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Viking slaves were beheaded and buried as grave gifts, archaeological find suggests

Elise Naumann investigates the skeletal remains of people who lived during the Iron Age. (Photo: Annica Thomsson)An archaeological research project on the northern Norwegian island of Flakstad has revealed new details about the lives and deaths of people who live during the Viking era (800-1050 AD). Some graves that were uncovered contained slaves who were beheaded and then buried together with their masters as grave gifts.

The research was led by Elise Naumann of the University of Oslo, and was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. She explains, “The material includes skeletons from a total of ten individuals, found at Flakstad. At least three of these, which were found in double and triple graves, are headless. The isotope analyses, combined with analyses of ancient DNA, provide grounds to hypothesize that the headless skeletons were slaves who were decapitated before being buried along with their masters. This says a lot about the great differences between people in the society of the day. Life was undoubtedly difficult and brutal for the majority of people. Only a very few were privileged.”

The site was originally found in the early 1980s, and besides the human remains the archaeologists discovered a few items, including two knifes, a horse bit, a bead of amber, animal bones, parts of a whetstone and iron fragments (the graves may have been plundered or disturbed at some point in its history).

Naumann was able to perform isotope analyses in combination with osteological analysis gives us information about people’s diet and health.  She explains, “the genetic analyses of the Flakstad Vikings show that the people buried there were most likely not related through the maternal line. The isotope analyses show major differences in diet. The headless skeletons, like certain other poor individuals included in the study, had a diet consisting largely of fish. The other people in the graves had eaten much more land-based foods, including meat.”

The results of Naumann’s research suggest that people of rank ate more meat and other animal products than the poor did. The results are also interpreted based on the knowledge that the meat of animals held a special significance in religious contexts during the Iron Age in Scandinavia.

“Dietary differences is a matter of more than just what was eaten. Food was a matter of life and death at the time. Differing diets therefore reflect differences in social status, different lives.”

The research suggests that distribution of food and meals was a significant structuring factor for Viking Age society in Norway, Naumann concludes. “I am in the process of writing a new scientific article based on my doctoral work. Double graves is also my point of departure for this article, but in these ones, the people buried together might in some cases have been related to one another.”

What’s interesting in this case, she says, is that one finds large differences in diet even within the same household. Additionally, the isotope analyses reveal differences in diet both between men and woman, and between adults and children.

Part of the reason is that maybe that men travelled more than women, and would have relied more on fish. Meanwhile. the children may have put ” in foster care with people of lower social status, for example slaves or servants. It is likely that the children’s diet would have been affected by this. This may partly explain why the isotope analyses show that many people had different diets as adults than they did when they were children.”

Naumann hopes to continue her scientific research into the remains of individuals for early medieval Norway. Her doctoral research at the University of Oslo was able to examine the remains of 56 individuals from the northern part of the country. She adds, “It is possible to use isotope analyses to learn about an individual’s life cycle – about their journey through life. This is something I want to study further. I see a great potential in more advanced use of isotope analysis.”

Click here to read the article Slaves as burial gifts in Viking Age Norway? Evidence from stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses

Source: University of Oslo

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