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War and Post-war in the iron age

Semper Ardens Research Project | 14/10/2016

The excavations are conducted by digging series of four metre wide trenches through the lake deposits. Photo: Ejvind Hertz

The large wetland area of Alken Enge in eastern Jutland contains the human remains of a defeated army from the early first century AD. The remains show traces of violent combat and evidence of systematic treatment of the bones of the fallen after they had lain exposed for up to a year, probably on the battlefield.

By Professor with Special Responsibilities, Mads Kähler Holst, Aarhus University

The large wetland area of Alken Enge in eastern Jutland contains the human remains of a defeated army from the early first century AD. The remains show traces of violent combat and evidence of systematic treatment of the bones of the fallen after they had lain exposed for up to a year, probably on the battlefield. 

The finds represent a close and unique encounter with warriors of the Germanic world during a period when northern Europe was undergoing rapid social and military developments, accelerated by the northwards expansion of the Roman Empire.

The archaeological site of Alken Enge dates from the early first century AD and it is situated in Eastern Jutland. It contains the remains of a large group of defeated warriors, originally deposited in a lake.

Through archaeological investigations, landscape studies and anthropological analyses, the project War and post-war ritual in the Iron Age aims to uncover the remarkable story that unfolded here, and to explore its consequences for our perception of the societies of the period. In particular, the application of a range of new scientific analyses will allow detailed reconstruction of the events and of the stories of the individuals involved.

The excavations are conducted by digging series of four metre wide trenches through the lake deposits. By pumping in a perimeter around the excavation the trench is kept dry. Photo: Ejvind Hertz.

The Army in the Lake

Since 2011, the project War and post-war ritual in the Iron Age, supported by the Carlsberg Foundation, has conducted intensive archaeological investigations in the wetlands of Alken Enge by the large lake of Mossø in eastern Jutland. Thousands of scattered human bones have been found lying two metres below the water table covered by lake sediments on what was once a lake bed. 

The bones are all from young men showing numerous traumas caused by sharp-edged weapons, thereby indicating an underlying dramatic story. The demographic composition of the remains and the traces of trauma on the bones, indicate that we are dealing with some form of martial conflict following which some or all of the dead warriors somehow ended up at the bottom of a lake. Also the finds of a few spearheads, shield fragments, and other weapon parts points towards a conflict. 

The area where the excavations have been concentrated is thought to hold the remains of more than 300 individuals, but other finds demonstrate the presence of even more further out in the now overgrown lake.

Fig. 2. The human remains are extraordinarily well preserved. Photo: Ejvind Hertz

Radiocarbon analyses of the bones have revealed that they are from the first part of the first century AD, i.e. the Early Roman Iron Age, a time when western and northern Europe underwent considerable social changes, not least due to the advance of the Roman Empire. Exactly at the time of the Alken Enge events, during the reign of Augustus, the northwards expansion of the Romans culminated with the unsuccessful attempt to push the empire’s borders all the way to the River Elbe. It set populations on the move and sparked a militarisation of the Germanic peoples of the region.

Interdisciplinary Investigations

The investigations at Alken Enge aim to piece together the story behind these spectacular finds through a combination of archaeological excavation, geological and botanical reconstruction of the landscape setting and a large array of scientific analyses focussed on the human remains and the finds. 

The project therefore involves a large group of researchers from multiple disciplines such as physics, geoscience, chemistry, forensic medicine, genetics, conservation studies, and archaeology.

“The interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial to the project,” explains Professor Mads Kähler Holst, who is the project’s director; “it contributes to the finds of significant new data, which makes it possible to interpret the discoveries. In fact, one of the primary reasons for deciding to initiate the investigations at Alken Enge was the realisation that, in recent years, we have seen a very significant development in various scientific methods for studying the physical remains of the past, which allows us to investigate finds and address research questions that were otherwise almost unapproachable.”

History Told by Bones

The new analytical possibilities are particularly evident in the investigation of the human remains. Isotope analysis provides indications of the origin and diet of the population, DNA analysis is used to study the genetic history of the population and kinship structures, and forensic and anthropological analyses are used to reveal the history of the individuals during and after the conflict that led to their death.

