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The life of a Bronze Age priestess revealed in her furs and fingernails

In 1921, a coffin was found in Denmark that was 3400 years old. Much of the skeleton was gone, but thanks to the remaining teeth, hair, fingernails, furs, jewelry and secondary coffin for an infant, we can now piece together much of the biography of this so-called Egtved Girl (named after the village where she was found). She was an active traveler, a mother, and a priestess, all by the time she died at age 17.

Ms. Egtved was born outside Denmark, quite possibly in the Black Forest region of modern Germany. She became a priestess of the the local sun cult. After that, she most likely relocated to marry a tribal chief in Denmark, although she still traveled back to visit her birthplace on more than one occasion. She gave birth to a baby while abroad, eventually dying and being buried with the child before her 18th birthday.

Isotopes as a travelogue

This is a lot of detail to get from some artifacts and nails over 3000 years old. Much of the information about travel and locations comes from looking at the accumulation of two¬†strontium isotopes (strontium-87 and -86) in the body. Egtved Girl’s teeth contained this isotopes in a particular ratio thanks to the environment she grew up in as a child. That ratio was different from a someone who had been a child in Denmark, letting us know that she grew up elsewhere.

The two ratios of strontium were also detected in her hair and nails, but that tells us about the end of her life instead of the beginning. Knowing that hair grows about about a centimeter a month, looking at the 6cm of hair from the root out can show you what Egtved Girl was exposed to in her last six months of life. This information is backed up by her fingernails, which grow at a slower rate, but follow the same pattern. This is how we know that our Bronze Age priestess was moving about so often in her last year of life, and that her baby wasn’t born in Denmark either.

The clothes make the woman

If the strontium isotopes could tell us about Egtved Girl’s body, her belongings tell us more about her society. Her status as a priestess was indicated by her sun-shaped belt buckle. She possessed furs from animals not native to Denmark, but they had been cut and styled according to her adopted home’s fashions, indicating her transition to a new life. And while the amount of travel she undertook at the time was quite noteworthy for the Bronze Age, it’s not incongruous with other clues we have about Northern Europe at the time. Genetics and linguistic studies have previously found that women moved around more than men at the time, although nobody seemed to expect this many trips home to visit the parents.

Source: Coffin remains tell life story of ancient sun-worshiping priestess by Michael Balter, Science

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