SUMMARY: HAUGBROTT AND RULERSHIP - GRAVE ROBBERIES AS RITUAL
THEME AND HYPOTHESIS
Some of the huge burial-mounds from the Viking era have been opened. Someone has digged all through the mounds, skeletons have been moved and items have been removed or smashed. In a number of cases it seems like the opening of the mound have taken place relatively shortly after the burial. The theme of this dissertation is to discuss the possible reasons for such haugbrott or grave-openings. This is done by a discussion of the sources, a presentation of the scholary discussion so far, and by a critical discussion of the theories that has been put forward to explain the openings.Scholars have presented different theories about haugbrott, the theories point in various directions and can be grouped in three: The first type of theories consider the skeletal remains the central focus for the openings. The second group is focusing on items taken from the mounds. For the third type of theories the act of breaking the mound is the focus. Although the theories points in a wide variety of directions, the volume of the debate is not very extensive. Thus the dissertation has the possibility to survey and discuss all the important papers and articles that to my knowledge has been published on the theme up to now.The hypothesis put forward is that the haugbrott must be analyzed as open, ritual acts that, by bringing up items of symbolic value from the mounds, legitimize the transfer and continuity of rulership.
1. When archaeologist A.W. Brøgger in 1945 published an article that set off the debate on haugbrott, his main point was that the openings of the mound was not a result of simple robberies carried through some time after the Viking Age with the search for gold and silver and valuable items as the goal. Although some of Brøgger’s arguments have to be reconsidered, his conclusion still seems to hold true. The haugbrott were done in the Viking Age, the diggers knew how the mounds and grave chambers were constructed, they probably knew who was buried in the mounds and maybe also what items that had followed the dead in the grave.
2. Haugbrott are huge undertakings that imply removal of hundreds of qubic meters of earth and clay. It is not something that can be done in secret or hidden from the local population. The people of the area, including the chieftains, must have known what was going on and given their consent. Any valid explanation of haugbrott must take this into consideration. Any explanation focusing on the skeletal remains, such as necromancy, has to be placed in a social and ritual context that includes society as a whole.
3. The theories on haugbrott that focuses on the skeletal remains need a more critical examination. The absence of most of the bones from the burials does not have to imply that they have been removed. Bones could simply have dissolved in the hundreds of years after the haugbrott. Also, we know little about the treatment of the dead body in the period between death and burial, a period that in these cases could be of several months, if not longer. It is not even sure that the whole body was placed in the mound in the first place.
4. Such critical examination should also include the hypothesis of translatio that has been put forward regarding the haugbrott in the Jelling complex in Denmark. Although there has been a heated debate between Danish archaeologists on Jelling, most international researchers more or less uncritically seems to support the translatio-explanation. This support is not necessarily well-deserved, at least not for the explanation of other haugbrott.
5. During the last decades researchers have raised a discussion on the relationship between formal Christianity and popular Christianity in the medieval period. This discussion is relevant for the haugbrott-debate. Through trade and raiding expeditions and years of service as mercenaries for Christian European kings, the Scandinavians met a Church where the cult of saints and relics were an important element of devotion. In what way the new religion developed on Scandinavian soil, if they in some way produced their own relics, and if elements of transformation from pagan ancestoral cult to popular Christianity are probable, could be an interesting field for further research.
6. Haugbrott as acts of conquering important and symbolic items in the mounds are described several places in the saga literature (The þáttr of Olav Geirstadalv, Harðar saga, Barðar saga, Grettis saga, Reykdæla saga, Hromund Gripsson saga, Hervarar saga, Landnámabók). It seems difficult to explain the openings of the mounds without including this aspect. If this should be considered, an alternative explanation of the recurrent instances of haugbrott-episodes in the sagas is needed.
7. The items that are taken from the mounds in the saga literature are first and foremost the sword and the ring. The items are often considered to have supernatural abilities and can be analyzed as regalia of rulership and power. They create a bond between the dead and the mound-breaker, they raise the mound-breakers status and they are formative for his the further life and destiny.
8. The mounds themselves must be analyzed not only as burials, but also as symbols of power. In this analysis, it is suggested to draw a line between the power of the chieftain, based on family, odal and local communities on the one hand, and rulership based on the individual qualities of the ruler and encompassing larger geographical areas on the other. In line with this division, the mounds can be grouped into mounds located in the gravefields of the farms on the one hand, and mounds located on spots in the landscape that signals regional power, or can act as ritual arenas, on the other. The haugbrott-mounds are of the last variety. It thus seems highly relevant to establish a connection between haugbrott and struggle for, or transfer of, regional power.
9. There are several factors confirming the analysis of haugbrott as ritual of initiation, tied to the transfer of power from old rulers to new rulers. Central elements in such a ritual are the travel between the worlds of the living and the world of the dead, the symbolic fight and victory over the old ruler in the grave and the conquering of symbolic regalia of power from the mound.
10. This hypothesis can be strengthened or weakened by further research in four suggested areas; the placement of swords in mounds with cremation burials, the context of the pieces of wax found in the haugbrott-burials and presence of candles in the literary sources, the presence and function of layers of charcoal in the mounds and, lastly, the placement of the skeletal remains (if any) in the mounds where the haugbrotts have taken place.