SCIENCE

Vikings Beheaded, Buried Slaves As 'Grave Gifts,' New Study Suggests

11/01/2013 01:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2013

Were the Vikings even more brutal than we realized?

From the ninth century to the 11th century, marauding Viking warriors laid waste to a broad swath of Europe, and in the process often took slaves for physical labor and sex. Now researchers from the University of Oslo in Norway say they've found new evidence suggesting that when their Viking masters died, slaves were beheaded and buried along with them.

Elise Naumann, an archaeologist at the university, and her colleagues reached this conclusion after analyzing the skeletal remains of 10 Viking-era bodies originally discovered decades ago in Flakstad, Norway. The researchers paid particular attention to graves that contained the remains of two or more bodies -- but only one head.

"We were curious about the Flakstad double burials," Naumann told The Huffington Post in an email. "They are poorly documented, and the definition of double burial was doubted at the time. It was thus strange that only one skull was retrieved from each double burial, but postcranial bones from two or three individuals."

To determine the relationship between those buried in the group graves, Naumann's team analyzed the bones of the headless skeletons for nitrogen and carbon isotopes that can reveal dietary history, USA Today reported.

The analysis indicated that the people who left headless remains had subsisted on a diet noticeably different from the diets of the people who were buried with their heads intact. Researchers also tested the skeletons' mitochondrial DNA and found the bodies were probably not related to each other.

The bottom line? According to Naumann, the findings suggest that the headless bodies belonged to slaves of low social status who were killed and given to their dead masters as grave gifts. This theory is based in large part on documented cases of Viking sacrifices from the past.

"Slave sacrifice (or slaves as grave gifts) is documented both archaeologically and in certain written sources," Naumann told HuffPost Science. "The most famous of the latter is the account of the Arabic traveler Ibn Fadlan, documenting a Viking Chieftain burial [in which] a young slave girl was selected to be killed and buried along with her master."

Jette Arneborg of the National Museum of Denmark told USA Today that it was wrong to read too much into the research, arguing it that "does not give an unequivocal answer on social status." But Naumann has stood by the research, saying that she hopes it will lead to more research on multiple graves from the Viking era.

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