DNA-Testing Reveals Icelandic Viking Warriors Were Buried Alongside Sacrificial Stallions

The Ravager, a painting showing Vikings in cold weather. Wikimedia Commons

Viking warriors of lore were once buried alongside gallant steeds sacrificed in their prime to ensure they the horses would accompany the men into the afterlife, according to a multi-national genetic analysis conducted across multiple Icelandic burial sites.

All but one horse found at a gravesite was male and in its prime, each having been killed either through blunt force trauma to the head or through decapitation – a clue researchers say indicates they were sacrificed for ceremonial purposes intended to convey status and power.

"It is reasonable to believe that a Viking who received a horse in the grave must have had a certain amount of power and influence. We would therefore like to know more about these horses, for example, of which sex they were," said PhD student Albína Hulda Pálsdottir in a statement. At the time, slaughtering a stallion could also have been a way to send it to the afterlife to accompany the warrior it was buried with.

For decades, archaeologists have been working across multiple Icelandic sites, totaling more than 350 known Viking Age graves, 175 of which had horses associated with them. “Most horse remains are clearly associated with a human skeleton and the burials can be either rich or poor in other grave goods,” wrote the authors in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

This time around, archaeologists teamed up with geneticists to sequence ancient DNA from 19 sets of 1,000-year-old horse remains in order to determine their sex and age. Because males and female horses are similar in size and appearance, zooarchaeologists have previously tried to sex the remains by looking at remaining canines (males tend to have larger ones) and pelvises. It turned out 18 of them were male.

Map indicating the locations of the samples used in this study. Letters indicate whether archaeological sites were Burial sites, or a Farm or Cave site. Samples are colored according to genetic sex determination, red for females, blue for males. Journal of Archaeological Science 

Researchers first cleaned a bone or tooth before cutting out a sample and crushing it into powder from which DNA was extracted from. Team members then analyzed the DNA using a method called “shotgun sequencing,” whereby all the DNA in the sample is sequenced.

What’s perhaps even more surprising is the fact that there are so few graves. At the peak of the 10th century, the population of Iceland had increased to 9,000 inhabitants. Pálsdottir says there should be “thousands of such graves” and yet there are just a few hundred. It could, in part, be due to the fact that many graves were found during construction projects 50 to 100 years ago before laws required archaeological surveys. Regardless, the researchers say their study will give more insight into understanding how the Vikings lived and thought, as well as painting a picture of their burial rituals.

"It is striking that we find almost exclusively middle-aged men in the graves on Iceland. There are almost no infants or children, and very few women. We don't know how the rest of the population was buried. Perhaps they were laid in swamps or lakes, or sunk in the sea," said Pálsdottir.

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