Earlier this year, the journal Current Swedish Archaeology published an article titled Body Modification on Viking Age Gotland that presented evidence of body modification practices in Norse societies. 

After examining the main details of the research, The Viking Herald now asks Lukas Kerk, one of the co-authors, for further insight into this fascinating area of study. 

A fruitful collaboration 

In the paper, Kerk, a researcher at the University of Münster, and Matthias Toplak, head of the Viking Museum Haithabu, examined evidence from previous archeological excavations of dental modifications on 130 Norse skeletons from the Viking Age, predominantly from Gotland, Sweden. 

They also analyzed signs of cranial alterations in three women found on the island of Gotland, a powerful center of influence in the Viking era.

As Kerk explains, the paper was the product of a lengthy collaboration. 

"My colleague Matthias Toplak and I have been in contact for several years," he begins. 

"We are both interested in the scientific study of body modifications from an archeological perspective."

"While Matthias is an expert on body modification in the Viking Age, I am currently working on my doctorate at the University of Münster on permanent modification of the human body and its communicative dimension on a global level." 

"For our project, we found it interesting to examine two forms of permanent body modification – filed teeth and artificially modified skulls – in a smaller time period and geographical area, namely Viking Age Gotland, and to see what interpretative possibilities there are for this phenomenon." 

This drawing depicts the grave of a female individual with an artificially modified skull, discovered in grave 192 from Havor, a site in Hablingbo parish, Gotland. Source: Mirosław Kuźma / Matthias Toplak 

The search for meaning 

In their paper, the researchers note that body modification is rarely performed on a whim. 

Rather, it is typically carried out to convey or communicate a special meaning, usually within a particular group or subculture. 

Based on the geographical location where the bodies were found – close to natural seaports – Kerk and Toplak believe the men with altered teeth may have been part of the same group of traders. 

"We assume that the tooth filings were used as a (hidden) sign of identification for a closed group of merchants," Kerk tells us. "They probably prove the existence of one or more groups of men who identified themselves through this body modification." 

With the intentionally elongated skulls, on the other hand, Kerk notes they were likely not raised in Gotland as – in contrast to the instances of teeth modification – there is no sign that the practice of skull alteration was widespread on the island. 

Instead, the evidence suggests the women may have been raised in another culture before relocating to Gotland, perhaps together. 

"The modified skulls of the three women indicate a foreign origin and at the same time far-reaching (trade) connections," Kerk tells us. 

"The analysis of aDNA on two of the women showed that one came from Gotland and the other from the eastern Baltic region." 

"It is possible that the two women were in southeast Europe as children of Gotlandic traders and underwent this modification there." 

Lukas Kerk suggests that tooth filings found on Viking skeletons were likely used as a hidden sign of identification, possibly indicating membership in a closed group of merchants engaged in extensive trade activities. Source: Lukas Kerr

Accepted outsiders 

Despite the foreign element to their upbringing, Kerk also notes that the burial goods indicate these women had been accepted by the Norse locals. 

"While the tooth filings could be easily hidden, this was not so simple with the women's skulls," Kerk points out. 

"Yet despite this visual feature, which may have been perceived as alien, the community still buried the women with extensive traditional Gotlandic costume jewelry." 

"Here, we can perhaps read a certain degree of openness towards otherness or foreignness, as the visually different-looking women – at least in the grave – were integrated into the community," Kerk says. 

"In this specific case, it could even be deliberately presented as evidence of successful trade and far-reaching contacts." 

The pair believes the women were probably raised in another culture with trade links to the Viking world – most likely in the eastern Baltic region – and later moved to Gotland." 

These findings appear consistent with archeological findings of the era, which show the Vikings had significant and far-reaching trade links, including to the east. 

We also know from historical records that throughout the Viking Age and beyond, alliances and integration between the Norse and other cultures were, in many cases, frequent and prolonged. 

The geographical proximity of the bodies with altered teeth to natural seaports leads Kerk and Toplak to believe these men were members of a cohesive group of traders. Source: Lukas Kerr

The developing picture 

Kerk does, however, caution against making widespread assumptions regarding the practice of body modification throughout different Norse cultures in the Viking Age. 

"This question can certainly not be answered in general terms," he admits. "However, thanks to the extensive sources we have on the Scandinavian Viking Age, it is possible to make some statements about their outward appearance."

"Archeological, iconographic, and historical sources have handed down various aspects of the physical appearance of the Vikings," he continues. 

"In addition to the examples of permanent body modifications we have analyzed, these also allow us to make references to certain hairstyles, beards, shaving, or general personal hygiene." 

Indeed, there is additional research in this area that has helped us to gain a better understanding of this aspect of Viking Age culture. 

This includes the examination of grave goods at locations such as Hedeby and Birka, a comprehensive study of Norse combs in the UK, and the Fashioning the Viking Age project from the National Museum in Copenhagen. 

Now, Kerk and Toplak's analysis has added a further layer of understanding, and Kerk tells us they are curious about future research in this area. 

"The topic is very exciting, and new discoveries always make fresh interpretations of this multifaceted phenomenon possible," Kerk says. 

"Both Matthias and I will continue to be active in this area. We would of course be delighted if more individuals with filed teeth and modified skulls were discovered in the future." 

"They may support our view of things or perhaps even show them in a completely different light."

You can read the paper Body Modification on Viking Age Gotland here, and The Viking Herald's initial report here

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