Graves along an Animal Path

The story of a new year’s visit to the site of ancient burial mounds in Sweden.

Following a path made by animals is rather intriguing. Like humans, animals prefer the easiest route in order to save their strength, but we cannot see where their paths end, and they do not share our destinations. Often, they just vanish in the middle of nowhere, often into some watercourse or lair. Sometimes it is barely traceable, or a just a big jumble, but occasionally they may lead you to an undiscovered place.

A deer path leads me to a clearing, deep in the forest, on a small hill. It is circular and lined with hazel, but inside it only grass and small thorns can grow. In the centre is a big rock. According to the excellent Web map Fornsök, prepared by the Swedish National Heritage Board, a Bronze Age chief was once buried here, in a cairn three metres high and seventeen metres wide. Over the centuries, the locals used the mound to make a stone pit for fencing, so now only the clearing remains.

But should it not, over time, have become covered with trees and bushes? And what about the lonely rock in the center, and the hazel ring? If the thefts of the cairn stones were recent, I would have understood it, but they happened many decades ago.

Or perhaps, this supposedly insignificant little area has some hidden quality that caused our ancestors to choose it as the perfect place for a tomb. And who knows, that very quality may still be keeping most of the vegetation out.

A kilometre away, along the same winding system of wildlife routes, is a bigger and more well-preserved burial mound. It has also provided stones for the peasants, but it yet retains at least a third of its original height. Its bushy lining is similar to that of the other, and the surrounding trees lean over the cairn from all sides, like a forgotten forest temple. When the grave was built, this area was probably frequented regularly, but I doubt anyone visits it these days. It is mentioned in a paper from the 1920s, and of course Fornsök shows it. Southern Scandinavia is remarkably rich in ancient remains, if only you keep your eyes open.

I sit down on a rock, feeling cold. Dusk is already falling, and fog fills the crowns above. Strong arms built this and similar monuments, thousands of years ago, and there’s hardly anything else created by human labour that is even remotely as old in our world today. People in ancient times visited the graves of their fathers and kings to seek answers, but so far this place has not made me any wiser.

Nearby is a so-called Circle of Judgement, originally made of nine rocks, but which now has only seven. According to legend, Things were held at such places. The local judges gathered there to settle disputes, which is why there is always an odd number of rocks, enabling clear voting results. Modern historians claim there is nothing to support these stories, and that the circles are merely graves, but why not both? They could have had multiple functions.

The remains of bones and pottery can be dug up in such places, pleasing the archeologists, but the decisions and verdicts that were pronounced here are all gone. Or are they? Maybe they still have implications for this region today, three millennia later. That’s an encouraging thought. I bring it home, into the new year.

Along the path, on a stone, lies a thrush. Silent. Frozen. I leave it be.

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