The Vikings and the animals that came with them to Britain

When the Viking Great Army invaded England in 865, it was not just people who arrived. A new study of cremated bone fragments from burial mounds reveals that horses, dogs and other animals also made the North Sea crossing.

The study is published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, was led by Tessi Löffelmann of the University of Durham. She and her fellow researchers analyzed samples of human and animal remains, finding that they most likely originated from Scandinavia and that they died soon after arrival in Britain.


The research focused on Heath Wood in the county of Derbyshire, which has 59 burial mounts. Twenty of these burial mounts have been investigated, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. A contemporary source states that in the year 873, the Viking Great Army went to winter in Repton, close to Heath Wood. Remains there have been carbon dated to between the eighth and tenth centuries, but the origins have not been clear.

Fragment of cremated bone from the horse. Photo credit Löffelmann et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

The researchers sampled small, cremated fragments of femur and cranium bones from the remains of two adults and one juvenile, as well as three animal remains: a horse, a dog and probably a pig. The fact that these remains were cremated suggests a strong Scandinavian influence as inhumation burial was the contemporary mode in Britain.


Samples were tested to determine ratios for strontium — a trace element present in rocks, soil, waters, plants, and animals — and these ratios were compared with those in the local area. The strontium in one adult and the animals differed from local strontium ratios, while the other adult and infant human samples were consistent with local ratios. These data suggest that there are people with different histories at the burial site, and if they belonged to the Great Viking Army, this band was made up of different populations.

The idea that the Vikings would have brought animals with them as they crossed the North Sea is also supported by written evidence. The authors explain:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the force that first landed in East Anglia in AD 865 ‘took up winter quarters’ and ‘there they were supplied with horses’. Indeed, given the difficulty of transporting horses across the North Sea in open boats one might assume that the army generally seized its horses in England. However, it is not impossible that its leaders brought their personal mounts with them. A few decades later, in the entry for the year AD 892, theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a part of the army moved from France to Kent on ships ‘in a single journey, horses and all’. Almost two centuries later, in vessels which still closely resembled Viking plank-built ships, the Norse descendent William of Normandy reportedly transported some 10,000 men and 2000 to 3000 horses across the English Channel, as famously depicted on the Bayeux tapestry. 

The authors conclude, “Our study shows for the first time that Vikings brought animals, specifically horses and dogs, to Britain in the 9th century. Most likely, they were travelling alongside humans on ships.”


The article, “Sr analyses from only known Scandinavian cremation cemetery in Britain illuminate early Viking journey with horse and dog across the North Sea,” by Tessi Löffelmann, Christophe Snoeck, Julian D. Richards, Lucie J. Johnson, Philippe Claeys, and Janet Montgomery is published in PLOS ONE. Click here to read it.

Top Images: Photos of the bone fragments – Photo credit Löffelmann et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0.