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Human sacrifice at a viking funeral – The tale of the headless Norse slaves

From Elise Naumann via USA Today. Photo of a Viking skull.

From Elise Naumann via USA Today. Photo of a Viking skull.

Yesterday USA Today reported on a Journal of Archaeological Science article in which Oslo scientists analyzed the skeletal remains of 10 individuals unearthed in Norway in the 1980’s.  The skeletal remains in these graves were dated to the Viking Age (800-1030AD) based on items (such as weapons, beads, and clothing accessories) placed in the graves. Because the burials were close to the surface, the skeletons were found by a farmer working the fields, and were likely repeatedly disturbed by farming activity before their discovery. There is little documentation of the original finding because the excavations didn’t involve archaeologists, so no context is given of the skeletal remains or the grave gifts.

The 10 sets of human remains were found in three single burials, 2 double burials, and 1 triple burial.  The skeletons in the single burials were also completely intact. In each of the double and triple burials, only one set of skeletal remains were intact, the rest of the individuals in the grave were missing their skulls (so there were a total of 6 found intact, and 4 were missing skulls).  The authors of this paper believe that the headless bodies were viking slaves (thralls), because the bodies of these individuals were mistreated and decapitated, the hands and feet were bound, and the items in the grave were unevenly distributed.

Due to the treatment of four of the ten skeletons, the research team argues that the multi-person burials contain the remains of master and slave(s), who were killed and placed in the grave with their masters.  They sought to confirm this relationship through isotopic and DNA analyses, the results of which were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in August.  Isotopic tests on bone and teeth can reveal what kind of food a person ate.  Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is used to identify kinship of individuals through the maternal line.   MtDNA is more abundant in human cells so it’s easier to extract, and can be used to trace human migrations over long periods of time.  The goal was to identify dietary and genetic patterns to confirm the differences in class reflected in the treatment of the human remains.

From Wikipedia, a sketch of the executioner during a pagan Norse sacrifice by Carl Larsson.

The isotopic results revealed that the persons buried with their heads had eaten lots of land-based protein, such as milk or beef. The beheaded individuals had diets rich in seafood.  The tests also showed that those buried in the single burials ate the same things as the thralls in the multiple burials, which may indicate that those buried in single graves were from a lower class.  The mtDNA tests confirmed that most of those buried in graves together probably weren’t close relatives through their maternal line. The mistreatment of the bodies, the dietary differences, and the mtDNA results  support the argument that the headless skeletons belonged to Norse slaves who were sacrificed and buried with their masters.

The burial of slaves (or thalls) with their Viking masters is well documented throughout Scandinavian history.  There is a famous account by a 10th century Arab muslim traveler, Ibn Fadlan, who witnessed a Viking ship funeral.  During this funeral he witnessed the sacrifice of a female slave so she could accompany her Viking master into the afterlife.  It would be interesting to know the sex of all ten skeletons, especially the beheaded individuals.  Sex would be easily identifiable using the pelvis, which was recovered for all 10 skeletons.



Read more at:

Journal of Archaeological Science.

USA Today

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