Photo: Vincent Cavalier / SR
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A team of researchers present findings about the life of a man long burried in a casket at Uppsala Cathedral and said to be a 12th century Swedish King. Credit: Vincent Cavalier / SR
Photo: Vincent Cavalier / SR
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Anna Kjellström, a researcher from Stockholm University, describes wounds on the reputed King's bones. Credit: Vincent Cavalier / SR
Photo: Vincent Cavalier / SR
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Credit: Vincent Cavalier / SR

New clues about how St Erik lived and died

5:18 min

After opening the silver-gilt casket of the King Erik IX of Sweden, also known as Sankt Erik (Saint Erik), researchers have determined that his bones tell the story of a sturdily-built man who ate freshwater fish and who likely died in a medieval skirmish. 

Long entombed at the Uppsala Cathedral, the remains of the reputed king who later became the patron saint of Stockholm, were reopened in April of 2014. On Wednesday, researchers could say that they were 90 percent certain that the bones did in fact belong to the historical King Erik.

Modern research methods have helped confirm scant historical records. According to a "saint's legend" from the 1290s, which is the only historical account of his life, Erik Jedvardsson was killed in 1160 in his tenth year as king.

Of 23 bones contained in the casket, all except for a shin bone likely come from the same individual, a male. Radiocarbon analysis indicated that the individual did, in fact, die in 1160. A bone analysis suggests the individual was between 35 and 40-years old, measured 171 cm tall, and had a sturdy build.

Researchers also confirmed that the individual in the coffin died in battle with nicks in the bones that indicate wounds by a sword or axe. Those findings confirm the legend's account that Erik was swarmed by assailants and that he was beheaded.

An isotope analysis indicated that his diet was rich in freshwater fish, which confirms the legend's mention of a devout Christian who followed fasting prescriptions.

An osteological expert said the bones in the coffin were 25 percent denser than what a man of that age should have today. That unusual bone density, said Östen Ljunggren from Uppsala University, could be a sign of good health, good genes, or regular exercise.

Professor in archaeological science at Stockholm University, Kerstin Liden's analysis of isotopes in the bones sought to say something about the man's diet and about where in Sweden he might have lived. Liden found that the man whose bones were studied probably ate a diet of freshwater fish.

"Which fits well with the idea of fasting," she told Radio Sweden, explaining the Christian tradition of substituting fish for the flesh of livestock.

Liden's research also suggested, though not conclusively, that Erik may not have spent the last years of his life in Uppsala, but in Västergötland in south-west Sweden. If true, it would contradict Erik's legend, which has him dying in Uppsala. 

Christian Lovén, an associate professor at the Swedish National Archives, emphasized that those results are only preliminary.

"I'm not surprised by the results, but my picture of this King Erik Jedvardsson changes a bit because I believed that he had his base here in the Uppsala area. But it must be repeated that these isotope results... We only have three other sites in Sweden we can compare to," said Lovén. "I won't buy this Västgötaland thing before I get other results to compare to."

Anna Kjellström, an associate professor in the department of archaeology at Stockholms University, analyzed nicks in the bones that indicate force trauma from sharp objects. Among other things, her work looked at when injuries might have been sustained, and the findings confirm the grisly end described in Eric's legend.

"I believe that he got these injuries from different assailants. He could have tripped over and been lying on his belly. Finally, he was beheaded," said Kjellström.

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