29 December 2018

What Really Happened at Viking Funerals? It’s Not What You Think!

Earlier this month the following article from Ancient Origins about the medieval Viking's beliefs about the afterlife were detailed.

Much of the author's statements can only be construed as supposition, but that it about all we have from a culture that existed more than 1000-years ago, for which we have no records written by the Vikings themselves, in spite of ongoing archaeological efforts.
As always, draw your own conclusions. (Ed.)


What Really Happened at Viking Funerals? It’s Not What You Think!

5 DECEMBER, 2018 - 22:58 DHWTY

Like many ancient societies, the Vikings believed in an afterlife, and these were based on the religious beliefs they held. The current understanding of Viking funerary practices has been discovered in both archaeological and textual sources. One of the best-known accounts describing a Viking funeral is to be found in the writings of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a member of the Abbasid embassy that was sent to Volga Bulgaria.

What Did the Vikings Believe About the Afterlife?

Like many other ancient cultures, the Vikings believed that it was possible to take their worldly possessions into the afterlife with them. Therefore, an important feature of Viking funerals was the grave goods. The Vikings believed that warriors who fell in battle would earn the right to enter Valhalla, an enormous hall located in Asgard, the domain of Odin. There, the fallen warriors would feast and fight until the arrival of Ragnarok. Therefore, it was essential that dead Vikings be equipped by the living with the gear necessary for their journey to and stay in Valhalla. Apart from Valhalla, other Viking realms of the dead include Folkvangr (also for warriors), Helgafjell (for those who have led good lives), and Helheim (for those who died dishonorable deaths).

Funeral of a Viking - grave goods were buried with them for their journey and stay into the afterlife. igorigorevich / Adobe)

One of the most important objects required by a dead Viking was a warship. As the Vikings were great sea-farers, they believed that ships would also provide them with safe passage into the afterlife. Although the warship played a prominent role in Viking funerals, there was no typical ‘one-size fits-all’ custom and variations existed according to the status and wealth of the deceased.

Vikings Traveled to the Afterlife by Ship but Not by Sea

Archaeology has revealed that some Viking burial mounds were meant to resemble ships and stones were used to outline the shape of the vessels. Higher ranking Vikings, such as chiefs and kings, were even able to have actual ships accompany them into the afterlife. In some cases, the boats would be buried with its contents, while in others, they would be burnt before the burial. There is also the popular belief today that Viking ships would be set on fire before sent off to sea, though there is no archaeological proof for this practice if it did occur.

Funerary stone settings around Viking burial mounds. (Bunnyfrosch / Public Domain )

Apart from their ships, warriors entering Valhalla would be required to bring their weapons and armor along, and hence these objects were part of a Viking’s grave goods. Archaeologists have found that blades that were part of a Viking’s grave goods would usually be broken or bent. This was meant to symbolically signify the final death of the individual, as the Vikings believed that a warrior’s soul was linked to his weapon. Additionally, the destruction of the blade served as a deterrent to grave robbers.

o Vikings in Ireland: Recent Discoveries Shedding New Light on the Fearsome Warriors that Invaded Irish Shores

o Vikings in Ireland: Traces of Warriors Not Just Buried Beneath the Ground, They Are in the DNA

o Sword of Late Viking Age Burial Unveiled Exhibiting Links Between Norway and England

Archaeologists have found that blades were part of a Viking’s grave goods. Petr / Adobe)
Why Was Human Sacrifice Part of the Viking Funeral?

Viking funerals also involved human sacrifice, as servants and slaves were sent by this means to serve their dead master in the afterlife. The human sacrifice, however, depended on whether the deceased was cremated or buried. For the former, those accompanying the dead would be burnt alive, whereas for the latter, their bodies would be placed in a specific position so as to ensure that they would arrive in the afterlife.

If the deceased was cremated the human sacrifice would be burnt alive to accompany them to the afterlife.Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)

Consequences of an Inadequate Viking Funeral Ritual

Grave goods also served to ensure that the deceased was satisfied in the afterlife. The Vikings believed that if the dead were not appeased, they could return as a draugr (or revenants) to haunt the living. These undead beings could cause much trouble for the living, including crop failure, defeat in war, and pestilence. If a draugr was suspected of causing such troubles, the Vikings would exhume the recently dead and look for signs of undead activity. When a draugr was identified, the Vikings would rebury the body with more grave goods, assuming that the person had been a highly respected person in life. Alternatively, a wooden stake could simply be used to pin the body to the ground and the head chopped off, so as to kill the creature.

A draugr aboard a ship, in sub-human form, wearing oilskins. (Groshek / Public Domain )

A Detailed Account of a Viking Funeral

Lastly, a few words may be said about Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s famous description of a Viking funeral . Ibn Fadlan was a 10 th century Arab who was part of the embassy sent by the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to Volga Bulgaria (in modern day Russia). A detailed account of the Volga Vikings, including the funeral of a chieftain, may be found in Ibn Fadlan’s writing, known as the Risala. One of the funerary rituals recorded in the Risala is that of a peculiar form of human sacrifice. According to Ibn Fadlan, a slave girl had volunteered to accompany the dead chief into the afterlife. Before being sacrificed, however, she had sexual intercourse with six different men, so as to collect their ‘essence of life’ for the dead chief. It must be pointed out, however, that such a ritual was rare. Ibn Fadlan’s description of a Volga Bulgarian Viking funeral may be unique to that area and is not necessarily representative of Viking funerals elsewhere.

