ancient comforts

Ancient finding adds an unexpected twist to the Viking afterlife myth

Even Vikings need a little comfort.

Events and people at the Abbey Medieval Fayre during the 2019 festival.
Marianne Purdie/Moment/Getty Images

Vikings are renowned the world over for their brutal conquering and rough, nomadic lifestyle, but new research has revealed a softer side to these deadly warriors that suggests they might’ve fancied a few modern luxuries as well.

By carefully analyzing two 10-meter-long 7th and 8th-century Scandinavian boat burials, a pair of Norweigan researchers have discovered alongside weapons, tools, and adorned helmets examples of preserved feather bedding underneath these rugged warriors.

More than just a way to pamper fallen Vikings, the research suggests that this bedding — and in particular the feathers found within it — may play an important role in ensuring the safe and speedy passage of its passengers into Valhalla.

The research was published this April in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“The choice of feathers in the bedding may hold a deeper, symbolic meaning.”

What’s new — Archaeologists have a number of tricks up their sleeves to turn back the sands of time and investigate ancient peoples, whether that be carbon dating or fecal sampling, but the authors of this new study write that studying feathers from archaeological sites has thus far been an underutilized technique.

Viking artifacts aren’t all skulls and swords anymore, new research has also shown that feathers can provide important insight into these peoples’ lives.

Berglund and Rosvold / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

Birgitta Berglund, is the study’s first author and professor emeritus of archaeology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's NTNU University Museum. She said in a statement that these feathers can help researchers understand the intimate lives of ancient peoples in a new way.

“Feathers provide a source for gaining new perspectives on the relationship between humans and birds in the past,” said Berglund. “[Typical] archaeological excavations rarely find traces of birds other than those that were used for food.”

“We also think the choice of feathers in the bedding may hold a deeper, symbolic meaning. It's exciting,” she said

Why does it matter — Pinpointing the kind of feathers used in the bedding of long-dead Vikings may seem like a trivial detail, but Berglund argues that it can in fact shed light on a number of different aspects of Viking life, from the animals they domesticated and traded to the way they prepared for the afterlife.

Such insight can provide a new, and potentially more tender, way to understand the inner lives of Vikings and their connection to ancestors that followed them.

What they did — While feathers are a rich archaeological resource, there may be a reason they’re not yet highly utilized: detangling 1000-plus-year-old feathers from a Viking’s down comforter is no easy feat.

“It was a time-consuming and challenging job for several reasons,” explains the study’s co-author and biologist at the Norwegian Institute for Natural History (NINA), Jørgen Rosvold, in the same press statement.

“The material is decomposed, tangled, and dirty. This means that a lot of the special features that you can easily observe in fresh material has become indistinct, and you have to spend a lot more time looking for the distinctive features," Rosvold said.

Nevertheless, Berglund said it’s still impressive that the feathers have been preserved so well for over 1,000 years.

Using microscopic analysis, the researchers were able to determine which animals the Vikings’ over 1,000-year-old feathers originated from.

Photo: NTNU University Museum

After detangling the feathers, Rosvold and Berglund were able to use microscopic analysis to:

  • Identify the types of animals the feathers belonged to and discovered that they were largely local instead of imported.
  • Discover a mix of feathers. One used domesticated chicken feathers or owl feathers, while the other was primarily stuffed using goose feathers, similar to today’s standard.

More than just an oversight or a coincidence, the team writes that these choices may reflect how these warriors were viewed by Viking society.

“People believed that using feathers from domestic chickens, owls and other birds of prey, pigeons, crows, and squirrels would prolong the death struggle,” explained Berglund. “In some Scandinavian areas, goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body," she said.

Combined with the owl and horses also found on the Viking ships, this curated mix of goose feathers might suggest that one of the Vikings was prepared to ride confidently into Valhalla — while the other may have been destined to trip at the entrance.

What’s next — When it comes to the future of Viking and other ancient discoveries, huge insights can now be made using the tiniest of details, from DNA to the microscopic structure of feathers.

“[F]eathers will bring forth new perspectives to the studies of ancient human life and nature and not least the relation between man and birds,” the authors write.

Abstract: The warriors in the well-equipped, high-rank 7th–8th century boat burials at Valsgärde in Central Sweden were lying in feather stuffed beds. Feathers, especially from Common Eider, are known as trade commodities from the coast of North Norway from the 15th century onwards, but written sources indicate that it started much earlier. The main goal of this investigation was thus to see if the feathers from two of the boat burials, Valsgärde 7 and 8, showed any indications of such specialized long-distance trade of certain bird species. Various levels of bird identifications were obtained through microscopic analysis of the ancient feathers. Some of these identifications were corroborated with avian bones in the two burials and from a contemporary farm close to the burials. In this way a remarkably large variety of birds, among them Eagle Owl, was identified. The birds are likely to have been present in the surrounding areas including the nearby coast of the Baltic Sea. Therefore, the feathers do not suggest long-distance trade, but appear as a new source of knowledge of local bird fauna in archaeological sites. Scandinavian folklore and Islandic Sagas indicated that the feathers had a special meaning, in connection with death and shamanism. The investigations could not confirm long-distance trade with feathers, but gave new perspectives on the use and cultural significance of birds in the Late Iron Age in Scandinavia.
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