Researchers stumbled upon a box of human bones that had been missing for 100 years. They may come from Viking-age royalty.

antiquity viking bones
Researchers Charlotte Rimstad (left) and Ulla Mannering (right) with some of the textiles they studied.

  • Denmark researchers recently stumbled across a box containing human bones from the Viking age.
  • The remains were thought to have been lost for the last 100 years.
  • The bones likely belonged to a wealthy man who may have been royal.
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Ulla Mannering and Charlotte Rimstad are used to studying textiles, not bones. Since 2018, they’ve helped reconstruct Viking-age clothing at the National Museum of Denmark by analyzing fabric from ancient burial sites. But recently, they stumbled across a box of human remains.

These weren’t your average bones, they quickly realized.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘OK, we think we have the Bjerringhøj bones actually here,'” Mannering told Insider, referring to bones from the Bjerringhøj burial mound in northern Denmark.

The gravesite likely dates back to around 970 AD. This particular set of bones is believed to have been lost for more than 100 years.

In 1868, a farmer happened upon the burial mound while collecting soil, only to discover human remains sitting atop a pile of down feathers. The deceased person, presumably a man, had been draped in wool garments woven with gold and silver threads. In his chamber were two iron axes, a beeswax candle, two wooden buckets, and a bronze kettle.

antiquity burial mound
A reconstruction sketch of the burial chamber in Bjerringhøj.

Local farmers looted the artifacts, though they were eventually recovered and sent, along with the bones, to the National Museum of Denmark. But at some point many decades ago, the bones went missing.

“We can now show that they were not really lost, but they were just misplaced in the museum,” Mannering said. “It’s a nice ending.”

Archaeological studies of the bones may just be getting started. In a new study in the journal Antiquity, Mannering and Rimstad suggest that the man was an elite – perhaps even royalty – based on the clothing and artifacts buried alongside him.

“There are so many details in this grave that place him in the absolute top part of Viking-age society,” Mannering said. “But who he was – we don’t know.”

Why did the bones go missing?

In 1986, archaeologists excavated the Bjerringhøj burial mound a second time. Before examining the site, they hunted for the lost bones in the National Museum of Denmark’s collection. But the remains never turned up, and the burial site was found to be mostly empty, save for a few fragments of textile and feathers. Researchers again combed through the museum’s collection in 2009 – but no luck.

Mannering said it’s rare for bones to simply get lost. But over the years, as the museum changed staff or moved the collection to different storage areas, it’s possible that the remains were placed on the wrong shelf and separated from the rest of the Bjerringhøj artifacts.

Antiquity bone
The left femur from the Bjerringhøj burial mound.

In her experience, she said, even archaeologists can be somewhat skittish about handling human remains, so that might explain why they wound up separated from other objects found at the site.

“Human remains like bones and skeletons and even bog bodies, though we find them fascinating today, have had a very sort of ambivalent life in many museums because they were not really considered as objects,” Mannering said. (Bog bodies are human cadavers that have been naturally preserved by acid from dead plants.)

She added: “In the past, the idea of keeping human remains as an object was against the general idea that your body has an afterlife. Even today, there are a lot of people who resent the idea that some museums exhibit bog bodies.”

Textiles suggest the man was very wealthy

To prove they’d rediscovered the lost bones of Bjerringhøj, Mannering and Rimstad used radiocarbon dating – a method that determines the age of an artifact based on how much carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, it contains. The process showed that the bones dated back to the late 10th century, around the same time that Vikings raided and colonized Europe.

The researchers also found that the textiles wrapped around the bones matched those previously discovered at the Bjerringhøj site.

In particular, woven fabric tied around a leg bone suggested that the man wore long trousers with ankle cuffs. The textiles closely resemble a pair of woven arm cuffs that were also preserved by the museum.

antiquity bracelet
A woven cuff from Bjerringhøj.

“He’s a very rich man,” Mannering said. “He has a lot of status symbols in his grave and his costume is really high status. He has very unusual tablet-woven bands made of silk and gold and silver threads.”

The new analysis suggests that the man was older than 30 and had knee problems, perhaps from riding horses.

Based on the textiles and an old description of the bones from 1872, past research proposed that the man may have belonged to the Jelling dynasty, a royal house that reigned over Denmark, England, and Norway in the early 11th century. But Mannering said researchers still doesn’t know whether he was a royal at all.

antiquity textile
The embroidered wool textile from Bjerringhøj.

The bones also aren’t preserved well enough to perform a DNA analysis, so the researchers can’t confirm the man’s sex.

