Grave of Kukruse lord provides clues about medieval Estonians' lives

A skeletal analysis is the first step in investigating human bones.
A skeletal analysis is the first step in investigating human bones. Source: University of Tartu

A grave filled with opulent grave goods unearthed in Kukruse Cemetery near the coast in Northeastern Estonia has helped shed light on the everyday lives of people living in the region some 800 years ago.

For archaeologists and other investigators of the past, the joys of discovery don't end when archaeological digs do. On the contrary — it is in the course of the work that begins following excavation that even grander voyages of discovery begin.

People's knowledge of more distant history is increasingly based on research conducted using natural science-based methods. By piecing together fragments gleaned by analyzing results and adding them to the known historical frame of reference, researchers are able to increasingly fit pieces of the puzzle together and provide a clearer picture of the past.

Central to the investigation of the dug-up materials, naturally, are the exhumed human skeletal remains. These provide a window into the lives these people once led.

A skeletal analysis is the very first step in investigating human bones. An osteologist dates the person at their time of death, their height, their sex, whether they'd ever fractured or broken any bones, and whether they'd had any other injuries or diseases.

The bones exhumed from a grave filled with opulent grave goods indicate that the man buried there, nicknamed the Kukruse lord, was aged 25-35 when he died. His bones carried no evidence of fractures or breaks or disease that would leave a mark on one's bones, however a lifetime of hard physical labor did leave its mark on his spine.

In addition to bracelets and collars, rings, brooches, a spear and a scythe, also found in the Kukruse lord's grave was a clay pot. A burned layer that had settled into the inner surface of the pot allowed for an analysis of the lipids, or fats, that it contained, the composition of which would point to what food was made in that pot.

Analysis revealed that it was fish or fish soup that had been made in the Kukruse lord's pot. The important role of fish in the man's diet was likewise confirmed by the values of stable isotopes in the collagen found in his bones and teeth. The values of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes indicate whether one's diet included more plants, meat or fish, as well as whether they tended to eat more herbivores or more predators, such as pike or seal.

It also is possible to extract a sample for DNA analysis from bone as well — more specifically, from teeth or the petrous bone located in the skull, as these are the places where DNA is best preserved. The Kukruse lord's DNA was analyzed as well.

The genetic makeup of people living in Kukruse, including the Kukruse lord himself, was fairly typical of people living in Estonia in the early Middle Ages. They had fair hair and fair skin, blue eyes, and a high tolerance for lactose.

Their genes contained traces of early European hunters and gatherers, but also of early farmers from the Middle East and nomadic peoples of the steppes of Eastern Europe, and the so-called "Siberian component" characteristic of Baltic Finnic peoples.

The details that come together as a result of various researchers' efforts thus start to come together to paint a fairly diverse picture of a young villager from the 12th or 13th century — it's easy to imagine a young man returning home from a sea voyage, dishwater blonde hair blowing in the breeze as he catches the smell of fish soup being made.

The approximately 800-year-old Kukruse Cemetery was discovered in the Northeastern Estonian village of Kukruse during construction of a segment of Tallinn-Narva Highway.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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