The remains of a high-status young woman, known as the Egtved Girl, reveals clues to life in Bronze Age Denmark, including her travels. She wears a well-preserved wool outfit and a bronze belt plate, symbolizing the sun.
Though she died nearly 3,500 years ago, the Egtved Girl tells a surprisingly modern story.
A new analysis of the iconic Bronze Age woman, whose well-preserved remains were unearthed near Egtved, Denmark, in 1921, suggests she was born elsewhere and traveled widely during her lifetime.
Far from being the stay-at-home type, then, the Egtved Girl embodies a certain mobile cosmopolitanism.
"We have a perception of ourselves today as very developed people, like globalization is new," says Karin Frei, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark and lead author of the new study, published Thursday in Scientific Reports. "But the more we look in prehistory, we can see we're already global."
Frei specializes in analyzing subtle variations in the molecular composition of strontium, an element that is widely distributed in Earth's bedrock and accumulates in plant and animal tissues. The variations differ from place to place, creating tell-tale local signatures that act, says Frei, "like a geological GPS."
By comparing strontium traces from the Egtved Girl to place-specific strontium signatures across northwestern Europe, it was possible to determine where she lived at different points in her life.
Strontium signatures in her teeth, which are deposited in childhood, show that she was likely born in what is now southwestern Germany, some 500 miles away.
The precise location is difficult to pinpoint, but wool fibers in the Egtved Girl's clothing—including a blouse-and-skirt ensemble that wouldn't look unfashionable today—appear to originate in Germany's Black Forest.
"She's such a big figure in the Danish identity, someone kids learn about in school," Frei says. "And yes, she's a Danish find—but a hugely international woman."
Her hair and a thumbnail, which contain strontium accumulated during the last two years of her life, describe two journeys between Denmark and her birthplace.
Life in the Bronze Age
It's impossible to know exactly why the Egtved Girl traveled, but the Bronze Age was a time of expanding alliances between chiefdoms. Frei thinks the Egtved Girl, who was between 16 and 18 years old when she died, was likely married off to help secure an alliance and perhaps the trade it would foster.
The study "raises questions about the scale of social systems and the nature of long-distance contacts and travel in the Bronze Age," says Jonathan Last, a Bronze Age scholar at Historic England.
Without more evidence, cautions Last, it's difficult to say whether the Egtved Girl moved for an arranged marriage. Instead, says Last, "I wonder if evidence for back-and-forth movement implies this woman had rather more autonomy?"
Scandinavian women of the era sometimes had political power, especially in the absence of direct-line male successors to family leaders, says Flemming Kaul, a Bronze Age specialist at the National Museum of Denmark.
"It's possible that women of the northern Bronze Age were able to make negotiations and establish friendships by themselves, and not necessarily through marriage connections," Kaul says.
Through this lens, the Egtved Girl would have benefited from changing social customs that encouraged generosity towards travelers and guests, making long-distance movement possible and laying the foundations of trade-based economies.
Such possibilities are raised by the Egtved Girl, and further study may raise even more.
"Somehow she gets more and more mysterious," Frei says. "She was found long ago, and still has so much more to tell us."
By Brandon Keim
Image by Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark