Vikings May Have Used Body Modification as a ‘Sign of Identification’

A recent study analyzes Scandinavian examples of filed teeth and elongated skulls dating to the Viking Age

Viking woman in grave
An artistic representation of the Gotlant burial of a Viking-era woman with a modified skull Current Swedish Archaeology / Mirosław Kuźma / Matthias Toplak

Examples of artificially altered bones belonging to island-dwelling Vikings may be examples of purposeful body modifications, according to a study published in the journal Current Swedish Archaeology. Researchers think they may have been part of social rituals of initiation.

For many years, historians had assumed that tattooing was the only form of body modification used by Scandinavians in the Viking Age. However, evidence of two other forms is beginning to change that narrative: filed teeth and elongated skulls.

Tooth modification from this period was first described around the 1990s, while skull modification is “a rather newly discovered phenomenon that requires intensive research,” write co-authors Matthias Toplak and Lukas Kerk, Germany-based archaeologists at the Viking Museum Haithabu and the University of Münster, respectively.

“While both forms of body modification have received wide attention in other cultural contexts,” they continue, “the specific expressions of these customs in Viking Age society still lack systematic investigation in terms of their social implications.”

The researchers examined the remains of 130 men with “horizontal furrows” carved into their teeth, many of whom were found on the Swedish island of Gotland. They also analyzed three cases of modified skulls, all belonging to women on the island.

“We decided to join forces and to conduct a case study to see if we can gain a better understanding of why these body modifications were performed and what they might have signaled in the society of Viking Age Gotland,” the researchers tell Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.

Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, is located off the country’s southeastern coast. The isle is famous for its wealth of Baltic history: Its metropolis, Visby, was the Hanseatic League’s trading center between the 12th and 14th centuries. Before that, however, Gotland was independently ruled by Vikings, the Scandinavian groups known for their widespread, violent colonization beginning in the late eighth century. The island is home to many Viking-era burial grounds, such as Kopparsvik, which holds some 330 burials dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries, per the study. It is in these cemeteries that the majority of the Viking Age examples of tooth modification have been discovered—Kopparsvik alone houses 46 males with filed teeth.

Many male Viking burials on the Swedish isle of Gotland contain filed teeth. Current Swedish Archaeology / SHM / Lisa Hartzell SHM 2007-06-13 (CC BY 2.5 SE)

The skulls in question have rows of teeth carved with deep horizontal grooves. Per Newsweek, the researchers studied the trait’s prevalence and considered possible interpretations, such as links to religious, social or cultural affiliation. They think the dental work may have been linked to trading activity.

“[The grooves] might have functioned as a rite of initiation and sign of identification for a closed group of merchants, as some kind of precursor to the later guilds,” write the researchers. In other words, the dental modification may have been a permanent uniform of sorts for this exclusive group of Viking traders.

“Their members could identify themselves through their teeth filings and may thus have received commercial advantages, protection or other privileges,” Toplak and Kerk tell Newsweek. “This theory also implies that larger, organized communities of merchants existed already in the Viking Age, before the existence of formalized guilds.”

The rarer skull modifications are “much more difficult” to explain, the researchers add. “We do not know what this body modification signaled originally. Maybe it was a token of social status, beauty or particular social groups,” originating in southeastern Europe.

And artificially modified skull from the burial of a woman in Gotland Current Swedish Archaeology / SHM / Johnny Karlsson 2008-11-05 (CC BY 2.5 SE)

The three known Viking examples of skull modification were found in Gotland, but it appears these individuals were actually foreigners on the island, per the study. The alterations gave each skull a “unique and remarkable appearance, elongating their heads,” as Arkeonews’ Leman Altuntaş writes. The women’s presence raises questions about “how Gotland society interacted with and reinterpreted” purposefully misshapen skulls.

Skull-shaping isn’t new in bioarchaeology: Many cultures have practiced intentional cranial modification, sometimes by physically molding infants’ pliable skulls to ensure a specific shape in adulthood for purposes connected to social identification, religion and trade.

As the researchers write, the Scandinavian examples of tooth filing and skull shaping served a “medial” function, conveying distinguishing information about individuals.

“Thanks to the irreversibility, and hence permanence, of the modifications, they [also] have a medial function today,” they continue, as the bones continue to communicate information about Scandinavian culture over a millennium later.

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