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More than Mythology
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Written by distinguished scholars from multiple perspectives, this account widens the interpretative scope on religious life among the pre-Christian Scandinavian people. The religion of the Viking Age is conventionally identified through its mythology: the ambiguous character Odin, the forceful Thor, and the end of the world approaching in Ragnarök. However, pre-Christian religion consisted of so much more than mythic imagery and legends, and has lingered for long in folk tradition. Exploring the religion of the North through an interdisciplinary approach, the book sheds new light on a number of topics, including rituals, gender relations, social hierarchies, and interregional contacts between the Nordic tradition and the Sami and Finnish regions.
Published: Nordic Academic Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9789187121319
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The Study of Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions

Trends and Perspectives

Catharina Raudvere & Jens Peter Schjødt

ṷThe present volume is the result of a conference in Copenhagen in October 2008. An initiative taken by the editors of this volume to inaugurate a working group for historians of religions in the Nordic countries working on various aspects of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion developed into the Nordic Network for Research on Pre-Christian Religion. The advantages of such a network had been expressed over several years, and the meetings have proven to be productive in terms of debating disciplinary identity and (re-) formulating the core theoretical issues in the study of religions.

However, the study of Old Norse religion cannot be executed without close co-operation with literary scholars, historians, philologists, archaeologists and ethnologists who represent disciplines that all have a long tradition of studies in the field.¹ Consequently, the steadily increasing interest in the pre-Christian religion has called for an identification of the state of the art from a religious studies perspective. The dilemma has long been whether to go into discussions of selected details in the sources or to take up a broader theoretical discussion of a religious phenomenon exemplified by an Old Norse case from a comparative angle–or take the (perhaps) impossible position in between. On the one hand, within the general history of religions, Old Norse religion is just a minor area of study compared with the overwhelming academic interest in world religions past dp n=8 folio=8 ?and present; during conferences and seminars the exchange with colleagues with other empirical areas of interest has mainly been based on comparative and methodological reflections, since very few colleagues have a specific interest in the Old Norse source material. On the other hand, within the larger field of Old Norse and Viking Studies, religion–even if both the concept and the phenomenon have attracted a lot of interest in recent years–is often dealt with by scholars with focal areas other than religion. The encounters in this academic contact zone are rewarding, and constitute a point where a highly varied use of central analytical concepts are shared. In other words, the main purpose of the Nordic network has been to provide religious studies scholars, with a primary research interest in pre-Christian Scandinavia, a platform for exchange with colleagues who share empirical as well as theoretical interests, notwithstanding the diverse perspectives of the individual scholars. From that position, the network has so far been a success–even if the main purpose has not been to generate funding for large-scale projects, but to meet and exchange viewpoints with each other in the setting of modest workshops and to propose ideas and work in progress.

The conference in 2008 was more ambitious than the previous meetings. As organizers we received generous funding from the Royal Academy of Letters in Stockholm that made it possible to invite keynote speakers from outside the network. The presentations have been rewritten as chapters for this volume, each contributor emphasizing specific perspectives on the study of historic religions. The hope is that the readers will appreciate the varied efforts to approach the field presented here, and the ambition is to reach readers with a theoretical interest in religions of times past as well as an academic audience interested in Viking Age culture and society.

Pre-Christian religion is of necessity an interdisciplinary matter, from both an empirical and a theoretical perspective .² The textual source material, although complex and rich, is limited (not least when compared to the classical corpuses of Antiquity, the Near East or ancient India) and mostly written in Old Norse. In older research the uniqueness of the North was strongly emphasized and the analyses often focused on a quest for origin and authenticity. Over the last few decades the literature in the Norse vernacular has dp n=9 folio=9 ?been put in relation to the vast and varied text material from the Continent, which has made texts in other Germanic and in Romance languages, and certainly also in Latin and Arabic, even more relevant. The comparative methods that have always been a capstone in Old Norse studies are nowadays more distinctly differentiated between those that focus on direct contact or influences and observations at a more general level of structural and thematic similarities, but not necessarily pointing at a common heritage or contacts. In the following, Thomas DuBois applies a broad regional perspective in his analysis of animal symbolism in the cultural contacts between the Nordic areas and the Finnish and Saami regions. The discussions of the relation between language and cultural heritage, not least when it comes to mythological universes, have turned from origin to the development of cultural contacts. Reading texts in several languages, however, requires a vast range of philological skills which only very few individual scholars master. Therefore, already in dealing with the linguistic sources, philologies from various areas must be taken into account. As pointed out by Peter Jackson in this volume, the range of languages can even be extended to many Indo-European languages, the speakers of which were never in direct contact with the Scandinavians.

