The international conference “Vikings before the Vikings” took place on 6-7 May 2022 in the Saaremaa Museum. Osiliana contributed to it and Marika Mägi gave a presentation about the 7-9th century Saaremaa as well. 

The Saaremaa Museum has published videos of all the presentations in both Estonian and English.

See the presentations: here.

The first aDNA results of Saaremaa’s 13th-14th century burials are here!

The first samples were mainly taken from the cemetery at the former Karja manor, but also some from burials in the Loona manor cemetery and the Valjala churchyard.

Although it would ideally be a good idea to analyse all the deceased for a comprehensive analysis, some preliminary results can already be pointed out. The first and most important result seems to be that next of kin could be found in only one of the analysed burials. Thus, these were not strictly the burials of a single nuclear family. Only in the Karja cemetery was a man aged 25-35 buried with a daughter who had died under the age of 2.

Among the burials in Karja, two women of foreign origin have so far been found, one from present-day Finland or its eastern neighbouring area, the other from Scandinavia (or Western Europe in general). Both of them were buried either together or within a very short period between 1222 and 1266. The possible Scandinavian woman did not carry any surviving jewellery like most of the other women buried next to the Karja manor, but her clothing had a small amount of bronze ornamentation. Perhaps this was a woman from Sweden or Denmark who adapted to the local culture, but was buried without contributions, which was customary for Scandinavian Christians at the time?

In fact, in the same cemetery, there was another slightly foreign woman, wearing either Semgal or Vedic jewellery, and who was also genetically a little different from the usual coastal Estonian. She was buried close to a local man. Perhaps he was the woman’s husband? We will never know for sure, although according to the radiocarbon dating, the woman and the man were buried in broadly the same decade in the mid-13th century. The woman had died between the ages of 35 and 45. A distant maternal relative of the man was also buried 4 m away.

In the same Karja cemetery, three adjacent graves from the first half of the 13th century were found in which adult males were buried, but they were also not close relatives.

A 3D reconstruction of one of them – a man who died between the ages of 20 and 30 in Karja XV – will be completed in the spring.

As expected, most of the islanders were fair-skinned and light-eyed, with only one woman having brown eyes.

Kristiina Tambets, Professor of Archaeogenomics at the Institute of Genomics of the University of Tartu, will talk about the initial results of the genetic samples taken on Osiliana’s order and much more about genetics on the 13th December at 18:30 in the courtyard of Kuressaare Castle, in the Vahtkonna House.

Two skulls found in Saaremaa have now been scanned on behalf of Osiliana and reconstructions based on these will be completed by the beginning of the next summer.

The first one is a skull of a 40-50 year old woman found in 2010 near Valjala church:

The plan is to make a life-size silicone effigy of the woman, whom Riina Rammo and Jaana Ratas have promised to provide with a reconstruction of the ceremonial dress and jewellery of the late 12th century. You can read more about the same funeral from our previous posts.

The second skull comes from the cemetery of Karja Manor and it belonged to a man aged between 25 and 30, buried in the middle or second half of the 13th century:

Both reconstructions will be on display at an exhibition on medieval inhabitants of Saaremaa aka Osilians opening at Kuressaare Castle in early summer 2023. The exhibition is organised by Osiliana SA, the Postimehe Research Grant on 11th-16th century clothing and Saaremaa Museum.

Karja burial no 4., 3D model by Ragnar Saage.

On 20 August, we presented the ongoing archaeological excavations in the Valjala countryside, the findings and the first hypotheses. 

Take a look at the news video about it (in Estonian): here.

We started digging again in Valjala! In this heat, you have ice cream in one hand and a shovel in the other!

Osiliana started this seasons’ archaeological excavations next to the Valjala hillfort, which will continue until 24 August, with some interruptions. An open day is scheduled for 20 August from 12:00-14:00, watch out for the advert!

The aim of the excavations is to clarify the hypothesis of the presence of a Middle Iron Age hillfort beneath the hillfort currently visible, which may have had as many as two concentric ramparts. Such fortifications were particularly widespread from the 5th to the 6th century BC on the island of Öland.

Whether the hypothesis is correct will hopefully become clear during the excavations, which are planned to take place in several places beyond the rampart currently visible.

The Valjala female burial no. IV, excavated in 2010 and where the remains of a possible shawl was found, is significant for several other reasons.

This burial belonged to a woman who had died between the ages of 40 and 50, and had been about 170 cm tall. Her left humerus had been broken at some time, but had fortunately healed. Her spine was slightly curved.

The woman had been buried with a very large number of objects, many of which had been placed under her back. She was wearing 12th century brooches, but the rest of the jewellery was exactly the same as that of the other burials, which date from the 13th century and rather mid-century. The manner of burial was also exactly the same as for 13th-14th century burials. In view of the woman’s age at the time of her death, it can therefore be said that she was probably buried with the headdresses fashionable at the time of her death, but also with the brooches worn in her youth.

As many as two 14C analyses of the grave showed that the woman had died either at the end of the 12th century or at the very beginning of the 13th century, and in any case before the official baptism of Saaremaa in 1227. Judging by the artefacts, then, quite soon after 1200. Judging by the location and the manner of burial, it is 99% probable that she was a Christian at the end of her life – people who converted to Christianity did not continue to bury in pagan cemeteries in the old way, but they did continue to bury in pre-existing Christian cemeteries. The possibility that the church of Valjala existed in some form as early as around 1200 can also be surmised from the archaeology carried out by the choir room of the church.

Next to the church in Valjala, household pits and other evidence of dwellings have also been discovered. Perhaps the first church in Valjala was a private church of a local noble, as they are known from the first centuries of Christianization all over Europe, and as can be assumed in Karja, Loona and Vira in Saaremaa. The woman was then probably one of the mistresses of the ancient manorhouse to which the private church belonged to.

