The Viking era in Scandinavia has left fascinating evidence of permanent bodily modifications, such as dental alterations and cranial deformations, used as means of communication and expression of social identity.

A recent study, published by Matthias Toplak and Lukas Kerk in Current Swedish Archaeology, has identified around 130 individuals, mainly men, with horizontal grooves carved into their teeth, with a surprising concentration on the Baltic island of Gotland. While these dental modifications have been interpreted in various ways, from marks of slaves to symbols of warrior elites, a deeper analysis suggests they might have functioned as identification signals within a closed group of traders.

Most of these individuals with carved teeth were found in the cemeteries of Kopparsvik and Slite on Gotland, as well as in Birka and Sigtuna on the mainland of Sweden. This indicates that the distribution pattern of these dental modifications is related to significant trading centers of the time. Furthermore, the vast majority of individuals with carved teeth were adult men, indicating a possible association of this practice with activities such as long-distance trade.

It has been suggested that dental notches could have functioned as an initiation rite and identity signal for a closed group of merchants, similar to later medieval guilds. This group could have received certain privileges or commercial advantages through this distinctive mark.

Variations in the number, depth, and shape of the notches also suggest that this signaling code could have been recognizable within a broader regional scope, allowing both endogenous and exogenous communication.

However, three cases of women with artificially deformed skulls to elongate their heads have also been found, equally originating from different places in Gotland. Unlike dental modifications, these cranial alterations seem to be a foreign trait in Scandinavian Viking culture, possibly originating from Eastern Europe, where cases from the 9th to the 11th centuries AD have been detected.

The presence of these women with modified skulls raises questions about how Gotland society interacted with and reinterpreted this form of foreign identity, the practices of which are still unknown when they arrived in Scandinavia.

The tombs of these three women, richly adorned with jewelry and accessories typical of Gotland’s female attire, suggest they were accepted and integrated into the local community. However, cranial modification, likely imposed in their childhood, was a foreign trait to the island’s Viking culture, raising the possibility that Gotland society recodified the original meaning of this alteration, adapting it to their own frames of reference.

These examples illustrate how bodily modification could serve as a means of communication, through which social identities were constructed, presented, and negotiated in Viking Scandinavia. While the exact meaning of these practices may be difficult to reconstruct, the theoretical approach used highlights the bodily dimension of aspects such as gender, prestige, social status, and otherness, and their fluid and dynamic interweaving with the modification of the human body.


Sources

Matthias S. Toplak, Lukas Kerk, Body Modification on Viking Age Gotland. Filed Teeth and Artificially Modified Skulls as Embodiment of Social Identities. Current Swedish Archaeology, vol.31 (2023), doi.org/10.37718/CSA.2023.09


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