Alken Enge and the Buried Army
In a dark and murky bog in the damp meadows of Alken, Denmark, archaeologists made a startling discovery – the bodies of what appeared to be an entire army of soldiers dating back some 2,000 years. More than two hundred ancient warrior skeletons were unearthed in 2009, along with a small number of spearheads, shields, clubs, and axes, and scientists have been studying them ever since, trying to piece together their final moments.
The excavation took place in an area close to Jutland's Lake in Denmark, and it was no easy task as the bodies were some two meters below the surface of the thick bog. According to Ejvind Hertz, Curator of Archeology at Skanderborg Museum, the low-oxygen content of the water had delayed decomposition so the bones were still in a well-preserved state.
The human remains, which have been found to belong to males between the ages of roughly 13 and 45, date to a time in which the Roman Empire had extended its northern border some 185 miles south of Alken. This expansion resulted in unrest, skirmishes with Germanic tribes, and increased militarization of local peoples, leading researchers to believe that the men had died in battle and their bodies dumped in the bog. Indeed, their bones revealed traumatic injuries such as slices, cuts, and blows from sword, axes, and other weapons.
Thighbones from the dead warriors (Alken Enge). Credit: Skanderborg Museum
Archaeologists from Skanderborg Museum, Moesgård Museum and Aarhus University have been working to find out who these victims were and what the sequence of events were that led to such a gruesome ending for this army of soldiers. Based on latest findings, some scholars now believe that the bodies of the victims underwent complex post-war rituals before being cast into the bog some 6 months after their deaths.
Several sacrificial sites of a different nature had been observed in nearby areas, leading to the suggestion that ritualistic activity was commonplace in the region at the time. For instance, one site known as Forley Nymolle was believed to be an area of daily rituals in which the inhabitants made offerings of pottery, wooden objects, and various stone collections. Archaeologists and other experts maintain that one of the wooden objects recovered at the site is a goddess figurine, and perhaps may have been the deity that they were making offerings to.
But there were even more clues leading scientists to believe that the Alken Wetlands area was a location for complex sacrificial events. Among the Alken Enge remains, archaeologists found a wooden stick threaded through the pelvic bones of four different men. “Our studies reveal that a violent sequel took place after the fallen warriors had lain on the battlefield for around six months," said Mads Kähler Holst from Aarhus University.
Four pelvic bones on a stick are shown (Alken Enge). Credit: Peter Jensen, Aarhus University
In what the researchers believe formed part of a religious ritual in preparation for offering the remains as a sacrifice, the bodies of the warriors were entirely defleshed, the bones sorted, and in some cases, they were threaded onto sticks. The pile of remains were then tossed into water, along with the remains of slaughtered animals and clay pots that probably contained food sacrifices.
"It seems that this was a holy site for a pagan religion – a sacred grove – where the victorious conclusion of major battles was marked by the ritual presentation and destruction of the bones of the vanquished warriors," said Holst.
The buried army at Alken Enge are not the first set of human remains to have been found in this area. The Illerup River which runs into Lake Mosso is well known for its store of human bones along with other finds such as the world-renowned weapons offering near Fuglsang Forrest.
Archeologists have not been able to determine the nationality of the slaughtered warriors based on the objects found alongside them, as very few weapons were found at the site and radiocarbon dating on those that were found has revealed that they could not have belonged to the buried army. However, according to Hertz, “some DNA has been preserved, so we can get a good profile of what Iron Age man looked like. An anthropological analysis of the bones will provide us with a picture of their diet and their physical appearance”. It is also hoped that the DNA analysis may help to reveal who the soldiers were and where they came from.
Featured image: Skulls are scattered around thighbones and joints in the great mass grave at Alken. Photo: Skanderborg Museum
An entire army sacrificed in a bog – Heritage Daily
The bog army – archaeology.org
An entire army sacrificed in a bog – Science Nordic
Macabre finds in the bog at Alken Enge – Science Codex
Evidence of gruesome ancient ritual unearthed in Denmark – History.com
Corpses at battle of Alken Enge were desecrated – The Dragon’s Tales