According to new research, when the Vikings crossed the North Sea to reach Britain in the ninth century AD, they brought their dogs and horses with them.

While analysing remains from a Viking cremation cemetery called Heath Wood in Derbyshire, England, archaeologists discovered what they believe to be the first scientific evidence of this practise in Vikings.

Heath Wood has 59 burial mounds, 20 of which have been studied. Although the remains at the cemetery were cremated, bone fragments have survived and serve as missing puzzle pieces, revealing who was there and when.

Researchers examined femur and cranium bones from two adults, one juvenile, and three animals, which included a horse, a dog, and possibly a pig. Cremation was the norm.Scandinavians practised this at the time, while Britons buried their dead. However, in order to determine the true origins of the people and animals at Heath Wood, the scientists expanded their investigation. The researchers looked for strontium, a naturally occurring element found in rocks, soil, and water that ends up in plants. When animals and humans consume plants, strontium enters their bones and teeth. Strontium exists in varying concentrations throughout the world, serving as a geographical marker for the origins of various species.

One adult and one child cremated at Heath Wood were most likely locals. However, the bones of one adult and the animals had different strontium ratios, indicating that they came from the Baltic Shield region of Scandinavia, which included Norway and central and northern Sweden.


The adult and animals most likely died soon after arriving in Britain after crossing the North Sea. The fact that they were cremated together suggests that the adult was someone important who brought their horse and dog with them — and the animals may have been sacrificed when the person died.


The pig bone could have been a preserved food source or a token brought from home, rather than a living pig.was carried.

The findings were detailed in a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

New science and viking legends

Previous research at Heath Wood used carbon dating to determine that cremation of human and animal remains occurred between the eighth and tenth centuries, but the origins of the cremated people and animals were unknown. The area is also noteworthy because the Viking Great Army spent the winter of 873 AD at Repton, which is close to the cemetery.

In 865 AD, the army, which included warriors from various populations in Scandinavia and possibly the British Isles, invaded Britain.

When compared to the researchers’ primary source material, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an annual record of events compiled around 890 AD and written in Old English, the new findings provide distinct insights.

“Essentially, it expands our understanding of the Viking Great Army’s arrival on British soil.” Tessi Löffelmann, a doctoral researcher at Durham University’s department of archaeology and Vrije Universiteit Brussels’ department of chemistry, is the lead study author.

“Our primary source from the time, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, reports that the Army seized horses from the local population in Britain, but our isotopic evidence shows that this was not the only story — they also brought animals from their homelands.”


According to Löffelmann, the journey across the North Sea would have been “wet, cold, and uncomfortable for all parties involved,” as ships transported both animals and humans. In their fleets crossing the North Sea, the Vikings most likely used a combination of their sleek long ships and larger ships with deep cargo space. According to the study, the Viking Great Army travelled by land and sea, with camps strategically placed along rivers where mounted warriors could get supplies from the slower moving fleet.

TheThe famous mediaeval Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts William of Normandy’s conquest of England in 1066, gives researchers an idea of what this might have looked like.

“The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Norman cavalry disembarking horses from their fleet before the Battle of Hastings,” study coauthor Julian Richards, professor in the University of York’s department of archaeology and codirector of the Heath Wood excavations, said in a statement.


“It demonstrates how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and hounds by bringing them from Scandinavia and sacrificing the animals to be buried with their owners.”

According to Löffelmann, animals played an important role in Norse mythology, including gods who could transform into animals.

“Scandinavia was not yet Christian in the ninth century, and there was a strong oral tradition — only a few survived.”

These stories were written down centuries later, but they tell us that animals played an important role in society,” Löffelmann explained via email.

So it’s not surprising that someone buried at Heath Wood would want to bring a prized hunting dog and personal mount, only to have the animals accompany them in death, she says.

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