Egtved Girl: Women and Trade in Prehistoric Europe

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Photograph of Egtved Girl's remains

Stronium isotope analysis has proven Egtved girl was not a native Scandinavian. Image courtesy of The Danish National Museum.

In 1921, an extraordinary figure from prehistory re-emerged after 3500 years. Known after her burial place in the region of southern Jutland, Egtved girl was a teenager, buried with rich grave goods including the remains of her clothing, an example of ancient beer and a striking bronze belt.

Experts always believed Egtved girl was a native of Bronze Age Denmark. But recent analysis of strontium isotopes from the girl’s remains reveal a different origin — and offer a fascinating insight into prehistoric trade, social interaction and the role of women in Bronze Age society.

Egtved Girl: A Background

Experts have established the time of Egtved girl’s burial using botanical remains. She was interred in a coffin made out of a hollowed out oak trunk sometime during the summer of 1370BC.

Those who buried her lined the coffin with cowhide, and covered the body and offerings with a woollen blanket. Little remains of Egtved girl’s body except for her hair, brain, teeth, nails and some skin. But her short tunic style top and knee-length skirt made of cords — similar to those found on contemporary bronze models of priestesses from Grevensvaenge, Zealand, a Danish Island — survive, as well as bronze arm rings, a horn comb and her distinctive bronze belt plate.

At her feet lay a bark bucket, which contained a type of beer made from cowberries or cranberries, wheat, bog myrtle and pollen. Completing the burial ensemble were the cremated remains of a 5-6 year old child. Experts estimate Egtved girl’s age at death to be between 16-18 years old, making the child too old to belong to her. But it may be that she was a human sacrifice, sent to accompany the young woman to the afterlife.

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The Origins of Egtved Girl

Archaeologists always assumed Egtved girl was Scandinavian, not only because of her place of burial but because of the style of her clothing and her Nordic style belt plate. But early researchers missed clues to suggest that she might be from elsewhere.

“One of her armbands was…southern German, if you looked closer, which no one did in the past,” explained Professor Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg and the Department of Geosciences and the Centre of Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in an interview with Decoded Past.

Professor Kristiansen is part of a collaboration with Karin Margarita Frei of the National Museum of Denmark and the Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen. Together, they have studied strontium analysis of Egtved girl’s hair, thumbnail, and teeth, as well as the fibres from the blanket and ox hide lining of the coffin, which reveal a much different origin for the remains.

Strontium Isotope Analysis

Strontium is an element in the earth’s crust that animals and plants absorb in their food and drink. The prevalence of strontium varies from location to location. So by measuring its isotopic signatures in organic archaeological remains, it is possible to pinpoint the subject’s origins.

Karin Margarita Frei has applied this principle to Egtved girl’s remains.

I have analyzed the strontium isotopic signatures of the enamel from one of the Egtved girl’s first molars which was fully formed/crystallized when she was three or four years old,” said Dr Frei. “ The analysis tells us that she was born and lived her first years in a region that is geologically older than and different from the peninsula of Jutland in Denmark.”

In fact, the evidence suggests that Egtved girl’s birthplace was 500 miles away from her place of death — at Schwarzwald in the Black Forest of southwest Germany — a fact backed up by analysis of her woolen blanket and ox hide coffin lining.

“The wool that her clothing was made from did not come from Denmark,” explained Dr Frei. ”The strontium isotope values vary greatly from wool thread to wool thread. This proves that 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 and Black Forest’s bedrock is characterized by a similar heterogeneous strontium isotopic range.”

The Journey from the Black Forest

Map from the book,  "The Rise of Bronze Age Society"

Map showing movement between Denmark and south Germany in the Bronze age. From Larsson and Kristianson’s “The Rise of the Bronze Age.” Image used with permission from Professor K Kristianson, all rights reserved.

Strontium analysis from Egtved girl’s hair also chart the stages of her journey from her home to her final resting place — as well as her movements in the last two years of her life — the first evidence of a prehistoric person’s movements through life.

“If we consider the last two years of the girl’s life, we can see that 13 to 15 months before her death, she stayed in a place with a strontium isotope signature very similar to the one that characterizes the area where she was born,” explained Dr Frei. ”Then she moved to an area that may well have been Jutland. After a period of c. 9-10 months there, she went back to the region she originally came from and stayed there for four to six months before she travelled to her final resting place, Egtved.”

Women and Trade in Prehistory

Bronze age Denmark was a rich source of amber, much sought after in Mycenaean Greece and the Middle East. Southern German middlemen facilitated that trade, with bronze as the currency for payment.

“In Bronze Age western Europe, southern Germany and Denmark were two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms,” explained Professor Kristiansen. “We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence.”

Professor Kristiansen believes that Egvted girl’s journey was the result of a marriage between two powerful families as part of a partnership agreement linked to this trade.

The Significance of Egtved Girl

The new isotropic evidence has widened the significance of Egtved girl within European prehistoric archaeology — especially regarding the role of women in trade and commerce.

“I personally think that it is rather significant, concretely in relation to our understanding of how much people moved/travelled and how fast they did it,” Dr Frei told Decoded Past. “This seems indeed to have been a highly dynamic society. Furthermore, women seem also to have been part of these movements”

Egtved girl’s movements before her death seem to be particularly important in this regard.

“The new evidence shows that women could move long distances, something we thought mainly male warriors and traders did,” Professor Kristiansen explained to Decoded Past.

The frequency of Egtved girl’s movements also has a significance for trade. According to Professor Kristiansen, Egtved girl’s repetition of the same journey twice in two years shows the frequency of organized travel and trade in the Bronze Age, not only across Europe but as far off as Mesopotamia and Egypt.

“What we are beginning to understand,“ said Professor Kristiansen, ”is that the Bronze Age was truly global and trade was the driver.”

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Natasha Sheldon says

    Its an assumption rather than anything else, Renee. The child wasn’t Egtved girl’s. Also the fact that she was cremated rather than buried may indicate a difference. But the fact that she was added at the foot of the burial with the other grave goods does suggest she was a commodity to be sent to the after life.

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