Bronze Age Coffin Burials

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A small group of Danish oak-coffin burials in earthen mounds contain excellently preserved bodies of men and women, who lived 3,500 years ago. These finds offer an unexpectedly clear glimpse into the life of a Bronze Age social elite. Information exists concerning 85,000 burial mounds in Denmark, and most of them probably date to the Older Bronze Age (1600–1100 b.c.). Of these burials, a mere eighteen thousand mounds have been preserved in the present landscape, and the number, sadly, is decreasing owing to an inadequate modern heritage law. Several hundred burials have been investigated archaeologically, but processes of decomposition usually mean that organic materials, such as textiles, antler, and wood, do not survive the passing of centuries. On this background the survival of some twenty oak-coffin burials with personalities like the Egtved Girl, the Mulbjerg Man, the Skrydstrup Woman, the Guldhøj Man, and the Trindhøj and Borum Eshøj bodies constitute a veritable miracle. They are on permanent exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

The phenomenon of oak-coffin burials has been known sporadically in Denmark since the early historical period. When archaeology was scientifically consolidated around the middle of the nineteenth century, the true worth of these occurrences was recognized, and professionals began to supervise excavations. Several finds of oak coffins even then were severely damaged, and sometimes lost to the world, as the result of unprofessional undertakings. Up through the twentieth century, insight and knowledge have increased steadily with respect to technical details, the buried persons, and the society of which they once formed a part. All finds of preserved oak coffins are from the peninsula of Jutland, especially its southern and western parts. The same burial custom, however, with interments in large, hollowed-out oak trunks, occur all over southern Scandinavia, including the adjoining parts of Germany.

In relative chronological terms the oak coffins belong to Nordic Bronze Age period II; a few belong to early period III. Apart from having pinpointed each burial to a specific year, dendrochronology has provided the surprising result that these burials took place within a short time span between 1396 and 1260 b.c. Most of them, notably, date to the span 1389–1330 b.c., which means that these persons must have known each other. Some of the burials were looted in the Bronze Age, suggesting that less fortunate people sought the buried riches or that enemies wished to demolish the social identity and status of the deceased.

The generally well-preserved state of the Jutish coffins and their contents can be explained with reference to chemical processes, which may have been broadly recognized and thus intentionally activated. All mounds in question have the same bipartite construction, with a waterlogged bluish and clayey core containing the coffin and a dry outer mantle of turf. A thin, hard layer of iron pan always separated the two parts, sealing the coffin on all sides and thus hindering decay. It is evident that the sealing took place immediately and could have been instigated by watering the clay core prior to building the turf mantle. This may have been the yearning for an eternal afterlife not unlike what the Egyptians sought to create through the embalming of dead bodies. Holes in the bottom of each coffin point in the same direction, presumably aimed at leading water away from the buried person.

In the year 1370 b.c. a girl about sixteen years old was interred in the hollow of a 3-meter-long oak trunk at Egtved in south-central Jutland. The fully dressed body was placed extended on the back, looking toward the rising sun and wrapped in a large oxhide. When the coffin was opened in 1921, the skeleton had deteriorated because of acidic conditions; however, the skin, nails, and hair were preserved. So was her high-quality woolen dress, consisting of a short blouse with long sleeves and a miniskirt of strings. Her blonde hair was styled in a short-cut fashion, and her body length was estimated to be 1.60 meters. Pieces of cloth were wrapped around the feet. A large bronze belt plate with spiral decoration ornamented her stomach. This plate had been tied to her waist with a belt string, which also held an antler comb. There were bronze arm rings around her wrists, and she also wore an earring. Near her face a small bark box contained personal belongings. At her feet stood a small bucket of birch bark. Upon further investigation, a dried-out substance at the bottom of the bucket turned out to be a kind of honey-sweetened beer. Also at her feet, a small bundle of cloth contained the cremated bone fragments of a five- to six-year-old child, who could not have been her own child. Finally, a blanket of wool covered the body. A flowering milfoil showed that the burial had taken place in the summer. The mound, Storehøj, measured about 4 meters in height and 22 meters in diameter.

At 7 meters in height and 40 meters in diameter, the Eshøj mound stood out from a group of mounds at Borum in eastern Jutland. It had been built over three oak coffins containing a man and a woman, both of middle age, and a young man about twenty to twenty-two years old (probably their son). All of them had been wrapped in oxhides and interred in their finest woolen clothes and with paraphernalia of bronze and wood. Two of these coffins have been dendrochronologically dated to c. 1351 b.c. and 1345 b.c., respectively. The equipment of the woman was similar to that of the Egtved burial, only richer; among the personal belongings were a dagger, a fibula, rings for the neck, fingers,
and arms, a belt plate, and buttons (so-called tutuli), all of bronze. The two men wore loincloths and large kidney-shaped mantles. The older man wore a rounded cap, was clean-shaven, and had manicured hands and nails. The young man carried a wooden sword sheath, which held only a bronze dagger, perhaps because he had not yet earned the right to carry a real sword.

The monumentality and high visibility of the mounds, in addition to the high quality of dress and equipment, leave little doubt that they were reserved for people of high rank. Personal appearance and material culture clearly were very important in building social identities in the domains of gender, age, and rank. The elite built mounds to commemorate their ancestors and to maintain authority in a society with some degree of social mobility. The graded variation in wealth suggests as much. There must have been considerable rivalry within the elite for the control of power sources, such as bronze. The hectic activities in mound construction are one facet of this rivalry; another is the display of warriorhood among males.

See alsoBronze Age Scandinavia (vol. 2, part 5).


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Helle Vandkilde