Study finds first solid scientific evidence Vikings brought animals to Britain

The first solid scientific evidence that Vikings brought dogs and horses to Britain has been discovered by archaeologists.

Research led by Durham University, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Belgium, looked at human and animal remains from Britain’s only known Viking cremation cemetery at Heath Wood in Derbyshire.

Scientists found that within the context of the archaeology, one human adult and several animals almost certainly came from the Baltic Shield area of Scandinavia, covering Norway and central and northern Sweden, and died soon after arrival in Britain.

This indicates Vikings were not only stealing animals when they arrived in Britain – as some accounts from the time suggest – but were also transporting animals from Scandinavia.

The human and animal remains were found in the remnants of the same cremation pyre, therefore 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.

Lead author Tessi Loffelmann, a doctoral researcher working jointly in the department of archaeology, Durham University, and the department of chemistry, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, said: “This is the first solid scientific evidence that Scandinavians almost certainly crossed the North Sea with horses, dogs and possibly other animals as early as the ninth century AD and could deepen our knowledge of the Viking Great Army.

“Our most important primary source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a collection of annals in Old English, chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons), states that the Vikings were taking horses from the locals in East Anglia when they first arrived, but this was clearly not the whole story, and they most likely transported animals alongside people on ships.

“This also raises questions about the importance of specific animals to the Vikings.”

Researchers analysed strontium ratios in the remains of two adults, one child and three animals from the Heath Wood site.

Strontium occurs naturally in the environment in rocks, soil and water before making its way into plants.

When humans and animals eat those plants, strontium replaces calcium in their bones and teeth.

As ratios of the element vary in different parts of world the geographical fingerprint of the element found in human or animal remains can help determine where they came from or settled.

The study found that one of the adults and a child could have been from the area local to the Heath Wood cremation site, southern or eastern England or from Europe, including Denmark and south-west Sweden which were outside of the Baltic Shield region.

But the remains of the other adult and all three animals – a horse, a dog and what the archaeologists say was possibly a pig – had strontium ratios normally found in the Baltic Shield area.

However, the researchers suggest 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.

Research co-author Professor Janet Montgomery, in the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, said: “Our study suggests that there are people and animals with different mobility histories buried at Heath Wood, and that, if they belonged to the Viking Great Army, it was made up of people from different parts of Scandinavia or the British Isles.

“This is also the first published strontium analysis on early medieval cremated remains from Britain and shows the potential that this scientific method has to shed further light on this period in history.”

The research team also included archaeologists from the University of York, who excavated the Heath Wood cemetery between 1998 and 2000, and the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

Professor Julian Richards, of the Department of Archaeology, University of York, said: “The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Norman cavalry disembarking horses from their fleet before the Battle of Hastings, but this is the first scientific demonstration that Viking warriors were transporting horses to England 200 years earlier.

“It shows how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and hounds that they brought them from Scandinavia, and that the animals were sacrificed to be buried with their owners.”

The findings are published in the PLOS One journal.