Warriors’ down bedding could ease journey to realm of the dead

The burial field in Valsgärde outside Uppsala in central Sweden incorporates far more than 90 graves from the Iron Age.

“On a light-weight take note, we could say that Valsgärde is Scandinavia’s response to Sutton Hoo in England as portrayed in the film The Dig on Netflix,” claims Birgitta Berglund, professor emeritus of archaeology at the Norwegian College of Science and Technology’s NTNU College Museum.

Valsgärde is in particular regarded for its stunning boat graves from the 600s and 700s CE. This timeframe is in the center of what Norway phone calls the Merovingian time period, the period just right before the Viking Age.

Two of these impressive boat graves are at the centre of this tale — or a lot more exclusively, the story is seriously about the down bedding that was found in the graves.

When scientists from NTNU investigated which birds contributed their feathers to the bedding, they designed a surprising discovery that delivers new insight into Iron Age culture.

The boats carrying the two dead adult males had been about 10 metres extended, with area for four to 5 pairs of oars. Both equally were being outfitted for higher-position warriors, with richly decorated helmets, shields and weapons. Provisions and equipment for hunting and cooking have been also incorporated for their final voyage.

In 1 grave, an Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) had been laid, with its head minimize off. We are going to return to that. Horses and other animals ended up arranged close to the boats.

“The buried warriors look to have been geared up to row to the underworld, but also to be in a position to get ashore with the help of the horses,” suggests Berglund.

Beauty rest was also taken care of in demise.Two warriors lay atop various layers of down bedding. The contents of the bedding in all probability experienced a increased perform than only serving as filler.

You may well have imagined of down bedding as a modern thought, which admittedly only turned available for common folks in current situations. The down bedding in the graves at Valsgärde is the oldest identified from Scandinavia and suggest that the two buried adult men belonged to the best strata of culture.

Rich Greeks and Romans used down for their bedding a couple of hundred several years earlier, but down likely wasn’t made use of far more broadly by wealthy people today in Europe until finally the Center Ages, Berglund suggests.

Berglund has been learning down harvesting in Helgeland coastal communities in southern Nordland county for quite a few several years, in which folks commercialized down output early on by making houses for the eider ducks that had been the resource of the down. The idea was that down from this location may well have been exported south, so Berglund needed to examine whether or not the bedding at Valsgärde contained eider down.

“It turned out that a good deal of kinds of feathers experienced been utilised in the bedding at Valsgärde. Only a handful of feathers from eider ducks were being identified, so we have very little motive to imagine that they were a commodity from Helgeland or other northern areas,” claims Berglund.

However, she was not let down by this discovery. The good variety of species gave the researchers special perception into the fowl fauna in the speedy spot in prehistoric occasions, along with people’s romantic relationship to it.

“The feathers provide a source for getting new perspectives on the connection concerning humans and birds in the previous. Archaeological excavations seldom locate traces of birds other than those that have been made use of for food items,” the researcher states.

“We also think the preference of feathers in the bedding might keep a further, symbolic indicating. It’s interesting.”

Berglund points out that in accordance to Nordic folklore, the style of feathers contained in the bedding of the dying human being was vital.

“For instance, people believed that making use of feathers from domestic chickens, owls and other birds of prey, pigeons, crows and squirrels would prolong the loss of life struggle. In some Scandinavian parts, goose feathers were regarded best to enable the soul to be unveiled from the body,” she explained.

These are properly-recognized folk traditions that have been gathered from the 18th century onwards. But they may well have their roots in prehistoric moments.

In the Icelandic Erik the Crimson saga, a pillow stuffed with feathers from domestic hens was put on the throne at Heriólfsnes in Greenland, exactly where a traveling to feminine shaman was to sit. The saga is viewed as to have been prepared down in the 13th century, but addresses activities about the 12 months 1000, claims Berglund.

The examples display that that feathers in the bedding from Valsgärde most possible also had a further indicating than just serving as a filler. It really is also well known that birds could hold unique significance for obtaining info in shamanism — believe of Odin’s two ravens Hugin and Munin.

Particularly what ritual functionality the feathers at Valsgärde had is difficult to say. But the bedding contained feathers from geese, ducks, grouse, crows, sparrows, waders and — most likely most surprisingly — eagle owls.

Biologist Jørgen Rosvold, now utilized at the Norwegian Institute for Natural Historical past (NINA) identified the species from the feather material.

“It was a time consuming and difficult occupation for many factors. The material is decomposed, tangled and soiled. This usually means that a large amount of the distinctive functions that you can very easily notice in new substance has grow to be indistinct, and you have to commit a large amount a lot more time looking for the distinctive features,” Rosvold says.

“I’m even now shocked at how effectively the feathers had been preserved, regardless of the reality that they’d been lying in the floor for more than 1000 yrs.”

The feathers in the down bedding weren’t the only attention-grabbing chicken obtain in the graves. Just one of the graves also contained a headless owl.

From current graves we know that persons took steps to avert the buried from returning from the dead, and it really is uncomplicated to envision that this was also finished longer ago as very well.

“We think the beheading experienced a ritual significance in link with the burial,” suggests Berglund.

Swords found in tombs from Viking occasions have been occasionally intentionally bent right before getting laid in the tomb. This was probably finished to reduce the deceased from utilizing the weapon if he returned.

“It can be conceivable that the owl’s head was slash off to avert it from coming again. Perhaps the owl feather in the bedding also had a similar operate? In Salme in Estonia, boat graves from the identical period have recently been found that are comparable to these in Valsgärde. Two birds of prey with a severed head had been observed there,” states Berglund.


Reference: Birgitta Berglund, Jørgen Rosvold. Microscopic identification of feathers from 7th century boat burials at Valsgärde in Central Sweden: Specialised lengthy-distance feather trade or community hen use? Journal of Archaeological Science: Stories, Volume 36, April 2021, 102828.