In December 2023, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo discovered an unknown burial site in a quarry near Fredrikstad, in southeastern Norway. This find has revealed an astonishing set of more than 30 tombs, most of them belonging to babies, buried over 2000 years ago.

The team of archaeologists, led by Guro Fossum, was initially investigating ancient Stone Age settlements when they found stone formations that turned out to be burial circles. These circles contained cremated human remains, mainly of young children. Despite the cremation, specialists were able to identify the remains of infant skulls, indicating the predominance of babies, some of whom may not have been full-term.

The tombs, dated between 800 and 200 B.C., show variations in the arrangement of the cremated remains, some placed in urns and others simply under the stone circles. The amount of bones recovered was minimal in many cases, between 0.1 and 240 grams per tomb, which presented a considerable challenge for the archaeologists and osteologists involved in the study.

The stone circles mark graves, many of which contained the remains of babies
The stone circles mark graves, many of which contained the remains of babies. Credit: Guro Fossum / Museum of Cultural History

In addition to the children’s tombs, evidence of daily activities around the site was found, such as kitchen pits and fire pits. This suggests that the area may have served not only as a cemetery but also as a place where the community gathered, possibly for ceremonies related to funerals.

There was something special about the whole place. The tombs are very close together. They must have been in an open landscape, with nearby communication routes, so everyone knew about them. Furthermore, all the tombs were very beautiful and meticulously worked. Each stone came from a different place and was precisely placed in the formation. We wondered who had made such an effort, says Fossum.

According to Håkon Reiersen, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Stavanger, this discovery is exceptional for the amount of data it provides about infant funerary practices in ancient Norway. He highlights that the high infant mortality rate in that historical period probably contributed to the creation of a site dedicated exclusively to children.

The dating shows that the burial site was used over a long period, so they could not all have died in the same natural disaster or outbreak of disease or epidemic, says Fossum.

An example of an opened grave, with cremated remains and remnants of the funeral pyre in the centre
An example of an opened grave, with cremated remains and remnants of the funeral pyre in the centre. Credit: Guro Fossum / Museum of Cultural History

The burial site, unique in the European context, has sparked interest not only for its rarity but also for its emotional implications. Reiersen emphasizes that this find connects us deeply with the universal human emotions related to the loss and mourning of children, showing that people in the past were not so different from us in terms of how they honored their dead.

Fossum finds it interesting that men, women, and especially children had their own tombs and received the same treatment for centuries.

It seems that the social structure was more egalitarian, as there was not much difference between the tombs. The same type of tombs, grave goods, and burial method were used. This suggests a society where the community was important, she states.

Only one of the site’s tombs is dated after the year 0. From that point on, funerary practices gradually changed, with hierarchies and large burial mounds reserved only for those with status.

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