A detective story: rediscovering elite Viking burial remains

The grave goods included two iron axes, a bronze kettle, and metres of lavish textiles embroidered with silver, gold, and silk threads, all suggesting this was the grave of a high-status, elite individual.

An assemblage of human bones and textile fragments recently discovered in the National Museum of Denmark’s collection has been identified as the remains of an iconic, elite Danish Viking Age burial that had been lost for more than a hundred years.

In 2018, whilst studying material from the Viking Slotsjergby site in Zealand as part of a project analysing high-status textiles from Danish Viking Age graves, the team found a box of human bones and textiles that did not match the rest of the finds.

Through a series of analyses, recently published in Antiquity, the team successfully established that they are the lost remains of the Bjerringhøj burial mound. Their findings also support theories that the individual may have been linked to the Jelling Dynasty that ruled over Denmark, Norway, and England during the 10th-11th century AD.

The distal end of a left femur with down feathers attached to the shaft, and a right femur with markings of pronounced muscle insertion from repetitive physical activity such as horse riding, which hints at the individual’s high-status. Photo: C. Rimstad.

The Bjerringhøj burial mound was uncovered by farmers in 1868 in the village of Mammen, near Viborg in Denmark, and was re-excavated in 1986, when archaeologists realised the bones were missing from the museum’s collection. Dendrochronological analysis dated the burial to c. AD 970-971.

Inside the mound, the deceased was interred in a coffin in a wooden chamber upon a layer of down feathers. The grave goods included two iron axes, a bronze kettle, and metres of lavish textiles embroidered with silver, gold, and silk threads, all markers that the grave belonged to a high-status individual.

Comparative skeletal analysis was vital in uncovering whether these remains in fact belonged to the Bjerringhøj burial. The researchers found all except one of the bones mentioned in the 1872 osteological report were present, as was the report’s noted evidence of healed trauma on the shafts of the tibia and fibulae.

The type of textiles attached to the bones also matched those from Bjerringhøj, and radiocarbon dates obtained for both the skeletal and material remains overlapped with the site’s dendrochronological date.

From textile fragments around the ankle, the team were able to reconstruct a padded cuff decorated with a tablet-woven band, indicating that the deceased was wearing a pair of long trousers. This offers exciting new insight into the design of Viking Age clothing.

Two preserved woven cuffs from Bjerringhøj, made from padded silk fabric. Photo: R. Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark.

Despite the poor preservation of the skeletal remains, degenerative marks identified on the bones indicate the individual was 30 years old, and was likely to have been male. However, the presence of a gracile radius suggests there may have been a second, younger individual in the burial as well.

The team hopes that in the future refined DNA analysis methods will tell us more about who was buried at Bjerringhøj.

You can find out more about the project, Fashioning the Viking Age, here.