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Horse Remains in Icelandic Viking Age Burials

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. For their research, the scientists decide to use ancient DNA for the first time on the horse remains from 19 burials and 3 non-burial sites. Will the results yield any surprises? And, are comparisons possible with the existing osteological analyses of these remains? Do they lead to new conclusions for the remains hat could not or have 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. The researchers try to explain this phenomenon, but remain careful about their conclusions because they realise their test group is relatively small. The slaughter of male horses according to pagan customs might have something to do with their connection to the burials. Mares may have had an association with food consumption. This would explain the lack of their presence in burials.2

A number of online news sources refer to this article, a recommended read is


  1. 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].  ↩
  2. 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].  ↩

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