A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By ERIC A. POWELL
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Sometime in the eighth century, a monk at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was preparing to transcribe a book of the Bible in Arabic and needed fresh parchment. New parchment was an expensive commodity at the time and was difficult to obtain, especially for a humble monk copyist living in a remote desert monastery. Luckily for him, the venerable religious community had a massive library that included books that were no longer in use. These manuscripts, some written in extinct languages, or thought to be unimportant, were valued only for their potential as sources of recycled parchment. No one in the monastery would have thought twice, for instance, when, while searching for writing material, the monk plucked out of the collection an ancient Greek text that had gone unread for a generation or more. None of his brothers would have batted an eye as he used a knife to carefully scrape away the centuries-old ink. Soon, the words were gone and the parchment was ready for the monk’s fresh transcription of Bible verses. Today, erasing an ancient text seems an incalculable loss, but to the eighth-century scribe, it was an act of devotion and even a measure of progress—an obsolete text was gone, and a holy manuscript that would enrich countless spiritual lives was left in its place.
The original words on this reused text, or palimpsest, have been lost for over a thousand years. But now with the help of modern multispectral imaging technology, a team of scientists and scholars is able to peer through the manuscript’s visible ink and read the long-vanished text below. The library at St. Catherine’s contains well over a hundred such palimpsests, each one offering vivid new glimpses of the early Christian era. Later this year, after a large number of the palimpsests have been studied and translated by specialists, the monastery will make them available online, meaning that texts that have gone unread for a millennia can be pored over by scholars and interested laypeople from all over the world. “These are cultural treasures that are important to our common history,” says Michael Phelps, executive director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, which works with the UCLA Library to coordinate the project. “We’re helping recover lost communities that made important spiritual and literary contributions, and allowing their voices to speak again.”
The Bible Hunters
Tucked into a valley at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the fortified monastery of St. Catherine’s was built in the sixth century on the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Known officially as the Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, St. Catherine’s is located on an especially holy site, where God was thought to have spoken to Moses through the burning bush. Archaeologist Peter Grossman of the German Archaeological Institute Cairo has conducted a survey of the site, and notes that thanks to its six-foot-thick granite walls that rise some 30 feet, the monastery was never destroyed, and so retains architecture from all phases of its development (including a small chapel that was converted into a mosque in the tenth century and is still used for special occasions). “St. Catherine’s is better preserved than other monasteries,” says Grossman. “Even the iron fittings of the doors in its walls and the original wooden gate of the main entrance are still in situ.” Over the centuries, the monastery attracted a steady stream of pilgrims who came to visit the holy sites around Mt. Sinai. They were welcomed and sheltered by a small community of monks who led lives of contemplation and prayer in the midst of the biblical landscape of the Sinai wilderness. Today, St. Catherine’s is the world’s oldest continually occupied monastery, and is home to around 25 Greek Orthodox monks, who observe rites that have continued uninterrupted within its walls for 15 centuries.
The monastery has a rich collection of icons and other religious objects, but it is most famous for its library, which, with more than 3,300 manuscripts, is second only to that of the Vatican in terms of the number of ancient texts it contains. While the Vatican library was assembled carefully over the centuries, St. Catherine’s collection is different, more eclectic. “The Sinai library differs from most libraries in that it grew organically to provide the monks with copies of the scriptures and books that would inspire and guide them in their dedication,” says Father Justin, who serves as the monastery’s librarian. Many of the monks and pilgrims who came to the monastery over the centuries left manuscripts as gifts, resulting in an especially idiosyncratic collection. In addition to important Christian texts, the library contains, for instance, one of the world’s earliest known copies of the Iliad.
