Bone analysis gives insight into life and legend of King Erik IX

Swedish king and saint Erik Jedvardsson may have met a bloody end more than 850 years ago, but his remains—held in reliquaries since 1257—have plenty of stories left to tell modern scientists.

The history of King Erik IX is somewhat murky, as fact and fiction bonded together over the years, but the legends speak of a man chosen to be king, who ruled fairly and acted as a devoted Christian. During his life, he codified the laws of his kingdom and led the First Swedish Crusade into Finland in order to spread the Christian faith, among many other things.

But it all came to an abrupt end in 1160, when, as Erik was leaving church after celebrating mass, he entered a massive battle with enemies looking to gain his throne. He was swarmed and fell to the ground, where he was taunted and eventually beheaded. According to legend, a fountain began to spring from where his head came to rest, and eventually the Roman Catholic Church gave him his own yearly feast day on May 18th.

A bit shy of 100 years later, his remains and burial crown were placed in a reliquary, and his body has been preserved that way ever since. Then, in 1946, researchers pulled out his bones to analyze them—but technology has drastically advanced since then. So in 2014, his reliquary was opened again, allowing researchers of different specialties to study his remains. And now, their results have finally been made public.

Bone analysis bares fruit

“The interdisciplinary research collaboration on the analysis of the skeletal remains of Saint Erik provides extensive information about his health condition (orthopaedists and radiologists), genealogy (aDNA analysis), diet (isotope analysis), and his death (forensic medicine),” said project leader Sabine Sten, professor of osteoarchaeology at Uppsala University, in a university statement.

Saint Erik’s reliquary held 23 bones which appear to come from the same person, plus one shinbone from someone else. For the 23 bones, radiocarbon dating is consistent with Saint Erik’s death in 1160. Meanwhile, osteological analysis of the bones indicate they belonged to a man aged 35-40 years who was about 5’7” (171 cm) tall.

The researchers also used the bones to gauge the health of the king. Computer tomography found no discernable medical conditions, and other tests revealed he also didn’t suffer from osteoporosis. In fact, he had bones that was 25 percent denser than today’s average young adult, and all in all it appears the King Erik was quite healthy, being well-nourished and physically active in his lifetime.

In fact, isotope analysis of his bones revealed he ate a lot of freshwater fish—an indication that he obeyed the Roman Church’s rules concerning fasts (periods without meat).

Other analyses are still underway, though. For example, the researchers have been able to draw DNA information from the remains, but this work will still take another year to complete. Furthermore, a separate isotope analysis has drawn the very preliminary result that Erik actually lived farther south in the last year of his life than the stories tell.

Low-tech solutions bring forth information

Perhaps the most interesting information, though, comes by way of simpler techniques—visual searches of the bones.

On the cranium, there are one or two dents representing healed head wounds—which the researchers believe can be explained by King Erik’s leading of the First Swedish Crusade. Moreover, there are nine cuts on the rest of the bones—seven on the legs alone—which were inflicted close to the time of death.

Judging from these nine wounds, researchers believe King Erik’s last battle went like this: After being swarmed, he was knocked onto his stomach on the ground. His enemies taunted him, cutting exposed parts of his body—his chest was probably protected by a hauberk (a shirt of chain mail), meaning they could only leave cuts on the backs of his legs.

The hauberk protected the king’s neck, and so it was finally removed while his assailants taunted him. And then, he was beheaded—as confirmed by a cut in a neck vertebra.

All in all, the evidence gathered does not contradict the legends told about King Erik IX—but there is still more work still being done. The current results, though, are to be published in the scientific journal Fornvännen.

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Image credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

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