Tag Archives: viking

Ruins of 8th-century pagan temple found in Norway

Feasts and fertility celebrations would have been carried out at the site, before Christianity came along and purged Norse religion.

A digital reconstruction of what the temple would have looked like 1200 years ago. Image credits: University Museum of Bergen.

The Godhouse

By the end of the Viking period around 1050, most Vikings were Christians. But before that, they would famously pray to the Norse pantheon, which features gods like Thor or Odin. The transition wasn’t exactly smooth or clear: the two belief systems often intertwined and influenced each other in Scandinavia.

To this day, pagan celebrations of midsummer and midwinter remain very popular across the area, and in medieval times, they were extremely important to Norse society. The recently discovered “godhouse” was probably used for these celebrations — a large “phallus stone” found in 1928 supports this theory, as midsummer is essentially a fertility celebration.

Archaeologists have found this type of godhouse before, but never preserved as clearly as this one.

“We have discovered the most perfectly shaped godhouse of all the finds so far—I know of no other Scandinavian buildings in which the house construction is as clear as it is here,” Bergen University Museum architect Søren Diinhoff, who helped lead the excavation, tells Syfy Wire’s Elizabeth Rayne. “I think our building is central to document and verify this very special architecture.”

Archaeologists from Norway’s University Museum of Bergen unearthed the remains of the 8th-century structure in the village of Ose during construction work for new houses. Hidden between the fjords, Ose is a quaint little village, still embodying the vibe of Norwegian sagas and legends, while also looking towards the future — hence the new housing development.

A drone view of the foundation area. Image credits: University of Bergen.

The godhouse building itself is long gone, but the foundation can still tell us a lot about Norse society at the time. The building appears to have been 45 feet long, 26 feet wide, and up to 40 feet tall (14 x 8 x 12 meters). The fact that it was such a large building already shows that Norse society was in a transition stage.

In the Christian world, religion was centralized. You have large churches that operate as temples. Churches were often imposing and grand — spectacular architecture that would inspire devotion by making the viewer feel humble and awed. Nordic society, on the other hand, practiced outdoor prayer. Temples were smaller and more localized, and prayer was more intimate.

Things started to change in the 6th century when Norse populations made more contact with the rest of Europe. That’s when the first godhouses started to emerge. As the centuries passed, they started to look like Christian churches more and more. This particular building even featured a church-like tower, which would have been rather unusual in previous centuries.

But Norse gods remained the object of worship.

Another drone photo showing thwere the building and its tower would have been. Image credits: University of Bergen.

Archaeologists found cooking pits and animal bones that predate the building itself, as well as figurines depicting gods such as Odin or Thor. This all suggests the site was used for midsummer and midwinter celebrations for a long time. These would have featured lavish feasts, a good old fashioned pagan ritual. The researchers also found two traditional longhouses that contained a circular area, a shape often associated with religious practice in Nordic societies.

Ultimately, Norse religion was purged and Christianity became dominant in Scandinavia. Many Norse buildings were burned and destroyed in this purge, but it’s unclear if the one at Ose suffered the same fate. Researchers will assess the building remains to see if this was indeed the case.

For the first time in over a century, Norway will explore a new Viking ship burial site

Norwegian archaeologists are racing to save a buried Viking ship they have identified using state of the art technology.

The buried boat was discovered using a ground-penetrating radar. Image credits: Erich Nau / NIKU.

The Vikings were not exactly a subtle bunch. Whether it was pillaging the British Isles, building ships, or burying their leaders, Vikings like to do things with style and grandeur. Scandinavian archaeologists have discovered several ship burial sites — where a wooden ship is used as a tomb and typically covered in soil, creating a burial mount — but no new such site has been uncovered in Norway since 1904.

Three well-preserved Viking ships were excavated in Norway in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, reports the Local Norway. This would be the first site excavated with modern archaeological standards, and it’s a really impressive site at that.

The first time the 65-foot-long (20-meter) ship was discovered was in 2018, by archaeologists at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). The ship was likely buried over 1,000 years ago, and given its size, it probably serves as the final resting place of a prominent king or queen — and it’s one of the largest Viking ship graves ever found.

So hopefully you’ll excuse us if we get a bit excited about the discovery of the tomb of a Viking king — a discovery which by the way, was done thanks to physics.

Old meets new

The outline of the ship can be clearly seen in this tomograph-like data.

When archaeologists look for stuff nowadays, they don’t just start digging randomly. Typically, they have an inkling that a site might be interesting (or in some cases, a very strong indication), but even so, they usually deploy physical surveying methods to “see” what lies underground.

For this study, researchers used a method called “ground penetrating radar” — or GPR, as they call it in the business. GPR involves sending a radar pulse into the ground which is then reflected back to the surface, highlighting materials with different physical parameters. Thus, the ship itself (and the disturbed soil around it) stands out against the background, and the method is completely non-invasive.

But the ship wasn’t the only thing they found.

The site where the measurements were carried out had several other notable features, the archaeologists noted.

“The ship burial does not exist in isolation, but forms part of a cemetery which is clearly designed to display power and influence,” says NIKU archaeologist Lars Gustavsen in a statement.

Norway has now designated 15.6 million Norwegian krone (roughly $1.5 million USD) toward the dig, which is set to be carried out this summer. The authorities are also in a race against time, as the more time the ship is buried, the more decayed it is likely to be.

Here is a presentation video detailing the method and the archaeological findings:

Viking man, horse, and dog found in extremely rare type of burial

Not one, but two impressive boat burial sites were unearthed in Sweden.

Part of the shield and an ornate comb found at the burial site. Image credits: The Archaeologists.

Vikings took their burials seriously. While for most people a funeral pyre was the most common option, leaders enjoyed lavish burials — most commonly, boat burials. The Viking body would be gathered, along with his (or her) most prized possessions, offerings, as well as animal (and even human) sacrifices.

While boat burials have been found in several areas of Europe (and especially in Scandinavia), they were by no means common. This type of burial was reserved for important Vikings — such as the two people archaeologists recently discovered.

The two boat burials were found during an excavation around Old Uppsala — a former Viking settlement in today’s Uppsala, located close to Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. A cellar and a well dating from the Middle Ages were excavated and archaeologists uncovered one of the boats, finding the second one quickly after that.

While one of the boats wasn’t in particularly good condition, the other one was essentially intact. Archaeologists discovered the remains of not only a human but also a dog and a horse, all in good condition.

“This is a unique excavation,” said archaeologist Anton Seiler of Swedish archaeology firm The Archaeologists, who worked on the excavation. “The last excavation of this grave type in Old Uppsala was almost 50 years ago.”

The intact boat, prior to excavation. Image credits: The Archaeologists.

But what makes it really special is that the people in these burials were not cremated — which is very rare for boat burials.  In Sweden, only around a dozen or so sites are known.

”It is a small group of people who were buried in this way. You can suspect that they were distinguished people in the society of the time since burial ships in general are very rare,” says Anton Seiler, who works at The Archaeologists, part of the National Historical Museums in Sweden.

To make things even better, a discovery like this hasn’t been made in many years, which means that researchers will get to use novel exploration methods on it. The fact that it’s an intact grave undisturbed by plundering makes it even more intriguing.

“It is extremely exciting for us since boat burials are so rarely excavated,” Seiler said. “We can now use modern science and methods that will generate new results, hypotheses and answers. We will also put the boat burials in relation to the very special area that is Old Uppsala and the excavations done here before.”

Ship or boat burials were used among several Germanic peoples but were most popular among Viking Age Norsemen. The largest Viking ship used for this purpose was discovered in Norway in 2018. It measures 65 foot long (20 meters) and it is dated to over 1000 years ago when it was probably used as a grave for an imminent Viking king or queen.


Vikings conquered Europe thanks to a technological innovation: tar

While the Vikings had plenty of assets going for them, a surprising advancement gave them a bit of an edge over other seafaring peoples: tar. They learned to make tar on an industrial scale and used it to waterproof their famous longships, which allowed them to undertake long trips around Europe and the Atlantic, exploring and pillaging as they went.

