Archaeologists have discovered 40 circular stone formations during an excavation in southeastern Norway. All have cremated bone remains in the centre, mostly from children.
large burial field in southeastern Norway
© Museum of Cultural HistoryArchaeologists at work in a large burial field in southeastern Norway, where 40 circular stone formations with cremated bone remains, mostly from children, were found placed in the middle.
The burial field is unique in a European context, according to the Museum of Cultural History. It was found during an excavation in Fredrikstad municipality in 2023, and the analysis results of the bone remains are now complete.

The biggest surprise for the archaeologists was that almost all of those buried under the strange circular formations were children, the Museum of Cultural History informs NTB.

The first surprise, however, was discovering the graves, as none of them were visible in the terrain last autumn. But after removing the turf and cleaning, archaeologists discovered over 40 stone formations located 5-10 centimetres beneath the surface. These formations were round or oval, ranging from one to two metres in diameter. Several had clear edge stones and a central flagstone or large stone.

"We thought these must be graves," excavation leader Guro Fossum says. She is an adviser at the Museum of Cultural History.

Further investigations revealed burnt bones, pottery shards, and a possible brooch. All the graves were well preserved.

children's graves
© Museum of Cultural HistoryThe children's graves date from the transition between the Bronze and Iron Ages, with most of them buried between 800 and 400 years BCE.
Used for 400 years

Recent analysis results indicate that many of the buried were infants at the time of death, while others were between three and six years old.

Dating of the grave contents shows that the burial site was used for several hundred years, with children being buried between the Bronze and Iron Ages, most notably between 800 and 400 years before our time, up to 2,800 years ago.

"The dating show that the burial site was used over a long period, so they couldn't all have died in the same natural disaster or outbreak of disease or epidemic," says Fossum.

These burial monuments are crucial sources of knowledge about how people lived in earlier times. Archaeologists have therefore made significant efforts to secure material that can provide valuable information. However, the burial field itself did not offer much experiential value, so after the investigations, the excavation site has now been removed.

In memory of the children

The Historical Museum in Norway's capital Oslo will soon open an exhibition entitled In memory of the children. A stone formation from one of the children's graves will be among the items displayed.

The next step will now be to analyse the grave goods.

"Analyses of the pottery fragments can tell us a lot. It doesn't appear that all the vessels were containers for burnt bones; some were placed between the graves, and we are very curious about what was inside them," says Fossum.

Something very special

Fossum describes a fascinating process where archaeologists, initially investigating an area near a Stone Age settlement, stumbled upon one of the round stone formations.

In the Early Nordic Bronze Age and Pre-Roman Iron Age, it was common to cremate the dead on pyres. Afterwards, some burnt bone remains were buried in a pit or scattered on the ground. A flat stone layer was then built over the site, often in a spiral or wheel pattern.

"They've lain here as a secret until we found them. We uncovered one after another and ended up with 41 round stone formations," the archaeologist says.

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," she says.

More questions than answers

"When the analysis results came in, it made sense: They were small children's graves. This was done with so much care," says Fossum.

However, the archaeologists are left with more questions than answers after this remarkable discovery: Why were the children buried in a separate place? Why here? And how did they maintain this tradition for several hundred years?

"We don't know what kind of beliefs they had, why the dead were burned and buried. It's possible that they believed the body had to be destroyed and transformed through fire to release the soul. Maybe these traditions and rituals were meant to honour and remember those who had died. We do the same now: we remember those who lived before us with rituals and memorials," says Fossum.

Individuals in a community

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

"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.

Only one of the graves in the field is dated to after the year 0. From that point on, burial practices gradually changed, with hierarchies and large burial mounds reserved only for those with status.

Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik

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