The limited textual sources still cover a vast area of verbal expressions, from fully-fledged mythological narratives to place names and personal names. The texts in Old Norse written down in the Middle Ages could further be put in relation to early modern legal and ecclesiastical documents as well as later folklore recordings. Laura Stark’s contribution to this volume discusses long-term perspectives based on Finnish sources and opens up for a discussion of how beliefs and practices have been instruments for defining the body, sexuality and gender. Taken into serious account by Old Norse scholars, these sources supplement the more conventional search for surviving mythological elements as they open up for a renewed focus on religion as a communal practice.

The other angle of religious life, the material, is grounded in archaeological sources. The time span covered by this material is even wider (stretching at least from the Iron Age well into the Middle Ages) and so is the geographical space that may be of relevance dp n=10 folio=10 ?(from Russia in the east to Iceland in the west, from the northern parts of Norway to the Mediterranean area). During the last few decades archaeology has provided enormous amounts of new material on the Viking expansion and the cultural contacts established, which must have had a definitive impact on religious concepts and practices, and created spaces for a multitude of merged traditions.³ More than any other source group, the remains of material culture can give indications of variation in terms of region, social status, gender, ecology and, not least, over time. Since religious discourse is always embedded in historical events and cultural contexts, both material and intellectual, the interdisciplinary co-operation with historians and anthropologists prevents a view of religion as a category sui generis, disconnected from other cultural expressions.⁴

Over the last century other disciplines have contributed significantly to the development of theoretical frameworks. Anthropology, sociology and ethnology have offered an excellent base for theoretical rethinking religion as part of social coherence and the importance of visual representation, and thus formulating relevant new questions about the material and analysing religion in a broader scope of cultural expressions. The theoretical emphasis in the study of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion has traditionally been on comparative methods and literary analyses with a certain focus on mythology. Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in ritual studies (see Stark and Price in this volume), inter-regional contacts, not least the relation to Saami and Finnish traditions (see Stark, DuBois and Anttonen in this volume) and the variety and stratification within communities. These and other contributions have certainly added to a more complex view of the pre-Christian religion of Scandinavia.

The question often raised towards the end of seminar discussions is whether it is possible to observe some significantly new tendencies in the field. Old Norse studies have to a large extent been focused on the complexity of the sources and the interdisciplinary communication about the specific material. To a lesser extent, more general trends in the humanities have been acknowledged. Given the recent emphasis on diversity, change and cultural exchange, however, Old Norse studies should have the possibility to formulate general theoretical issues on the study of ancient religions.

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An interesting aspect of the chapters is the fact that the basic understanding of where religion takes place is very different and that this point of departure does not follow any disciplinary lines. The importance of emphasizing diversity in terms of gender, social status, locations and spaces, as well as individual inclination is today a shared common ground rather than regarding the pre-Christian religion as a coherent unit (see DuBois, Nordberg, Price, Raudvere, Schjødt, Stark and Sundquist in this volume).⁵ Likewise, it is clear from most of the contributions that a general theoretical interest is apparent, to a much larger extent than was the case only a decade ago. Discussions of analytical principles thus have a prominent place in several of the articles, without which further interdisciplinary co-operation is impossible. On the one hand, there is a tendency to oppose the idea of an absoluteness in relation to the absoluteness of the results achieved, and on the other, there is a boldness in the discussions of the methods used and in the way the ancient religions of the North are allowed to become a laboratory for theoretical discussions. For instance, it seems as if comparisons at various levels are accepted in order to get a better understanding of the pre-Christian religion. Regional and social distribution have long since been held up as important, but in recent years much more specific analyses of the theme have seen the light of day. The articles by Jackson, DuBois and Anttonen are thus directly concerned with comparing two or more religions (the Indo-European religions, the Saami and Scandinavian religions, and the Old-Fennic and Christian respectively), whereas comparisons are discussed from a theoretical point of view by Schjødt.

