Refshøjgård – Et bemærkelsesværdigt gravfund fra enkeltgravskulturen


  • Lutz Klassen


Refshøjgård, enkeltgravskultur


Refshøjgård. An extraordinary burial-find from the Single Grave Culture

Towards the end of 2000, Moesgård Museum excavated a grave mound at Refshøjgård in Folby parish, approx. 15 km NW of Århus in Eastern Jutland (Fig. 1). After the topsoil was removed, it became obvious that the original grave mound had been destroyed completely by ploughing. The mound had been placed on a natural circular elevation consisting of clay. In the periphery of this elevation, seven secondary burials from the Late Roman Iron Age were discovered, while the centre of the mound contained two superimposed burials of the Single Grave Culture (SGC) (Figs. 2-3). These burials are described in the following.

The plough had already destroyed most traces of the upper grave. Due to the collapse of the coffin in the grave underneath, part of the fill of the burial mound had sunk down into the resulting depression. Due to this, the grave goods – a typical thick-butted flint axe of SGC type (Fig. 9) and a battle axe of Glob’s type B1 (Fig. 8) – had been preserved in the depression (Figs. 4-5). The remnants of the original mound fill also held eight small pieces of SGC settlement ceramics (Fig. 14), all undecorated belly sherds. Twenty centimetres below, the primary burial showed up. It consisted of a coffin that was open in the eastern end. It was approx. 2 metres long, 85 centimetres wide, orientated E-W and built of planks approx. seven centimetres wide. In the southern side, an upper plank had fallen down and now rested next to a lower plank. The whole construction was obviously made in a provisional way. It was supported by a foundation made from stones up to the size of a human head, which had survived to a height of approx. 30 centimetres (Fig. 6-7). One of the stones turned out to be a quern stone, which had been deliberately placed in the southeastern corner (Fig. 13). There were no supporting stones in the open eastern side of the coffin. Within the coffin, traces of the deceased were clearly visible as dark marks in the earth. It was possible to recognize feet, legs, stomach, back, and part of the head, whereas the arms could not be determined with certainty. The legs were strongly bent under the dead, who was thus resting in a hocker-position. The body was lying on its right side, with the head towards the west and facing south – the typical position of men in burials from the SGC. It was closely surrounded by a thin line of greasy material, probably the remains of a cow hide or the likes. The dead therefore seemed to have been buried in some sort of leather bag. At the back and top of the head, the form of the greasy line suggested that the deceased was buried with some kind of hat. The grave goods consisted of a thick-butted flint axe placed front of the face (Fig. 10), a beaker in the southwest corner of the coffin (Fig. 11) and a rather large, symmetrically formed object of organic material, probably wood, that had only survived as a dark trace in the earth between the beaker and the head of the dead.

Both grave finds can be dated to the very early SGC. In the upper grave, this dating is further indicated by the battle axe of type B1, which is characteristic of the very early SGC. It is unusual to find an SGC grave in a stratigraphic position underneath a battle-axe of this type. The lower grave must therefore be considered one of the very earliest finds known from the SGC. Two 14C-dates, obtained from charcoal, confirm this assumption (AAR- 7028, 4140 ± 50 BP = 2855-2680 BC cal and AAR-7029, 4175 ± 50 BP = 2865- 2705 BC cal).

The flint axe from the lower burial is of a special nature as it shows typological traits similar to both the A-axes of the Late Funnel Beaker Culture (FBC) and the thick-butted flint axes of the SGC. It thus confirms the dating of the grave to the very early SGC. The beaker from the lower grave is clearly of local origin. It does, however, have some unusual traits, especially regarding the neck, which is higher and more cylindrical than usual. Parallels are known from the Corded Ware Culture south of the Harz in Eastern Germany. The person who manufactured the beaker in Jutland had probably seen beakers in this area of central Europe. Maybe it was someone who had traveled there, or a woman from that region who had moved up north. A thin brown crust was preserved inside the beaker (Fig. 12). It was investigated using both pollen analysis and microscopy. The crust turned out to not contain any pollen, although a pollen analysis of the sand contained in the beaker when it was found (mound fill that fell down) showed pollen in abundance and thus revealed good preservation conditions. The contents of the beaker thus probably did not consist of any drink made of honey (mead) as known from several Late Neolithic/Bronze Age finds in Scotland and Denmark. Investigation in a microscope with polarized light revealed that the crust contained large amounts of starch grains – a strong indicator of some form of beer. An attempt was made to confirm this theory by investigating the starch grains with a scanning electron microscope. Under good preservation conditions, starch grains from beer remnants can be shown to be affected by amylacous pitting due to the malting of cereal grains. This was done successfully with finds from ancient Egypt, but unfortunately the starch grains from Refshøjgård were too badly preserved (Fig. 15). However, in the best-preserved examples, form and size corresponded to starch grains from barley, which was almost the only type of cereal grown in the SGC. It is therefore concluded that the beaker from the lower grave at Refshøjgård once contained a form of beer brewed from barley. It may well be the oldest beer demonstrated in Europe so far. No traces of possible additives survived due to the insufficient preservation conditions.

