A recent study conducted by two researchers from Germany has analyzed two types of body modification techniques identified in burial mounds from the Viking Age. 

In addition to presenting key finds from archeological investigations made throughout Scandinavia and beyond, the researchers also put forward a theory as to how and why these modifications may have taken place. 

Decades of evidence 

In the article Body Modification on Viking Age Gotland, published in the journal Current Swedish Archaeology, Matthias Toplak of the Viking Museum Haithabu and Lukas Kerk of the University of Münster have presented detailed research into both dental alterations and cranial modifications. 

Until relatively recently, it was assumed that tattoos were the only type of body modification practiced by the Vikings, and even this was subject to some debate

However, a series of discoveries and archeological investigations have uncovered two other techniques that may have been practiced by the Norse.

In the course of their research, Toplak and Kerk examined evidence from 130 males, particularly from the Baltic island of Gotland, who had received some kind of decorative modification of their teeth. 

In addition, they also examined the remains of three females from Gotland whose skulls had been deliberately reshaped. 

Home to a wealth of Viking artifacts, Gotland has once again come into the spotlight with the discovery of tooth and skull modifications that provide new perspectives on Norse rituals and social structures. 

In the Viking Age, Gotland was not only a critical economic center but also a cultural melting pot, where various Norse clans and foreign traders exchanged goods and customs. Photo: Isabelle Nyrot / Shutterstock

Widespread evidence of teeth filing 

As Toplak and Kerk recount in their paper, several studies have indicated that various Norse communities practiced some form of teeth modification during the Viking Age. 

Teeth filing has been identified in various cultures around the world. However, while in many instances the teeth are sharpened to a point, most examples from the Viking Age feature furrows or grooves of varying length. 

In their analysis, Toplak and Kerk found that approximately half of the examples identified to date come from the island of Gotland, an influential center of power during the Viking Age. 

In one particularly notable find at the Kopparsvik cemetery, close to Visby, 46 males were identified with filed teeth, while another 13 examples were found at a graveyard in Slite. 

The practice was not limited to Gotland, however. Other examples of teeth filing in Norse burials have been found in Scania and Birka, also in Sweden, Gnezdovo in Russia, and Ridgeway Hill in England. 

Although there are earlier examples, most of these finds date from the late Viking Age

While Toplak and Kerk note several variations in style, the examples from Gotland and Scania are strikingly similar, suggesting the men could have belonged to the same cultural group. 

While some believe that Viking tooth modifications were a display of bravery, the findings of Toplak and Kerk indicate a lack of related battle trauma, suggesting these modifications had more symbolic or social functions. Photo: Gabriel Hildebrand / SHM (CC BY 2.5)

Possible eastern influence in skull modification 

Skull modification, or artificial cranial deformation, refers to the practice of modifying the shape of the skull at a young age, usually leading to a more elongated shape. 

Cranial deformation is known to have been practiced in Mesoamerica and South America, as well as in Central Europe, the Caucasus, and parts of Eurasia during the Migration Period. 

In contrast to the filing of teeth, researchers have only identified three examples of skull modification in the Viking Age. 

All three specimens were female and were found on the island of Gotland, though at three separate locations: Kvie, Ire, and Havor. They are thought to have been buried during the second half of the 11th century. 

The find at Kvie presents more minor modifications that could even have developed naturally, and the body was buried with few artifacts alongside it. 

On the other hand, the skulls found at Ire and Havor have unquestionably been intentionally modified. 

The skull from Ire is believed to be from a woman aged 25 to 30, while the Havor skull is of a woman aged 55 to 60 who was buried with a rich collection of jewelry and accessories. 

The study suggests that furrows carved into Viking teeth were not merely decorative but may have represented a coded system of identification among merchants, reflecting their ranks and responsibilities. Photo: Lisa Hartzell / SHM (CC BY 2.5)

A symbolic act 

Various theories have been put forward for why someone would want to modify their teeth. 

While some analysts have suggested the marks are from Norse people who used their teeth as tools, others have suggested they could be the mark of a warrior elite who wanted to demonstrate their bravery and resistance to pain. 

However, as Toplak and Kerk point out, few of the people found with modified teeth were buried with weapons or had marks of trauma from wounds received in battle. 

In fact, the only consistent feature is that all of the people with teeth markings were male. 

The article does suggest that these modifications likely had some kind of symbolic meaning within a particular social group. 

Suggestions exist that these people could have been enslaved or marked for religious reasons. Toplak and Kerk point out that the examples were found at Kopparsvik and Slite – locations that were ideal seaports during the Viking Age. 

For this reason, the researchers suggest that the furrows could have been some form of identification within a group of merchants, with different shapes and depths of the furrows potentially indicating various levels of authority or functions within the group. 

Outside the circle 

In contrast, the cranial modifications made to the three women appear to indicate that they may have been raised away from the Gotland community. 

The researchers note that these kinds of adjustments to the skull, which are typically made by applying pressure with the hands or by binding, take place at a young age and require a considerable degree of skill. 

Because these are the only examples of this practice in Viking Age Scandinavia, and all were buried around the same time, the researchers suggest it was unlikely to have been a local custom. 

Instead, the three women may have had their skulls modified as children in southeastern Europe – where the practice was more common – before moving to Gotland at a later date. 

If correct, the two examples of body modification would present two contrasting symbols. 

Teeth filing is seen as a deeply embedded cultural custom in the Norse community, signaling belonging and status. 

Conversely, cranial modification would have clearly indicated to the inhabitants that these women were born in a foreign culture and were considered outsiders. 

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