Father Justin began a program of digitizing the monastery’s collection in the late 1990s. He knew, however, that he was unable to make a record of some of the most intriguing texts in the collection. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars had been aware that many of the works in the collection are palimpsests that conceal older texts (see “The Bible Hunters”). Over the years, scholars were able to read three of the palimpsests that were legible, but the vast majority remained invisible to the naked eye and went unstudied. In 1996, a Georgian scholar used ultraviolet light to read a Sinai palimpsest with an overtext in medieval Georgian. He found that the underlying text was written in Caucasian Albanian, and was the first example of a text written in this now-extinct language. It was an exciting discovery, but the process had drawbacks. “Prolonged use of ultraviolet light is a risk to both the eyesight of the scholar and the manuscript itself,” says Father Justin. The technique just wasn’t a practical way to read the library’s palimpsests.
The Bible Hunters
Father Justin learned of an ambitious scientific and scholarly effort under way from 1998 to 2008 to use multispectral imaging technologies to read the Archimedes Palimpsest, a tenth-century copy of the great Greek philosopher’s writings that had been overwritten by thirteenth-century Christian monks. He contacted the team decoding the Archimedes Palimpsest, and soon many of the scientists involved in the project agreed to again pool their resources to read the Sinai palimpsests. Organization of the project fell to Phelps and the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, which uses digital technology to make ancient manuscripts available online to both scholars and the general public.
In 2011, the Sinai Palimpsest Project began imaging some of the 130 manuscripts in St. Catherine’s library that had been identified as palimpsests. Over the course of five years, the team visited the monastery 17 times. Before each session, University of Vienna medievalist Claudia Rapp, the project’s scholarly director, would consult with Father Justin, and together they would select important palimpsests suitable for multispectral imaging. The team would then subject each page to four state-of-the-art technologies. One method developed specifically for the project involves backlighting each page with multiple wavelengths that reveal where the ink of the undertext had eroded the parchment.
These images, once processed and viewed in combination, render long-lost words legible. The Sinai Palimpsest Project has now imaged some 6,900 pages, collecting an unprecedented amount of data on these formerly illegible or invisible manuscripts. “I call this process the archaeology of the page,” says Rapp. “Except as we dig we don’t destroy the layers that lie above, and we’re still able to make things visible that have been hidden for centuries.”
The effort is already giving the team new insight into the role St. Catherine’s played in the medieval world. While it is one of the world’s most famous Christian sites, scholars have an incomplete picture of it during this period. “The history of St. Catherine’s from the seventh to the eleventh centuries is little known,” says Rapp. “The palimpsests dating to this period give us a new picture of the role the monastery played in the Christian world.” The diversity of languages found in the palimpsests, a total of 10, show that pilgrims came to St. Catherine’s from all over the Middle East and Europe. In addition to more text in Caucasian Albanian, the team has discovered palimpsests in Ethiopic, Slavonic, Armenian, and, importantly, in Latin, some written in a style that was popular in Anglo-Saxon monasteries. “We were surprised by the number of Latin texts,” says Rapp. St. Catherine’s is an Orthodox monastery and was previously not thought to have had strong links to the Latin-speaking Catholic Christian world. But the palimpsests show that a number of pilgrims from Western Europe, perhaps from as far away as Britain, made the trek to the monastery and left behind manuscripts that were then recycled.
For Rapp, another significant discovery the project has made is that a number of palimpsests were written in a dialect of Aramaic known as Christian Palestinian Aramaic. This language vanished in the thirteenth century, and is poorly understood, largely because so few texts are known, making the discovery of these palimpsests especially exciting for scholars. “We have increased the number of known Christian Palestinian Aramaic texts by 30 percent,” says Rapp. “I have a colleague preparing a grammar of the language, and she’s very grateful she didn’t publish it before we found these palimpsests.”
The content of the palimpsests also offers a look at the diversity of manuscripts that were available to monks in the early medieval period. Some of the palimpsests contain biblical texts such as fifth- and sixth-century versions of Corinthians and the book of Numbers, but they also hold a number of secular works that monks could have consulted. The team has identified a variety of medical writings, including a treatise on medicinal plants, which contains a treatment for scorpion stings, the earliest surviving texts of Hippocratic medical works, and a previously unknown version of a list of medical terms.
