FINDS OF WEAPON OFFERINGS FROM ILLERUP ÅDAL
By Jørgen Ilkjær
The river valley called Illerup Ådal was drained in 1950, revealing large weapon finds from the Iron Age. Since then the site has been excavated during two periods, 1950-56 and 1975-85, and the past decade has seen the publication of eight of a planned series of 14 publications about the finds made.
The current consensus of opinion is that the Illerup finds are spoils of war offered to the gods. A local army appears to have defeated an invading force, whose weapons were then cast into the lake covering the site of the finds at that time. In excess of 15,000 weapons and pieces of equipment from the period 200-500 AD have been excavated, making it the most comprehensive find of its type anywhere in the world.
RESEARCHERS PAST AND PRESENT
Not that Illerup Ådal is the only site where such war spoils have been found; there are in fact 50 other sites throughout Denmark and southern Sweden. Some of these were excavated during the 19th century and have formed the starting point for all later attempts to interpret similar finds. Around 1940, two different theories were current regarding bog finds: one interpreted the finds as being offerings made of items gathered together after a successful military engagement; the other posited that the finds had been cast into the bogs over many years and as such represented small annual offerings of the local people's own equipment. Unfortunately, it was not possible to determine which of the theories was correct, as the early excavations were insufficiently well documented. It was not until new evidence was uncovered through the more recent excavations in Illerup Ådal that the question could finally be resolved.
EXCAVATIONS AND FINDS
All told, four different offerings have been
identified in Illerup Ådal. This article, however, deals with the
oldest and largest-scale offering, dating from the early years of the
3rd century. Much work has been involved in creating the following
reconstruction of the course of events leading up to the offering.
Part of the ceremony involved destroying the weapons
and equipment. Next, the remnants were gathered into bundles, which were
wrapped in various forms of cloth - military cloaks, for example. The
bundles were then carried out onto the lake in boats and thrown
overboard. These bundles have been found all over the bed of the lake,
which was 250 meters wide and 400 meters long.
PIECING TOGETHER THE JIGSAW
One of the most important questions (i.e. whether the
weapons were offered on one particular occasion or whether they
constitute a series of small, annual offerings) could now be solved by
piecing together the fragments of the destroyed items. If, for example,
parts of a broken sword could be found in two or more different bundles,
then clearly these bundles must have been part of the same sacrificial
ceremony. Researchers have now succeeded in putting together more than a
thousand fragments, and consequently it is now known that in excess of
twelve thousand items were cast into the lake on one particular occasion
at the beginning of the 3rd century AD.
AN ARMY OF THE ROMAN IRON AGE
The sacrifices appear to have consisted of all of the army's equipment and, even though we have only excavated 40 per cent of the oldest site, it is nevertheless now possible to begin to describe the makeup of this army and in the process gain an impression of the political structure that led to its being assembled in the first place.
Work on the shields has shown that there were three
levels in the army's hierarchy: a top tier, represented by five shields
whose bosses are fashioned of gold and silver; a tier of about 40 with
shields with bronze bosses; and a level of around 300 who had shields
with iron bosses. Comparisons with other finds from the same period
confirm this division. The size of the attacking force means that it
must have been put together from a significantly large geographic area,
which makes it likely that it was formed as the result of a military
alliance. The existence of such an alliance must in turn reflect the
political conditions prevalent on the Scandinavian peninsula during this