3D Printing Shows an Old Viking King in a New Light

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Gorm, unsurprisingly, has a headache. (Actually, he’s just learned of the death of his son.)

Gorm den Gamle, or Gorm the Old, wasn’t very old by today’s standards. At most, he was around 50 when he died, though that was a plenty respectable age for the 10th century, when the Viking king lived. He was the first recognized monarch of Denmark, which he presided over for just over 20 years. It’s been a long, long time since Gorm the Old was around, but we’re still learning new things about him thanks to technology like CT scanning and 3D printing.

Recently, a group of Danish scientists used CT scans of what’s left of Gorm’s skeleton, which is buried beneath Jelling Church, to reconstruct what they could and 3D print full-sized replicas of the bones. The sophistication of 3D software means that the researchers were able to correct for any pressure damage that occurred over the thousand-plus years the bones had been buried – it turns out that lying beneath the ground for that long can result in a somewhat flattened skull.

Speaking of the skull, the researchers found, after 3D printing the bones, that Gorm had something weird on his head. The external occipital protuberance is the bone to which the neck muscles correct, but Gorm’s was overgrown, causing a painful-looking lump on the back of the head. This may have happened as a response to strain in the muscles and ligaments that attach to the external occipital protruberance, according to Carsten Reidie Bjarkam, Professor and Head of Surgery at Aalborg University Hospital.

Bjarkam doesn’t see that kind of growth very often, although he coincidentally had a case similar to Gorm’s very recently.

Gorm’s strange protruberance is visible in yellow. [Image: Marie Louise Jørkov]

“It’s a little fun, because it’s actually no more than 14 days ago that a young man came to me with a growth that looked like Gorm’s right a lot,” said Bjarkam in a translated quote. “He helped us – simply by ‘milling’ the bone away. The same thing we had done with Gorm if he had come and said that it hurt. Then we would send a bone for further investigations to ensure that there was no cancer.”

It’s highly unlikely that Gorm had cancer, Bjarkam said, because the bone would have looked a lot worse by the end than it does now if that had been the case. He likely had some trouble sleeping due to the protruberance, however. By scanning and 3D printing the king’s bones, the researchers were also able to determine that he was about 170 cm tall (which would have been tall for his time) had osteoarthritis in his back, and that he was not very muscular, showing signs of the relatively sedentary life of a monarch.

“The edema of the lumbar vertebrae is quite common for his age and does not mean that he has had a particularly hard or abrasive work,” said Marie Louise Jørkov, an anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen. “Had he had it, I would expect to see more powerful bones. The rest of the body has not been particularly muscular.”

No muscle to speak of, in fact. [Image: Anthropological Laboratory/Chiara Villa]

Gorm’s bones were first discovered under Jelling Church in 1978. They had been reburied there by Gorm’s son and successor, who exhumed his father’s original grave in the North Highlands of Jelling. After several years, the bones were examined and CT scanned at the National Museum. In 2000, they were reburied beneath the church. The CT scans were made in the 1990s, and unfortunately, the resolution isn’t nearly as high as it would be were they taken today, so not all information is available. The original examination of the bones couldn’t extract any DNA, so there’s a slight possibility this might not even be Gorm the Old. The Kongens Jelling museum, which carried out the recent 3D printing, has been asked why they don’t dig him up again and use today’s technology to gain more information.

[Image: Marie Louise Jørkov]

Museum inspector Adam Bak responded that after all this time, it would still unlikely be possible to extract DNA or strontium from the bones – especially as it is suspected that the grave was underwater for many years. New CT scans might be able to unveil more detail, but as Gorm has already been buried three times, it’s time to let the poor man rest, said Bak.

Jørkov and fellow postdoc Chiara Villa, who performed the 3D printed reconstruction, said that their conclusions largely agree with those made in the original studies, but that the newer study still shows the possibilities that are available with technology like 3D printing. The main goal of the study, in fact, was to demonstrate those possibilities.  In addition, museum visitors can now see what a 1,000-year-old skeleton looks like in person – and learn a little bit about the life of Denmark’s first king.

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