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The function and importance of elites in the cultural changes that occurred on the North Sea coast in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD (completed)

Dr. Marzena J. Przybyła

Project supported by a research grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in collaboration with the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig and the Archaeological Institute for Prehistory and Early History at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Bonn.



The Jutland Peninsula played an important role in prehistory due to its specific geographical location. It can be seen as a natural link between central and northern Europe – both by land and by sea. Medieval documents give some idea of the traditional routes determined by this natural geographical position. The area was of importance in the maritime communication networks, both from the southern North Sea coast to the coast of Norway and via Skagerrak and Kattegat to the western part of the Baltic area. The resulting contacts between the inhabitants of the various parts of the Jutland Peninsula and populations in other regions should also be reflected in the archaeological sources. It can therefore be expected that some of the cultural elements characteristic of the inhabitants of the Jutland Peninsula are also to be found in other areas along these communication routes. At times, the nature and intensity of such contacts were affected by many factors of both regional and supra-regional significance, which influenced the political and economic topography as well as social development in these areas.

One of the most interesting prehistoric periods in this part of Europe is the late Roman Iron Age (approx. 2nd  half of the 2nd century to the early 4th century AD) – involving local transformations both here and in the neighbouring regions as well as the subsequent establishment of new regional and supra-regional contact networks, in which Jutland was an important intermediate link. At the beginning of this period, Jutland experienced distinct changes that can be observed in  the settlement structure (abandonment of previous settlements around the time of the transition from the early to the late Roman Iron Age; appearance of single farmsteads instead of large villages), in the building methods (changes in the ground plans of the houses), in the economy (changes in farming methods) and in the burial rites (inhumation burial becomes more frequent; abandonment of the large cemeteries and appearance of smaller burial grounds; decrease in the number of graves containing weapons). There are also certain signs of the geopolitical change that occurred during this period, such as the newly established small cemeteries or isolated burials, both associated with the elites of those days, which now appear in regions that had no such burials previously. At the same time, elite burials are no longer found in the regions where they were observed for the previous period.

Given the complexity and extent of these changes, settlement discontinuity at the transition from the early to the late Roman Iron Age has been assumed in archaeological publications, at least for the central part of the Jutland Peninsula. However, no in-depth attempt has been made to explain the causes of this phenomenon. Certain signs of discontinuity in the use of burial grounds at the end of the early and beginning of the late Roman Iron Age are also discernable in southeastern Schleswig-Holstein. A similar situation has also been observed further south in the Lower-Elbe region, where it has been linked to the emigration of the Lombards (Langobards) and the Marcomannic wars.

Two distinct zones have been determined for Jutland in the late Roman Iron Age – the so-called Northern Group, i.e. the Thy, Mors, Vendsyssel and Himmerland areas on the Limfjord, and the so-called Southern Group with its southern border running along a line somewhere between the Åbenrå Fjord and Tønder. Present-day Schleswig-Holstein had a somewhat different character in those days. The pottery forms and burial rites indicate a closer connection with the northern part of the Elbe-Germanic cultural sphere and, in its southeastern part, with Fünen. In the case of the areas along the North Sea coast, there are indications of connections with the regions between the Lower Elbe and the Weser and with the Jutland Southern Group.


Aim of the project

An important source of essential information for the reconstruction of the mechanisms driving the above-mentioned cultural changes is provided by graves that are exceptionally richly furnished. Three main concentrations of such burials have been registered for the late Roman Iron Age: at Limfjord (several more clusters have come to light here); in Fanø Bay and, thirdly, in the eastern part of central Jutland and in areas with a significantly higher settlement density. To the south of Eckernförde Bay is another enclave of richly furnished graves. Current research indicates that the enclaves of such luxurious graves in northern and central Jutland seem to be culturally homogeneous. So far, however, no detailed studies have been undertaken to shed more light on the problems of regional differentiation in these burials: this is partly due to the fact that the burials have not been thoroughly analysed. They have been included in studies of social structures and elite communication networks as well as in papers on contacts between the north European Barbaricum and the Roman Empire, but without taking the specific local conditions in the individual areas of the Jutland Peninsula into account.

The aim of this project is to investigate the richly furnished graves in Jutland as one of the decisively important sources for the reconstruction of the above-mentioned cultural changes on the Jutland Peninsula at the time of the transition from the early to the late Roman Iron Age. This will allow the role of the elites in northern and central Jutland to be evaluated as one of the factors that stimulated inter-regional contacts. The first step in this investigation will be to thoroughly analyse the three above-mentioned groups of richly furnished graves against the background of the poorer graves. A point to be mentioned here is the question of social stratification and the factors determining the position of local elites in the local communities. This analysis will provide a foundation for the establishment of the chronology, intensity and nature of the contacts between the groups in northern and central Jutland and the neighbouring populations along the southern North Sea coast, on the one hand, and the groups in the western Baltic Sea regions, on the other hand. Attention is also drawn to the imported Roman artefacts, which can serve as a common denominator for the evaluation of specific aspects of these contacts. Studies of the relative frequency of imported Roman artefacts in the various regions will enable an estimate to be made of the role played by the inhabitants of northern and central Jutland in the supra-regional networks that made it possible to import these goods. At the same time, they will help us to evaluate the role of these contacts in the socio-economic changes that occurred in this region.

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Project supported by a research grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in collaboration with the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig and the Archaeological Institute for Prehistory and Early History at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Bonn.

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