Dig This: Badger Unearths Medieval Treasure

The grave of a medieval Slavic warlord, with a bronze bowl at his feet, was uncovered in Germany by a digging badger. (Image credit: Felix Biermann, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Some archaeologists pore over old maps and manuscripts to make historical discoveries. Others rely on pick axes, trowels and other tools.

But archaeologists in Germany simply turned to badgers, the digging mammals that are the bane of gardeners everywhere. A badger living in the countryside near the town of Stolpe recently uncovered a remarkable site: the 12th-century burial ground of eight people, two of whom were apparently Slavic warlords.

Two sculptors who live in the area had been watching a badger digging a large sett (den). Upon closer examination, they noticed a pelvic bone inside the sett. "We pushed a camera into the badger's sett and took photos by remote control," Hendrikje Ring, one of the sculptors, told Der Spiegel. "We found pieces of jewelry, retrieved them and contacted the authorities." [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

One warlord was buried with a two-edged sword and a large bronze bowl at his feet, The Local, an English-language news site, reports. "At the time, such bowls were used to wash the hands before eating," archaeologist Felix Biermann of Georg-August University in Göttingen told The Local. "The bowls would be a sign that a man belonged to the upper classes."

The same warrior also wore an elegant bronze belt buckle in the shape of an omega, with the head of a stylized snake at each end. "He was a well-equipped warrior," said Biermann, who is leading the team excavating the site. "Scars and bone breaks show that he had been hit by lances and swords, and had also fallen from a horse."

Another grave held the skeleton of a woman with a coin in her mouth. According to ancient religious beliefs, people were often buried with coins to pay a ferryman to transport them across the river that separated the living world from the realm of the dead.

This badger-assisted archaeological find isn't the first time historical artifacts have been discovered in unusual ways. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy who was searching for a sheep that had strayed from his flock. He threw a rock into a cave and, instead of a bleating lamb, heard the sound of pottery breaking, leading to the scrolls' discovery.

And earlier this month, the buried remains of the residents from Bedlam, Europe's oldest insane asylum, were uncovered during the construction of the Crossrail subway line in London.

The archaeological finding in Germany is significant because it occurred at a place and time of conflict between heathen Slavic tribes and Christians, said Thomas Kersting, an archaeologist at the Brandenburg Department for Monument Protection.

One of the warriors' graves appears to have been robbed of its sword, Kersting explained. "If someone went to this grave and opened it in full view of the local castle and took out the sword, that's a sign that something's not working anymore," Kersting told Der Spiegel. "It highlights the time of upheaval when the rule of the Slavic tribes was coming to an end."

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.