In archeology, where there’s bones – there’s a story. Where there’s thousands of bones in one spot, there’s probably a big story. Where there’s thousands of bones of barbarians, it’s probably a massacre. But aren’t the barbarians usually doing the massacre-ing? Thus begins the strange tale of a mysterious barbarian boneyard in a bog in Denmark.
Archeologists splashing through the Alken Enge peat bog in Denmark's Illerup River Valley have discovered almost 2,100 bones from about 380 males ranging in age from young teens to around 60. Radiocarbon dating shows the bones were from 2,000 years ago, between 2 BCE and 54 CE, and analysis determined them to be Germanic. According to their study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the archeologists slowly uncovered the brutal end these warriors met, and the grisly story of what happened to their remains.
The Germanic tribes were referred to as ‘barbarians’ because of the ferocity of their violent behavior. However, this group seems to have met its match against … other barbarians! Rome was rising at the time and encroaching on the Germanic territories and researchers believe this was causing tension that drove the tribes to fight amongst themselves.
However, this particular battle was brutal.
“High incidences of perimortem trauma show that the conflicts were extremely destructive in character, with consequently comprehensive slaughter.”
It appears from the young age and lack of scars on the bones that many of these warriors were rookies not yet experienced with axes and clubs. Also, this band of barbarians was actually from many different villages. However, the Germanic tribes were known for their organizational skills – at least when it came to armies – but that didn’t appear to be enough to save these guys.
Did they lose because they battled in a bog? According to the researchers, the fight occurred on dry ground somewhere nearby, although it could have been as far as a mile away. And, when the enemy was completely defeated, the winners left the bodies on the ground and either went home or moved on to the next battle.
What about the bog?
It appears that someone – it’s not clear whether it was friends and relatives or the enemy tribes – came back, stripped off the remnants of their belongings and carried what was left of the remains to the bog. By then, the bones were picked clean or broken by scavengers. They were found in the deepest part of the bog, which means whoever did it carried the bones out into the bog on sand spits. This seems to be part of a number of other rituals associated with this burial. Some bones showed cut marks where it appears someone sliced remaining tendons to separate them. A few of the bones were bundled and placed near white stones, while four hip bones were stacked on a stick through that big hole in the hip bone (obdurator foramen).
This bog was not just barbarian bones. Above and below the burial layer were animal bones, pottery and other assorted artifacts, making it seem more like a junkyard than a cemetery. Does that make them more or less barbaric? The archeologists are hoping the bog will answer that question as they continue to dig in one of the few existing sites containing human remains from the reign of the barbarians.
Reign of the Barbarians. Sounds like a good name for the movie about the battle. Unless it's a dark comedy. Then it's The Big Barbarian Bog Boneyard.