Tech & Science

Ancient Skull of Viking King Gorm the Old Reconstructed With 3-D Printing

Gorm the Old reconstructed skull 3D print
Gorm the Old’s bones are printed in a range of colors. ScienceNordic/Marie Louise Jørkov

For the first time, scientists have printed a 3-D replica of the skeleton of one of history’s most famous Viking rulers. Gorm the Old gave the country of Denmark its name and then declared himself its first king. He’s the earliest recorded Viking in history.

“It’s a great feeling to stand with them in your hand, turning them over, and looking at them,” Adam Bak, curator at Kongernes Jelling, National Museum of Denmark and the archaeologist who facilitated the reconstruction, told ScienceNordic. “From a pure science communication perspective, it’s so much better to have a ‘real’ bone in your hand than to read a dry text about a historical person. I can’t deny that I’ve also played Hamlet with his skull.”

The king’s skeleton was discovered nearly 40 years ago buried underneath a church. It was reburied in 2000, but archaeologists retained CT scans of the bones for further analysis. Using those scans, a team of researchers was able to not only replicate and print the king’s skeleton, but to compensate for damage the skull had suffered, mostly from being flattened after so many years underground. This allowed the researchers to look for signs of disease that wouldn’t be detectable using just the original ancient skull. The restored version revealed a previously unknown lump on Gorm the Old’s head.

“He had a very pronounced growth on his neck just where it meets the back of the head,” Marie Louise Jørkov, a forensic pathology postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, told ScienceNordic. “It looks like a bird’s beak and it’s really pronounced. It’s not totally unheard of, but we don’t see it very often.”

The growth probably didn’t affect Gorm the Old very much, though it might not have been especially comfortable. The king ruled from 940 A.D until his death in 958 A.D. His son and successor, Harald Bluetooth, inspired the name for the wireless Bluetooth technology we use today.

Gorm the Old bones A 3-D print of Gorm the Old’s bones in full. The skeleton is incomplete. ScienceNordic/Anthropology Laboratory/Chiara Villa

3-D printing has rapidly become a boon for archaeologists. As 3ders pointed out, scientists scanned and printed King Richard III’s entire grave in 2016. This is the first chance anyone has had to study Gorm the Old’s skull with this level of detail. Technically, they can’t even be 100-percent sure the skeleton really did belong to him, since no DNA sample was taken.

“He’s been in the grave for 800 years, which for much of that time was under water, and his bones are very damaged,” Bak told ScienceNordic. “I doubt that it’s possible to extract DNA or strontium [a trace element that can say something about where a person was born and lived]. Moreover, he’s been disinterred three times now, so it’s also a question of allowing him to rest in peace."

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