Scientists Reconstruct the Life of a Teenage Girl from the Contents of a 3,400-Year-Old Coffin

Close up image of the Bronze Age Egtved Girl’s scalp hair and brain remains as well as her well preserved costume / Karin Margarita Frei, National Museum of Denmark
Janet Fang 27 May 2015, 01:01

In 1921, archaeologists excavating near the Danish village of Egtved unearthed a 3,400-year-old oak coffin containing the remains of a high status Bronze Age female between 16 and 18 years old. They called her the Egtved Girl. While no bones survived the partially acidic, waterlogged environment in the coffin, her hair, tooth enamel, nails, and parts of the brain and skin were all preserved. She was buried in wool garments including a blouse and a short, corded skirt, and she had a disc-shaped bronze belt plate, which symbolized the sun. She may have been a priestess of the Nordic sun-worshipping cult. And by her head, there was a small container with the cremated remains of a five or six-year-old child.

Now, thanks to a combination of biomolecular and biogeochemical analyses, a multidisciplinary team led by Karin Frei from the National Museum of Denmark is finally able to trace Egtved Girl’s origin and piece together some details of her life. The work was published in Scientific Reports this week. 

The element strontium exists in the Earth’s crust, and its amount varies with the geology of the area. Plants, animals, and humans absorb strontium from the water we drink (and the plants and animals we eat), making strontium a GPS of sorts. Based on the ratios of different strontium isotopes in the enamel from a molar on her lower jaw and the raw materials used to make her clothes, the Egtved Girl originated from outside of the Jutland peninsula of present-day Denmark. The wool threads and the oxhide she was laid to rest on likely came from Schwarzwald, or the Black Forest, in southwestern Germany about 800 kilometers (500 miles) south of Egtved.

“The wool was made from sheep that either grazed in different geographical areas or that they grazed in one vast area with very complex geology,” Frei says in a news release. “And Black Forest's bedrock is characterized by a similarly heterogeneous strontium isotopic range.” 

The team looked at the strontium isotopic signatures in her hair, which was 23 centimeters (9 inches) long, as a record of her movements during the last 23 months of her life. She traveled back and forth across large distances during this time, likely to where she was born. The isotope signatures in her thumbnail and her scalp hair -- the most recent segment that grew in during her last four to six months -- suggest that she spent several months far from Egtved before returning within a month of her death. 

Furthermore, her hair also revealed that she had a varied diet with periods of reduced protein intake or availability. They also managed to extract DNA from her scalp hair, but it was mostly unusable because of the acidic burial environment. 

"In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centers of power,” says study co-author Kristian Kristiansen from the University of Gothenburg. “My guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families.”

She was buried on a Summer's day in the year 1370 BC.

Images: Karin Margarita Frei, National Museum of Denmark (top) & Roberto Fortuna, with kind permission of the National Museum of Denmark (middle)

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