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Sosteli - a deserted farm in Åseral, Vest-Agder

The deserted Migration period farm in Sosteli, Åseral, Vest-Agder, Norway, was investigated by Anders Hagen during three excavating seasons 1947-1949 (1). The area in question is located c. 2 km W of the central village of Kyrkjebygd. The farm occupies the central area of a rather extensive plain, just below 400 m a.s.l. The Sosteli excavation marked the beginning of new phase in Scandinavian settlement studies: until then, the research was dominated by the study of the deserted farm houses themselves, as exemplified by the work of Helge Gjessing and Sigurd Grieg on Lista and Jan Petersen on Jæren (2, 3, 4), while the new brand of research put much more emphasis on “the ancient farm as basis for the economic, social and religious activities of an extended family” (5).

One is often given the impression that the Sosteli farm is located in a very marginal, mountaineous area. In fact, Sosteli lays in the outskirts of the central farming area in Kyrkjebygd. In earlier times, an important road leading to Kyrkjebygd from areas further W passed right through the Sosteli area. Sosteli was not an isolated spot. There were a number of other deserted farms on the same plain as Sosteli; most of them, however, unknown to Hagen in the 1940s, and many of them located further away from the central farming area than Sosteli. Furthermore, the mouments (houses, mounds etc.) in Sosteli were not discovered in the 1940s. They became known to archaeologists then, but were in fact known by and commented upon in local folklore long before this (6, 7). In fact, a trial in 1694, regarding the whereabouts of the boundary between the farms Åsland and Forgard, refers to “the deserted farm called Sostelien” (7). The source from 1694 is the only indicator for “Sosteli” being the old name of the deserted farm. In the early 20th century, however, “Sosteli” denoted not the abandoned farm, but the sloping area slightly to the W of and above the farm.

In his pioneering campaign 1947-1949, Hagen excavated 3 house foundations, 7 burial mounds, a number of clairance cairns and a structure later interpreted by Hagen as a “horg” (stone altar or sanctuary) (1, 5). Hagen argued, in his doctoral thesis (1), that the farm in Sosteli was settled at the beginning of the Migration period (c. 350 AD) and deserted for good at the end of this period (i.e. c. 550 AD). Furthermore, he stated that house foundation I had been used as a temporary living quarter during the very first period of settlement in Sosteli, whereas he considered the large, 45 m long house II as an example of the typical combined longhouses with byre in one end and living quarters in the other, so common on Migration period farms in SW Norway and elsewhere.

The third house structure excavated by Hagen was located immediately to the NW of house II. Some 12 post holes were found inside what had at first seemed to be an enclosure used for tending animals. Since no artefacts were found inside the structure, and no fire place, the enclosure was interpreted as a barn.

While a pioneer study in its time, Hagen’s results and interpretations are in need of reviewing. This work was initiated by Bjørn Myhre in the late 1970s. He argued against the interpretation of House I as a temporary “shelter”. Based on two long fire places along the mid axis of the building, in combination with a find of a crucible with traces of silver indicating precious metal working, Myhre argued that House I had in fact been a separate hall building (8).

As for House II, Hagen believed that this building had two rooms, a byre and a living quarter. However, based on a large comparative material Myhre argued that House II had three rooms. According to Myhre, there are many similarities between Sosteli House II and Ullandhaug House 3 (in Rogaland).

More recently, a number of surveys have been carried out in the Sosteli area. Several new monuments have come to light, while some of the old ones have been reinterpreted. This work is helped by the huge comparative material that is now available, thanks to the number of excavations of complete settlement sites that have been conducted in Scandinavia over the last 30 years.

Not least important is the discovery of two more house foundations in Sosteli. Although none of these are as yet excavated, one seems to be a longhouse of Iron Age type. This structure, called House IV, is located more or less parallell with House II, and to the S of the latter. It seems likely that these two houses are contemporary, thus putting the farm in Sosteli more in line with the other, excavated Migration period farms in SW Norway, with Forsand as the prime example, i.e. farms consisting of two parallel buildings; one big, up to 50 m long and 7 m wide, and one considerably smaller, up to 20 m long and 5 m wide (9).

The other newly discovered house foundations, House V, seems to be the remains of a small, almost square building with a centrally placed fire place. It is most likely that this represent a corner-timbered building of Medieval or Post-Medieval date (Norw. “stove”). Thus, one can no longer regard Sosteli as a single-phase settlement, a fact corraborated by the reference in 1694 to Sosteli as a “ødegaard”, i.e. abandoned farm, and the then conflict between the farmers on Åsland and Forgard respectively over property rights here – a clear indicator for the existence of a deserted Medieval farm in this very area (10). Already in 1948, J. Troels-Smith’s paleo-botanical survey had indicated farming activities close to Sosteli already in the Middle Neolithic, and two Middle Neolithic stone axes were found during the excavations. So, there is every reason to regard the different monuments in Sosteli as stemming from different phases of settlement and use. Incidentally, this might be the case with Hagen’s House III, located in the stone enclosure to the W of House II. The stone enclosure itself probably represents the remains of the dyke (“utgard”) that once separated the cultivated area of the farm from the outlands. There is not much left of this dyke. Especially in the area S of the central area of the farm one would expect a dyke. However, the two parallel dykes running in a SW direction from the SW corner of House II seems to be a cattle-lane leading from the byre to the outlands. This cattle-lane is blocked by a stone wall, a phenomenon known from several multi-phased farms on Jæren (10). Hagen’s House III might then post-date the use of this enclosure as a cattle-lane. If this is the case, one might expect more building remains of this type, i.e. ones not visible on the surface. After all, only the visible structures were excavated I 1947-1949.

It might seem like a paradox, but it is in no way a unique phenomenon that extensive areas apparently lying outside the dyke has been cultivated at one point or another, as indicated by a number of clairance cairns and a couple of substantial lynchets to the S of the farm buildings. The cultivating of this area is probably not contemporary with the remaining house foundations, but is probably older or younger. Extensive cairn fields like this are known from many areas in Scandinavia, and they are dated from the centuries before the birth of Christ, in some cases back to the Late Bronze Age, until Medieval times (11).

The only partially excavated “horg” is a stone-setting, 30 m long and 10 m wide, and covered with a turf layer. It is located in the slope to the NW of House II, and on the inside of the dyke. Hagen did consider the possibility that this structure was in fact a house foundation, but argued against such an interpretation (1). However, in light of the fact that no other “horgs” of this type are known from the vast number of sites excavated over the years both in SW Norway and elsewhere, other interpretations must be considered. There are obvious similarities between the “horg” in Sosteli and Iron Age house platforms, a type of monument not known to Hagen more than 50 years ago, but rather widespread in parts of Sweden and known from Norway, as well. Both the type of construction, the size and the situation of the structure in the farmyard of the Migration period settlement in Sosteli, points to the “horg” being in fact a foundation for a house, and it is shown as House III on the map.

Where does this leave House I, the temporary living quarters (Hagen) or hall building (Myhre)? There’s no way of telling for certain, but none of the interpretations put forward so far are really convincing. The composition of the finds from this building is striking. The majority of the finds is made up of iron slags and fragments of iron. Taken together with the mentioned crucible and the big, dug down fire place in the middle of the house, an alternative interpretation seems likely: House I is the settlement’s smithy. This could then explain why House 1 is located some distance away from the other Migration period buildings (House II and IV), and near the marshy, now cultivated, area to the W. There are some parallels between House I and House VI in Gene, Medelpad, Sweden, which is interpreted as a smithy (12). The importance of iron working for Migration period settlement in more marginal areas in Vest-Agder should not be underestimated (13), and this might account for the number of and size of the houses in Sosteli.

The context Sosteli was put in in the 1940s and 1950s is in many respect outdated. The Kyrkjebygd and Sosteli area were exploited by farming groups long before the Migration period. The settlement in Sosteli itself might be much older than Hagen’s excavations indicated. It certainly lasted much longer. The archaeological structures on the site, even the ones visible above ground, are the remains of a fossilized cultural landscape spanning a thousand years, maybe more. Sosteli was not discovered in the 1940s. It is an open question whether it was completely forgotten at any point. The farm was probably deserted in the Late Middle Ages, perhaps in connection with the agrarian crisis related to the Black death. It cannot at this point be decided whether there was continuity between the Migration period farm in Sosteli and the Medieval one, or if there was a period of farm abandonment in the Late Iron Age. Only new excavations can give us the answers.

(1) A. Hagen, Studier i jernalderens gårdssamfunn, Universitetets Oldsaksamlings Skrifter 4, Oslo, 1953. (2) S. Grieg, Jernaldershus på Lista, Oslo, 1934. (3) J. Petersen, Gamle gårdsanlegg i Rogaland fra forhistorisk tid og middelalder, Oslo, 1933. (4) J. Petersen, Gamle gårdsanlegg i Rogaland. Fortsettelse, Oslo, 1936. (5) A. Hagen, Et arkeologisk liv, Oslo, 2002. (6) T. Liestøl, Ein 1500 år gamal bondegard i Åseral, Årsskrift for Agder historielag 1946-1947, Kristiansand. (7) T. Liestøl, Solstø. Ein bondegard frå folkevandringstida, Kristiansand og Opplands Turistforenings Årbok, 1951. (8) B. Myhre, Gårdsanlegget på Ullandhaug 1. Gårdshus i jernalder og tidlig middelalder i Sørvest-Norge, Stavanger, 1980. (9) T. Løken, Forsand og jernalderens landsbyanlegg i Rogaland: ressursbakgrunn og struktur, Nytt fra utgravningskontoret i Bergen 3, Bergen, 1992. (10) O. Rønneseth, ”Gard” und Einfriedigung. Entwicklungsphasen der Agrarlandschaft Jærens, Stockholm, 1974. (11) F. A. Stylegar, Jordbruk og bosetningsutvikling i Sørvest-Norge fra steinalder til vikingtid, Heimen 2, 2002. (12) P. H. Ramqvist, Gene. On the origin, function and development of sedentary Iron Age settlement in Northern Sweden, Umeå, 1983. (13) J. H. Larsen, Utmarksbruk i Vest-Agder i eldre jernalder, Snartemofunnene i nytt lys, Oslo, 2003.


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