According to recent research conducted by Cardiff University, horses were transported across the Baltic Sea in ships during the late Viking era to be sacrificed in funeral rituals.

The study, which focused on horse remains found in ancient burial sites in Russia and Lithuania, was published in the journal Science Advances. It reveals that these horses were imported from Scandinavia through extensive trade networks connecting the Viking world with the Byzantine and Arab empires.

Previously, researchers believed that sacrificial horses were always local stallions. However, these findings demonstrate that horses from what are now Sweden or Finland traveled up to 1,500 km across the Baltic Sea. Additionally, the results indicate that the sex of the horse was not necessarily a determining factor in its selection for sacrifice, as genetic analyses show that one in three were mares.

The research team used a scientific technique called strontium isotope analysis on the teeth of 74 horses to identify their place of origin. The chemical composition of soil, water, and plants, which reflects the underlying geology, is absorbed by animals and fixed in the hard enamel of their teeth. This allows archaeologists to trace their life trajectories hundreds of years later.

Reconstruction of the ritual sacrifice of a horse at Paprotki Kolonia, modern Poland.
Reconstruction of the ritual sacrifice of a horse at Paprotki Kolonia, modern Poland. Credit: Mirosław Kuzma

Horse sacrifices were highly visible and symbolic public rites throughout prehistoric pagan Europe, with the last practices persisting among Baltic tribes until the 14th century AD. Offering pits could contain multiple horses, entire horses, or partial remains.

In many Baltic cemeteries, horses were buried separately from humans, but there are numerous examples of horses with overlapping human cremations.

Dr. Katherine French, the lead author of the study, formerly of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology, and Religion and now at Washington State University, explained, This research dismantles previous theories that local stallions were exclusively selected for sacrifice. Given the unexpected prevalence of mares, we believe the prestige of the animal, coming from afar, was a more important factor in their selection for this rite.

She added, The Viking Age trade routes extended from modern Iceland, Britain, and Ireland in the west to the Byzantine and Arab empires in the east. The presence of a merchant’s weight in a horse burial highlights the crucial role of horses in these vibrant trade networks.

Co-author Dr. Richard Madgwick, also from Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology, and Religion, stated, The pagan tribes of the Baltic clearly sourced horses from abroad from their Christian neighbors while resisting conversion to their religion. This revised interpretation of horse sacrifice underscores the dynamic and complex relationship between the pagan and Christian communities of the time.

This project received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 program, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the National Geographic Society, the Society for Medieval Archaeology, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and Cardiff University.


Sources

Cardiff University| Katherine M. French et al., Biomolecular evidence reveals mares and long-distance imported horses sacrificed by the last pagans in temperate Europe. Sci. Adv. 10, eado3529(2024). DOI:10.1126/sciadv.ado3529


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