The Bible Hunters
Those works hint at how the monks may have understood and treated illnesses, a very practical dimension of their lives, but the team has also found evidence that at least some monks could have relied on the library for pleasure reading. They have identified a palimpsest containing the illustrated version of a secular fictional work, the oldest known non-biblical illustrated manuscript, perhaps suggesting that monks may have not confined themselves to religious reading.
Soon one of the palimpsests may even allow the team an intimate glimpse of the monks’ spiritual lives. In it they have discovered musical notations, likely for a liturgical chant, which are still being studied. Once they are deciphered, the team may be able to recapture the sounds of one of the ancient chants that were such an integral part of religious services at the monastery.
Twenty-three scholars are currently at work translating the palimpsests, but enough have been studied that it is now clear that St. Catherine’s library is the world’s richest source of Christian palimpsests. And the project has helped Father Justin and the monks of St. Catherine’s not just to recover lost history, but also to celebrate their faith. “The manuscripts are an inspiration to the monks who live here today,” says Father Justin, who finds the discovery of the Latin texts, in particular, very significant. “They show that there was travel and communication between East and West, at a time when scholars have presumed great isolation. This is an important example for our own times.”
Thus far the team has imaged 75 of the manuscripts previously identified as palimpsests. In the process, Rapp has newly identified at least 30 more palimpsests in the collection. She believes that still more of the books in St. Catherine’s library may have been written on reused parchment. There could be hundreds more palimpsests yet to be discovered, an invisible library that may hold as-yet-unknown biblical texts, or more manuscripts that illuminate medieval monastic life in this remote outpost of Christianity.
Eric A. Powell is online editor at Archaeology. To learn more about the Sinai Palimpsest Project, go to sinaipalimpsests.org
The Bible Hunters
By JASON URBANUS
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
The Roman city of Arelate, today known as Arles, France, was one of the most important ports of the later Roman Empire. After siding with Julius Caesar during his civil war against Pompey, the town was formally established as a Roman colony for Caesar’s veterans in 46 or 45 B.C. Strategically located along the Rhône River in southern Gaul, Arelate developed into such a major economic, political, and cultural center that it was referred to as the “little Rome of the Gauls” by the fourth-century poet Ausonius.
Today, the city’s left bank, which served as the Roman settlement’s civic and administrative heart, is strewn with the remnants of ancient monuments: a theater, an amphitheater, baths, and a circus. It has long been thought that the city’s right bank was far less developed in the early Roman period, only witnessing significant growth decades or centuries later. However, this perception of ancient Arles is beginning to change as an ongoing investigation uncovers parts of a wealthy Roman residential area, providing new evidence of the early development of Arles’ periphery and also revealing some of the finest Roman wall paintings found anywhere in France.
A project led by the Museum of Ancient Arles is in the middle of a multiyear campaign to excavate the site of an eighteenth-century glassworks factory in the Trinquetaille district along Arles’ right bank. The glassworks complex—itself a designated historic site—was acquired by the city in the late 1970s. During the initial excavation of the property in the 1980s, archaeologists discovered a second-century A.D. Roman residential neighborhood buried beneath it, but the investigation was short-lived.
Over the past two years, a plan for rehabilitating and restoring the site has brought archaeologists back for the first time in decades. According to lead archaeologist Marie-Pierre Rothé, the renewed excavation has allowed researchers to dig deeper beneath the property and to unravel the surprisingly early history of the site. Beneath at least one Roman house discovered in the 1980s lies the much earlier foundation of an opulent Roman property dating back to the first decades of the Roman colony. Researchers know that as the new colony was incorporated into the Roman political and economic system, there was a sudden influx of wealth into the city, along with opportunities for advancement for both locals and Romans who migrated there. “One of our objectives,” says Rothé, “is to better understand the development of the Roman city of Arles during this early period in a neighborhood that was assumed to have been deserted.”
