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When the Vikings crossed the North Sea to reach Britain in the 9th century AD, new research shows that they brought their dogs and horses with them.
Archaeologists discovered what they believe to be the first scientific evidence of this practice among Vikings when they analyzed remains of a Viking cremation cemetery called Heath Wood in Derbyshire, England.
Heath Wood consists of 59 burial mounds, 20 of which have been surveyed. Although the remains were cremated in the cemetery, fragments of bone remain and serve as missing pieces of the puzzle, revealing information about who was there and when.
The researchers analyzed femur and skull bones that could be traced back to two adults, one juvenile and three animals, including a horse, a dog and possibly a pig. Cremation was then customary for the Scandinavians, while the British buried their dead. But to determine the true origins of the people and animals of Heath Wood, the scientists took their analysis one step further.
The researchers tested the bone fragments for strontium, a natural element found in rock, soil and water and ending up in plants. When animals and humans eat plants, strontium gets into their bones and teeth. Strontium is found in varying ratios around the world and acts as a geographic marker for the origins of different species.
An adult and child cremated in Heath Wood were likely local. But the bones of an adult and the animals had different strontium ratios, suggesting they came from the Baltic shield area in Scandinavia, which includes Norway and central and northern Sweden.
The adult and animals likely died shortly after crossing the North Sea to arrive in Britain. The fact that they were on the same pyre suggests the adult was someone of importance who brought his horse and dog with him – and the animals may have been sacrificed when the person died.
It is possible that the pig bone was a preserved food source or a token brought from home rather than a live pig being transported.
A study detailing the findings was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
Previous work at Heath Wood used carbon dating to establish that cremation of the remains there occurred between the 8th and 10th centuries, but the origins of the people and animals cremated were unclear. The area is also interesting because in 873 AD the large Viking army wintered in Repton, which is close to the cemetery.
The army, which included warriors from various ethnic groups in Scandinavia and possibly the British Isles, invaded Britain in 865 AD.
The new results offer significant insight when compared to the primary source material used by researchers, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an annual record of events compiled around AD 890 and written in Old English.
“Basically, it deepens our understanding of the great Viking army when they first arrived on the British coast in East Anglia,” said the study’s lead author Tessi Loffelmann, a PhD student in Durham University’s Department of Archeology and the Department of Chemistry at Vrije Universiteit Brussels.
“Our main source at the time, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, reports that in Britain the army confiscated horses from local people, but our isotopic evidence shows that this was not the only story – they also brought animals from their homelands.”
The journey across the North Sea would have been “wet, cold and uncomfortable for everyone involved” because ships carried animals and people together, said Loffelmann.
The Vikings probably used a combination of their slender longships as well as larger, deep-cargo ships in their fleets crossing the North Sea. The great Viking army traveled by land and sea, with camps strategically posted on rivers where mounted warriors could obtain supplies from the slower fleet, the study said.
The medieval Bayeux Tapestry, depicting William of Normandy’s famous conquest of England in 1066, gives researchers an idea of what this might have looked like. He is believed to have taken 10,000 men and 2,000 to 3,000 horses across the English Channel.
“The Bayeux Tapestry shows Norman cavalry disembarking horses from their fleet before the Battle of Hastings, but this is the first scientific demonstration that Viking warriors were transporting horses to England two hundred years earlier,” said study co-author Julian Richards , a professor at the University of York’s Department of Archeology and co-director of the Heath Wood excavations, in a statement.
“It shows how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and dogs that they brought from Scandinavia and that the animals were sacrificed to be buried with their owners.”
Animals played a key role in Norse mythology, including gods who could transform into animals, Loffelmann said.
“In the 9th century Scandinavia was not yet Christian and there was a strong oral tradition – only a few centuries later these stories were written down, but they tell us that animals played an important role in society,” Loffelmann told Email.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the person buried in Heath Wood wanted to bring back a prized hunting dog and personal mount, only to be joined by the animals in death, she said.