Two 7th century warriors at an ancient burial ground in Sweden were laid to rest with comfy bedding stuffed with feathers from a variety of birds, research shows.
New microscopic analysis of the bedding shows traces of feathers from local geese, ducks, grouse, crows, sparrows, waders and even eagle owls.
The warriors were also buried in their boats with richly adorned helmets, shields and weapons and even gaming pieces, which, along with the several layers of bedding, would have eased the journey ‘to the realm of the dead’, according to researchers.
Bizarrely, in one grave, an Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) had been laid with its head cut off – and the experts aren’t entirely sure why.
The graves are two of 15 that were uncovered and excavated by archaeologists in the 1920s in Valsgärde outside Uppsala in central Sweden.
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Excavated feathers from one of the boat graves. They are very well preserved, but brittle, densely packed and entangled
Valsgärde is described by the team as Scandinavia’s answer to Sutton Hoo – the famous English burial site near Woodbridge in Suffolk, which is the subject of Netflix’s film The Dig, starring Lily James, Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes.
Weirdly, horses and other animals were arranged close to the boats when they were buried – about 1,400 years ago.
‘The buried warriors appear to have been equipped to row to the underworld, but also to be able to get ashore with the help of the horses,’ said Professor Birgitta Berglund at NTNU University Museum in Trondheim, Norway.
‘We also think the choice of feathers in the bedding may hold a deeper, symbolic meaning.’
According to Nordic folklore, the type of feathers contained in the bedding of the dying person was important.
The weapons in the graves were richly decorated. This sword was found in one of the boat graves looked at for this study, Valsgärde 7
The graves are two of 15 that were uncovered and excavated by archaeologists in the 1920s in Valsgärde outside Uppsala in central Sweden
WHAT IS DOWN?
The down of birds is a layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers.
It’s still used as a thermal insulator for padding, bedding, pillows, quilts and more.
Eiderdown, or eider down, comes from the Common Eider Duck, a large migratory sea duck.
‘For example, people believed that using feathers from domestic chickens, owls and other birds of prey, pigeons, crows and squirrels would prolong the death struggle,’ Professor Berglund said.
‘In some Scandinavian areas, goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body.’
‘Down’ – or soft feathers – in the graves at Valsgärde is the oldest known from Scandinavia and indicates that the two buried men belonged to the top strata of society.
Wealthy Greeks and Romans used down for their bedding a few hundred years earlier, but down probably wasn’t used more widely by wealthy people in Europe until the Middle Ages, Berglund said.
As for the beheaded owl, Professor Berglund said: ‘We believe the beheading had a ritual significance in connection with the burial.’
The keeping of predatory birds, like the Eagle Owl, has also long been a status symbol, according to the researchers.
Swords found in tombs from Viking times were sometimes intentionally bent before being laid in the tomb, likely to prevent the deceased from using the weapon if he returned from the dead.
Left, map of the Valsgärde hillside with numbered burials. The investigated sites are marked in red. Right: Warriors on a metal sheet from the helmet at Valsgärde 7, with birds of prey on their helmets
Valsgärde was found and excavated by archaeologists in the 1920s. The burial field in Valsgärde outside Uppsala in central Sweden contains more than 90 graves from the Iron Age. Pictured, the grave field of Valsgärde
‘It’s conceivable that the owl’s head was cut off to prevent it from coming back,’ said Professor Berglund.
The cemetery at Valsgärde was excavated in the 20th century, starting in 1928 by today’s Uppsala University Museum.
The burial field in Valsgärde was found to contain more than 90 graves from the Iron Age, of which 15 were boat-burials with ‘well-equipped’ warriors from the Late Iron Age (AD 570–1030).
The two boat graves that are the focus of this new study – Valsgärde 7 and 8 – had both already been archaeologically dated to the 7th century.
Valsgärde 7 was excavated in 1933, while Valsgärde 8 was excavated in 1936, according to Professor Berglund.
The boats carrying the two dead men each measure about 30 feet long, with room for four to five pairs of oars.