The discovery of this first-century B.C. domus, or home, is remarkable not only because it dates to a time when archaeologists believed the Trinquetaille area was void of such structures, but also for the quality of the house’s wall paintings. Its frescoes were designed in the Second Pompeian Style, according to August Mau’s nineteenth-century classification of the four major styles of Roman painting. The Second Style, which dates to between 70 and 20 B.C. in Roman Gaul, frequently used trompe l’oeil composition and painted architectural elements such as columns, windows, and marble panels to create the illusion of three-dimensional masonry. Although paintings such as these are common in Italy, especially Pompeii, they are rare in France, where only around 20 known examples exist. The excavations in Trinquetaille have uncovered the best in situ Second Style paintings in France, thanks to the preservation of a nearly five-foot-tall Roman wall to which the frescoes are still attached.
While some sections of the frescoes still remain in situ, most of the painted plaster must be retrieved from the debris and fill layers. Archaeologists now have hundreds of boxes containing thousands of fragments that need to be pieced back together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Although this process will take years to complete, large portions of the painted ceilings and walls are already being reconstructed.
Thus far, two rooms of the first-century B.C. domus have been excavated. One is most commonly identified as a cubiculum, or bedroom. Its frescoes imitate architectural elements, such as marble paneling, Corinthian columns, podiums, and orthostats, all rendered in colors that are still vibrant. One half of the room, where the bed was likely located, shows a more luxurious design of multicolored stripes and burgundy rosettes.
The adjacent room, which served as a reception area for important guests, is decorated with large-scale figures in the Second Style. According to French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research art historian Julien Boislève, this combination is previously unknown in Gaul. One-half to three-quarter life-size figures are painted upon a bright red background, a color that was particularly expensive. “These decorations with large-scale figures are extremely rare, even in Italy, with only a half-dozen examples known,” says Boislève. “In houses like the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii or in the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale, they mark a high level of luxury.”
For Rothé, the discovery of such a lavish late first-century B.C. house has a major impact on knowledge of the topography, urbanization, and early citizens of ancient Arles. The established notion that the right bank only developed much later is, for her, unsubstantiated. “This idea can now be swept aside since the archaeological material shows that this domus belongs to the late Republican period, and is likely to have been introduced during the creation of the colony by Caesar or even earlier,” she says. “These excavations demonstrate that development of the right bank likely happened concurrently with that of the left bank, from the time of the foundation of the Roman colony.”
Although at this stage it is not possible to identify all the painted characters, at least one female figure appears to be playing a harp-like stringed instrument. Other clues imply the presence of the god Pan, suggesting a Bacchic theme common to many Roman wall paintings. Only the most prominent families of the ancient city could have afforded a house displaying artwork of this high quality, likely created by artists brought from Italy. The house may have belonged to a wealthy Roman official who moved to Arelate in the years following its colonial founding, or perhaps it was owned by a local Arlesian aristocrat assimilating Roman culture by imitating the behavior of affluent Romans in Italy, who frequently outfitted their homes in this manner. “These paintings shed new light on the spread of Roman decorative styles after the conquest,” says Boislève. “They are unique in Gaul.”
Jason Urbanus is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By ANDREW CURRY
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
The scene might have been lifted from the pages of a Scandinavian crime novel: Under a steely sky, a half-dozen skeletons emerge from the cold, wet earth. A strip of yellow and blue tape, fluttering in the wind blowing in from the Baltic Sea, holds back curious onlookers. Portable fences, the kind that go up around construction sites, form a protective ring-within-a-ring around the scene. Yellow plastic stakes mark the spots where bodies, some with clear evidence of brutal blows to the head with an ax or other edged weapon, have already been found.
Slowly, trowelful by trowelful, a 12-person team of investigators is excavating the scene of a gruesome mass murder on Öland, an island several miles off the coast of Sweden. In the last five years, they’ve found body after body, sprawled out with many of their bones shattered, on the rough limestone slabs and gravel floor of a 1,500-square-foot house. But it’s a cold case.
