Hundreds of Iron Age War Dead Found


Illerup Ådal in Jutland is known for one of Denmark’s largest and most well-excavated war booty sacrifices, most of it dating from the early 3rd century AD. (See my recent entry about the similar Swedish site Finnestorp.) As I’ve learned from my friend Tim Olsson’s new book about such sites, there’s a second find spot at Vædebro, right where the Illerup stream empties into Lake Mossø, a few kilometres from the war booty site. The artefact finds here are few, but the bones of 25-30 people were found about 1960, mainly robust men, some with battle wounds. And now the Vædebro site has exploded thanks to limited new excavations!

My buddy Martin Skoglund tipped me off about the sensational new find at Vædebro. Danish colleagues has opened a small trench and found the remains of 12-15 about 200 people! If the density of bones continues outside the little trench, this will be beyond comparison the largest find so far of probable battle dead to whom the sacrificed war booty has belonged. Scientific analyses of these bones (dating, geological point of origin…) will allow the war booty field to make a huge advance. Already one radiocarbon date points to the 1st century AD, which suggests that not all of the bodies have anything to do with the big weapon sacrifices.

For almost 150 years, Scandy archaeologists have tried to make sense of these defeated Iron Age armies from their beautifully preserved gear. Never have we really dreamed of finding the dead guys themselves like this. My heartfelt congratulations to project director Ejvind Hertz of Skanderborg Museum and his team!

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  1. #1 Greg Laden
    August 6, 2009

    With the disparity in dates, is it possible that this is a location at which some behavior was going on for a long period of time leaving these remains, rather than one or two singular events? (Also, considering that this must have been a focal point on the landscape as confluences tend to be)

  2. #2 cicely
    August 6, 2009


  3. #3 Helene
    August 6, 2009

    Rumours between Danish archaeologists/anthropologists go that again the comingled bones are from young men. Sadly I haven’t had a look myself, yet.

  4. #4 ray
    August 6, 2009

    anyone know the chemistry of why the jaw in the photo is black and the teeth extremely white?

  5. #5 Martin R
    August 6, 2009

    Greg, these sites typically show evidence of several deposition events. But the really big weapon dumps are never more than like five at one spot to my knowledge, usually in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries. They tend to be preceded and followed by centuries of small sacrifices of other types of material including people.

    Ray, I don’t know about the chemistry, but the geology is a lake sediment that has been made accessible (but not drained dry) through fairly recent lowering of the lake’s surface for agricultural purposes.

  6. #6 Mike Olson
    August 6, 2009

    Cool post.

  7. #7 Christina
    August 6, 2009

    Wow. Speechless. That’s huge for Scandinavian archaeology in general. Good on them for finding the site, too.

  8. #8 Tim Olsson
    August 6, 2009

    This is indeed very interesting news. I hope they 14C-date a bunch of individuals at once, so one can conclude if they all are from the same sacrifice or not…

  9. #9 The Scarlet Tree
    August 7, 2009

    Oh wow, this fantastic. I can’t wait to find ou more about what they discover.

  10. #10 Sophie
    August 7, 2009

    Well its more like they excavated another 12-15 skelettons and estimate that there are around 200 all in all.

  11. #11 Archaeozoo
    August 7, 2009

    In my experience, tooth enamel doesn’t tend to blacken in the way that bone does when it’s in the ground. Waterlogged bone, which is what it sounds like this is, frequently goes very dark but the teeth do not. That could explain the differences seen in the photo.

  12. #12 Mattias Niord
    August 7, 2009

    If they don´t pick up all the bones, it will be the most wasted archaeological find in scandinavia, Sophie!

    As an osteologist I judge it would be bordering to criminal neglect! We need them all, not just to get dates! With throughout osteology and biological studies it might be possible to see relation between individuals, area of origin (are most form one place or is it a mixed band of warriors from many nations), how did they die etc…

    The potential for learning more about the reality of combat techniques and weapon use from the age is huge!

    Taking up 12-15 skellies and leaving the rest to rot is waste. That is a new Korsbeting find, it might add to the knowledge of iron age warfare what the Korsbeting find have added to our knowledge of the face of battle during the medieval period.

    Gotta start ring some bells…

  13. #13 Sophie
    August 9, 2009

    Well they only excavated 6 m2 and hasn’t opend the rest of the site – i.e. they picked up all the new skelettons they found. The research team has no more money for further excavation at the moment.

    Saying that they found 200 skelettons is wrong – they excavated 6m2 and found 12-15 skelettons (analysis in process as this was done in June). The estimation is based on the old excavation + this new and the size of the site. I.e. its just an ESTIMATION.

    All in all they have excavated from this site c. 40 skelettons – there are more there but they are not excavated, and as always research excavation also costs money

    As always aren’t there enough money in archaeology as one might want. I know that they hope to get more funding but at this time they don’t have any more so only time can tell.

  14. #14 Soren Larsen
    April 15, 2012

    The site is going to be excavated after a donation from the Carlsberg foundation

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