Helena Victor

Frozen in Time - histories of life and moments of death at Sandby borg

The project deals with the Iron Age ring-fort of Sandby borg on Öland where previous investigations suggest a violent massacre in the late 5th century AD. The victims were not buried, but were left lying where they fell. This has created a very unusual archaeological material providing a unique insight into the life histories and death of individuals, as well as people s social organization and material culture during the middle Iron Age.
The first part of the project consists of archaeological excavation and artefact research together with various laboratory analyzes. We focus on the life history of individuals and artefacts as well as the individual event, using among other things forensic methodology combined with 3D photography. Detailed osteological analyzes and studies of stable isotopes and DNA are used to provide as detailed a picture as possible of the people in the fort and their fate.
The second part of the project concerns the role of Sandby borg in contemporary society and how the history of the fort can be conveyed in an ethical way. Focus is on the making of meaning and the communication of "difficult heritage", traces of traumatic events that can be difficult to understand and reconcile with.
The project is a collaboration between Dept. of Museum Archaeology /Kalmar County Museum, Linnaeus University and Stockholm University.
Final report
The project deals with the ringfort of Sandby borg on Öland where the inhabitants were massacred around 500 AD. The victims were not buried but were left where they fell. The frozen moment provides a unique insight into the lives and deaths of individuals as well as the social organization and material culture during the Iron Age.

The project was carried out as a collaboration between Kalmar County Museum (KLM), Stockholm University (SU) and Linnaeus University (LNU) and was divided into two parts. SP1 has included archaeological excavations and analysis of finds to study the life and death of the victims at an individual level using archaeological, osteological, forensic and molecular analyzes. SP2 has investigated the role of Sandby borg in present society and how the history of the ringfort can be communicated in an ethical way. The focus is on meaning creation and communication of “difficult heritage”. The project has not undergone any major changes in relation to the application. Three doctoral students (financed by other funding) and several spin-off projects have been added (see below).

Victor and Papmehl-Dufay (KLM) have directed two archaeological excavations in the ringfort, House 4 in 2016 and House 52 in 2017. Osteological analyzes have been performed on individuals found during these excavations as well as from previous years. Kjellström has been working with doctoral student Clara Alfsdotter (LNU), studying trauma on the human remains. At SU, analyzes of stable carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes have been performed on bones and teeth from humans, animals and on charred cereal grains. The analyzes were conducted by G. Eriksson together with master's students. For the skeletons, the degree of preservation is about 50% meaning that not all individuals or samples have produced results. Carbon and nitrogen isotope data are available from 15 human individuals with a total of 35 samples (55% of planned 64 samples). For 11 of these, there are data from multiple points in life that indicate small to moderate changes. A total of 10 samples from 8 individuals were analyzed for sulfur isotopes. In addition, sequence data on 18 teeth from 13 individuals were analyzed for strontium isotopes. The fauna material was poorly preserved. In the carbon and nitrogen isotope analyzes, only 21 of 57 samples (37%) yielded reliable results; of these, 6 could also be analyzed for sulfur isotopes. In addition to the fauna material, charred cereal grains from different contexts have been analyzed for stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes. The isotope analyzes played an important role in the selection of samples for 14C dating.

Petersson and Jonsson Malm have, together with doctoral student Gustav Wollentz, worked with focus groups (FG) within 1) education, 2) creative/artistic activities and 3) entrepreneurship. Jonsson Malm and Petersson conducted interviews and participant observations (Jonsson Malm et al manuscript).

Osteological and isotope analyzes
So far, about 30 individuals have been found, of which about 10 are more or less complete. All age groups are represented and some 34% are children, corresponding to a normal demographic sample and indicating that the entire ringfort population was attacked. The results of the osteological analyzes show a pattern of trauma reflecting an "effective" violence situation with minimal but deadly violence (Alfsdotter & Kjellström 2018). The bodies do not appear to have been manipulated after death and their position as well as the archaeological context indicate that the perpetrators were numerous and that the attack was well organized. In relation to the prevailing violence and conflict discourse during a time of crisis on Öland, the attack can be seen as a demonstration of power with the aim of intimidating and controlling the site. The results of the DNA analysis show that this is a genetically homogeneous population with a probable south-Scandinavian affinity (Rodríguez Varela et al., In prep). The fact that the bodies remained untouched enabled unique observations of physical degradation never seen before (Alfsdotter & Kjellström, in print), revising previous theories of degradation patterns and handling of bodies in archeology. The osteological results have also highlighted physical and psychosocial factors related to acts of violence at both individual and population levels.

