One of the photos recently presented at Flickr Commons depicts an excavation performed in one of the imposing Uppsala Mounds called the Western Mound. The photo was taken by Henri Osti who emigrated from Germany to Sweden were he opened a photographer’s studio in Uppsala. As a local and well reputed photographer, Osti was engaged to document the Western Mound, or Tor’s Mound as it was referred to when it was explored in 1874.
One of the individuals posing in Ostis photo could very well be Lieutenant J. G. Hagdahl who was commissioned to lead the excavation. The initiator was the Director General at the Swedish National Heritage Board, Bror Emil Hildebrand, who in the 1840’s investigated the Eastern Mound (also called Oden’s Mound) and the Middle Mound (earlier known as Frö’s Mound), also situated in the area of Old Uppsala.
When exploring the Western Mound, one of the initial plans was to apply the same strategy used in the 1840’s, i.e. to perforate the mound with three small shafts; one from the top and two from its sides. This plan was abandoned; instead a vast shaft was dug into its centre. It took 20 men (probably soldiers from the Regiment of Uppland) nearly a month to finish the job shovelling through this 60 metres high and 10,5 metres wide monument! Among the meagre amount of finds were cremated human bones, small fragments of gold and some decorated pieces of animal bones.
But why then did they take such pains excavating this enormous barrow and why didn’t they use the same excavation strategy as back in the 1840’s? In the same year, 1874, an international anthropological-archaeological conference was held in Stockholm. By excavating a huge barrow named after a heathen god and by many thought to conceal a great king and wealthy grave goods, the committee simply wanted to amaze their international archaeological colleagues. The reason they dug out an enormous shaft was simply to make the inner structures more visible for the audience. Whether Hildebrand and his colleagues were disappointed about the meagre quantity of finds the story doesn’t tell.
What is important to bear in mind is that back in those days archaeology was still a juvenile scientific field. To host an international conference was considered an honour and of great scientific importance since it gave you the opportunity to demonstrate the standards of the native archaeology. Due to the national movement at the time it was also perceived as a matter of great national significance which was why the excavation was financed by state funds.
The photo in question, plus two others also taken by Henri Osti, as well as the original excavation report are kept in the Antiquarian Topographical Archives (the Swedish National Heritage Board) in Stockholm. This archive is unique due to the enormous amount of documents, photos and other illustrations covering 400 hundred years of antiquarian work!
>> Ola W. Jensen is a researcher at the Swedish National Heritage Board, working on issues concerning the history of preservation ideology.