Archaeology has revealed the secrets of an Iron Age power center.

New excavations in Uppkra are at the cutting edge of archaeological techniques. Researchers are currently solving significant parts of a historical puzzle by combining big data, data modeling, and DNA sequencing. Maybe we'll find out if the Justinianic Plague, the forerunner of the Black Death, reached Uppkr. a. This has been uncertain until now. n.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Torbjörn Ahlström, Lund University's professor of Historical Osteology, stands on a hill outside Lun.

d. His gaze is drawn to the fertile soil that has served the people of the region for centuries.

Torbjörn Ahlström is about to embark on a new project in Uppk.

Today, it is a quiet village in southern Sweden's countryside, but it was the most powerful center among the Nordic countries for over 1,000 years (between 100 BCE and the 10th century).

Uppkra is the largest Iron Age settlement in the Nordic countries and one of northern Europe's richest archaeological sites.

Until now, excavation has been sporadic and has only covered a small portion of the land.

"However, the autumn of 2022 will be unique. We will now reveal Hallen, a 30-meter-long structure in the heart of the community that serves as the epicenter of power in Uppkra "Torbjörn Ahlströ explains m.

aided by new techniques

The archeological team working on Hallen is an experienced one, with "ordinary" archaeologists, an archaeologist in charge of stratigraphy (documenting the different cultural layers), an animal osteologist (analyzing animal bones), and a palaeobotanist (studying fossilized plants) all working on the excavations with the most up-to-date toolbox of modern archeological techniques.

"Archaeology is in the midst of its third scientific revolution, which is opening up entirely new possibilities," says Torbjörn Ahlströ.

Simply put, the team is combining a variety of techniques to create a comprehensive picture of life in the Nordic countries' great power center.

"For example, we use DNA sequencing in conjunction with strontium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen isotope analyses. This has, in fact, revolutionized archaeology by providing answers about ancient cultures' kinship, mobility, habits, and health "Sandra Fritz, Lund University's Historical Osteology Project Assistant, agrees.

Different findings can be identified and matched against global databases by sequencing prehistoric DNA.

"We extract soil DNA from cultivated soil, a completely new method that basically means we take a soil sample and extract all the available DNA," Torbjörn Ahlströ explains.

A tube is pushed into the ground and sent to a laboratory for DNA analysis. This technique differs from other types of DNA analyses that use bone fragments from animals or humans rather than soil. 

Credit: Lund University

"When combined with other methods like micromorphology, archaeogenetics, isotopes, and radiographic analyses, we have a good chance of getting a fairly detailed picture of the prehistoric conditions in Uppkra," Sandra Fritz says.

"Personally, I want to know if Uppkra was affected by the Justinianic Plague, the forerunner of the Black Death, which swept through here in several waves between 1300 and 1700.

We know that the Justinianic Plague struck Germany and England in the sixth century, but it has yet to be identified in Scandinavia "Torbjörn Ahlstro says

Accident discovered Uppkra

Uppkra was discovered almost by chance.

In 1934, the foundations of a pigsty were to be dug near the church in the village of Uppkra.

"In Uppkra, the soil revealed the first signs of the community. We now have 28,000 artifacts, including pottery, charred bones, and charcoal—basically, a massive prehistoric site "Torbjörn Ahlströ says m.

The entire Uppkra site is large, covering 50 hectares, and the excavations take time.

So far, researchers have discovered a brewery, jewelry, and a glass bowl that was most likely made on the Black Sea's shores in Uppkra.


"What was the relationship with the Roman Empire on the continent? Did the people of Uppkra fight as auxiliary troops for it? "Torbjörn Ahlstro says ̈m.

He points across the valley and walks along the hall's indicated path. Kulthuset, another central location, is marked by four wooden stakes driven into the ground.

"This is where religious rituals took place, near the power center Hallen," Torbjörn Ahlströ explains.


He concludes that the placement of Hallen and Kulthuset was important to people—they have always been rebuilt on the same spot—after detailing how Hallen went through at least seven different construction phases.

"We hope to unearth a slew of discoveries that will shed light on the current state of power. The history of what happened in Uppkra's Hallen is indicative of what happened throughout much of the Iron Age "Torbjörn Ahlstro says ̈m.

How the new methods function

  • Strontium isotope analysis 87/86Sr and oxygen isotope analysis 18/160: Strontium and oxygen isotopes accumulate in bedrock and rainwater. They then move on to vegetation and nearby watercourses. Their signatures differ depending on location and are unique to the originating site. Humans and animals absorb the isotope signatures of their surroundings through food and drink.

  • Nitrogen isotopes (15N) and stable carbon isotopes (13/12C): Nitrogen and carbon isotopes indicate the type of diet consumed.

  • Ancient DNA (aDNA): Like most organic material, DNA has evolved over time. Parts of prehistoric genomes can be identified and matched with global databases by sequencing prehistoric DNA. Not only is this useful for determining kinship, mobility, and human and animal species, but it is also useful for identifying bacteria (for example tuberculosis).

  • Micromorphology: The extraction of vertical soil horizons allows the detection of specific types of activity at a site. Under a microscope, thin layers formed as a result of events can be identified.

  • Georadar: Ground penetrating radar (georadar) measures the composition and density differences. It is capable of detecting events. Such investigations can aid in the identification of construction and/or excavation patterns. These can direct archaeologists to antiquarian sites of interest.

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