Can archaeologists solve Sweden's 1,500-year-old murder mystery?

The remains of 26 massacred men were uncovered at the Iron Age site of Sandby Borg, where a grim tale of societal collapse is revealing itself.

Published 8 Oct 2021, 10:33 BST
SandbyBorg
Sandby Borg lies on the east coast of the Swedish island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. Constructed around a.d. 400, its oval retaining wall was once more than 16 feet high. The stone wall that crosses it was built much later.
Photograph by Daniel Lindskog

The first clue that a dark story was lurking at an Iron Age site at Sandby Borg, Sweden, came in 2010. Archaeologists discovered numerous intact pits filled with jewellery and other valuable items. The mystery deepened a year later when the team from the Kalmar County Museum returned to this fortified village on the island of Öland and found human remains.

Over the next few years, 26 bodies were unearthed at Sandby Borg, a windswept site alongside a beach. The positioning of the corpses and forensic evidence all pointed to a chilling conclusion: One day in the late fifth century, an act of mass murder occurred at Sandby Borg. Its victims, including children, were caught by surprise, murdered, and left where they fell. Working with these clues, the team is attempting to reconstruct what happened here more than 1,500 years ago.     

(Who were the ancient bog mummies in northern European wetlands?)  

Hidden treasure

The narrow island of Öland lies off Sweden’s eastern coast around 250 miles south of the capital, Stockholm. It’s a land of alder forests, grassland, and beaches pummelled by the relentless wind off the Baltic Sea.

Sandby Borg is just one of dozens of Iron Age ring forts that dot Öland. Slightly larger than an acre, it was enclosed by an oval wall, whose outline is visible today. Archaeologists believe this wall once stood more than 16 feet high and protected 53 dwellings inside.

The people who lived here had much to protect, as evidenced by the treasure stashes uncovered in 2010. The pits were filled with rings, silver brooches, bells, and coins. Some of these goods, including a coin, are of Roman provenance. Öland warriors worked as imperial mercenaries, seemingly employed by the Roman Empire. The Öland elite must have traded extensively with Rome as well. Both of these factors caused luxury goods and Roman coins to accumulate across the island.

Scene of the crime

In 2011 the first human remains were found at Sandby Borg. Archaeologists uncovered two feet and later matched them with the skeleton of a late-teenaged male, whose skull had been split.

In the course of several archaeological seasons, Sandby Borg yielded yet more grim finds. Despite only fully excavating three out of the 53 dwellings in the settlement, the remains of 26 individuals have been found in those houses and in street areas, all bearing signs of ferocious violence.

(Step into history at these stunning archaeological sites.)

The fate of one man whose body lies just inside a dwelling has been pieced together: He likely was first wounded in the street, then stumbled into the house looking for safety. He was pursued, caught, and then felled by a blow to his head.

Inside house 40, archaeologists discovered the skeletons of lambs aged between three and six months old. They provided clues to when the attack took place.
Photograph by Daniel Lindskog

In the building known as house 40, nine bodies were found, including those of two very young children. Inside house 4 the decapitated body of a teenage boy was found, while in house 52 archaeologists uncovered the remains of an elderly man that were lying over the hearth of the house. His bones suggest he was beaten violently. Charring around his pelvic area indicates he was either wounded or already dead when he fell into the fire.

As archaeologists uncovered the victims’ bodies, they noticed that they had not been buried or treated with any of the typical funeral rites. Instead, they must have lain in the exact same positions where they had been struck down more than 1,500 years ago.

Missing persons

The 26 victims at the site have another thing in common: They are all male. The presence of female items in the treasure pits suggests women lived at the community, but their fate has not yet been revealed. So far there is no comprehensive hypothesis as to the women’s fate. They could have been carried off by the attackers, or they could have all fled the village.

Archaeologists work at the Sandby Borg site on Öland, Sweden. As of 2018, less than a tenth of the interior of the ring fort had been excavated.
Photograph by Daniel Lindskog

No evidence suggests the attack was a military engagement. The domestic setting, and the defensive wounds of the victims, all suggest a sudden, overwhelming attack that took place at once.

Forensic analysis proves that many of the blows, both from blunt instruments and a sharp weapon such as a sword, rained down on the victims from above and behind. A lack of evidence of trauma to forearms suggests that the victims did not have time to defend themselves, nor have any shields or weapons been found on or near the victims.

The intact treasure stashes remain a puzzle to scholars. One hypothesis is that the massacre was so brutal that everyone, women included, was either dead or too scared to return. Scholars also wondered why the murderers did not loot the wealthy village and why later treasure hunters left the site untouched for so many centuries after the destruction.

Questions and answers

Archaeologists believe they have at least some answers to these questions, including the events that led up to the attack at Sandby Borg.

The fortress’s retaining wall was built circa A.D. 400, around the time that Rome’s power was waning. As the community had grown wealthy from Roman contact, it would have felt the economic impact of the Western Roman Empire’s recession.

(Money was not enough for Crassus, the richest man in Rome.)

As Rome provided fewer goods and jobs to Öland, social structures started to shift. After the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, uncertainty spread across the old Roman world. These years, known as the Migration period, saw strife between neighbouring peoples.

Archaeologists found this silver gilt pendant from a sheath in house 40 of the Sandby Borg site. Trade with Rome and service in the Roman army had enriched the Öland island elites.
Photograph by Daniel Lindskog

Clara Alfsdotter of Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden, has examined all the evidence gathered at Sandby Borg. “The perpetrators do not appear to have been very interested in staying and searching for loot,” Alfsdotter observes in the European Journal of Archaeology. She suggests their motivation was likely revenge, “based on a feeling of past injustices and a perception of the Sandby Borg group as a threat.” Ultimately, the motive behind the massacre “was probably to attain regional power and control.”

The attackers certainly achieved their aim of extinguishing life at Sandby Borg. All settlement there ceased that day. No one disposed of the bodies, which may have caused Sandby Borg to develop a reputation as a cursed place that kept treasure hunters away. The untouched nature of Sandby Borg has been a boon for archaeologists, providing a perfectly preserved snapshot of a terrible moment of Iron Age violence.

                                   

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