The Copenhageners from 1,000 years ago

By Mikkel Beck

In the City Hall Square archaeologists have excavated what may be the oldest Copenhageners so far. The University of Copenhagen’s Department of Forensic Medicine is now trying to determine what kind of life they lived. Did she have arthritis? Was he a fisherman? And where did they all come from?

Some of he bones recently discovered beneath the Copenhagen City Hall Square – photo courtesy the University of Copenhagen

The cranium in the cardboard box is still covered by some of the soil it has been resting in for a good 1,000 years. Nevertheless, it is still easy to identify the features: the round skull, the eye sockets and the upper jaw with the holes where the teeth used to be.


‘It is like the mouth is open, yawning or crying out’, says Associate Professor and Biological Anthropologist Marie Louise Jørkov from the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology in the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

She is the key figure behind the faculty’s studies of the sensational find recently made by archaeologists about a metre and a half below the City Hall Square in the middle of Copenhagen. 20 skeletons have been found in a cemetery from around the year 1000 – which means that the popular historical myth telling us that Bishop Absalon founded Copenhagen must be abandoned definitively.

To learn as much as possible about the life these so far oldest Copenhageners must have lived, 17 skeletons of both children and adults have now been moved another four metres underground to the basement below the Teilum Building, where Marie Louise Jørkov is carefully cleaning the bones.


Posh People or Workers?

’First they need to be cleaned and then moved to the laboratory, where we determine their gender and age and whether they suffered from disease, whether they were hard-working people or lived a protected life. If they, for example, have a lot of muscles, it may tell us something about whether they were hard-working’, says Marie Louise Jørkov.

On the stainless steel table in front of her lies a jigsaw puzzle of a human being. After she has rinsed the soil off the bones, they are divided into groups: thighs, shins, kneecaps and ribs. ’The ribs are interesting, because they show traces of certain infectious diseases. With regard to tuberculosis, for example, we will in some cases be able to find remains of the inflammation on the inside’, says Marie Louise Jørkov.

But the bones are not the only thing that can tell us something about the person’s health and physical appearance. The teeth can, among other things, tells us something about the oral hygiene and bacterial flora encased in the tartar. ’Sometimes we are able to make a qualified guess, conjecturing that he person was a tailor holding the needle between his or her teeth while sewing or a fisherman holding the net with his teeth while mending it’, says Marie Louise Jørkov.


She opens a box from the cabinet holding the 17 guests from the past and holds up a thigh bone. ’This one could be a woman, because it is long and slender. But she would have been very tall. Offhand, I would say that she was about 170 centimetres tall. But, well, it is hard to say precisely, before I have taken a closer look’.

Associate Professor Marie Louise Jørkov – photo courtesy the University of Copenhagen

Bones Reveal the Diet

A closer examination of the bones can tell us something about what these medieval Copenhageners ate. ‘The diet affects the absorption of carbon in the body. It varies a lot depending on whether you eat a lot of vegetables, freshwater fish, seawater fish or meat. So we may be able to get an overall picture, even though we cannot say precisely whether it was cucumbers or tomatoes, if they even had access to that in Copenhagen in the year 1000’, says Marie Louise Jørkov.

She is inclined to think that the bones on the table belong to a woman. ’But it is a bit tricky, this one. It is either a woman with marked muscle joints or a slender man. It is an adult, older than 30, but hardly older than 60’, is her guess based on the wear and size of the bones.


’The problem is that the older they are, the harder it is to determine their age. It can both be a young adult, a middle-aged person, but also an elderly person. It is not likely to be a very old person, though. Once I have examined it in the laboratory, I will probably be able to determine the age plus/minus 10 years’, says Marie Louise Jørkov, who sometimes wonder about the things she cannot see.

Locals or Immigrants?

’Sometimes I try to imagine the individual. What did he or she look like? What kind of life did he or she lead? I imagine that the arthritis I can see traces of would have been uncomfortable, or that the person must have walked with a limp due to a poorly healed fracture’, says Marie Louise Jørkov.

She also has to look for useable DNA. Along with a so-called strontium analysis, it may be able to say something about the origin of the skeletons. Had they lived in the country for generations, or were they immigrants?

These are some of the questions that Marie Louise Jørkov over the next few months will try to answer by examining the bones that were once part of live human beings. By determining how old they were at the time of death, whether they were men or women, worn out workers or not, she helps to give archaeologists and historians an idea of what the area that we now call Copenhagen looked like a thousand years ago.


‘Were these the first Copenhageners? Did they come from the east, or were they born in the area? Did they live in a small village or a larger, active urban community? I really want to know who they were’, says Marie Louise Jørkov.

A well-preserved cranium waiting in its cardboard box to be cleaned. Photo courtesy University of Copenhagen

Past Helps the Present

The Department of Forensic Medicine often helps to solve both present-day and past mysteries. ’The techniques we use are the same whether it is a skeleton from the Stone Age or one the police just found in the woods. The authorities need some basic facts to work on fast – gender, age and ethnicity – even when all that is left is the skeleton’, says Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine, Professor Niels Lynnerup.

But archaeologists and the police are not the only ones who can use the results of bone studies. For example, the Department of Forensic Medicine has conducted a project studying epidemics in the Middle Ages, which provided knowledge that may benefit present-day society.

‘It may also tell us something about future epidemics. Leprosy was endemic in the 1100s and 1200s. Why did such an epidemic emerge? Some probably think’, “That is in the past”, but leprosy could actually be found in Norway as late as the 1800s, even though it disappeared from Denmark in the 1500s. And we still get new epidemics – e.g. Ebola and SARS. From old skeletons we can learn how they emerge and why they disappear again’, Niels Lynnerup said in 2015, also revealing that the Grauballe Man has indirectly helped solve a present-day murder.

Our thanks to Kristine Snedker and the University of Copenhagen for this article


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