Few cultures have sparked our collective imagnation as much as Vikings. They were Norse seafarers, who controlled a great part of Western and Northern Europe, conquering vast parts of today’s England, France, and Scandinavia. They weren’t afraid to stray even further away, going south to North Africa and east to Russia, Constantinople, and the Middle East — recent evidence shows they went as far as the Americas. They raided, pillaged, sold slaves, and established remarkable trade routes for a wide array of goods.

Although they were fierce and ruthless fighters, their main asset was their seafaring ability and the instrumental tool was the longship (not to be confused with the longboat). The longship’s design evolved and improved over the centuries, but maintained its core philosophy: long and slender, light and fast, the Viking longship was a wonder of its time, enabling the Vikings to spread far and wide.

Tar may have played a role in that, a new study suggests.

For over a hundred years, Northwestern Europe was a Viking fief. This German map depicts the most common expansion routes. It’s noteworthy that they also reached Greenland (several times) and North America.

The use of tar and other similar, resinous substances dates far back to prehistory. Archaeologists have found evidence of tar production in Scandinavia, but they weren’t sure how exactly it was produced — until they found funnel-shaped features, now identified as structures for producing tar. Now, archaeologists have found new evidence that the way tar was produced in Scandinavia changed dramatically in the 8th century, just as Vikings started raiding other parts of Europe. Writing in the journal Antiquity, Andreas Hennius of Uppsala University describes evidence of innovative tar production coinciding with the Viking expanse.

“Tar production developed from a small-scale activity … into large-scale production that relocated to forested outlands during the Viking period,” wrote Hennius. “This change … resulted from the increasing demand for tar driven by an evolving maritime culture.”

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Tar” footer=””]Tar is a black or dark brown liquid distilled from wood or coal. Tar consists of a mixture of hydrocarbons, resins, alcohols, and other compounds. Today, tar is still a valuable commodity used in road-making and for coating and preserving timber.

In Northern Europe, tar is primarily derived from the wood and roots of pine.

Historically, it was produced in kilns which needed to be built close to the forest, usually from limestone. The kiln needs to have a very specific form, with a bottom that slopes into an outlet hole to allow the tar to pour out. The wood also needs to be split into small pieces and stacked very densely — if oxygen can enter, the wood might catch fire, and the production would be ruined.

After the fire is stacked and lit, it takes a few hours for the tar to start to pour, a process which can carry on for several days.

Tars needed to be built just right, otherwise the entire batch would have been destroyed. Tar kiln at Trollskogen in Öland, Sweden. Image credits: Sven boat builder.


Tar has been used to waterproof ships for thousands of years and is widely associated with (most) maritime cultures, and Vikings are no exception. In addition to an important trade commodity, tar would have allowed them to operate more ships safely, without needing repairs or overhaul.

The improved production method featured pits that could have made up to 300 liters of tar in a single batch. It was a massive, painstaking work, that required careful planning and execution.

As the Viking Age developed and seafaring intensified, so too did the demand of tar, but transitioning to the novel production technique meant they needed a different way to organize labor, a new way to manage forests, a new way to transport massive quantities of wood for the fires — it was a massive change on multiple technological and social levels.

This indicates that Vikings, while ruthless by all standards, were not mindless brutes — they were skilled and adaptable seafarers and were capable of remarkable technological and social contributions.

The findings were published in Archaeology.

Eight-year-old in Sweden pulls ancient sword from a lake

I think this makes her the queen of the country now, right?

Image credits: Photo: Jönköpings Läns Museum.

During Scandinavia’s unusually hot summer, 8-year-old Saga Vanecek was playing in a local lake. High temperatures meant that the water levels were much lower than usual, and Saga noticed what she thought was a stick. But when she reached for it, she realized that it was something completely different.

“Daddy, I found a sword!” she cried, according to Catherine Edwards of the Local Sweden.

Her dad was intrigued by it, although he still thought maybe it was a modern toy or something of the sorts. But one of his colleagues (who has an interest in archaeology and history) raised the point that the find probably had a lot of value. So they took it to authorities.

The Jönköpings Läns Museum, who identified the sword, initially said it was 1,000 years old — but, after further analysis, concluded that it was actually even older: 1,500 years, belonging to the pre-Viking age.

“It’s about 85 centimentres long, and there is also preserved wood and metal around it,” explained Mikael Nordström from the museum. “We are very keen to see the conservation staff do their work and see more of the details of the sword.”

The sword is “exceptionally well preserved,” the museum said. In fact, it’s in such good condition that the scabbard of wood and leather has survived to the present day, which is quite remarkable.

The find was made on July 15, but the museum asked Saga and her family to keep things a secret so they could investigate the lake for other relics. Divers and metal detectors were used, and although a few other elements were identified, the sword still remained the highlight.

A pre-Viking sword and Minnesota Vikings merchandise. Saga’s family moved to Småland, where the sword was found, only last year, having grown up in Minneapolis in her father’s home state of Minnesota, USA. Image credits: Andrew Vanecek.

However, anyone hoping to see the sword will have to wait at least a year, Nordström told The Local, explaining:

“The conservation process takes quite a long time because it’s a complicated environment with wood and leather, so they have several steps to make sure it’s preserved for the future.”

As for Saga, as much as she enjoyed the adventure, it hasn’t made her want to become an archaeologist. Instead, she wants to become a doctor, a vet, or an actress in Paris.

Walrus upper jaw bone.

Ivory trade made Greenland great, then barren again

The secret of Greenland’s quick rise to prominence, as well as its rapid decline, may have been walrus tusks.

Walrus head.

Image via Wikipedia.

Sometime in the late 10th century in Iceland, one Erik Thorvaldsson was having a pretty bad day.

Born in Norway, Erik and his family were forced to flee to Iceland after his father committed “some killings“. Erik was about 10 years old when this happened but, he realized today, he didn’t take the lesson to heart. Following in his father’s footsteps, Erik had also committed manslaughter — and was now forced into exile from Iceland.

This paternal murderous streak, however, would echo through time and help shape the destiny of Europe’s northern countries.

“Looks green to me!”

Erik sailed with his family and slaves, intent on finding his fortune on the wild shore to the southwest of Iceland. Icelandic Sagas hold that he christened the massive island Grœnland (‘Greenland’) and stayed there — thus creating the first Norse settlement on Greenland.

Nestled in the frigid waters between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, however, Greenland is decidedly un-green. Historians are still split on whether the lands were lusher back in the days of the Vikings, or whether Erik simply had a knack for PR campaigns and an interest in tempting new immigrants into sailing over.

What we do know is that it worked. People sailed in and by the mid-12th century, Greenland could boast two major towns, a population of several thousand, and even its own bishop. This rapid ascent was followed by a dizzying drop: by the 15th century, Greenland was virtually devoid of Norsemen, ruins of their settlements peeking out of snow across the land.

How these colonies developed and declined so fast has long fascinated historians. One theory proposed that a change in climate patterns, coupled with antiquated farming technology, made it impossible for the Greenland Norse to feed their population — so they left. One other holds that the Greenland Norse never really farmed much, but sustained their population by trading commodities with Europe. Walrus tusks were a particularly sought-after commodity in the time, and Erik’s frozen island was rich in walruses. When trade declined, the Norse also faded into history.

Walrus upper jaw bone.

A walrus rostrum (upper jaw bone) with tusks that was used in the study. Dated to c.1200-1400 CE based on the characteristics of a runic inscription in Old Norse.
Image courtesy of Musées du Mans.

This latter hypothesis is further supported by archeological findings in Europe. We’ve found many luxury items — from crucifixes to game pieces — fashioned out of walrus ivory in Europe around this time. However, the theory couldn’t be proved or disproved, as the source of this ivory couldn’t be pinpointed.

New research from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo, however, successfully established the source of this walrus ivory. By studying the DNA in walrus tusks and skulls from ivory workshops across the continent, the team found that Greenland held a “near monopoly” of the ivory supply in Western Europe for over two centuries. The research also revealed an evolutionary split in the walrus, allowing the team to distinguish between ivory sourced from Greenland and that obtained elsewhere.

Tusky business

The team worked with samples of walrus bone and tusk obtained from key medieval trading centers such as Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Dublin, London, Schleswig, and Sigtuna, dating between 900 and 1400 CE.

Ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque.

Ecclesiastical walrus ivory plaque from the beginning of the medieval walrus ivory trade; believed to date from the 10th or 11th century. Found in North Elmham, Norfolk, UK.
Image credits Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology / University of Cambridge.

The tusks were exported still attached to the walrus’ skull. They helped protect the ivory during shipping and was later broken up at each workshop. The team extracted DNA from the remains of this process, as to avoid damaging any artifacts. Ivory was carved into luxury goods such as religious objects and game pieces.

DNA analysis revealed that the walrus branched into two lines during the last Ice Age — which researchers term “eastern” and “western”. The eastern lineage spread across much of the Arctic, while the western lineage remained contained in the waters between Canada and Greenland.

The lion’s share of walruses during the early years of the ivory trade came from the eastern lineage, the team reports. As demand soared from the 12th century onwards, however, the supply shifted almost entirely to tusks from the western lineage — namely, from walruses in Greenland. The Norse settlers there either hunted the animals themselves or traded with indigenous populations for the tusks, according to the team.

“The results suggest that by the 1100s Greenland had become the main supplier of walrus ivory to Western Europe — a near monopoly even,” says paper co-author Dr James H. Barrett. “The change in the ivory trade coincides with the flourishing of the Norse settlements on Greenland. The populations grew and elaborate churches were constructed.”

“Later Icelandic accounts suggest that in the 1120s, Greenlanders used walrus ivory to secure the right to their own bishopric from the king of Norway. Tusks were also used to pay tithes to the church,” he explains.

Europe was faring pretty well from the 11th to the 13th century, and demand for luxury and exotic goods soared. The Greenland Norse cashed in on this, supplying almost all of the ivory in Western Europe during this time. However, craftsmen eventually switched over to elephant ivory — there is virtually no evidence of walrus ivory imports in Europe past the year 1400, the team explains. Left without a market for their single most important export good, the Greenlanders’ economy ground to a halt.

“Changing tastes could have led to a decline in the walrus ivory market of the Middle Ages,” Barrett explains.

“An overreliance on a single commodity, the very thing which gave the society its initial resilience, may have also contained the seeds of its vulnerability.”

There may have been other factors at work, however. Walrus populations are known to abandon their coastal haulouts due to overhunting. The 14th century also saw the “Little Ice Age“, a sustained period of low temperatures. Finally, Europe was also going through some tough times, as the Black Death plagued the lands.

“Until now, there was no quantitative data to support the story about walrus ivory from Greenland,” says co-author Dr Bastiaan Star of the University of Oslo.

“Walruses could have been hunted in the north of Russia, and perhaps even in Arctic Norway at that time. Our research now proves beyond doubt that much of the ivory traded to Europe during the Middle Ages really did come from Greenland.”

The paper “Ancient DNA reveals the chronology of walrus ivory trade from Norse Greenland” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Vikings may have used crystals to navigate during cloudy weather

It almost sounds mystical and surreal, but there’s a very solid study behind this idea. Researchers showed that skilled navigators could use sunstone crystals to navigate through stormy weather.

Image credits: Artiom Ponkratenko.

Vikings, crystals, and science

Vikings have fascinated our imagination for centuries, and they will certainly continue to amaze us for many years to come. Departing from a harsh, unfertile land, they sailed the North Atlantic, holding much of Northern and Eastern Europe under their command. There are many traits that enabled the Vikings to become conquering beasts that terrorized a continent, but it was mainly due to their incredible skill at sailing.

Before the days of Google Maps, and even before the days of accurate maps, Vikings roamed the seas. They built strong, sturdy ships, and navigated them with unrivaled skill. Previous research has indicated that Vikings used a type of sundial — a ring-like structure with a central dial — to help them find the geographic north based on the time of day. All’s good so far, but what do you do when there’s no sun?

A sundial near Canterbury, UK. Image credits: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier.

In 1967, Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou came up with an interesting idea: what if, as a backup, Vikings used sunstone crystals to help them navigate?

Well, as crazy as that might seem, a new study found that the theory is completely plausible — it is possible to navigate using sunstones, not through some form of divination, but by taking advantage of their optic properties.

A science magic trick

Sunstones are essentially a type of plagioclase feldspar that exhibit a spangled appearance — they have a metallic glitter, from the tiny, preferentially oriented mineral platelets within the material. They also exhibit another optic property called polarization, which means that light isn’t traveling in a specific, non-random orientation.

[panel style=”panel-warning” title=”Sunstones” footer=””]The term sunstone is rather loose and can be used to refer to several types of rocks. Furthermore, feldspar isn’t the only mineral to exhibit this optic property. It has been noted that several other crystals, such as those formed from calcite, cordierite, and tourmaline, can split sunlight into two beams even when it is cloudy.[/panel]

When light travels through the atmosphere, it forms polarized rings — think of them as a dartboard ring, with the sun as the red bullseye. Several animals are able to use this feature to their advantage: bats use polarized light as a nighttime compass, and many insects and birds have special polarized light detectors. However, humans — not so much. This is there the sunstone enters the stage.

Oligoclase feldspar.

The minute bright crystals of the sunstone also polarize light. If you rotate the crystal as you’re holding it in front of your face, you would see that one direction is much brighter than the others — this is because the polarized light aligns. In other words, you can align the sunstone with the direction of the polarized light. When the sunstone is brightest, you know that it’s pointing at the sun, even if the sun itself is not visible.

Testing it out

In order to test this crazy idea out, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth of the ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary carried out computer models to see if this method was viable. They figured that it doesn’t make much sense to travel a bunch of times between Norway and Greenland, so they just simulated the trip. Turns out, some crystals are better than others, and you’d need to make a lot of measurements to have a decent accuracy — but it could work.

“Our results show that the sky-polarimetric navigation is surprisingly successful on both days of the spring equinox and summer solstice even under cloudy conditions if the navigator determined the north direction periodically at least once in every 3 h, independently of the type of sunstone used for the analysis of sky polarization. This explains why the Vikings could rule the Atlantic Ocean for 300 years and could reach North America without a magnetic compass,” the study reads.

They ran the simulations 36,000 times, slightly changing parameters to see how the method would fare under different scenarios. They got the best results for a cordierite crystal, with a measurement being taken at least once every three hours — this was approximately 92.2 to 100% accurate. Of course, operator skill was also a factor.

Now, this means that the Vikings could have used these crystals for navigation, but there’s still not solid evidence that they did. Rocks that could serve as sunstones are commonly found in the range of Vikings, and in 2013, an archaeological survey revealed at least one rock that served as a sunstone. Ancient legends, such as “The Saga of King Olaf,” also refer to navigation by sólarsteinn (sunstone), and experimental studies were able to identify the position of the sun with 1% accuracy using sunstones.

So all the circumstantial evidence is there, we just need a couple more smoking guns before we can definitively say that Vikings used sunstones for navigation. But what is clear is that they were phenomenal sailors. With or without sunstones, they were able to use natural cues such as wave patterns, coastal geometry, and even whale migration, to aid their navigation.

Journal Reference: Success of sky-polarimetric Viking navigation: revealing the chance Viking sailors could reach Greenland from Norway, Published 4 April 2018. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.172187.

Birds of a feather — A story of Vikings and pillows

Have you ever wondered what Vikings put in their pillows? Or, a more likely question, have you ever wondered what’s in your pillows? The odds are, if it’s not synthetic, it’s probably feathers from domestic geese or ducks. Well, Vikings also used pillows, and they also filled them with feathers — but the feathers didn’t come from a goose or a duck.

“Eagle-owls,” says Jørgen Rosvold, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Cultural History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum.

A well-preserved feather fragment found in a grave from the Viking era, about one centimeter long. Even after many hundreds of years, you can see the colors and that this is a feather from a crow. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum.

When I first started going out and photographing birds a couple of years ago, I was advised to look for general traits — the shape of the body, the overall flight patterns, the size, those are all important cues. Things like color can be very deceiving. The same color can look different on a sunny and on a cloudy day, and bird colors often play games even on trained eyes. Telling apart a bird by its feathers can be quite tricky, but telling them apart by a single feather? To me, it seems like a pipe dream, but to Rosvold, it’s just another day.

