First evidence that Vikings travelled with animals across the North Sea

Previously it had been thought that Vikings probably pillaged such animals from British populations on their arrival.

Strontium-isotope analysis of human and animal bones recovered from Heath Wood in Derbyshire, the only known Viking cremation cemetery in Britain, has shed new light on some of the individuals buried there, and has revealed the first evidence to suggest that the Viking Great Army brought animals with them across the North Sea.

The burial ground comprises 59 mounds and is believed to be associated with the nearby Viking Great Army over-wintering camp at Repton, used AD 873-874. It is an intriguing site as it stands in sharp contrast to the Viking inhumation cemetery found around St Wystan’s shrine at Repton itself, where the burials are much more reflective of others in Britain at the time: supine and oriented west–east. There are contemporary parallels, however, in Northern Jutland, Denmark.

PHOTO: Julian Richards

One barrow (Mound 11) at Heath Wood was investigated in the 1950s, and two more (Mounds 50 and 56) were excavated between 1998 and 2000 by Julian Richards and Marcus Jecock (above). Since then, the cremated bones have been held in the collections of Derby Museum – until recent analysis by a team from Durham University and Vrije Universiteit Brussel. They have successfully sampled the remains of an adult and a child, as well as bones from a horse, a dog, and a possible pig – all from Mound 50 – as well as another adult from Mound 56.

In order to assess whether strontium-isotope ratios of these individuals were similar to those for the local area (which would indicate that they had grown up in the surrounding area), the team sampled plants from six different locations within a 25km radius of the barrow cemetery, providing a baseline of biologically available strontium (BASr) for the area. They found that the child from Mound 50 and the adult from Mound 56 both fell within the local range – though their isotope ratios also fall within the BASr range for parts of Denmark and south-western Sweden, so their origins are not certain.

The adult from Mound 50, however, had a completely different strontium-isotope ratio, indicating that they were not from the local area, nor had they lived in the same location as the other two individuals for any significant length of time. This person’s range was more in keeping with areas of the Baltic Shield, including most of Norway and large areas of central and northern Sweden, as well as Finland. Intriguingly, the rib bones from this individual produced slightly lower ratios than their femur, but as the rib is known to have a quicker bone turnover rate than the femur, it could be that the individual was starting to take up strontium from the environment around Heath Wood, or from similar lithologies elsewhere, before their death.

These results are not that surprising, as previous studies from the cemetery at St Wystan’s shrine as well as cemeteries in other regions of Britain have consistently shown that Viking groups were probably comprised of a mix of individuals from across Scandinavia. What was surprising, however, was that the horse, dog, and possible pig remains produced values similar to the adult from Mound 50, suggesting that they may have come from the Baltic Shield as well. This is the first evidence that suggests Vikings may have brought their own animals, whether as companions or livestock (although the pig bone may also have been brough over as part of preserved meat or as a talisman). Previously it had been thought that Vikings probably pillaged such animals from British populations on their arrival.

Commenting on the results, Professor Julian Richards from the University of York, who co-directed the excavations at the Heath Wood Viking cemetery, said: ‘The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Norman cavalry disembarking horses from their fleet before the Battle of Hastings, but this is the first scientific demonstration that Viking warriors were transporting horses to England 200 years earlier. It shows how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and hounds – so much so that they brought them from Scandinavia, and the animals were sacrificed to be buried with their owners.’