Egtved Girl - Well-Preserved Bronze Age Elite Burial in Denmark

Where Did the Egtved Girl Come From, and Why is She So Well Preserved?

String Skirt and Medallion from Edtved Girl Burial
String Skirt and Medallion from Edtved Girl Burial. Einsamer Schütze

The Egtved girl (Egtvedpigen in Danish) is the name of the exceptionally well-preserved but oddly partial remains of a Bronze Age woman, found in one of several high status burial mounds in southern Jutland in Denmark. The mounds were monumental elite barrows, belonging to the Nordic Bronze Age Period II and III: dendrochronological analysis of the oak coffins found within the mounds indicates that the burials all took place between 1396 and 1260 BC, and most between 1389-1330.

The Girl

Egtved girl was interred in 1370 BC, in the hollow of a 3-meter-long (9.8 feet) oak coffin. Her fully-dressed body was placed extended on her back, facing eastward and wrapped in a large oxhide. Her blonde hair was styled in a short cut fashion: she stood about 1.6 m (5.2 ft) tall and was between 16-18 years old at her death. Pieces of cloth were wrapped around her feet; and a full-blown milfoil or yarrow blossom (Achillea millefolium L.) was found with her, indicating she was buried in summer.

Based on her clothing and burial goods, Egtvedpigen was clearly a woman of high status. In addition to her stunningly-well preserved clothing, Egtved girl's hair, tooth enamel, fingernails and even parts of her brain and skin were preserved: but not her bones, likely due to their dissolution in the partially acidic waterlogged environment of the oak coffin.

Costume and Grave Goods

Much can be learned from Egtved girl's clothing and burial goods.

Her exceptionally well preserved costume included a short woolen blouse and a skirt made of thick cords. A large disc-shaped bronze belt plate with a spiral decoration was found tied at her waist. The symbol is a traditional Nordic Bronze age representation of the sun, and its presence in her burial suggests to some that she was a participant in the Nordic sun worshipping cult.

She wore bronze armbands around her wrists and an earring; an antler comb was found next to her body.

Near her face was a small birchbark box containing personal belongings. At her feet was a small birchbark bucket and at the bottom of the bucket was remains of a honey-sweetened beer or honey mead. A small container with some cremated skeletal remains of a 5-6 year old child was placed by her head. Egted girl's body was covered with a blanket of wool.

Burial Mound

Egtved girl's burial mound is called Egtved Storhøj, and it was originally circular with a diameter of about 22 m (72 ft) and a height of about 5 m (16.4 ft). All of the southern Jutland mounds were built in the same manner as Egtved Storhøj, and several of them also contained partly preserved human remains.

Scholars believe that shortly after death, the bodies were placed in oak coffins, and the coffins on a prepared surface of wet blue-gray clay. The amount of water still in the clay and surrounding the coffin at the time of excavation was quite remarkable. When opened in 1921, the Egtved Storhøj emitted a large gush of water; and it may be that coffin and clay was ritually bathed in water as part of the burial process. Afterwards, a dry outer mantle of cut turfs was laid over that, creating the mound.

Preservation

When Egtved Storhøj and the other Bronze Age burials in southern Jutland were excavated, archaeologists found a 1-centimeter (.4 inch) thin, strongly cemented layer of iron completely encircling the wet core around the oak coffin. This layer held the water in and created or at least perpetuated the anaerobic environment that caused the odd preservation of the bodies.

The iron layer was not placed there intentionally by the Bronze Age people, it is thought to be the result of natural processes: ferrous iron moving down through the turfs and depositing around the wet clay. Experimental archaeology (Breuning-Madsen et al. 2003) indicates that the wet core became anaerobic within a week after mound construction. It is possible that the large amount of water held in the mounds was not part of the burial customs but rather a result of the decomposition of organic material and the difference between the undisturbed subsoil and the man-made mound.

Where Did Egtved Girl Come From?

Strontium analysis of the hard and soft tissues in the burial was reported by Frei et al. in 2015, who found that neither the Egtved girl or the child whose cremated remains were found with her were born in Scandinavia. They come from the same region however, and a possible candidate is the Black Forest region in southwestern Germany. Further, her clothing also came from the same place--if she originated from the Black Forest, she must have traveled several hundred kilometers to Egtved.

The analysis also shows that she spent the last two years of her life in travel; and during that time she ate a terrestrial diet and suffered from an occasional lack of protein. Scholars interpret this to mean she was part of a widespread inter-elite marriage alliance system between Bronze Age groups in Germany and Scandinavia. Recent studies of artifacts from Bronze Age sites throughout Europe support the existence of this type of widespread interaction between Bronze Age groups, with trade in exotic artifacts suggesting a much higher mobility in the European Bronze Age than was considered until recently.

Honey Mead

Pollen analysis of the honey mead in the birchbark bucket revealed it was made of a combined lime (linden, Tilia spp), meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), white clover (Trifolium repens), wheat grains (Triticum), bog myrtle (Myrica gale), and cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) or cranberry (V. oxycoccos).

The resulting drink would have been something like ale with honey: such combinations of lime, honey, white clover and meadowsweet have been identified at other Scandinavian bronze age sites (see Dickson for a discussion).

Archaeology

Egtved Storhøj was opened in 1921 by farmer Peter Platz, who was startled when water gushed out of the hilltop mound.

He reached out to the National Museum of Denmark who excavated the mound and had the coffin and its contents sent to Copenhagen to be studied.

The mound is currently open to the public and a museum nearby keeps artifacts and her remains on display, a fact which has come under some recent debate. As scientific technology has improved over the past century, additional studies have been conducted by Henrik Breuning-Madsen (University of Copenhagen) and Mads Kähler Holst (Aarhus University); and analysis of the strontium was conducted by an international team led by the National Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Mississippian Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Breuning-Madsen H, and Holst MK. 1998. Recent Studies on the Formation of Iron Pans around the Oaken Log Coffins of the Bronze Age Burial Mounds of Denmark. Journal of Archaeological Science 25(11):1103-1110.

Breuning-Madsen H, Holst MK, and Rasmussen M. 2001. The Chemical Environment in a Burial Mound Shortly after Construction—An Archaeological–Pedological Experiment. Journal of Archaeological Science 28(7):691-697.

Breuning-Madsen H, Holst MK, Rasmussen M, and Elberling B.

2003. Preservation Within Log Coffins Before and After Barrow Construction. Journal of Archaeological Science 30(3):343-350.

Breuning-Madsen H, Rønsbo J, and Holst MK. 2000. Comparison of the composition of iron pans in Danish burial mounds with bog iron and spodic material. CATENA 39(1):1-9.

Dickson JH. 1978. Bronze age mead. Antiquity 52(205):108-113.

Frei KM, Mannering U, Kristiansen K, Allentoft ME, Wilson AS, Skals I, Tridico S, Nosch ML, Willerslev E, Clarke L et al. 2015. Tracing the dynamic life story of a Bronze Age Female. Scientific Reports 5:10431.

Vankilde H. 2004. Bronze Age coffin burials. In: Bogucki P, and Crabtree PJ, editors. Ancient Europe 8000 BC-AD 1000: Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World. New York: Thompson Gale. p 80-82.