Scientists found out that the Vikings brought animals to England as early as 873

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New research suggests that Vikings brought horses and dogs to the British Isles from Scandinavia.

Chemical analysis of bone fragments from a cemetery in England provides the first reliable scientific evidence that animals traveled with the Vikings across the North Sea, scientists reported on February 1 in PLOS ONE.

In the 1990s, researchers discovered the cremated remains of an adult and a child, as well as a dog, a horse and possibly a pig, from a burial mound in a Viking cemetery in Derbyshire, England. In previous work, radiocarbon dating of a femur, skull and rib fragments showed that all the inhabitants died between about the 8th and 10th centuries. This date has been narrowed down to 873, thanks to a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon chronicle, which records that a Viking army wintered near the site that year.

Heath Wood, the only known large-scale Norse cremation cemetery in the British Isles, contains 59 barrows, including the above.JULIAN RICHARDS/UNIVERSITY OF YORK

Where the animals came from remains a mystery. It is known that the Scandinavian raiders of that time stole horses from people in England. And researchers generally believed that Viking boats at the time were too small to allow the transport of large numbers of animals from Scandinavia to the British Isles. One entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Vikings moving from France to England with their horses in 892, but no physical evidence of such activity has been found before.

In the new work, Tessi Leffelmann and colleagues looked to specific forms, or isotopes, of strontium to unravel the origins of individuals. The element accumulates in the bones over time during the diet, leaving a clear signature of where the person lived.

The strontium ratio in the child’s remains matched that of the bushes growing at the burial site, suggesting that the child had spent most, if not all, of his life in England. The ratio of adults to three animals, on the other hand, differed significantly from the local fauna, the team found. This shows that people did not spend much time in the country before they died. Instead, their ratios were similar to those found in the Baltic Shield region of Norway, central and northern Sweden and Finland, suggesting a Scandinavian origin.

“One of the advantages of isotopic analysis is that you can pinpoint things that before we could debate endlessly,” says Marianna Moen, an archaeologist at the University of Oslo who was not involved in the study. Using strontium to analyze more cremated remains that can escape conventional forms of isotopic analysis, including carbon and nitrogen, “is the next logical chapter in understanding prehistoric mobility.”

Isotope analysis helped to reveal where these people lived and when they died, but it could not answer why the dog, horse and pig came to England in the first place. This is where historical records can help, says Leffelmann of Durham University in England and Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.

According to Leffelmann, the small size of the early Norse ships, combined with the fact that animals and people were buried together, suggests that the Vikings may have originally brought animals with them for companionship rather than just work.

“Only selected animals could make such a journey,” she says. “They were important to who this person was. . . . They went through life together, and now they’re going through death.”

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