New DNA evidence has identified two people buried in a 1,000 year-old Viking grave as a mother and son, reports the Copenhagen Post.
Previously, researchers had speculated that the man, who may have been hanged, was an enslaved individual sacrificed and buried alongside the noblewoman he served in life.
“It’s an incredibly exciting and surprising result we have here,” Ole Kastholm, an archaeologist at Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, where the remains are on display, tells TV 2 Lorry. “We need to thoroughly consider what this means.”
Archaeologists excavated the burial, known as the Gerdrup Grave, in 1981. The fact that the woman was buried with what appeared to be a lance helped overturn scholars’ assumptions about gender in Viking society. Since the site’s discovery, researchers have found a number of other Viking women buried with weapons, which could identify them as warriors or symbolize their elite status.
“Bone and DNA analyses have gradually undermined the belief that men were buried with weapons and riding equipment and women with sewing needles and the house keys,” the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde explains on its website. “Sometimes this is true, but other times the situation is reversed—there are lots of female graves that hold weapons and sometimes we even get situations where the skeleton we believe to be biologically a man … has been buried in clothing usually associated with women.”
In recent years, archaeologists have used genetic sequencing to disprove the assumption that a particularly grand tenth-century tomb filled with weapons and other artifacts associated with war belonged to a man. While 21st-century identities may not map perfectly onto the Vikings’ understandings of gender, the most likely explanation is that the Birka tomb’s occupant was a woman warrior. Viking mythology is replete with stories of such female fighters.
Both skeletons in the Gerdrup Grave were interred in odd positions, according to a statement. The man, who was 35 to 40 years old at the time of his death, was found lying on his back in a twisted position. The placement of his ankles and head suggest his feet were tied together and his neck was broken, perhaps by hanging.
The roughly 60-year-old woman, meanwhile, was crushed under two boulders placed on her chest and right leg. As Leszek Gardeła noted for Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia in 2009, other burial sites in Denmark, Sweden and Iceland have yielded similar treatment of bodies, with stones crushing or holding down skeletal remains.
The new findings share intriguing parallels with the Saga of the Ere-Dwellers, one of a series of medieval Icelandic folktales that purports to document Viking history. In the story, persecutors stone a sorceress named Katla to death and execute her son Odd—a man described as “babbling, slippery and slanderous,” according to an 1892 translation—by hanging. Echoes of the legend raise the question of whether the lance buried with the woman at Gerdrup was actually a sorceress’ staff.
In light of the new DNA discovery, researchers are delving deeper into the mystery of the Gerdrup Grave, investigating findings from other burial sites for clues to the mother-and-son burial.
Though the physical evidence points toward the man being murdered, Kastholm says the team also has to consider the possibility that he died a natural death. Even if this proves to be the case, however, the circumstances of the burial will remain a mystery.
“They [were] buried at the same time. This can be seen very clearly in the soil layers above the deceased,” the archaeologist points out in the statement. “But why?”
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