Rosvold is part of a project from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology which aims to develop methods to identify small bits of feather residue. It’s not always possible to tell what species the feather came from, especially if the feather is a few hundreds of years old.

“Sometimes all you can say for sure is that a feather comes from a duck,” says Rosvold — but not which kind of duck.

“It depends on how well preserved the feather is, the kind of feather and whether the species has close relatives,” he says.

Miniscule barbules, the smallest branches of a feather, are examined under a microscope to identify the kind of bird. Here are two different birds. At the bottom left is a rock ptarmigan, a type of game bird with rings around its barbules. At bottom right is a mallard with triangular growths at the ends of its barbules. Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum.

Some feathers (most downy parts of feathers) can be quite telling, allowing a clear identification of its previous owners. But sometimes, things are much more difficult, especially when differences between species are subtle.

“In some cases, if we’re unable to identify a feather beyond the family level with microscopes, we can make more headway using DNA analyses. The analyses are easier when we’ve narrowed down the range of possible birds,” says Rosvold.

An intriguing application of this study is studying the relationship early Vikings had to birds. He analyzed a pillow from a Viking grave dating from 1,200 years ago, and you can still see pigmentation in some of these feathers, as well as some distinctive features. For instance, game birds are recognizable by the rings around their barbules, while duck feathers have distinctive triangular growths. The earlier usage of pillow feathers comes from the year 570 and through the Viking era, though there is evidence that elsewhere, Romans also stuffed their pillows with feathers.

Feathers haven’t only been found in pillows, they’ve also been found in a trove of other archaeological sites, including unlikely places, such as embedded in a sword.

Feather residues in corroded iron from a Viking sword. Perhaps the sword was laid on a pillow? Photo: Jørgen Rosvold, NTNU University Museum.

But unlike today’s pillows, these ancient ones didn’t have feathers from ducks or geese. Instead, Rosvold found feathers from Europe’s largest owl. This can help archaeologists better understand the relationship between these people and the birds. For instance, we know that they were farming eider (large sea ducks) in central Norway, but we don’t know when they started doing so. We also don’t know exactly how this farming went, but we do know that Vikings built nesting boxes and protect the ducks, and harvested large amounts of feathers from them.

“The cooperation goes way back in time. We’ve found a few eider feathers, but also a lot of assorted feathers,” says Rosvold.

Lastly, knowing how to identify bird feathers could not only be helpful for historians but also to solve crimes or save lives, such as for investigators who need to collect evidence. Analyzing feathers from impact with planes or vehicles could also help engineers improve designs to withstand such unfortunate crashes.

It’s remarkable how much detail lies in these microscopic bits of feathers — and how much help they can provide, from Viking pillows to plane designs.

New archaeological findings show that Vikings “imported” from the Celts

Archaeologists were expecting to find beer or other brewing materials, but they found something more valuable.

The finding took archaeologists by surprise: Image credits: NTNU University Museum.

It was supposed to be a simple, routine expansion work at Byneset Cemetery, adjacent to the medieval Steine Church in Trondheim, Norway. As in several other European countries, Norwegian law mandates that such works have to be preceded by archaeological studies — and in this case, it paid off in spades.

Archaeologists have discovered a trove of Viking artifacts, including one which is of a foreign origin: they come from Ireland, researchers say. Jo Sindre Pålsson Eidshaug and Øyunn Wathne Sæther, both research assistants at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) University Museum, say that what really drew their attention was a small brooch — a Celtic, gold-plated silver fitting from a book.

“This is a decorative fitting,” Eidshaug said of his discovery. “It almost looks like it’s gilded. It’s a kind of decorative fitting, I would guess.”

A fitting, probably from a book. The style is typical of Celtic and Irish areas and dates from the 800s. Traces of gilding can be seen in the recesses. Photo: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum.

It might have been part of a bigger, religious ensemble, or a stand-alone book fitting. Right now, any such claims are little more than speculation. But what’s interesting is how it got there.

It’s no secret that Vikings roamed Europe’s seas, plundered the coast of England for centuries. Crossing over to Ireland, while not easy, was certainly possible for the skilled seamen. But even so, finding Celtic items in Viking sites is not common, with only a few similar sites previously discovered.

In archaeology, this is technically called an import. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it was bought or traded for, and again — taking into consideration the well-known habits of the Vikings.

“Someone very politely called this an Irish import, but that’s just a nice way of saying that someone was in Ireland and picked up an interesting item,” said museum director Reidar Andersen, who was also at the site.

Erecting tents at the excavation site with Steine Church behind. Photo: Raymond Sauvage, NTNU University Museum.

This isn’t to say that the item was definitely stolen. Whether or not the Vikings’ voyages to Ireland were peaceful or not is anyone’s guess right now.

“Yes, that’s right. We know that the Vikings went out on raids. They went to Ireland and brought things back. But how peacefully it all transpired, I won’t venture to say,” he said.

The site itself holds great promise for future. Archaeologists also came across a belt buckle, a key, and a knife blade, so they have high hopes for upcoming digs. The church itself dates from the 1140s and used to be connected to a large, old farm estate from the time of the Vikings, which will also be studied next year.

Vikings were not the pure-bred master race white supremacists like to believe

Article by Clare Downham, University of Liverpool

The word “Viking” entered the Modern English language in 1807, at a time of growing nationalism and empire building. In the decades that followed, enduring stereotypes about Vikings developed, such as wearing horned helmets and belonging to a society where only men wielded high status.

During the 19th century, Vikings were praised as prototypes and ancestor figures for European colonists. The idea of a Germanic master race took root, fed by crude scientific theories and nurtured by Nazi ideology in the 1930s. These theories have long been debunked, although the notion of the ethnic purity of the Vikings still seems to have popular appeal – and it is embraced by white supremacists.

In contemporary culture, the word Viking is generally synonymous with Scandinavians from the ninth to the 11th centuries. We often hear terms such as “Viking blood”, “Viking DNA” and “Viking ancestors” – but the medieval term meant something quite different to modern usage. Instead, it defined an activity: “Going a-Viking”. Akin to the modern word pirate, Vikings were defined by their mobility and this did not include the bulk of the Scandinavian population who stayed at home.

The mobility of Vikings led to a fusion of cultures within their ranks and their trade routes would extend from Canada to Afghanistan. A striking feature of the early Vikings’ success was their ability to embrace and adapt from a wide range of cultures, whether that be the Christian Irish in the west or the Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate in the east.While the modern word Viking came to light in an era of nationalism, the ninth century – when Viking raids ranged beyond the boundaries of modern Europe – was different. The modern nation states of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were still undergoing formation. Local and familial identity were more prized than national allegiances. The terms used to describe Vikings by contemporaries: “wicing”, “rus”, “magi”, “gennti”, “pagani”, “pirati” tend to be non-ethnic. When a term akin to Danes, “danar” is first used in English, it appears as a political label describing a mix of peoples under Viking control.

Blending of cultures

The Viking longboats were crucial to the Viking culture, allowing them to travel around and blend in with other cultures. Photograph by Mike Peel.

Developments in archaeology in recent decades have highlighted how people and goods could move over wider distances in the early Middle Ages than we have tended to think. In the eighth century, (before the main period of Viking raiding began), the Baltic was a place where Scandinavians, Frisians, Slavs and Arabic merchants were in frequent contact. It is too simplistic to think of early Viking raids, too, as hit-and-run affairs with ships coming directly from Scandinavia and immediately rushing home again.

Recent archaeological and textual work indicates that Vikings stopped off at numerous places during campaigns (this might be to rest, restock, gather tribute and ransoms, repair equipment and gather intelligence). This allowed more sustained interaction with different peoples. Alliances between Vikings and local peoples are recorded from the 830s and 840s in Britain and Ireland. By the 850s, mixed groups of Gaelic (Gaedhil) and foreign culture (Gaill) were plaguing the Irish countryside.

Written accounts survive from Britain and Ireland condemning or seeking to prevent people from joining the Vikings. And they show Viking war bands were not ethnically exclusive. As with later pirate groups (for example the early modern pirates of the Caribbean), Viking crews would frequently lose members and pick up new recruits as they travelled, combining dissident elements from different backgrounds and cultures.

