The sight that greeted Annika Konsmar during the excavation of a sarcophagus in Gårdby Church on the Swedish island of Öland made a lasting impression. In front of the archaeologist lay the skeleton of a man, with his mouth open and a length of rope looped around his head so that it formed a cross over his face. This cord continued down the body, allowing it to be bound around the ankles of the deceased.
The rope was not the only element associated with the skeleton. Pieces of a dry organic material lay among the bones, but what did these fragments come from? Could they be dried and waxed linen fabric, or some sort of leather? The possibility that they were remains of the corpse itself seemed to be discounted by the presence of fragments lying both on top of and below the rope.
Another curious feature was presented by a small pointed stick lying between the man’s fifth and sixth ribs on the left side of his chest. This stick was made of wood from a spindle tree, which is prized for its strength and used to manufacture a range of goods, including knitting needles and dowels supporting the backs of chairs. Although these trees are common across much of Europe – including southern Scandinavia – they are relatively rare in Sweden. Intriguingly, one of the dry fragments still clung to the side of this wooden implement, suggesting that whatever this material was, the stick had been driven through it.
Given the lack of local parallels for this puzzling burial rite, researchers familiar with burial archaeology in various parts of the world were consulted, and scientific analyses using DNA and ZooMS were carried out. The insights that can come from studying DNA are now widely appreciated, while ZooMS is a technique that detects proteins specific to different species, which can be identified using mass spectrometry. Unfortunately, the material was not sufficiently well preserved for either approach to resolve the uncertainty.
Meticulous study of the dried pieces provided the first hint of the true explanation. A number of raspberry seeds were found associated with fragments that lay near the man’s stomach. In among these seeds were whipworm eggs, a parasite that lives in human guts. The simplest explanation for the presence of both seeds and eggs would be that the dry material was skin, and the man’s final meal had included raspberries. If so, though, how did the skin end up lying both above and below the rope?
It was a specialist in identifying hair from archaeological material who found the solution. While examining some of the dry fragments, she realised that they were associated with different types of hair. Although some of these hairs matched what would be expected for a human, others appeared to be animal in origin. From this, the specialist concluded that part of the confusion had been created by the burial involving two different types of skin that had been brought into close proximity with each other. One of these belonged to the deceased, while the other came from a cow or goat. Clearly, then, an animal skin had been wrapped around the man’s body after he died. If the rope lay inside this, it would explain how skin came to be found on both sides of it. This also presents an explanation for the pointed stick: it could have been used to pin the animal skin covering in place once it had been wrapped around the corpse.
Both carbon-14 analysis of the human remains and dendrochronological study of timbers from Gårdby Church place the burial sometime between AD 1120 and 1150. The deceased was distinguished by occupying the most prestigious position within the church, namely the middle of the nave. This setting was reserved for important figures, and is often associated with a church founder. In this case, our presumed founder figure went on to meet an untimely and violent death.
Osteological analysis of the man’s skeleton revealed that his right forearm, right shoulder, and left collarbone had received deep cuts from a bladed weapon, most likely a sword. In the aftermath, his body must have been recovered by someone who cared for it, however, ultimately allowing the deceased to be interred in pride of place within the church. As no traces of a wooden coffin were found during the excavation, it is likely that the man was directly deposited in the sarcophagus. This absence does not explain, though, why his body had been wrapped up so carefully. What would binding the corpse with rope and sheathing it in animal skin achieve?
Discussing the case with colleagues in both Scandinavia and England provided a clue. In Denmark, the grave of a 12th-century king, Valdemar the Great, had been opened in 1855, revealing that he too had been carefully trussed up in an animal skin prior to burial. While a drawing made during this 19th-century investigation provides a helpful sense of how the skin cladding was arranged, there is no mention of an associated rope. One notable detail, however, is the manner in which the burial was conducted. While Valdemar the Great had died at a place called Vordingborg, on the Danish island of Zealand, he was laid to rest in a church some 60km away at Ringsted.
A seemingly comparable example is provided by ‘the man from St Bees’. This astonishingly well-preserved body of a medieval man was discovered in 1981, during excavations conducted within the grounds of St Bees Priory, Cumbria, England. When the man’s body was examined, it was found to have been wrapped in two shrouds, secured with a rope, and then wrapped in a lead sheet. The remains are widely believed to be those of Anthony de Lucy, the 3rd Baron Lucy. He is thought to have been killed in Lithuania in 1368, while participating in the Northern Crusades. These military expeditions had started back in the 12th century and were primarily concerned with converting groups living in the eastern and southern Baltic region to Christianity.
One clear element that unites the stories of both Valdemar the Great and Anthony de Lucy is that they died in one place and were buried in another, which would provide a plausible reason why their bodies needed to be wrapped and secured so carefully.
Could it be that the treatment of the man from Gårdby can also be explained by a need for his body to be moved from one location to another after death? One possible way to find out the answer was to compare the results of strontium analysis of enamel from the man’s teeth, the rope, and the wooden pin. Strontium is an element that is absorbed by living beings from water and/or food, with the quantities varying in line with the local geology. The younger the bedrock, for example, the lower the strontium value. Thanks to these different signatures, strontium analysis can give an indication of whether someone was buried in the same region where they were born and raised.
If we assume that our anonymous man had indeed founded the church at Gårdby, as suggested by his placement in the nave, then this could well be his home village. If so, the strontium value from the man’s tooth would match that of the local geology. A different result might be expected from the rope and the stick, though, as they were associated with securing his body after death. If this occurred elsewhere, it would be reasonable to suspect that these materials were also sourced from a distant region. To put it another way, if the strontium value of the tooth differed from those of the stick and rope, it would be a good fit with the man dying some distance from his home.
To a degree, the results fitted this conjecture, as both the stick and rope had a slightly higher strontium value than the man’s tooth. Even so, all three still fall within the acceptable value for the geology of Öland island, where Gårdby lies. As such, it cannot currently be proven that any of them came from further afield. Equally, this does not mean that they certainly came from Öland. Comparable geology can be found nearby – such as around the modern city of Kalmar, on the mainland opposite Öland – and at a greater distance, including the eastern Baltic region. So, while the results fit with the man growing up in Gårdby, they provide no guarantee that he died there.
Transporting the dead
Given the nature of the man’s injuries, it may be significant that both of these alternative options for his place of death experienced fighting at roughly the right time. One possibility is that he became involved in a battle fought in the Kalmar region, when it was a target for military and commercial expansion by the Slavic-speaking Wends. Alternatively, perhaps he was a casualty of the power struggle between various Baltic empires as they competed to secure trading opportunities in the area from AD 1120 to 1140. Another scenario meriting serious consideration is that the man from Gårdby, just like ‘the man from St Bees’, fell in one of the Northern Crusades. Although our putative church founder would have been slain more than two centuries before the 3rd Baron Lucy, fighting did flare around AD 1123 or 1124. This was a time when early campaigns were waged against the Wends in the Baltic Sea area.
Whatever the truth, we can be confident that the man from Gårdby, alongside the apparent parallels in Denmark and Britain, sheds new light on how the deceased could be cared for in the interval between death and burial. Archaeology has often preserved traces of people being buried in haste during times of plague, but perhaps here we are glimpsing the opposite – measures necessitated by an unusually long delay before a body was interred. Even though it cannot be proven that the man from Gårdby died away from home, all told the evidence does seem to favour this possibility. In some cases, it may have been possible to repatriate bodies in coffins stacked on carts. In others, when a wagon or the material to make coffins was not available, the only option may have been to carry bodies on horseback. At such times it is easy to see why great care would have been taken to bind and secure the deceased.