Archaeologists Baffled Over Preservation of 4000-Year-Old Danish Children’s Graveyard

Children’s skeletons from ancient times are a rare find in Denmark. So ROMU archaeologists were surprised when they recently found five children’s skeletons during an excavation prior to the expansion of a gravel pit at Hedehusene. Every time a burial site is found, the question is raised anew: where have all the children gone?

archaeologists-baffled-over-preservation-of-4000-year-old-danish-childrens-graveyard“We are thrilled with the find,” archaeologist Katrine Ipsen Kjær explains. “It’s rare that we have the opportunity to excavate burial mounds from that time. When we finally get the chance, it’s rare to find preserved skeletons in them. Furthermore, it is extremely rare that the preserved skeletons are of children. The skeletons are a source of immense knowledge that we cannot get from the burial ground alone.” The children’s skeletons were spread over two graves. One was a collective grave from the late Neolithic period (2400 – 1700 BC) and the other a grave with a single individual from the Bronze Age (1700 – 500 BC) The collective grave contained four skeletons of children, three of which were approximately 3-4 years old, while the last child was slightly older. One of the children had received a flint dagger as a burial gift.

archaeologists-baffled-over-preservation-of-4000-year-old-danish-childrens-graveyardThe archaeologists estimate that the four children were ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ around 2000 BC. The child from the single grave was from the Bronze Age, as it was found with a bronze arm ring attached to its head. The closest date archaeologists have so far been able to come up with is 1700-1000 BC. “Right now it seems like it’s a burial site dedicated to children. That’s interesting in itself, a burial ground with such a long time span between individual graves. It seems as if it was known to be a children’s cemetery. It is a mystery why only children are buried here.

archaeologists-baffled-over-preservation-of-4000-year-old-danish-childrens-graveyardHowever, we cannot rule out that adults were also ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ here. For example, we have found a bronze blade at the top of the burial mound, and this is not a typical funerary gift for children.” Katrine Ipsen Kjær explains that it is a known phenomenon that people in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages reused burial mounds. When they had a new deceased, they would open up the burial mound, push aside the old bones and put the body in with the other deceased.
“It is extremely rare to find children in burial mounds. In fact, it is only in graves from the late Middle Ages (1300-1400 AD) that it becomes more common to find children’s graves. Where have all the older children’s graves gone? It’s actually a big mystery. We know that infant mortality was high, so there should be many child graves. As in this case, we archaeologists occasionally find children’s graves, but we don’t find as many as there should be. Were children only rarely ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ? Did they have other burial rituals for children? Did the little bones just disappear over time?”
The remains of the rare children’s skeletons have now been secured by archaeologists. By excavating and documenting the graves, by recording and by taking photographs, the archaeologists have already been able to gather some information.

But an exciting phase awaits, when scientific methods will reveal even more detailed findings about these very old child skeletons. “Firstly, we will 14C-date the skeletons so that we can determine more precisely when the children lived. Sometimes we can determine the date with only 20-30 years of uncertainty, other times the range of uncertainty is 100-200 years. In any case, we are closing in on the actual date,” says Katrine Ipsen Kjær. “Secondly, we hope that there are DNA traces in the bones. This is especially useful for investigating family relationships. Were they perhaps siblings?”

The archaeologist also hopes that the investigations can provide a clue as to how the children ᴅɪᴇᴅ. “Were the four children from the common grave ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ within a short period or over a long period of time? A very short period could indicate an infectious disease,” explains Katrine Ipsen Kjær.“It is rare that bones this old contain DNA. But we very much hope that these ancient bones can give us some answers, because we are very curious.”

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