In a bog just 50 meters across on the island of Als in southern Denmark, peat diggers discovered well-preserved remains of a wooden boat and spears in the 1880s. In 1921 excavations began that uncovered most of the boat and a large assemblage of weapons, all deposited in about 350–300 b.c. The practice of depositing weapons, and occasionally boats, in ponds and lakes of northern Europe became relatively common during the latter part of the Roman Iron Age, a.d. 200–500. Among the best-known sites of that period are Illerup, Nydam, Thorsberg, and Vimose. As vegetation grows into and across them over time, ponds and lakes often develop into bogs, where the waterlogged and acidic environment preserves organic materials exceptionally well. Hjortspring is the largest of the pre-Roman Iron Age weapon deposits.
The boat, only fragments of which survive, was made of lime (linden) wood, and was more than 19 meters long. Inside, the space for people and gear measured about 13 meters long by 2 meters wide by 0.75 meters high. The hull was made of five planks, all longer than 15 meters and about 70 centimeters wide. Ten ribs across the top of the boat had seats to accommodate two persons, suggesting that twenty rowed the boat. Wooden oars for paddling and two wide oars for steering were found. The boat would have weighed only about 530 kilograms and thus could have been carried easily by its crew. Its flat bottom permitted good maneuverability in the shallow waters around the Danish islands and peninsulas, and the crew could have driven it directly up onto the sandy beaches characteristic of those regions of northern Europe. At both bow and stern were double prows that may have been intended to ram boats of similarly light construction. The boat was found lying on its western side, oriented north to south. Some of the oars and spears apparently had been pushed down into the mud to stick up above the level of the water.
The weapons found with the boat constitute one of the most important assemblages of military equipment from Iron Age northern Europe. They not only indicate the kinds of weapons that were in use and permit study of the technology of weapon manufacture but also allow for the reconstruction of fighting units and of military organization. Eleven single-edged swords of different shapes were found, ranging in length from 33 to 70 centimeters. Scabbards were made of ash wood. Two of the swords had been bent deliberately before they were deposited, a practice characteristic of Iron Age ritual. Spears (including lances) were the most abundant of the weapons present—138 iron spearheads were recovered and 31 of bone or antler. The largest of the iron spearheads was enormous, at 43.5 centimeters long, but most were between 10 and 20 centimeters in length. Some of the spearheads had been broken off their ash-wood shafts before they were deposited; others were intact.
Shirts of chain mail and wooden shields make up the defensive part of the armaments. The fragmentary remains indicate ten or more shirts of mail—the earliest known chain mail in Europe. About fifty nearly complete wooden shields are represented, along with fragments of perhaps thirty more, forming the largest number of shields from any one site in prehistoric Europe. All are roughly rectangular in shape, some wider and some narrower, with rounded corners. Striking among these numerous weapons is their diversity in size and shape, indicating considerable variation in the equipment carried by soldiers of the time.
Other objects recovered include skeletal remains of a horse, a lamb, a calf, and two dogs, these last perhaps animals trained for battle. Vessels made of pottery, wood, and bronze as well as a large wooden spoon or ladle may represent objects used for food preparation and consumption by the soldiers who rode in the boat and carried the weapons. An axe handle and a mallet may have been employed for making repairs to the weapons and to the boat. Other objects include pieces of rope, a spindle for spinning textile fibers, wooden boxes, and wooden disks of unknown purpose.
Archaeologists believe that weapon deposits such as those of Hjortspring and the more numerous finds of the Roman Iron Age were offerings to deities made by victors in military conflicts—perhaps of the defeated armies' weapons, though it has not been possible to establish that the weapons found belonged to an invading force, as some scholars propose. There is strong archaeological evidence from all periods in northern Europe for the practice of sacrificing valuable goods by depositing them in watery places—lakes, ponds, and bogs. Greek and Roman texts from centuries following the Hjortspring deposit allude to the practice by peoples of northern Europe of offering the weapons of defeated enemies to their gods.
In his recent analysis of the Hjortspring material, Klavs Randsborg draws important conclusions about the military unit represented. Because the remains indicate the presence of some eighty shields and about twice that number of spears, the weapons in the deposit seem to represent roughly eighty fighters, each armed with a shield and two spears. The boat could accommodate about twenty persons; thus the weapon deposit seems to represent four boatloads of warriors—an army of some eighty fighters. In the character of the weaponry, Randsborg sees evidence for differentiation between commanders and infantry troops. The numbers of swords, spears with unusually large iron points, chain-mail shirts, and narrow shields can be interpreted as the fighting equipment of about eleven individuals who bore more specialized and finer weapons than the other men. The numbers of spears and wide shields suggest an infantry force of about seventy. This ratio—eleven specially armed troops to seventy general foot soldiers—is similar to ratios observed in the much larger weapon deposits of the Roman Iron Age, such as the four cited earlier. The Hjortspring bog find thus provides important evidence about a variety of interrelated topics from the pre-Roman Iron Age in northern Europe, including boatbuilding technology, weaponry, ritual practice, warfare, and social stratification implied by the differentiation in military equipment.
Kaul, Flemming. Da våbnene tav: Hjortspringfundet og dets baggrund. Copenhagen: National Museum, 1988. (With English summary.)
Randsborg, Klavs. "Into the Iron Age: A Discourse on War and Society." In Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives. Edited by John Carman and Anthony Harding, pp. 191–202. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.
——. Hjortspring: Warfare and Sacrifice in Early Europe. Århus, Denmark: Århus University Press, 1996.
Peter S. Wells