Historical knowledge

About the Project

The Bronze Age, often referred as “The First Golden Age of Europe” was a period of technical innovation, social transformation and transmission of knowledge highly stimulated by long distance connections. The Nordic Bronze Age (1.700 – 500 BC) has left us with clear and easily recognizable cultural remains in the everyday landscape including the numerous burial mounds, votive depositions and rock carvings. In addition to these impressive cultural remnants, Denmark also possesses a unique collection of exceptionally well-preserved human remains: the well-known oak-coffin people. These individuals (both male and female) represent the elite of a crucial prehistoric period during which today’s society started to take shape. Due to its importance, the Bronze Age has been extensively investigated. However, there are still many key questions that remain unanswered. Some of those questions center around long-distance exchange and degrees of ancient mobility as integral themes to creating an understanding of Bronze Age society. While the presence of exotic artifacts across Northern Europe indicate extensive connections with distant areas, scholars do not know whether those exotic objects were been traded from neighboring chiefdom to neighboring chiefdom (low mobility) or whether they were transported by individuals who traced long trajectories  across the continent (high mobility). This essential research question has recently been brought into the limelight by our cross-disciplinary investigations of the Egtved Girl which provided the first evidence of the long distance mobility of a single individual.

Mobility in the Bronze Age

Until now, prehistoric human mobility of single individuals has been investigated most successfully via the strontium isotope analysis  (87Sr/86Sr) of tooth enamel and sometimes bone. These human tissues reveal a geographical origin based on an individual’s average diet consumption over several years. Consequently, these tissues provide a signature of long-term mobility. We have further developed the method so that it may now be applied to hair and nail tissues. These new developments provide the unique possibility of investigating short term human mobility on a monthly basis for the first time. Hence, in a single step, the detailed level in which we can study past human mobility has moved from the average of several years’ worth of information to a month-by-month resolution. As a result, we are now able to identify short-and long-term mobility for the same individual, thereby furnishing a life-long record of mobility in which it is possible to identify complex travel schedules, such as was the case with the Egtved Girl.

Status/role

A natural follow on from the scientific novelty proven by the Egtved Girl case study, are the many new questions which arose about the scale of social systems and the nature of long-distance contacts and travels as well as about the potential autonomy and power that Bronze Age Women might have had. In other words, our study of the Egtved Girl provided new evidence which we can use to deepen our investigations of women within the socio-economic and socio-political systems of the Bronze Age.

Female Identity

In addition to the mobility and connections with remote areas mentioned above, the Bronze Age is also characterized by the emergence of a common expression of identity. The feeling and expression of identity in single individuals is an important part of how we understand society today. It was in this dynamic period of European prehistory that people began to differentiate themselves in new ways, emphasizing new kinds of individuality, resulting in the emergence of a novel perception of identity during this period (Stig Sørensen, 2013). These changes most likely occurred as gradual transformations of social relations which unfolded as a result of the alterations in social organization as a part of long-distance exchange networks. This aspect of individual identity has often been identified and investigated by the composition and provenance of the grave goods (Stig Sørensen, 2013). In the Nordic Bronze Age, a clear distinction emerged at c. 1.400 BC as indicated by the grave goods in female graves. It is this new kind of emergent identity which is the subject of the current investigation.

The Oak Coffin-burials

Through scientific investigations of human remains from the unique collection of Danish oak-coffin graves, the project will study the provenance and identity stories of women and the particular roles they played in Bronze Age society.

Of particular interest are two female oak-coffin graves: the Skrydstrup Woman and the Borum Eshøj Woman. These exceptionally well-preserved female finds are contemporary with the Egtved Girl, and, thus, provide an exceptional opportunity to verify if the highly dynamic life of the Egtved Girl was an exceptional case of high mobility or if other women from the same period and with same social status also led such dynamic lives.

These questions will be examined through state-of-the-art archaeometric methods, including radiogenic isotope analyses (87Sr/86Sr), stable isotope analyses (δ13C and δ15N), microscopic forensic investigations, aDNA analyses and contextual archaeological studies. When combined, these methods open a unique window to understand:

a)      The degree to which  elite Bronze Age Women were mobile

b)      How they were perceived in Bronze Age society

c)      The role(s) they played in long-distance trade networks

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