Experts analyzing remains from a dig in a Derbyshire wood 25 years ago have found solid scientific evidence to suggest that Vikings crossed the North Sea to Britain with their own dogs and horses. 

Up until recently, it had been assumed that the invaders had seized animals from locals. 

Now, after looking at strontium isotope ratios to obtain a more accurate geographical footprint, scientists have been able to pinpoint the provenance of these creatures much closer to where the Vikings came from.

Woodland dig

The dig took place at Britain's only known Viking cremation cemetery, Heath Wood in Derbyshire, between 1998 and 2000. 

Archaeologists from the University of York and Historic England were joined by researchers from the University of York, Durham University, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels.

"It shows how much Viking leaders valued their personal horses and hounds that they brought with them from Scandinavia and that the animals were sacrificed to be buried with their owners," said professor Julian Richards of the Department of Archaeology, University of York, who co-directed the excavations at the Heath Wood cemetery.

"The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Norman cavalry disembarking horses from their fleet before the Battle of Hastings, but this is the first scientific demonstration that Viking warriors were transporting horses to England two hundred years earlier."

The analyzed remains are associated with the Viking Great Army, a combined force of Scandinavian warriors that invaded Britain in 865.

Cremated animal and human bone from the Heath Wood Viking cemetery. Photo: Julian Richards / University of York

Two by two

Tessi Löffelmann, lead author and researcher from Durham University, and the Department of Chemistry, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, said: "Our most important primary source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, states that the Vikings were taking horses from the locals in East Anglia when they first arrived, but this was clearly not the whole story, and they most likely transported animals alongside people on ships. This also raises questions about the importance of specific animals to the Vikings."

Among the animal remains were the cremated remains of a complete horse and dog and a fragment of what the archaeologists say was possibly a pig. 

While the researchers say their findings suggest the horse and dog were transported to Britain, it may be that the pig fragment was a gaming piece or another talisman or token brought from Scandinavia rather than a live pig. 

The remains had been cremated and buried under a mound, which the researchers say could be a link back to Scandinavian rituals at a time when cremation was absent in Britain.

Scientists looked at strontium isotope ratios in the remains of two adults, one child and three animals from the Heath Wood site. Strontium occurs naturally in the environment in rocks, soil and water before making its way into plants. When humans and animals eat those plants, strontium replaces calcium in their bones and teeth.

As strontium ratios vary in different parts of the world, the geographical fingerprint of the element found in human or animal remains can help show where they came from or settled. 

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Clasp from the Viking warrior’s shield found during the original excavations in 1998-2000. The clasp was found in the same grave as the human and animal remains analyzed during the latest research. Photo: Julian Richards / University of York

The decorated hilt guard from the Viking warrior’s sword. The sword was found in the same grave as the human and animal remains analyzed during the latest research. Photo: Julian Richards / University of York

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