Iceland’s archaeological record doesn’t betray much about the how Vikings honored and disposed of their dead. Just a few hundred Viking-age graves have been found on the island-nation, despite the fact that some 9,000 Vikings lived there by 930 A.D. As there’s no sign that they cremated their dead, their funerary practices remain something of a mystery. But researchers have discovered one insight into their customs: DNA analyses show that many of the bodies buried on land were accompanied by stallions.
Horse remains, it turns out, are one of the most common items found in the 355 known Viking graves uncovered on Iceland, with bits and pieces of 175 horses found in 148 graves. Previous studies of the horse bones found that most of the animals were in the prime of life and were likely killed to accompany the burial. But sexing the horses has been difficult. While examination of the pelvis and teeth can sometimes reveal a horse’s sex, doing that with the incomplete skeletons was not possible. That’s why a multidisciplinary team of geneticists and archaeologists turned to DNA testing. Looking at the remains of 19 horses found at gravesites, they found 18 of them were males, either stallions or geldings, castrated horses. Three other horses found outside of the burials were tested as well and all appeared to be mares that the Vikings had eaten. The research appears in The Journal of Archaeological Science
The finding suggests that the Vikings on Iceland soon developed their own unique funeral customs once they came to the island around 874 A.D. The burials on land are almost exclusively older men, with very few infants, children or women included. That suggests burial was reserved for high-status men, while the rest of the population was likely buried by being sunk in lakes, swamps or the sea. The presence of the stallions also suggests that the animals were considered a symbol of power among the population or that they believed the animals were needed to carry on in the afterlife.
“The sex ratio and age distribution of the killed horses suggests that there was a well-formed structure behind the rituals, in which the chosen horse acted as symbolic representative,” co-author Albína Hulda Pálsdottir of the University of Oslo tells Mindy Weisberger at LiveScience. “The conscious choice of males was perhaps linked with the characteristics of stallions; virility and aggression could have been a strong symbolic factor.”
The ritual could have helped build a unique identity and culture for Vikings in Iceland, and the way a horse was sacrificed at a burial—"theatrics of the act and the violent and visceral drama”—may have played a role in propelling its popularity, the team writes in the article, helping to “affirm Norse, non-Christian identity and to construct status” in the 10th century. “The archaeological remains of the buried animals can thus be regarded as materialized expressions of cultural politics in a new society under formation,” they write.
Pálsdottir warns against interpreting such burials using a contemporary lens in a press release on the discovery. “Nowadays, it is easy to imagine such rituals as a form of demonstrating power, perhaps as ‘conspicuous consumption’ that was intended to demonstrate wealth and status, rather than to cover real needs,” Pálsdottir says. “But maybe the Vikings thought totally different.”
Now that they have the DNA of the Icelandic horses, the team plans to compare them to other Viking Age horse remains found in Northern Europe to figure out just where the beasts came from and perhaps what they looked like, reports Weisberger for LiveScience. Though the horse-sacrificing ritual has died out, Icelanders revere the beasts and are protective of their local breeds which are believed to be descended from the first horses brought to the island by the Vikings more than a millennium ago.