Once upon a time in Trelleborg: ‘Massgrave? – Good!’

29 December, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article from Antiquity. It concerns strontium 87Sr/86Sr values in human skeletons from the Carolingian Iron Age. Measuring 87Sr/86Sr values in tooth enamel will disclose the strontium bioavailability in the environment where the human being lived when the tooth enamel was formed, i.e. where the person grew up. If these values are compared to the baseline values in a certain environment we may speak of a possible match or mismatch between the values of a tested person and the baseline values – most often a spectrum – characterizing the area where this person’s skeleton was found. A match indicates that the test person grew up in the area in question and died there, while a mismatch suggests that the person at some stage in life moved into the area perhaps only to die there.

Since some areas are more uniquely defined than others and since areas may vary in size, the analysis and interpretation may be more or less rewarding. However, if we want to check prehistoric migration 87Sr/86Sr values may be surprisingly revealing not least owing to our present-day reluctance to believe in prehistoric migration without manifest proof, which in practice rather than formally there might be in 87Sr/86Sr values.


fig 00Price et al. 2011. Douglas T. Price, Karin Margarita Frei, Andres Siegfried Dobat, Niels Lynnerup and Pia Bennike. Who was in Harold Bluetooth’s army? Strontium isotope investigation of the cemetery at the Viking Age fortress at Trelleborg, Zeeland. Antiquity; Jun 2011; 85. Pp. 476-89. Acronym: WiHaBa.

In Viking Age research, Harold Bluetooth is usually considered a very Danish political player and an emblem of state formation. His nationalistic centrepiece as we know it, is nevertheless an odd one on several legs: his equation: Christianity = The Church, his building projects, his quest for formal geometrical architecture, his ahistorical modernity in which he cunningly incorporates the past, as well as his use of text and rune stone ornament as propaganda. This make him stand out as outlandish – introducing all kinds of European novelties and uniformities that today’s neo-nationalists/fascists in Denmark would have frown at and compared to intolerable EU directives, had they been able to draw historical parallels. Many academics on the other hand, think that Harold is interesting because to their mind his measures look like steps towards the foundation of the Christian Medieval Kingdom, the future ‘Nation State’ and eventually even ‘The Viking’ – once signs of civilisation, nowadays tarnished phenomena reduced to the mantras of neo-nationalists – but nevertheless part of Danish history.

Despite his endeavour, one may question Harold’s success as the king who reigned for decades changing country and society. Although he may have been king for several years (‘fifty’ his grandson Sweyn Estridsson thought when (c. 970) he wanted to please Adam of Bremen) it is unlikely that Harold gained supreme power until a couple of years after the death of his father, that is, c. 965 CE. By c. 985 his rule was over after the war with Otto II (974) and a power struggle, started c. 980 by his son Sweyn Forkbeard. Harold-Bluetooth’s rule, as demonstrated by his building activities, might thus have been short and unsuccessful inasmuch as it aimed at transforming and reorganizing society.

Analyses and interpretation in WiHaBa fit the general academic understanding of Harold. Therefore, the answer to the question of the title – Who was in Harold Bluetooth’s army? – is: foreigners! or, in the eloquent last sentence of the abstract: Trelleborg, home of Harold Bluetooth’s army, was a fortress of foreigners with vivid implications for the nature of his political mission (WiHaBa:476).

Foreign and non-foreign among the buried

How foreign were they when they died? How vivid their implications? When we look at WiHaBa:Fig. 2, and that happens well before we know anything about the actual 87Sr/86Sr values, it seems that the proportion between non-local and possible local values is more or less 50-50 outside the mass graves. Although there are baseline foreigners in the graves there seems to be equally many locals interred on the cemetery.

baseline values in Denmark

Fig 4, WiHaBa:483, presents the South Scandinavian baseline values and the authors draw the conclusion that values outside the range 0.709-0.7108 indicate a non-South Scandinavian or non-Northwest German human being. This conclusion, nevertheless, doesn’t match the map presented in Fig 4. In fact, there are several values between 0.7073 and 0.709 in Denmark not least in Jutland something one should not forget when discussing matters related to Harold Bluetooth. To the East, in Scania, there are few reference values, but in northern Scania there is a baseline value of 0.7160. Colours will help us see the pattern of the 87Sr/86Sr values.

fig 05In the end the most striking pattern is that of the difference between the mass graves and the single or double common graves. Interpreting this pattern is difficult owing to the lack of baseline data from Halland and Scania (where 87Sr/86Sr values above 0.711 are possible). If that is indeed the case some of the ‘foreigners’ in Trelleborg would be ‘less foreign’ and based perhaps in a Scanian trelleborg before they died. Some, moreover, could have been children on Bornholm, or on  Öland and Gotland. Be this as it may, those interred in mass graves were a more varied group of people and more baseline-foreign than those buried in traditional graves. This indicates that those who seem to have been living more permanently in the garrison had a more homogenous regional background – albeit with a marked non-Zealand foreign component – than the mass grave population. Indirectly, since there are far too few values below 0.708 to reflect a ‘Danish’ population, there is an emphasis on a regional component and we can conclude that those who lived and died at Trelleborg were not predominantly from Jutland let alone Jelling men.

If Harold’s army had consisted of foreigners it would have been noteworthy, not least because it is difficult in a country with a weak monetary system, to build an army of mercenaries, who must be paid inasmuch as looting is not a permanent option. On the other hand it is a great advantage to have a number of loyal mercenaries, perhaps with a background in Scania, if controlling Zeeland is an option in a civil war. It is much more likely therefore, that Trelleborg was manned by a mixture of Zealanders and non-Zealand non-Jutland foreigners. WiHaBa suggests that it is significant that the mass graves were probably reserved for groups who didn’t live permanently in the fortress. Had they been part of the ordinary crew they ought to have been buried individually, even if their death was traumatic.

WiHaBa is an article that jumps to conclusions – hopefully for no apparent reason, such as campaigning for Sweyn Forkbeard’s true Danish values or any other involuntary agenda. The article simplifies and inflates ‘the foreign’, the legacy of Harold Bluetooth and the history of the Carolingian Iron Age forcing its readers to scrutinize its arguments as well as its number foundation. There is nothing wrong with applied natural sciences, in this case recording the measurements of a multicollector VG Sector 54 IT mass spectrometer (Institute of Geography and Geology, University of Copenhagen). It is reassuring that this instrument works so well that five ng loads of the NBS 987 Sr standard gave 87Sr/86Sr = 0.710236-0.000010 (n = 10, 2s). Obviously one needs craftsmanship and critical sense to handle the material and its preparation. But that must not obscure the fact that until the scientist starts interpreting the stable isotope values, analysis is essentially a systematic craft. In this case the interpretations demonstrates a considerable gap between material and conclusion in tandem with a historical interpretation that borders on the naïve.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: