Raising the Viking Dead from Bornholm’s Graves

An archaeologist’s skills lie in uncovering the relics of the dead. But an archaeologist’s art rests in bringing these people—or at least their stories—back to life. Both aspects of the discipline require precision and insight, which is part of what makes archaeology so exciting. As a historian, I face the added challenge of getting an archaeologist’s fragments of the past—the stuff of settlements, cemeteries, and hoards—to speak to the textual traces that we call “primary sources.” It’s my assertion that archaeological finds have similar value, and that they give us opportunities to breathe fresh life into our stories about the past.

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For centuries, people gathered on the east coast of Bornholm to bury their dead on this slope above the sea. They preferred digging into the hard clay near the top rather than in the looser sands below, suggesting that this view was a key factor in their decision to select this site. (Nørre Sandegård, Bornholm, Denmark.)

At Nørre Sandegård Vest, a small field on the east coast of Bornholm, I’ve been trying to do just that. Local farmers have been churning up artifacts for centuries, and the celebrated Danish antiquarian Emil Vedel started scouting the area back in 1884. In 1901, he excavated at Nørre Sandegård itself, finding eleven graves that spanned from the height of the Roman Empire to the cusp of the Viking Age. But Vedel didn’t get it all. In 1986, as the landowner was moving dirt for a garden, new artifacts began to appear. An initial investigation discovered three graves, and a large campaign the next year turned up 47 more. Most of these burials (and their beads!) date from the late Iron Age to the early Viking Age, or about 600-750, which is perfect for my research. And a published report of these finds (sponsored in part by Queen Margrethe of Denmark and the Carlsberg Breweries) has made the results accessible to researchers like myself.

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Beads excavated at Nørre Sandegård during 2014 and 2016. All these beads were imported or made from imported materials, and their careful study can reveal how the people of Nørre Sandegård were connected to the wider worrld. Lots of work to do here! (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

But more farmwork has turned up more artifacts, so Bornholms Museum is digging again. The dig has been contracted to Christina Rein Seehusen, and it has become a thesis project for two doctoral students from the University of Gdansk: Karolina Czonstke (Baltic silver and jewelry) and Bartosz Świątkowski (ceramics). Together, they’ve discovered that the 1987 excavators explored only a few meters in each direction from the graves that they found. If they hit something, they excavated it, but when their test trenches turned dry, they stopped digging. The problem is that they occasionally shot their trenches between two graves without hitting either, so when they called an end to excavations, they left a number of undisturbed graves along the edges of the cemetery.

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A section of the large areas cleared to reveal any graves missed by Vedel or the excavators of 1987. Modern ploughing has hopelessly mixed up the top 30 cm (1 ft), which has been removed. The lines across the soil were made by the plough. They might represent the marks from last season’s ploughing, but they could also be much, much older. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

The numbers aren’t final, but since excavations resumed in 2014, about thirty new graves have been found. The archaeologists aren’t relying on test trenches anymore. Instead, they’re opening up large sections of earth, sometimes assisted by a mechanical excavator that strips away the top layers of agricultural dirt. (The preferred technique—using ground-penetrating radar to look for magnetic anomalies—has proven ineffective at this site.) Unfortunately, this churned up farm soil often includes the top layers of graves. As ongoing erosion has carried topsoil to the sea, the ploughs have been digging deeper and deeper each year. In just a few more years, there may have been nothing left for archaeologists to find.

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Modern excavations can be painstaking work. Here, Bartosz makes a plaster cast around a sword. The sword will be moved, together with the surrounding dirt and its plaster shell, so that it can be X-rayed and eventually excavated in the more controlled conditions of the laboratory. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

My own minor contributions to this project consisted mainly in removing surface dirt that covered archaeological layers. Modern plough soil has a uniform appearance from being repeatedly mixed together, but more ancient soils look mottled. Once the top layer is cleared away, we can study the underlying soil for signs of human activity. The people who used Nørre Sandegård as a cemetery liked burial mounds with the occasional cremation. Cremations leave a dark char in the soil, and the trenches that mourners dug around burials to build mounds on top of them were filled many years later by differently colored soils blown in from the sea. These dark patches tell archaeologists where they should focus their efforts.

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Archaeology is part guesswork. Christina, the lead excavator, has traced a circle around this dark patch of soil, which she thinks might be a new cremation grave. A less experienced hand, such as my own, might trace these lines differently or even miss the subtle soil changes altogether. But there’s no going back in archaeology—every dig is a controlled experiment in destroying the past. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

For many graves at Nørre Sandegård, soil discoloration is all that’s left. Ploughing has stripped some artifacts away, and chemicals and microbes in the soil have consumed others. But sometimes soil colors are enough. Take, for example, graves K99 and K100. A large dark ring surrounds these graves—the telltale sign that once a burial mound was here. A few surviving artifacts let us deduce that K99 was male and K100 female. His grave is deeper, nearer the center of the surrounding trench. Hers is more shallow, but still well within the trench’s perimeter. Perhaps K99 was buried first, the mound built above him. When they laid K100 beside him, they dug deep, but not much deeper than the original surface. Either the mound had been built large enough in anticipation of K100’s burial, or K99’s funeral was recent enough that filling the old trench and digging a new one left no noticeable changes in the soil patterns.

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Two recently discovered graves: K99 (foreground) and K100 (background). Mourners dug a trench around these graves—now visible as a dark ring—and heaped the earth into a mound on top. The burials overlook the east coast of Bornholm. Far beyond the horizon lie Sweden and the Baltic states. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

The people who buried K100 were able to respect K99’s grave—there’s no overlap, and the two burials are closely aligned. Although the mound disappeared centuries ago, this is a good sign that K99’s burial was marked and tended in the years after his death. Many of the ring trenches at Nørre Sandegård include small round rocks that were carried there from the sea. These must have been placed atop the mounds, with some tumbling into the trenches for archaeologists to find, and the rest being scattered by ploughs. Karolina Czonstke, who excavated these graves, reminds us that the grave can be a doorway to the afterlife, and she suggests that these sea-worn pebbles might have carried a special ritual meaning, perhaps signifying a sense of eternity.

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Nørre Sandegård Vest is a cemetery dug into clay and sand at the top of a hill, but pebbles like this belong near the sea or along running water. They seem to have been placed atop the burial mounds and later tumbled into the surrounding trenches. Why were they carried there? What did they mean? (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

These ideas seem well suited for the people buried in K99 and K100. We can imagine what must have been the grief of a moment—a prosperous and well-respected man laid to rest, his grave carefully marked out, a beloved companion following him soon into death, and a grieving community that respected her wishes to be buried alongside him, placing her in the same mound overlooking the sea for centuries to come. And now, although the mound is gone, the graves themselves unearthed in a last-ditch effort to save them from erosion and the plough, K99 and K100 remain with us through the traces they left in the soil, touching us in life and death across the centuries.

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Activity at Nørre Sandegård Vest didn’t stop with the last burials. Centuries of farming have dug deeper and deeper into the cemetery, as erosion has carried the topsoil away. Three plough marks run in three directions right along the edge of K99, traces of changing seasons and a stark reminder that we need archaeologists to help us recover these stories before they’re forever lost. (Nørre Sandegård Vest, Bornholm, Denmark.)

Bornholms Museum will be hosting an open house at the site on September 16, and a selection of artifacts will be on display at the museum on September 19.

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3 thoughts on “Raising the Viking Dead from Bornholm’s Graves

  1. Pingback: The Slave Queens of Merovingian France – text and trowel

  2. Pingback: The Craftsman’s Purse – text and trowel

  3. Pingback: Central Places in the Viking Age – text and trowel

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