Farm story 20: Saved from extinction
A rare,wild holly bush
Between 3000 and 4000 years ago people were living just a couple of hundred metres away from the site where Olle’s father built the farmhouse. I’m aware that this sounds like a sweeping statement but I’ve got proof - a map of Mölnebo dated 18 January 2009. It was drawn up by the Lantmäteriet , a fascinating state institution, rather like a Swedish Land Registry, and both loved and feared by the farming community of Tjörn.The particular map I’m writing about is in colour and was easy to print out on my home printer. It’s quite large scale, 1:4000, and it shows the farmhouse at Mölnebo and the fields around it, including what is now a meadow which slopes down from the woods to the west of the farmhouse. In Olle’s grandfather’s time this field was known for growing excellent potatoes but we also know a little about its more distant history for on the map is a symbol - a large, red, letter R - in the middle of the field.This R is in brackets and the top of the letter is sharp, like a triangle lying on its side.
Like so much to do with Tjörn I let years pass without bothering to find out anything more about it but in 2019, a decade after I’d printed the map out, I finally got round to writing to Riksantikvarieämbetet (the Swedish National Heritage Board) to ask them what the symbol meant. Their replied that the R indicated the presence of an ancient archaeological site and the fact that there were brackets around the letter showed that no signs were visible above ground. The latest excavation was from 1990 when the archaeological team had found pieces of worked flint in our potato patch, the email adding that on such ancient sites it was quite common for stone fragments, or flakes, to be the only remaining signs of human presence. The site was thought to be from the New Stone Age or Bronze Age, meaning people had lived there between three and four thousand years ago.
Of course I was excited, and rather proud to have discovered that ancient people had been our neighbours and lived on what was now our land. That’s until I found a local website listing the number of registered ancient sites on Tjörn and, trying not to feel deflated, stopped counting at 400. These remains include Stone Age burial mounds and cairns, Bronze Age rock carvings of boats and people, as well as the remains of houses, fishing places and forts. These are apart from the well-known Iron Age stone circles and approximately 90 visible graves at Pilane, in the north of Tjörn. The register does not bother to include sites like ours where only modest remains have been identified for, to be added to the list of ancient monuments, there have to be visible remains above ground level which, “would be identifiable by a layperson.” This, I’m afraid, is overly optimistic judging by this layperson anyway. However, what the symbol on the map did establish beyond question is that ancient people had lived a stone’s throw from our house, which was really exciting.
But that isn’t the end of my archaeological tale, for Olle not only owned the couple of fertile fields near the house but also several small pockets of land scattered over a largish area. The Swedish skiftesreformer , the land reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were designed to modernise agriculture by consolidating such small patches of land into larger areas, but the process of land re-distribution does not seem to have eliminated all of these odds and ends.
As Olle’s dementia worsened it became increasingly important for me to understand exactly what land we owned and one day when I was taking another look at the maps my eyes wandered to a corner showing part of the neighbouring area of Bäckevik. To my surprise I saw the familiar figures which identified Olle’s property on another patch of land less than a kilometre from the farmhouse. The area was mostly rocky woodland, which is probably why it had been ignored for so long. But as I examined this new discovery something else caught my eye. The area contained another symbol, a green R this time and this one didn’t have brackets around it .
So in 2020 I wrote again to my friends at the Swedish National Heritage Board, this time about this newly-discovered symbol, and they told me that it indicated the site of another ancient settlement. It was older than the one near our house and was most likely Mesolithic and so sandwiched between the Old and New Stone Ages. They also enquired if I would like a photocopy of the original report of 100 pages. Not feeling up to quite so much detail I asked for the summary instead and when it arrived it was a blast from the past – and that was even before I started reading it. The site had been discovered in 1978 and what I’d been sent was a copy of the final report written up in 1983 - on a typewriter no less. My generation is probably the last to use such a tool, and to children born now a document written without an automatic spell check and cut and paste function is likely to be almost as much a relic of the past as the Stone Age discoveries the report describes.
