Egtved Girl Origins Keep Getting More Complicated
The Egtved girl’s remains were found in an oak coffin in a peat bog at a Bronze Age archaeological site near Egtved, Denmark in 1921. Her remains have been dated to 1370 BC, but the story of where she’s from has been a topic of heated debate. Some say Germany, others Denmark, and now one researcher provides three Scandinavian alternatives for the place the famous Bronze Age Egtved girl once called home.
Who Was Egtved Girl?
Calling the individual found in the oak coffin a ‘girl’ is based on a modern interpretation of age. She was most likely considered a woman when the 16 to 18 year old died in the Bronze Age. She apparently held a high social status, was blonde-haired, and had a slim build.
Liz Leafloor describes the Egtved girl’s burial and the impact it had on society when it was discovered:
“The teenager had been laid on an ox hide and covered by a rough woolen blanket. The contours of where her dead body had lain are still visible, pressed into the ox hide beneath her. […] and her clothing—a short string skirt and small, midriff-baring, sleeved top—caused a sensation when revealed in the 20s. Around her waist she had worn a large, spiked bronze disc decorated with spirals. Even now people recreate the stylish Bronze Age fashion.”
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Apart from those artifacts, she was also buried with bronze pins, a sewing awl, a hair net, flowers, and a small bucket of beer that was made of honey, wheat, and cowberries.
Previous Analyses of Egtved Girl’s Remains Provide Different Origin Stories
Most of the research to find the Egtved girl’s homeland has been based on strontium isotope analysis. Strontium is an element that comes from food and water and absorbs into our teeth, bones, and hair. When scientists examine the different isotopes of strontium in human remains they can compare them to known amounts of the element from locations of interest and see which makes the best match – in this case to find the origins of the Egtved girl in Europe.
Let’s follow the research using this method in order: In 2015, Karin Frei, of the National Museum of Denmark and Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, analyzed the girl’s remains with strontium isotope analysis. Through examining the Egtved Girl’s molar, hair, and fingernails, and combining that information with her distinctive woolen clothing, Frei and her team declared that she probably had was born in the Black Forest of South West Germany and traveled frequently via ship between there and Jutland during the last couple of years of her life.
A few years after Frei’s paper was published in the journal Nature, Erik Thomsen and Rasmus Andreasen of Aarhus University stated that the earlier study probably used tainted strontium isotope samples. They believe the Bronze Age samples had been contaminated by modern agricultural lime, skewing the results. Thomsen and Andreasen state that Egtved girl came from Jutland, probably right near Egtved Village, where she died.
Now, Sophie Bergerbrant, of the University of Gothenburg, has provided another option for Egtved girl’s birthplace. Her research, which has also used strontium isotope results combined with archaeological material, suggests that Egtved girl comes from Scandinavia, but not from Jutland. She concludes that Egtved girl “was probably from the island Bornholm, from south-eastern Sweden or from Rogaland, in southwestern Norway.”
Grave of the woman found in Egtved, Denmark, known as the Egtved girl. (National Museum of Denmark)
Bergerbrant argues that neither of the previous research teams have looked at the whole picture. Beginning with the question of the strontium isotope analysis, she states, “the Nordic Bronze Age is much bigger than Denmark. Parts of present-day northern Germany, southern Sweden and southern Norway also belonged to this sphere. A large variety of strontium isotope values can be found in the ground in different parts of Scandinavia.” She asserts that Egtved girl had only been living in the Vejle area for a short period before her death.
This widens the search area for Egtved girl’s origins considerably. From there, Bergerbrant explores the clothing and grave goods found in the burial. She believes the corded skirt probably came from eastern Denmark or Scania (in the southern part of Sweden).
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The Egtved girl’s clothing. (National Museum of Denmark)
Her belt-plate on the other hand has a spiral pattern which the researcher says, “is only found in other spiral decoration known from south-eastern Sweden and Rogaland, Norway.” Bornholm is mentioned in the report in relation to its “broader strontium baseline values.”
Drawing showing the design on a part of the belt-plate. (Richard Potter)
In her report Bergerbrant stresses the importance of using archaeological material and knowledge alongside other scientific analyses. She is right to remind us that both modern technological advances and the longstanding research methods such as comparison of designs found in textiles or metalwork and are both vital to understanding life in the distant past.
Top Image: The Egtved girl. Source: Robert Fortuna/National Museum of Denmark