Norwegian archaeology find of the year: A 4,000-year-old grave with skeletons
The grave is approximately as old as the pyramids and contained remains of at least five people.
People have lived in Seljesanden in Western Norway for at least 4,000 years.
One of them was a one-year-old child. Another, presumably a man, lived to around 65 years old and had arthritis. A third was a young woman.
We know about these people because archaeologists found their grave in September this year. It was a so-called gallery grave from the Neolithic Age, something that has never been found in Western Norway before. It contained skeletal remains of at least five individuals, possibly many more.
“This is one of the most significant finds we’ve made in the post-war era,” Morten Ramstad, head of section at the University Museum of Bergen, said in a press release (link in Norwegian).
"We are completely beside ourselves with excitement over the discovery of the gallery grave,” Trond Eilev Linge, the excavation project leader, told Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende (link in Norwegian).
An archaeological vote
200 archaeologists recently gathered for a conference in Bergen. The Norwegian Archaeology Meeting is the ‘major event of the year for Archaeology-Norway’, according to its own website, and has been held since 1927.
But it was only last year that they thought of voting on the find of the year.
The archaeologists themselves nominate what they believe to be the find of the year.
Last year’s winner was Håkon and the falcon, a carved knife handle possibly depicting King Håkon Håkonsson with a falcon on his arm, found during excavations of the Middieval Park in Norway’s capital Oslo.
This year, three nominations were considered.
A large Iron Age courtyard site in Harstad, Northern Norway (link in Norwegian) and the temple at Hov were nominated. The latter has been known for a long time, but it was only this year that archaeologists had the opportunity to properly examine it.
Then there was the winner, which won by a clear majority, according to Ingar Mørkestøl Gundersen, head of the archaeologist meeting.
“This is a very rare find in Norwegian archaeology that will be important for future research. There are great opportunities for further analyses here. We hope to perform DNA and isotope analyses, and learn more about these individuals and their life stories.”
In 2016, Selje Hotel burned down. The hotel manager was convicted of arson the following year. A new hotel needed to be built, but first the owners were required to conduct archaeological investigations.
It was expected that there might be something there, but no one thought that the archaeologists would find something as special as this.
The grave they found is dated to between 2140 and 2000 BC, based on radiocarbon dating of a cow skull fragment.
Gallery graves of a similar kind, dating back to the same era, have been found in Southern Scandinavia and Eastern Norway. They were common in the latter part of the Neolithic – 4,000 years ago – when people transitioned to agriculture.
Konrad Smiarowski, a researcher at the University Museum of Bergen’s Section for Cultural Heritage Management. He led the excavation of the gallery grave together with Howell Roberts, also from the University Museum in Bergen.
“I don't think we fully realised how special this find was when we excavated it. But as details emerged and we received the first carbon datings, we understood its uniqueness. With the help of modern technology and methods, we will learn so much more about these people than we could have done just 50 years ago,” he says.
The grave was over four metres long and two metres wide, built with standing slabs of stone along the sides and covering slabs on top. It has been rebuilt several times.
Those living there 4,000 years ago would reopen the grave when someone died, moving the bones already in the grave to make room and placing the most recently deceased on top.
That is why it is difficult to determine exactly how many were buried in this grave.
The young woman was likely the last to be buried here. She was covered in an organic material that has since decomposed, but which has left traces. Perhaps she was wrapped in animal hide.
The bone remains are well-preserved for being in Western Norway. According to Smiarowski, there's nothing similar from this region because the preservation conditions have generally been too poor.
But compared to what exists out in the world, these are delicate artefacts. Most of the remains have been excavated as whole soil blocks, which will be carefully excavated in the laboratory.
Researchers will then be able to sort and test the bone remains to determine the exact number of individuals buried in the grave.
They might then also find remnants of, for example, beads or other objects that the individuals may have been buried with.
Based on gallery graves from northern Denmark and southern Sweden, where such graves are more common, archaeologists expect that those buried here were related.
Will know exactly what they ate
But it is not just the grave and the people buried in it that make this find unique, Smiarowski says.
Archaeologists have also found the site's rubbish heap.
Isotope analyses will enable the researchers to understand the diet of those who lived here. Initial results indicate that their diet consisted of approximately 40 percent seafood.
But what kind of seafood?
“With this garbage dump, we can reconstruct their diet based on actual meals, then compare it with isotope analyses,” Smiarowski explains. “Ok, they ate seafood, but what? Shellfish, fish, seals? Zooarchaeology will provide a more complete overview here."
The layers of waste will not only reveal something about what they ate here during the Neolithic, but also through the Bronze Age and into the early Iron Age, he explains.
The combination of gallery grave and rubbish heap
This is Smiarowski's specialty. He has conducted similar studies in Greenland over the past 15 years, and among other things, found traces of extensive seal hunting.
“It’s unique for Norway that we can now do such an analysis. This is knowledge we’ve been lacking. What did they really eat? And since there are no preserved skeletons anywhere in Western Norway, this will become a reference site for this knowledge. What did they eat? We must go to Selje for answers,” he says.
“I think this is what the archaeologists who voted for us in this competition realised. The uniqueness of not only the gallery grave, but what we can achieve by combining it with the skeletal remains and the surrounding finds at the site.”
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik