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Notes from an author: broadcaster Neil Oliver on an archaeological discovery in Denmark

An encounter with an ancient burial site outside Copenhagen reveals something fundamental about the human spirit.

By Neil Oliver
Published 27 Jan 2021, 06:05 GMT, Updated 11 May 2021, 16:23 BST
Whilst on an archaeological dig outside the Danish capital, broadcaster Neil Oliver made a discovery that ...

Whilst on an archaeological dig outside the Danish capital, broadcaster Neil Oliver made a discovery that posed delicate questions about the human spirit. 

Photograph by Neil Oliver

During my student days, more than three decades ago, I learned about a woman and infant buried together at a place called Vedbaek, a suburb of Copenhagen. In the years since, I’ve thought about them often. Their grave was one of 17 excavated by archaeologists in the mid-1970s. Most contained a single individual, but there were two ‘doubles’ — containing a woman and an infant — and one ‘triple’ with two adults and a one-year-old laid between them. One grave was empty. The cemetery had been made during the Mesolithic — the Middle Stone Age — between 6,000-7,000 years ago.

The people lived by hunting, drawn to a ribbon of territory between land and sea. They were in the habit of laying down their dead with hunting trophies — animal teeth, antlers, bones, tools, things that mattered.

The double grave that haunts me is regarded as the richest of all. The woman was aged around 20 when she died. The infant was a newborn and it’s thought the pair died together in childbirth. The position of the woman’s head suggested it had rested upon a pillow, perhaps a folded piece of clothing long since gone. Perforated shells and animal teeth near her feet suggested she’d been clad in a garment trimmed with trinkets. By her head were 200 red deer teeth — each from a different animal — that had likely formed a necklace made by a hunter and laid down with her as a keepsake. Across the baby’s hips was a little blade of blue flint, perhaps a mark of status. He or she — the bones were too slight for there to be any way of judging sex — had been placed upon the wing of a swan.

Those are the facts; anything more can only be supposition. It’s easiest to think of them as mother and child. Maybe she was a hunter — who can say one way or the other? It seems more likely she was a hunter’s wife, or a hunter’s daughter, and that the necklace of teeth was his gift. Most affecting of all is the presence of the swan’s wing. Perhaps those grieving hoped the infant’s soul would be carried aloft, towards a heaven. Better yet, the hope may have been inspired by the ways of migratory birds that leave and then return. Did those left behind hope the departed souls would come back to them in time? At the very least, the wing may have been a comforter, placed by someone who couldn’t bear the thought of his baby lying on cold clay.

Here in the 21st-century West, most hold death at a distance. Once there was faith to reassure folk of something after death. For the last two centuries and more, that hope has been on the wane. Since here and now is all there is, most endeavour only to stretch their earthly span to the limit while hiding from the thought, far less the sight, of death. At Vedbaek during the Mesolithic period, people thought differently. Evidently, they imagined the hunt would go on in a world to come and that their departed would need the tools of the trade, badges of status.

I’m haunted by the burial site at Vedbaek because of what else, it seems to me, lay buried with them down through the millennia, and that was unearthed along with bones and stones. I’m moved beyond adequate words by the realisation that love and grief were preserved too, ready to envelop us after all the years. Only love and grief make people surrender precious things to the dead, have them seek to lay a newborn on a swan’s wing. They lived in a world unrecognisable to us — a world of ever-present danger and death. Every moment was a challenge; every morsel consumed hunted or sought-out; every warming fire conjured from sticks by clever hands. And yet in spite of all they had to contend with during lives made short by circumstances and hardship, still they were in awe of death, and so properly in awe of life.

We’ve come a long way since the time of the hunters and yet our brains, three pounds of pale, pink meat beneath thin caps of bone, are still running hunter software. We’re still looking for the things we need. For all that we’ve learned with our science and technology, too many of us are rattling with anti-depressants. I doubt we’re as happy as the hunters. In the grave of the mother and baby of Vedbaek, along with love and grief, I find that which is so invaluable for all human beings crouched upon this small blue thing of a planet — I find hope.

Wisdom of the Ancients: Life lessons from our distant past, by Neil Oliver, is published by Bantam Press, RRP: £20.

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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