History Stories

On a day like any other, the 5th-century residents of Sandby borg went about their business as normal. In this prosperous village on the island of Öland, off Sweden’s south-east coast, people ate a herring lunch or tended the hearth. Then disaster struck.

Mysterious assailants stormed the stone walls of the ring fort. Once inside, they slaughtered its inhabitants where they stood. Those who fled down the street or attempted to escape their homes were apprehended, and killed. All in all, at least 26 people died. One was an old man, who fell into the open fireplace after receiving a crushing blow to his skull. Another was a baby of just a couple of months old. For well over 500 years, their remains lay where they had fallen, unburied by their attackers and left to rot.

In 2010, archaeologists visited the island, after hearing about treasure hunters looting the site. Locals warned them to stay away from the green mound, where the village had once stood. When they began to dig, they uncovered first one skeleton, and then another, and then another. One had four goat’s teeth crammed into its open mouth. In one house, nine bodies were found. Now, new research published in the April 2018 edition of the journal Antiquityreveals more details about the massacre, suggesting that it may have taken place not for plunder, but because of politics.

An array of artifacts date the attack to the late 5th century. These were turbulent times, with people traveling far and wide to obtain resources, status, and important political ties. All across the European continent, in fact, power struggles were playing out—sometimes with chilling consequences. This, the researchers argue, may have been the cause of this massacre: that “the perpetrators at Sandby borg established themselves as the new local ruling elite,” and some nearby group decided to take that power for their own.

Artifacts found during a metal detector survey in 2010. (Credit: Daniel Lindskog)

Artifacts found during a metal detector survey in 2010. (Credit: Daniel Lindskog)

There’s other evidence to suggest that the perpetrators had little interest in the material wealth of their victims. Treasures such as beads, silver jewelry and gold coins were simply left at the site, while valuable live animals starved to death in their pens. Weapons, however, seem to have been taken, whether to be used or ritually dumped. Houses were set ablaze, either by accident or in a deliberate attempt to raze the settlement to the ground.

The richness of the site tells archaeologists a great deal about these people, how they lived and how they died. But after three seasons, less than a tenth of the site has so far been excavated. More research may reveal other clues about the ancient killers: who they were, and what they wanted. None of the skeletons pulled from the ground are female, for instance, yet infants’ remains suggests that there were women living there. Further excavation may reveal their bodies—or they may have been taken by the people who killed their families.

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