation is often taken for granted:

Old Norse sagas and poetry on the other hand praise the art of the warrior and not least his weapons… (Pedersen 2008:204)

Graves with an absence of weapons have on occasion been interpreted as female graves (Hjørungdal 1994:144). However , there are several instances where weapons have been found in female burials. In Klinta, Sweden, excavators found a sword that probably belonged to the female in a double-burial, not the male. Price has interpreted this as the possible grave of a volva (Price 2002:149). Furthermore , a female burial in Gerdrup contained a spear. Axes have also been found in female graves in Kaupang. It is howeverhowever unclear whether[/annotax] they were intended for practical use or not (Jesch 1991:21f).

4.3 Contextualising runic artefacts

Runic artefacts can appear in different archaeological contexts. Determining context is important in order to interpret the artefact. In this chapter, artefacts found in gender attributed graves, female hoards and settlements are discussed and presented.

4.3.1 Graves

Graves, on the condition that they are intact, can be considered “closed contexts” until excavated. In contrast to grave finds, stray finds are taken out of context. Consequently , closed contexts like hoards and burials are ideal when examining runic artefacts since it has been suggested that there is a chronological correlation between inscriptions on artefacts and time of deposition (Imer 2007a:36f). Twelve artefacts have been deposited as grave goods in 10 graves belonging to biological females and males (fig. 10). The Oseberg ship burial of two females contained three different rune-inscribed items: a bucket, an oar and a sleigh or wagon. A total of seven graves have been determined to belong to females, while two graves, the Gokstad ship-burial and the Långtora chamber grave (fig. 11), have been attributed to biological males (Jesch 1991:34, Arbman 1936:89ff). In Kaupang , a burial of multiple individuals containing a runic artefact has been found (Price 2010:129f). In addition , there are four graves containing four artefacts where no gender attributions have been made to the author’s knowledge . There is also a possibility of two more graves, based on lists of additional grave goods supplied in Lisbeth M. Imer’s catalogue (Imer 2007b:420; 447).

Figure 10. No. of grave contexts containing runic artefacts. [Figure not shown]

Several artefacts examined in this paper are made of fragile material. Organic materials, for example wood or textiles, are usually not preserved well except in bogs or in burial mounds (Imer 2007a:33f). This makes the runic artefacts from the Oseberg burial exceptional with regards to preservation of the material as well as the runic inscription (Imer 2007a:34).

Figure 11. Runic artefacts found in graves. [Figure not shown]

4.3.2 Hoards

It has been proposed that  certain hoards, like the gold hoard found in Hon, can be tied to females through the standardized jewellery they contain (Kilger 2008:326). Similar composition of jewellery and types of brooches can appear in both female graves and hoards; hence it is likely that this conclusion is accurate (Kilger 2008:333). However , there is only 1 item, no. 23, from a female hoard in this study. To examine this pendant on the basis of a context connected to females can produce a distorted result since any corresponding material linked to the male gender is lacking. Irrespective of this reservation, the fact remains that artefact no. 23 is a pendant. The connection between women and jewellery like pendants was discussed in chapter 4.2.2. No. 23 is therefore suggested to have a twofold relationship to the feminine gender, contextualized by means of a “female hoard” and by being considered a typical female artefact.

4.3.3 Settlements

14 artefacts are from different types of settlements (fig. 12). Eight were found in the Viking Age trading centre of Birka. Birka, and the adjoining island of Adelsö which probably housed the king , was founded around the middle of the 8th century . Birka served as both a place for trade as well as a royal seat (Magnus & Gustin 2009:14ff;22f). The alkaline soil in Birka has preserved a large number of artefacts made of bone and other fragile materials in the Black Earth (Hyenstrand 1992:42), like a bone needle (artefact no. 2). All artefacts from Birka, except artefact no. 1, are stray finds. The types of artefacts and inscriptions do not have many features in common. While runic artefacts appear in settlements, closed contexts are more suitable when performing gender studies , since stray finds are difficult to interpret (Imer 2007a:35).

Figure 12. Artefacts from settlements. [Figure not shown]

4.4 Analysing runic artefacts using a gender perspective

In the final chapter of the analysis, inscriptions and artefacts are jointly discussed with regards to context, content and frequency. The chapter focuses on how the material can be interpreted when using a gender perspective. An important part of the discussion is also to attempt to distinguish patterns with regards to both artefacts and inscriptions.

4.4.1 Inscriptions

In total , 28 names appear in the material. Thirteen can be categorized as male names and 12 are probably female names (fig. 13). Two combinations of transliterated names can belong to either gender, since the names are similar (Jesch 1991:45). Hegvin is an unfamiliar name and has therefore been excluded from any gender attribution. Figure 14 shows how gender attributed names manifest in the material as either maker or non-maker .

It is likely that  seven of the male names belongs to a potential owner of an artefact, since six out of 13 inscriptions mentions a male as the maker, rune-carver or gift-giver. A number of male names appear as crafter on artefacts that can be attributed to the female gender.

Figure 13. Gender attributed personal names. [Figure not shown]

Figure 14. Gender division of makers. [Figure not shown]

There is also a female name mentioned as a crafter: ”Gunnhildr made the spindle-whorl” (no. 22). Females mentioned as makers of artefacts is not surprising, but it has been unnoticed in the past (e.g. Jesch 1991:46). The name Bøðný on artefact no. 52, a box-shaped brooch, can be interpreted as a female name due to a similar female name mentioned in an Old Norse Saga (Snaedal 1986:81f). Figure 15 shows an estimation of the presence and manifestation of names in percent.

