Vikings: With horse & dog across the North Sea

Vikings: With horse & dog across the North Sea

Excavations at a Viking burial mound in England. © Julian Richards, University of York.

Supposedly they only stole their mounts after landing in England. But now a study shows that the Vikings also took their own horses and dogs from Scandinavia with them on their raids in the 9th century. This is suggested by findings on bones from a burial ground in England. The scientists say they may have been animals with a special meaning.

Were the notorious seafarers of the north also on their way with their war horses? With the conquest of England by the Normans, said to be descendants of the Vikings, the case seems clear: In 1066, horses were transported on ships from northern France to the southern English coast, historical illustrations on the Bayeux Tapestry show. However, around 200 years earlier, things seemed to have been different when the Vikings raided England: Anglo-Saxon chronicles of the 9th century show that the warriors from Scandinavia only appropriated their horses from the inhabitants of the affected East Anglia region after they arrived with their ships. But there were apparently at least a few exceptions to this rule, as the study by researchers led by Tessi Loeffelmann from the University of Durham suggests.

Charred bones in sight

For their study, they examined bone finds from a burial ground in the English county of Derbyshire. Historical records show that a Viking army wintered there in 873 AD. The fact that the burial mounds there belong to members of this group is also evident from the typical burial method: cremation remains were buried, which was not common among the native population of England at the time.

Various pieces of charred bone were recovered from one of these burial mounds, which are now the focus of the study. According to the basic findings, these are the bones of three people. Apparently, however, the remains of cremated animals were also buried: because other bones were assigned to a horse, a dog and a pig. Loeffelmann and her colleagues have now analyzed the strontium isotope ratios for all bone fragments. This technique can use region-specific signatures to provide clues as to where an organism has spent most of its life.

Well-travelled animals

The researchers report that the “strontium “fingerprint” of at least one of the three individuals clearly indicates a non-British origin – and this was also the case for the animals. Specifically, the patterns match the area of ​​the so-called Baltic Shield, which includes parts of Scandinavia. According to the values, these individuals may not have lived in England long before they died, the researchers say. At least one person can thus be clearly assigned to the Vikings. More important, however, are the findings in the animals, say the researchers. “This is the first solid evidence that the Scandinavians crossed the North Sea with horses, dogs and possibly other animals as early as the ninth century AD,” says Loffelmann. As the researchers explain, in the case of the pig bone, however, it seems conceivable that it was a piece that did not come from a living animal. It may have been part of a talisman brought from Scandinavia.

But why were apparently horses and dogs shipped across the North Sea? “The results now raise questions about the importance of certain animals to the Vikings,” says Loffelmann. Co-author Julian Richards from the University of York offers a possible explanation: “The results may reflect how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and dogs, so that they were taken from Scandinavia. They may then have been sacrificed to be buried with their owners,” says the researcher.

Source: Durham University, professional article: PLoS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0280589

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