Exclusive: Skull from perplexing ritual site reconstructed

The Scandinavian man lived a long life 8,000 years ago before his skull was selected for a still-inscrutable ceremony.

He’s physically imposing, somewhere in his 50s, with a wiry gray beard disappearing into his wild boar cloak. His broad chest is dabbed with chalk, and his pale blue eyes are narrowed, as if he’s spotting something in the distance. Dubbed “Ludvig,“ he lived in northern Europe some 8,000 years ago.

Too bad Ludvig can’t talk, though, because researchers have many questions for him.

This is the first facial reconstruction from human remains excavated about a decade ago in south-central Sweden at Kanaljorden, a curious archaeological site where, sometime around 6,000 B.C., animal and human bones had been deliberately arranged on a submerged stone platform in the center of a small lake. Kanaljorden made international headlines in 2018 when researchers published a report on the excavation, noting that wood preserved inside two of the skulls indicated that at least some of the skulls had been mounted on stakes. It was like nothing the scientists had seen before.

“It’s a very fascinating site to work with, and quite complex,” says Fredrik Hallgren, director of the Kanaljorden project for Sweden’s The Cultural Heritage Foundation.

The facial reconstruction was commissioned by the Charlottenborgs slott, a museum in the nearby town of Motala, where it goes on exhibit tomorrow. The museum is housed in a 17th-century manor house built by count Ludvig Wierich Lewenhaupt—ancient Ludvig’s reverse namesake.

Hannah Graffman, head of culture and leisure for Motala, said the reconstruction would give townspeople the opportunity to see what one of its earliest residents looked like. His nickname, she concedes, is “not really a Stone-Age name, though.”

Kanaljorden, which was excavated between 2009 and 2014, is a particularly fascinating site for archaeologists who study the Scandinavian Mesolithic, a period after the last glaciers retreated from the region and during which hunter gather groups from both western mainland Europe and northeast Europe began to move in around 11,000 years ago.

The remains at Kanaljorden are unlike most other Scandinavian Mesolithic burials, which tend to be burials in the ground. Here, around 6,000 B.C., the crania of nine men and women were deliberately placed in the lake—perhaps all mounted on stakes—and interspersed with the jawbones (but not crania) of several local animal species, including wild boar, bear, deer, and badger.

“It's almost like the humans and animals complement each other in a symbolic way,” says Hallgren.

The unusual nature of Kanaljorden struck archaeologist and sculptor Oscar Nilsson, who studied photographs from the site to try to understand what may have motivated people back then to arrange carefully and submerge the bones.

Adelasius Ebalchus lived in northern Switzerland 1,300 years ago. He was in his late teens or early twenties when he died.
Adelasius Ebalchus lived in northern Switzerland 1,300 years ago. He was in his late teens or early twenties when he died.
Photograph by Oscar Nilsson

“When you look at the skulls, how they were placed, you just look into their world of imagination, their religion,” he says.

Researchers were able to obtain DNA data from six of the nine skulls, enabling them to determine the skin, hair, and eye color of individuals. Some Mesolithic Europeans likely had a darker skin tone than modern inhabitants, a fact reflected in the recent recreations of two women who lived in Scandinavia around the time of Ludvig or later. While Ludvig is light-skinned and light-eyed, DNA from a female skull that will be reconstructed next year indicates that she was blonde but darker skinned, attesting to the genetic complexity of Scandinavia at that time.

Graffman is eager to see how Ludvig is received by the 21st-century residents of Motala, and views the reconstruction as a way to build bridges between people across space and time.

“That's what we try to do in all kinds of different areas, whether it's like this [reconstruction] or when we read books about other people or we see art that connect us,” she says. “I think it’s important to find the connections between people.”

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