Essays, Mortuary Archaeology
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The Gerdrup Grave: Part Mystery Revealed

The man to the left has his knees bent outward. His skull rests at an odd angle. His right hand covers his genitals, his left rests on his thigh. On his chest lies an iron knife. On the right is a woman who has two large boulders on her chest and legs. Her right hand rests on her right thigh, her left hand covers her genitals in a mirror image to the man. A knife and bone-needle case are at her waist. By her right foot is a long iron spearhead, its tip pointing downwards. In between the two deceased are two fragments of sheep bones.1

This is the image of the double burial in Gedrup, Denmark. The grave dates back to the ninth century and was found in the 1980s in the Roskilde fjord. Until now, the theories included ‘a woman and her hanged slave’, ‘a man who had been hanged and a woman who had been stoned to death’, ‘a rape victim and her attacker’. 2 Early on, the grave is linked to the Eyrbyggja Saga, set in Iceland. It is about story of Katla and her son Odd and their fateful end shows remarkable similarities to the burial: they hang Odd and stone Katla death.3 And with a rather shock announcement, the Roskilde Museum revealed this month that DNA-testing confirms that the bodies in the Gerdrup grave are that… of a mother and her son.4

Burial Practices

Stones on the body and iron spearheads are not uncommon in Viking Age burials of either males or females.5 And one scholar zooms in on another interesting fact about the grave: that the female is buried with a weapon by her side. So far, there is no straightforward explanation of why this is. The type of spearhead is not often found in ninth-century graves in Denmark. Furthermore, its position with the tip downward is quite unique.6

As such, the spearhead might represent a kind of burial practice. The spearhead might represent a ritual during the burial or perhaps the woman’s occupation during her lifetime.7 Burial rituals would also explain the hanging and stones in the grave. Leszek Gardeła suggests there was a Viking Age superstition that believed evil spirits could enter a dead body. To prevent the deceased from ever drawing breath again, they were hanged or have stones placed on their lungs.8

References


  1. Douglas Dutton, ‘An Encapsulation of Óðinn.’ Masters Thesis, University of Aberdeen, 2015, pp. 200. https://www.arild–hauge.com/PDF/AnEncapsulationofOdinnReligious_Beli.pdf.
    Leszek Gardeła, ”Warrior–women‘ in Viking Age Scandinavia? A preliminary archaeological study,’ in: Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, Volume 8 (2013), pp. 281 [pp. 273–340]  ↩
  2. Most academic sources. Start with the footnotes and references in Gardeła (2013).  ↩
  3. The Saga of the Ere–Dwellers. Translated by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (1892), Chapter 20. https://sagadb.org/eyrbyggja_saga.en.  ↩
  4. Christian W., ‘DNA testing sheds light on old Viking murder mystery,’ CPH Post Online Published 6 October 2020. Last Accessed 18 October 2020.  ↩
  5. Leszek Gardeła, ‘Buried with Honour and Stoned to Death?The Ambivalence of Viking Age Magicin the Light of Archaeology,’ in: Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, Volume 4 Rzeszo 2009 (2011), pp. 339, 342.  ↩
  6. Gardeła (2013), pp. 284.  ↩
  7. Gardeła (2011), pp. 342.  ↩
  8. Gardeła (2013).  ↩

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