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Vikings brought their horses and dogs to Britain

The Viking Great Army, made up of Scandinavian warriors, invaded England in AD 865 with the apparent aim of conquering the four kingdoms, known at the time as East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells the story of their fortunes while in England, as they gradually subdued and settled all four of these Kingdoms. Although this collection of annals in Old English records the dates, movements and battles during this time, there are still many details that are unknown. 

The Chronicle records that the Viking Great Army settled in Repton, close to Heath Wood in Derbyshire, in AD 873–4, in order to overwinter there. Remains have been excavated from Scandinavian-style graves near Repton, and these have been carbon dated to between the eighth and tenth centuries. However, it is Heath Wood that stands out as unique in the entirety of the British Isles. This site is home to 59 burial mounds which hold the charred remains of cremated people and animals. It is unusual as cremation of the dead was not practiced as a burial ritual in Christian England at the time, whereas it was an accepted burial rite amongst Scandinavians. 

Twenty of the mounds were excavated in the past, mostly in the 1940s and 50s, and details of the findings have been published. However, researchers from the University of Durham and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels recently decided to use more advanced analytical methods to investigate some of the bone fragments that were recovered originally from the charred remains. They focused particularly on the ratios of isotopes of the mineral strontium (87Sr/86Sr). The results are published in the journal PLOS One.

Strontium is a trace element that is naturally incorporated into bone and is important for bone health. It is present in rocks, soil, water, plants and animals, and people obtain it in their diets, mostly from the plants they eat. The plants absorb strontium from the soil in which they grow, that soil having weathered from the bedrock in the area. People who eat plants grown on strontium-rich soils will have greater ratios of  87Sr/86Sr present in their bones. 

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. Samples were tested to determine the ratios of isotopic strontium and these were compared with the ratios in plants growing around the locality. 

After analysis, the researchers found that one of the adults, along with the horse, dog and probable pig, had strontium ratios that indicated they could not have grown up, or lived for any length of time, in the region. Their strontium ratios were far higher than those of the local vegetation, indicating that they had grown up, or lived recently in another part of the world. The higher ratios of strontium were similar to those found today in parts of Scandinavia, but also in parts of Europe. The researchers suggest that, given the known history of the area during the ninth century, this strontium signature indicates that the person and the animals all travelled from Scandinavia to England. 

The other adult and the juvenile had lower ratios of isotopic strontium in their bone remains. These were more comparable to levels seen locally, or in other regions of England. The Viking Great Army was made up people from a variety of backgrounds, either coming from Scandinavia, or from Europe or, indeed, from inclusion of local populations. The researchers say their findings agree with the interpretation that this war band was composed of people from different parts of Scandinavia and/or the British Isles. 

However, apart from providing the first direct scientific evidence that Scandinavians crossed the North Sea and arrived in the British Isles as early as the ninth century AD, the study also indicates that these Vikings brought their horses, dogs and perhaps pigs along with them to live in the heart of England. This differs from contemporaneous reports in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which state that horses were taken by the Scandinavians from the local population in eastern England upon arrival. 

Interestingly, the horse had a relatively high ratio of strontium isotopes that can be explained by ingesting meadow grasses that grow in granitic or gneissic soils, such as those found over most of Norway and Sweden, and parts of Finland. The Palaeozoic and Precambrian rocks in these areas produce soils with this ratio of strontium isotopes. This lends support to the suggestion that the horse travelled across the sea with the Viking Great Army, in a boat.

Since bone is constantly broken down and renewed throughout the lifetime of a vertebrate animal, a person, horse or dog arriving in England with a high 87Sr/86Sr ratio would soon begin to lose this as the mineral became incorporated at the typical local ratios. The fact that the ratios were high in the single adult, the horse, dog and pig, indicate that these individuals possibly died shortly after arriving on English shores, before being exposed for very long to the local bioavailable levels of strontium.

“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 traveling alongside humans on ships,” concluded the study authors. 

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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