The cultural and ethnic diversity of the Viking Age is highlighted by finds in furnished graves and silver hoards from the ninth and tenth centuries. In Britain and Ireland, only a small percentage of goods handled by Vikings are Scandinavian in origin or style.

The evidence points to population mobility and acculturation over large distances as a result of Viking Age trade networks.The Galloway hoard, discovered in south-west Scotland in 2014, includes components from Scandinavia, Britain, Ireland, Continental Europe and Turkey. Cultural eclecticism is a feature of Viking finds. An analysis of skeletons at sites linked to Vikings using the latest scientific techniques points to a mix of Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian peoples without clear ethnic distinctions in rank or gender.

Artefact from the Galloway Hoard. John LordCC BY

The Viking Age was a key period in state formation processes in Northern Europe, and certainly by the 11th and 12th centuries there was a growing interest in defining national identities and developing appropriate origin myths to explain them. This led to a retrospective development in areas settled by Vikings to celebrate their links to Scandinavia and downplay non-Scandinavian elements.

The fact that these myths, when committed to writing, were not accurate accounts is suggested by self-contradictory stories and folklore motifs. For example, medieval legends concerning the foundation of Dublin (Ireland) suggest either a Danish or Norwegian origin to the town (a lot of ink has been spilt over this matter over the years) – and there is a story of three brothers bringing three ships which bears comparison with other origin legends. Ironically, it was the growth of nation states in Europe which would eventually herald the end of the Viking Age.

Unrecognisable nationalism

In the early Viking Age, modern notions of nationalism and ethnicity would have been unrecognisable. Viking culture was eclectic, but there were common features across large areas, including use of Old Norse speech, similar shipping and military technologies, domestic architecture and fashions that combined Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian inspirations.

It can be argued that these markers of identity were more about status and affiliation to long-range trading networks than ethnic symbols. A lot of social display and identity is non-ethnic in character. One might compare this to contemporary international business culture which has adopted English language, the latest computing technologies, common layouts for boardrooms and the donning of Western suits. This is a culture expressed in nearly any country of the world but independently of ethnic identity.

The ConversationSimilarly, Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries may be better defined more by what they did than by their place of origin or DNA. By dropping the simplistic equation of Scandinavian with Viking, we may better understand what the early Viking Age was about and how Vikings reshaped the foundations of medieval Europe by adapting to different cultures, rather than trying to segregate them.

Clare Downham, Senior Lecturer, Irish Studies, University of Liverpool

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Millenium-old Viking burial boat unearthed under a market square in Norway

The boat, which measured at least 4 meters (13ft) long, was buried on a north-south direction under what is today the city’s trading center.

The Oseberg ship, Kulturhistorisk museum (Viking Ship Museum), Oslo, Norway. Credits: Daderot.

Just as archaeologists working in the historical city of Trondheim were preparing to end their dig under the central market square, they came across something intriguing. It didn’t take long for the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) researchers to realize what they had on their hands. Although the wood had long rotted away, the distinctive shape and other preserved structural elements helped identify the structure: a long Viking funeral boat.

“Careful excavation revealed that no wood remained intact, but lumps of rust and some poorly-preserved nails indicated that it was a boat that was buried here,” archaeologist Ian Reed of NIKU said in a statement.

The boast is damaged several places by pits and post holes. Cautious excavation has revealed that there is no wood left but clumps of rust and some poorly preserved nails that show that this is probably a boat grave. Credits: NIKU.

The feature, which was dug into the natural deposits, had been disturbed in several places by later pits and postholes, but it was quite clearly boat-shaped. It also contained two long bones, potentially indicating that a person had been buried there — though the bones could have also come from animals.

“This suggests that there was a human skeleton contained within the boat. Because of the poor state of preservation we will have to carry out DNA tests to be 100% certain that the bones are human, says Reed.”

The dig also revealed a small piece of sheet bronze, located up against one of the bones, as well as what appears to be personal items from the grave.

NIKU’s Knut Paasche, a specialist in early boats, says that the boat had been dug up into the ground and likely covered up by a burial mount which has since eroded with the development of the city. As legend has it, Trondheim was founded by the Viking King Olav Tryggvason in the year 997, but archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited for thousands of years.

Boat graves are not unusual in Norway. Here is a boat grave with a boat/ ship from Myklebostad in Nordfjord. Photo: Knut Paasche, NIKU.

As for the boat, it’s unclear exactly when it was built and placed there. The objects that survived the burial seem to indicate that it’s at least one thousand years old, potentially 1,200 years old. The boat itself is relatively flat in the bottom midship. This type of vessel was likely intended to go into shallow waters on the river Nidelven.

“In a posthole dug through the middle of the boat we found a piece of a spoon and part of a key for a chest. If this is from the grave then it can probably be dated from the 7th to the 10th century, says Reed.”


Sketcth of an Åfjord boat. The boat in the grave is likely similar to this boat. Source: Nordlandsbåten og Åfjordsbåten av G. Eldjarn og J. Godal, 1988.

Burial boats are quite common in Scandinavia, though this is the first time one was found in Trondheim. It’s another indication that life flourished in today’s Trondheim way before Medieval times, Paasche says. Other Viking settlements such as Birka, Gokstad or Kaupang, all have graves in close proximity to the trading centre.

The practice of burial ships is ancient in Scandinavia, dating from at least the Nordic Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE. The Hjortspring boat (400-300 BC) or the Nydam boats (200-450 AD) are some of the oldest evidence, but the practice was significant through the centuries. Man and sea were intertwined for the Vikings, during life — and even after it.

Viking 1: Laying the Foundation of Space Exploration on Mars

We have touched Mars. There is life on Mars, and it is us—extensions of our eyes in all directions, extensions of our mind, extensions of our heart and soul…
— Ray Bradbury, science fiction author, speaking at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California, October 8, 1976

Traveling to Mars has been the dream of many people, long before the beginning of the space age. Hollywood even released a silent movie about a trip to Mars back in 1924!

Excitement escalated after the relatively short amount of time it took NASA to land and safely return men from the moon in 1969. Scientists thought that a Mars landing would surely be the next major accomplishment. However, budget cuts to America’s space program and the harsh reality of traveling to a distant planet put the dream on hold.

Now, almost 50 years after the moon landing, Russia, China and the United States are seriously planning to send humans to Mars. Elon Musk, founder of Space X, is charting a path to colonize Mars within the next decade. Musk’s primary reason for founding the company in 2002 was to “help make humanity a multiplanet species…colonizing Mars would…greatly advance science discoveries and technological capabilities, and…help inspire and excite people from…around the globe.”

Unknown to many people on Earth, America has already landed on Mars. Viking 1, built and launched by NASA, landed safely on the Martian surface 40 years ago this July. It was the first-ever successful mission to another planet.

Artist’s Model of Viking 1
Courtesy of NASA

On August 20, 1975, a Titan rocket launched the Viking 1 spacecraft toward Mars, a 500-million-mile journey that took almost a full year to complete. Viking 1 carried two vidicon cameras for imaging, an infrared spectrometer for water vapor mapping and infrared radiometers for thermal mapping.

Due to the variations in available sunlight, Viking 1 was powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators, creating electricity from heat given off by the decay of plutonium. This technology allowed long-term science investigations that otherwise would not have been possible.

NASA planned Viking 1’s touchdown for July 4, 1976 to coincide with the United States’ bicentennial celebration. However, Viking’s photos of the original landing site prior to descent showed a deeply incised riverbed, and NASA became concerned that the craft would not be able to land safely.

NASA decided to change the landing site. Viking 1 finally touched down on the western slope of Chryse Planitia (the Plains of Gold) on July 20, seven years to the day of man’s first step on the Moon.

Viking 1 started taking photos just minutes after landing. Below is the first clear image ever transmitted back to Earth of the Martian surface.

First “clear” image of Mars – shows rocks near the
Viking 1 Lander (July 20, 1976). Courtesy of NASA

In addition to the planet’s surface, Viking 1 also took photos of volcanoes and ancient channels where floods may have occurred millions of years ago. The thousands of photos taken by Viking 1 helped NASA understand the conditions humans may experience upon arrival, such as dust storms, radiation and violent weather.

