A new study has revealed that elite Vikings, specifically highly ranked Danish Vikings, used and wore beaver furs as a means of showing off their exalted social status. This practice is not dissimilar to the way clothes by high-end designers are worn today as a marker of status. Not native to Denmark, beavers were a symbol of wealth, as well as being an expensive and important trade item of the 10th century.
The research, published in the open-access journal PLOS One has focused on written sources, corroborating them with material remains and analysis. These sources do point to beaver fur being a very important commodity between the 9th and 11th centuries (800-1050 AD). However, fur’s quick rate of decay makes it a difficult material to study using archaeological remains.
The study has concluded that beaver fur was a highly prized commodity during the Viking era. ( Jillian / Adobe Stock)
The Wearing of Exotic Fur: Utilizing the Keratin Method
“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,” wrote the authors of the study. “This study uses ancient proteins preserved in elite Danish Viking burials to provide direct evidence of beaver fur trade and use.”
This prompted the researchers from the University of Copenhagen to analyze remnant proteins in the fur, instead of DNA analysis . They relied on the survival rate of keratin, a protein responsible for the make up of hair, fur, nails, and skin. Keratin is a stable molecule, allowing for better survival vis-à-vis protein, according to Meaghan Mackie, one of the researchers on the study and a bio archaeologist for the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen.
Under her tutelage, two different mass spectrometry techniques to match keratin sequences in the public database were used. “Keratin can be very resilient in the right conditions, as the main reason it breaks down is due to certain bacteria in the environment that feed on it,” Mackie told Inverse. “So if it can stay in an environment where it is hard for this bacteria to get to, such as anaerobic conditions, it can preserve for a long time.”
a) Map of showing the location of the six graves in Denmark where fur samples came from. b-d) Examples of the fur samples under investigation. (PLOS ONE / CC-BY 4.0 )
Dr. Luise Ørsted Brandt, lead author of the study, along with her colleagues, analyzed animal remains used to furnish six Viking graves . These graves were of Vikings from the upper echelons of 10th century Danish society . Though aDNA was not recovered from the sample, this was merely an indication that the treatment processes on furs and skins did not allow for preservation.
Fortunately, identifiable proteins were recovered with the two aforementioned analytical techniques. They revealed that the skins found were of domestic animals, used as grave furnishings or footwear. The pieces of clothing exhibited fur from wild animals and were worn by both sexes. These animals included a weasel, a squirrel, and beavers, reports The Daily Mail .
The authors of the study believe that the fur from multiple species was an indicator of the knowledge of the functions of different animal hides. In addition, the sheer variety of animals imported may have stemmed from a desire to showcase exclusive fur collections. An increase in the current protein database will allow for more specific species identification in the future.
Beaver fur was a limited resource during Viking times and was used to convey status. ( Stanislav / Adobe Stock)
Fur: An Exotic Commodity
By the time of the Early Bronze Age (1700-1200 BC) in Denmark, the beaver had already gone extinct, creating the need for it to be imported. Beaver fur was highly valued compared to other animal furs because it was warm and water resistant, and also because of how it looked.
Some of the imports in the time period of this study either came from northern Scandinavia through trading with the Lapps, or Eastern Europe, which was developing into a highly valued destination. In fact, contemporary scholars and writers from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula began writing about the lucrative fur trade emerging in and out of Eastern Europe.
“Fur was a limited, expensive, and in some cases an imported resource, which was only accessible to the few,” explained the authors of the study. “Therefore, it makes sense that it has only been found in clothing where its visual properties could be displayed.”
“The material was also too precious to dehair and turn into leather where its beautiful appearance and exclusiveness could not be admired,” they highlighted when discussing the use of fur by the Vikings. “In clothing, fur would have acted as an example of conspicuous consumption i.e. as a recognizable luxury product and visible evidence of the high status, which would differentiate the wearer socially and economically.”
Top image: Portrait of a male Viking wearing fur. Source: Digital Storm / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey