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From seal hunters to monastery brothers

by Kenneth Gustavsson


For most visitors, Kökar is synonymous with beautiful scenery and sparkling seas. But for those who are interested, here's also an exciting history to discover, a history that began three thousand years ago and goes on to today. Despite its location in the outer seabed, Kökar can exhibit surprisingly many ancient monuments, both from prehistoric times and from medieval times. Below are three brief summaries of some of the most important stages in that history, and how we interpret their archaeological traces today.

The Otterböte settlement

The highest points on Kökar today are about 40 m above sea level, which means that the islands began to rise from the sea about 4000 years ago, ie at the end of the Stone Age. The oldest remains of human activity, however, originate from the younger Bronze Age and the famous Otterböte seal hunter's settlement. A first test excavation in 1945 showed that what was previously considered graves from the Viking Age, in fact, was a considerably older settlement. The new findings led to more extensive excavations in 1946 and 1950, when nine hut foundations, four dumps, a stone chipping cairn, a stone formation, a well and seven hearths were uncovered.


According to the latest datings, the settlement at Otterböte rock is derived from the period around 1,000 BC, where it existed for perhaps half a century. The sea surface was then about 17.5 m higher than now, so most of today's Kökar were still underwater. Only Kalen formed a larger coherent island, where the settlement lay next to a sheltered bay. Otherwise, there were only small islets, rocks and sea. However the Vegetation, reminded much of the nature of Kökar today, with al, birch and juniper as dominant elements.

The excavated findings was ample but at the same time very unilateral: ceramic pieces, stone objects and animal bones - but no bronze objects. The stone material consisted mainly of scrap of tool making, as well as some whet stones. The animal bones (total of 10 kg) constituted food residues where gray seal dominated large, with minor elements of ringed seal and eggs. Strangely enough, there were also sporadic bones of sheep, pigs and cow. The composition shows that the people at Otterböte were mainly here to hunt gray seal but that they also had access to domesticated animals.

The most important findings consisted of ceramics with nearly 25,000 pieces (total of about 260 kg) from about 300 individual vessels. Most of them have been large thin-shaped storage containers, but there were also pieces of about 20 small-sized drinking bowls.

Most of the larger vessels have had a very characteristic décor of broad stripes, called finger grooves. The same type of decor has previously been found on Åland and along the Swedish east coast, but especially in the southern Baltic in the so-called Lausitz culture.


In many of the ceramic pieces, the surface was incarnate impressions of a variety of cereals and seeds, which suggests that the pots were manufactured in a developed agricultural environment. Most of the contemporary cereals represented: slabs, bare grains, oats, wheat, buckets, eels, spelled and millet. Here are also two strange imprints identified as kikar and flatvial, two heat demanding pea plants. Among wild plants, there are apples, mussels, blackbirds, marviolas, goats and cabbages. The many different cereals point to a southern origin, a thought further supported by analyzes of the goods in the ceramics. The used clay differs significantly from other investigated ceramics and scavengers from both Åland and Sweden, but very well matched with ceramic goods found at residential sites on Polish Baltic Sea coast.


The new interpretation is therefore that Otterböte must be regarded as a wintering site, where seal hunters from the lausitz area in the southern part of the Baltic Sea area spent a few winter months a year, waiting for the hunting season on gray seals to start out on the spring ices. After the hunt ended, they returned home in spring-summer to an advanced agricultural environment. This would explain this strange place of residence with the large well-built huts, the elements of domestic animals and cultivated plants, as well as the extremely large ceramic material - almost half a kilo per excavated square meter - which does not correspond to an ordinary seal hunters settlement. Each time the hunters came to Otterböte, they brought storage and cooking vessels needed during the long winter months. Prior to the trip, the pots were left behind as the boats were filled with the catch of spring: seal and seal skin.

Stone chippings stacks

Throughout the Western Kökar is also other relic of antiquity directly linked to prehistoric seal hunting - so called stone chippings stacks, i.e. stacks of burnt and fragmented stones which in this case are located on smooth rocks. In recent years, nearly 150 such facilities have been found, mainly at Karlbylandet, at altitudes between 10-30 m above sea level. Although the piles differ in size and shape, they all have a similar structure and a similar background. Three plants were examined in 1978-81. The largest was about 10 m in diameter and 1 m high, and contained 20 cubic meters burnt up stone mixed with carbon and soot from repeated fires. At the bottom was a smeary, sooty filling containing almost 5% pure fat, and occasionally burned pieces of skin. Updates showed that the pile arised in stages over the period 200 BC to 100 AD, i.e., the older iron age. The current interpretation is that these stone chippings served as prehistoric seal oil boiling locations where heated stones was used to melt the seal fat to seal oil - a method also used by more recent catch cultures in the circumpolar area.

Kökar bestod på bronsåldern 
endast av de mörka ytorna

When the rocks cooled, they were heated again until they finally cracked and were thrown out, eventually forming a pile.

In the vicinity of some heights there are also large cobbled flats under flat land, which appear to have been temporary residences in connected to the production facilities. Seal oil has always been an economically important product, but judging by the many stacks, the production on Kökar was done on an almost industrial scale. Unfortunately, the direct findings are too small to give an indication of where the hunters came from - obviously, it was only a matter of seasonal visits to Kökar.

Hamnö, Franciscan monastery and church

Kökar seems to have had its resident population sometime during the early Middle Ages, according to preserved source material, there were 12-13 taxed farms in the late 13th century. The population then increased rapidly and had in around the year 1540 reached 6 farms. The main industry was now fishing, which was mainly out at the large fishing villages in the outskirts of the archipelago: Mörskär, Långskär, Fölskär and Ören. During this time, Kökar also seems to have been known as a harbor place near important routes. The name Kökar is first mentioned in a Danish navigational description from the end of the 13th century, where thiycka Karl was one of the ports along the fairway from Blekinge in the south to Tallinn in the east. The harbor itself was probably near Hamnö, an island which, despite its small size, can exhibit an extremely interesting collection of medieval facilities, from maritime chapel, via harbor facilities to church and Franciscan monastery.


In 1982, a major archaeological research project began on the history of the monastery and Hamnö. At the moment, although the direct excavations have been completed, the evaluation and processing of the large find material is still ongoing. The results so far have been above expectations and have given a whole new view of the archipelago during the Middle Ages. In brief, therefore, Hamnö's history can be described in the following way:


During early Middle Ages, a maritime chapel was built with surrounding walls on Kappalskatan on the southern part of the island, close to the fairway. The chapel was rather advanced with different colored glass mosaics in the cross window. Nearby are remnants of a port facility in the “Mother's stomach”, which may possibly be linked to this stage. During the 14th century, the main activities were moved to the northern part of Hamnö, where a stone church was built in the same place as the present church. The area south, west and north of the church was used for funerals. Around the year 1400, the church building was extended by a west tower, which was built straight on top of older graves. In size and shape, the church now was similar to Korpo church. During the late 14th century, two large groups of house foundations were also built further south from the church. One contains remnants of a residential building, a terrace, a forge and probable outbuildings. The second includes the basics of two large residential buildings of 25 m each, a stone-paved well, and a little further westwards another building foundation. Coins and dating show that all buildings have been used until the beginning of the 16th century.


The Franciscans probably came to Kökar in the 14th century, attracted by extensive fishing and a lively shipping. Some of the above buildings are likely to be linked to their early activity. In the middle of the 15th century, a regular Franciscan convention was founded. The brothers took over the old church and built their residential buildings on the north side. Here are remnants of, among other things, the convent's dining room and kitchen, built together with the Monastery cellar. Most of the buildings were constructed of wood on heavy stone grounds, and were fitted with red tiled roofs. Around 1500 the facility was expanded with additional buildings, after which the operation continued until the Reformation when the monastery was closed and the brothers were displaced. At the end of the 1530s, Hamnö seems to have been completely abandoned.    


In the 1570s, the church and monastery buildings were re-used, when a Lutheran chapel was installed at Kökar. In the meantime, however, the church had fallen into disrepair, and a somewhat into the 17th century was a ruin with encrusted vaults. In 1645, therefore, a wooden chapel was built in the cemetery, which in the future served as the Kokar church. In the middle of the 18th century, the chapel was also run down.  The remains of the old stone church were demolished and a new church was built on the old foundation. The new stone church was completed in 1784, and still stands today in fairly unchanged condition.


The excavations have given a certain insight into the daily life at Hamnö, as it has been designed for at least 700 years of continuous activities. In total, nearly 40,000 objects have been found, in the form of ceramic pieces, pieces of glass, bone and metal objects, household appliances, etc. Among the findingss are over 250 coins, of which just over 50 are from the Middle Ages - silver coins stamped in Stockholm, Västerås, Söderköping, Turku, Reval, Dorpat, Riga and Marienburg. Most of the findings are, however, from post-reformational times and show life at the vicarage until the end of the 18th century.  

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