Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Vikings prized furs imported from the east as high fashion

Danish Vikings sported imported beaver furs, which may have been obtained in eastern Europe and traded via Kyiv and Sweden, as high fashion.  

That’s according to a new analysis of burial goods indicating that the richest Vikings wore outfits showing off different imported and local furs, while commoners made do with textiles and leather. 

Contemporary written sources indicate that fur was an important commodity during the Viking Age from about 800 to 1050 AD — traded within Europe and as far afield as Baghdad. Fur has also been commonly depicted in modern portrayals such as the TV series Vikings.

However, fur does not survive well in the archaeological record, so very little direct evidence has been available. Previous studies have used microscopic observation of individual hairs to try to identify species of origin, but this method has limitations.

For the new study, archaeologist Dr Luise Ørsted Brandt of the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues analysed animal remains from six high-status graves from 10th-century Denmark — three of women, two of men and one of a person of undetermined sex. Most of the individuals were interred in burial mounds, including a ship burial and a wagon burial.

Map of studied sites and examples of fur. Graphics: Luise Ørsted Brandt and Charlotte Rimstad. Photos: Roberto Fortuna, National Museum of Denmark. Brandt et al., 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

They were unable to recover any ancient DNA from the samples, due to preservation conditions and possibly the treatment processes performed on furs and skins. However, by using scientific techniques including mass spectrometry, the researchers were able to recover animal proteins that revealed the origin of the fragmentary burial goods. 

They found that accessories such as shoes, bags and purses were made of leather from domestic animals, while clothing was made from furs of wild animals — specifically a weasel, a squirrel, and beavers.

The findings, published in the open-access journal Plos One, support the idea that fur was an important symbol of wealth during the Viking Age. The fact that beavers are not native to Denmark suggests that this fur was a luxury item acquired through trade. The team found that some outfits included fur from multiple species, demonstrating a knowledge of the different properties of different species, and, probably, a desire to show off.

According to contemporary sources, furs traded by the Vikings came from a variety of species including mustelids, such as sable, marten and ermine; squirrel; fox; wolf; beaver; and hare. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Rus — descendants of Vikings living in eastern Europe, around what are now Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia — brought their fur to Bolghar, a centre for the fur trade on the Volga, from where it was distributed to the Arab world, Central Asia and North Africa. 

The study authors cite the Arab chronicler Ibn Hawqal, who described this trade in 965 and gives clues to the origin of beaver furs found in Scandinavia, writing: “The honey, wax, and furs exported from their country come from the territories of the Rūs and the Bulghār. This is also the case with the beaver pelts, exported throughout the world, for they are only found on the northern rivers of the territory of the Rūs, the Bulghār and Kiev.”

In their paper, they add: “Birka, in Sweden, was one of the most important Scandinavian market places and is in particular associated with the eastward trade in the 9th to 10th centuries. It is not unlikely that the fur of wild animals that were no longer locally available were traded through Birka to the rest of Scandinavia.”

“The beaver pelts exported throughout the world are only found on the northern rivers of the territory of the Rūs, the Bulghār and Kiev”

Ibn Hawqal

Explaining the particular appeal of the beaver furs found in the graves of a woman at Hvilehøj and a man at Bjerringhøj, they write: “There can be little doubt that these finds of clothing represent true traded luxury products aimed at displaying the magnificence of their owners. Probably most exported fur of wild species was so expensive, that it was only accessible to the elite. Beaver fur visually stands out from local furs by its sheen. It is moreover a heavy, very warm and water resistant fur. Local furs from marten and squirrel may have been more accessible.”

Even so, they add: “Marten and squirrel fur is very light, but still warm, and based on its properties, not to mention the labour connected to catching the animals and preparing their much smaller skins, these furs must have still been exclusive.”

In fact, they said there was no evidence from burials that people of lower status wore furs and the preservation of textiles in some lower-status graves meant that fragments of fur were likely to have been preserved too, if originally present.

The authors noted that the biggest limiting factor in this sort of study was the incompleteness of comparative protein databases. They said that, as these databases expand, more specific identifications of ancient animal skins and furs would be possible.

They conclude: “In the Viking Age, wearing exotic fur was almost certainly an obvious visual statement of affluence and social status, similar to high-end fashion in today’s world.”

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