A Viking grave. New studies on bones reflect the harsh conditions many endured.

Analysis of Viking burial site reveals the harshness of life in early Christian Iceland

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Early Viking settlers in Iceland were Pagan worshippers of the Aesir, the family of gods that included Thor and Odin. However in 1,000 AD Iceland converted to Christianity by decree of the country’s National Assembly under the rule of Olaf Tryggvason. This in turn resulted in a change in burial customs, such that the deceased began to be buried in cemeteries organized around a church. New research conducted by bioarchaeologists Guđný Zoëga and Kimmarie Murphy has revealed just how harsh life at that time was.

The two scientists investigated a small cemetery near a farm called Keldudalur in the Skagafjörđur region of northern Iceland. The site dates from the early 11 th century and features 52 burials, probably of three to five generations of one farming family.

The archaeologists unearthed 27 bodies at the site. The men were buried in the southern half of the cemetery and women in the northern half. A high rate of infant mortality was discovered. Once an individual had reached the age of 30 life became more precarious and not many older people survived for long.

Bones reveal life was harsh in early Christian Iceland.

Bones reveal life was harsh in early Christian Iceland. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Many of the deceased had suffered from porotic hyperostosis, which is evidenced by the presence of spongy or porous bone tissue and holes in the cranium, and is a result of suffering from anemia. The archaeologists concluded that this couldn’t have been iron-deficiency anemia since the people here typically had a diet high in meat. This meant they must have had other gastrointestinal conditions or dietary deficiencies including, in one individual, scurvy.

These early Icelanders were pastoral farmers who planted grain but also relied on sheep and cattle to survive more difficult times. Most of the settlements were widely dispersed , rather than the larger communities in other areas settled by the Vikings. These settlements usually consisted of a group of buildings surrounded by fences, outside of which were the fields farmed by the inhabitants and areas of pasture land. When Iceland became Christian, small churches began to be constructed on these farms with accompanying cemeteries.

Traditional Viking Chieftain funerals were energetically observed, with drinking, feasting, and sacrificial slaughter.  Later, people would be buried in cemeteries near churches. “The Funeral of a Viking,” painting by Frank Dicksee, 1893

Traditional Viking Chieftain funerals were energetically observed, with drinking, feasting, and sacrificial slaughter.   Later, people would be buried in cemeteries near churches. “The Funeral of a Viking,” painting by Frank Dicksee, 1893 (Wikiart photo)

Many of the adults suffered from degenerative joint disease, probably as a result of the rigors of their farming lifestyle. This was common in both men and women, given that everybody helped in the work. The bodies are notable for the lack of dental caries, suggesting a high dairy intake, although this can also result in gingivitis, plaque, and infections and tooth loss, all of which were observable.

Bioarchaeologist Cecilia Collins told Forbes that the investigation has helped understanding of the lives of families and communities on the edge of the Arctic. It also helps to reduce the stereotype of the Vikings as marauding and violent. The people buried at Keldudalur experienced lives that were unpredictable from one season to the next. They also regularly experienced foot shortages, disease and injury from hard physical work.

Early peoples regularly experienced foot shortages, disease, and injury from hard physical work.

Early peoples regularly experienced foot shortages, disease, and injury from hard physical work. (Hans Splinter/ CC BY-ND 2.0 )

Zoëga and Murphy have now presented their findings in a research article for the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology .

Featured Image: A Viking grave. New studies on bones reflect the harsh conditions many endured. Representational image. (Thomas Quine/ CC BY 2.0 )

By Robin Whitlock

Comments

It certainly sounds like a terrble time to live. I know lives were short in that era all over the world. While live in medieval Iceland sounds "nasty, brutish and short," how do the findings here compare with others in Europe or around the world?

Typo in the subscript of the last photo (unless they were born without feet, also possible but unlikely).

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