Skjoldehamn Find Project: Man or Woman???

When we left off, Dr. Gutrom Gjessing of the Tromsø museum had gotten the body in the mail (seriously! you can’t make this stuff up). He then shipped the body to the Anatomical Institute in Oslo for analysis.

Let’s step back for a moment to the original finding of the body.

When a farmer was cutting peat and he accidentally cut off a body’s foot, the body of the Skjoldehamn bog was discovered. By all indications, the body was originally buried where it was found. Meaning that its original resting place was the bog.

In the literature of the Middle Ages, bog burials were associated with criminals and Pagan burials (Holck 110). The truth is that we have no way of knowing why this person was buried in this bog, but we do know that much care was given to the burial of this person. Criminal, Pagan sacrifice, or a love one lost in an attack along the way, this person was treated very respectfully by whomever did the burying.

The body was well bundled in a wool blanket. Under the body was a layer of raw birch rods about 50 cm long and 4-5 cm thick (like a raft of limbs). Between the body and the limbs was a fur reindeer pelt with the fur side up. The blanket was tied on with thin leather straps from the ankle to knee and, above that, a narrow cloth band wrapped the body in the blanket. Over all of that was another layer of bark (Gjessing 28).

The body laid slanting toward the north on its left side. Its knees were slightly drawn up and its right arm was stretched down towards the knees. The farmer who wrote the description believed it was a murder rather than an execution. There was a 3 pronged hole in the skull, and brain matter and blood could be seen through the hole.

The body was still dressed. The person wore a hood, an over-tunic, an under-tunic, a woven belt, pants, 2 sets of ankle wraps, shoes and a blanket.

Back to the 1930’s. Winter passed, as winter does.

In the summer of 1937, Gutorm Gjessing traveled with wife Gertrude so to Skjoldehamn to inspect the place where the body was found. The peat bog where it was buried was an active peat site. Farmers did not stop digging up peat logs simply because a dead guy was found in it. When Gutorm and Gertrude arrived, the entire area of grave had been dug away. Although bog-walls were left neaby, the actual grave spot was gone and possibly burned during the cold winter. Gjessing and his assistants collected parts of the bog that were close to the original grave, but there was nothing left of the original site (Gjessing 29).

Gutorm did his best, but without samples of the actual site, all he had to work with was the body and what the body was found with. He analyzed the clothing: a woolen tunic, a woolen under-tunic, a pair of close fitting wool pants, woolen leg wraps, leather leg ties, a woolen hood and a pair of leather shoes. Gertrude, his wife, helped by sewing mock-ups to use as bases for the textile pieces. When you look at pictures of the Skjoldehamn textiles, the lighter brown fabric is the 1930’s mock-up fabric that Gertrude used.

In 1938, Gutorm published a long article on the Skjoldehamn clothing in Viking, one of Norway’s archaeological journals. “Skjoldehamndrakten, en Senmiddelaldersk Nordnorsk Mannsdrakt” translates into “Skjoldehamn Outfit, a Late Medieval Northern Norwegian Male Costume. Although he did a good job describing it, remeber that he was not a textile archaeologist.

Why would this make a difference? Think of someone you know who can not sew and knows little about fabric. Now imagine them trying to describe how your prom dress was constructed. They are not going to know the terms or techniques. Gutorm was mainly interested in social-archaeology and anthropology. He even left archaeology at one point to study social-anthropology, but that is another story.

Maybe because the outfit was, at the time, not considered Viking-age, which even then was all of the rage in Norway, or maybe the outfit was simply shelved in the museum and then forgotten about, but I can’t find much mention of it again until 1974.

Aagot Noss talks about the Skjoldehamn outfit in his article “Draktfunn Og Drakttradisjon I Det Vestnordiske Området Frå Vikingtid Til Høgmellomalderen” (Clothing Findings And Costume Tradition In The West Nordic region From Viking-age To the High Middle Ages.) in 1974’s Viking magazine. Of course he uses the information from Gjessing’s 1938 article and did not publish any new information.

Not until 1988 do I find evidence that the original find is actually taken out and re-examined. Published in 1988’s Viking magazine, Per Holck wrote “Myrfunnet Fra Skjoldehamn- Mannlig Same Eller Norrøn Kvinne?” (Skjoldehamn Bog Discovery – Sami Male or Norse Female?). Holck was one of the original “Bones,” aka Temperance “Bones” Brennan. He was one of the first experts in the field of forensic anthropology. He is also a widely known police expert witness in forensic science, so much so that he is a lecturer for the FBI in that field.

Holck began as a Norwegian medical doctor, who was a GP (general practitioner) beginning in the 1960’s, but his love of archaeology dates back to when he was in high school and took part in Viking-age excavations in Oslo. He never truly gave up his interest and, even in the beginning of his medical career, would often worked in excavations studying the bones he found. That takes us back to 1988 when Holck takes the Skjoldehamn bones out of storage in the Anatomical Institute in Oslo and reexamines them.

In 1936, when the bones were originally sent to the Anatomical Institute in Oslo, a Professor Schreiners made a fairly thorough inventory of the remains. Most of it was bits and pieces mostly de-calcified and deformed and nothing significant. Other than listing in detail what type of bones he found, Professor Schreiners did not show much interest in examining the bones further. He believed that little information could be gathered from what remained of the Skjoldehamn body.

When Holck reexamines the bones in 1988, he finds that not much has changed. Holck feels that the acids in the Skjoldehamn bog most likely shrunk the bones from their original size. He even describes the skull cap as a wrinkled hat!

Taking into account the shrinkage, he felt that the Skjoldehamn person was of small build and not a large individual. Like “Bones,” he used the attachment points of muscles, ligaments, and tendons to figure out what body type the person would have had.

Not enough of the leg bones remain to determine height, but based on where the muscles attach to the bones, the person was not a large hulk of a figure, probably well toned but not bulky. Remember, of the bones that remained, nothing remained that could point to the sex of this person. There was nearly nothing of the pelvis left.

We can not definitively tell the sex, age or height of the Skjoldehamn person based off of what remains. Holck, using mainly the size of the bones (which had been shrunk) and the size of the attachment points (which the shrinkage may have distorted), theorized that the Skjoldehamn person was either a Norse female or a Sami male. (Holck 113).

Holck, as brilliant as he is, is just guessing. It is an educated guess, no doubt, but still a guess. Remember how many factors we are dealing with to make this guess:

  • only fragments of bones remain
  • these bones are over 1,000 years old
  • the acids and chemicals in the bog have shrunk it
  • the decay from shipping the bones without treating them (from Skjoldehamn to Tromsø museum) rendered some bones to dust
  • no sex-determining bones are left
  • no fragments large enough to determine height
  • not enough left or in good enough shape to determine an age

Even Holck does not seem solid about his guess and admits that there are simply too many variables to know for certain based off of the bones alone.

At this time, our DNA testing was nearly non-existent. Even contemporary crimes were not being solved by DNA evidence.

More next time!

Esperanza de Navarra

Gjessing, Gutorm. “Skjoldehamndrakten, en Senmiddelaldersk Nordnorsk Mannsdrakt.” Viking, Tidsskrift for Norrøn Arkeologi. 2 (1938) pp.27-81.

Holck, Per. “Myrfunnet Fra Skjoldehamn- Mannlig Same Eller Norrøn Kvinne?” Viking: Tidsskrift for Norrøn Arkeologi 51 (1988): 109-16.

Noss, Aagot. Draktfunn og drakttradisjon i det vestnordiske området frå vikingtid til høgmellomalderen. Viking Ridsskrift for norrøn arkeolgi. 38 (1974) pp.39-65.


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