Viking social hierarchy

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Photo: Flakstad – Helping to uncover the social hierarchy of the Vikings

New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science is helping to unravel the hierarchy within Viking society.

The research further examines human remains from six late Iron Age (AD 550-1030) graves found in the Norwegian island of Flakstad, previously excavated in the early 1980s.

Ten individuals make up three single burials, with two double and one triple burial at the site. The double and triple burials contained one intact individual in each accompanied by other headless individuals. The graves had been previously interpreted as decapitated slaves buried with their masters.

Multiple graves occur frequently during Viking times – the Vikings often buried family members together or with slaves as a sacrifice to the main burial.

In this latest research, scientists from the University of Oslo investigated stable isotope and ancient mitochondrial DNA from the gravesites to better understand the social status, geographical and familial links between the bodies.

There were some intriguing results including distinct isotope values from the intact bodies, which had a predominantly meat and seafood diet as expected. However, the headless bodies (thought to be the slaves) were found to have consumed a much higher percentage of seafood than expected – the same as the single occupants.

Scientists say that this contradicts the theory that the headless bodies buried in multiple graves were low status members of the community. Their diet was equivalent to those in the single burials who were previously interpreted as representatives of the free population.

They also conclude that it is highly unlikely that the individuals buried together are related, meaning that the site needs to be completely re-interpreted. One theory is that the headless bodies were special to the intact individual during life.