The excavations ended in 2014. Since then, the project has focused on analysis of the finds, the human remains, and the environmental evidence.

Curator Lene Mollerup has been responsible for the anthropological investigations and has closely studied the various physical traces on the bones: “Besides the traumas caused by weapons, there are lots of animal scratching and gnawing marks on the bones, which show that these lay exposed for some time before they ended up in the lake.” 

In addition, breakage of the bones and different cut marks, not associated with the combat traumas, indicate that the human remains were handled in various ways, after they had been defleshed by animals, before being finally and deliberately deposited in the lake. The most compelling evidence of this process, is probably the remarkable discovery of four pelvises threaded onto a stick. “In this way, we can use the different physical traces on the bones to reconstruct the events that unfolded at Alken Enge,” Lene Mollerup concludes.

Fig. 3. Plan of part of the excavation showing the dense concentration of the human remains. Graphics: Mads Kähler Holst.

The human remains are, however, not only significant for the reconstruction of the history of events at Alken Enge. Archaeologically, it is very rare to find a large population where all the individuals died at the same time, and their deposition at the bottom of a lake means that the bones are remarkably well-preserved. They therefore represent an important resource relative to a number of future genetic and anthropological studies.

Public Interest

The spectacular character of the finds at Alken Enge, and the dramatic story they reveal, have inspired considerable public interest in the project both locally, nationally and internationally. Hundreds of people visited the excavations in each of the two weekly public open days during the excavations. The press releases went worldwide with a combined total of more than 100 million views of the various internet pages that presented the news. And the finds already occupy central positions in the current exhibitions of both Moesgaard and Skanderborg Museum. 

Archaeologist Ejvind Hertz, who directed the project’s excavations, appreciates the platform this interest provides for mediation: “We can see that people’s interest is engaged by both the possibility of following the actual investigative process and the violent story that it reveals. It provides an excellent opportunity for us to tell the remarkable story of the Alken Enge finds, and the wider perspectives they open up.”

In many ways the finds can be argued to have changed our perception of the Roman Iron Age. Archaeologically, they represent the closest encounter we have had to date with an army of this period in northern Europe. The scale of the conflict implies that it must have had dramatic consequences that extended far beyond the local area, and the ritual aspects can be seen as the beginning of a ritual tradition in this area. 

Less than four kilometres further up the valley, in which Alken Enge lies, is Illerup Ådal, which is famous for its enormous war booty deposits, including many weapons dating from the third to fifth centuries AD. The project War and post-war ritual in the Iron Age completed excavations at Alken Enge in 2014 and is now focusing on pursuing the new perspectives following the finds.

Mads Kähler Holst about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation

So far, the Alken Enge finds are unique, and together with the large weapon depositions from the later part of the Roman Iron Age, it constitutes the most significant archaeological source to our understanding of warriors, warfare and religious responses hereto in Northern Europe beyond the Roman Empire.

Both the investigations of the finds and the mediation of the find have been central to my work in recent years in my shared position as Professor with special obligations at Aarhus University and Head of Archaeology at Moesgaard Museum. From 1 December, I will take over as Executive Director of Moesgaard Museum.

In many ways, the findings of the project contribute to a changed perception of the Late Iron Age and Early Roman period in Scandinavia, which for a long time was described as an indigenous, gradual and essentially peaceful development. With finds as Alken Enge we see both disruption and foreign elements. We believe this has wider implications for the public’s understanding of national identities and historic developments, which is a central theme in our SSR-considerations. 

This is also one of the primary reasons for a significant emphasis on mediation in the project, both in terms of exhibitions, media coverage and on-site public showings. Another aspect of SSR concerns the material evidence. Human remains from a large contemporaneous population are a very rare phenomenon of considerable value to physical anthropological and genetic research. 

Consequently, the project also focuses on securing this resource, both in terms of recovering a large sample through excavations and by developing methods to secure and monitor the in situ preservation of the remaining parts of the find.