The discovery of DNA, the basis of life on earth, was one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time. It is something we often hear about in our daily lives, as it can help tackle so many challenges, such as solving murders, identifying diseases, and finding long-lost relatives. DNA is also proving to be transformative for archaeology, as it promises solutions to questions about the past that were long thought unanswerable. Ancient DNA research has traditionally focused on the origin of populations, migration, and infectious diseases. Nowadays, this interest has been joined by a growing appreciation that using DNA to determine relationships between our ancient relatives can tell us much about life in the past. In that spirit, we are going to take a look at three puzzles from Sweden that DNA has helped to resolve: do tombstones really reveal who is buried beneath them; who was hidden under the leg of a renowned bishop; and what was life with dwarfism like in the Viking age?
The stone, the father, and the son
As a general rule, the further back in time you go, the harder it becomes to tell who is buried in any particular grave, because fewer and fewer tombstones naming an occupant remain in place. In Sweden, however, some early Christian grave monuments dating back to the beginning of the AD 1000s are believed to occupy their original positions, suggesting that those named on them will lie below. Two such markers were found 80 years ago in Skänninge, and, sure enough, skeletons were unearthed in graves beneath them. Runes on the southerly of the two stones declare that ‘Guve laid the stone over Ygle, his son, God help his soul!’, while the text on the northern stone says, ‘Rane laid the stone over Guve, his father, God help his soul!’ Despite these unambiguous statements, attempting to reconcile these names with the remains buried beneath them proved to be quite a puzzle.
On the strength of the runes, Berit Wallenberg – the archaeologist excavating the graves – expected to find two skeletons: a father and son. As work progressed, though, it became clear that the situation was more complicated. Under the southern stone, she found, as expected, a male skeleton that could reasonably be identified as Ygle. Underneath the northern stone, Wallenberg initially found just a skull and a few scattered bones. ‘What a shame,’ she thought, ‘the grave is disturbed.’ Digging a little deeper in the grave, though, exposed two more skeletons. According to an osteologist, these were the remains of a man and a young woman, so Wallenberg duly named them the ‘married couple’. If the scattered bones represented Guve, as she suspected, then Wallenberg had indeed found the father and son. What, then, was to be made of the ‘married couple’. Could it be that the male in the ‘married couple’ was Rane, the other named son of Guve?
Wallenberg attempted to seek out an answer by enlarging the excavated area, but this rapidly complicated the situation further. Another apparent male skeleton was located in an unmarked plot beside the grave of the father Guve, presenting a second candidate for Rane. After comparing all four males, Wallenberg concluded that Ygle was buried where his stone indicated, while what was left of his father, Guve, also remained under his stone. In all likelihood, then, Rane – the other son – was the individual in the grave without a headstone.
So, was Wallenberg right? Many years later, fresh osteological analysis suggested otherwise, by providing a new take on the sex of the individuals. Although the overall total was still four men and one woman, the ‘married couple’ were shown to be two males, while the individual in the unmarked grave seen as a potential Rane was reclassified as a woman.
Happily, DNA analysis can now bring this matter to a definitive conclusion. As well as confirming that the subsequent rethink of the skeletons’ sexes is correct, it also resolved the matter of how these individuals were related. The scattered remains of Guve displayed first-degree kinship with the probable Ygle, showing that the pair are indeed father and son. As for the ‘married couple’, they proved to have no biological relationship to any of the family members, meaning they had either married into it, or were total strangers. When it came to the person buried in the unmarked grave, though, the DNA results revealed a most interesting relationship. This individual, once thought to be Rane, but then found to be a woman, also had a first-degree kinship with Ygle, but did not share any biological relationship with Guve. All of this is explained if the mysterious woman was the mother of Ygle and wife of Guve. Here, then, we have another family member, but one who was apparently not believed to merit mention on a stone even though that someone was as important as the wife of Guve and mother of Ygle, God help her soul!
The bishop’s companion
Of course, there are occasions when we can be fairly confident about an individual’s identity from the outset. One such person is Peder Winstrup: a renowned bishop who founded Lund University and died in December 1679. His funeral followed in January 1680, when he was laid to rest in a family tomb at Lund Cathedral. In 2013, it was decided to remove his casket and rebury it, as the crypt was being transformed into a chapel. This presented a chance to open the coffin and undertake a meticulous scientific study of its contents. One notable feature of the burial from an archaeological perspective is that Peder Winstrup’s body proved to have been naturally mummified. Another surprise was detected during the very first step in the examination process. An X-ray of the coffin taken before it was opened showed that the bishop was not alone. Instead, a small skeleton was clearly visible under his shin bone. What could the explanation be?One possibility was that a large rat had become trapped in the casket, but closer inspection revealed that the mysterious skeleton had collarbones. The remains proved to be those of a human baby that had been born prematurely at an age of about 5-6 months. This discovery led immediately to two more questions: who was this child, and how had he or she ended up in the bishop’s coffin?
At the time of his death, Winstrup was 74 years old, while his wife was 57, making it very unlikely that the baby could be theirs. Even so, it seemed natural to wonder whether there could be some kind of family relationship between the bishop and his companion. Samples were taken from femurs belonging to both Winstrup and the baby, in order to undertake DNA analysis. This revealed that the child was a boy who had a second-degree relationship to Winstrup. What is more, while the mitochondrial DNA showed that they were not related on the maternal side, the pair did share the same Y chromosome and haplogroup, which indicates kinship on the paternal side. A second-degree kinship involves one of the following connections: uncles, nephews, grandparents, grandchildren, half-siblings, and double cousins.
