Schleswig (Allemagne): People, population and diseases in the Middle Ages

People, population and diseases in the Middle Ages

Christian-Albrechts-Universitaet zu Kiel

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Interreg-Project “Bones4Culture“: the first analyses of 700 skeletons from the city of Schleswig


Photo: pur.pur

The Interreg-project “Bones4Cultures” has just been started. Its aim is to analyze population, life, health and culture of the people that lived in the German-Danish border land during the Middle Ages (AD 1050 – 1536). Researchers from Denmark and Germany will examine skeletons of people, who used to live in the city of Schleswig and in other parts of Germany and Denmark during this period. Approximately 1000 human skeletons will be analysed during the three year project period. Samples will be taken from 350 skeletons for a more detailed chemical and physical analysis. The project is funded through an allowance of 530.000 Euros form INTERREG4A and is co-financed with a total of 280.000 Euros from Kiel University, University of Southern Denmark (SDU) and Schloss Gottdorf.

From the 6th century onwards ethical and political conflicts were common in the region along the German-Danish boundary. In the medieval context the conflict was accentuated when Schleswig was made a duchy – demanding increasing independence from the supremacy of the Danish king. From this period onwards the region was increasingly Germanized. Schleswig and surroundings remained an area of conflict between Germans and Danes to after the 1st World War when a referendum in 1920 made the northern half of the duchy Schleswig Danish and the remainder German. From this point onwards the region has been peaceful and it has acted as an example of good ethnic relations in a mixed region.

On this background it has become a pertinent question: where did the ancestors of the present-day Schleswigers come from? Were they born and raised in Schleswig or did they come from other parts of Germany, Denmark or even from aboard? Up to now, we only have a vague knowledge of the history and identity of the common people from the Early Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The project “Bones4Cultures” aims to close this gap in the understanding of our joint history. In the process, new analytic techniques will be developed and it is expected that the regional medieval population around the German-Danish boundary will be among the best known ancient populations in the world. Researchers from SDU are in the lead position; the German partners comprise researchers from Kiel University, GEOMAR | Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the Center for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA) at Landesmuseum Schloss Gottdorf.

Project leader, Professor Jesper Boldsen of SDU: “The First step in the Bones4Culture was to create a basis for all the analysis by anthropologically indentifying and examining all skeletons excavated in five Schleswig cemeteries. It creates a basis for selecting skeletons for the in depth chemical analyses, and second, it creates a database of anthropological knowledge about the medieval population of the city. The database has already provided important knowledge about age and sex composition of the samples; and even more importantly, it has facilitated an analysis of the occurrence of the most dreaded disease in the Middle Ages: leprosy. It appears that leprosy was a very common disease and that the prevalence of the disease declined through from the early to the late Middle Ages. This means that the first step of the project has successfully been completed and that it has produced new insights into the population of the region.”

The selected bone samples will undergo new chemical analyses for detecting strontium, lead and mercury. “Even small amounts of the latter are toxic. Nevertheless, mercury was used to heal certain diseases, lead was part of ceramic glaze of everyday house ware”, explains Professor Kaare Lund Rasmussen of SDU. The detection of these elements will make it easier for the scientists to study common diseases in the Middle Ages, their treatment and the heavy metal contamination at that time.

Performing a strontium/calcium-analysis, which may be conducted on samples taken from dental matter, can answer questions concerning common diet. “We wish to know who lived on a predominantly vegetarian diet and who ate meat. The strontium isotopes will also give us information on mobility and sedentarism, because they differ due to regional occurrences”, says Professor Anton Eisenhauer with GEOMAR.

Radiocarbon-dating will be done in order to place the remains into a historical timeline, analysis of the carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen ration (δ15N) will complement the research on diet. These analyses will take place in the Leibniz Labor at Kiel University.

Professor Claus von Carnap-Bornheim with the Center for Baltic and Scandinavian Archeology explains: “We will determine the age, the kind of diseases and diet that was common among the population in the Middle Ages in this area. Along with our knowledge on settlement structures we will be able to form an overall picture. The project is supposed to reveal insights into the life of the population along the German-Danish border at that time. We will pass on this knowledge to today’s residents and to the tourists that visit the region.”