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Excavation at Sandby borg, on the island of Oland in the Baltic Sea, produced evidence of a massacre. Photo: Antiquity.

The village was not spared. Men, the elderly, and even infants were killed with massive blows to the head. Bodies atop bodies were left, some charred after the fires were set. The corpses were left to rot in houses, and the attack happened so abruptly that prepared meals were left uneaten by the hearths. Livestock were slaughtered, and left unbutchered on the ground, too.

The unarmed settlers of Sandby borg were not protected by their high walls, and their murderers condemned them to history that is only now being unearthed.

The archaeological dig at the fort on the southeastern Swedish island of Oland in the Baltic Sea is presented in forensic detail in the journal Antiquity today.

The time of the massacre was known as the Migration Period – a time just as the Roman Empire was crumbling from within, and the Huns and other peoples were moving into Europe to cause tremendous chaos and upheaval. The Sandby borg site provides a kind of time capsule, considering how the complete abandonment froze the settlement in time for more than a millennium as the elements covered it over.

“The human remains provide a snapshot of Migration Period violence with a level of detail rarely seen,” write the authors, from the Bohuslans Museum and the Kalmar County Museum. “Several observations strongly indicate that the entire site was abandoned suddenly, resulting in a detailed set of data concerning domestic life.”

The site was discovered in 2011, and artifacts like jewelry and trade goods from Poland, the Baltic states, as well as the Roman Empire proper, were discovered early in the work. By the end of the season in 2016, the bodies had been discovered in 300 square meters, which is a fraction of the total surface area within the ancient walls.

Twenty-six sets of skeletal remains, both articulated and disarticulated, were found over the course of the excavation.

Bodies were scattered throughout the site, in dwellings and in what were once streets. Nine were found in a single house. The skulls of the adults were caved in with blows at the time of death. Children were not spared: vertebrae from a child as young as 2 was recovered, and the femur of an infant between 1 and 3 months was also dug up.

One man was struck down, and fell unconscious over a still-burning hearth in another dwelling.

In one house with multiple bodies, half a herring was found next to the fireplace. Apparently, the fragile bones survived after being served for dinner, and then left untouched after the cook was apparently killed.

The massacre tended toward men, because few females are found among the dead.

“This pattern leads us to conclude that the perpetrators comprised a large number of people, striking simultaneously in several houses, and that several of the victims were not in a position to defend themselves,” the scientists write. “The fact that many of the individuals were left unburied inside the ringfort indicates that nobody came back to tend the dead… The evidence suggests that no survivors or neighbors could, or wanted to, enter the site after the massacre.”

Cabon-14 dating has yet to be completed, the researchers added. But the theory, as the work continues, is that the massacre was a political strike to crush the influence of the people of Sandby borg in the chaotic time immediately following the fall of Rome in 476 A.D.

Clara Alfsdotter, of the Bohusland Museum, analyzes a skull from the Sandby borg site. Photo: Antiquity
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