A Massacre Frozen in Time: Skeletons in Sweden Reveal Ancient Attack

Remains of victims found by archaeologists, who determined the villagers were slaughtered in their homes on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea.

In 2010, archaeologists exploring a fifth-century fortress on a Swedish island found a pair of skeleton feet peeking out from a doorway. The team thought it odd that the ancient people had left a body unburied to rot within their village’s stone walls, which housed some 200 people.

When they later dug up the rest of the skeleton, the team discovered signs that the person had been murdered. Beside him they found the brutalized remains of another. And in houses nearby and on the streets they uncovered more human bones that had been butchered with swords, axes and clubs.

“It dawned on us that this was actually a massacre,” said Clara Alfsdotter, a graduate student at Linnaeus University in Sweden and an archaeologist with the Bohusläns Museum. “They were basically going from door to door killing everyone, from young children to older individuals.”

Ms. Alfsdotter and her colleagues have so far identified remains of at least 26 people who were slaughtered some 1,500 years ago in the Sandby borg ringfort on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. The findings, which were published Wednesday in the journal Antiquity, provide a snapshot into a brutal Iron Age attack and offer insight into the lives of the victims who were murdered in their homes.

During their excavations, Ms. Alfsdotter and her team dug up several bashed-in skulls, a shoulder bone with a stab wound and a hip bone that had been severed from back to front. They also found the remains of a decapitated teenager and the bones of an infant who was only a couple of months old.

The grisly remains tell a story of a gruesome sneak attack that was like a scene out of “Game of Thrones.” “People have definitely compared it to the Red Wedding,” Ms. Alfsdotter said.

Most of the skeletons showed that people were attacked from behind or the side, she said. The victims also lacked defensive wounds on their arms, suggesting the conflict was less of a fight and more of an execution.

So far the team has excavated less than 10 percent of the site and investigated only a fraction of the 53 houses. They think hundreds of skeletons remain to be unearthed. But from their work they have learned about the inhabitants of the ringfort.

The attack happened suddenly, as shown by the half-eaten herring that was discovered in one house. The people kept animals like dogs and sheep, many of which starved after the raid. Some people wore expensive jewelry like rings, silver pendants and gilded brooches. The presence of Roman gold coins in the fort also suggested that the massacre happened after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 A.D., which could have created a power struggle on the island, according to the researchers.

“It’s a frozen moment,” said Helena Victor, an archaeologist at the Kalmar County Museum in Sweden and the project leader. “The bodies are left lying where they were killed. No one has buried them or moved them.

“What we are seeing is the crime scene, but also what their daily lives were like.”

In one house they uncovered an older man, perhaps in his 60s, whose pelvis bones were charred. Either before or after he died, his body fell over a fire pit. But what was most striking about this man, who the team said may have been a chieftain or religious leader, was that someone had shoved a handful of sheep teeth into his mouth.

“We think they tried to humiliate this person beyond death,” Dr. Victor said.

It was customary during this time period to bury the dead with coins so they could pay their way into the afterlife. The deliberate placement of sheep teeth, Dr. Victor said, suggested the attackers wanted to thwart any chance the person had of making the passage.

All of the victims found so far have been male, leading the team to wonder what happened to the women. They know females were at the site because of the presence of babies and women’s jewelry. The team thinks they will either find remains from women in future digs or that the attackers took the women from the site during the raid.

Many questions are unanswered: Who were the attackers? How did they invade the fort? And why did they slaughter the villagers?

The team suspects that the attackers came from a neighboring village on the island and weren’t outsiders or pirates because the coastal city’s defenses, including an oval stone wall that was 13 feet tall, would have protected them from sieges begun by the sea. The archaeologists also surmise that the attackers were driven by politics and power, not mainly by robbery or plundering the village’s riches. Left behind were bronze, silver and gold jewelry, and many millefiori glass beads and Roman coins.

“I think the purpose was to show some other people what happens if you mess with this group,” said Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay, an archaeologist at the Kalmar County Museum and author on the paper. “This was more of a terrorist attack in that sense, the use of massacre as a political tool.”

So how did the attackers get into the heavily fortified village? Dr. Papmehl-Dufay believes it was an inside job. While the village slept, someone most likely opened the gate for the hundred or so assailants. As for why, he guesses it may have been done as retribution.

The team recently found that the people who built the Sandby borg ringfort constructed their village over a cemetery, Dr. Papmehl-Dufay said. He speculated that the attackers may have been angry that the cemetery was demolished and they chose to destroy the fort as payback.

“It’s easy to feel sorry for the deceased and the killed people, but we have no idea what they had been doing,” Dr. Papmehl-Dufay said. “This could be revenge for something.”

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