Slaves as grave gifts for the Vikings

Grave goods and burial gifts consist of any item given to the dead at burial or taken by the deceased into their grave. It may be an offering to the gods, an item for the next life, or a personal item of the deceased. We know that humans have been practicing intentional burial with placement of grave goods for the past 100,000 years. What one decides to take into the grave or what one is given, is usually determined by the conception of the afterlife and what would be necessary. The best and most renowned evidence for grave goods comes to us from Egypt. The ancient Egyptians provisioned the dead with a multitude of items for the afterlife because they believed that once they died they would need food, personal items and even workers to help them in the afterlife. Wealthier individuals had more grave goods than the poor, although this also meant that they could be targeted for grave-robbing. From King Tut’s tomb, they recovered seven hundred items including four chariots, a collapsible sunshade, a number of senet boards, four ritual couches, a gilded wooden half-length bust of Tut, two life-size wooden figures that flanked the north wall depicting Tut, clothing, baskets of food, and more. Grave goods are an important source of evidence for learning more about the beliefs and social structure of a culture.

Viking boat funeral, via the Good Funeral Guide

Viking boat funeral, via the Good Funeral Guide

During the Viking Age (A.D. 800-1030), there is a high amount of variation in burial customs and the types of grave goods found. In a number of cases, individuals are buried together in the same grave, allowing archaeologists a unique opportunity to discuss social relationships between the individuals.  Multiple burial was actually quite frequent during this period, and was a deliberate choice, not simply an expedient one. It is possible that the placement of individuals within the same grave could mean they were biologically related, a common burial type is a mother and child if both died at the same time, or one individual could be the primary deceased and secondary individuals could be part of offerings.

On the island of Flakstad in northern Norway, a burial ground was excavated. They recovered ten sets of human remains including three single burials, two double burials and one triple burial. All date to the Viking period. The burials had unusual features when compared with standard burial forms. In the double and triple burials, only one individual per each grave was complete and the others consisted of only the post-cranial remains. This burial form has been seen in other Norse areas, and is usually interpreted as indicating that slaves were buried with their masters. The interpretation of these secondary individuals as slaves is due primarily to the presence of maltreatment and trauma, including evidence of injury and stress during their life, decapitation, binding of hands and feet within the grave, and uneven distribution of grave gifts. The burials at Flakstad appear to fit this pattern of being slaves and grave goods. However, Naumann et al. (2013) argue that the contextual information for this site is limited, and a more in-depth analysis of the social relations is needed. The propose to do this using stable isotope and ancient DNA (aDNA) to determine the dietary and genetic patterns between all individuals.

Viking burial, example from National Geographic, Photograph courtesy S. Gronek

Viking burial, example from National Geographic, Photograph courtesy S. Gronek

Based on the DNA analysis, they argue that there was no maternal genetic connection between the individuals buried within the multiple graves. Based on the stable isotope analysis, they found there were two distinct groups eating different types of food. The first group, consisting of single burials and individuals without crania, ate more marine resources and is thought to be of a lower class, and the second group, consisting of individuals with crania in multiple burials, ate primarily terrestrial foods suggesting a higher class. They argue therefore that those individuals who were not decapitated but were buried with decapitated individuals perhaps had a higher status. The lack of special grave goods within these ‘higher status’ multiple burials could mean that they weren’t necessarily wealthier, but had a special status within the group, or that the graves were plundered due to the high presence of better grave goods.

What they found most interesting was that the slaves had the same isotopic ratios as the single burials, suggesting that both slaves and the lower status population ate the same food. It was hypothesized that the slave diet would be the lowest, followed by low status, then high status- however this is not the case. It is this that they argue needs to be explored further. However, I’m still thinking about the role of slaves as grave goods! There are some important facts here that need to be discussed- were the slaves killed to be buried with their master or were they already dead and reburied with this individual? How does gender and age figure into the grave goods? Most importantly, can you even argue that these individuals were considered grave goods? Determining that an individual is considered an item by the dominating culture is not something we can conclude lightly. If anyone happens to have any answers for these questions, send the evidence my way!

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgElise Naumann, Maja Krzewińska, Anders Götherström, & Gunilla Eriksson (2013). Slaves as burial gifts in Viking Age Norway? Evidence from stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.08.022

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16 responses to “Slaves as grave gifts for the Vikings

  1. Ooh, I was just reading about this over at the Viking Ships Museum in Roskilde! They had a pretty brutal description of sacrificing a slave girl after her master died. According to the museum, she was first taken into a hut and gang-raped by a group of men whilst an old wise woman held her down, with drummers outside to muffle her screams. Then the men strangled her while the woman stabbed her in the stomach with a dagger. I don’t know how recently the museum information was updated, but if it is historically accurate, it sounds to me like the slaves really had no status as human beings.

  2. Hello Katy,

    I am not sure if we ever met, if so only in passing. I was an undergrad at MSU from 2008 – 2011 in anthropology. Scandinavian archaeology from the Paleolithic to the Viking Age is my interest, so thanks so much for the Viking post!

    Mind if I reblog?

  3. Just playing with the ideas here, Bil Linzie in his work “Investigating the Afterlife Concepts of the Norse Heathen” http://heathengods.com/library/bil_linzie/after_life_bil_linzie.pdf
    concludes (much in line with Russell’s world-accepting idea found in detail in The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity) ~ from page 45;
    “The most striking evidence of the Germanic heathen’s sense of an Afterlife is
    also the least surprising since it directly reflects the Afterlife concepts of the
    pre-Hellenistic Greeks, Jews, Balts, Slavs, and Celts to a large degree: life after
    death is essentially a continuation of life in the grave. Life within the grave
    could be tedious, boring, tiring, cold, social and lonely. The comforts of home
    were to be provided by the family with the collection of grave goods left with the
    body or the ashes/ bones of cremation and through the periodic offerings left
    for the venerated dead in exchange the one skill the dead were known to possess
    in abundance: protection. The dead could protect the home and familial lands
    from invasion by ill-luck, ill-health and by men ill-disposed towards the family.
    Having one’s dead in the ground offered the odal-lands protection from above
    by the living and from below by the dead.”

    From this perspective the slaves would be needed to do the menial tasks, keeping the mound swept, pouring the mead, feeding the dogs and horses sometimes buried with them?

    I will join the ranks in thanking you for sharing your work.

    P.S. You will want this;

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