Kivik Kungagraven: A Tomb Fit for a King
In 1748, two farmers stumbled upon an ancient stone tomb near the village of Kivik in southern Sweden while digging in a quarry. The tomb, now known as Kivik Kungagraven (‘King’s Grave of Kivik’), has since been reconstructed to a how it would have appeared during the time that it was first built. It is known for having an elaborate burial chamber which contains prominent artwork indicating a religious ceremony of some sort. The tomb gives a glimpse into the degree of social complexity and technological sophistication extant in Bronze Age Scandinavia.
Entrance to the King’s Grave (CC by SA 3.0)
The site of the tomb was originally a quarry until the grave was discovered. The two farmers who discovered it are said to have excavated it looking for treasure. They were unfortunately unable to find any treasure. The tomb appears to have already been looted in the past and any grave goods that were in it have since been removed.
The ancient burial site at Kivik (CC by SA 3.0)
Archaeological excavation began in earnest in the 1930s. During the excavation, a second burial chamber was discovered which was smaller than the first. As a result, it was dubbed the “Prince’s Chamber.” Recent archaeological investigation has uncovered remains of teenage individuals in the Prince’s Chamber. The entire tomb complex is round, about 75 meters in diameter. Inside the main chamber are ten stones which line the edge of the grave cavity or cist. They are 1 meter high and 1 meter wide. On these stones are depictions of dancers, musicians with horns, cloaked figures that might be dancers or priests, and horses pulling carts. The artwork inside the cist resembles rock art which appears elsewhere in multiple locations across Northern Europe including Tanum and sites in Denmark.
One of ten slabs of stone shows a horse drawn chariot with two four-spoked wheels (CC by SA 3.0)
One of the slabs of stone shows people (eight in long robes) (CC by SA 3.0)
The tomb was built around 1500 BC. Lack of artifacts useful for constraining the chronology make it difficult to date the site with any further precision, but it is typically dated to the Early Bronze Age. The Nordic Bronze Age was a time of major social changes and improvements in trade which made copper and tin more available, helping to make bronze commonly used. a Pan-European tradition of bronze-working was spreading across the continent. Bronze for the first time had become widespread in Scandinavia because of the availability of tin and copper due to trade. It is also around this time that monumental burial mounds and tombs began to be built across northern Europe, a trend of which King’s Grave is just one example. It is not certain whether the arrival of bronze allowed for the rise of social complexity which led to structures such as monumental tombs or if the technology of bronze-working simply made it easier for an already complex society to build tombs. Early theories regarding sociocultural evolution in Scandinavia held that the development or arrival of bronze-working in European societies allowed for the formation of a class of specialists and chieftains who were able to separate themselves from the farmers as an elite class.
The stones of the grave facing the grave of Kivik (CC by SA 3.0)
The artwork made in the tomb indicates connections to northern Germany and Denmark. The stones depict horses, what may be ships, and symbols which resemble sun wheels. This suggests that the people who built the grave site had the same religious beliefs as cultures across northern Europe at the time. Shared religious beliefs suggest that the people of southern Sweden were connected to regions further south in other ways as well, such as the technology which they possessed.
Before the Bronze Age, the primary material used for making tools and weapons in the region was flint. Flint knives are commonly found at Late Neolithic sites. Because bronze-working requires relatively well trained specialists compared to the manufacturing of lithics, there wouldn’t be many initially and they would probably need to receive support from wealthy members of the society such as chieftains in order to receive their training. Chieftains would be able to employ them to build the necessary tools to build monuments and prestige items such as ornaments and ceremonial weapons and armor. Once chieftains were patrons of well-trained bronze-smiths, it would have become easier for them to construct monumental structures such as tombs.
Regardless of the reason for the rise of greater social and technological complexity in Scandinavia during the Bronze Age, it shows that, although less advanced than the Bronze Age Aegean, it was more advanced than traditionally thought. The Scandinavians had chariots, monuments, and sea-going vessels. As time goes on, archaeology will probably reveal increasingly surprising things about the land of the Norsemen.
Top image: The King’s Grave in Sweden (CC by SA 3.0)
By Caleb Strom
“The Bronze Age.” National Museum of Denmark Website. Available at: http://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/
“The Kivik King’s Grave.” Germanic Mythology: Texts, Translations, Scholarship. Available at: http://www.germanicmythology.com/index.html
Harding, Anthony Filmer. European societies in the Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press, 2000.