Heartbreaking mystery behind ancient stone circles revealed

Heartbreaking mystery behind ancient stone circles revealed

Archaeologists uncovered an ancient burial site in Norway (Picture: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)

Last year, while excavating a Stone Age site in Norway, archaeologists stumbled across something they weren’t expecting, something unique.

A burial field, covered in circles of meticulously placed stones, was hidden just a few centimetres beneath the surface.

But the mystery lay in the graves themselves – all but two contained the remains of children.

The site, near Fredrikstad in the south of the country close to the Swedish border, revealed 41 graves in total, packed tightly together. Ranging from one to two metres wide, many featured a large stone in the middle, surrounded by circles of smaller stones, like cobbles.

But the fact that most of the graves contained the remains of children – many infants, others between three and six years old – was just the first surprise.

Analysis has shown the burial site was used for several hundred years, spanning both the Bronze and Iron Ages, making the site unique. Children were buried there up until around 2,800 years ago.

Great care was taken when creating the stone circles (Picture: Guro Fossum/Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo)

The team found the graves by accident, while excavating a nearby Stone Age site (Picture: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo

At the time, it was common to cremate the dead, burying burnt bone remains in a pit or scattering them on the ground.

Excavation leader Guro Fossum, adviser at the Museum of Cultural History, said: ‘The dating shows that the burial site was used over a long period, so they couldn’t all have died in the same natural disaster or outbreak of disease or epidemic.

‘They’ve lain here as a secret until we found them. We uncovered one after another and ended up with 41 round stone formations.

‘There was something special about the whole site. The graves are very close together. They must have been in an open landscape, with thoroughfares nearby, so everyone would have known about them. Cooking pits and fireplaces around the site suggest that gatherings and ceremonies were held in connection with burials.’

The burial site was used for hundreds of years, which is unusual (Picture: Guro Fossum/Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo)

Speaking to Science Norway, Ms Fossum continued: ‘Additionally, all the graves were so nice and meticulously crafted. Each stone was sourced from a different location and placed precisely in the formation. We wondered who put in so much effort.

‘When the analysis results came in, it made sense – they were small children’s graves. This was done with so much care.’

Alongside the remains, the archaeologists found fragments of pottery – some of which contained the bones, others that did not – and a possible brooch.

‘Analyses of the pottery fragments can tell us a lot,’ said Ms Fossum. ‘It doesn’t appear that all the vessels were containers for burnt bones – some were placed between the graves, and we are very curious about what was inside them.’

Another question raised by the site is why were the children buried separately, and for so long?

The team uncovered 41 graves in total, 39 containing the remains of children (Picture: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo)

‘We don’t know what kind of beliefs they had, why the dead were burned and buried,’ said Ms Fossum. ‘It’s possible that they believed the body had to be destroyed and transformed through fire to release the soul. Maybe these traditions and rituals were meant to honour and remember those who had died. We do the same now – we remember those who lived before us with rituals and memorials.’

But a similarity between the graves has given one hint about the kind of societies that used the site.

‘It seems that the social structure was more egalitarian, as there wasn’t much difference between the graves,’ she said. ‘The same type of graves, grave goods, and burial method were used. 

‘This suggests a society where community was important.’

A stone formation from one of the children’s graves will go on display at the Historical Museum in Norway’s capital Oslo as part of an exhibition called In Memory of the Children.

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