Viking slaves were probably sacrificed and buried headless with their masters

Viking slaves were apparently decapitated and buried with their owners as grave gifts, new research shows. The slaves were buried headless. Moreover their diets differed. High status individuals who were accompanied by their – presumed – beheaded and sacrificed slaves, had much more meat in their diets. Their slaves along with other less exalted commoners had a predominantly marine diet.

Meat for the Viking Lords and fish for all the others but slaves had the dubious privilege of accompanying their masters, headless, into the after life!

Elise Naumann, Maja Krzewińska, Anders Götherström, Gunilla Eriksson Slaves as burial gifts in Viking Age Norway? Evidence from stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses  Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 41, January 2014, Pages 533–540

Full-size image (68 K)

The burial site of Flakstad is situated on Flakstad Island

PastHorizons reports:

Six Late Iron Age (AD 550–1030) graves were discovered in the northern Norwegian island of Flakstad and partially excavated in the period 1980–1983. There were ten individuals making up three single burials, two double and one triple and unusually for this region the bones were in a good state of preservation.

Although much of the contextual information had been lost due to farming activity, the double and triple burials contained one intact individual in each, along with the post-cranial bones of the other occupants. This situation has been interpreted as decapitated slaves buried with his/her master and the theory is supported by a number of double burials found within Norse societies indicating this practice.

Elise Naumann from the University of Oslo led a study to investigate stable isotope and ancient mitochondrial DNA fragments in order to better understand the social status, geographical and/or familial links within the Flakstad group

Graves with two or more individuals occur relatively frequently all over the Viking World. The choice to bury people together is not coincidental, but rather a deliberate action based on specific relationships between these individuals, which could either be:

  1. Family members or people with other close connections.
  2. Sacrifice, where one or more individuals are intended to accompany the “main” burial.

The research has revealed some intriguing results and indicates that the intact person in each grave had distinct isotope values from the other individuals with missing crania; the former having a predominately meat based diet, while the latter – in common with the single grave occupants – had consumed a much higher percentage of marine foodstuffs.

The research study noted that ” in a society where most of the daily activities were dedicated to the acquirement and preparation of food, where food shortage and harsh winters are assumed to have been a constant threat, it would seem likely that a different diet should be detectable in people of low social standing compared to the common population. However, isotopic data in this study show quite the contrary. Despite indications that the headless people in multiple graves might represent low-status members of the population, their diet was equivalent to those  in the single burials who are interpreted as representatives of the free population. ”

he ancient DNA results suggest that maternal relations between the individuals buried together are unlikely and backs up the isotope evidence. Therefore, the complete individuals from the multiple burials stand out as a distinct group and may be perceived as having a special social status. This is emphasised by a diet distinctly different from the slaves and the rest of the population and along with the lack of high status artefacts in the multiple burials could indicate that they were not necessarily wealthy, but special in another sense, who were  treated differently than others in death as well as in life.

Why the slaves were deprived of their heads is a little unclear. Perhaps it was to make sure that they stayed in the service of their owners in the after-life and didn’t just go wandering about on their own.

The authors conclude:

Results from stable isotope analyses show that individuals in multiple burials most likely were intentionally placed in the same burial, given the pattern in which the only person buried intact in each burial, had distinct isotope values. Thus, persons sharing a grave had distinctly different diets during their lifetime and were unlikely to share maternal kinship. A reasonable explanation for these observations could be that persons buried headless may have been slaves accompanying their masters in the grave. This interpretation corresponds well with other double burials from the Norse World with similar features, where decapitated and sometimes headless people were deposited as grave gifts. The resemblance in diet between headless persons and individuals buried in single burials was unexpected and calls for further investigation in the future. The present study indicates that also other double burials should be investigated using a bioarchaeological approach.


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