Clues to an Iron Age massacre lie in what the assailants left behind

No defensive wounds, valuables untouched, livestock left to starve point to a power struggle

Sandby borg

SUDDEN DEATH  Excavations at Sandby borg, an ancient ringfort on an island off Sweden’s southeastern coast, have uncovered evidence of a possible surprise attack and massacre of the site’s inhabitants around 1,500 years ago.

Bairuilong/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Club-wielding assailants struck the Scandinavian settlement with devastating violence, slaughtering at least 26 people and leaving the bodies where they fell. There, the bodies lay for 1,500 years until recovered recently by archaeologists analyzing clues about the Iron Age massacre.

It’s unclear why the seaside ringfort of Sandby borg, on the Baltic Sea island of Ӧland, was targeted at a time of political turmoil following the Roman Empire’s fall in Western Europe. Adults, teenagers and children died suddenly and brutally — their skeletons showing bones fractured by clubs, but no defensive wounds, say archaeologist Clara Alfsdotter of Bohuslӓns Museum in Udevalla, Sweden, and her colleagues. When the slaughter was over, the attackers left the sheep and other animals to starve and the valuables untouched, the scientists report in the April Antiquity. No one came back to bury the dead.

MASSACRE CLUE Valuable items left behind by attackers of a Scandinavian fort settlement, including this glass sword bead, point to a politically motivated slaughter around 1,500 years ago that had nothing to do with plunder, researchers say. Daniel Lindskog
That’s somewhat unusual: At most other excavated battlefield and massacre sites in Europe, bodies have been found in mass graves ( SN: 1/23/16, p. 7 ). However, 67 farming villagers slaughtered around 7,200 years ago at Austria’s Asparn-Schletz site were also left in place. Circumstances surrounding the attacks on Asparn-Schletz and Sandby borg are poorly understood, making it difficult to compare the two events, says anthropologist Bruno Boulestin of the University of Bordeaux in France, who did not participate in the excavation.

The bones from Sandby borg have yet to undergo radiocarbon dating, making it impossible to say precisely when the massacre occurred, says archaeologist Ian Armit of the University of Bradford in England, who did not participate in the Sandby borg research. But the researchers suspect the killing happened after 476, when the fall of the Western Roman Empire left a power vacuum and power struggles broke out across parts of Europe and southern Scandinavia. Sandby borg’s attackers may have installed themselves as the new local rulers, the team suggests.

“It was not the killing that was the point, but the statement toward those witnessing it from a distance that ‘if you mess with us, this is what happens,’” says study coauthor Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay of Kalmar County Museum in Sweden.

Sandby borg, spanning roughly 5,000 square meters contained by an eroded oval stone wall, has been a center for archaeological excavations since 2011. Aerial photographs and ground surveys have revealed stone structures buried inside the ringfort off Sweden’s southeast coast. Investigators have located 53 houses, some within a central block circled by a street. By 2016, two houses had been fully excavated and seven others had undergone some investigation. Inside, researchers found gilded silver brooches, glass beads and silver bell pendants, in styles suggesting the fort was occupied in the late 400s.

LAST FALL Remains of an Iron Age massacre at a Swedish fort settlement included a teenager’s skeleton with its feet on top of an adult man’s midsection. After being struck on the head, the teen fell backwards over the dead or dying adult, researchers suspect. C. Alfsdotter, L. Papmehl-Dufay and H. Victor/Antiquity 2018

In one house, the skeletons of nine individuals of various ages were found. Their positions suggested they had been surprised by the attack, say Alfsdotter, Papmehl-Dufay and coauthor Helena Victor, also of Kalmar County Museum. One teenage boy appears to have fallen backward over an adult victim. Two corpses showed evidence of being partially burned, suggesting the attackers tried unsuccessfully to set the structure on fire or that a fire accidentally broke out. A tiny half skeleton from a herring lay next to the fireplace, adding support to the theory that the attackers left quickly without touching or eating anything. A pile of lamb skeletons stacked in the corner and showing signs of recent slaughter suggests the attack occurred sometime between late spring and early fall, the researchers say.

Scientists are working on radiocarbon dating the Sandby borg skeletons as the annual excavations continue, Papmehl-Dufay says. With more than 90 percent of the ringfort settlement yet to be excavated, there are likely more clues to the killing to be found.

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