Other issues could, no doubt, be mentioned, but it is now up to the readers to judge whether this volume will have an impact on the analysis of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. The editors hope it will, and we therefore thank all the authors for their challenging chapters.



Margaret Clunies Ross, Prolonged Echoes, vol. 1: The Myths (Odense: Odense University Press, 1994); Rudolph Simek, Religion und Mythologie der Germanen (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2003); Gro Steinsland, Norrøn religion: Myter, riter, samfunn (Oslo: Pax Forlag, 2005).

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Carolyne Larrington, A Store of Common Sense: Gnomic Theme and Style in Old Icelandic and Old English Wisdom Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Terry Gunnell, The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995); Stephen Mitchell, Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).


The Archaeology of Shamanism, ed. by Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2001); Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Uppsala: Institutionen för arkeologi och antik historia, Uppsala universitet, 2002); Plats och praxis: Studier av förkristen nordisk ritual, ed. by Kristina Jennbert, Catharina Raudvere & Anders Andrén (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2002).


Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An Anthropological Analysis of Structure and Change (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); Annette Lassen, Øjet og blindheden i norrøn litteratur og mytologi (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003); Ordning mot kaos: Studier av förkristen nordisk kosmologi, ed. by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert & Catharina Raudvere (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2004); John McKinnell, Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005).


Old Norse Religion in Long-term Perspectives: Origins, Changes and Interactions, ed. by Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert & Catharina Raudvere (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006); Thomas DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); Laura Stark, Magic, Body, and Social Order: The Construction of Gender through Women’s Rituals in Traditional Finland (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 1998); Laura Stark, The Magical Self: Body, Society and the Supernatural in Early Modern Rural Finland (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2006).

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Mythic Acts: Material Narratives of the Dead in Viking Age Scandinavia

Neil Price

Where Does a Mythology Come From?

This is an obviously daunting question, but an equally obvious answer is that any mythology as we have it today is an organic thing, something that has evolved over a long period. The stories have been told and re-told on countless occasions, elements have been added or fallen away, details have been changed or embellished, probably thousands of times. Sometimes several versions are in circulation at once. Many mythologies contain internal contradictions, and that of the Scandinavians is certainly no exception. There is also the factor of transmission to consider, all the copyists’ errors and biases over the centuries, as well as the deliberate distortions and suppressions. Finally there are the simple vagaries of preservation.

Simultaneously we must acknowledge that in its twenty-first century form any mythology deriving from a culture of the past is now something artificial, a construct. In a sense, the slow process of accretion and redaction has now ceased, and the tales have solidified into something that they never really were from the beginning –dead, static texts, very different from the dynamics of true narrative and storytelling. In this light we perhaps need to remind ourselves that the Norse did not know about ‘the Norse myths’. These are things that we have created for them through academic endeavour, condensing and compiling tales into the illusory canon of the critical and popular editions that pack our bookshops (and dp n=14 folio=14 ?the same of course is true for the ‘mythologies’ of the Greeks, the Romans and any other ancient people, even when–as with Classical Antiquity–we raise them up as supposed cornerstones of our intellectual culture).

Behind all this, though, there is also a basic truth so fundamental that it sometimes tends to get lost in the minutiae of scholarly analysis. At some point, or rather at a succession of such points, each individual element of these stories was invented. Whether it is Óðinn giving up his eye, or Þórr losing his hammer, or the binding of Fenrir, somebody made them up. Even if we acknowledge the unfolding creation of tales within the framework of centuries-old traditions, or if we trace millennia of myth-making across the arguable Indo-European paradigm, the precise detail of each story within its own cultural context nonetheless must have had a specific moment of germination.