The site itself was discovered when archaeologists were making surveys in the nearby community of Bäckevik before new houses were built there. They decided that one place, overlooking a valley and sheltered by rocks to the north, east and west, looked promising and dug three test pits. In one of them they found proof of habitation, a so-called kulturlager . (the English archaeological translation being, occupation earth) which is a set of deposits indicating signs of a settlement and consisting, for example, of worked stone, animal remains and ashes. In this case, the archaeologists had found a thin layer of soot showing that a structure had probably stood on the site and that people had built fires in or around it. The site also contained lots of stone fragments and three stone tools, known to Swedish archaeologists as spån, or blades, which had been created by striking long narrow flakes from a stone core.
To qualify as blades, these pieces of stone flakes have to be at least twice as long as they are wide, have more or less parallel sides and have at least two ridges on one side. It seems that they had many purposes including as knives or scrapers for hides. The team also found two microblades (which are basically the same as the larger versions but have to be under 12 mm) which would have been tied or fitted into handles or shafts of arrows or harpoons. These are characteristic of the Mesolithic Period, which in the Nordic countries took place between about 12,000 and 6,000 years ago.
But something else of note was mentioned in the report. On the first page, under the heading Topography, it pointed out that among the birch saplings and conifers on the site there was also an example of järnek , which if translated literally is an “iron oak”, but more correctly a holly tree. This I remembered from my first years on Tjörn , when Olle had taken me to see it and I had wondered what all the fuss was about – holly bushes were two a penny in England. Decades later I googled the tree and discovered that this wasn’t any old ilex aquifolium but the only example of a wild holly tree in the whole of Sweden, and for that reason it was protected by law. Nowadays it’s a celebrity and even has its own webpage (only in Swedish unfortunately), hosted by the Tjörn branch of The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. It tells us that there was a decision taken in 1830 to eradicate all native holly bushes in Sweden and it was believed that the measure had succeeded – except for this one specimen which was missed, probably because it’s off the beaten track. The website named the owner of the land which housed the holly as my husband, Olle Olofsson. He, I learned, had approached Länsstyrelsen , Bohusläns county council, about the tree in 1985, after which it had been awarded protected status.
I paid my second visit to the tree quite recently, following the directions on the website and the signs on a local street. It’s a ten-minute walk through scrubby wood although, oddly, when you get there you can now see a nearby house through the trees. I guess it’s about five metres high – a proper tree rather than a bush. It doesn’t look particularly healthy and I suspect that the neighbouring trees are blocking its light, but several small holly bushes are growing nearby so with luck there’ll be a holly tree on the site for many years to come. And because Swedes take this sort of thing seriously, the tree now sits in the middle of its own mini nature reserve of 1200 square metres. I’m pleased that Olle’s gesture is still remembered - there can’t be a more suitable memorial to such a quiet, modest man.
Neither on the website nor in the archaeological report have they made any link between the ancient site and the tree - but I wonder. Because the wood from holly trees is so hard, it is likely that it was used by Stone Age people to make sharpened sticks for hunting. Then I found a website which told me that holly had also been used to make soft hammers and tools which made it possible for ancient craftsmen to polish the stone artifacts they were working on to produce a finer finish. Holly also figures large in ancient myths and legends. Celtic Druids in Britain, centuries before the birth of Christ, regarded the tree as sacred while European mythology linked holly with the gods of thunder, including the Norse god Thor. Even today the teenagers’ site, Legends of the Multi Universe , (a Fandom site in case you’re interested) mentions Holly Sacred Gods, so the tree still has an association with ancient magic – however tenuous. Holly trees can live for 250 to 300 years, and if any of the little saplings surrounding the parent tree survive, they will be there long after we and our great-grandchildren are dead.
It may be a stretch, but it’s surely not impossible that an ancestor of this very holly tree stood on the site of the Stone Age settlement in Bäckevik thousands of years ago. Looking at a picture of this quiet place, the thought makes me dizzy as the intervening millennia seem to shrink to nothing before my eyes.
©Gwyneth Olofsson. 2023
See more pictures of the farm on Instagram: gwyneths_swedish_farm Thanks to members of Tjörns Naturskyddsförening for their help.