Who Was in Harold Bluetooth's Army? Strontium Isotope Investigation of the Cemetery at the Viking Age Fortress at Trelleborg, Denmark

By Price, T. Douglas; Frei, Karin Margarita et al. | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Who Was in Harold Bluetooth's Army? Strontium Isotope Investigation of the Cemetery at the Viking Age Fortress at Trelleborg, Denmark


Price, T. Douglas, Frei, Karin Margarita, Dobat, Andres Siegfried, Lynnerup, Niels, Bennike, Pia, Antiquity


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Introduction

As one of the most impressive archaeological monuments in Scandinavia, the tenth-century fortress at Trelleborg on the island of Zealand, Denmark (Figure 1), has played a central role in research on Viking Age society, giving its name to a series of similar constructions found across Denmark and southern Sweden. Interpreted previously as training camps for warriors who were supposed to re-conquer lost Danish territories in eleventh-century England, the Trelleborg fortresses are better understood today as centres of royal power, established as a means to control and administer the provinces of the emerging Danish kingdom under King Harold Bluetooth ?n the tenth century AD.

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The fortresses are unique structures without direct parallels or obvious precursors in the region. Their newness in the landscape alone suggests foreign inspiration and/or expertise. This is underlined by find assemblages from the sites, which contain a significant number of artefacts of foreign provenance, indicating far-reaching contacts and presumably the presence of people from more distant regions.

With this background it is possible to formulate an hypothesis that at least some of the residents at the Trelleborg fortress were of foreign origin, possibly deriving from the central and northern parts of Scandinavia or from regions south of the Baltic (Dobat 2008, 2010; see also Sindbsek 2005: 140). In order to test the hypothesis, isotope analyses were carried out on samples of tooth enamel from burials at the site. We measured strontium isotopes in enamel apatite for information on mobility. The sample included individuals from 30 regular graves with and without grave furnishings, and selected individuals from three mass graves, which obviously reflect violent or catastrophic events.

In the following paragraphs we describe the Trelleborg fortress to provide the archaeological context for the cemetery. This burial ground is then discussed in terms of the skeletal remains and the grave contents. A brief introduction to the isotopic analysis includes a discussion of local isotope ratios in Denmark and the surrounding region. Within this frame, then, we consider the results of isotope analysis of human tooth enamel from the cemetery in terms of their context and interpretation.

The Trelleborg fortress

Trelleborg is one of five similar structures, known today as the Viking Age 'ring-forts' or circular fortresses'. These include Aggersborg in northern Jutland, Fyrkat near Hobro, Nonnebakken in Odense in Denmark and Borgeby near modern Lund in southernmost Sweden. They all share the same uniform appearance, strictly following an architectural master plan in layout and construction. This similarity argues for the almost simultaneous construction of the fortresses towards the end of the tenth century AD. Horizons of extensive burning point towards an abrupt or even violent destruction of some of the structures.

The fortresses' function and background is much debated. They most probably should be viewed as intimately connected with the process of state formation. As centres of royal power they could have been established to control and administer the northern and eastern provinces of the Danish realm under King Harold Bluetooth of the Jelling dynasty. One of their primary functions seems to have been that of military strongholds and barracks. Additionally they must be supposed to have held economic, religious and symbolic significance. At the same time, they might have functioned as defences against foreign enemies (for a general discussion on the fortresses see: Olsen & Schmidt 1977; Roesdahl 1977, 2008; Randsborg 1980; Sindbsek & Roesdahl in press).

The unusual find assemblage at Trelleborg mirrors far-reaching exchange contacts and/or the presence of peoples from more or less distant regions (Andersen, S. …

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