But what was it? Who shaped these tales, and in what circumstances? What were they originally for, and what did they mean? In this paper I shall make the risky proposition that we might be able to tentatively find out, at least for the Viking peoples, at least for some of the time.

Before beginning, however, if we are to contemplate a serious expedition into Viking minds and mythologies, as manifested in behaviour that leaves a material trace, then we must at least briefly address the question of sources. It is now some four decades or more since archaeologists awoke to the problems of inevitably subjective interpretation, contemporary political situation and general bias in the process of understanding the past through its physical remains. Links to textual scholarship have always been part of this process and central to the debate,¹ and it is no accident that one of the key archaeological works from this period was called specifically Reading the Past

When these perspectives are brought to the Old Norse texts, in combination with the much more direct work upon them undertaken by philologists and literary scholars, we enter a realm of great potential but also with a number of pitfalls. In all our analyses of saga narratives, their motifs and characters, and similar dissections of Eddic and skaldic poetry, we must be acutely aware of context: dp n=15 folio=15 ?put simply, what exactly are we talking about when we discuss the content of the texts? We know that they do not date from the Viking Age in any direct sense, just as we can date their manuscripts with approximate accuracy, argue about when and by whom they were composed in the form that we have them, and debate whatever oral tradition lay behind that process. This is central to a fundamental but rarely remarked upon difference between overtly textual scholars and archaeologists, in that the latter are without question concerned with the Viking Age when it happened, not as re-imagined in subsequent centuries. While often wonderful as literature, in terms of source material the medieval texts are, for archaeologists, a means to an end, not objects of study in their own right (unless they are concerned with medieval mentalities rather than those of the Viking Age). Historians of religion often span this divide, while philologists and literary scholars tend to work on the other side of it.

Since the late 1980s, great progress has been made in bridging this gap in perceptions, building on earlier dialogue.³ Many historians of religion such as Jens Peter Schjødt⁴ and folklorists such as Terry Gunnell⁵ are now eroding the definitions and terminological boundaries that have previously kept the disciplines apart; archaeologists including myself ⁶ have also made a similar attempt. Following this approach, it may be seen that world-views, belief systems, knowledge and custom may all be brought together not in ‘religion’–a concept that no longer seems to work at all for the Viking Age–but in what Schjødt has called a ‘pagan discursive space’ that permeated not only all of life but also what was thought to come after .⁷

In this context several key components of the early medieval mind can be found together in burial ritual–dealing with the dead in every sense–and this will be a focus here. I make an especial link to the significant role played by storytelling and dramatization in Viking society. We shall juxtapose the ubiquity of narrative in both life and death with what the funerary process actually involved, and in so doing attempt to illuminate the nature of Norse ‘mythology’.

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Five Dead at Kaupang

Appropriately enough for such a theme, I begin my paper with a story. It is true, insofar as we can tell from its documented archaeological remains–our only sources–and it concerns something remarkable that happened over a thousand years ago on the banks of a Norwegian waterway.

The scene is a small, beachfront trading community, located in the outer reaches of the Oslofjord. We know this place as Kaupang, ‘market’, but to its inhabitants (contemporary documents tell us) it was known as Skíringssalr–something like ‘the shining hall’, perhaps named after its lord’s residence on the hill behind. Today it appears as an inlet on the little Viksfjord, with gently sloping soils leading up to scrub woodland on the higher ground. In the ninth century, the middle of the Viking Age, the shoreline was several metres higher than today and the waters much more accessible to shipping, explaining the rise on this spot of the Kaupang settlement.

We have a few elusive details of this young emporium in the ninth-century descriptions of the arctic trader Ohthere on one of his voyages through the Baltic and beyond.⁸ Excavations at Kaupang, first by Charlotte Blindheim from 1950–1967 and later by Dagfinn Skre from 2000–2003, have revealed rows of small houses and workshops strung out along the water’s edge, with access to wharves where the ships came in from around the whole region.⁹ We can imagine the scene at the quayside, a bustling community of merchants and others looking to take advantage of a commercial centre.¹⁰ Here, though, I wish to focus on what was going on just outside the settlement, in the cemeteries built around it, on promontories and on the low heights along the edges of the fjord.

