Danish researchers recently came across a box containing human bones from the Viking Age.
The remains were thought to have been lost over the past 100 years.
The bones probably belonged to a wealthy man who may have been a royal.
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Ulla Mannering and Charlotte Rimstad are used to studying textiles, not bones. Since 2018, they have helped reconstruct clothing from the Viking Age at the National Museum of Denmark by analyzing fabrics from ancient burial sites. But recently they came across a box of human remains.
They weren’t your ordinary bones, they soon realized.
“We looked at each other and was like, ‘OK, we think we have Bjerringhøj’s bones here,” “Mannering told Insider, referring to the bones from the Bjerringhøj tumulus in northern Denmark.
The tomb probably dates back to around 970 AD. This particular set of bones is believed to have been lost for over 100 years.
In 1868, a farmer stumbled across the burial mound while picking up soil, only to find human remains sitting on a pile of down feathers. The deceased, presumably a man, had been draped in woolen clothing woven with gold and silver threads. In his room were two iron axes, a beeswax candle, two wooden buckets and a bronze kettle.
Local farmers looted the artifacts, but they were eventually recovered and sent, along with the bones, to the National Museum of Denmark. But at some point, decades ago, the bones were gone.
“We can now show that they weren’t really lost, but just got lost in the museum,” Mannering said. “It’s a beautiful ending.”
Archaeological studies on the bones are only just beginning. In a new study from the journal Antiquity, Mannering and Rimstad suggest that the man was elite – perhaps even royalty – based on the clothing and artifacts buried alongside him.
“There are so many details in this tomb that place him at the absolute pinnacle of Viking Age society,” Mannering said. “But who he was – we don’t know.”
Why did the bones disappear?
In 1986, archaeologists excavated the Bjerringhøj tumulus a second time. Before examining the site, they searched for the lost bones in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark. But the remains were never found and the burial site turned out to be mostly empty, except for a few fragments of fabric and feathers. Researchers combed through the museum’s collection again in 2009 – but no luck.
Mannering said it was rare for the bones to simply get lost. But over the years, as the museum changed staff or moved the collection to different storage areas, it is possible that the remains were placed on the wrong shelf and separated from the rest of Bjerringhøj’s artifacts.
From her experience, she said, even archaeologists can be somewhat nervous about handling human remains, which could explain why they found themselves separated from other artifacts found at the site.
“Human remains like bones and skeletons and even bog bodies, although we find them fascinating today, have had a very ambivalent life in many museums because they weren’t really considered objects. “said Mannering. (Bog bodies are human corpses that have been naturally preserved by acid from dead plants.)
She added: “In the past, the idea of keeping human remains as an object was against the general idea that your body has an afterlife. Even today, there are a lot of people who want it. the idea that some museums exhibit bodies of peat bogs. “
Textiles suggest the man was very rich
To prove that they had rediscovered the lost bones of Bjerringhøj, Mannering and Rimstad used radiocarbon dating – a method that determines the age of an artifact based on how much carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, it contains. The process showed that the bones date back to the late 10th century, around the same time the Vikings attacked and colonized Europe.
The researchers also found that the textiles wrapped around the bones matched those previously discovered at the Bjerringhøj site.
In particular, a woven fabric tied around a leg bone suggested the man was wearing long pants with ankle cuffs. The textiles closely resemble a pair of woven cuffs which have also been preserved by the museum.
“He’s a very rich man,” Mannering said. “He has a lot of status symbols in his grave and his costume is really upscale. It has very unusual tablet woven bands made of silk and gold and silver threads.
The new analysis suggests the man was over 30 and had knee problems, possibly on horseback.
Based on textiles and an ancient description of the bones from 1872, earlier research suggested that the man may have belonged to the Jelling dynasty, a royal house that ruled Denmark, England and Norway in the early 11th century. But Mannering said researchers still didn’t know if he was a royal.
The bones are also not well enough preserved to perform DNA analysis, so researchers cannot confirm the male’s gender.
“The grave has always been considered a male grave because it has both axes – an ordinary iron ax and this very, very elaborately decorated ax with a silver inlay,” Mannering said.
It is possible, however, that the bones belonged to a woman, or that a man and a woman were buried together.
“We put the bones in context,” Mannering said. She added: “Maybe in the future someone else can do further analysis on these findings.”
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