Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

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Michael Müller-Wille has written an important work on the topic of horse burials, entitled Pferdegrab und Pferdeopfer im frühen Mittelalter. Though his main emphasis is on the areas influenced by the Reihengräber culture of Central and Western Europe,24 he provides us with a detailed review of the horse burials and horse sacrifices in southern Scandinavia from the end of the Bronze Age up through the Viking Age.25 He does not go very far into the possible reasons behind the practices, but rather—as a consummate archaeologist—presents the facts in a clear and orderly manner, often enlisting the aid of charts and maps.

In “Birka IV: The Burial Customs,” Swedish archaeologist Anne-Sofie Gräslund discusses the twenty chamber-graves at Birka in which horses were found along with their human occupants. Her handling is quite thorough and technically-oriented. She itemizes the position of the horses in the grave, the degree of east-west orientation of each grave, the equipment contained in them and even the estimated ages of the horses. Moreover, Gräslund brings other horse burials from around Sweden into the discussion, highlighting those that share a connection with the chamber-graves at Birka. In the end, she concludes that the function of the horse in Swedish burials during the Vendel and Viking periods was to provide the dead warrior with the means to make a fitting entry into Valhalla.

Gräslund does well to make an inventory of the archaeological findings in Sweden, but she spends little time analyzing the reasons behind the burial practice. Her treatment of horse burials in Norway and Denmark is limited to two sentences, so the overall Nordic picture is also left unexplored. The explanation she offers is an easy one to make, and more or less relies on the works of others.26 Furthermore, she does not seriously consider the possibility of influence from the East in regards to in the Birka graves. A few researchers have identified a number of the artifacts from these graves as Oriental in origin,27 something of which Gräslund makes no reference.

Over the last decade, another Swede by the name of Anneli Sundkvist has focused on the role horses played in Sweden during the Viking Period.28 In her latest work, she performs a comparative analysis of the 10th century graves with horses/horse tack and weapons in Birka and the Swedish boat-grave cemeteries. This study sheds light on how the motivations behind horse burials across even this limited geographic region may have been very different.

Trond Meling has written a Master’s thesis about the graves with horses and riding equipment from the Merovingian period located exclusively in western Norway. The material he is dealing with is very sparse: only four graves from that period have been found to contain so much as horse bones or horse teeth.29 His analysis therefore relies mainly on graves with riding gear and weaponry found in the western districts of Rogaland, Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane. Meling’s main focus is on how all of these graves can be connected to the political situation of the time. He argues that although the horse did not play a major military role, both it and its equipment in the grave symbolized the ideal warrior. He roams little beyond a mundane interpretation of horse graves, and only presents—rather than critiques—arguments connecting them to the horse’s role in the fertility cult, shamanism and the journey to the other world.

In another recent Master’s thesis, Kristin Oma takes the point of departure that the horse fulfilled two distinct roles in the Scandinavian Iron Age.30 The horse was not only understood to perform its practical function in what Oma terms the “material realm,” but it also occupied a central position in society’s mystical understanding of the cosmos, or the “symbolic sphere.” Oma includes a brief section on the horse burials of the Viking Age.31 Her focus is to demonstrate the wide range of forms the custom takes, and in doing so she pays little attention to the prominent trends that I will be reviewing. Though she rightly identifies the fact that horses almost always appear in ship burials, for example, she goes no further than to say that the bond between the two is strong.32 Moreover, she does not take up the discussion of the horse’s role in the cult sacrifice as opposed to its role in burial. This is an issue that I believe is key to our understanding of the reasons behind the appearance of horses in the grave.

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