Forlev Nymølle – En offerplads fra yngre førromersk jernalder


  • Jørgen Lund


Forlev Nymølle, offerplads, yngre førromersk jernalder


Forlev Nymølle
A sacrificial site from the late Pre-Roman Iron Age

Forlev Nymølle is situated in a small stretch of boggy land in the northern part of the river valley of Illerup Å north of Skanderborg. During peat digging in 1947, eight small clay vessels from c. 400 AD and a few fashioned wooden items were found. However, it was not until 1960 that museum keeper Harald Andersen, Moesgard Museum, started a major and very careful excavation, which last ed until 1966. Twenry-four areas, making up 325 m2, were excavated along the southern edge of the present peat bog (fig. 1). Forlev Nymølle is still one of the largest and best documented finds off ertiliryrelated sacrificial finds in Northern Europe. The finds, which primaril y consist of potsherds, bones from domestic animals, wooden items, patches of charcoal, and – not the least – stones were concentrated in small heaps relatively close to the old lakeshore. Nine find concentrations (I-IX) were separated, excluding “concentration X”, which comprises the clay vessels found in 1947 (fig. 15).

The individual find concentrations measure between 1.5 and 9 m2 , and although their contents vary greatly, they are all characterized by layers or small heaps of hand or head size stones (fig. 9, 16). Among these, a remarkable amount is light quart zite stones or flint, and their occurrence has made many scholars suggest that the throwing of stones were a central element of the sacrificial act. Potsherds and so me long ashwood sticks (fig. 6, 8, 12, 25, 26) form part of almost all stone heaps, whereas the depositing of bones from domestic animals seem to be more selective (fig. 31). Concentration I differs further by containing a simple anthropomorphic figure, which may have stood upright in the stone heap (fig. 2-3), and a bundle of flax (fig. 4). Most find concentrations seem to represent a single sacrifice, except for concentration I, which is interpreted with certainry as having been used more than once.

Some heavy tree trunks foun d in the immediate viciniry of some of the find heaps are thought to have functioned as a trackway from which the sacrifices could be made.The form and appearance of the individual concentrations are thought to be the result of depositing (fig. 7) including ritual stone throwing.

Most bones are intact, except for a few that are split (this is interpreted as evidence for the deliberate extraction of marrow) and are marked by fire.They were mainly found in concentration II and Ill and come chiefly from small, but harmoniously built domestic oxen. Bones from sheep and goats are also present, but only a few bones from dogs and horses and from a single hare were registered. A human bone, the fragment of a shoulder blade with cutting marks and polished edges – perhaps an amulet? – was also found.

The pottery, which could be assembled to make more or less complete vessels, dates the activities to the late Pre-Roman Iron Age (fig. 5). Two sacrificial horizons may be isolated (fig. 17), one of which belongs to the time between c. 200 and 150 BC (fig. 13-1 4,19) and the other to the time between c. 100 and 50 BC (fig. l0a-b, 1la).The area does not seem to have been used during the final phase of the Pre- Roman Iron Age, from 50 to 0 BC.

Among the more curious items is a wooden idol and some long ashwood sticks. The wooden idol, which lay in concentration I, was made from a forked oak branch. It has a length of 2.74 meters and a very simple form with out the obvious emphasizing of the sex, which characte rizes the idols from Braak and Wittemoor (fig. 23-24) and others. The branches make up the legs, and the upper part of these have been chopped in order to accentuate the swayed hips. The sex may be indicated by a small notch at the point of bifurcatio n (fig. 18). As both ethnographic and some prehistoric figures are decorated (fig. 20-22), the idol was carefully examined, but no traces of colour, lashing etc. were found. Pottery found with the idol dates from 200-150 BC.

Ashwood sticks are a normal occurrence in Forlev, represented as it is by 17 or 18 sticks from at least seven of the nine concentrations, and they seem to play a central part in the sacrificial ceremonies. They are characterized by a systematic choice of wood type, form, fashion and method of sacrifice. All were made from ashwood, they have a length of up to two meters, and one end is always finished with a cut, cross-going, triangular part. They were made from the outermost part of the trunk , the curved, de-barked side of which makes up the outside, whereas the inside is carefully carved (fig . 25). They were often laid down in pairs as a “set” consisting of a slender and a more heavy stick. They were made for the purpose, as the axe cut s are completely fresh (fig. 26). No parallels are known, but they resemble some long plank idols found in bogs in Lower Saxony (fig. 27). The function is pure guesswork – were they percussion instruments or prinlitive figures? The sticks are accessories of both sacrificial horizons.

The rest of the wooden items from Forlev are also difficult to interpret, but seem to belong to the household sphere (fig. 28). However, some – like the 2.62-cm long smoothed ashwood stick (fig. 29) and the hazelwood club (fig. 30) may have functioned as ceremonial accessories.

It appears from a comparison with other comprehensive finds of fertility sacrifices, such as Hedelisker, Varbrogård, Bukkerup, and Valmose- Rislev in Denmark, Käringsjön from Western Sweden and Oberdorla in Thuringia, that this find group has several features in common. The sacrificial areas are often large and characterized by relatively long periods of use. Often each locality has many small depositing sites with pottery, bones,and carved wooden objects, which are usually thought to have been sacrificed in water. Layers or heaps of stones and different branch-work are other characteristics.

It is impossible to decide whether these features express common ideas, and a closer stud of the in dividual localities seems to stress the variety, even between neighbouring and contemporary sites such as Forlev Nymølle and Hedelisker. Local traditions seem to play an important part.

Fertility sacrifices could be expected to follow a certain, cyclical pattern , but it has been impossible to determine such a pattern at Forlev, where the sacrificial ceremonies are not assumed to have been very numerous either. Even if we assume that the whole lake shore was full of sacrificial offerings with the same density as concentration I-III, it would be difficult to reach a number corresponding to an annual sacrifice. As several of the separated deposits seem to represent the very same action, the activity level is reduced further. Hence, the sacrifices, which are assumed collective and made by a whole village or the inhabitants of a smaller area, should rather be linked with certain events. This assumption seems to be supported by the separation of two sacrificial horizons.

Today, it is generally accepted that the religious aspect was strongly integrated into the daily life of prehistoric man, and seen in the light of our present knowledge of settlements, burial customs, etc. our knowledge of the religious manifestation s is still very limjted.

That is why even today, Forlev Nymølle appears to be a unique find without any clear parallels.

Jørgen Lund
Afdeling for Forhistorisk
Arkæologi Aarhus Universitet

Genstandstegninger: Jørgen Mührman-Lund
Genstandsfotos: Photolab, Moesgård
Udgravningsfotos: Harald Andersen

Translated by Annette Lerche Trolle





Lund, J. (2002). Forlev Nymølle – En offerplads fra yngre førromersk jernalder. Kuml, 51(51), 143–195. Hentet fra