Farm story 11: Maps, Mesolithic remains and a holly tree

The wild holly tree - a protected species

My husband Olle owned not only the couple of fertile fields near the farmhouse but also several small pockets of land scattered over a largish area. Centuries ago they may have been big enough for a vegetable plot or provided enough grazing for a cow or two, but recently have had little agricultural value. The reason for this patchwork of plots was that after a farmer died his property was divided up between family members, resulting in successively smaller pieces of land, and in turn to a lot of buying, selling and swapping of these small inefficient units. 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 over the last decades I have learned enough about the nature of Tjörn farmers to guess that the process of land re-distribution would not have been plain sailing.

As Olle’s dementia worsened it became increasingly important for me to understand exactly what land we owned. One day when I was taking another look at the map of the farm my eyes wandered to a corner and to my surprise I identified the small numbers which indicated that a parcel of land, sitting among the stony cliffs between the farmhouse and the sea, belonged to Olle. The area was mostly rocky woodland and almost a kilometre’s walk away from the farmhouse, and in the past must have been a hard place to get to. But there was another surprise too – in the middle of this newly discovered patch of cliffs and rocks there was a symbol - a large, green R.

I knew this stood for Riksantikvarieämbetet (the Swedish National Heritage Board) and wrote to them, asking what the symbol meant and was thrilled to learn that the letter indicated the presence of an ancient Stone Age settlement. It was most likely Mesolithic, so was sandwiched between the Old and New Stone Ages. I was rather proud that there was evidence that ancient people had been our neighbours, living on what was now our land. That was until I found a local website listing the number of registered ancient sites on the island and, trying not to feel deflated, stopped counting at 400. Tjörn was obviously a very desirable place to live in the Stone Age.

The Heritage Board also sent me a summary of the excavation and when it arrived the photocopy was a blast from the past – and that was even before I started reading it. The site had been discovered in 1978 and the final report had been written up in 1983 - not using a computer but a typewriter. I thought as I read the characteristic typeface with its slight irregularities that my generation was probably the last to use such a tool. To children born now a document written without an automatic spell check, a cut and paste function and a delete key were almost as alien as Stone Age flints.

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, on higher ground and sheltered by rocks on three sides, looked promising and dug three test pits. In one they found proof of habitation, a so-called kulturlager , the English translation of which is the archaeological term, occupation earth. Its means a set of deposits indicating a settlement and may consist, for example, of worked stone, animal remains and ashes. In our case, the archaeologists had found a thin layer of soot showing that a structure had probably stood on the site and that over time 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 stone flakes have to be at least twice as long as they are wide, have more or less parallel sides and at least two ridges on one side, and they had many purposes including as knives or scrapers for hides. The team also found two microblades which would have been tied or fitted into the handles or shafts of arrows or harpoons. These remains are characteristic of the Mesolithic Period, which in the Nordic countries ran from around 12,000 to 6,000 years ago.

The report was accompanied by four simple maps, outlines of the coast of Tjörn, which make it crystal clear how dramatically sea levels around the island have changed over the millennia. There is a star marking “our” site on all four maps, showing that when its first human inhabitants had lived there about 10,000 years ago they’d occupied a small island, one of fourteen which over time grew together to form the larger island of Tjörn. At that time the inhabitants of the island would have lived very near the seashore and been dependent mainly on fish, sea creatures and birds for food, as such a small island would not have supplied the human population with larger animals indefinitely. The remaining maps show the land mass growing as islands gradually merge, and the last of the four little maps shows the outline of Tjörn as it is today, 147 sq km in area and home to over 16,000 inhabitants.

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 means “iron oak”, but whose proper name is holly. Holly had, and continues to have, a surprising number of uses. Because it’s extremely hard it has been used for fine carving, for making white chess pieces for example, and in Europe has also been used for centuries in winter decorations, its unchanging green being a symbol of hope and fertility. It has been prized for its medicinal qualities too, and in the past a tea made from holly was taken as a cure for fevers, colds, influenza and rheumatism. It’s also still used in the making of birdlime , a horrible, adhesive substance spread on branches or twigs to trap birds.

Holly wood was a valuable resource for Stone Age people who’d use it to make sharpened sticks for hunting, or perhaps as shafts to carry the stone blades found on the site. Holly was also used to make soft hammers, tools which made it possible for ancient craftsmen to polish stone artifacts and give them a finer finish. It also figures in ancient myths and legends. Celtic Druids in Britain regarded the tree as sacred while European mythology linked holly with the gods of thunder. Even today the teenagers’ site, Legends of the Multi Universe, mentions Holly Sacred Gods, so the tree still has an association with ancient magic – however tenuous.

Relatively recently I discovered that this tree wasn’t any old ilex aquifolium but the only example of a native wild holly tree in the whole of Sweden, and for that reason it was protected by law. Nowadays it has minor celebrity status 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 Sweden in 1830 to eradicate all native holly bushes, presumably to remove what was regarded as a pest and to help boost the amount of arable land in the country. It was believed that the measure had succeeded – until this one specimen was discovered on our land in the 1930’s. The website also mentions that the owner of the land on which the holly was found was my husband, Olle Olofsson. He had approached Länsstyrelsen , Bohusläns county council, about the tree in 1985 after which it was awarded protected status. I’d had no idea. It’s quite possible that he told me about it and I simply forgot, for in those years I had little interest in the farm or the land which went with it.

In 2020 the wild holly tree was added to Sweden’s list of species threatened by extinction. I visited it quite recently, following the directions on the website and the signs on a local street. It’s a ten-minute walk through scrubby woodland and 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 sturdy, 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. It’s likely that the Stone Age inhabitants of the site valued holly and would surely have been pleased to find one or more trees nearby. It may be a stretch, but surely it’s not impossible that an ancestor of this very holly tree stood on the site of the Stone Age settlement thousands of years ago. Looking at a photo of this quiet place, the thought makes me slightly dizzy as the intervening millennia suddenly shrink to nothing.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023 For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm

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