Ancient nettle cloth that was found in one of Denmark’s richest known Bronze Age burial mounds, Lusehøj, was actually made far away in Austria, new research has found. This discovery suggests that long-distance trade networks during the Bronze Age, around 800 BC, may have been much more common than previously thought.
“2,800 years ago, one of Denmark’s richest and most powerful men died. His body was burned. And the bereaved wrapped his bones in a cloth made from stinging nettle and put them in a stately bronze container, which also functioned as urn,” the University of Copenhagen news release states.
The new research is suggesting that this man’s voyage to his burial place may have been a long one, the nettle cloth that was wrapped around his bones “was not made in Denmark, and the evidence points to present-day Austria as the place of origin.”
“I expected the nettles to have grown in Danish soil on the island of Funen, but when I analysed the plant fibres’ strontium isotope levels, I could see that this was not the case,” explains postdoc Karin Margarita Frei from the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen.
“The levels indicate that the nettles grew in an area with geologically old bedrock. We can only find rock with similar levels of strontium isotope in Sweden and Norway as well as in Central Europe.”
The news release adds:
“Karin Margarita Frei had to conclude that Bronze Age Danes did not use local stinging nettle for their nettle textiles….
“It is Karin Margarita Frei who has developed the method to determine plant textiles’ strontium isotope levels that has led to the surprising discovery.
“Strontium is an element which exists in the Earth’s crust, but its prevalence is subject to geological and topographical variation. Humans, animals, and plants absorb strontium through water and food. By measuring the strontium level in archaeological remains, researchers can determine where humans and animals lived, and where plants grew.”
This new discovery was the result of collaboration between various international researchers from the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen, the University of Bergen in Norway, and the National Museum of Denmark.
Karin Margarita Frei’s investigation into the origins of the grave’s archaeological remains has suggested that the nettle death shroud may have been produced as far away as the Alps in Austria.
“The bronze container, which had been used as urn, is of Central European origin and probably from the Kärnten-Steiermark region in Austria. The strontium isotope analysis of the cloth indicates that it may very well be from the same region. This assumption is supported by yet incomplete analyses of pitch found in the Lusehøj grave.
“Textile archaeologist Ulla Mannering from the National Museum of Denmark offers an explanation as to how an Austrian cloth ended up in Funen, Denmark.
“‘Bronze Age Danes got their bronze from Central Europe, and imports were controlled by rich and powerful men. We can imagine how a bronze importer from Funen in Denmark died on a business trip to Austria. His bones were wrapped in an Austrian nettle cloth and placed in a stately urn that his travel companions transported back to Denmark,’ Ulla Mannering suggests….
“The strontium isotope analyses have surprised Ulla Mannering…. She concludes on the basis of the analyses that Central Europeans still used wild plants for textile production during the Bronze Age while at the same time cultivating textile plants such as flax on a large scale. Nettle textiles could apparently compete with textiles made from flax and other materials because top quality nettle fabrics are as good as raw silk.
“The strontium isotope analyses also mean that Danish textile history needs revision.
“‘Until recently the Lusehøj nettle cloth was the oldest nettle cloth we knew, and the only Bronze Age nettle cloth, but with our new findings we actually have no evidence that nettle textiles were produced in Denmark at all during the Bronze Age,’ Ulla Mannering points out.”
The findings are were just published in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports.
Image Credits: The National Museum of Denmark