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Findings: Bronze Age man travelled Europe

Science of textiles surprises archaeoology: A Bronze Age dead man’s remains may have travelled the length of Europe

Ancient scraps of fabric found in a Bronze Age burial mound in Denmark are not made of local cultivated flax as once believed.

Instead they are woven from imported wild nettles, suggesting that the grave’s inhabitant may have traveled far for burial, reports LiveScience, citing the University of Copenhagen archaeologist Ulla Mannering. She is from the Danish National Research Foundation’s Center for Textile Research (CTR) and works for the Danish National Museum.

Proof of the non-Danish provenance of the nettle is based on the application of a new tracing method using strontium isotopes developed by another researcher of CTR, Karin Margarita Frei.

Ulla Mannering elaborates the new findings to the University Post and points to a fascinating hypothesis: The dead man’s remains, which the textiles were found with, were taken all the way up from what is now Austria in Central Europe. The archaeologist confirms to the University Post that other not-yet published findings support the idea that the remains, and not just the fabric, was transported from afar.

See our photo gallery of the fibres, the urn and the mound, where they were found, here.

Wrapped around remains

Her discovery, announced in the journal Scientific Reports, sheds new light on trade, and in a wider sense the size and strength of social networks in Bronze Age Europe.

The fabric was originally found in the 19th century in the Lusehøj burial ground on the island of Fyn, and dates back to between 940 B.C. and 750 B.C., making it about 2,800 years old. The Bronze Age ran from about 3200 B.C. to 600 B.C. in Europe.

The fabric was bundled around cremated remains of a person, a man or a woman, in a bronze urn.

Nettles from Austria

It was a luxurious piece of material, Mannering says.

»The fibers we get from the European nettle are very, very fine and soft and shiny, and we often say this is a sort of prehistoric silk textile,« she says.

The Danish fabric was originally thought to be from a local plant, flax. But along with nanophysicist Bodil Holst of the University of Bergen in Norway, Mannering and her colleagues studied the fibre orientation and the presence of certain crystals. The fabric turned out to be not flax at all, but a variation of nettle. The big surprise came when Karin Margarita Frei was able to show with her strontium isotope results that the nettles had not grown in territorial Denmark, but likely originated from southwest Austria.

Not just goods, people

Personal objects in the grave, such as two razors, point to the person (we call him a ‘he’) being a Scandinavian.

»Maybe he died in Austria and was wrapped in this Austrian urn and Austrian textile and was brought back to Denmark in this condition and then put in a big burial mound,« Mannering says.

The implication is that not only were luxury goods traded throughout Europe at this time, something that can happen through an interlinked chain of otherwise isolated traders, but that there was a social network enabling a wider traffic in people.

Dignity of the dead

»Bronze Age society was an agricultural society, with a basic economy. But at the same time there are materials that come from very far away. This is due to exchange systems criss-crossing Europe over many thousands of kilometres,« she says.

The nettle-textile find in the urn points to an even more extensive network.

»It implies social relations over long distances, a longer range of contacts, and a wide ranging belief in the dignity of the dead. This transport could not take place without these societies being intricately connected,« she says.

Mounds were big team effort

The textiles were originally found in the 19th century in connection with the first excavation of the mound. It is one of the largest of the many Bronze Age mounds that litter the Danish landscape.

The local, agricultural nature of Bronze Age inhabitants did not preclude them from building large structures, Ulla Mannering says:

»The mounds involved the stripping of turf that corresponds to 9 soccer fields. These small hamlets could not have done it without a good deal of voluntary work and an idea of community«.

See our photo gallery of the fibres, the urn and the mound, where they were found, here.

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