Snäckedal: the hill of ships

Site viewSnäckedal is a low hill overlooking a bog close to the Baltic coast of southern Sweden. It is the main focus for a an extraordinary concentration of Bronze Age monuments. In all, there are about forty of these in a major cemetery on the hilltop, as well as more scattered examples around the edges of the bog. In April 2005 the site was studied by Richard Bradley and Dag Widholm from the University of Kalmar.

The cemetery seems to have gone through at least two phases, in which the monuments were built in very different ways. In the first phase, which is tentatively dated to the Early Bronze Age, the highest points were occupied by three enormous circular cairns built by clearing surface boulders from the hilltop. One of the cairns was accompanied by a smaller monument of the same type. In the Late Bronze Age, each of the existing monuments was supplemented by a group of smaller stone settings, which were often defined by a kerb of quarried rock; traces of the prehistoric quarries were identified during our fieldwork. The newly built monuments were of three kinds: small circular stone settings, rectangular stone settings whose form resembles that of a house, and a series of ship settings, the biggest of which is 37 metres long. Each cluster was built in an individual style and may have served a separate part of the wider community, but the cemetery was also divided in half by the main ship setting. On one one side of that division were all but one of the 'house settings', whilst the other part contained the remaining ship settings. That distinctive arrangement seems to reflect the distinctive position of Snäckedal a kilometre from a former inlet of the sea and on the edge of a large tract of dry ground. Pollen analysis suggests that the site may have served a wider area, and there is no evidence that anyone had lived there. A series of mounds of fire-cracked stones along the edge of the bog may be evidence of large scale food preparation or even the cremation of the dead.

Ship settingThe ship settings are important for another reason. They are all aligned on large cairns which are thought to be among the first monuments in the cemetery, and in two cases they are well enough preserved to show that the boats were sailing TOWARDS the edges of these cairns. Two more ship settings beyond the edge of the cemetery are not associated with any other monuments and show vessels travelling AWAY FROM the cemetery towards a a point on the Baltic coast three kilometres north of Snäckedal. It seems as if the dead were brought to the cemetery by boat and that they may eventually have returned to the sea. The association between ships and dead is well known in later periods. Here it appears in one of its earliest guises.

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