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Heads on stakes – unique Stone Age finds at Kanaljorden, Motala, Sweden [da]

In 1965 a young woman was found dead in a canal in Motala (by the locks at Borenshult), molested and murdered. The body was later identified as an American tourist, Roseanna McGraw, who was taking a boat trip in southern Sweden. This was the first murder mystery to be solved by Martin Beck and his team of police investigators in the ten police procedurals - collectively titled The Story of a Crime - written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Now another mystery has emerged from what once used to be a small lake in Motala. And this is a real mystery. At Kanaljorden several human skeletons dating back from the Stone Age have been unearthed by at team of archaeologist lead by Fredrik Hallgren.

It is a complex Mesolithic site with ceremonial depositions of human crania in a small lake. The skulls have been been handled through a complex ceremony that involved the displaying of skulls on stakes, and the deposition of skulls in water. The rituals were conducted on a massive (14 x 14 m) stone-packing constructed on the bottom of a shallow lake.

Archaeologists at work at Kanaljorden, Motala
Archaeologists at work at Kanaljorden, Motala

In a pressrelease from the 19th of November 2011 the finding of the spectacular heads on stakes is described:

Archaeological excavations in 2009–2011 at Kanaljorden in the town of Motala, Östergötland in central Sweden have unearthed a unique Mesolithic site with ceremonial depositions of human crania in a former lake. The human skulls have been treated in a complex ceremony that involved the display of skulls on stakes and the deposition of skulls in water. The skulls have been 14C-dated and are 8000 years old.

The rituals at Kanaljorden were conducted on a massive stone-packing constructed on the bottom of a shallow lake (nowadays a peat fen). Some human crania were found as more or less intact “skulls” while others were found as isolated fragments, for example a frontal lobe or a temporal bone. Based on the more intact skulls eleven individuals have been identified, both men and women, ranging in age between infants and middle age. Two of the skulls had wooden stakes inserted into the cranium. In both cases the stakes were inserted the full length from the base to the top of the skull. In another case a temporal bone of one individual (a woman) was found placed inside the skull of another woman. Besides human skulls the find material also includes a small number of post-cranial human bones and bones from animals, as well as artefacts of stone, wood, bone and antler.

The skull depositions at Kanaljorden are clearly ritual in character. The next step is to find out if the human bones are relics from dearly departed that were handled in a complex secondary burial ritual, or trophies of defeated enemies. The archaeologists hope that the ongoing laboratory analysis will give clues to if the bones are remains of locals or persons with a distant geographic origin, and if they represent a family group or persons unrelated to each other.

One of the skulls with wooden a stake inserted into foramen magnum
One of the skulls with a stake inserted into foramen magnum
  
Another skull is being unearthed at the site at Kanaljorden
Another skull is being unearthed at the site at Kanaljorden

It will be interesting to hear of the results of the laboratory analysis of stable isotopes and - if very lucky - aDNA: Are the remains of "dearly departed" or "trophies of defeated enemies." Another interesting question is what were the state of the skulls when they were put on the stakes? Were they recently chopped of heads or were they allready defleshed? No other finds from that period offers any comparaive material so it truely is a great mystery we are dealing with here!

Another very remarkable feature of this excavation is the weekely newsleters making it possible for anyone interested to follow the progress of the digging. The only prerequisite is the ability to read Swedish. Definitely an example for others to follow!


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