1000-year-old sarcophagus found in Odense

Odense, Denmark, land of wonderous barrels of poop, has produced another treasure from deep within its bowels: an 11th century stone sarcophagus. The coffin was found on the site of the small timber church of St. Alban’s Priory where King Canute IV of Denmark, later canonized a saint, was assassinated by rebels in 1086. A light rail project was slated to cut through the area known to be the site of the historically important church, so archaeologists from the Odense City Museums surveyed it first. They were hoping to find out more about the church at the time of the murder of King Canute. Instead they found a sarcophagus on Wednesday, September 16th.

Cameras were present to capture the opening of the sarcophagus.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/9ti44iINIbM&w=430]

When they removed the heavy four-part limestone lid, archaeologists found an articulated skeleton, although only the leg bones were immediately visible because the upper body was covered in earth that had filled the top half of the sarcophagus through a large hole in the lid. The remains were excavated in situ and found to be the skeleton of a man about 30 years old of exceptional height. He was 187 centimeters tall, or just a hair short of six feet and two inches. The man was buried with a miniature eucharist set, a plate for the host and a chalice for the wine, near his hip.

The presence of communion gear suggests the man was a cleric, and the expense of a heavy limestone sarcophagus indicates he held an important ecclesiastical position. He was also buried just in front of the altar, the most honored placement in the church. Museum archaeologists believe the most likely candidate is Eilbert, Bishop of Odense from around 1048 to 1072. If it does prove to be Eilbert in that sarcophagus, it will be the oldest bishop’s grave discovered in northern Europe.

The skeletal remains and artifacts have been moved to the University of Southern Denmark for study. An X-ray of the disk revealed an inscription: “the Lord’s right (hand) has created strength amen.” It is likely a reference to Psalms 118:16, “The right hand of the LORD is exalted: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.” It doesn’t help identify the deceased, but it confirms the disk is a communion plate.

We know the remains are not those of Canute even though he was buried there for a brief time. Canute’s ambition to invade England and wrest the throne from the ailing William the Conqueror (as Canute the Great’s great-grandnephew, Canute IV actually had a halfway decent claim to the throne, unlike William who was a) illegitimate, and b) only Edward the Confessor’s first cousin once removed) and his attempts to centralize power resulted in heavy tax and tithe increases. Peasants and noble in Jutland joined forces and rebelled against Canute’s taxes, chasing him to Odense where he and his brother Benedict took sanctuary in the church. The rebels broke in and ganged up on Benedict, slashing him to death. Canute, standing unarmed and unresisting in front of the altar, was struck with a spear or a sword (chroniclers differ on the point) and was struck on the head with a stone thrown through the window.

He and his brother were buried in the church where they fell. Miraculous occurrences at the church and years of famine that were seen as divine punishment for the martyrdom of Canute followed and a cult quickly grew up around him. In 1101, just 15 years after Canute’s death, Pope Paschal II canonized him. Canute was the first Danish saint and became patron saint of Denmark. A new stone church was built to accommodate the saint’s relics even before they were official saint’s relics. Canute and Benedict’s bones were moved to St. Canute’s Cathedral just over a decade after his death.

Further analysis of the St. Alban’s bones will hopefully answer some questions, like the cause of death and his country of origin. Bishop Eilbert was from Bremen which is about 260 miles south of Odense. I don’t know if stable isotope analysis can differentiate between northern Germany and Denmark. Researchers will also attempt to extract DNA which will give us information about his appearance and heritage.

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5 Comments »

Comment by MHK
2015-09-26 11:09:34

Thirty years old +/- and was bishop for ~24 years. Either that’s not Eilbert or he was more than precocious.

 
Comment by dangermom
2015-09-26 13:47:45

Up Odense! :)

 
Comment by Lapinbizarre/Roger Mortimer
2015-09-28 17:28:52

Agreeing with MHK re the individual’s age. At this date, bishops were normally buried with a pastoral staff/crozier and other symbols of their office. The absence of these and the presence of the chalice and paten indicate that this individual was almost certainly only a priest. Orientation of the corpse (clergy buried head to the east/altar, laity feet in that direction) would be an additional indicator.

 
Comment by Elspetg Payne
2015-10-01 10:13:14

I know some clerical positions could be bought, and some bought those positions for their children when they were very young. Is it possible this would be the case for Eilbert? ‘Cause if it’s not, MHK is right.

 
Comment by M
2016-09-09 10:10:57

If you study German bishops’ graves from around 1000-1105 – which is the time frame in question here – you will find that 21 such graves of which the name of the deceased is known exist. (A catalogue can be found in Bernd Päffgen: Die Speyerer Bischofsgräber und ihre vergleichende Einordnung. In that group of bishops graves only 10 has a crozier. 10 of the graves have a chalice and/or paten. Further more the clerical graves in the Bremen Cathedral (which was at that time was the mother church of Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia) all are positioning facing the altar, not as you suggest the other way round.

 
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