Illerup start Udvalgte


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.

View across Illerup Ådal, 20 km south-west of Aarhus.

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.





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.




A total of 15,000 weapons and pieces of military equipment were excavated from an area measuring 40,000 m2. It was often the case that bundles of items were found, these having originally been wrapped in some type of cloth. However, after 1,800 years the material has rotted away, and only the weapons and equipment remain.

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.
A fleet of perhaps 50 ships and 1,000 men set sail from the west coast of the Scandinavian peninsula and made its way down through Kattegat to attack Jutland. The force landed on the east coast of Jutland, but was met by a well-organised army made up of forces from the entire region. The defensive action proved successful: the attackers were defeated, and their equipment and weapons were collected and destroyed. The remnants of the weapons and equipment were then thrown into the lake in Illerup Ådal as an offering. It is not clear exactly where the battles in this campaign took place, but presumably not too far away from the lake.


Prior to the offering, items were deliberately spoilt. Swords were broken across and shields smashed. The round items are shield bosses, torn out of the wooden shields and then deformed by cuts and blows.

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.
During the course of 18 years (spread over two periods), these ancient bundles and their contents of swords, spears, lances, shields, knives, combs, Roman silver coins, bridles, tools and much more were recovered one by one after having spent as much 1,800 years in the sediment of the lake. The finds were brought to the Moesgård Museum, preserved, described, sorted, and then compared with similar material from as far afield as the Black Sea, Scotland, Africa and the Arctic.
The Illerup finds are exceptional, because of both their sheer quantity and their condition. The alkaline nature of the soil has preserved iron so well that two hundred Roman swords, for example, could be used today had they not been ceremoniously broken and bent prior to being cast into the lake.




The excavation teams found more than one thousand fragments of deliberately destroyed weapons which it has been possible to match up. If, for example, fragments from the same sword have been found in two different bundles, it is concluded that these were offered on the same occasion.

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.
It is now also clear that the Illerup find is made up of the material from four different offerings in exactly the same place but with as much as a hundred years between each ceremony. It seems clear, therefore, that it was the local population that carried out the ceremonies. But who was the enemy?
Light has been shed on this question by studying the personal property of the attacking warriors. 150 tinder boxes and combs from the oldest Illerup ceremony show that the attacking forces had sailed from the west coast of the Scandinavian peninsula, i.e. from modern-day Norway and the adjoining regions of western Sweden

After years of research it is now possible, in the light of the finds from Illerup Ådal, to reconstruct harness and other equipment for horses and the equipment used and worn by the warriors of the time. In the longer term, it will be possible to create a detailed picture of the defeated army whose equipment made up the offering.



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.

A red-painted shield with a boss crafted in silver and gold; this splendid item of equipment was the property of the commander of an enemy army. Runic inscriptions name several such persons.

These masks of gold-plated silver were crafted in Scandinavia, and prove that as early as 200 AD smiths were able to use embossed foil techniques, gold plating, and soldering.

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 period.
As already mentioned, Illerup is not an isolated phenomenon, in that we know of similar offerings made from the same period in all the areas boundering on Kattegat. The offering of spoils of war tells us of historical events not mentioned in written sources.