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Rediscovering the Bjerringhøj burial

Featured Image: Silk cuffs with golden thread, Bjerringhøj grave, Denmark (National Museum of Denmark | Roberto Fortuna | CC-BY-SA).

The most recent breakthrough in Viking Age textile research includes a misplaced set of bones and a pair of old pants. This happens in the textile archives of the National Museum of Denmark where researchers explore the storage for “high-status textile finds from Danish Viking Age graves.” It is the aim of their project called ‘Fashioning the Viking Age’ and they hope to publish the items and their findings in a forthcoming online catalogue (see more on the project here).

Slotsbjergby or Bjerringhøj?

In the museum archives, the researchers discover a box labelled ‘Slotsbjergby’. This contains items from the Slotsbjergby site near Slagelse, Denmark. Inside the box are bones and “tablet-woven fabric with silk and gold thread” (see Vedeler, Silk for the Vikings, pp. 30). What puzzles the researchers, though, is that neither the bones nor all textile pieces match the description of the Slotsbjergby grave. Some do, however, match the reports about the Bjerringhøj grave near Mammen.

A farmer discovers the Bjerringhøj mound in 1868. The subsequent excavation uncovers an incredibly rich chamber grave dating to c. 970-971. This is the burial of a person from the higher echelon of society, perhaps even royal. Two excavation reports exist, one from 1872 and the other from 1986 when archaeologists revisit the site. They both tell the same thing: the deceased, dressed in “purple and red silk, as well as embroideries in red and blue” rests on down cushions in a coffin. On the lid are a large candle and three buckets, one bronze and two wooden. In the grave chamber are also two axes, one of which is now famous for being exemplary of the Mammen art style (see Natmus). Yet, for all these reports, the bones of the Bjerringhøj grave go missing.

The results of the bone and textile analysis

The textile researchers now believe that the bones and several pieces of textiles in the Slotsbjergby box are the misplaced items from the Bjerringhøj mound. The assessment is complicated due to the number of bones and their poor condition. In any case, they seem to belong to an adult male, yet they also find a few that could belong to a different, younger person. The first dating places them around the same time as the grave, c. 893-990. In the end, the specific issues and characteristics of these bones provide the clue: they are a precise match with the Bjerringhøj report from 1872.

The textiles provide further clues. Whereas most graves include wool textiles, the Bjerringhøj textiles are silk with rich colours and expensive silk and gold threads. The textiles show a different weave and characteristics from the Slotsbjergby textiles. But, more importantly, they also agree with the reports from 1872 from Bjerringhøj. Intriguing too, are the padded cuffs around the ankle. This may suggest the person wore long trousers, which is surprising because there is little archaeological evidence to confirm this was the fashion of the day.

The original scholarly article is available in Open Access and a very accessible read for laypeople: Charlotte Rimstad, U. Mannering, M. Jørkov & M. Kanstrup, ‘Lost and found: Viking Age human bones and textiles from Bjerringhøj, Denmark,’ in: Antiquity (2021), pp. 1-18. doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.189.

The best news article about it at the moment is the ever-informative The History Blog.

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