One of Viking 1’s more interesting experiments was its search for life. The craft had rudimentary tools that enabled it to scoop up a handful of Martian soil and check it for any sign of organics.

Although the experiments discovered some unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the soil, there was never any clear evidence of living microorganisms, at least none near the landing site. Scientists concluded that Mars is self-sterilizing. The combination of ultraviolet radiation, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry prevent the formation of living organisms.

Other significant discoveries from Viking 1 include:

  • The Martian surface is a type of iron-rich clay that contains a highly oxidizing substance which releases oxygen when it is wet.
  • The density of both Martian moons is low, implying they originated as asteroids captured by the gravity of Mars.
  • The permanent north cap is water ice, while the southern cap retains some carbon dioxide ice. 
  • Subsurface water (permafrost) covers much, if not all, of the planet.

Viking 1 had an estimated lifespan of 90 days after landing, but it continued transmitting information for over six years until its last transmission on November 13, 1982. Viking 1’s mission was highly successful, forming the foundation of what scientists knew of Mars through the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Only the United States has successfully landed on Mars to date (e.g. Pathfinder, the Spirit Rover, and the Curiosity Rover). But now that all three major space agencies, as well as commercial entities such as Space-X and Bigelow Aerospace, are focused on sending humans there, it’s only a matter of time before one of them accomplishes the historic feat. Thanks to Viking 1 laying the groundwork for future Martian missions, future astronauts will at least know the challenges and obstacles they’ll have to face.

About the Author

Dr. Walt Conrad, PMP, is a faculty member in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at American Public University, teaching courses in space studies. He holds a D.B.A. in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix, as well as an M.B.A. in Business Administration and an M.A. in Space Systems Management from Webster University. Currently, Walt is a project manager at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).


Sarah Parcak looking for evidence of a Viking presence in Point Rosie. Photo: Greg Mumford

Archaeologists unearth what looks like the 2nd Viking Settlement in North America

Some 55 years ago, what looked like a wild goose hunt inspired by Norse Sagas — myths, stories of gods and “tales of worthy men” written by Icelandic monks in the 13th century — unexpectedly helped archaeologists dig up one of the most important finds ever: a Norse settlement in Canada. Aided by high tech (satellite imagery, magnetometry and image processing) a team of archaeologists say they’ve found tantalizing evidence of a second Viking settlement in North America. The findings could re-write history, once more detailed excavations are made and the true nature of the settlement confirmed.

Sarah Parcak looking for evidence of a Viking presence in Point Rosie. Photo: Greg Mumford

Sarah Parcak looking for evidence of a Viking presence in Point Rosee, 600km south of the 1st proven Norse settlement in North America. Photo: Greg Mumford

The team which made the groundbreaking discovery was led by Sarah Parcak, a University of Alabama at Birmingham anthropologist. Parcak is an egyptologist by training who saw the potential of expanding the archaeological toolbox with 21st century technology. Alongside on-site digs, Parcak employs satellite imagery to scour the landscape for telltale signs of ancient human activity. Discolored soil or battered vegetation are good clues that something might be worth investigating further, either again from space using infrared satellite imagery or on-site directly. Using this impressive technique, Parcak found 17 new pyramids, 1,000 settlements and, strikingly, exposed a criminal network that looted ancient Egyptian antiquities. For her latter accomplishment she was awarded a $1 million prize by the non-profit TED.

One of the satellite imagery used by the archaeologists that eventually led to the identification of a potential 2nd Viking settlement in North America.

One of the satellite imagery used by the archaeologists that eventually led to the identification of a potential 2nd Viking settlement in North America.

When archaeologists discovered the 1000-year-old seaside settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, everyone was stunned. It proved that Vikings pre-dated Columbus by hundreds of years in the ‘new world’, but since then no other settlement was found, nor artifacts. And not out of lack of trying. Countless expeditions have been made with nothing to show, prompting some to claim that L’Anse aux Meadows was a singular affair — likely the settlement of a single expedition which was routed by the natives back to Europe.

By scouring the Canadian shoreline last year, Parcak found hundreds of promising sites, which were then narrowed down to a single site in the southwestern side of Newfoundland. Satellite imagery suggested the headline here was dotted with unnatural looking structures that looked like hallmarks of once standing man-made structures.

To the trained eye, this looked very promising. But Parcak and colleagues didn’t set their hopes up for a Viking settlement. When they went on site to investigate, they didn’t even bring an expert in Vikings since it was likely they’d find an indigenous settlement.  The trenches that were dug up at the site, called  Point Rosee, exposed Viking-style turf walls, ash, roasted iron ore (bog iron) and a fire cracked boulder. The artifacts were dated from the Norse area and structures that resemble the size and shape of longhouses at L’Anse aux Meadows were also found.

 An iron bog recovered from the site. It undoubtedly suggests that iron was processed here. Photo: Greg Mumford

An iron bog recovered from the site. It undoubtedly suggests that iron was processed here. Photo: Greg Mumford

Not much else yet, but this is already striking. It suggests one of two possibilities: either this was a Viking settlement complete with a iron smithy, or this was the settlement of some other culture with iron processing technology at their disposal. Seeing how the only other pre-Columbian iron processing is at L’Anse aux Meadows, validating any of the two would re-write history.

So far, all evidence points to the idea that this is indeed a Viking settlement, which begs even more questions. Parcak says that judging from evidence gathered so fur, the structures from the settlement are ephemeral suggesting it was a lone outpost with an irony smithy. It could also be part of a larger settlement yet to be unearthed.

“This is going to take years of careful excavation, and it’s going to be controversial,” she said. “It raises a lot more questions than it answers.”

“But,” she added, her tone bright, “that’s what any new discovery is supposed to do.”

Viking treasure pot, opened more than 1,000 years after it was hidden in modern Galloway

The first images of Viking treasure, stashed in a pot more than 1,000 years ago and buried in a field in Galloway, have been made public by the conservators working to preserve them. The items, including six silver disk brooches, a gold ingot and Byzantine silk, are not currently on display.

Metal detectorist Dered McLennan found the hoard in Galloway in 2014. Since then a lot of effort has been put into removing and preserving the pot and items, dated from the 9th or 10th century BC.

The pictures give the public a chance to see the items for the first time as they are not currently on display.
Image credits Historic Environment Scotland.

And it’s a literal pot of gold. Inside, archaeologists found six silver Anglo-Saxon disc brooches and one from Ireland, silk traced back to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul,) a gold ingot as well as gold and crystal objects carefully wrapped in pieces of cloth. Historic Environment Scotland are working together with the Treasure Trove Unit and the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (QLTR) to fund the exhaustive conservation efforts.

“Before removing the objects we took the rather unusual measure of having the pot CT scanned, in order that we could get a rough idea of what was in there and best plan the delicate extraction process,” said Richard Welander of Historic Environment Scotland.

“That exercise offered us a tantalising glimpse but didn’t prepare me for what was to come.”

A silver brooch from Ireland was found inside the pot.
Image credits Santiago Arribas Pena.

“These stunning objects provide us with an unparalleled insight to what was going on in the minds of the Vikings in Galloway all those years ago. They tell us about the sensibilities of the time, reveal displays of regal rivalries, and some of the objects even betray an underlying sense of humour, which the Vikings aren’t always renowned for!” he added.

Stuart Campbell of the Treasure Trove Unit, said there was further research to be done on the items.

“The complexity of the material in the hoard raises more questions than it answers, and like all the best archaeology, this find doesn’t give any easy answers,” he said.

A large glass bead, found among the other riches.
Image credits Santiago Arribas Pena.


“Questions about the motivations and cultural identity of the individuals who buried it will occupy scholars and researchers for years to come.”

The artifacts are now in the care of the Treasure Trove Unit, who are assessing its value on behalf of the QLTR. After this, the hoard will be offered to Scottish museums and the finder will be eligible for the market value of the items — a cost that the museums will cover.

This beautifully crafted artefact might just be the crown jewel of the hoard.
Image via Santiago Arribas Pena.