The pollen analysis of the sand from the beaker showed numerous pollen grains from barley (Table 1). The amount is several times higher than what is normal for barley fields, and it is therefore possibly the result of threshing, rather than of natural pollen dispersal. A review of other pollen analyses from barrows of the SGC and FBC showed that in both cultures, the threshing of cereals may have been part of the rituals performed during the building of the mounds or the burials. This phenomenon might then constitute an example of ritual continuity between the two cultures, which are otherwise clearly different in all aspects of material culture, settlement structure, economic strategy, etc. Another example is constituted by the sherds of settlement ceramic found in the remains of the mound fill. Comparable finds are often noted in the literature on the excavation of SGC mounds. This is even the case with the old excavations, which merely consisted of shafts dug in the center of the mounds. It appears that the sherds were deposited just above the graves. This is unlikely to have been the case if the finds merely represented ordi- nary settlement debris, which would normally include other types of materials, such as flint artifacts, charcoal, etc. Another aspect indicating deliberate deposition is the small size of the sherds, which are obviously fragmented as a result of deliberate destruction. The observed practice thus constitutes an apparent parallel to the deposition and smashing of pots that took place by the megalithic graves of the FBC.

Several other finds from the earliest SGC are known from the area surrounding Refshøjgård. A distribution map shows that the Refshøjgård area constitutes an isolated settlement region and the easternmost closed distribution area of the SGC in Jutland (Fig. 16). The classical distribution area of the early SGC, Central and West Jutland, is characterized by poor sandy soils. The subsoil in the Refshøjgård area is also of a rather poor type, especially compared with the heavy clayey soils along the east coast of Jutland, where the settlements of the late FBC are found. The subsoil conditions thus may explain why the Refshøjgård area was settled by the early SGC. The emergence of Neolithic settlements in areas of poor soil indicates a remarkable intensification of farming, probably mainly herding, in South Scandinavia during the Neolithic.

The flint axe from the earliest burial at Refshøjgård indicates that the deceased was originally related to the late FBC settlement on the coast. He then moved westward and may have been one of the first settlers in the Refshøjgård region. The agricultural symbolism (quern stone, threshing) connected to his burial may in fact indicate that he was the founder of the new settlement. It is interesting to note that quern stones appear in two other graves of the Corded Ware Culture (one from Jutland, and one from Poland) and that all graves are male burials with the quern stone always placed in the eastern end of the grave. This custom may well indicate founders’ graves, as all the known examples mark the earliest burials in the respective micro regions.

The foreign typological traits of the Refshøjgård beaker are an important observation, as influences on the SGC from the area south of the Harz have been noted several times before. The origin of the SGC may in some way be connected to that area. According to older theories, the SGC were the result of massive ethnic migration. However, more recent research, including the study of the Refshøjgård burials, indicates that the local population constituted an important component in the transition from FBC to SGC. Migration from Central Europe may nevertheless have been part of the process, perhaps only in the form of translocation of single individuals or small groups.

Lutz Klassen
Institut for Antropologi, Arkæologi og
Lingvistik, Aarhus Universitet

Translated by Annette Lerche Trolle





Klassen, L. (2005). Refshøjgård – Et bemærkelsesværdigt gravfund fra enkeltgravskulturen. Kuml, 54(54), 17–59. Hentet fra