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Denmark's iconic Bronze Age Egtved girl was from Germany

She is a Danish national icon. Now a new strontium isotope method proves that the Bronze Age Egtved girl was actually from the Black Forest in the south of Germany. To the University Post, researcher says it is the first time that we can accurately track a prehistoric person’s movements

The Danish Bronze Age Egtved Girl from 1370 BCE, was not from Egtved in Jutland, Denmark. She was most probably from the southern part of Germany, according to new research from the National Museum of Denmark and University of Copenhagen. The results have just been published in the online journal Scientific Reports from Nature and reviewed in Science.

It is the first time that researchers have been able to so accurately track a prehistoric person’s movements.

Strontium isotope analyses of the girl’s hair, teeth and nails show that she was born and raised hundreds of kilometres away from Egtved, and that she arrived in Egtved shortly before she died. The strontium isotope analyses of the girl’s teeth, hair and a thumb nail also show that she travelled great distances the last two years of her life.

The wool from the Egtved Girl’s clothing, the blanket she was covered with, and the oxhide she was laid to rest on in the oak coffin all originate far from present-day Denmark, reports ku.dk. The combination of different analysis methods indicates that the Egtved Girl, her clothing, and the oxhide come from Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) in South West Germany – as do the cremated remains of a six-year-old child who was buried with the Egtved Girl. The girl’s coffin dates the burial to a summer day in the year 1370 BCE.

Dr. Karin M. Frei (left) and Conservator Irene Skals taking a wool sample from the Egtved Girl’s outfit

Strontium shows where you have been

It is senior researcher, PhD, Karin M. Frei, from the National Museum of Denmark and Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, who has analysed the Egtved Girl’s strontium isotope signature. Karin M. Frei, who is a geologist, explains the method to the University Post:

“Rocks of different ages and types have a specific strontium isotope signature. As they are eroded they go into the soil, and ultimately end up in the food chain. Wherever you eat or drink, you thereby incorporate a geological signature,” she explains to the University Post.

“Because the body develops according to different rates, strontium isotope analysis allows you to take a snapshot of say your childhood and adulthood”.

According to Karin Frei it is the “first time that this so-to-say high-resolution mobility tracer has been used to map the mobility of a prehistoric individual. While analysis of a person’s DNA will tell you about a person’s genetical provenance, strontium will tell you where a person has been at different periods of their lives.”

Tooth was formed in older geological area

The Egtved Girl’s remains were first discovered outside Egtved in 1921. She was aged 16–18, was 160 cm tall and had shoulder-long blond hair a bit like the photo above. She was discovered together with the cremated remains of a child. Only the girl’s hair, brain, teeth, nails and a little skin remain preserved.

Strontium is an element which exists in the earth’s crust, but its prevalence is subject to geological variation. Humans, animals, and plants absorb strontium through water and food. According to ku.dk, the strontium isotopic signatures in archaeological remains can serve as a kind of ‘GPS for scientists.’

“I have analysed the strontium isotopic signatures of the enamel from one of the Egtved Girl’s first molars, which was fully formed when she was three or four years old, and the analysis tells us that she was born and lived her first years in a region that is geologically older than and different from the peninsula of Jutland in Denmark,” Frei says on ku.dk.

Karin M. Frei with the Egtved Girl’s tooth, just before she took a sample for analysis

Came back to Denmark, and died

The last two years of the Egtved Girl’s life have been reconstructed by examining the strontium signature in the girl’s hair. She was on a long journey shortly before she died.

“If we consider the last two years of the girl’s life, we can see that, 13 to 15 months before her death, she stayed in a place with a strontium isotope signature very similar to the one that characterizes the area where she was born. Then she moved to an area that may well have been Jutland. After a period of approximately 9 to 10 months there, she went back to the region she originally came from and stayed there for four to six months before she travelled to her final resting place, Egtved. Neither her hair nor her thumb nail contains a strontium isotopic signature which indicates that she returned to Scandinavia until very shortly before she died. As an area’s strontium isotopic signature is only detectable in human hair and nails after a month, she must have come to ‘Denmark’ and ‘Egtved’ about a month before she passed away,” Karin Margarita Frei explains.

Neither Denmark, Egtved nor Germany were of course defined entities in this time period. The Black Forest is located 800 kilometres south of Egtved.

Two dominant powers

The Egtved Girl’s strontium isotope signature could, actually, have indicated that she came from Sweden, Norway or Western or Southern Europe. She could also come from the island Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. But Frei’s combination of the girl’s strontium isotopic signature with that of her clothing pinpoint the girl’s origin quite accurately, according to ku.dk.

“The wool that her clothing was made from did not come from Denmark and the strontium isotope values vary greatly from wool thread to wool thread. This proves that the wool was made from sheep that either grazed in different geographical areas or that they grazed in one vast area with very complex geology, and the Black Forest’s bedrock is characterized by a similarly heterogeneous strontium isotopic range,” Karin Margarita Frei says.

That the Egtved Girl in all probability came from the Black Forest region in Germany is no surprise to professor Kristian Kristiansen from the University of Gothenburg. Archaeology confirms the relations between the regions of Denmark and Southern Germany in the Bronze Age, he says on ku.dk.

“In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms. We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and my guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families,” Kristian Kristiansen says.

Egtved Girl’s grave as displayed in the National Museum of Denmark

Alliance of marriages

Denmark was rich in amber and traded amber for bronze. In Mycenaean Greece and in the Middle East, Baltic amber was as coveted as gold, and, through middlemen in Southern Germany, large quantities of amber were transported to the Mediterranean, and large quantities of bronze came to Denmark as payment.

In the Bronze Age, bronze was just as valuable a raw material as oil is today, so Denmark became one of the richest areas of Northern Europe.

“Amber was the engine of the Bronze Age economy, and in order to keep the trade routes going, powerful families would forge alliances by giving their daughters in marriage to each other and letting their sons be raised by each other as a kind of security,” Kristian Kristiansen says.

Will now analyse other remains

To the University Post Karin M. Frei sums up the archaeological consensus on who the Egtved Girl may have been:

“She was certainly high status, and may have been involved in a diplomatic and political activity between two centres of power in this time period, namely what we now know as Denmark and southern Germany. Apart from that we don’t know anything about how she died. We have no bones, only clothes a little bit of brain, a part of a tooth, nails and hair.”

A number of Danish Bronze Age graves contain human remains that are as well-preserved as those found the Egtved Girl’s grave. Karin M. Frei and Kristian Kristiansen now plan to also examine these remains with a view to analysing their strontium isotope signatures.

miy@adm.ku.dk

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