Despite poor preservation of human and faunal skeletal remains, stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis demonstrate that diet was relatively homogenous within the population, with limited to moderate changes during the life course. Together with analysis of carbonized cereals, results indicate that livestock and manured crops dominated the diet, supplemented by marine resources and possibly freshwater fish. Sulphur and strontium isotope analysis indicate that the victims were of both local and non-local origin, and in many cases exercised mobility outside Öland during their life course. Notably, several children have traveled to or from Öland during their first years in life.

A total of 29 14C dates have been performed on 8 human skeletons, 5 animal bones, 13 cereals and 3 hearths outside the ringfort. Based on dietary analyzes, 14C dating and modeling, we have been able to determine the date of the massacre to approx. 500-540 AD.

Excavations at Sandby borg
In House 4, Sweden's oldest glass workshop was found with evidence for glass bead production and precious metal working. About 10 human individuals were found in the house and on the street outside it, as well several animals that were probably left in the ringfort after the massacre. Two phases could be distinguished, one during the massacre and another some 100 years later when seemingly the ringfort was subjected to acts of demolition, possibly as a result of the traumatic event (Papmehl-Dufay & Victor 2019).
In House 52, a hall was found with finds including a gold hoard, Roman glass and the body of an elderly man (possibly a chief) who was killed in front of the high seat. This Modus Operandi indicates a strong break of the “Hall peace” norm, described in the Old Norse sagas. The social norms surrounding e.g. warfare during the late Iron Age were thus already in place during the mid-Iron Age. This indicates an internal conflict within Öland during a period characterized by major changes, the so-called Migration period crisis (Victor manuscript).

Difficult heritage?
SP2 shows how a distant event such as an Iron Age massacre evokes questions and thoughts, feelings of discomfort and creates a much stronger link between past and present than is the case when archaeologists alone explore the phenomenon (cf. Wollentz 2017, 2018). What is difficult heritage and who it affects depends on the context. The distinction between past and present is much stronger in the internal academic discourse than for people in general. Artists' reactions clearly illustrate this, as did the final conference in May 2019, where researchers from various disciplines discussed whether or not Sandby borg is a difficult heritage. Humanistic researchers tend to consider this as difficult heritage, while those from natural sciences do not (Jonsson Malm et al manuscript). Questions have been raised about how monuments and traumatic events have served as memory functions for creation of history and how communication using new technology can facilitate understanding of nonverbal and emotion-related aspects. Another issue is how archaeologists and heritage workers can handle difficult heritage in management and mediation.

The fact that the massacre has taken place during the so-called Migration period crisis leads to questions whether the finds at Sandby borg represent a unique event, or if this could be expected at other sites as well. Other questions concern the nature of social networks in the Baltic Sea area. The children's travel and their role in social networks have been highlighted. The finds indicate contacts with northern Poland and the Baltic States. Another issue is how a society adapt to new conditions after a crisis. These questions have led to the formulation of a new research program currently awaiting funding.

Until March 2020, 11 articles have been produced or published in academic peer-review journals (Open Access), in most cases authored by several project participants, 4 reports and 4 in contexts of popular science. In addition, 28 presentations have been made at national and international conferences, as well as 110 for the general public in various contexts, both via social media and lectures.

A final conference "Sandby borg – New perspectives for Iron Age archeology in the Baltic region" was held in May 2019 with approximately 95 participants from 6 countries, with two days of presentations by project participants and invited speakers. One aim was to have the project (both SP1 and SP2) reviewed by external researchers, which was well achieved. We received a lot of feedback and support. Another aim was to establish new contacts and form networks, which was also achieved. Planning for several future projects was initiated after the conference, and an application for a major research program on the Öland ringforts has recently been submitted to RJ.

SP1:Two doctoral students have presented their licentiate theses (Alfsdotter 2018; Gunnarsson 2018), both of which concern Sandby borg. Alfsdotter has, partly together with Kjellström, analyzed the human remains concerning e.g. trauma and decay (2018). Gunnarsson has worked with new types of narrative and visualization of the past with Sandby borg as a case study (2018; Gunnarsson et al 2018). This work got a spin off in the RJ-funded project: Sandby borg - a virtual link (COM16-1352:1).

SP2 held a seminar: Memories of Violence and Oppression in May 2017 with invited international speakers. A dissertation has been published by Wollentz (2018) with Sandby borg as a case study for difficult heritage.
Grant administrator
Kalmar läns museum
Reference number
SEK 5,110,000
RJ Projects