Norse Warrior Took Comfy Duvet (and a Beheaded Owl) to the Afterlife
The Valsgärde burial field near Uppsala in Sweden is known for its magnificent boat graves from the 600s and 700s AD. Archaeologists have identified more than 90 graves from the Iron Age, but two spectacular graves are making headlines. The warriors’ graves were really decked out for the afterlife. They didn’t just bring their weapons along to the realm of the dead – duvets were also found in the burials. But what’s even more interesting is that those feathery duvets weren’t only added to provide comfort, the down bedding also had a symbolic meaning.
Valsgärde – “Scandinavia's Answer to Sutton Hoo”
Birgitta Berglund, professor emeritus of archaeology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's NTNU University Museum says that Valsgärde “is Scandinavia's answer to Sutton Hoo in England as portrayed in the film The Dig on Netflix.”
Valsgärde “is Scandinavia's answer to Sutton Hoo.” (Johan Anund/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
Archaeologists believe the rich Valsgärde graves were made for royals, warriors, and/or powerful elites who became wealthy through trade. There’s even been the suggestion that some of the dead were Ynglings, a semi-legendary dynasty of kings.
The two warriors’ graves that the NTNU University team have focused on in the current study included 10-meter-long (32.81 ft.) boats. Norwegian SciTech News states that the vessels were “outfitted for high-ranking warriors, with richly decorated helmets, shields and weapons.” The warriors also had hunting and cooking tools and were laid to rest on top of duvets.
The Valsgärde warriors were prepared for anything in the afterlife. (Andy Ternay/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Horses and other animals, including one decapitated owl, were also added to the graves, mostly outside but near the boats. Reflecting on the burials, Berglund said, “The buried warriors appear to have been equipped to row to the underworld, but also to be able to get ashore with the help of the horses.”
Excavation plans of the two ship burials containing the down duvets. Circled items in the top image include Left: Owl bones. Middle: Helmet. Right: Shield I and a shield in the bottom image. (Berglund & Rosvold, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 2021)
The Feathers were More than Filler
According to the researchers, those feather-filled duvets held more than just practical significance. Berglund’s original interest in the duvets was to see if eider ducks were the source of the down, which could trace them to down harvesting in Helgeland coastal communities. But when the team examined the down bedding, they found that there were many different kinds of feathers inside, suggesting they may have come from a different location – and perhaps held another meaning altogether.
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“The feathers provide a source for gaining new perspectives on the relationship between humans and birds in the past. Archaeological excavations rarely find traces of birds other than those that were used for food,” Berglund says. For one thing, the find provides insight into the birds that were in the area in prehistoric times. But something even more exciting is that the researchers believe the choice of feathers that were stuffed into the duvets “may hold a deeper, symbolic meaning.”
“The feathers provide a source for gaining new perspectives on the relationship between humans and birds in the past. Archaeological excavations rarely find traces of birds other than those that were used for food.” (NTNU University Museum)
According to Berglund, the type of feathers that were included in the down bedding in a grave were important in dictating their afterlife. She explained:
“For example, people believed that using feathers from domestic chickens, owls and other birds of prey, pigeons, crows and squirrels would prolong the death struggle. In some Scandinavian areas, goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body.”
Biologist Jørgen Rosvold of the Norwegian Institute for Natural History (NINA), who previously identified eagle owl feathers in some luxury Viking pillows, also identified which species provided the feathers in the Iron Age duvets at Valsgärde. Foose, duck, grouse, crow, sparrow, wader and eagle owl feathers were all inside the duvets.
The variety of feathers makes the symbolic meaning of the down bedding more difficult to explain, and also made Rosvold’s job more complicated. He said:
“It was a time consuming and challenging job for several reasons. The material is decomposed, tangled and dirty. This means that a lot of the special features that you can easily observe in fresh material has become indistinct, and you have to spend a lot more time looking for the distinctive features. I'm still surprised at how well the feathers were preserved, despite the fact that they'd been lying in the ground for over 1000 years.”
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What about the Owl with a Severed Head?
Finally, let’s not forget about the other avian addition to one of the warrior graves – a Eurasian eagle owl ( Bubo bubo) with its head cut off. The research team thinks that the owl’s body may have been separated from its head to prevent the animal “from coming back.” Berglund explains the idea further:
“It's conceivable that the owl's head was cut off to prevent it from coming back. Maybe the owl feather in the bedding also had a similar function? In Salme in Estonia, boat graves from the same period have recently been found that are similar to those in Valsgärde. Two birds of prey with a severed head were found there.”
Attached to the helmet in one of the boat graves was a metal plate etched with an illustration of warriors with birds of prey on the helmets. Drawing by G. Arwidsson, Valsgärde 7, 1977. (Norwegian SciTech News)
There are many instances of ritual actions being taken to prevent humans from returning from the dead and also the intentional destruction of their weapons – essentially “killing” them too. Some believe that the weapons were ritually broken or damaged to release their spirits and allow them to accompany the owners to the afterlife. Others say that this action would prevent the deceased from using the weapon if they were to rise again.
Berglund and Rosvold’s paper is published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
Top Image: Reconstruction of an Iron Age Nordic warrior’s burial. Two rich warrior graves in Sweden also included down duvets! Source: Bakulov /Adobe Stock
By Alicia McDermott