Circular stone formations with children’s cremated remains found in Norway

An ancient burial ground consisting of 41 circular stone formations with cremated bone remains in the center has been unearthed near Fredrikstad in southeastern Norway. The overwhelming majority of the graves, more than 30, contained the burned bones of infants and children between the ages of three and six. The child graves date to between 800 and 400 B.C., the Early Nordic Bronze Age and the Pre-Roman Iron Age.

The graves were discovered last year by accident. Archaeologists were investigating the area because it was a near a known Stone Age settlement. The stone markers were not visible on the landscape, obscured beneath a thin 2-4-inch layer of peat, so archaeologists had no idea they were there until they began clearing the site. The round or oval formations are between three and six feet in diameter. They are composed of smaller stones placed in a single layer in a wheel or spiral pattern with a large stone or slab in the middle.

Cremation on a pyre was the predominant funerary practice in the Early Nordic Bronze Age and pre-Roman Iron Age. The burned bones would then be buried in a hole or spread on the ground and covered with a flat paving stone. The circle of smaller stones was then arranged around it. The excavation found burned bones, pottery fragments and what may be a buckle. The pottery fragments were not solely from cinerary urns, as they were also found between the graves, so the pottery had other purposes as well.

While many burial sites have been found, there was something particularly intriguing about this one.

“There was something special about the whole site. The graves are very close together. They must have been in an open landscape, with thoroughfares nearby, so everyone would have known about them. Cooking pits and fireplaces around the site suggest that gatherings and ceremonies were held in connection with burials. Additionally, all the graves were so nice and meticulously crafted. Each stone was sourced from a different location and placed precisely in the formation. We wondered who put in so much effort,” [excavation leader Guro Fossum] says.

“When the analysis results came in, it made sense: They were small children’s graves. This was done with so much care,” says Fossum.“It seems that the social structure was more egalitarian, as there wasn’t much difference between the graves. The same type of graves, grave goods, and burial method were used. This suggests a society where community was important,” she says.

Because the burial ground was in use for centuries — the last grave dates to the first years of the 1st century A.D. — the deaths cannot have been caused by a single event like a catastrophe, war or infectious illness. The graves are largely the same, no matter the age and gender of the deceased, with the egalitarian treatment of all the dead continuing consistently for 800 years. The stone circles are the same; the grave goods are the same; the burial method is the same. This likely reflects a less hierarchical society than the one that followed which introduced large burial mounds for high-status individuals that would dominate the landscape.