Campus Gotland students unearth Iron Age warrior

10 September 2021

A skeleton lying on it's left side with a sword between his arms and legs.

Lying on his side in a foetal position, the warrior held a sword between his arms, reaching down to his thighs.

Uppsala University archaeology students’ summer excavations on the island of Gotland turned up an exciting surprise: they found a warrior, with sword and spurs, in an Iron Age grave in Buttle Änge. Now the skeleton and grave goods will be analysed to find out more about him.

“The actual objects are exciting. They’re all so well preserved and can serve as clues to understanding Buttle Änge in particular, and Gotland in general,” says Alexander Andreeff Högfeldt, lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Campus Gotland. As teacher and dig supervisor, he was on the spot when the finds came to light.

The site has long interested him. Originally, he was attracted by the two picture stones that stand here. One is almost four metres high, making it the largest extant picture stone in its natural setting in Gotland. There are also building foundations and a burial ground with several stone circles in the area. Two of the stone circles, one larger and one smaller, has now been now excavated.

Skeletons of infants

Silver-embellished spurs were attached to his heel
bones. Photo: Alexander Roesen Sjöstrand

Excavations of the burial ground began two years ago, with meticulous investigation of the smaller stone circle. Then it was time to discover what was hidden in the larger one. This stone circle was constructed with an outer and an inner ring, and is approximately nine metres in diameter. Previously, the skeletons of at least two infants had been found on the outer periphery of the inner ring.

“We’ve dated one of the bones, which turned out to be from about 700 CE, in the Vendel Period (roughly from 550 to 750 CE). This stone circle can be regarded as a separate, miniature burial ground. Between the outer and inner rings, we’ve also found remains of at least one cremation burial,” Andreeff Högfeldt says.

The warrior was found in a grave covered by limestone slabs, 1.5 metres underground, lying in a foetal position. Above his head, a blackware ceramic pot and a container made of organic material had been placed. Two knives and a belt buckle were also buried with him.

Sword of a horseman

The battle accoutrements – a sword of the spatha type, 80 centimetres long, and silver-embellished spurs on the heels – shows that he was a horseman. This type of sword was used in the Germanic lands, the Roman Empire and the subsequent Frankish Empire alike. Based on the grave goods, archaeologists estimate that he lived during the “Roman Iron Age” (a term denoting part of the Iron Age in Scandinavia, Northern Germany and the Netherlands, 0–400 CE).

A very ancient sword found during the excavation.
The sword hilt is made of wood and the blade of iron, while fittings such as the scabbard slide and finial
are of bronze. Photo: Alexander Roesen Sjöstrand

But who was he? Why was he buried exactly here? These are questions that further research will now seek to answer. Archaeologists know that Buttle Änge was inhabited for nearly 2,000 years. The extant building foundations date from the fourth to the sixth centuries CE, and previous digs have shown that the buildings had a variety of functions.

“One is a house, in which we found a large fireplace. In another, which seems to have been used as a ceremonial venue, we found fine ceramics and a Roman silver coin. And in the third building, used as a storehouse, we found large amounts of shards from pots used for storage. We’ve also uncovered loom weights and a spindle whorl, which suggests that textile crafts were practised here,” Andreeff Högfeldt says.

Connection with the site

The buildings were probably erected a couple of centuries after the warrior’s death, so none of them was his home. However, being buried there means that he must have had some connection with the site.

Alexander Andreeff Högfeldt
Alexander Andreeff Högfeldt, lecturer at the
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History.
Photo: Daniel Olsson

“He may have belonged to a clan of free men and women who owned farms and land in the area. This man was probably a warrior, as we see from his sword and spurs, since they’re genuine cavalry equipment. We know that Scandinavians and Germans served in the Roman army as auxiliary troops – but whether this man did, we can’t tell.”

The skeleton and the items have now been taken to Campus Gotland for further scrutiny and dating. At the osteological laboratory, every bone will be investigated. The warrior’s DNA and the composition of certain isotopes in the skeleton will also be analysed. The isotopes may provide an indication of where he grew up and when he died, and also shed light on his diet. It should be possible to see, for instance, whether it consisted mainly of food from the land or sea.