Figure 15. Gendered names in %. [Figure not shown]

The inscription on artefact 32, a knife shaft, reads : ”Sinkasvein(?) polished for Þorfriðr”. While Sinkasvein is probably a male name, the female Þorfriðr can also be misinterpreted as Þorfreðr, a male name (Jesch 1991:45). Knives are not gender specific and can be used for many things, further complicating gender attribution (Jesch 1991:14, Graham-Campbell & Kidd 1980:102, Rabben 2002:38). A similar issue regarding Þorfriðr/Þorfreðr manifests on artefact 41, a pendant from Hon (Jesch 1991:45). Misinterpreted personal names are problematic since it can produce misleading results in the long run (Williams 2008:287).

In some cases two or more names are present, albeit not in a customer-maker relationship. In similar situations, both names have been taken into consideration for the analysis. One example is a cryptic inscription on a weaving tablet from Lund (no. 34), indirectly naming a man: “Sigvôr’s Ingimarr will have my weeping / unhappiness …” (?) (Scandinavian Runic-Text Data Base accessed 120516). The combination of an artefact associated with female work and the presence of a female name as the active part, suggests that the weaving tablet belonged to a representative of the feminine gender (Snædal 1994:18).

Artefact no. 56, a bronze fitting, carries the inscription: “Gautvid gave this weight house to Gudfrid” (Imer 2007b:458, translation from Danish by the author of this work). Viking Age gift-giving between men and women expressed through runic inscriptions is not uncommon (Jesch 1991:46). While no. 56 contains two names, it is evident that the owner of the artefact was Gudfrid (female), not Gautvid (male). No. 37, the bucket from the Oseberg burial, bears the female name Sigríðr. Since the ship burial contained two biological females, it is not unlikely that the bucket belonged to either of the women. The presence of personal names on graves goods is rare (two inscriptions). The copper kettle from the Gokstad burial has an inscription saying “Ubbi made” and the runes on the Oseberg bucket says “Sigríðr owns” (Scandinavian Rune-Text Data Base 120520).

Attempting to interpret profane inscriptions brings another level of difficulty to the material, because there is limited philological value in the inscriptions with regards to gender (fig. 8). One of the ritual inscriptions contains a reference to woman named Ása. It is the only case where a personal name appears on an artefact categorized as ritual.

A substantial number of the runic artefacts are categorized as “functional” (15 posts, see fig. 2), but only one inscription on a functional artefact refers to the actual use of the artefact (no. 27). Instead functional artefacts sometimes carry names: 20% single female names and 13% single male names. Another 13% is composed of both male and female names. Twenty-seven percent of the inscriptions are unintelligible. There is also one undetermined name, one ritual inscription and one classified as profane. This suggests that there is not a high correlation between the functional use of an artefact and inscriptions that describe the use or function of an artefact.

Inscriptions containing two names can be analysed on a higher level. For example, the inscription on no. 32 reads: ”Sinkasvein(?) polished for Þorfriðr”. Sinkasvein is the crafter so he can be said to assume the role of the passive part while Þorfriðr plays the active part as an owner. If similar sentences are analysed with regards to passive and active roles in the runic material, the active female names amount to 33% while the percent of active male names remains at 13% (M gave to → F, M polished for → F).

Several artefacts have been categorized as items of personal adornment, like jewellery and different kinds of brooches (fig. 1). The number of names present in the material of this type is 10. Two names refer to the owner of the brooch and two male names are mentioned as makers or carvers. Brooches are typical to find in graves (Gräslund 1980:81) and it is not surprising that crafters carved runes on someone else’s brooch. The owner inscriptions on brooches differ from the inscriptions on the jewellery. While it is written that “Botvi owns me” on one brooch (no. 48), two of the pendants carry only personal names, not sentences. Lisbeth M. Imer has proposed that the use of runes on brooches might be a Gotlandic speciality and this is supported by her analysis (Imer 2007a:120; 220). This study confirms that Gotlandic brooches carry more inscriptions than any other type of brooch in the material and that Imer’s suggestion is credible.

4.4.2 Graves

In Kaupang, a burial of two women, one man and one infant contained a copper bowl (Price 2010:127). In the analysis the burial shows up as the unique grave for multiple individuals containing a runic artefact (fig. 12). However , the bowl’s placement was in close proximity to one of the females (Price 2010:129). It stands to argue whether this artefact should have been analysed as belonging to the female individual rather to the quadruple burial in itself. In total, 12 runic artefacts have been found in grave contexts as discussed in chapter 4.3.1. Fifty percent of these artefacts are functional in some way. This assessment correlates with the general opinion in archaeological research that everyday items were interred with the deceased, like in the Oseberg burial (Jesch 1991:32f). On the other hand, both the Oseberg and Gokstad ship-burials are exceptionally rich (Graham-Campbell & Kidd 1980:25ff), which raises doubt whether these artefacts can be seen as representative for all runic artefacts from grave contexts. The Kaupang grave, housing the runic bowl, was also rich in various ways (Price 2010:127ff, Imer 2007a:119). The presence of “domestic items” in burials belonging to both female and male individuals raises doubts regardingthe opinion that women exclusively handled the preparation and production of food (e.g. Graham-Campbell 1980:82).

4.4.3 Hoards

Two hoard finds have personal names. The inscriptions on these pendants differ from those on brooches, since they only contain names without being part of a sentence or referring to a maker. On artefact no. 44 it says ”Þóra” + ”Þorfríðr/Þorfreðr” and on artefact no. 45 it says “Slóði”. The Hon pendant has been interpreted as belonging to a woman of distinguished social status (Imer 2007a:118), not least since the Hon hoard is composed of different items of high value and material (Kilger 2008:326f). The presence of runic script on artefacts in hoards has sometimes been interpreted as having a “magical” dimension since runic artefacts have also been found in extraordinary female graves (Kilger 2008:333f).