Thursday, October 24, 2013

First Vikings in Orkney didn't trade with locals

The earliest Scandinavian settlers in Orkney, a group of islands in northern Scotland, may not have had as much contact with local inhabitants in the Early Middle Ages as previously thought, say NERC-funded scientists.

Archaeologists previously believed there was contact between the two peoples before the Vikings conquered Orkney, after finding earlier hair combs in Scottish styles but made of reindeer antler, in a region where reindeer aren't native. Archaeologists assumed this was evidence for trade and contact between the Scandinavian settlers and those from Scotland.

But a new non-damaging test that identifies the species of a bone or antler by matching the collagen from an artefact to a species on a database has shown that this is not the case.

The new research, led by researchers at the University of York, looked at loose teeth from hair combs found in Orkney from the pre- Viking era. They found that all those in Scottish styles are in fact made of red or roe deer, species that were found in Scotland at the time, whilst all those in Scandinavian styles were made from reindeer.

"We were doing this blind - we were expecting deer. We knew some would be reindeer and some wouldn't but didn't know which would be which," says Isabella von Holstein, a PhD student at the University of York, who led the study . "It overturns previous findings, where people have used a microscope to look at the combs, and it means very exciting things for interpreting how people were behaving in these times.."

The method of using collagen to test which animal an artifact originated from had never been done before, and some of the researchers on the project were skeptical of how accurate the technique would be.

"We were very surprised to find there was a piece of whale in the middle of our samples, which was very puzzling," von Holstein explains. "But we double-checked and another researcher from the project, Dr Steve Ashby from the University of York, was delighted because he had put that in as a test piece and we found it! It was from a completely different type of comb."

Since collagen testing doesn't damage the samples and is relatively cheap to conduct, it is likely to be used in the future on other archaeological artifacts. Particularly since bone and antler have always been common materials for humans to make things from.

While the study shows that early Scandinavian settlers in Orkney didn't trade with the Scottish inhabitants, it still raises interesting questions over trade within Scotland, particularly in areas like Orkney where deer antler combs have been found, but the deer in the area were scarce.

The study was funded by NERC, the European Union, and the Catherine Mackichan Trust.

Jarlett, Harriet. 2013. “First Vikings in Orkney didn't trade with locals”. Planet Earth Online. Posted: September 17, 2013. Available online:

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