The floor is part of a house—the scene of the crime—surrounded by an oval ring of stones and earth, the remains of what was once a wall. Built around A.D. 400, it encircled an area the size of a football field. Now called Sandby Borg, the site is one of more than a dozen similar “borgs,” or forts, on Öland, all built during the Migration Period, a tumultuous era in Europe that began in the fourth century A.D. and hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire. The forts were like safe rooms in case of a siege or surprise attack and could be reached within a few minutes at a dead run from surrounding farms. Sandby Borg’s 15-foot-high ramparts once protected 53 houses and their stores of food. What remains of Sandby Borg’s walls now surround a flat expanse of grass, and aren’t even tall enough to break the strong winds. But 1,500 years ago, Sandby Borg would have been impossible to miss.
Despite its defensive advantages, its end was violent and swift. In a sudden onslaught not long after its construction, its residents were slaughtered, with just enough warning before the attack to hide their valuables. Their bodies were left where they lay, on the floors of their homes and even in smoldering fire pits. The houses were closed up and the place was abandoned. It wasn’t looted after the murders, and neighbors on the densely populated island didn’t interfere with the site, so archaeologists believe that the area was considered taboo for years after the attack. As the turf walls of its houses collapsed, Sandby Borg became a shallow grave, with bones concealed just inches below the surface. It’s unique, says Helena Victor, an archaeologist at the Kalmar County Museum on the mainland just across from the island, because the attack and destruction were so sudden, and the site was never resettled. “This intact moment of an ordinary day is very important, because we know so little about daily life at this time,” she says.
The Sandby Borg project began in 2010 in response to the threat of looting. Researchers at that time had little idea of what they would actually find. Archaeologists testing geophysical prospecting methods in the area noticed that treasure hunters had recently dug pits around the fort, perhaps looking for gold coins. Professional metal detectorists were mobilized to search for anything the looters had missed. They uncovered five different jewelry stashes from houses at the center of the fort. The caches include silver brooches and bells, gold rings, and amber and glass beads. There were even cowrie shell fragments, pierced to be strung on a necklace.
The deposits weren’t randomly placed. Each one was buried just inside the doorway of a house, to the left of the door. Victor, who directs the Sandby Borg excavation, immediately suspected that foul play was behind this arrangement. Her theory was that the women of the fort buried their valuables in predesignated spots. “It’s possible there was an agreement amongst the women—‘if something happens to me, here’s where you’ll find it,’” Victor says. To identify five separate deposits, Victor goes on to explain, is a sign that “something terrible must have happened. These are things you don’t forget or leave behind. Right away we realized they had all died.” Her curiosity piqued, Victor returned to the site in 2011. At that time, she dug three test pits, including one in House 40, a large dwelling in the middle of the fort in which the biggest jewelry stash had been found. On the last day of the weeklong dig, excavators made the grisly discovery of two human feet.
The following year, Victor and her team went back to Sandby Borg and uncovered the rest of the skeleton. It was a man in his late teens, lying on his back. His skull had been split clean open by an ax or sword. To have been hit with that much force in the low-ceilinged houses of the fort, the victim must have been kneeling, his death an execution. Next to him was another young man, lying facedown.
In Sweden, excavations are only funded in case of emergency; for example, if a site is about to be damaged by construction. Because there was no such threat at Sandby Borg, Victor had to scrape together funds for more small digs in the summers of 2013 and 2014. In 2014, they found the partially burned bones of an older man, facedown on top of a hearth. That the body was burned down to the bones in places suggests he was dead when he fell—otherwise he would have moved. “We make these assumptions sometimes,” Victor says. A child’s leg bone was also found not far from the older man, as though more evidence were needed that this had been no ordinary day. “It could have been a grandfather and his grandchild,” Victor says. “It’s a very clear sign someone killed everyone in the fort. Normally, raiders take the children with them [as captives].” The violent deaths deepened the mystery of Sandby Borg—and Victor’s determination to continue digging, at least until House 40 had been fully excavated.
When Sandby Borg was built, Öland must have been a risky and possibly terrifying place to live—it has a seemingly endless coastline for seaborne raiders to land on and no natural barriers to slow down attackers. Even today, the island can be a strange, forbidding place. Twenty times bigger than Manhattan, it is flat, windy, and barren. Yet none of this has stopped people from settling there. The earliest signs of human habitation date back millennia, and the island is still dotted with Bronze Age burial mounds and Viking runestones.
