Horrifying Iron Age battle uncovered by archeologists in Denmark. Denmark attracted international attention when archeological excavations close to the Danish town Skanderborg in 2012 revealed bones of an entire army.
Since then archeologists and experts from Aarhus University, Skanderborg Museum and Moesgaard Museum have continued the work when they succeeded un gaining a 1.5 million DKK 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”.
What happened at Alken Enge?
The discovery of human skeletal remains at the Alken Enge location has come as no surprise. “What happened in this area?” asked the Danish archeologist Harald Andersen back in 1957. However, the question was not answered until two exploratory surveys in 2008 and 2009 could create an understanding of the Iron Age people and the events leading up to sacrifice rituals.
We might not know exactly what happened on this battlefield in Denmark 2,000 years ago, but one thing is certain: it was violent. “We have found a wooden stick bearing the pelvic bones of four different men. In addition, we have unearthed bundles of bones, bones bearing marks of cutting and scraping, and crushed skulls. Our studies reveal that a violent sequel took place after the fallen warriors had lain on the battlefield for around six months,” explains Project Manager Mads Kähler Holst, director at the Moesgaard Museum and lead-author on the study.
A sensational Archeological Excavation
In the recent study, the researchers present their collective findings for one of the most spectacular archaeological excavations on Danish soil at Alken Enge wetland, and it makes for horrific reading. The remains of fallen warriors were gathered together and all the flesh was cleaned from the bones, which were then sorted and brutally desecrated before being cast into the lake. The warriors’ bones are mixed with the remains of slaughtered animals and clay pots that probably contained food sacrifices. 13-year-old children fought alongside adult men.
“We are fairly sure that this was a religious act. It seems that this was a holy site for a pagan religion – a sacred grove – where the victorious conclusion of major battles was marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors,” says Mads Kähler Holst.
“A very strange feeling descended on the excavation when we found them. It clearly shows acts that when you think about them, really makes your hairs bristle,” he adds.
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“Most of the bones we find here are spread out over the lake bed seemingly at random, but the new finds have suddenly given us a clear impression of what actually happened. This applies in particular to the four pelvic bones. They must have been threaded onto the stick after the flesh was cleaned from the skeletons,” explains Field Director Ejvind Hertz from Skanderborg Museum.
Geological studies have revealed that back in the Iron Age, the finds were thrown into the water from the end of a tongue of land that stretched out into Mossø lake, which was much larger back then than it is today.
So far, archaeologists have discovered 2,095 bones and fragments at Alken Enge. But they have not yet excavated the entire site. In the new study, they estimate that at least 380, and possibly, up to 1,000, human remains still lay buried in the moss.
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Major changes in Northern Europe during the Iron Age
The battles near Alken Enge were waged during that part of the Iron Age when major changes were taking place in Northern Europe because the Roman Empire was expanding northwards, putting pressure on the Germanic tribes. This resulted in wars between the Romans and the Germanic tribes, and between the Germanic peoples themselves.
Radiocarbon analyses show that all of the bones originate from a large event early in the first century CE when historical sources recount an upsurge in violence across Europe. Records kept by the Romans describe the macabre rituals practiced by the Germanic peoples on the bodies of their vanquished enemies, but this is the first time that traces of an ancient holy site have been unearthed.
“There are no Roman written sources in Scandinavia that can tell us what happened,” said Hertz.
An entire army preserved
A number of finds from the excavation are currently on display at Skanderborg Museum. “The remains at Alken Enge tell a unique story about Iron Age power structures,” says archaeologist Katrine Balsgaard Juul from Vejle Museums, Denmark. She was not involved in the excavation.
“Alken Enge is the only archaeological example of an entire army preserved anywhere in Europe, and the large collection of human remains indicates an unprecedented level of power. It is a really interesting discovery, which isn’t only important locally, but for all archaeologists in Europe. We can use it to set all of our postholes and farms in perspective” she adds.
Sensational Archeological Excavation in Denmark, written by Tor Kjolberg