Roman graveyard (almost) found in Copenhagen

This is how badly I need to learn a Scandinavian language
This shows how little I under­stand the ori­ginal news story.

There’s sur­pris­ing news today. Burials of around thirty Romans have been dis­covered. This would please an archae­olo­gist any­where, but the oddity is that they’ve been found in a sub­urb of Copenhagen, Denmark. My first reac­tion is that the trans­la­tion is wrong, but the ori­ginal text reads:

Arkæologer på hem­me­lig mission

Arkæologerne fra Kroppedal Museum har fun­det en gam­mel romersk grav­plads, men afslører ikke stedets geo­grafiske pla­cer­ing, før de er fær­dige med udgravningerne.

With an online dic­tion­ary I get that as roughly:

Archaeologists on a clandes­tine mission

Archaeologists from Kroppedal Museum have found an ancient Roman grave­yard, but will not reveal its loc­a­tion before fin­ish­ing the excavation.

It’s a shame to lose the pussy­cat, but the finds seem fas­cin­at­ing.

The finds include neck­laces and pot­tery con­tain­ing food. According to Rune Iversen, who is dir­ect­ing the dig, this is all about con­spicu­ous con­sump­tion. These people were being bur­ied with their jew­elry and a feast, so that the liv­ing could show they were rich enough not to need the goods. Something which didn’t make the IHT trans­la­tion, if I under­stand cor­rectly, is that the bod­ies were bur­ied with the head at the north and the face turned towards the east. If I got that right, then these would be Pagan buri­als, because with the advent of Christianity buri­als are ori­ent­ated east-west.

That’s inter­est­ing because the buri­als are dated to around AD 300. In AD 313 Constantine announced the tol­er­a­tion of Christianity, which put the buri­als neatly into the period when Christianity is strug­gling to make itself dom­in­ant in Roman soci­ety. You could argue that you wouldn’t expect Romans in Denmark to be Christians, but I didn’t expect Romans in Denmark any­way. From read­ing the art­icle it also looks like this isn’t the first Roman com­munity to be found in Denmark, so that’s a whole new area of ignor­ance I’ve discovered.

If you visit the ori­ginal art­icle and want to see big­ger ver­sions of the pho­tos, you’ll need to click on [Større billede]. There’s a nice photo of one of the pots they’ve found at the bot­tom of the page.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

9 Responses

  1. Archaeozoo says:

    They get every­where don’t they, those Romans. Although I admit I wouldn’t have guessed Denmark either. I hadn’t real­ised they had got that far north.

  2. Troels Myrup says:

    Nice trans­la­tion 😉

    This is a com­mon mis­take by journ­al­ists, how­ever. When they write “Roman”, what they really mean is “Roman Iron Age” — which is some­thing a little bit different.…See e.g. http://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​R​o​m​a​n​_​I​r​o​n​_​Age
    In fact, archae­olo­gists work­ing in Scandinavia often (con­fus­ingly) refer to this period as simply “Roman”. And I would assume that this is how the story ended up in the Danish news­pa­per as being about the find of a “Roman grave­yard”. That it was sub­sequently picked by IHT is hilarious!

    That said, the goods that were found in the graves in Ishøj may well be “Roman” or at least “Roman” in style. However, judging by the pho­tos and the art­icle, this is not neces­sar­ily the case.…

  3. Alun says:

    That makes it a lot less sur­pris­ing. The finds of Roman arte­facts in Scandinavia, along with the secrecy around the dig. made me won­der if it just might be pos­sible that a minor Roman trad­ing post had been found. I couldn’t work out why the graves were described as rare rather than unique.

    I can’t help feel­ing slightly dis­ap­poin­ted that neither pussy­cats nor Romans have been found. I’ll update the title. :)

  4. Troels Myrup says:

    A fairly large num­ber of Roman arte­facts has indeed been found in Scandinavia — but the inter­pret­a­tion of them and the sites (such as Himlingøje) that they have been found at is highly con­tested. A lot of this mater­ial can be found in Ulla Lund Hansen, Römischer Import im Norden (Copenhagen 1987), and Lars Jørgensen, Birger Storgaard and Lone Gebauer Thomsen, The Spoils of Victory: The North in the Shadow of the Roman Empire (Copenhagen 2003).

    But, yeah, too bad about the pussycats.…

  5. Alun says:

    I’ve now picked up an alert from AP on the topic, which explains how it got onto Fox News among oth­ers. I’ll have to remem­ber to book­mark this for when I write my pseudoar­chae­ology book.

    Incidentally, Fox does have an impress­ive page list­ing their archae­ology stor­ies.

  6. Troels Myrup says:

    Alun, could you con­tact me, please? It seems that your Leicester email has “per­man­ent fatal errors”.…

  7. TW says:

    Interesting post — In my layman’s state I was pretty sur­prised at the pro­spect of a Roman enclave in Denmark, espe­cially as the last time I was in Copenhagen there were no signs of even the most remote Roman heritage!

    Troels Myrup’s explan­a­tion cer­tainly makes sense — although it is a shame to lose all the pussy­cats as well :-)

  8. The com­ments of Mr Myrup is much appre­ci­ated here in the Portland (OR) area where a major news­pa­per also needs edu­cat­ing. The Danish news­pa­per “Politiken” gives a good explan­a­tion of the term “Roman Iron Age” as used by the Danes (because many items from the romans are found in the graves). The Romans them­selves were NEVER in Denmark.

  9. Marco says:

    This dis­cov­er­ing really sur­prised me. Many years ago sur­prised me the found­ing of a Roman mil­it­ary base in Ireland too.
    Is a mat­ter of fact that the Romans knew very well that the ‘Danish Territories’ exis­ted in fact Livius in the ‘Germania’ spoke about the pou­la­tions of the ‘Dani’ .
    Romans like amber very much and a lot of amber came from Danmark in those days.
    Years ago I read a doc­toral thesis were was writ­ten that roman boats and ves­sels cir­cum­nav­ig­ated Danmark.
    In any case should be bet­ter to go deeply in this topic.
    Are the Danish schol­ars sure that these grave­yards are Roman?
    Why the news­pa­pers and media do not speak about this topic more and with more details?