In a Danish laboratory, a team of archaeologists are studying a set of ancient remains. They’re all that’s left of the Egtved Girl, a teenager who died 3,500 years ago. Using the latest technology, the researchers are finally able to paint a picture of the young woman’s extraordinary life – and the results are fascinating.
Although much about the lives of ancient humans remains a mystery to us, archaeologists are forever finding ways to shine a light on the past. Whether they are excavating ancient settlements or putting forward new theories about forgotten civilizations, they are constantly looking to better understand where we came from.
But every so often, an archeological find comes along that transforms our understanding of the ancient world. And some of the best examples of these are well-preserved bodies, often discovered in peat mires and other acidic environments. Thanks to these, researchers have been able to enjoy invaluable glimpses into how people lived and worked thousands of years ago.
In 1921 archaeologists working near the village of Egtved in southern Denmark stumbled across just such an incredible find. In an ancient burial mound 13 feet deep by almost 100 feet wide they discovered a coffin crafted from the trunk of a tree. And when they took it to Copenhagen’s National Museum of Denmark for further study, they found something incredible inside.
Amazingly, the coffin contained the preserved remains of a woman, thought to have died around 1370 BC. Somewhere between 16 and 18 years of age, she was approximately 5’ 3 tall and of slim build. What’s more, the teenager’s blonde hair was cut in a short style, and it was clear that her nails had been neatly trimmed.
Although the body, dubbed the Egtved Girl, was not entirely preserved, her brain, hair, teeth and nails remained, along with a portion of her skin. However, at the time of her discovery, it was the young woman’s clothing that caused the biggest stir. In fact, it is now recognized as being the finest example of a popular Bronze Age style.
Bizarrely, the girl was clad in an outfit that wouldn’t look out of place even today. Consisting of a loose blouse and a short skirt, it was accessorized with a woolen belt featuring a bronze plate and bracelets made from bronze. And beside her head, archaeologists discovered a wooden box containing a hair net, bronze pins and an awl.
Following her death, the girl had been wrapped in a blanket and the hide of a cow before being placed in the coffin alongside some blooming yarrow flowers – evidence that she was buried during the summer. Additionally, archaeologists also discovered an offering of beer inside the coffin, brewed with wheat, bog-myrtle, cowberries and honey.
Perhaps strangest of all, however, was what researchers found in a small container next to the girl’s head. Inside, they discovered the cremated remains of a child, thought to be between five and six years of age. But although they have been unable to determine what relationship – if any – the youngster might have had with the Egtved Girl, they have discovered a surprising amount about the young woman herself over the years.
Apparently, the preservation of the girl’s body occurred thanks to the soil in which it was buried. Acidic and peaty, the soil gradually formed a delicate coating of iron on the surface of the coffin. Through this, water was able to seep in but not out again, creating waterlogged conditions ideal for keeping things like hair and clothing intact.
For many years, the Egtved Girl enjoyed something of a celebrity status in Denmark. Appearing on the school curriculum, she came to play a significant part in the country’s historical identity. However, a new study completed almost 100 years after she was first discovered has revealed that Denmark’s sweetheart was actually a surprisingly international young woman.
According to a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports in May 2015, the Egtved Girl was actually born around 500 miles away, in a part of what is now Germany. Moreover, it’s thought that she traveled widely while she was alive, a revelation that challenges our understanding of how ancient people lived.
In a 2015 interview with National Geographic, the paper’s lead author, archaeologist Karin Frei from the National Museum of Denmark, explained, “We have a perception of ourselves today as very developed people, like globalization is new. But the more we look in prehistory, we can see we’re already global.”
In the study, researchers examined the Egtved Girl’s remains for traces of an element known as strontium. Apparently, strontium occurs at different concentrations around the world. And interestingly, these varying levels are reflected in local water supplies – and, in turn, in the tissue of the humans who drink from them.
So, by studying levels of strontium in human remains, researchers can determine where in the world the person lived while they were alive. And with the Egtved Girl, they discovered that she was surprisingly well-traveled. In fact, it was through strontium deposits in the young girl’s teeth that the analysts were able to pinpoint her birthplace as Germany.
According to the study, researchers believe that the girl originated from the country’s Black Forest, as fibers from her clothing could be traced to that region. And, by looking at strontium levels in her hair as well as a thumbnail, they were able to determine that she had made a number of journeys between Germany and Denmark before her death.
But what reasons could a teenager have had for traveling so far, so long ago? Well, according to Frei, the girl might have been married off in an attempt to form a partnership with foreign powers. In fact, her death came at a time when many chiefdoms were attempting to expand their influence, so this explanation makes a lot of sense.
However, Bronze Age expert Jonathan Last has pointed out that no solid evidence exists to support the idea of an arranged marriage for the Egtved Girl. Instead, in an interview with National Geographic, he suggested an alternative theory. “I wonder if evidence for back-and-forth movement implies this woman had rather more autonomy?” he said.
Interestingly, another specialist from the National Museum of Denmark noted that the Bronze Age sometimes saw Scandinavian women wielding surprising amounts of power and influence – particularly in the absence of a male heir. “It’s possible that the women of the northern Bronze Age were able to make negotiations and establish friendships by themselves,” Flemming Kaul explained, “and not necessarily through marriage connections.”
Currently, it’s impossible for experts to determine exactly what the reasoning was behind the Egtved Girl’s extended travels. However, it’s hoped that further study might lead to even more revelations about the cosmopolitan young woman. “Somehow she gets more and more mysterious,” mused Frei. “She was found long ago, and still has so much more to tell us.”