Untangling the life history of Iron Age farmsteads and settlements in Western Jutland, Denmark

In the 1960s and 1970s a major campaign of settlement excavations was carried out on the well-preserved settlements in Western Denmark using machine excavation of the topsoil. These excavations, carried out as salvage excavations on selected sites and firmly embedded within a research agenda, led to a major breakthrough in our understanding of Iron Age settlement patterns and settlement development. A fairly limited number of very well-preserved sites such as Grøntoft, Hodde, Vorbasse and Nr. Snede, thus formed the database in the model of settlement development from scattered and labile farmsteads of the Preroman Iron Age to present day stationary villages.

At the core of this explanatory model are three principles: 1) A limited life-span of post-built houses and thus the constant displacement of houses and farmsteads, 2) the eventual nucleation of farmsteads in hamlets and villages and 3) a continued rotation of the entire settlement (the wandering village) within the boundaries of a limited primary resource area (what eventually became the parish), until the stone-built church eventually led to a complete stabilization of the entire settlement system.

In the last 10-15 years this model has been challenged by the large amounts of settlement data compiled through development-led excavations. With the growing database, a much more complex picture of the settlement development starts to emerge.

In this paper I will use data from recent development-led excavations to show the marked differences in the development of individual settlements, how the life-span of the farmsteads change through time and how the changes in both site-continuity and farmstead layout are linked to wider changes in societal norms regarding households and farms. 

The untangling of the life-history of the hamlets and farmsteads and high resolution phasing of hamlets give a glimpse of the interconnection between different farms and thus interplay between the different households in the local community. But high resolution phasing of entire settlements is often problematic often relying on building typology, observations on how buildings relate to each other with an uncertainty to the contemporaneity or even chronology of the buildings in a plot.

In my opinion, what we need to address especially three questions in order to further our insights into the Danish Iron Age settlements: 1) Develop dating schemes for entire well-preserved and long-lived settlements. 2) Make the life-histories of well-preserved individual farmsteads the level of analysis in addition to the analysis of the entire settlement trajectory. 3) Focus on the changing activity patterns within selected farms using a multi-proxy approach of geochemistry and macrofossil analysis. 

In order to this, we need to bring the research questions into the field in order to sample materials, select units for excavation and so on. This may seem obvious, but it is not without its own set of problems due to the way our development-led excavations are administered and undertaken.