Subscribe to Archaeology

Öland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480

A hastily built refuge—a grisly massacre—a turbulent period in European history

March/April 2016

Sandy Borg Excavations CIS



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.