News & media

Surprising finds of Viking apparel

20 November 2015

Textile archaeologist Annika Larsson (left) and molecular geneticist Marie Allen work on the DNA project together.

Viking chiefs were dressed like Central Asian kings. This is among the most fascinating results of the new review of material from the ship burials in Valsgärde, near Uppsala.

Valsgärde, just north of Old Uppsala, has a burial site with boat graves that has been known for nearly a century. When the University’s archaeological collections from Valsgärde were relocated in the Evolutionary Biology Centre in the city, University researcher Annika Larsson was able to examine them. Larsson, who has a PhD in textile archaeology, found many unusually well-preserved remains of colourful silk fabrics with sophisticated patterns.

‘The silk fabrics in the graves remind me of a Russian costume find with the motif depicting a Persian king hunting wild ass,’ she says. ‘Vikings in Old Uppsala and the chiefs in Valsgärde were buried in Persian-inspired silks like this, and also in typically Chinese silk. It shows the huge range of their contacts. Their international exchange was quite different from what many people imagine.’

She and her colleagues also found remains of the people buried there, dating from the 10th century.

‘The textbooks often say there aren’t any human remains there. So my goodness, how surprised we were to find teeth and pieces of skulls and other bones!’

The skeletal fragments were well preserved enough for DNA extraction. Larsson contacted Marie Allen, a molecular geneticist and professor of forensic genetics, and they have worked on the project together since then.

‘Finding tooth and bone remains is rewarding. You can sand off the outer layer of these hard materials to remove contaminants with DNA of later eras,’ Allen says.

‘Still, it’s not always feasible to extract enough DNA to analyse these ancient bones.’

Both scientists are excited about what the DNA analyses can show. Given where the fabrics come from, there is the inspiring chance that perhaps not only beautiful cloth was exchanged but one of the people buried might come from the East.

‘Today, DNA analyses can be used to give an indication of an individual’s origins,’ Allen says.

Objects depicting women in costumes of the same type as those worn by the people buried have also been found in a Viking ship burial in Old Uppsala. This may suggest that the Vikings’ conceptual world had a key role to play in the afterlife. Allen hopes it will be possible, with the DNA analyses, to show whether anyone buried in Valsgärde might have been a woman.

The fabric buried by the Vikings came mainly from an area called Sogdiana, east of the Caspian Sea. Were the Vikings’ contacts with the area confined to their own journeys there to buy cloth and other merchandise? Or did the Sogdians also visit Viking lands to buy items?

‘It’s often taken for granted that it was just us going there. But perhaps it wasn’t that simple,’ Larsson says. ‘Did they come here to trade? Were there middlemen? It feels great to be able, with this kind of interdisciplinary project, to help deflate myths and put things on a more scientific basis.’

One common image of the Vikings is of them wearing coarse, home-woven woollen clothing. This may well be largely true of everyday wear. But rich people’s graves almost always contain silk attire.

The motifs on these silk fabrics have influenced Swedish culture for a millennium.

‘Many of the classic patterns in Swedish domestic crafts originated in traditional Persian ones,’ Larsson says. ‘I think that’s terrific! It’s yet another example of how Vikings belonged to an international context, with influences from all over the known world that they incorporated into their own culture. Knowledge like this can affect how we think today. This is one of my driving ambitions: to show that what we dig up from history is important and relevant today.’


FACTS: Silk route to Valsgärde

Differing characteristics of the silk fabrics show where they come from. The threads from the silkworm cocoons are harvested in various ways in the silk-producing areas, and woven into cloth differently in China and the Middle East.

The place where the Vikings bought the fabric was, in all probability, an area then known as Sogdiana, in Central Asia, east of the Caspian Sea. The Sogdians were a prominent trading people who had dealings with both China and Europe. In their territory, the Chinese silk culture encountered that of Ancient Persia. The Sogdians produced their own silk too.

The Vikings came into contact with the Sogdians by travelling along the Volga River, across the Caspian Sea and on eastwards from its southern shore.

Kim Bergström