More specifically, I shall examine one grave, a multiple burial so complex that when it was originally excavated in the 1950s it was recorded as four separate features and later published in an extremely fragmented way.¹¹ Only during the second Kaupang project was it recognized as a single entity, renumbered as Ka. 294–297, and even then discussed only briefly.¹² The interpretation presented here is my own.

The sequence begins in the mid- to late ninth century when a dp n=17 folio=17 ?man of indeterminate age was buried on his left side, his head to the north-east, probably dressed in a cloak because a penannular brooch was found at his shoulder. He had been interred with his chest pressed up against a large stone, and his body had been covered from the waist down with a cloth of very fine quality, drawn up like a blanket over his legs. With him were a handful of objects: two knives, a fire-steel and two flints, a whetstone, some fragments of a soapstone vessel and what the excavators called an ‘egg-shaped stone’. Some unspecified ‘iron objects’, perhaps tools, were also found. A few nails and rivets may have come from a small box or may have intruded from above, as we shall see.

Fig. 1. A reconstruction of grave complex Ka. 294–7 from the Bikjholberget cemetery at Kaupang, Norway, dated to the early tenth century. Drawing by Þórhallur Þráinsson, © the author.

Little in this is particularly exciting, though even this meagre grave has its own character and individualism, everything in it being there for a reason. However, it is what happened next that is remarkable. ¹³ Several decades later, probably in the early tenth century, an 8.5 metre-long clinker-built boat was placed exactly on top of the dead man, its keel aligned precisely SW–NE along the axis of his grave (which tells us that its location was remembered). Inside the boat were the bodies of four people: a man, two women and an infant, together with a number of animals. Around and above the bodies, laid out together with them or deposited above them as the boat was filled with earth, were masses of objects. Let us look a little closer.

In the prow a man and a woman lay apparently on blankets covering the decking. The woman was aged about 45–50 when she dp n=18 folio=18 ?died, arranged on her back with her right hand on her breast, ankles crossed and her feet pointing into the prow. Her head was resting on a stone, like a pillow. She was expensively dressed, her clothes held together with two gilded oval brooches and a trefoil brooch, beads and a silver ring strung between them, a silver bracelet on her arm. From her belt hung a knife and a key. To her immediate right was a bucket. Balanced across her knees was a weaving sword.

A baby was wrapped in the woman’s dress, bundled at her hip with her left hand resting on its head.

Lying head to head with the woman, arranged symmetrically with his feet pointing to the stern, was a man of unknown age. He had been placed slightly twisted, his upper body lying supine while his legs were flexed and bent to one side at the waist. Spatially, though not necessarily personally, associated with him were numerous weapons: two axes of different types, of which one was an antique when it was buried; a throwing spear; a sheathed sword, its point precisely at his head, with two knives and a whetstone next to it; a shield (two more lay nearby); a quiver of arrows implying probably also a bow, now completely decayed. A silver arm-ring lay above him. On his midriff lay an inverted frying pan. On the sword scabbard two spindle whorls had been carefully placed. A pot of German manufacture had been smashed and its pieces scattered over the man’s body along with three glass beads, near a soapstone vessel. Two more of the latter were deposited at the man’s feet. An iron dog chain was draped next to him, with a sickle somewhere nearby.

Amidships, a bridled horse had been killed and laid on the deck. Its exact manner of death is unknown but its throat was probably cut. Irregularities in the bone assemblage also suggest that the horse was decapitated and roughly dismembered, its limbs and body parts then placed back in approximately their anatomical positions. A single spur was placed on the mangled corpse.

