Study: Some Vikings Brought Horses and Dogs To Britain

A recent archaeological study found the first evidence that the Viking Great Army brought horses, hunting dogs, and livestock along on its invasion of Brtain.

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Illustration of Norse explorers landing at the coast of France during one of their many raids of con...
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The bones of one dead warrior and their animals may shed new light on the Viking Great Army’s logistics.

When the army of (mostly) Scandinavian warriors landed in East Anglia in 865 CE, they came to plunder — and they were equally happy to fight or to extort the locals. The king of East Anglia, Edmund the Martyr, apparently gave the Viking Great Army horses in return for not having to fight the Vikings, and unleashing them on neighboring, rival kingdoms like Mercia and Wessex. Elsewhere, the Vikings were said to steal horses and whatever else they wanted.

Based on historical descriptions like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it sounds like the Viking Great Army’s approach to logistical planning was “we’ll just steal it when we get there.” But recent archaeological evidence suggests that at least some Vikings brought animals like horses, dogs, and maybe even pigs with them on their campaign to Britain.

Durham University archaeologist Tessi Löffelmann and her colleagues published their findings in a recent paper in the journal PLOS ONE.

What’s new — Wherever you go in the world, the bedrock beneath your feet has a particular ratio of different isotopes of the element strontium. That isotopic ratio gives the place a chemical fingerprint that’s shared by plants that grow in the soil, animals that eat the plants and drink the water, and other animals that eat those animals. Once it’s in the body, strontium can fill in for calcium in your bones, so that if you’ve in a place long enough, its geology becomes part of your bones.

Cremation leaves behind bone fragments like these, which can still reveal information about their geographic origin, if not much else.

Julian Richards, University of York

Archaeologists recently measured the strontium isotope ratio in the bones of a person buried in one of the 59 barrows, or funeral mounds, at a site called Heath Wood in Derbyshire (pretty much the middle of England), they found the signature of a chunk of Earth’s crust called the Baltic Shield. The Baltic Shield lies beneath modern-day Norway, north and central Sweden, and parts of Finland.

That’s not too surprising, since the person was cremated and buried in a traditional Scandinavian way, on a hill overlooking a winter camp of the Viking Great Army, which had come to Britain mostly from Scandinavia (some parts of the army also arrived from Denmark and Norman France).

It’s also not surprising that this person apparently died before spending much time on British soil, since they came to fight in a war.

Bone breaks down and rebuilds itself constantly throughout a person’s life; that’s why exercise can build stronger bones, for example. But different bones rebuild at different rates. Ribs remodel themselves faster than femurs, for example, which means the isotope ratios in your ribs reflect the last five to seven years of your life; your femurs are a much longer-term record. And this unknown Viking’s rib still showed the signature of their homeland, not any part of the British Isles.

The surprise came when Löffelmann and her colleagues looked at the strontium ratios in the bones of a horse, a dog, and a pig whose charred, calcined bones lay in the same barrow as the dead Viking. All three animals’ bones showed very similar ratios of strontium isotopes to the person — meaning they clearly weren’t from Derbyshire, and they probably also came from somewhere in Scandinavia.

Löffelmann and her colleagues suggest that the horse was likely the personal mount of the Viking in question, and the dog was probably a hunting dog. The pig is harder to figure out, but it probably wasn’t a pet. More likely, it was livestock, or the bones came from preserved food or even bone game pieces or talismans.

It’s the first known evidence that the Viking Great Army brought animals along with it.

Here’s the background — In the winter of 873, the Viking Great Army set up a winter camp in a field outside the village of Repton, then the home of the Mercian king. That winter campsite now holds some of the only archaeological traces the Viking Great Army left behind in Britain. Archaeologists have found the remnants of earthworks there, along with Islamic coins (a surprisingly common staple at Viking sites, since their trade network was so extensive).

And on a hill overlooking the site, the Vikings buried their dead. The shapes of dozens of burial mounds are still visible today, and they would certainly have been even more visible to people in the nearby village in the years following the invasion.

“You would have seen these massive funeral pyres from Repton, and then obviously they covered them as these mounds,” Löffelmann tells Inverse.

This photo shows one of the Heath Wood barrows being excavated by archaeologists.

Julian Richards, University of York.

Elsewhere near Repton, many of the battle dead of the Viking Great Army are buried in a mass grave. Whoever was interred in the Heath Wood barrows was probably high-ranking enough to warrant such treatment.

Why it matters — When most people today picture Viking warships, we think of sleek, open longboats with shallow drafts, built for coastal sailing and for navigating rivers, as much — or more than — for crossing oceans. It’s not too hard to picture a Viking leader with his loyal hunting dog hunkered beside him under a rowing bench (although it’s hard to imagine the dog having a great time, especially in rough weather). But it’s extremely hard to picture ferrying horses across the North Sea on such a vessel — yet at least one person clearly did.

The burnt bones at Heath Wood suggest that maybe the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle left out some of the Vikings’ supply train in its account. Archaeologists have found the wrecks of Viking-era ships with deeper drafts (more space below the waterline) and proper cargo holds, and we know that the Norwegians who colonized Iceland at about the same time brought cattle along.

“It is possible that the large fleets which landed in England in the same period included cargo ships as well as the sleek and slender longships,” write Löffelmann and her colleagues.

Of course, it’s equally possible that this was the madcap plan of one particular warrior, who somehow managed to cram a horse onto a longboat and cross the North Sea with it. It’s going to take more data to figure that out.

“I'm not saying that they never took animals from the English when they arrived,” Löffelmann says. “But in possibly rare instances, they brought animals with them. And I think it kind of reflects the importance that we think animals had in Norse mythology, and that they were kind of sometimes seen as not just status symbols, but also as, kind of, companions.”

What’s Next — The bones Löffelmann and her colleagues studied were excavated in the 1950s, when archaeologists didn’t think there was any information to be gleaned from burned remains.

“Personally, I would love if somebody would excavate maybe one or two more mounds,” says Löffelmann. “Then I could do some more analysis and maybe see, if there are any more animals, if they came from Scandinavia as well.”

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