The Visby skeletal collection at the Fornsalen Museum contains the remains of 1185 people who died at the Battle of Visby in 1361 and is the largest battlefield skeletal collection in Europe. Anthropologists from all over the world come to examine these battered bones to study medieval battlefield injuries. Here’s how these bodies ended up in a museum.
In July of 1361 the Danish king Valdemar IV decided to invade the island of Gotland, Sweden because it had a diverse population that included Danes, was populated with wealthy inhabitants, and was strategically located in the Baltic Sea. A legion of Swedish peasants tried to repel the Danish invasion near the city of Visby, but the inexperienced Gotlanders were no match for the Danish soldiers and many of them were slaughtered during the battle. The fallen Gotland soldiers were buried in three large mass graves, with their armor and weapons, near the city walls. After the Gotlanders surrendered, the island became a part of the Danish kingdom for a short period of time, until the Swedish crown reclaimed it in the early 15th century.
In 1905 Dr. Oscar Wennersten exhumed one of the graves and unearthed 300 bodies. Archaeologists Bengt Thordeman and Poul Nørlund recovered more bodies during additional excavations from two mass graves between 1912 and 1928, bringing the total bodies recovered to 1185. This was a big deal because of the amount of skeletal remains recovered and because these were the first archaeological excavations of mass graves.
During the excavations it was discovered that most of the bodies appeared to have been haphazardly thrown in the graves, except for 20 skeletons in one of the burials that were placed parallel to one another in an east-west alignment. Osteological analysis revealed that many of the warriors were juveniles or elderly, and most showed signs of sharp force trauma.
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