An entire army, sacrificed in a bog

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Credit: Aarhus University

The meadows of Alken are thick with ancient skeletons. At least two hundred have already been unearthed – and there are many waiting to be discovered. An entire army was sacrificed around the time of the birth of Christ and laid to rest in the Alken bog. Now archaeologists and other experts are working to shed light on this dramatic event.

What exactly happened in the Danish village of Alken around the time of the birth of Christ? Who were the over two hundred victims, and what events led to such an enormous sacrifice?

 

Archaeologists and other experts from Skanderborg Museum, Moesgård Museum and Aarhus University hope to uncover the anwers to these questions this summer, when a major excavation takes place near Alken, a small town outside Skanderborg on the Jutland peninsula. A unique find was made here in 2009: the remains of an entire army which had been sacrificed in the bog. Archaeologists hope that the excavation will solve the many mysteries about the circumstances behind the sacrifice of several hundred warriors.

An archaeological treasure trove

The first spadefuls of earth in the major excavation in the meadows around Alken were dug on Monday.  Earlier digs had already documented finds of skeletal remains from around two hundred individual warriors. And archaeologists are convinced that many more will be unearthed over the course of July and August. In the words of Aarhus University archaeologist Mads Kähler Holst,

‘Last time we dug here, we didn’t actually reach the perimeter of the finds, so we don’t know the extent of them. So there’ s no doubt that the dig will result in many more skeletons. If we are lucky, what we’ve already seen may just be the beginning,’ explains Dr Holst, associate professor of archaeology at Aarhus University.

Under the water table

The dig is taking place in damp grazing meadows near Jutland’s large lake, the Mossø. To reach the remains, it’s necessary to dig almost two meters below the water table of the Mossø.

´We are fighting against water seeping in, and we have big pumps running constantly. This makes our work difficult – but it also explains why the bones are so well-preserved. The water has delayed decomposition, which is why the remains are in such good condition when we dig them up,’ says Ejvind Hertz, Curator of Archaeology at Skanderborg Museum.

The major goal of the 2012 excavation is to learn more about the mass sacrifice of the warriors. Archaeologists hope analysing the remains will clarify some of the many mysteries associated with this unique find. Geological analyses will also be performed in an attempt to illuminate why the sacrifice took place precisely here, in the Alken meadows.

Background:

The river valley of Illerup Ådal is a well-known archaeological location which has produced several important finds, among others, the world renowned weapon sacrifice near Fuglsang forrest. In the large wetland area where the Illerup River runs out into Lake Mossø large quantities of human bones and other spectacular archaeological remains have over the years been unearthed.

The discovery of human skeletal remains is always a source of great wonder. What really happened here, and where do the bones come from? A bit of the veil was lifted during archaeologist Harald Andersen’s examinations from 1957 to 1962. However, it was not until the two exploratory surveys in 2008 and 2009, that it became clear how this amazing material could create great opportunities for an understanding of the Iron Age people and the events leading up to sacrifice rituals. In 2011, a collaboration between Skanderborg Museum and University of Aarhus’ Department of Prehistoric Archaeology succeeded in gaining a 1.5 million DDK grant from the Carlsberg Foundation to begin a research project titled: The army and post-war rituals in the Iron Age – warriors sacrificed in the bog at Alken Enge in Illerup Ådal.

Other discoveries at Alken Enge

Credit : skanderborgmuseum

With several well-known sacrificial locations of different character in the river valley of Illerup Ådal, also known as the “Holy Valley”, there is no doubt that the area has been a focal point for a wider hinterland as a place to conduct sacrificial rituals, which appear to have taken place regularly during the Iron Age. Forlev Nymølle is a well-known ritual location where more every-day sacrifice patterns in the form of pottery, stone collections and various other manufactured wooden objects have been found. One of these wooden objects has been interpreted as a female goddess figurine. It is thought that several of the other excavated objects could have been sacrificed to this goddess.

Alken Wetlands is primarily interesting in connection with the discovery of sacrificed warriors, but there are also other sacrifices of various kinds with various datings. Within the deposited peat layers in roughly the same horizon as the human remains, a discovery was made of three lanceheads in iron and a shield of wood. The weapon finds are generally so few in number that they are not considered to have been sacrificed. In several horizons there are large amounts of manufactured and raw wood. The manufactured wood consists of both wood planks and timber, both smaller and larger in dimension. A myriad of more or less vertical sticks that have been hammered down are also found in the peat layers. Furthermore, pottery has been discovered, which can be dated from the Early Pre-Roman Iron Age to Early Medieval. Moreover, several excavation sites were found to contain sacrificed animal bones. In conclusion, the location of Alken Wetlands is thought to be a temporally very complex sacrificial location.

 

Contributing Source: Aarhus University | skanderborgmuseum

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