Top image: The Funeral of a Viking - painting 1893. Source (Manchester Art Gallery / Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren


01 December 2018

Do CanadianCarvings Depict Vikings? Removing Mammal Fat May Tell

This interesting article from Live Science features information on the continuing quest to answer the many questions arising from what archaeological findings in the Canadian Arctic really mean and when they were produced. (Ed.)


By Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor | October 16, 2018 07:38am ET

Credit: Shutterstock

Carvings uncovered in the Canadian Arctic may be the earliest portraits of the Vikings created in the Americas. But archaeologists have been puzzling over whether the artwork really shows the infamous seafarers.

Now, scientists think a simple, flammable liquid called acetone could help solve this mystery by removing sea-mammal oil and fat from these artifacts and other artifacts found near them. Until now, those contaminants have prevented scientists from getting an accurate radiocarbon date, according to a paper published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Oily problem
The Vikings, along with other peoples who lived in arctic or subarctic environments, used oils and fat from sea mammals for a variety of purposes, including preparing food and cooking. The substances interfere with radiocarbon dating, because rather than getting the date of the artifact, you may get the date for the oil and fat covering the object, study authors Michele Hayeur Smith, Kevin Smith and Gørill Nilsen wrote in the new paper.

Hayeur Smith is a research associate at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University in Rhode Island, where Smith is chief curator. Nilsen is an archaeology professor at the Arctic University of Norway. [In Photos: Viking Settlement Discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows]

Credit: Owen Jarus
The carvings were created by the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic. The new method may help date them. This particular carving is from Axel Heiberg Island. 

Arctic environments often have little soil accumulation, making it easier for oil and fat to get on artifacts lying in the ground. "Across the Arctic, where most sites are shallow, reoccupation episodes thousands of years apart may be separated from one another by mere centimeters of soil development," the scientists wrote. This means that artifacts can intermix with oil and fat from a variety of time periods making it hard to tell when artifacts date to.

Acetone to the rescue
To solve this radiocarbon-dating problem, Nilsen developed a few methods to remove sea-mammal oil and fat from artifacts. To test the methods, Nilsen used samples of wood dated, via radiocarbon methods, to around 42,000 years ago. She drenched those samples in modern-day sea-mammal oil.

Her first method used a mix of acids and alkalis, but it failed, resulting in dates of 16,000 years ago. That suggested the process hadn't stripped off all of the oil and fats, Nilsen said. She then tried two acetone-based methods, and both were successful.

Solving mysteries
The ability to remove sea-mammal oils and fats from artifacts is a "major breakthrough" for archaeologists studying the Vikings and other Arctic peoples, the three researchers said. 

Credit: Michele Hayeur-Smith, Canadian Museum of History collection number KdDq-9 4268
A sample of spun yarn found in the Canadian Arctic. A new method of removing sea mammal oil from artifacts helped prove that the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic already knew how to spin yarn when the Vikings arrived in the area.

The new method has already helped solve one mystery, the scientists said. They used it to radiocarbon-date samples of spun yarn found by archaeologists at various sites in the Canadian Arctic.

A long-running debate disputes whether the Vikings taught indigenous peoples in the Canadian Arctic how to spin yarn when the invaders arrived in the region around 1,000 years ago. The team found that some of the spun yarn dates back at least 2,000 years, long before the Vikings arrived in the area. This shows that the indigenous peoples in the Canadian Arctic developed yarn-spinning technologies without any help from the Vikings, the scientists said.

Wooden carvings
Now it may be possible to solve the mystery of the wooden carvings from the Canadian Arctic. These carvings, which were created by the region's indigenous peoples, have features that some scholars believe identify the objects as Viking.

Researchers haven't radiocarbon-dated any of the wooden carvings so far, Hayeur Smith told Live Science, adding that the initial round of radiocarbon dating focused on textiles.

One of the carvings was excavated in the 1970s at the Okivilialuk site on southern Baffin Island.Two textiles found near the Okivilialuk carving date back to the 16th century, suggesting that the carving may also date back to that time, the scientists said. This carving may not show a Viking, but it could show someone from one of Sir Martin Frobisher's expeditions to the Canadian Arctic in the 1570s, the researchers said.

Researcher Patricia Sutherland urged caution on these findings, saying that excavation records indicate that the Okivilialukcarving was found at a lower level (meaning it was created earlier) than the textiles. Sutherland is a research associate at Carleton University in Canada who has excavated extensively in the Canadian Arctic but is not involved in the new research. That finding, Sutherland said, suggests that the carving may date back to earlier than the 16th century meaning it could show Vikings.  

Originally published on Live Science.