However, it’s been estimated that this might amount up to £1m in order to do so — a hefty price-tag for any museum.

The hoard’s discovery is also set to feature on the 24th of March in BBC’s latest episode of Digging for Britain hosted by Dr Alice Roberts.

Viking gene may carry predisposition to lung disease

A previous study found that Vikings suffered from massive worm infestations, and this may be the key to an inherited predisposition to emphysema and other lung conditions.

Messy Vikings

The remains of a thousand-year-old latrine revealed some nasty secrets. The Vikings may have been Europe’s most robust population, but they had their own problems. A study conducted on Viking faeces revealed that they were plagued by parasites – specifically, intestinal worms. The dirty world in which domestic animals and humans lived in, very close to each other, was perfect for these parasites.


Post-doc Martin J. Søe from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the Centre for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen, explains:

“It’s fascinating to be able to examine these extremely old parasite eggs and establish which species they came from,” says Søe. “We can use this to say something about what people suffered from during the Viking age and which domestic animals they kept in one location or another. It can also answer questions about the interaction between humans and animals and how close to each other they lived.”

Surprisingly, the fact that Vikings suffered from this could still affect people today.

Worms and lungs

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema affect over 300 million people – 5% of the world’s entire population. The only inherited risk that scientists have identified is alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) deficiency, and this risk is compounded if individuals smoke tobacco. However, A1AT protects the body from enzymes produced by parasitic worms. Deviants of A1AT have been observed especially in Scandinavia, but why this happens remained a mystery. Now, Richard Pleass from Liverpool University believes he has the answer.

He believes the intestinal worms of the Vikings are to blame.

“Vikings would have eaten contaminated food and parasites would have migrated to various organs, including lungs and liver, where the proteases they released would cause disease.”

In his paper, he showed that these deviant forms of A1AT bind an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE) that evolved to protect people from worms. In other words, if someone suffers from intestinal worms, deviants become much more likely and in turn, so do lung conditions. This can be passed on genetically.

“Thus these deviant forms of A1AT would have protected Viking populations, who neither smoked tobacco nor lived long lives, from worms.” Continued Professor Pleass, “it is only in the last century that modern medicine has allowed human populations to be treated for disease causing worms. Consequently these deviant forms of A1AT, that once protected people from parasites, are now at liberty to cause emphysema and COPD.”

Journal Reference: Genetic irregularities linked to higher risk of COPD among smokers

New Discovery Suggests the Arabs Met the Vikings in Ancient Times

Archaeologists have uncovered a silver ring with an Arabic inscription in a Viking grave, adding support to the theory that the two cultures had fascinating connections.

Different Cultures

“I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades.”

An Arab ring was found in a Viking tomb. Image credits: 14 Publications.

That’s how the Arab traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan recorded his meeting with a strange race he calls “Rusiyyah” – the Vikings – over 1,000 years ago. Ibn Fadlan met the Vikings while they were traveling across the Russian steppes, sailing their impressive longships and ultimately trading with the developed Arab world.

Fadlan was rather surprised to note that women also traveled alongside men, each wearing “a small box made of iron, silver, brass or gold, depending on her husband’s financial worth and social standing, tied at her breasts. The box has a ring to which a knife is attached, also tied at her breasts.” He continues:

“The women wear neck rings of gold and silver. When a man has amassed 10,000 dirhams, he has a neck ring made for his wife. When he has amassed 20,000 dirhams, he has two neck rings made. For every subsequent 10,000 dirhams, he gives a neck ring to his wife. This means a woman can wear many neck rings.”

Fadlan, who was an experienced man and met many different cultures in his travels, viewed the Vikings with a mixture of fascination and horror. While he lavishly praised their physical appearance and some of their habits, he was shocked by some of the things they did. Like most accounts about Vikings, he noted that they were cruel, performing rituals which often involved killing female slaves. They also had tattoos, and both men and women wore artificial make-up.

But this wasn’t the only known Arab-Viking meeting; at about the same time, Ibrahim Ibn Yacoub Al Tartushi, from what was then the Muslim kingdom of Al Andalus in Spain, reached the city of Schleswig, now the town of Hedeby on the border of Germany and Denmark. He noted a completely different civilization than what he was used to seeing in Southern Europe or in the Arab World. He noted that women could freely divorce, something which was unimaginable for most people at the time, but the thing that disturbed him the most was the singing – brutal, roaring, out of this world singing:

“I never heard any more awful singing then the singing of the people in Schleswig. It is a groan that comes out of their throats, similar to the bark of the dogs but even more like a wild animal.”

A Big Impact

Rurik the Oarsman (830-879), the Viking prince who conquered Novgorod – Medieval Russia. Illustration by H. Koekkoek / Getty Images

But even though they were surprised by Vikings, the Arab’s didn’t care that much, and they weren’t very impressed. However, they themselves made a big impression on the Norsemen, as new archaeological finds indicate. A rare ring with an inscription in Arabic has been uncovered at a Scandinavian site. This is the only ring of its type, as Professor Sebastian Warmlander explains:

“The ring may therefore constitute material evidence for direct interactions between Viking Age Scandinavia and the Islamic world,” says Prof Warmlander. “There are written sources speaking of Viking and Arabic travellers visiting each other. But it is difficult to know if these written documents are true. Finding physical objects of Islamic origin in Viking Age Sweden means that these written sources become more trustworthy.”

Tjhe silver allow ring was found in a woman’s tomb, at the Viking trading centre in Birka, Sweden. This ring is not the first evidence to link the two cultures, but it’s the first one to suggest that they actively engaged in trade, or at least had strong connections.

“The ring went straight from the Caliphate to Sweden,” says Prof Warmlander. Silver dirham coins have also been found in Viking-era archaeological sites, but the wear on the coins showed they had travelled far and wide.

The research paper on the Birka ring concludes: “It is not impossible that the woman herself, or someone close to her, might have visited – or even originated from – the Caliphate or its surrounding regions.”

The fact that both cultures were very interested in trading also seems to support that idea.

“The relationship was primarily one of trade,” says Prof Montgomery. “The Vikings were obsessed with silver dirhams coined in Muslim lands. They traded weapons, furs and slaves for money.”

It’s also a much more reliable evidence than the stories of Arab travelers, which should always be taken with a grain of salt.

The black eye make-up, for instance, has a practical function to avoid being blinded from strong sunlight, such as when on a ship at sea or in a white snow-covered landscape. I would expect people living in a desert to use similar black eye make-up,” he says.

However, for all this, the cultural exchange was likely very limited. Vikings just took lots of goods and traded them with the Caliphate. But it wasn’t all fun and games – Arabs and Vikings sometimes engaged in fights and skirmishes, though relations were generally good.

“Contacts between Vikings and Arabs/Muslims were both peaceful and violent. Since most of the contacts took place via trade, the relationship was mostly peaceful, but we also have accounts of Viking raids in the Caspian Sea which resemble accounts we have from Europe in a similar period,” says Prof Hraundal Jonsson.


The discovery also highlights one of the more neglected aspects in Viking studies – they didn’t only come in contact with Christianity, they came in contact with many other religions. Prof Warmlander says:

“In the Scandinavian research tradition, there is a tendency to focus on the Scandinavian transition from Viking Age paganism to Christian Catholicism. Contacts with other religions, such as Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has largely been neglected. But such contacts must have taken place, and most likely influenced the Viking culture. Objects of Islamic origin tell us that the Vikings must have been aware of many other cultures and belief systems.”

It’s also another reminder that we don’t really understand the Vikings, and maybe no one really did. The Arabs themselves considered them barbarians, but then again there’s this account written by Ibn Fadlan:

“One of the Rusiyyah said: ‘You Arabs, you are a lot of fools,’ and when Ibn Fadlan asked him why he said that, the man replied: ‘Because you purposefully take your nearest and dearest and those whom you hold in highest esteem and put them in the ground, where they are eaten by vermin and worms.’

“‘We, on the other hand, cremate them there and then, so that they enter the Garden on the spot.’”

Source: Arabs and Vikings in the Middle Ages, Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Saturday, 16.45-17.30pm. With Prof Thorir Hraundal Jonsson and Prof James Montgomery.

