Friday, April 25, 2008

Ancient Viking Women Studied Using DNA

An article in today's Aftenposten reveals discoveries made by DNA samples and x-rays taken from the bodies of two women buried in 834 A.D. on the Oseberg ship--a Viking ship excavated in Vestfold in 1903. The discovery of the first buried ships was exciting proof that Vikings had indeed been capable of traveling great distances: to North America, for example.

The two women, whose identities remain uncertain, were obviously "powerful figures in their day, but still lived a hard life, and they were stronger than today's women." How many Norwegians and Norwegian descendants across the world could claim either woman as an ancestor, I wonder?

Genealogy enthusiasts, as well as interpreters of ancient history, benefit from knowledge gained by DNA studies, though the lack of guidance in the interpretation of raw data is the bane of the average geneaologist. In ancient history, however, there are few lineage charts, documents, or written records to go on. Instead, investigators must sort out fact from legend, if at possible, using whatever scientific tests and archeaological studies can be used to tease out details.

The older woman of the pair was found to have died from cancerous tumors at about age 70 or 80--a pretty advanced age for an ancient peoples, hardy Vikings included. The younger woman sustained a broken collar bone, which healed entirely before her death from natural causes soon after. Although she lived as a "Norwegian," she was found to have had ancestral roots near the Black Sea. First thought to be about 25 years old, her age has since been determined to be about 50, which means she could possibly have been Queen Åsa, the mother of Halvdan Svarte (Halfdan the Black).

What was it like to walk a mile in a Viking woman's boots? The leather boots pictured here were found in the Oseberg ship and probably belonged to the older of the two women buried within.

Studies of their teeth reveal that both women ate high grade food, and the younger woman had a metal toothpick, another sign of their status. But signs of injury to the knee, broken bones in the legs and back and powerful muscle attachments indicate a hard life even for the upper class.

Well. I can understand that. How else would the image of a Valkyrie have been handed down through the ages? If you were a Viking, it was a hard life in a hard land--the unforgiving, icy north, and the squeamish need not have applied. Ancient mothers of Norway, whoever you really were, I tip my bowl of ale to you in recognition of your long lives and exceptional strength of both body and soul.

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