Historical sources state that Winstrup only had one brother, Elias, who died young and unmarried. This allows us to exclude the child as Winstrup’s nephew or half-sibling. In which case, the baby is his grandchild. Peder Winstrup had five children, three of whom survived to adulthood. The oldest – a daughter – died several years before Winstrup, making it hard to see how a premature son born to her could have been placed in the casket. Of the two remaining children, Anna Maria and Peder, both were alive when the bishop died. Anna Maria was married to a man named Casper, but the child in the coffin could only be theirs if Casper had the same haplogroup as Winstrup, a point on which we have no evidence either way. By contrast, the son Peder would have carried the Y chromosome, and by the time of Winstrup’s death was probably married to Dorothea Sparre. The historical record is silent on whether they had any offspring, but a child of theirs would certainly match the DNA profile of the premature baby. Either way, we can be confident of the family connection between the bishop and the baby.
The next question is why the child was not only buried with the bishop, but also concealed in the shadows beneath his legs? Although infants were occasionally formally buried with adults in the same coffin during this period, when that happened the children were treated quite differently. At such times, the infant would normally be placed on the adult’s chest or arm. Why was the bishop’s companion treated so differently?
However you look at it, the burial of a baby born prematurely at 5-6 months can only be seen as a sign of a pregnancy that did not go as planned. Perhaps we can see an echo of this in the burial – could it be that the baby was stillborn, resulting in him receiving different treatment to those that were delivered alive? Was the boy’s discrete inclusion in the coffin seen as the best option available for his grieving parents? Here, of course, we are entering the realm of conjecture, but there can be little doubt that the bishop’s companion testifies to a poignant response to a family tragedy.
A softer side to Vikings
From that exceptional burial we move to two that would have been entirely unremarkable were it not for the individuals they contained. Here it is worth noting that people with dwarfism are generally very rarely found in the archaeological record. In a career dedicated to studying past human remains, I have only encountered three such individuals, two of whom are connected to this case. They were discovered in 1994, during the excavation of a Viking-age cemetery that was probably associated with a farm at Tierp in Uppland. Eight individuals were found in the graves, but one in particular attracted the archaeologist’s interest: a skeleton that looked noticeably different. Because of that, the remains were sent to me for closer inspection. This revealed that the skeleton belonged to a short-statured person (about 130cm or 4′ 3″ tall) with a condition known as spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, which is either inherited from a parent who has it, or caused by a chance mutation. The consequences include a shorter torso, neck, legs, and arms, while the arrangement of joints means that osteoarthritis can become a problem early in life. The condition is visible from birth, and associated with weak musculature, meaning that many such babies do not live for long.
Given how unusual it is to find one such individual, the subsequent appearance of a second short-statured person in the same cemetery raised numerous questions. The most obvious one was whether there was a relationship between these two people. As the chances of a couple without the condition having two children with it is less than 1%, it seemed natural to wonder if these two individuals were a parent and child. As the two skeletons belonged to a man and a woman, the options were a mother and son, father and daughter, or the 1% chance of siblings. That, though, was where matters had to rest in the 1990s. At the time, DNA analysis was extremely expensive and rarely used in the archaeological sphere. Now, 25 years on, I finally have my answer.
This came about thanks to a larger DNA project, analysing 300 Viking-age individuals. To my surprise, this study revealed that the two individuals are indeed siblings. Give the very low probability of this occurring due to a chance mutation, this suggests that at least one more person of short stature lived at the site in the Viking age: a parent. Remarkably, the DNA project also identified a relation of the siblings: a close female cousin, who did not have the condition. Earlier strontium isotope analysis, which detects the geological signature of the area in which individuals grew up, had shown that the siblings and cousin all spent their childhood years in the Uppland region. Once the cousin became a teenager or adult, though, she moved 500km to the south, before ultimately being buried on the island of Öland.
Understanding the story of these siblings is not just of interest for their shared DNA – it also sheds light on contemporary society. The pair died at roughly 40-50 years of age, if not older. As already noted, the condition is apparent from birth onwards, and associated with a high death rates for babies, indicating that their family took great care of them. Indeed, the likelihood that a parent also had the condition shows that despite displaying physically unusual traits, it was socially acceptable for him or her to marry. This conclusion is reinforced by the two individuals with dwarfism being buried in the same way as the other individuals in the cemetery. No differences are apparent in the construction of the graves, the position of the bodies, or the objects that accompanied them. The woman was laid to rest with a single comb, while the man was accompanied with a double comb made of elk antler, and a knife. As well as reflecting equal treatment in death, these finds – especially the combs – are valuable for indicating that the graves date to the 11th century. Given that Viking society is so often described as harsh and brutal, it is heartening to find evidence for a softer side to it.
Unlocking past lives
We have seen, then, how three different cases, from three different places, have been solved thanks to DNA analysis. The answers are important not just for revealing family relationships that were once firmly in the realms of guesswork – and all three of our cases do show the importance of kinship – but also for the wider light they can throw on their eras.
When it comes to the grave slabs in Skänninge, we can see that the names on them probably are a valid guide to who lay buried beneath, even if they were not the last word on the subject. These graves would also fit with it being customary to place relatives next to each other at that time. When it comes to the bishop’s companion, we catch a glimpse of a world where a deceased grandfather could be perceived as a protector for his premature, perhaps even stillborn, grandson – even if the act of joint burial could only be undertaken in secret. Finally, we see how a Viking-age individual with a disability was probably able to raise a family. When this produced two offspring with the same condition, they could grow up and live long lives on a farm, before receiving equal treatment in death. At the same time, combining DNA and isotope analysis allows us to see how a cousin migrated 500km from her childhood home.
All three of these cases illustrate the extraordinary potential of DNA to enrich our understanding of the past.
ALL IMAGES: Courtesy of Caroline Arcini.