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Dogs in death – the Valsgärde dogs

Posted by Rebecca Boyd



In the Viking Age, people were often buried with grave goods – tools or cooking utensils, weapons or jewellery, or with their animals. The most famous of these ‘furnished burials’ are the great ship burials of Oseberg and Gokstad where just one or two people were buried. But there are also bigger cemeteries with multiple smaller furnished burials. One of these cemeteries is found in Valsgärde in Sweden, where archaeologists have excavated 92 burials including 15 boat burials dating to the 6th to 12th centuries (Ljungkvist, 2008, Nichols, 2018, 2021). Most exciting for us is that several of these burials included dogs.


Christopher Nichols examined these burials in 2018, determining that there were 20 dogs present in 12 different graves. One grave (Vaslgarde 5) contained 4 different quite large dogs standing to between 59cm and 60cm at their withers (top of their shoulders). These were a mix of large dogs (similar to a German shepherd), sighthounds (like modern wolfhounds, whippets or greyhounds) and a medium sized spitz.


Image: Figure 5a, from Graslund 2004



Another grave (Valsgärde 29) contained 2 dogs based on the presence of two different mandibles or jawbones. When they were excavated, these bones were found with elaborate bronze collars. Unfortunately, Nichols couldn’t estimate the size of these dogs because you need long arm or leg bones to do this. However, these jawbones contained adult teeth, telling us that these were fully mature dogs. Just as with humans, a dog’s teeth are great indicators of their overall health and these dogs were well cared for. Both had lost some of permanent teeth, but there was no sign of infection at these tooth sites suggesting that their owner had looked after the dogs after they lost their teeth. Nichols suggests that these dogs were valuable dogs, they wore expensive collars and were in good health.


Both these graves date to the Vendel period, from the mid 6th century to the mid 8th century (Ljungkvist, 2008). The Viking-Age graves usually only contained one dog, but this continuity shows us that dogs continued to be hugely important both in life and in death in the Viking world.



References:

Gräslund, A.-S. (2004). 'Dogs in graves – a question of symbolism?', in Frizell, B. S. (ed.) PECUS. Man and animal in antiquity. Proceedings of the conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002. Rome, pp. 167-76.


Ljungkvist, J. 2008 “Valsgärde – Development and change of a burial ground over 1300 years” In Graslund, Anne-Sofie (ed) Valsgärde studies: the Place and its People, Past and Present: , Uppsala: Uppsala University, p. 13-55


Nichols, C. 2018 Hounds of Hel: An osteological investigation of dog skeletons in Vendel Period–Viking Age inhumations at Valsgärde cemetery, Sweden, Masters Thesis, Uppsala University


Nichols, C. 2021. Domestic dog skeletons at Valsgärde cemetery, Uppland, Sweden: Quantification and morphological reconstruction. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 36, 102875.


Nichols, C. 2023 Welcome to Valsgärde, Available online at: http://www.scandinavianarchaeology.com/welcome-to-valsgarde/ (accessed 13 June 2023)

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