“The grave has always been seen as a male grave because it has the two axes – a plain iron axe and this very, very elaborately decorated axe with a silver inlay,” Mannering said.

It’s possible, though, that the bones belonged to a woman, or that a man and woman were buried together.

“We’ve brought the bones into context again,” Mannering said. She added, “Maybe in the future, somebody else will be able to do other analyses on these finds.”

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A pit full of 6,200-year-old skeletons is now the oldest known example of ‘indiscriminate, mass killing’

mass grave croatia
Commingled skeletons in the Potočani mass burial site in Croatia.

  • Archaeologists discovered 41 skeletons buried 6,200 years ago in a giant pit in Croatia.
  • The victims, most of whom were unrelated, were executed at the same time.
  • A new study suggests the grave is the site of the oldest documented massacre ever found.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A man in a Croatian village was digging a foundation for his new garage in 2007 when he uncovered a pit full of skeletons.

New research about the mass grave suggests the bones belong to 41 people – children and adults – who were killed together and buried 6,200 years ago in the modern-day village of Potočani. The study, published in the journal PLoS One, suggests it’s the oldest documented massacre in the archaeological record.

Many of the victims, the analysis showed, had been stabbed in the head. After examining the bones and extracting DNA – a process that took years – the researchers concluded that most of the individuals in the 7-by-3-foot pit weren’t related to one another, and that they ranged in age from 2 to 50. There was almost an equal number of males and females.

“This is the oldest known case of indiscriminate, mass killing that we know of,” James Ahern, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming who co-authored the study, said in a press release.

Many of the victims’ skulls had multiple stab wounds

Ahern and his team were invited to the burial site in 2012, which is when they started inventorying the skeletons and determining the victims’ ages, sex, and manner of death. They differentiated between men and women as well as adults and children via known, identifiable anatomical differences.

The researchers figured out that of the 41 skeletons, 21 were male and 20 were female. About half were children between the ages of 2 and 17.

Thirteen of the skeletons had injuries on the sides or backs of their heads: The skulls showed evidence of being stabbed, cut, or bludgeoned. Some skulls had up to four puncture wounds.

The bones of the other 28 victims didn’t reveal how they died, but “their deaths were almost certainly violent,” according to Ahern.

“Individuals could have been strangled, bludgeoned, cut or stabbed in soft-tissue areas or in manners that did not damage underlying bones,” he said.

mass grave croatia
The skull of a young adult female found at a mass burial site in Potočani, Croatia.

None of the victims had wounds on their faces or arms. Mario Novak, an archaeologist at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb and a co-author of the study, told National Geographic that this suggests they were immobilized and had their hands tied, since people tend to use their forearms to block incoming blows.

“They were not defending themselves,” Novak said, adding, “I would say that this was a pre-planned mass execution.”

Given the pit’s location, archaeologists at first guessed these people may have been victims of a World War II skirmish. But they were wrong: After dating the bones and some pottery fragments discovered nearby, the researchers determined all 41 victims were buried at the same time in 4,200 B.C.E.

This suggests the dead were part of the Lasinja culture, some of Europe’s earliest pastoralists and metal workers.

The murders are still a mystery

Jablanovec Croatia
Jablanovec in the city of Zaprešić, Zagreb County, Croatia.

The researchers found no clues as to who killed the people in the pit, or why.

The fact that there were nearly the same number of men and women ruled out the idea that the victims died in “a battle between two armed forces,” the study authors wrote.

DNA from 38 of the skeletons revealed that 11 were close kin, but the other 70% of the victims weren’t related. So the killers weren’t targeting a particular family either.

These findings, coupled with the wide age range of the dead, points to seemingly indiscriminate, systematic violence, according to Ahern.

The killers could have been rivals of the Lasinja people, or perhaps Lasinja themselves, Novak said.

One possible explanation for the mass killing could be some type of climatic upheaval. When the climate changes, resources like crops, livestock, and water can become scarce. If that scarcity overlaps with a population boom, it can prompt groups to try to take over others’ territories and resources, Ahern said.

Researchers studying other mass killings in the archaeological record have come to similar conclusions. Take the sacrifice of more than 260 Chimú children and 460 llamas in ancient Peru, for example: Experts think the Chimú may have sacrificed children to placate angry weather gods during a season of heavy rain and flooding.

child sacrifice peru
The remains of a Chimú child ]sacrificed approximately 800 years ago in modern-day Peru.

“Increases in population size cause groups to overextend their local resources and require expansion into other areas. Both climate change and population increase tend to cause social disruption and violent acts, such as what happened at Potočani, that become more common as groups come into conflict with each other,” Ahern said.

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