Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bones4Culture: The history of ordinary people

A new project has begun to analyse population, life, health and culture of the people that lived in the German-Danish border lands during the Middle Ages (AD 1050 – 1536).

The Interreg-project Bones4Cultures will allow researchers from Denmark and Germany to examine skeletons of people who lived in the city of Schleswig as well as other parts of the border region during this period.

Learning about identity

The purpose of the project is to provide information about the identity of the medieval and renaissance population of Schleswig town. Historically Schleswig has been both German and Danish and therefore has experienced a turbulent history both ethnically and politically. However, the the area is now one of the most peaceful borders in Europe.

The project aims to show how people lived in this region and where they came from. Were they born and raised in Schleswig town – or were they more mobile coming from other parts of Germany, Denmark or even farther afield?

A knowledge gap

There is a knowledge gap concerning the identity and history of the ordinary people of the Duchies from the early Middle Ages up to the end of the Renaissance.

In Denmark there has been a focus on Danish identity and history and similarly in Germany. There has never been research and dissemination of the identity of populations in the border area. The new research intends to fill this gap in history with a focused effort that uses a completely new technology which will be developed in cooperation between leading research and intermediary institutions in the region.

Researchers from both countries will examine the skeletal remains of approximately 1000 human skeletons during the three year project period and samples will be taken from 350 skeletons for a more detailed chemical and physical analysis.

Conflicts common in the region

From the 6th century onwards ethnic and political conflicts were common in the region. In the medieval context the conflict was accentuated when Schleswig was made a Duchy – demanding increasing independence from the supremacy of the Danish king.

So, from this period onwards the region was increasingly influenced by German culture. Schleswig and its environs remained an area of conflict between Germans and Danes until after the 1st World War when a referendum in 1920 made the northern half Danish and the remainder German. From this point onwards the region has been peaceful and it has acted as an example of good ethnic relations in a mixed region.

In-depth analysis

Project leader, Professor Jesper Boldsen of SDU: “The First step in the Bones4Culture was to create a basis for all the analysis by anthropologically identifying and examining all skeletons excavated in five Schleswig cemeteries. It creates a basis for selecting skeletons for the in depth chemical analyses, and secondly, it creates a database of anthropological knowledge about the medieval population of the city. The database has already provided important knowledge about age and sex composition of the samples; and even more importantly, it has facilitated an analysis of the occurrence of the most dreaded disease in the Middle Ages: leprosy. It appears that leprosy was a very common disease and that the prevalence of the disease declined through from the early to the late Middle Ages. This means that the first step of the project has successfully been completed and that it has produced new insights into the population of the region.”

The selected bone samples will undergo new chemical analyses for detecting strontium, lead and mercury. “Even small amounts of the latter are toxic. Nevertheless, mercury was used to heal certain diseases, lead was part of ceramic glaze of everyday house ware”, explains Professor Kaare Lund Ras-mussen of SDU. The detection of these elements will make it easier for the scientists to study common diseases in the Middle Ages, their treatment and the heavy metal contamination at that time.

Performing a strontium/calcium-analysis, which may be conducted on samples taken from dental matter, can answer questions concerning common diet. “We wish to know who lived on a predominantly vegetarian diet and who ate meat. The strontium isotopes will also give us information on mobility and sedentary lifestyles, because they differ due to regional occurrences”, says Professor Anton Eisenhauer with GEOMAR.

Radiocarbon-dating will be done in order to place the remains into a historical timeline, analysis of the carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen ration (δ15N) will complement the research on diet.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Bones4Culture: The history of ordinary people". Past Horizons. Posted: April 30, 2012. Available online:

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