Soldiers, killed in battle 2,000 years ago, were ritually mutilated and thrown into a sacred lake, according to archaeologists in Denmark. The disarticulated human remains of a defeated Iron Age army were discovered at the Alken Enge wetlands near Skanderborg in East Jutland, and show signs of deliberate defleshing before being deposited in the water.
Archaeologists from Aarhus University, Skanderborg Museum, and Moesgaard Museum uncovered the remains during excavations. More than 1,400 bones have been recovered from the boggy marshland along the banks of Lake Mossø since investigations began in 2008. The disarticulated bones found scattered across the former lakebed are well preserved, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged ground. But what surprised the archaeologists was not only the quantity of remains recovered – enough to represent a whole army – but also the recent discovery of the gruesome manner in which they had been deposited.
The disarticulated human remains, which include crushed skulls and bones that had been deposited in bundles, showed evidence of cut-marks caused by sharp instruments used for cutting and scraping. Osteological examinations also revealed that the bodies of the warriors had been left untouched – probably where they had fallen – for about six months before they were mutilated and deposited.
The recent find of four male pelvic bones threaded onto a pole, which was uncovered during the 2014 season, suggests a conscious act of desecration: the corpses had been stripped of flesh, and the bones carefully arranged in a ritualistic fashion on the stick before being thrown into the water from a spit of land that extended into the lake.
The waters of Lake Mossø covered a significantly wider area 2,000 years ago, and its geographical features within the landscape, along with evidence of the deliberate preparation of human bones, suggest the site was considered spiritually significant during the early years of the 1st millennium AD.
Project Director Mads Kähler Holst told CWA, ‘We have used the excavations this year to test a number of theories, not least concerning the landscape setting, and we now are confident the site was a special location in the landscape for ritual deposition.’
Animal remains and clay pots that probably contained food offerings were found mixed together with the defleshed human bone, reinforcing the theory that Alken Enge was a complex religious site, where the remains of enemies where desecrated and sacrificed by being thrown into the water. But who were these fallen warriors?
Conflict and ritual
Tacitus describes the Germanic treatment of Romans slain on the battlefield after Varus’s defeat at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in AD 9, and later Jordanes’ History of the Goths mentions their ‘cruel rites’. The Roman frontier lay to the south of Denmark at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD, but discoveries of Roman coins indicate trade-links between Rome and the northern Germanic tribes during this period. Rome was expanding, which put pressure on Denmark and Scandinavia to the north, provoking conflict between the Romans and the Germanic tribes, as well as internally among the different tribes themselves.
The treatment of the dead at Alken Enge was a – probably intentional – means of destroying an individual’s identity. Further investigation of the bones through isotope analysis should reveal the origins of these individuals, though the results so far are inconclusive. However, the weapons found associated with the human remains are all Germanic in style, which, Holst told CWA, indicates the conflict here was between two Germanic tribes.
Alken Enge is situated in the Illerup Ådal river valley, an archaeologically rich area that provides much evidence for such battles. Moreover, excavations from the 1950s onwards have uncovered deposits of weapons, pottery, and wooden objects dating to both the pre-Roman period and the Roman Iron Age – giving the area its nickname ‘Holy Valley’. Many of these weapon deposits were found in wetland areas, suggesting they were part of post-conflict rituals, possibly offerings to a pagan deity after battle. While the finds at Alken Enge this year reinforce such associations, the site itself is unique, as Holst explains: ‘What makes Alken special is the fact that it is the only site where we actually have the remains of the warriors themselves. On a wider European scale, it is quite extraordinary in its scale and character.’
The team is continuing investigations at the site, and post-excavation analysis in the laboratory, to discover more about the mysterious rituals practised in these marshlands 2,000 years ago, and the Iron Age societies that initiated them.
The excavation is a collaborative venture involving Aarhus University, Skanderborg Museum, and Moesgård Museum. The dig is being funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, which has supported the project entitled ‘The Army and Post-war Rituals in the Iron Age: warriors sacrificed in the bog in the Alken Enge wetlands in the Illerup Ådal river valley’ with grants totalling DKK5 million.