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The oak coffin of a young woman who died 3400 years ago yielded many chemical clues about her youth, wandering life, and Bronze Age culture.

The oak coffin of a young woman who died 3400 years ago yielded many chemical clues about her youth, wandering life, and Bronze Age culture.

Karin Margarita Frei/National Museum of Denmark

Coffin remains tell life story of ancient sun-worshiping priestess

Once upon a time in the Bronze Age, a girl was born to a family of sun worshipers living in the Black Forest of what is today Germany. When she was young she became a priestess in the local sun cult, and soon attracted the eye of a tribal chief who lived far to the north. The girl’s family married her off, and she went to live with the chief in what is now Denmark. She often traveled back and forth between Denmark and her ancestral home and eventually gave birth to a child while she was away. Sometime before her 18th birthday, she and the child died. They were buried together in an oak coffin, the young woman wearing a bronze belt buckle in the shape of the sun.

How do we know? A new study of the 3400-year-old girl’s chemical isotopes, along with more conventional archaeological evidence, tells us so. At least, these are the conclusions of scientists who recently analyzed the teeth, fingernails, hair, and clothes of the Egtved Girl, so named for the Danish village where archaeologists first discovered her in 1921.

The study is “state-of-the-art,” says Joachim Burger, an archaeologist at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, who was not involved in the research. Alex Bentley, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, calls the work “impressive and meticulous.” The study is highly unusual, researchers say, in the way that it brings together chemical tracers from a number of tissue types to reconstruct the life history of a single individual.

To study the Egtved Girl’s comings and goings, researchers led by Karin Frei, a geologist at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, analyzed the different forms, or isotopes, of the element strontium in her tissues. Strontium occurs naturally in soil and rocks and usually enters the body in water we drink. The ratio of two of its isotopes—strontium-87 and strontium-86—varies depending on soil and geology and can be used to make informed guesses about where people or animals originally came from. Researchers usually look at teeth, which absorb the element when an individual is very young and whose strontium ratios do not change after about 3 or 4 years of age.

In the case of the Egtved Girl, the team had not only her teeth, but also her hair, fingernails, clothes, and the ox hide on which her body was resting in the coffin, as well as the teeth and cremated bones of the child buried with her in a small box made of tree bark. (The girl’s uncremated bones did not survive the waterlogged, acidic environment in which the coffin was found.)

To figure out where the girl came from, the researchers first analyzed strontium in one of her molars and found a ratio noticeably higher than that typically found in Denmark; a small, dense bone from the rear of the child’s skull that had survived cremation produced a similar ratio. The team concluded that both the girl and her child had spent their earliest years outside of Denmark, likely in the Black Forest area. This fits earlier archaeological evidence—from Bronze Age settlements, burial mounds, and the exchange of artifacts such as swords—that the peoples of Denmark and Germany had formed alliances between chiefdoms that probably involved intermarriage.

To trace the Egtved Girl’s movements during the last period of her life, the team analyzed the strontium in her hair, which was 23 centimeters long, about shoulder length; because human scalp hair grows about 1 centimeter each month, that represented the last 23 months of her life. The researchers cut the hair into four segments and looked at the strontium ratios in each one. The oldest segment corresponded again to the Black Forest region, while the middle two segments were typical of Denmark. But the last segment, corresponding to the final 4 to 6 months of her life, once again reflected a sojourn in a distant place, possibly the Black Forest again. A similar pattern was seen in her fingernail—cut into three segments for analysis, representing in all her last 6 months alive—which confirmed that she had been away from Denmark shortly before she died. The wool fibers from her clothes, as well as the ox hide on which she was laid, also revealed strontium ratios from outside Denmark.

Taken together, the evidence suggests that the girl, her child, and her clothes all originated from the Black Forest region, and that she married into a Danish chiefdom and was buried in Denmark after she died, the team reports today in Scientific Reports. The researchers concede that the identification of the Black Forest as her birthplace is speculative, but they are certain that it must have been several hundred kilometers away from where she was buried. Moreover, Frei says, the girl’s clothes were typical of the local culture in Denmark, even though the animals they were made from lived elsewhere. “I think that she tried to integrate herself into the local society by having a local-looking outfit, but made of raw material that came from far away and most likely from her place of origin.”

Umberto Albarella, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, says that the degree to which the young lady moved around over a relatively short period is “staggering,” even if her Black Forest origins are “speculative.” The study is also consistent with other evidence from genetics and linguistics that women moved around during the Bronze Age while men stayed put, Bentley says.