- Denmark researchers recently stumbled across a box containing human bones in the Viking age.
- The remains have been thought to have been lost for the last 100 years.
- The bones likely belonged to a wealthy guy who might have been royal.
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Ulla Mannering and Charlotte Rimstad are utilized to analyzing fabrics, bones. Since 2018, they have helped reconstruct Viking-age clothing at the National Museum of Denmark by assessing cloth from ancient burial sites. But lately, they stumbled upon a box of human remains.
These weren’t your average bones, they immediately realized.
“We looked at each other and said,’OK, we think we have the Bjerringhøj bones really here,'” Mannering told Insider, referring to bones from the Bjerringhøj burial mound in northern Denmark.
The gravesite likely dates back to around 970 AD. This particular pair of bones is thought to have been dropped for over 100 years.
In 1868, a farmer occurred upon the burial mound whilst collecting soil, only to detect human remains sitting atop a heap of feathers down. The deceased individual, presumably a guy, had been draped in wool garments 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, though they were finally recovered and shipped, along with the bones, to the National Museum of Denmark. But at some point many decades past, the bones moved missing.
“We can now show that they were not really lost, but they were just misplaced in the museum,” Mannering said. “It’s a nice ending.”
Archaeological research of these bones may just be getting started. In a fresh study in the journal Antiquity, Mannering and Rimstad imply that the man was an elite — possibly even royalty — based on the artifacts and clothing buried alongside him.
“There are so many details in this grave that place him in the absolute top part of Viking-age society,” Mannering said. “But who he was — we don’t know.”
Why did the bones move missing?
In 1986, archaeologists excavated the Bjerringhøj burial mound another time. Before examining the website, they searched for the missing bones in the National Museum of Denmark’s collection. However, the remains never turned up, and the burial site has been found to be mostly empty, save for a few fragments of textile and feathers. Researchers again combed through the museum’s collection in 2009 — but no chance.
Mannering said it’s rare for bones to just get lost. However over time, as the museum changed staff or transferred the collection to various storage areas, it’s likely that the remains have been put on the wrong shelf and separated by the rest of the Bjerringhøj artifacts.
In her experience, she said, even archaeologists can be somewhat skittish about tackling human remains, so which may explain why they wound up separated from other items located at the website.
“Human remains like bones and skeletons and even bog bodies, though we find them fascinating today, have had a very sort of ambivalent life in many museums because they were not really considered as objects,” Mannering said. (Bog bodies are human cadavers which 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 resent the idea that some museums exhibit bog bodies.”
Textiles suggest the man was quite wealthy
To prove they’d rediscovered the 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 comprises. The process showed the bones dated back to the late night 10th century, around precisely the exact same time that Vikings raided and colonized Europe.
The investigators also discovered that the textiles wrapped round the bones paired those previously discovered at the Bjerringhøj site.
In particular, woven cloth tied around a leg suggested that the guy wore long pants with ankle cuffs. The textiles closely resemble a set of woven arm cuffs which were also 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 high status. He has very unusual tablet-woven bands made of silk and gold and silver threads.”
The new analysis suggests that the man was older than 30 and had knee issues, perhaps from horses.
Based on the textiles and an old description of the bones out of 1872, previous research suggested that the man may have belonged to the Jelling dynasty, a royal house that reigned over Denmark, England, and Norway from the early 11th century. But Mannering said investigators still does not know whether he was a royal in any way.
The bones aren’t preserved well enough to carry out a DNA analysis, so the researchers can not confirm the person’s sex.
“The grave has always been seen as a male grave because it has the two axes — a plain iron axe and this very, very elaborately decorated axe with a silver inlay,” Mannering said.
It’s possible, however, that the bones belonged to a girl, or that a man and girl were buried together.
“We’ve brought the bones into context again,” Mannering said. She added, “Maybe in the future, somebody else will be able to do other analyses on these finds.”