...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

A medieval bridge that disappeared

About a month ago, the local newspaper had an announcement for a guided archeological tour in Linköping. Stångebro, a medieval bridge that had been named in manuscripts since the 1000s but whose true location had been unknown, has been discovered while surveyors were digging an area for a planned fish ladder. The fish ladder construction came to a halt — at least temporarily — as national archeologists scanned the site for two weeks. Not one to pass these kinds of interesting things up, I went for the tour.

The tour of the archeological dig attracted more people than the archeologists expected!

It has always fascinated me how layers of earth could contain layers of history. As a child, I could kill time watching Egyptology shows. Dinosaur shows were OK too, but only more interesting if they were about the discovery of new bones. The curious thing is that the deeper one gets into the earth, the further you also get back in time (like looking into a better telescope and looking earlier back in time the father into space you look). I have always wondered where those extra meters of dirt might have come from! I remember, in a trip to Barcelona many years ago, I was at awe at  the completely preserved Roman city ruin that lay under the museum itself, accessible by elevator. According to a guide book, the local cathedral there likewise lay on the ruins of a Roman temple, which in turn lay on the ruins of not less than seven (!) older temples. The older the city, the more likely it has rebuilt its structures over older ones, so I had always until now mostly thought of city ruins as being under Roman cities, or in medieval trade towns like Visby. To think that it could be as near to home as Linköping!

According to the guides — themselves archeologists that did the digging — the site of the original Stångebro bridge used to be known to the medieval locals as the site where one could cross the river Stångån safely by foot. The bridge on that site must have been constructed at around year 1000, after the death of a particularly rich woman attempting to cross the river. Records from the time report that on her way home from a religious retreat from a cloister at Vadstena, her horse and carriage vaulted with the force of the river. The construction of the bridge allowed for safer passage, and it was for a long time the only land connection between the east and west Östergötland county. To the west lay, among other things, the important cloisters at that time. To the east were roads connecting Östergötland to Stockholm in the northeast. Swedish kings have been reported to cross Stångebron on their tours of the kingdom. The battle of Stångebro also took place there in 1598, that ultimately ended the union between Sweden and Poland.

 One of the archeologists telling us about the history of the site

Curiously, for being such a historic bridge, nobody really could guess where the original site of where the bridge was. The bridge presumably burned down, and a new bridge was built some kilometers upstream. It wasn't until last autumn — when the construction of the fish ladder at Nykvarn became an inevitable fact — that surveyors noticed the ruins of what must have been the foundation of an old bridge. Archeologists were called in, and more research over the last winter revealed that, in fact, there were medieval city sketches of the historic bridge, which had only come to light again from the depths of their archives because of this accidental find! Among other things, the location of the original Stångebro bridge was sketched in a property map of a wealthy man who had farms to the west and a watermill-powered metalworks hammer on the east. From what they could tell from the records, the man also lobbied for Stångebro bridge to be built where it was. So, for all the mystery of the bridge's unknown location, the truth was just really waiting to be read in some archive somewhere, had it interested somebody much earlier. But that's how historical research is most of the time, I guess.

The most fascinating thing about the dig was not the finding of the actual bridge foundations — they found two kinds, an older one of wood and a newer one (later middle ages) of stone — but what lay around the bridge foundation. The dig revealed that the bridge continued to a medieval paved road — the road to Linköping! — about five meters wide, with gutters on each side and remains of houses to one side. These were all previously unobserved before the dig, as the site was thick with trees.

 The medieval road to Linköping (coins were found dating to the 1800s), that extending from where the bridge used to stand. There were, already then, city standards for how wide roads should be: five meters. On both side of the road, there were gutters.

 The cellars in one of the houses. It had a gutter and a drain, suggesting that occasionally, the river filled the houses' basements with water.

The houses' purpose was only the archeologists' guess. A miller's house was recorded in the site, but the proportions didn't match a humble miller's dwelling. When they digged deeper, the archeologists also found that the houses' cellars contained a number of broken bottles with corks intact — wine bottles, although their contents are unknown, as they could have been refilled. This leads to a theory that at least one of the houses could have been a pub, but this theory also falls short as there is a record of a pub just a kilometer downstream, that would have existed at the same time.

 Some of the many bottles found in the houses. 
They are wine bottles, but perhaps refilled and re-corked with other contents?

The nature of the houses is still somewhat of a mystery to be figured out by archeologists with their carbon dating techniques, and laboratory techniques to identify traces of what were in the bottles. In the meantime, the dig also recovered other artifacts, some more interesting than others. For "road filling," the medieval constructors used old roof tiles, bricks and other objects. The archeologists found many of these strewn around, but perhaps, they concluded, they had no other purpose than as mere construction fill. More interesting finds were made along the road itself and inside the houses. On the road lay were some coins from the 1800s. Possibly some loose change that fell off some poor fellow's pocket? Inside the houses were fragments of stoneware — both local brown stoneware and faux china — and glass fragments, some patterned by pressing. In one of the houses, they found the remains of what must have been a tiled stove. And near it: the oldest coin they have found in the dig so far, from 1636!

At another station of the tour, an archeologist shoes us some of the artifacts found at the site.

 The box of artifacts, including weights for fishing nets, fragments of everyday objects such as plates and glasses, fish hooks, coins, oyster shells, the remains of a simple pipe, etc.

On the other side of the road, opposite the houses, were the remains of an old brick factory — a shed, and a kiln — but these were of more relatively recent dating, ca. 1800s, presumably after the bridge no longer was in use because of the construction of a newer bridge. This could be guessed because the shed was constructed partly over the road, which suggests that it was no longer in full use. Then, for some reason or another, they moved the brickworks too, and the once historical site fell into anonymity.

Overview of the dig site. Road to the left, houses with cellars to the right (where a coin from as early as 1636 was found). The block on the road is what remains of the brick shed, ca 1800s. To the man's left are what remains of the brick kiln. At the time of the brickworks, the road was probably no longer in use.

The archeologists expected that, with a week left until their dig was done, they would find older artifacts the deeper they dig. They document their work through photo-scanning of the area, to preserve knowledge about how the site looked like. Unfortunately, those photo-scans will probably be the only thing left of this only recently discovered ruin. At least for the moment, the local politicians — with the exception of the city archeologist — are still firm on continuing the construction of the fish ladder, that will effectively bulldozer away the traces of this piece of local history. A shame. After all, the river is wide. I  suspect that  the fish ladder being built so close to the banks is not only for the fishes' sake but for human eyes to behold the fish. And in that case, the interest of preserving a historical site for future generations may just lose to other interests, such as the aesthetic one. With all due understanding that the fish may want some help upstream, ultimately the building of the fish ladder over what people now know to be a piece of their city history just deals with a political decision to replace an older man-made structure with a newer, modern one. As in Rome, Visby or Barcelona in times past: we build over the structures built before us.

On a lighter note, I couldn't help feeling — when I noticed the logo of Arkeologerna (The National Arheologists) on the guide's vests — that its designer must have been a person with a pretty good sense of humor :-)


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