Ancient Headless Remains Offer Clues To Dietary Structure Of Vikings

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

It has long been known that ancient Vikings buried dead slaves with their masters, but new isotopic research of ancient skeletal remains is providing at least one researcher with more evidence of how these people lived their lives – more notably what their diets were like.

Elise Naumann, a PhD candidate in archeology at the University of Oslo in Norway, has made several remarkable discoveries using the skeletons that were exhumed at Flakstad in Lofoten. Her research is based on a total of ten individuals, of which at least three were found in double and triple graves and were headless. Her findings are published in the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The isotope analyses, combined with analyses of ancient DNA, gave suggestive evidence that the headless skeletons were slaves who were decapitated before being buried with their masters. This discovery says a lot about the great differences between people in the society of the time. “Life was undoubtedly difficult and brutal for the majority of people. Only a very few were privileged,” wrote Mari Kildahl, a journalist with the University of Oslo.

Naumann noted, however, that there is nothing new about the fact that slaves during the Viking era were buried with their masters, often bound hand and foot and beheaded before burial.

What is new, Naumann explains, is how the analytical methods used and their results have offered fresh insights into the society and people of the past. The isotopic analyses have given researchers new information about the diet and health of these people who lived more a thousand years ago. Analyses of the ancient DNA also yield knowledge about genealogy and genetics.


Along with the 10 individuals in the latest discovery, Naumann has also investigated the skeletons of at least 46 other individuals buried in single, double and triple graves in the region. Most of these remains were discovered in the three northernmost Norwegian counties and date from between 400 and 1050 AD. Much of the skeletal material for Naumann’s research was borrowed from the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo.

Naumann noted that her work on the diet and social structure of these ancient people is fairly novel, noting that hardly any isotopic research has been conducted on skeletal material from this time period.

She found, through the isotopic analyses that sites with double and triple burials included people who did not share a direct bloodline, and diets in each individual were found to be vastly different. In the headless remains, the analyses uncovered diets of mostly fish, synonymous with poor individuals of the period. The other remains showed evidence of diets rich in meat and other land-based foods – foods generally associated with royalty of the time.

The findings suggest that people of rank ate more meat and other animals products than the poor did. The differing diets reflected difference in social status and different lives. Even in a small place like Flakstad, large variations in diet were seen during the time of the Vikings. These variations were seen even within the same household, with large variations seen between men and women, and adults and children.

Naumann explains that this is typical because men traveled more than women. And even though there is little known about the scope of the practice, experts suggest that it was common for parents to put their children in foster care, often with people of lower social status, such as with slaves or servants. This would likely affect the diet of the child and may explain why some of the isotopic analyses show that many people had different diets as adults than they had as children.

Naumann’s research suggests that distribution of food was a significant structuring factor for society during the Iron Age in Norway. She plans to continue her work to learn more about an individual’s life cycle during the Viking era.

“It is possible to use isotope analyses to learn about an individual’s life cycle – about their journey through life. This is something I want to study further. I see a great potential in more advanced use of isotope analysis,” Naumann concluded.