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What Was Life Like for a Girl in the Bronze Age?

Analysis of a 3,400-year-old burial traces the life story of a Bronze Age female

The Egtved girl was a high-born female from the Bronze Age. In her grave in Denmark, she wears a wool dress. Wool textiles and a bronze belt plate that resembles the sun surround her remains. (Roberto Fortuna, with kind permission of the National Museum of Denmark)
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Scientists call her Egtved girl, and though her remains were unearthed decades ago, she continues to reveal new secrets about life in the Bronze age, according to a recent study published in Scientific Reports.

Discovered in 1921 in the village of Egtved on Denmark's Jutland Peninsula, the girl's grave is well preserved. She wears a wool outfit and surrounded by goods that accompanied her to the grave. Dating of her oak coffin and dental remains suggests she died on a summer day in 1370 BC at the age of 16 or 18. This new analysis reveals her to also have been an avid traveler, Brandon Keim reports for National Geographic. "Far from being the stay-at-home type, then, the Egtved Girl embodies a certain mobile cosmopolitanism," writes Keim.

To figure out where she was from, a team of researchers in Denmark and Sweden turned to a common element in Earth's geology: Strontium. Humans absorb different strontium isotopes from their natural environment through the plants and animals that they eat. It shows up in our hair, our fingernails and even the enamel on our teeth. Strontium levels can tell us what she ate — food from the land and occasionally meat — and the ratio of these levels can also reveal when and where she went somewhere.

In the case of Egtved girl, strontium isotope ratios in the enamel on her first molar teeth suggest she spent her early years outside of Denmark. Strontium isotope levels also varied in the wool thread in her clothing, and her grave goods didn't match the chemical signature expected from local wool. So, if not Denmark, where was she from?

Based on the enamel strontium signatures it would have to be somewhere that's geologically older than the Jutland Peninsula, where Egtved is situated. The researchers suspect that the girl and her clothes originated from elsewhere in Europe, perhaps Germany's Black Forest. That's about 500 miles from her burial site. In a press release, one of the co-authors on the study, Kristian Kristiansen of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, hazards a guess as to Egtved girl's backstory:

In Bronze Age Western Europe, Southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms. We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and my guess is that the Egtved Girl was a Southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families.

There's more evidence that she wasn't a stranger to long distance travel. When she died, Egtved girl had nine inches of hair. By analyzing how the strontium levels change over the length of her hair, researchers retraced her steps. Based on evidence from her hair and a thumbnail, researchers think that at least 13 months before she died she was living in her place of birth. Then, she went to a different area, possibly the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, and stayed for about nine months. Then, back to her homeland, and finally, a month before she died, she returned to Egtved.

Further analysis may unearth more of the Egtved girl's secrets, but for now, her 3,400-year-old remains tell a modern story of travel, trade and politics.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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