Our archaeologists have found what they say is the first solid scientific evidence suggesting that Vikings crossed the North Sea to Britain with dogs and horses.
Researchers looked at strontium isotopes in human and animal remains found at Britain’s only known Viking cremation cemetery at Heath Wood, in Derbyshire.
Strontium is a natural element found in different ratios across the world which enters humans and animals through food and provides a geographical fingerprint for their movements.
Their analysis found that one human adult, a dog, horse and what was possibly a pig came from the Baltic Shield area of Scandinavia, covering Norway and central and northern Sweden.
This suggests that Vikings not only stole animals when they arrived in Britain, as accounts from the time describe, but were also transporting animals from Scandinavia, too.
As the human and animal remains were found in the remnants of the same cremation pyre, the researchers believe the adult from the Baltic Shield region may have been someone important who was able to bring a horse and dog to Britain.
While the researchers say their findings suggest the horse and dog were transported to Britain, it may be that the pig fragment was a piece from a game or another talisman or token brought from Scandinavia, rather than a live pig.
The remains had also been cremated and buried under a mound, which the researchers say could link back to Scandinavian rituals at a time when cremation was absent in Britain.
The analysed remains are associated with the Viking Great Army, a combined force of Scandinavian warriors that invaded Britain in AD 865.
The findings could deepen our knowledge of the Viking Great Army and also raise questions about the importance of specific animals to the Vikings.
The findings are published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The research was led by Tessi Löffelmann, a doctoral researcher jointly working in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, and the Department of Chemistry, Vrije Universiteit Brussels.
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The research also included the University of York and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.
The research was funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council (Northern Bridge) funding, the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and The Rosemary Cramp Fund and the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, both Durham University.
Viking burial mound at Heath Wood being excavated. Credit: Julian Richards, University of York.
Cremated animal and human bone from the Heath Wood Viking cemetery. Credit: Julian Richards, University of York.
Fragment of a sampled cremated horse radius/ulna from burial mound 50 at Heath Wood. Credit: Jeff Veitch, Durham University.
Decorated hilt guard from a Viking’s sword (left) and a shield clasp (right), found in the same grave as the human and animal remains analysed during the latest research. Credit: Julian Richards, University of York.