Amateur archaeologist finds 1000-year old Viking treasure hoard with a Metal Detector

viking cross

An early medieval cross, part of a hoard of Viking treasure which has been unearthed by metal-detecting enthusiast Derek McLennan in one of the most significant finds of its kind ever made in Scotland. Photograph: Derek McLennan/PA

A magnificent Viking treasure has been unearthed in Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway. More than 100 objects, including solid gold jewelry, arm bands and silver ingots, were discovered not by archaeologists, but by an amateur researcher working with a metal detector.

The artifacts are thought to have been buried between the 9th and 10th century and they also include a rare early Christian cross made of solid silver, with unusual enamelled decorations. Traditionally, Vikings worshiped the Norse pantheon, most notably Odin and Thor. The Christianisation of Scandinavia took place between the 8th and the 12th centuries and it wasn’t a smooth process. Officially, the Scandianvian countries switched to Christianity in the 12th century, though the actual conversion took place much slower. Finding a massive silver Viking Christian cross from the 9th or 10th century is spectacular.

The findings were made by Derek McLennan, 47, a retired businessman who obtained permission to search the area. Interestingly enough, he was feeling sick at that day, but forced himself to do the search.

An archaeologist prepares the top level for removal of items found at an undisclosed location in Dumfries and Galloway. Photograph: Derek McLennan/PA

“I dragged myself out of my sickbed because I had two friends who wanted to detect and I’m a bit of an obsessive.”

Initially, he found it hard to comprehend what he had found.

“I unearthed the first piece; initially I didn’t understand what I had found because I thought it was a silver spoon and then I turned it over and wiped my thumb across it and I saw the saltire-type of design and knew instantly it was Viking. Then my senses exploded.”

Further digging revealed more and more artifacts, and he started to understand what a precious trove he had found. Stuart Campbell, head of Scotland’s treasure trove unit is thrilled by this find. He explained that there are many extremely interesting objects, and the sheer size of the hoard is amazing. Among the remarkable objects, he also names an intact Carolingian (western European) pot with its lid still in place – something rare, probably a family heirloom, carefully passed on from one generation to the other; the Carolingian empire lasted from 768, when Charlemagne was crowned, until 887, when the empire divided. Campbell describes the lid as a “an excavation in microcosm”. He also adds:

“What makes this find so significant is the range of material from different countries and cultures. This was material that was buried for safekeeping, almost like a safety deposit box that was never claimed.”

A large silver alloy Carolingian lidded vessel. Photograph: Treasure Trove Unit/PA

He also said this finding could force historians to rethink the relationship between the Vikings and Scotland. Vikings colonized Scotland from the 8th to the 15th centuries, a period marked by violence and war.

“We have the idea of Vikings as foreigners who carried out raids on Scotland, but this was a Viking area where they settled and traded, and the people who lived there were culturally and linguistically Norse.”

The Scottish government’s culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, said:

“It’s clear that these artefacts are of great value in themselves, but their greatest value will be in what they can contribute to our understanding of life in early medieval Scotland, and what they tell us about the interaction between the different peoples in these islands at that time. The Dumfries hoard opens a fascinating window on a formative period in the story of Scotland.”

To make this an even better story, the find falls under Scottish laws, which means that the finder will receive a much deserved reward – something which sadly, doesn’t happen in many countries. Unlike Scotland, in most countries, it doesn’t matter what you find – if has archaeological value, or even if it’s just underground, you get no reward for it. Personally, I find this to be a bit unfair; it’s not incredibly uncommon for amateur scientists to make remarkable finds, and this is something you’d want to encourage.



Ten Mythical Facts That Are Not True

In the 21st century, you would think that all facts that we know about are true. In reality, there are still specific facts that have been circulating which are still based on nothing but old sayings with no scientific or historical meaning to back them up. Let’s try to examine some of the facts and find out how they originated. You can even share these fun facts as harmless jokes with friends or humorous reference when explaining applicable details contained in free fax (offered by companies like RingCentral) to coworkers.

Wet Head

They say that you have to put on a hat if your hair is wet so that you won’t catch a cold. The truth is that you don’t really need to wear a hat because the cold virus spread on human contact. You can catch it in the open especially if your immune system is weak. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have a wet head just to catch a cold.

viking head

Viking Horned Helmets

Every time you hear the word Viking, the very first picture that comes into your mind is a man or woman wearing horned helmets. The truth is horned helmets for Vikings are only worn on special occasions. The costume designer of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” during a 19th century opera placed horned helmets on Viking singers which got stuck in everyone’s mind.

Sugar Hyper Activates Kids

Parents avoid providing sweets to children because they believe that this makes them hyperactive. The truth is eating too much sugar decreases your brainpower and the hyperactivity of children may be in reaction to this mind drain. Decision-making slows down when we are high on sugar and careless actions of children are immediately pointed out to their high sugar consumption.

Heat Exits the Head

Another fact that we all know is that most of our body heat comes out of our heads so it’s also important that we wear a headgear during hot weather. The truth is that any part of your body that’s not covered and exposed to heat will produce more body heat.

Knuckle Cracking

People associate knuckle cracking with arthritis. Actually there’s no correlation. Knuckle crackers and non-knuckle crackers may have arthritis when they reach a specific age. What’s true is that knuckle cracking may lead to ligament injuries or dislocation.

Short Napoleon

Short Napoleon

Napoleon, according to French measurements was 5 feet 2 inches tall. If we convert this to Imperial units he actually measures 5 feet 7 inches tall, slightly taller than the height of an average Frenchman. France and England during those times have different types of measurements. The measurement system was only standardized long after Napoleon’s reign.

Stretch to Warm Up

Stretching is believed to be a warm up practice before you exercise. The truth is your running performance diminished by 5% when you do so. Cyclists also believe that stretching is counterproductive before a race.

Cholesterol in Eggs

They say that the cholesterol you get in eggs is bad for your heart. The cholesterol found in food doesn’t increase your cholesterol level. The consumption of saturated fat in beef and fatty meat can cause cholesterol but not eggs.

dog age

Dog’s Age

They say that a dog ages 7 years more than a regular man. So at 3 years a dog is actually 21 years old. The right way to compute it is by months. Cesar Millan the known dog whisperer pointed out a better formula. Months minus 2 multiply by 4 and add 21 months. You’ll get a dog’s actual age in months.

George’s Teeth

They say that George Washington uses wooden dentures because he started losing his teeth at age 20. The truth is that Washington had 4 types of false dentures. One is made of gold, another one from Hippo ivory, another from lead and finally a combination of human and animal teeth (either donkey or horse teeth). So we can just imagine how he would look like on our dollar if he wears the last one and smiles with donkey dentures. That’s one reason why they didn’t make him smile in the dollar bill.

Viking boat burial discovered for the first time – archaeologists are thrilled

Archaeologists have uncovered fully intact Viking boat burial site in the United Kingdom, in the west Highlands.

Artefacts buried along the viking suggest he was a high ranking warrior, revered and respected. According to Dr. Hannah Cobb, the “artefacts and preservation make this one of the most important Norse graves ever excavated in Britain”.

The universities of Manchester, Leicester, Newcastle and Glasgow worked and funded the operation, which was quite lengthy. The Ardnamurchan Viking was found buried with an axe, a sword with a decorated hilt, a spear, a shield boss, a bronze ring pin and some 200 rivets – the remains of the boat he was buried in.

[Also Read: The 10 Most Amazing Unexplained Artefacts]

Also, dozens of iron objects have been found, but they have yet to be identified. Viking specialist Dr Colleen Batey, from the University of Glasgow believes the ship is most likely 1000 years old. Dr. Oliver Harris, project co-director from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History explains the importance of this find:

“In previous seasons our work has examined evidence of changing beliefs and life styles in the area through a study of burial practices in the Neolithic and Bronze age periods 6,000-4,500 years ago and 4,500 to 2,800 years ago respectively. It has also yielded evidence for what will be one of the best-dated Neolithic chambered cairns in Scotland when all of our post-excavation work is complete. But the find we reveal today has got to be the icing on the cake.”