Museum Finds Missing Viking Over a Century After Losing His Remains

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Richly embroidered cuffs found in the Bjerringhøj mound in Denmark
Richly embroidered Viking cuffs found in the Bjerringhøj mound in DenmarkCredit: R. Fortuna / National Museum of Denmark

Don’t you hate to lose your hairpins, your wallet, your Viking ancestor? Happy is the day a kind stranger calls with your mislaid credit card in hand, and when a mislabeled box sitting around the National Museum of Denmark for over a century turns out to contain the missing remains of a rich Viking, originally dug up in Bjerringhøj, a mound near the village of Mammen in Denmark.

The rediscovery of the Viking’s remains and extraordinary garb has been reported by Charlotte Rimstad and Ulla Mannering of the National Museum of Denmark, with Marie Louise Jørkov of the University of Copenhagen and Marie Kanstrup of Aarhus University in the journal of Antiquity.

This sort of thing happens more often than one would think. Stuff goes missing. Recently a zoo in central Israel discovered that it had been growing geraniums in ancient Roman sarcophagi for 25 years. The stone coffins had been unearthed when a parking lot was being built and the builders simply stuck the antiquities by the zoo’s offices until somebody could decide what to do with them. That never happened. Nature took over, the sarcophagi disappeared under the untended vegetation and the rest is embarrassing history.

Back to the embarrassing missing Viking. The Bjerringhøj mound had been excavated in 1868 after a local farmer called the neighbors to “harvest” topsoil from a mound, and found an iconic Viking burial dating to the 10th century C.E. Sadly, they looted it. In a process described in Antiquity, the precious finds were recovered by a local scholar named Arthur Feddersen and then excavation ensued.

Detail of the embroidered wool textile from Bjerringhøj. The textiles found at the site are unique among the range of cloths found in other Danish burials of the time.Credit: R. Fortuna / National Museum of Denmark

The recollected goods were so rich that some even suggested the deceased had been royalty, associated with the Jelling dynasty of Gorm. The reunited treasures and bones were sent to the National Museum of Denmark, where they were lost.

The way of war: Feathers and silk

The Bjerringhoj interment was some burial, by the way. The ancient peoples of Scandinavia certainly honored their deceased leaders – one cannot assume that the hoi polloi enjoyed anything like the same treatment upon their passing. Recently separate research found that pre-Viking era Swedish warrior chiefs were laid to rest for eternity on soft feather beds which were placed in boats. That was also the case in the famous Sutton Hoo Viking burial in the United Kingdom.

Illustration of the reconstruction of the burial chamber in Bjerringhøj, Denmark, originally excavated in 1868.Credit: illustration by U. Seeberg / Antiquity

The Viking dug up in Denmark in 1868 wasn’t in a boat but in a wooden coffin inside a wooden chamber that had been sealed from the elements with clay. Here too the body was placed on a soft feather bed; other research indicates that the origin of the down mattered vis-à-vis the transition to the next world. The deceased was dressed in garments of wool decorated in threads made of silk, silver and gold. By the feet was not one elaborate iron axe, but two.

In 1986 archaeologists revisited the Bjerringhøj burial mound after more than a century; they confirmed the structure described in the original archaeological investigation, but didn’t find much new stuff – traces of organics, fragments of textile and down feathers, a 10-millimeter-long gold thread, and a fragment of bone.

Happily, Feddersen had meticulously described the human remains, writing, “The few bones of the body struck me; of the head only a fragmented molar was preserved.” Another contemporary scholar, the museum official Henry Petersen, determined in 1872 that the body was that of an adult.

Scholars assumed it was male, but the gracility of some of the bones described indicated that it may have been a woman, or a double burial that included a woman.

And then the bones were mislaid and would stay that way for over a century. It happens.

And then in the course of a project called “Fashioning for the Viking Age,” the project people noticed a box of bones in the museum, that had been labeled as originating in a different Viking burial: from Slotsbjergby, on Zealand. (The Slotsbjergby burial had been found in 1897.)

But the old records from Slotsbjergby didn’t mention finding human remains beyond one bone. And the box of bones labeled "Slotsbjergby" had rich textiles adhering to them that were not like the fabrics found at Slotsbjergby.

The collection of human bones in the box marked Slotsbjergby, but now believed to have been from BjerringhøjCredit: R. Fortuna / National Museum of Denmark

Confusion ensued. Scholars writing in the 1980s related to the bones as belonging to Slotsbjergby, evidently not factoring in that only one bone had been actually found there. But now researchers are proposing that the box of bones marked "Slotsbjergby" is actually the box of bones from Bjerringhøj.

Their conclusion is based on multiple proofs, including the match between these 11 bones – which are not well preserved – and Feddersen's description, penned in 1872. All the bones Feddersen described are there, and based on the anomalies, the modern team suspects they actually do have a case of double burial, exactly as postulated back in 1872: of an older adult aged 30 or up, who had a banged-up knee, and a younger person.

The archaeologists won’t hazard a guess as to the sex of the individual or individuals involved and explain that the parlous state of the skeletal remains almost certainly won’t allow for DNA analysis.

They did radiocarbon dating of the remains and found them to be from about 893-990 C.E., which suits the timing of the Bjerringhøj burial.

The clincher is the textiles found in the Bjerringhøj mound, which stand out from the woolens found in other Danish burials of the same time.

The unusual woven cuffs from the Viking site in Bjerringhøj, Denmark. Originally excavated in 1868, finds from the site have been missing for over 100 years.Credit: R. Fortuna / National Museum of Denmark

The ungentle treatment of the site by the local farmers and ensuing work ripped the fabric to shreds. The archaeologists suspect that if the mound had been properly handled, even if the bones decayed, they would have had a “more or less” complete set of clothing, since the Viking wouldn’t have been buried in tattered rags.

Yet what they do have positions the Bjerringhøj textiles as unique in the range of cloths, usually made of wool, found in other Danish burials of the time. The garment had cuffs made of embroidered padded silk of a quality not matched in other graves. Altogether, the authors write, three different types of textiles found sticking to the bones match those reported from the Bjerringhøj excavations.

So the bones marked as originating in Slotsbjergby actually came from Bjerringhøj. Further analysis indicates that the adult buried there rode a lot, presumably a horse, and with that, a very cold case can be closed.

The Viking ship "Roskilde 6," over 37 meters long and dating to 1025, being assembled at the National Museum of Denmark as part of an exhibition, in February.Credit: Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters

But one question remains open. Was this adult male or female?

Female warriors in ancient times were not a myth, not in Scythia and not in early medieval Viking circles.

Recently some scholars were astonished that another famed Viking burial, complete with exquisitely vicious weaponry and sans so much as a cooking spoon, in Birka, Sweden turned out to be of a woman.

Her remains had also been found long ago, in 1878, but her gender was only recently elucidated using genetic analysis, which spurred howls of protest among certain circles that there must have been a double burial there too, and claims the researchers tested the wrong bones. They didn’t. It really was a burial of a high-status figure – and a man, it was not.