Although shawl was a widespread clothing item, no clear evidence of one has been found from the prehistoric or medieval sites of Saaremaa. Textiles simply do not preserve over hundreds of years as well as the items made of steel, iron, stone, etc.This spring Karin Rannaäär presented in her bachleros thesis that the remains of a shawl could be found from one of the burials by Valjala churchyard if one looks closely.  In 2010 archaeologists excavated female burial no IV from the beginning of the 13-century and they found four looped square motifs. The location of the motifs in the grave indicate that these might have been the corners of a shawl! 

Read more (available in ENG): here.

Four looped square motif found from the IV burial of Valjala churchyard. Photo: J. Ratas.

In addition to the research on fortifications, Osiliana is currently also analysing the remains of already excavated inhumation burials in Saaremaa.

Recently, it was announced that the samples of 13th-century islanders’ bones sent to the laboratories of the Institute of Genomics at the University of Tartu are all suitable for ancient DNA analysis.

So far, 20 samples are being analyzed in the lab, most of them from the Karja cemetery, but also from 13th-century burials in the Valjala churchyard and the Loona cemetery. As well as information on origin, appearance and diseases, we hope to find out how people buried in the same cemetery were connected to or related to each other. Acording to current information, Karja and Loona in particulary seem to be burial sites of the same noble family.

Old DNA analyses are time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive, and this is a relatively new analytical technique that has so far only been used to a limited extent for Saaremaa burials. However, it would be nice in the distant future to get to the point where, at least in the case of cemeteries with inhumation burials, we can say exactly who these people were. And hopefully in the distant future, we will also have more information about the people buried in prehistoric stone cairns.

The first results can perhaps be expected by the end of the year.

Small Osiliana excavations were also carried out on the old hillfort of Valjala, 650 m north-east of the large fort. They were supervised by Ragi-Martin Moon, who is currently doing his master studies in Archaeology in Tartu University. 

A trench was digged through the wall and the first finds were a pot sherd and animal bones. At the moment the site cannot be further dated, but the potsherd is more likely to be from the first half or from the middle of the Iron Age. 

A more precise dating can hopefully be obtained from the 14C from animal bones. Nevertheless, it seems more than likely that it is a man-made and very ancient structure. The area of Valjala seems to have been a centre long before Henry of Livonia visited it…

Osiliana had some research done with the ground-breaking radar on several hillforts of Saaremaa: Kaarma, Pöide and Valjala. It’s too early to talk about concrete results since the data is still in the process of analyzation. Nevertheless, we can say that it has already revealed two earlier walls inside of the outer wall of Valjala that we see today. This means that this wall was strengthened twice.

Read more about it: here
Watch the news clip (in Estonian): here

Foto: ERR.

The excavations of the old hillfort of Valjala are now finised. A beautifully preserved rampart base has emerged from the excavation of about 4 m2. The original width of the rampart had been between 2.5 and 3 m, which represents a fairly substantial fortification. The foundation of the rampart, made of large limestone and ore stones, was covered by a layer of small limestone boulders, which had been preserved up to a height of 1,35 m in the higher part. The original rampart had therefore been considerably higher.

A remarkably large quantity of animal remains for such a small excavation, as well as more than a dozen clay potsherds and burnt clay fillings, were found in the fill. One of the pottery sherds was also located away from the rampart inside the fort.

Although the charcoal deposits are still awaited, it is by now quite clear that this is probably a small fortification dating from the first half of the Iron Age, or perhaps from the middle. Similar regular stone rings, about 35 m in diameter, are known elsewhere in Saaremaa and Läänemaa, and the excavation of the old forthill of Valjala may, apart from analysing the finds, also provide information on their probable period of use.

The first C14 results of Valjala hillfort are here! Though quite surprising, they are quite telling together with the rest of the found artifacts.

The area inside the hillfort and the area between the wall and outer area were in use in the 12th century. Some results pointed solely toward the 13th century, and most of the artifacts could also be considered to be from the middle of the 13th century or from the later decades. By the C14 results and artifacts, the middle hillfort of Valjala and the surrounding wall existed and were in use during the 13th century. According to the local folklore, the outer wall was carried away for road construction.

The analysis of the results of the 1960s excavations led by Aita Kustin illustrated firmly that the 12th-century buildings inside the hillfort are older than the proximate wall surrounding these. Therefore, this wall must have been raised around 1200 AD or most likely in the later years of the 13th century. Nevertheless, there must have been some sort of less capital wall earlier as well. The same could be said for the outer wall, which was excavated in the summer of 2021. This 3-meter wide wall was most probably built during the first half of the 13th century. 

Hopefully, the excavations ahead in the summer of 2022 can give us some clarity on whether the Valjala hillfort with its two high circling walls existed in 1227 when it was described by the Livonian chronicler Henry, or these massive stone walls were built after 1227. The latter option would have been seen as unrealistic beforehand, but new research has illustrated that several other hillforts of Estonians were also expanded and fortified after the infamous Crusades. As is seen from the documents and parchments, the crusaders and missionaries had very loose power over the local elite of Saaremaa and it seems even more likely that they might have had the interest to expand their hillforts as well. 

Another surprising C14 result came from the piece of coal that was discovered under the outer wall and was dated to the 7th century. Additionally, the excavations at the building which is located a few meters away from the hillfort revealed abundant amounts of ceramic pieces from different periods. The building was in use from the 5th to 6th century, but also in the 12th to 13th century. It is uncertain whether it was also in use between these two periods. 

The research on Valjala hillfort will continue this summer with the ground-penetrating radar and new archaeological excavations.

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