The Vikings in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland had slaves, or thralls. These thralls probably held multiple roles, serving their masters in many ways in Viking society a thousand years ago.
They could also be given the ultimate rough assignment when important Vikings died.
Some followed their masters into the grave.
Few contemporary descriptions of Viking burials exist. But the Arab explorer Ibn Fadlān witnessed one such ritual when a Viking chieftain died. Fadlān had met the Eastern Vikings, also called Rūsiyyah, in what is now Russia:
“Six men entered the pavilion and all had intercourse with the slavegirl. They laid her down beside her master and two of them took hold of her feet, two her hands. The crone called the ‘Angel of Death’ placed arope around her neck (…) She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs (…) while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.” [From Ibn Fadlān’s Account as related in an article by James E. Montgomery, Cambridge, published in The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 2000] (more text here)
Ibn Fadlān journeyed into what is now Russia in the 920s AD and left us a manuscript describing his experiences. He told the above story of this slave girl who volunteered to be sacrificed.
The Viking Age started in the late 700s and lasted until the year 1050. Vikings travelled far out of Scandinavia, west as far as present day Canada and east through Russia to Constantinople.
But who were their slaves and what can we learn from the archaeological findings?
As many as 10 percent of the population of Viking Scandinavia could have been slaves, according to the Norwegian website Norgeshistorie.no. These can have been kidnaped and forced into slavery. They can have been captured during Viking raids but they can also have simply sunk into debt and had to meet their obligations by entering into lifelong servitude.
In “Rigsthula”, which is one of the Edda Poems of Iceland, it is clear that the thralls comprised the lowest class in society. They were shouldered with the heavy and undesirable tasks on the farms, such as digging peat or watching over pigs, according to Norgeshistorie.no. They could also be exploited sexually.
There were probably many categories of these thralls. But how much do we know about their roles?
Anna Kjellström is a researcher at the Osteological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University. We met her recently at the conference “Viking World 2016”, held at the University of Nottingham in England.
Kjellström participates in a project examining the graves of what are assumed to be slaves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The skeletal remains of these servants of the Vikings are being analysed to reveal some facts about where they came from and how they lived.
Several of these slave graves have one thing in common: The thralls did not end their lives in a peaceful way. Most of them had been abused, injured and decapitated before being laid to rest together with their masters.
In some of the graves the skulls were missing altogether but no one knows why.
Few archaeological traces of the Viking’s slaves are found. Kjellström’s investigations cover around ten graves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark where slaves are thought to be buried, either alone or along with persons of rank.
But can slavery be detected by studying bones?
“Often what we find in graves are higher-ups, but other individuals can also be present. These are not as dutifully interred in the grave,” explains Kjellström.
These companions in death were also buried without any grave goods or treasures, which are otherwise common in Viking graves. The graves in this study have been known for a long time and excavated decades ago. One of these graves belonged to the “Moose Man” from Birka, near Stockholm.
This is a famous grave found in 1988. Its occupant was a warrior who had been buried with weapons, a shield and moose antlers. Beside the man was a thrall who was interred without any possessions. The head had been separated from the body. This person is thought to have been sacrificed.
“Many bare signs of execution or mortal harm. They don’t have signs of injuries which have healed. This would have suggested that their injuries came to them earlier in life, for instance in battle,” says Kjellström.
Another example is the Grimsta grave, also in the Stockholm area. Two decapitated men were found here who could also have been slaves and perhaps sacrificed.
“In addition to Fadlān’s tale there are a few descriptions in the sagas of slaves and wives who volunteer to being killed and placed in the grave,” says Elise Naumann, an archaeologist and postdoc at the University of Oslo.
“We have no reason to doubt that the burials were brutal,” says Naumann in comment to the Fadlān narrative.
“Another common practice was the sacrificing of animals and placing them in human graves, so this does tie in with Viking rituals.”
Naumann has also studied a Viking grave at Flakstad, in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Again, slaves might have been included along with grave goods. Here too, the dead who accompanied a person of high rank had been decapitated and are presumed to have been slaves.
“But we don’t really know why the slaves were killed. The term ‘human sacrifice’ can be a bit off the mark, as that usually applies to sacrifices to the gods.”
Naumann mentions the theories of the archaeologist Neil Price who works at Uppsala University. He has pointed out that every one of these graves is different, despite sharing common characteristics. The grave goods in them differ and the slaves have been abused or killed in various ways.
“There are lots of macabre treatments of the bodies. Some have chopped off limbs, such as in the Viking graves at Kaupang [Norway].”
“The fact that the graves are so disparate might mean that they are part of a burial ritual that recreates important incidences in the deceased person’s life. This would explain why each grave is unique,” says Naumann.
In any case, many slaves seem to have suffered a brutal death.
Anna Kjellstrøm’s project is not complete yet. But she presented some initial results at the conference in Nottingham.
Strontium isotope analyses have been made on the remnants of the persons who were assumed to be slaves. These can show where a person has grown up. Strontium is present in rocks round the world and we absorb it in our bodies through water and food. It builds up in our teeth and bones in the course of our lives, as described in Archaeology magazine.
Strontium levels can thus provide indications of whether, for instance, persons have grown up at the same location.
“The results clash. Some individuals have come from other places. But some of the skeletal material we have seen shows little difference from other, local groups,” she says.
This could mean that a few of the slaves in the graves had grown up in the same place as their masters. People may have a notion of thralls being captured elsewhere and brought to Scandinavia. But many might have been locals who were born into slavery.
“We don’t have may graves to og by. So it’s hard to tell whether these are common slaves or whether these once had special roles, perhaps as advisors.”
Despite the obviously brutal executions, the skeletons do not indicate that these persons were undernourished.
“Some diseases leave traces in the bones. Theoretically, you would see whether individuals have suffered much, but we are not seeing this here.”
“In some of the graves it looks like these persons have lived quite like their masters.”
Kjellström stresses that bones do not tell the whole story and she would be cautious about drawing conclusions.
“They can have been slapped around daily, but that doesn’t turn up in the bones.”
Elise Naumann also thinks it probable that many slaves came from the same locations as the rest of the Viking population.
“The female slaves might have given birth to lots of children. Even though the master had sired many of these kids, such offspring could still grow up as slaves,” says Naumann.
Researchers who have studied slavery in the Nordic countries commonly think the majority of the thralls came from Scandinavian countries.
The historian Tore Iversen took his doctorate with a study of Norwegian slaves in the Middle Ages and concludes that many were recruited from within the country.