Denmark’s probably first Christian burials are found

Medievial child buried with necklace of pearls
Medievial child buried with necklace of pearls in Ribe

Ribe is Denmark’s and Scandinavia’s oldest town with findings from the start of the 8th Century (before the Vikings). Ribe celebrates its 1300 years birthday in 2010.
A new medieval archaeological excavation during 2008 and 2009 reveals news about Ribe again. This time news from when Christianity came to Denmark in the 9th century.
From written sources we already knew that the catholic monk Ansgar arrived in Denmark around year 826, at a time when the Danes still worshipped the Nordic gods Thor and Odin. Ansgar’s purpose was to convert the Danes to Christianity and about 855 he obtained some land from the Danish King Horik (Horich) to build the first Christian Church in Denmark in Ribe. This church was never found and therefore we didn’t know where it was located and the archaeologists thought they had to look for it in the part of town where the Ribe Vikings lived traded and had their burials north of Ribe River. Also no reliable written source has told us about the activities of Christianity in Ribe the next 100 years, until 948 when the first bishop of Ribe, Leofdag, is mentioned. This was shortly before Denmark was officially converted to Christianity.

It is probably a part of the first Danish church’s cemetery that is now found south of Ribe River and just south of where the beautiful Ribe Cathedral now piles up 52 meters (170 feet) (though it is situated far below the street level because of the accumulation of hundreds of years of debris and disintegrated building materials around the church). The excavation was made at Lindegaarden that burned to the ground a few years ago.
In more than 4 meters depth (13 feet) underneath man-made cultural stratums and in an excavation area of only 127 m² (417 feet²) the archaeologists found what is probably the oldest Christian burials in Denmark. One of the reasons you can tell it is Christian burials is the way they buried people east-west, with the head at the western end of the grave and with arms and legs straight, so that the person would look towards the sun and the coming of Christ on Judgment day after arising from the dead. The bodies also were lying on their back in different kind of coffins like a dugout coffin, a trough, the body of a wagon, etc. Only one little girl brought grave goods, she wore a necklace around her neck. Radiocarbon dating tells that the skeletons belong to the time between 9th and the start of the 11th century. In other words it tells us that Christian burials were made in the 9th century in Ribe and that make them contemporary with Ansgar’s building of the first church in Denmark in Ribe.
Some people might say that the first Christian church in Denmark was built in Hedeby (Haithabu) by Ansgar. I don’t know which one was first. But anyway Hedeby is now a part of Germany.
Many other very important findings were made. I will only mention what is probably Denmark’s oldest brick wall. It was a part of a dining room that belonged to the Cathedral’s canon (= priest) monastery from the middle of the 12th century to the middle of the 13th century.
During the next years the findings have to be examined and the citizens of Ribe have to rewrite Ribe’s history once again.
The archaeological excavation at Lindegården has it’s own blog, it is only in Danish but it has a lot of photos of the findings: Lindegaarden

4 thoughts on “Denmark’s probably first Christian burials are found”

  1. I have just found this fine article from Ribe Cathedral about the excavations – in Danish, English and German: http://www.ribe-domkirke.dk/upload/pdf/Lindegaarden-web_100.pdf

    Dansk: Kortfattet information om resultaterne af de arkæologiske udgravninger syd for Ribe Domkirke

    English: A concise overview of the recent archaeological excavations South of Ribe Cathedral

    Deutsch: Kurze Information zu den archäologischen Ausgrabungen im südlichen Bereich des Domes von Ribe

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