Sweden’s ‘Pompeii’ massacre baffles experts

Archaeologists who unearthed five ancient and brutally-murdered bodies last week on a Swedish island say they've discovered an inexplicable massacre, with one expert expecting to find hundreds more bodies in a scene she compared to Italy's Pompeii.

Sweden's 'Pompeii' massacre baffles experts

"We have a massacre and everyone is still there," archaeologist and project manager Helena Victor told The Local.

A small team of archaeologists at Kalmar County museum, in collobaration with Lund University, has been digging at the site for the past three years. The team is studying the Migration Period in Scandinavian history, from about 400 to 550 A.D., 400 years before the Viking Age.

The custom of the time was to burn the dead, and so archaeologists were shocked when they unearthed intact remains from 1,600 years ago at the otherwise peaceful Sandby Borg fort.

"In the way they’ve been killed it's clear it's not a domestic fight," Victor said. "These people were just in their houses. Slaughtered in their houses."

IN PICTURES: See photos from the ancient island crime scene

Öland, an island just off the south east coast of Sweden, is a popular destination for Swedes soaking up summer sun, as well as the location of the Swedish royal family's summer palace. But it seems the island has a violent past. Five bodies were discovered in one hut alone last week, and as the dig continues the numbers keep climbing.

"We have just opened very small trenches, about one percent of the site, and already found ten people in different places," Victor told The Local. "I’m expecting a couple of hundred."

The archaeologists uncovered the feet of the first body last year and decided to follow the trail. When the skeleton was uncovered they discovered its skull had been split, apparently by a sword, and Victor said the person had "obviously been killed". The next skeleton was found lying flat on its stomach, also with brutal damage.

"I think they were ambushed in some way and people were running into the house trying to kill them," said Helene Wilhelmson, a Lund PhD student who specializes in the study of bones. "And they didn't have a chance."

None of the archaeologists were expecting a murder mystery at work. The excavation began in 2010 when researchers discovered jewellery boxes and gilded brooches at the site, along with dozens of valuable pearls. Such baubles from the fallen Roman Empire and the Byzantine kingdom have been found on Öland and Gotland before, and the team was hoping to discover more about Öland's role in trade of the period.

But the vast caches of jewellery were untouched, leading researchers to believe the violent raid had nothing to do with wealth – and the attackers may even have been known to the victims. But whoever they were, they didn't leave any hints.

"We have no trace of the attackers," Victor told The Local. "We're not sure if they attacked during the day or night or how it came to be. We don't know if they came by water or land. We don't know if they were Swedes or Finns or Danes or anything else. That's the big question."

The crime scene remained untouched for over one thousand years, transforming the fort into a gruesome graveyard.

"It was such a terrible massacre that it totally destroyed the fort," Wilhelmson said. "I don't think anyone dared to go near it for a very long time."

Whatever the reason, the site has been remarkably well-preserved, giving archaeologists a rare, detailed glimpse into the past.

"It was really just a day in the life in the Migration Period, and that's completely unique," Wilhelmson remarked. "We don't have anything to compare it to."

The news of "Swedish Pompeii", so-called because of the rare glimpse it offers into ancient every-day life, took world media by storm last week when Lund University published a video and press release about the finding. Victor said the team was totally unprepared for the media onslaught.

"The press release Lund put out was a mistake," she told The Local. "This is really just the beginning of the project. We had a plan for how to publish this and they misunderstood us and didn't ask clearly."

The team of five is set to have their first project meeting next week, Victor said, where they will discuss their theories and the future of the project – and how to handle the sudden interest.

"We can't stop now. When the cat is out you can't stop it," Victor told The Local.

"We've launched a website to give glimpses, and we plan to expand the website and continuously update. We will release the finds little by little, apply for more money… and keep digging."

Update: The team has discovered a rare ancient gold coin which may explain the massacre. Read more here.

Solveig Rundquist

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How are Sweden’s tourist spots coping with the risk of coronavirus outbreaks this summer?

The Public Health Agency has warned that rural areas popular with tourists are particularly vulnerable to a second wave of the coronavirus this summer.

How are Sweden's tourist spots coping with the risk of coronavirus outbreaks this summer?
A beach on Öland, a popular tourist spot that also has Sweden's highest proportion of elderly residents. Photo: Mikael Fritzon / TT

“At the end of the summer, we may get an increased strain on the healthcare sector if distance isn't kept and the restrictions aren't respected,” said the Public Health Agency's general director Johan Carlson at a press conference in early July.

He warned that it was especially important for young people to continue following the restrictions.

“It's unreasonable to think you can live as normal if you aren't in a risk groups while others have to keep distance,” he said.

While the larger cities in Sweden tend to empty out during the warmer months, there is concern about how infection may spread in popular tourist spots.

“We know that the most common tourist areas aren't very densely populated normally, so there is a big percentage increase in the population, for example on Gotland and Öland,” said Thomas Lindén, a department head at the National Board of Health and Welfare.

So how are these areas coping so far?

“At the moment there is available [hospital] capacity in all tourist areas, but there is significant worry,” Lindén said.

In the Kalmar region, including the island of Öland which was singled out in this week's press conference following reports of crowding, local authorities say that so far, there have not been major problems.

“We have few Covid-19 inpatients, less than a handful,” said the region's healthcare director Johan Rosenqvist. “Otherwise, it's like any summer, we are used to a lot of people coming here. The difference is that we must have resources to devote to Covid-19 patients.”

He said that it would however be a problem if there was a local outbreak before the end of summer, with many medical staff still on holiday. In that case, Rosenqvist said it might be necessary to call them back to work. 

Photo: Jessica Gow / TT

Agneta Ahlberg, head of operations the campsites in Borgholm on Öland, said tourism in the area was very different this year. 

“When the decision came [in mid-June] that people could travel more than two hours away, there were lots of bookings. It made a very big difference,” she said. 

“There are always some [who ignore rules] but the vast majority are responsible, and we try to be around and remind them too. Everyone knows what applies,” said her colleague Hans Gerremo. “I was down at the campsite earlier talking with guests, they feel good and can see that we care. We've arranged extra cleaning too.”

“I don't think we've seen the crowding that's being talked about. People naturally keep a distance from each other,” he said.

One family of seven had made the two and a half hour journey from their hometown to stay at the campsite, and said they were comfortable at Borgholm.

“We had views from the beginning about the fact there were so many people here on Öland, we said they were completely stupid, but then we came here ourselves,” Stefan and Lotta Ekenmo told TT.

“You have your own accommodation with a caravan, and then you follow the recommendations. It would be different if you stayed at a hotel or in cottages where other people have stayed. Here, it's just us.”