Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld
In 2004, a unique discovery was made at the early-medieval grave field of Solleveld, just south of the city of The Hague: a boat grave. Exactly two hundred kilometers, perfectly east, across the North Sea, of the legendary boat burial of Sutton Hoo. With this one-of-a-kind found, the Netherlands joined the ranks of ship-burial-countries. A not to be underestimated list. The nation's self-esteem went through the roof. Moreover, it reminds us of the almost 1,500-years-old account of Procopius, in which this Greek historian describes how the men of this same region ferried souls of the dead to Britain. Have they, in fact, found one of those ferrymen?
In his History of the Wars, written around the year 545, historian Procopius of Caesarea reports how souls of the dead are being rowed to the island Britta ‘Britain’. It are the men living on the other side of the sea with Britain, who carry out this macabre job. The coast where these men live, is one dotted with many small settlements, where people fish, till the soil, and are involved in sea trade. According to Procopius, this land is under jurisdiction of the Franks, but the people do not have to pay tribute. Instead, they are tasked with the rewarding activity of dragging souls.
Procopius’ description fits very well the lower coastal regions of the Netherlands in the sixth century. Not only because of the geographical location and the economic combination of agriculture and sea trade. Also because it is descried as an area under the sphere of influence of the Franks. This, very much comparable with the account in Beowulf of king Hygelac raiding Frisia in the lower River Rhine region in the year 516, but who was killed by the Franks, and not by the Frisians. Read our post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay on this disaster of the Geats.
The course of business for ferrying the dead was as follows.
During the night, the men were awakened by a knock on their door, and by a indistinct voice calling them to do their service (This knocking on door by ‘ghosts’ we also know from the Swiss legend of the dead Frisians in Switzerland, read our post Make way for the dead!). Next, the men walked to the shore to find their boats prepared and ready to go. They rowed a full night and day to reach Britain. The boats were very heavy, and almost took in water. The men did not see any soul or person during the whole enterprise. The only thing they heard, was when they made landfall on the coast of Britain. A voice called out the names of the souls, mentioning their title and honour. The same happened with the souls of women who disembarked, but then their husband’s honour and position was named. After this, the men hastily rowed back across the sea, but now with a light boat, high on the water. The following night it was the turn of other men in the village to row souls to Britain.
As to why Britain ended up with all the dead souls, is not being told by Procopius. Of course, the whole story has many similarities with the Greek myth of the ferryman Charon, who ferried the dead across the River Styx. This river separated the world of the living with the world of the dead. Charon had to be paid an obol, a coin, otherwise no crossing was possible. Only, in the account of Procopius the work of Charon was divided over many men. And, the cunning Franks bought off the whole ferry fee as well, and made the Frisians do it without any payment. We are curious how this arrangement will be affected with the Brexit, soon.
Procopius did not believe the whole thing. He documented it nevertheless because it was a persistent story and living experience among the local people. It was, by the way, also Procopius who said that Britain was inhabited by the Brittônes ‘Brits’, the Angiloi ‘Angles, and the Phrissones ‘Frisians’.
In Harlingerland in region Ostfriesland, exists the saga of Nobiskrug. Souls of the dead went via Helweg ‘Hell’s road’ to the Wadden Sea to be shipped from there to Hell. The brother of Hell was named Nobi. Along Helweg, near the town of Esens, Nobi had a tavern where souls could get a ‘Krug‘ pitcher to get drunk a last time. By the way, if you follow from Esens Helweg in southern direction you will reach Rabbelsberg, the burial mound of king Radbod they say.
East of Harlingerland, in Norderland, a similar saga exists. This is the saga of Witte Aaland ‘white island’ and how fisherman Jan Hugen ships at winter solstice 300 dead souls across the sea. Every year on this day, at the stroke of midday, a short man dressed in a yellow coat with silver buttons, carrying a cane with golden knob, appeared at the house of Jan Hugen in the village of Neßmersiel. Both agreed on the price Jan would ship the souls to Witte Aaland that same night. Once Jan arrived at Witte Aaland, a voice would call the names of the dead. After the voice had become silent, Jan could sail back to Neßmersiel.
Solleveld boat grave
As said, in 2004 an excavation took place at the early-medieval grave field of Solleveld, previously called Monster. A grave field known since the mid-’50s already. Solleveld is part of a dune landscape close to the seashore, around seven hundred meters away from it. These are so-called old dunes, which were formed about 5,000 years ago. Then, due to a stabilizing sea level, the seashore expanded in western direction, at first. During the Roman Period, the western coastline of the Netherlands still lay several kilometers more to the west. Around 3,000 years ago, the sea got more grip on the sandy coast, and moved east. It coincided with strong dune formation, the so-called young dunes that covered most of the old dunes. These are much higher than the old dunes. This land-eating process to the east came to a halt around 1600. The landscape of Solleveld is special, because it is one of the few remaining areas of the North Sea where the lime-low, old dunes are still visible and preserved. More to the north, most old dunes have been dug up, mainly to support the growing city of Amsterdam. Everything to make Amsterdam great, of course.
