Fifth-century massacre discovered by Swedish archaeologists

Archaeologists in Sweden have uncovered the site where hundreds of people may have been killed in a brutal massacre. A team from Lund University and Kalmar County Museum have been exploring the remains of a ring fort on the southern island of Öland since 2010 and are now uncovering the remains of bodies that died violently.

“Sandby borg ring fort is also reminiscent of Pompeii in that all the bodies and houses have remained abandoned for 1,600 years after the massacre”, explains project manager Dr Helena Victor at Kalmar County Museum.


The excavation has uncovered a few houses, one of which had five bodies in it. In another place the archaeologists found a young man who had his heads split open by sword heaves while kneeling – an execution. Another young man have sharp force trauma on his backside. Only 1 % of the fort has been excavated so far.

“There are so many bodies, it must have been a very violent and well organized raid”, says Helene Wilhelmson, a PhD student in historical osteology at Lund University, who collaborates with Kalmar County museum as part of her PhD study. Wilhelmson, who has participated in the project since 2012, was astounded when the skeletons kept emerging from the Sandby fort site on Öland, an island just off the Swedish coast.


Helena Victor explains that in early medieval Scandinavia it was it was customary to burn the dead, so we have few examples of human remains from that period.

Lund University archaeologist Nicoló Dell’Unto is creating 3D-models of the site, using groundbreaking 3D technology, in order to reconstruct how the crime scene unfolded, and to get a more complex overview of the site. “Using 3D-modeling gives us the unprecedented opportunity to see all the bodies simultaneously, even though the skeletons were removed one by one,” he said.

Precious items have also been recovered, including brooches in Germanic animal style that date from the late 5th century. The archaeologists believe that those who attacked the fort either came to just slaughter its inhabitants, or were too quick in executing them before plun raising questions over why they were not plundered in the wake of the massacre. The team has now gone over the site collecting all precious metals to avoid modern plundering.

Why the ring fort has been left untouched for 1,600 years remains a mystery. One theory is that the location became taboo after the massacre, but the archaeologists hope the answer will become clearer with further excavations.


“It’s a day in life of the Migration Period, and that’s completely unique. We have nothing to compare it to”, concludes Helena Victor.

Swedish massacre site from the 5th century - photo courtesy Lund University


Sources: Lund University, Kalmar County Museum