Vikings brought their animals to England, research suggests
By Nicola Davis Science correspondent,
When the Vikings arrived in England they didn’t just bring their helmets, axes and beards –they also brought their horses and dogs, research suggests.
Experts studying cremated remains associated with the Viking great army that invaded England in AD865, say they have found evidence of animals and humans travelling from the Baltic Shield – a geographical area that encompasses Finland and parts of Norway, Sweden and Russia.
“It’s the first scientific proof that the Vikings did bring their animals with them from Scandinavia,” said Prof Julian Richards, co-author of the study from the University of York.
“It’s so nice to have this scientific evidence for something we see later in the Bayeux tapestry with the Normans disembarking the fleet, but this is 200 years earlier.”
Writing in the journal Plos One , Richards and colleagues describe how they analysed the ratio of different strontium isotopes in cremated remains found at the barrow cemetery at Heath Wood, Derbyshire.
This is the only known large-scale Viking cremation site in the British Isles and is linked to the Viking great army, which spent the winter of AD873-874 at nearby Repton. Previous work at the barrow revealed bones belonging to two adults and a child, as well as a dog, horse and another animal – possibly a pig.
Studying the ratio of strontium isotopes in human remains, and comparing it with that of plants in the area, can shed light on whether an individual could have been local to where they were buried.
This is because ratio of isotopes of strontium in the soil reflects the makeup of the rocks beneath. When strontium enters the food chain it is incorporated into our bodies, replacing some of the calcium in our teeth and skeletons. In the case of bones, this process continues to occur throughout life.
“Most of the strontium that is incorporated into your bones is from plants,” said Tessi Loeffelmann, first author of the research from Durham University.
Crucially, while bones that are buried can exchange strontium with the surrounding soil, potentially confusing results, this does not happen when bones have been burned.
The team’s analysis suggests one of the adults and the child could have grown up locally to the barrow, or possibly in Denmark, although the isotope ratios also fit with large parts of Europe.
However, the other adult and the animals either came from very specific parts of the UK with no records of the Viking great army, or from the Baltic Shield – the latter being a much more likely scenario in the team’s view.
Richards said that horses and dogs were status symbols in Viking tradition, and may have been cremated with the owner for use after death in Valhalla – although the presence of the pig is less clear. While it might have come from livestock, another possibility, the team writes, is that the bone was part of an amulet.
Judith Jesch, professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham who was not involved in the research said the study supported the view that the Viking great army was more of a mobile, armed community than an army, and sheds light on the ships they may have used.
“My own studies of the Old Norse vocabulary of ships indicate that the long, sleek warships that we think of as typical Viking ships did not evolve until a century or so later than this,” said Jesch.
“In the ninth century, the ships that crossed the North Sea were broader and deeper and capable of carrying substantial cargo, including livestock, as [literary and archaeological evidence suggests] they did when people settled in Iceland at just this time.”
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