torsdagen den 28:e juni 2007

Battle of Good Friday – Broken bones and sad tales of past wars

Uppsala is one of the oldest towns in Sweden, the seat of the Archbishop since 1164, but with settlements dating to the Iron Age. It is also the location of the oldest University in Scandinavia. Hardly anything remains of the medieval structures nowadays, though the Cathedral (finished in 1435) and the Castle (built in the 16th C) still dominate the skyline for miles. As with most towns with strong historical links, it is not something people really think about as they are hurrying between work, shops and homes.

The Castle hill slope, facing southeast. At the left a small building can bes seen - the restuarant named after Sten Sture. Just above it was the place of the discovered mass burial.

In the summer of 2001 a narrow grabble path below the steep Castle slope, part of the impressive Uppsala esker, was being broadened. A routine procedure. However, after a few days the work was halted and the director of archaeology at Upplandsmuseet, Bent Syse, was contacted by the police and asked to take a 5-minute walk to the place, as human bones were being found in the ditch. No historical documents had mentioned burials at this place.
Any worries that the bones were the result of a modern crime were soon dispelled as a rushed C14-dating at the TA-laboratory of Uppsala gave dates to around AD 1440-1650. A relief to the archaeologists as the risk of the bodies being victims of the 14th Century plague or the 18th Century cholera epidemic was ruled out. The bones showed evidence of cut marks, trauma and sword injury.

The Battle of Good Friday
In historical times, very few actual battles have taken place in Uppsala – the one exception was the battle of Good Friday, 6th of April, 1520. It was the culmination of conflict between the Danish monarchy and the Swedish nobility over the Union of the countries. The Swedes, led by Sten Sture (the younger) had opposed the tribute and submission to king Christian II and several battles and skirmishes had been fought, until Sten Sture died from wounds inflicted by a cannon ball in February.

The Danish army, partly made up by mercenaries from Scotland, France and Germany, was now stationed in Uppsala, a small town of c 2000 people, but important as it was the seat of the Archbishop. The conflict between the troops and the local people escalated, and Swedish troops made up in large part by farmers attacked the town on the morning of Good Friday, taking advantage of the celebration of Mass. After initial success, the experience of the mercenaries and the lack of a unifying leader for the Swedes turned the tide, and the Danes drew the Swedes from Uppsala. The Swedish army disbanded shortly afterwards. The Danish forces were said to have lost 2000 men, and the Swedes even more.

The Excavation
Under intense media and popular scrutiny during a warm August, the archaeologists excavated the small area that needed to be disturbed in order to build a better walk path. In one pit the remains of seven bodies were recovered, laid out on top of each other in west-east direction. I say remains, because it was mostly a collection of seven skulls and various other body parts, mainly thigh bones, laid out in a roughly anatomical position. Only two individuals had the torso intact. About a metre to the east of this pit came more bodies, four almost complete individuals, two without skulls, placed on top of a more disorganized jumble of bones. Since this last collection of body parts were deep enough not to be affected by the road construction, they were left in place apart from a jaw retrieved for radiocarbon analysis. Deeper search pits showed that the layers of bones continued even deeper.
No weapons or parts of armour were found, and any scraps of clothing that the dead might have kept were long since dissolved. A small dice made of bone or antler was found, as well as scraps of rusted metal.

Bones Brought to Life
When only bones are left to tell the tale, a lot rests upon the osteologist (or physical anthropologist), and in this case the museum enlisted the expert help of Anna Kjellström, who has since published a dissertation of Medieval mass burials in Sigtuna. To relate all her findings would take far too much space (I might make a separate post for this later on). Her results were that most of the dead had been between 26-35 years old, and several had been in their late teens when they were killed. She also noted that although most were definitely male, at least one certain woman was present. If she was a killed civilian or connected in some way with either army is not possible to know. Several bones showed evidence of previous wounds and fractures that had been healed. The people who had died and been buried had lived hard lives, which the common occurrence of wear and tear on the articular surfaces of the bones showed, but most seemed to have been adequately nourished during childhood.
The peri-mortem trauma, injuries received around the time of death, was mainly found on the skulls. It seems to have been the preferred area to strike in order to incapacitate ones enemy. Some cut and sword marks were also found on the neck, the arms, pelvis and shin bones – remarkably few on the thigh bones. Clothing and armour might have given enough protection to insure that the swords did not penetrate to the bone, but it seems clear the heads were not protected by heavy helmets.

The Castle hill slope, facing north. The towers of the Cathedral can be seen in the distance

The burial site is not the actual battle site, which was probably a bit further down, close to the Fyris River. It seems the bodies were left for a while after the battle, since so many disarticulated body parts were found. However, few bones had marks from teeth of carnivores or rodents, common scavengers on dead bodies. Of course, many parts of bodies are missing and this may be due to them being dragged off and eaten. Bodies left in the open, especially if they have wounds that quickly go septic, may decompose quite quickly. From historical sources it is known that early April was cold and snow still covered the ground, which would have made digging in the frozen soil difficult. The hygienic aspect of all those dead and butchered men laying on the edge of town by the water, is not something I care to dwell upon. They can’t have been left there too long however, since many body parts were still articulated when brought to the large burial pits.

Ashes to ashes, earth to earth
Nowadays a pub and restaurant named after Sten Sture is located close to the discovered mass burial, though this was certainly not known by the owners when they named it. Sten Sture has a huge monument placed on the top of the esker, close to the now disbanded regiment, whose houses now serve as home for some of the natural science-departments of the University. The slopes of the Castle hill is a favourite hangout for students and teenagers during holidays and celebrations, drinking all types of alcohol and generally enjoying themselves as only the barely pubescent can. The grass is green, the trees give shade and the flowers bloom. Beneath all this, are the broken remains of men and women killed, maimed and mutilated in a conflict few now remember, and only historians care about. Sweden and Denmark are again joined in an uneasy Union, now with Germany and France and Scotland – and the rest of Europe.

Sources and suggested reading:

Kjellström, A. 2004: A sixteenth-century warrior grave from Uppsala, Sweden: the Battle of Good Friday. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology vol 15(1): 23-50

Syse, B (Ed) 2003: Långfredagsslaget. En arkologisk historia. Upplandsmuseets Skriftserie Nr 3. Upplandsmuseet

Uppsala på

2 kommentarer:

Steve Muhlberger sa...

Many people interested in late medieval armor know the 1350s site at Visby. Again this was a battle between local amateurs and tough professionals, and the pros won. Perhaps your peasant troops did not even have helmets?

ArchAsa sa...

Probably not. And any helmets or usable weapons or clkothing details belonging to killed mercenaries and locals were probably quickly scaveneged by either side. There were no big Outlets selling cheap armor in those days - the dead would have been lucky to keep their small clothes on when buried...