Two thousand years ago, Öland was connected to the mainland by the Baltic, and from there to the Mediterranean via established overland trade routes. Ölanders profited greatly from long-distance trade with the rest of Europe. Archaeological excavations and chance finds have turned up hundreds of Roman coins, bronze statues, glass beads, and vessels dating to the first four centuries A.D., when Öland had extensive contact with the Roman Empire.
As the empire began to decline, Scandinavian warriors from the islands of Bornholm, Gotland, and Öland found that a set of skills different from what they had sharpened before was now in demand. They had traveled thousands of miles south between A.D. 350 and 500 to work as mercenary bodyguards for the last of the Roman emperors, who paid well to guarantee their loyalty. Ölanders had long brought their wages back to the windswept Baltic island in the form of Roman solidi, gold coins commonly issued in the late empire. The solidi found on the island are distinctive, matching dies that have been uncovered in Rome. “A lot of them are very fresh, in mint condition,” Victor says, without the characteristic wear of coins that have been passed from hand to hand in trade. “There’s a direct link to Rome, and later to Milan and Arles.”
If gold is any measure—and there’s every reason to think it was, considering the tiny holes Öland’s mercenaries drilled in their solidi to check the purity of the gold, and the high concentration of coins found on the island—Sandby Borg was home to some of the island’s most successful warriors. “When we mapped the solidi found on the island, 36 percent were within a mile or so of Sandby Borg,” Victor says.
Then, around A.D. 450, the gold began to run out. The Western Roman Empire was at an end, and there were no emperors left who could pay for imported bodyguards. The latest dated solidi archaeologists have found on the island date to around this time. Archaeological evidence suggests that Öland’s social harmony collapsed along with its economy. Suddenly, the island was full of unemployed soldiers, all of them fingering their swords and eyeing their neighbors’ shining gold and imported glass beads. To protect themselves, people had already begun to build ringforts. In a phenomenon that seems to have been limited to Öland, small farms and hamlets were moved to be closer to the safety of walled borgs that were built to withstand serious assaults. The forts had high earthen walls and gates built using techniques brought home from Rome, with signs of crenellated ramparts and arched gates. The houses were arrayed in a circle along the inner wall and with a central block of houses in the middle. Archaeologists have identified at least 16 borgs on the island, all built at roughly the same time using nearly identical plans.
Much of what archaeologists know about Öland’s ringforts comes from a 1960s dig at Eketorp, a ringfort about 20 miles from Sandby Borg that’s now an open-air museum. As the island’s society crumbled in the Migration Period, many Ölanders abandoned their scattered houses and took up permanent residence behind the tall turf walls of the island’s borgs. Eketorp had been occupied for centuries, from around the same time Sandby Borg was built, to well into the Middle Ages. “After work at Eketorp, the argument was that there wasn’t much more to learn about forts on Öland,” says Ulf Näsman, a Swedish archaeologist who led the Eketorp excavation decades ago and is now a professor at Linnaeus University in Kalmar. “Then came these finds.”
Sandby Borg’s story is, in fact, very different from Eketorp’s. What archaeologists call the “cultural layer” inside the fort, the accumulated trash and debris of daily life, is thin. People lived there for a few months, at most, using it as a shelter rather than a home. “It was obviously built as a refuge and never really occupied,” says Näsman, who is helping excavate House 40’s hearth. That’s a sign that the community that sought protection behind Sandby Borg’s once-mighty walls was an early loser in the unrest that tore the island apart. “When the power struggle started, we think people moved into the fort and brought everything with them,” says Victor. “And then everything stopped. Nothing happened after this massacre.”
Though speculating on how and why the massacre took place is captivating, the event itself is perhaps less important to archaeologists than its suddenness. Because life in the fort was extinguished so abruptly, the site has the potential to illuminate details of daily life in Scandinavia around a.d. 480. The fact that the fort wasn’t looted or burned afterward makes it even more interesting. The killers seem to have left the bodies of their victims where they fell, and then departed, never to return. “It’s compelling because people were killed inside the houses, and then the killers went out, locked the doors, and left,” says Näsman.
As archaeologists have explored House 40, they’ve uncovered some fascinating details. The team has found lamb bones that place the fort’s final days in the spring. Grains of rye and the earliest mustard seeds yet found in Scandinavia hint at what else might have been on the table. “We’ve even found the skeleton of half a herring, perhaps part of a last meal,” says Victor. “It’s a kind of frozen moment you almost never have.” Clara Alfsdotter, an osteologist at the Bohusläns County Museum in Uddevalla, Sweden, took soil samples from near the stomachs of several skeletons and will send them to a lab in Stockholm. “Hopefully we can see what they consumed before they died,” she says.
For now, though, bodies keep getting in the way. Human remains are complicated and time-consuming to excavate. Part of the reason it’s taken nearly five seasons of digging (albeit only a week or so at a time) to fully explore just one house is that more bodies keep turning up. As clouds and sunshine alternate on a cold June day, Kalmar County Museum archaeologist Frederik Gunnarson squats in the middle of a shallow trench that cuts through the middle of House 40. Bones have been emerging all morning, including what looks like a child’s vertebra, and the team is under pressure. “We’ve got eight people’s bodies here, and six of them are new,” he says. “And we’ve only got two days of digging left. It’s time to make some operational decisions.”
Just two percent of the fort’s interior has been excavated. But the dramatic evidence of slaughter there suggests there may be hundreds more people within the fort’s oval ring wall. “The thing is, this is not the only house,” says Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay, another archaeologist at the Kalmar County Museum. “There must be dead people in the other ones as well. This was quite an attack.”
The most intuitive explanation for such a massacre would be a major battle or siege. At Eketorp, archaeologists found evidence that one of the fort’s gates was badly burned, and the area outside was littered with arrowheads, strong evidence for a failed attack on the fort. But at Sandby Borg, metal detectorists found nothing outside the fort’s walls, likely ruling out a siege or violent assault. And the human remains the team has found thus far are strangely bare—most of the artifacts found were hidden or buried, apparently before the attack. “There is no dress, such as belt buckles [on the skeletons],” Näsman says. “Were they caught unawares at night? Maybe they were nude or in night dress and taken by surprise.”
The assailants didn’t even take the animals. The team has found skeletons of lambs, pigs, and even a horse inside the fort. “Horses are some of the most popular booty, but they left the horse and pigs and lambs behind,” Victor points out. “It’s not normal behavior.” The animals seem to have been locked in and eventually starved to death. Victor argues that the curious abandonment is a sign that the Sandby Borg massacre was perpetrated by someone on the island. “If somebody had attacked from across the sea, residents of Sandby Borg’s neighboring villages would have come and buried them, or at least nicked their sheep,” she says. “There was a struggle on the island, and this is humiliation beyond death. Killing someone is one thing, but forbidding burial is a real demonstration of power.”
As if the gruesome circumstances of the deaths weren’t enough, two of the bodies were found with sheep or goat teeth in their mouths, a nasty twist on the coins typically deposited to smooth a warrior’s way into the afterlife. “It wasn’t enough to kill them and leave them in their houses,” Victor says. “It’s really, really ugly treatment.” Whatever happened at Sandby Borg seems to have left a lasting scar on the island. Villagers in nearby Gårdby remember being told by their parents not to play near the fort’s ruins, and, according to local legend, the town’s churchyard is haunted by ghosts from Sandby Borg.
With help from the Kalmar County Museum, the 2015 excavation was extended a few more days, long enough to fully excavate House 40. The final body count: eight people, including a child between two and six years old. Added to the remains found in neighboring houses, there are 14 known victims of the attack on Sandby Borg. Victor hopes that what she’s found so far, and future research at the fort, will illuminate not just how they died, but also how they lived. Ultimately, that may be a more lasting contribution than the details of the fort’s final hours. After all, “there’s nothing to compare it to,” Victor says. “There’s no ‘normal’ massacre.”
Andrew Curry is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
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