In the proximity of the grave field of Solleveld, more or less continuous habitation has been the case since the Late Iron Age. During the Middle Roman Period, between 150-180, even a small fortress existed with a cavalry unit deployed, locally known as fort Ockenburg. From the end of the Roman Period, population along the coast of the Netherlands dropped, only to recover slowly from mid-fifth century. From the sixth century, archaeologist witness a steady growth of the population along the coast. In what is now the provinces Noord Holland and Zuid Holland, this Frisian population inhabited the dunes, sandy ridges behind the dunes and the riverbanks.
From the early-eighth century onward the Frankification of the western coast of the Netherlands set in (Van der Velde 2011). A change of material culture has been proven by archaeological research. With Frankification also came Christianization. This process started after the Frankish empire finally pushed out the Frisians and seized definitive control over Dorestat, current Wijk bij Duurstede, and the central river area. Already soon after the death of king Radbod in 719. Despite the Frankification started in the eighth century, the region would be named Frisia until the beginning of the twelfth century. Check our post The United Frisian Emirates and Black Peat about this major identity shift.
Over the years, in total forty-six graves have been identified at Solleveld. The grave field has been in use between approximately 550 and 650 (Waasdorp, 2008), although the period 500-700 is also possible (Dijkstra 2011). Of these, forty-two were cremations, of which thirty-two deposited in an urn (twenty-two, according to Dijkstra), and ten cremation deposits without an urn or jar. Besides cremations, four (three, according to Dijkstra) inhumations have been found, of which the boat grave is one. The grave field is within the Frisian cultural tradition, and in line with the excavation at Frankenslag in the city of The Hague (Magendans 1989). Finds of particular interest are an inhumation of a man with weapons, and, of course, the boat grave. We shall discuss them in a bit more detail. For the full monty, check the research report itself (Waasdorp & Eimermann 2008).
The inhumation of the, assumed, man is very rich with weaponry. The cadaver was buried in a wooden coffin, and is dated second half of the sixth century. Unfortunately, the grave turned out to be partially destroyed due to earlier digging activities. The fact only the lower half of the grave and cadaver were missing, was kind of a make up, since most early-medieval deposits are normally placed on the upper half of the deceased. Orientation of the body was north-south, with the head toward south. Thanks to a few remains of the body, especially a molar, the age could be estimated at circa twenty-five years.
First of all the grave contained a sword of the so-called spatha type, with scabbard. These are long swords with a double-edged blade. Furthermore, a seax or Schmalsax was found, which is a large, single-edged knife. Besides the spatha and the seax, another smaller knife, a spear and a shield were placed in the grave too. Interestingly, the shield probably was placed over the head of the cadaver. In other weapon graves found, the shield is placed lower. Lastly, a tinderbox was found, consisting of three flints and a piece of iron.
Then, finally, the humble boat grave. The grave is dated first half of the seventh century. Although all the wood had vanished, the rivets were still visible. Most rivets were too weak to be preserved. The patron of the rivets gave away wood of clinker-built ships was being used. Almost ninety rivets have been identified. The clinker-built technique is a Nordic tradition. It is an technique whereby hull planks overlap each other, and are fixated with iron rivets. This in contrast with the carvel tradition, whereby hull planks are placed next to each other and a smoother surface is achieved. The carvel-built tradition is a southern tradition. In the River Rhine area, i.e. Frisia, the clinker and carvel traditions met, and (probably) both were being practised in the Early Middle Ages. Read also our post It all began with piracy on the different ship types of Late Antiquity, Migration Period and Early Middle Ages in the wider region.
The grave had the shape of a boat, and was about five meters long. Only the sides of the grave were lined with boat planks. The floor was not. Presumably the grave was not very deep, and a burial chamber was created with tilted planks covering the boat. Similar as the two equally humble boat graves found at Fallward, north of Bremerhaven in Germany, dated fourth-fifth century (Migration Period). The boat chamber was probably covered with earth, creating a small burial mound. The skeleton was not preserved, only a silhouette in the soil remained. Some of the clothing attributes have been preserved. These are a bronze fibula, a bronze belt fitting, and five beads. The belt fitting is of the so-called Rheinland type, and can therefore be dated third quarter of the seventh century. Lastly, an awl and two little knifes have been found in the boat grave too.
Some more interesting facts. The fibula is of a similar type found in the grave field of terp (i.e. an artificial settlement mound) Oosterbeintum, near the village Hogebeintum in province Friesland. In Oosterbeintum these brooches were part of female graves, placed on the shoulder. Also, the beads found in the grave suggest we might be dealing with a woman (Van der Tuuk 2015). The fact that women were buried in boat graves is not uncommon. About thirty percent of ship burials in Scandinavia are of women (Williams 2008, Zoetbrood 2023).
Besides the boat grave might have belonged to a woman, a targeted, secondary inhumation took place in the same grave. This reminds of the recent discovery in Vinjeøra in Norway in 2019. Here, first, a man was buried in a boat as part of a burial mound in the eighth century. A hundred years later, the grave was opened and the body of woman, together with boat, was placed inside the boat of the man. In the case of Solleveld, we only know that some time later the boat grave was deliberately opened, and a second cadaver was interred next to the woman. Other scholars, however, think the grave was robbed (Van der Velde 2011).
In concluding, the researchers point out that the grave field of Solleveld was located on a somewhat elevated area. Furthermore, they have identified numerous traces of wooden poles which must have dotted the field. The researchers suggest these poles were part of the ritual landscape of this grave field, given the patrons they saw, but that more research has to be done. One of the patrons might indicate a death house or pyre.
A final note is that besides Solleveld and Fallward, two more early-medieval, modest boat burials have been identified along the southern North Sea coast, namely at Dunum in region Ostfriesland, and at Hogebeintum in province Friesland (Knol 2021).
Indeed, Procopius could not have been more wrong. It were not men ferrying the dead to England. It were women.
A bit more serious and beyond the macho way of thinking of Procopius, the fact a boat grave has been found is interesting because it fits the existing views of a shared North Sea culture, of which Frisia was part during early-medieval times (IJssennagger 2017). Especially the southern Scandinavian influence during the mid-sixth century, was significant (Nicolay 2005). Boat burials might have been part of that, although with less grandeur and frequency of their Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon neighbours (see map further below).
Comparable to Scandinavia, (even more) in Frisia boat burials were the exception, not the rule. Why making this exception anyway, is still a big question mark. Archaeological artifacts and traces for long have not been viewed from a perspective of (religious) rituals. So, we might have missed a lot of information during excavations. And, understanding rituals from these data is terribly troublesome as well (Nieuwhof 2017). However, deposits of remains of the dead, and of grave fields as such, might have fulfilled a role in binding the soil to the community, in forming a common history and identity, and might even have been relevant politically.
Boat graves were, as said, an anomaly. Some scholars see a parallel with the Nordic mythology of the god Freyr and his ship Skíðblaðnir, meaning ‘assembled from thin pieces of wood’. Or, others say, it was a political statement. Or, was it a woman who originated from the British Isles? (Dijkstra 2011). A boat for her to row back to her motherland? However, it might go a bit deeper than all this. With simple, non-princely boat burials, like Solleveld, Skamby (Sweden) or Fallward (Germany), the significance of early-medieval boat burials must have been more than only to honour the elite and make a statement. The suggestion might be that the chosen persons for this special funeral treatment, were also to fulfill a continuous, active role between the world of the living, the community, and that of the dead. With the boat ferrying between both worlds, expressing the motion (Williams 2014).
And so, we made a full circle with the antique myth of ferryman Charon, and with the account of the Greek scholar Procopius. A liaison-concept stemming from the dawn of humanity, although moderated into many different variations through time.
Note 1 - If interested in more ancient rituals concerning the dead, read our posts How to bury your mother-in-law and Groove is in the Hearth.
Note 2 - The Frisia Coast Trail does not call at Solleveld, The Hague. No worries, the E9 European Long Distance Path (Nederlands Kustpad: 2.1) does, nearly. Besides the E9, it is the company Dunea drinking water production that owns and manages the area. Dunea also maintains paths and routes for walkers. Check their site for more walking information.
Note 3 - The Fallward boat burial is quite exceptional. It is dated between AD 300-450, and was part of a greater grave field of about 200 burials. This boat burial contained also Roman military equipment and distinctive wooden grave gifts. One of the wooden objects was a footstool with runes carved in it. The inscription ᚲᛋᚨᛗᛖᛚᛚᚨ ᛚᚷᚢᛋᚲᚨᚦI reads skamella lguskaþi. The word skamella is to be read as scamella which is Latin for footstool. The word lguskaþi is probably a first name, whether to be read as Alguskaþi or as Laguskaþi. (Looijenga 2003). Another explanation of the part lguskaþi might be 'stag scathing' or deer hunting (Roost 2021).
The ornamentation of the belt buckle, also one of the grave gifts, compared with other grave gifts found in Abbeville, France and Oxford, England, points to cultural contacts along the southern North Sea coast and on both sides of the English Channel. The buried person was probably a veteran of the Roman army (Looijenga 2003). Read also our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman army to get a picture of these Germanic-Celtic mercenaries in the Roman army.
Note 4 - Map of boat burials:
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