Dozens of Iron Age corpses unearthed at eerie Swedish walled fort

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Dozens of Iron Age corpses unearthed at eerie Swedish walled fort

About 1,500 years ago, perhaps about 450 CE, Unknown raiders stormed the small, prosperous village of Sandby borg on the shore of Öland island, and slaughtered the inhabitants, leaving the bodies where they fell.

Archaeologists in Sweden have now discovered the grisly mystery. While excavating less than 7% of the site, the research team, led by archaeologists Clara Alfsdotter, Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay, and Helena Victor, has discovered the remains of at least 26 bodies.

One teenager appears to have tried to flee but tripped over another body and died where he fell (pictured). No written history survived of the massacre but there were stories locally that it was a a dangerous place

It does not appear much now, with only a grassy green mound surrounded by an oval of rock, but it was once a thriving community.

The village was inside a ringfort not far from the shoreline, containing 50 or so homes circled by walls that stood 4 to 5 metres (13 to 16 feet) high. Around 200 to 250 people would have lived there.

At the time, the European Migration Period was underway, and it was an unstable, tumultuous time; but who killed the villagers and why remains a mystery nonetheless.

The dig team has only excavated three of the homes – but what they have found is deeply moving.

None of the dead bodies – some of which were decapitated – were carrying weapons. One old man seemed to have been smashed in the head and then fell into the fire place where his body was charred to the bone. Pictured is ‘house 4’ being excavated

The bodies exhibit signs of blunt force trauma or supine positions that indicate they died suddenly or were unconscious prior to death.

The remains of a five-year-old child and an infant just a few months old were also found, and two skeletons were partially charred – in a manner that indicates that the soft tissue was still present. Possibly they fell into fires, or a fire was started – either accidentally or on purpose.


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One skeleton (pictured at the top of this article), of an adolescent no older than 15, had its feet resting on the abdomen of another skeleton, as though the young person had tripped, or fallen backwards over another body, never to get up again.

Bodies were also found in the streets, along with the remains of dogs and livestock, which could have starved to death, or also been killed in the attack. One house contained nine sets of human remains.

Five gilded brooches were found at the site. They were probably part of aristocratic women’s jewellery sets and are decorated in spiral ornamentations

Historically, the people of the area cremated their dead. It all points to absolute carnage.

“You don’t find people lying around in houses,” Victor told the BBC. “[People] don’t do it today, and didn’t do it then.”

Even more curious: the site is abundant with treasure. Gold coins, glass beads, gilded brooches, rings and silver pendants of high quality were found scattered. Everything except weapons.

Whoever sacked the Sandby borg village didn’t loot the site – except, perhaps, for potential weapons, which may have been taken as a trophy or tribute to the gods. It’s unknown whether the residents defended themselves – but it seems like they didn’t, the researchers said.

Only three out of 53 houses have been excavated and researchers believe there are many more human remains to be discovered. Pictured is a plan of the site

“Damage resembling common battle injuries, such as parry fractures or facial trauma, both typically produced when facing an opponent, has so far not been identified,” they wrote in their paper.

“This pattern leads us to conclude that the perpetrators comprised a large number of people, striking simultaneously in several houses, and that several of the victims were not in a position to defend themselves.”

Although the island at the time was populated by around 15 other ringfort villages, no one ever visited the site to loot the homes or inter the bodies.

Swedish walled fort
Snadby borg prior to the excavations.

They remained where they fell, the village abandoned until the roofs collapsed and the macabre scene was buried by time.

Even to this day, whispers remain, although there’s no record, either written or oral, of the massacre. Local people, the researchers said, warned them to stay away from the site, vaguely inferring it was dangerous.

“I do find it most likely that the event was remembered and that it triggered strong taboos connected to the site, possibly brought on through oral history for centuries,” Papmehl-Dufay said.


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The local Kalmar County Museum is featuring an exhibition of the excavation, and work on the site continues.

A paper detailing the team’s work so far can be read in the journal Antiquity.


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