In the stern of the boat was a second woman, apparently buried sitting up, either in a chair or hunched up against the rising end of the vessel. We lack most organics from the grave, but from the woman’s location and her seated posture it is possible–even likely–that the steering oar of the boat was resting in her hands. A whetstone and a bridle-bit leant against her feet, which touched dp n=19 folio=19 ?the carcass of the horse. She seems to have been well-dressed, her clothes fastened with oval brooches and beads, fragments of textile suggesting high-quality fashion. In addition, she was apparently wearing some clothing item made of leather, very unusual apparel indeed. Behind her was a shield. To her right, resting on the deck, another of those enigmatic ‘egg-shaped stones’ and a weaving sword of iron. To her left, an unusual iron staff pinned down under a large rock. Somewhere near her (the exact location is unknown) was an axe. In the woman’s lap was an imported Insular bowl of bronze that had been scratched with runes: i muntlauku, ‘in the hand basin’ (N579). The bowl contained an unidentified object of gilt copper alloy fixed with iron nails, a copper alloy ring that might have been used to suspend the bowl, a ‘tweezer-like’ object, and the severed head of a dog. Its body lay crossways over the woman’s feet. One pair of its legs, perhaps detached, lay a little below the torso; the other legs were missing. Marks on the bones suggest crude carving of the flesh before the ragged skeleton was reassembled. Around the woman were also found fragments of wood and bark, pieces of sheet iron and objects of copper alloy; we do not know what they were.

The iron staff might offer a small clue to the nature of the dead steerswoman, as it is of a kind identified by several scholars as a tool of the völur and other female magic-workers who feature extensively in the Old Norse poetic and prose sources. I have discussed these possible sorceresses extensively elsewhere¹⁴ and will not pursue this aspect of the Kaupang grave further here, except to a note a suggestive parallel: another of these staff burials, grave 4 from Fyrkat in Denmark,¹⁵ contains a woman with the only other known example of a leather costume.

The four people in the boat, the horse and the dog, were probably not alone. The excavation records are incomplete here but it looks as though there were other animals too. Several loose ‘animal teeth’ were recorded, scattered around the body of the woman in the prow.

The whole burial was then covered with earth and complex stone constructions, building up to a low mound. The excavators also found patches of cremated bone and wood mixed here and there in the deposit, hinting at further rituals about which we know nothing.

In all of this, note the detail, the precision, the deliberate choice dp n=20 folio=20 ?and positioning of objects. The treatment of these Viking Age dead is eloquent in its sheer specificity. Incidentally, in speaking of the ‘dead’ it might be unwise to make obvious distinctions between the humans and animals, which are our categories and not necessarily theirs.

So what were they doing, on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the early tenth century? A burial of four people in a boat, itself placed on top of another grave, a few decades old. Were the man and woman a couple, with their child? Or were they unrelated? Who was the woman sitting in the stern, apparently some kind of witch? Did they all die together, either violently or through illness? Was one or more of them killed to accompany the others in death? Whose were the boat and the animals, or did they belong to none of the dead? What do all the objects mean, and would a contemporary understanding of them even approximate to our own? What connection did all of this have with the man under the keel? One thing is certain: it does not resemble any kind of funeral familiar to us.

In introducing this intricate burial above, I described it as ‘something remarkable’, a choice of words apparently borne out by its dramatic elements and sheer complexity. However, in a sense what is most striking about it is that it is not really unusual at all–in fact its very uniqueness makes it typical of the infinite diversity that we find in the funerary practices of the Norse, not only in Scandinavia but also throughout the vast region through which they moved during the late eighth to eleventh centuries AD, the time we call the Viking Age.

Half a Million Graves

Out of perhaps half a million in existence, we have some low tens of thousands of excavated burials from this period, and it is true to say that they do fall into some basic, broad patterns. With some exceptions, essentially the Vikings either burned their dead or interred their bodies, though we should also remember the possibly very large proportion of the population that did not receive any kind of burial that is visible to archaeology. They may have been disposed of in water, dissipated through exposure, or else cremated dp n=21 folio=21 ?and their ashes scattered. Among the extant graves there is also some geographical patterning. In Sweden we find almost only cremation, with occasional inhumations and chamber burials at exceptional sites; in Norway and Denmark we find a mixture of cremation and inhumation.

Beyond these basic structures, however, the variety is almost infinite. ¹⁶ Looking at the exterior of the cremation graves, the part visible to the community that raised them, we of course particularly find burials under mounds, of varying size and spectacle. They