Iceland has the highest amount of horse remains in Viking Age burials. The numbers are impressive: “Of the 355 Icelandic Viking Age burials studied as of 2011, 148 were found to contain the remains of over 175 horses.”1
A new study in Journal of Archaeological Science sparks the debate on the study of grave goods in Viking Age burials and in particular, the study of horse remains. The researchers decided to use ancient DNA for the first time on horse remains from 19 burials and 3 non-burial sites. Would the results yield anything surprising? At the same time, could the results be compared to existing osteological analyses of these remains, or present new conclusions for remains that could not or had not been tested before?
The results speak for themselves. All burials except one contain male horses. Only one burial and all three non-burial sites contain mares. A first suggestion is that the male horses were ritually slaughtered according to pagan customs. The mares may have been more associated with food.2 In all, the researchers remain careful with their conclusions, for the group they tested is only small.
A number of online news sources refer to this article, a recommended read can be found on Medievalists.net.
- Heidi M. Nistelbergera, Albína Hulda Pálsdóttira, Bastiaan Stara, Rúnar Leifssonc, Agata T. Gondeka, Ludovic Orlandod, James H. Barrett, Jón Hallsteinn Hallsson, Sanne Boessenkool, ‘Sexing Viking Age horses from burial and non–burial sites in Iceland using ancient DNA.’ In: Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 101 (2019), pp. 115 [115–122]. ↩
- Maeve Sikora, ‘Diversity in Viking Age Horse Burial: A Comparative Study of Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland.’ In: The Journal of Irish Archaeology, Vol. 12–13 (2003–04), pp. 120 [87–109]. ↩