11,000 years old elk bones shrouded in mystery

July 1, 2014 - 06:30

Someone put elk bones in a bog several thousand years ago -- but archaeologists have no clue who it was.

New carbon datings have left archeologists puzzled over who placed elk bones in a bog 11,000 years ago. (Photo: Geert Brovad)

When archaeologists dig up ancient skeletons from humans and animals, they often find answers to questions about what our forefathers did and how they lived.

But sometimes they pose new questions.

That's what happened when the bones of several elks were excavated from Lundby bog in south Zealand in 1999, the archaeologists dated some of the animal remains back to sometime between 9,400 and 9,300 BC.

Recently, however, the archaeologists did a new carbon 14 dating on some of the bones which revealed that they dated back to between 9,873 and 9,676 BC.
These elk bones were clearly not buried in the bog over a short period, as originally thought, but were placed there over several centuries – and this surprised the archaeologists.

“People have been living here, that's quite certain,” says Kristoffer Buck Pedersen, an archaeologist and chief curator at Museum Southeast Denmark. “But so far we've not found settlements that are as old as the elk bones, so the identity of the people who put the bones in the bog is something of a mystery.”

He helped analyse the bone remains from the elks. Six deposits with bones from 13 elks were found in the bog.

Ritual positioning of the bones

What is special about the bones is that the way they were buried in the bog indicates they had been packed in a fur. It was not just one of the elks that had been buried in this way but several of them, and according to Pedersen this is a sign the bog was sacred.

“Back then people believed that everything in nature had a soul and to ensure balance they gathered the bones from the animals they had eaten and sacrificed them,” he explains. “That’s the interpretation that we used, as we can’t find a practical explanation for why the bones are gathered together.”

He adds that the ancient people believed that when animals were buried in the bog they would be resurrected.

Facts

All living creatures contain a certain amount of the radioactive isotope, carbon 14. This fact can be used to date when a living organism lived.

Because carbon 14 is radioactive it does not disappear immediately -- it has a half-life of 5,730 years.

As carbon 14 takes such a long time to disappear it can be used to date findings that are up to 50,000 years old. Today this can be done with a relatively high degree of certainty.

Mikkel Sørensen, an associate professor at the Saxo Institute of the University of Copenhagen agrees with that interpretation.

“There is a definite selection of the bones buried in the bog and this can clearly be interpreted as a ritual act,” says Sørensen, who wasn’t a part of the new study. “The elks have had a certain status for these people as they were treated in a special way.”

The settlements are there – somewhere

The archaeologists are puzzled though, because who buried the elks in the bog? People, yes -- but the archaeologists cannot find out whether people have lived close to the bog or whether they came past the bog many times over several centuries and threw the animal bones into the bog water.

An important clue to who buried the elks comes from an axe made from an elk antler found in the bog. According to the archaeologists, this kind of tool is only known from the Maglemosean culture who lived between 9,000 and 6,400 BC. Only problem is there’s never been discovered a settlement which dates back to the time the elk bones were placed in the bog.

“There are plenty of settlements in the vicinity of the bog from the Mesolithic period around 12,800 and 3,900 BC but none of these settlements are as old as the oldest elk bones,” says Pedersen. “We’ve examined the bog many times and we’ve not been able to localise any settlements -- but we assume they are there -- somewhere.”

He explains that localising the settlement can be difficult because there might be a later settlement in the same place which would hide any traces of the older settlement.

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Read the original story in Danish on Videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Michael de Laine