Tattoos and Teeth modification in Viking Age Scandinavia

To commemorate Grimfrost's 10th anniversary, this is the first in the series of 12 monthly blog posts by acknowledged academics about their chosen Viking Age subject. 

 About the Author

Matthias Toplak is head of the Viking Museum Haithabu in northern Germany and holds a PhD in archaeology with a focus on the Viking Age. He has studied archaeology, medieval history and Old Norse literature and language in Cologne, Stockholm and Tübingen. His research is focussed on burial rites and the Gotlandic Viking Age and he published widely on these topics, for example on the Gotlandic cemeteries of Kopparsvik and Havor. He is also engaged in Viking Age reenactment and Viking Age fencing for more than 20 years and regular participant of reenactment events such as in Moesgaard or Wolin

Rock stars of the early Middle Ages

The image of the Vikings in media has changed significantly in recent years, probably mainly due to the influence of the extremely successful TV series Vikings. Here, they are some kind of wild and rebellious rockers (or rather rock stars) of the early Middle Ages, in black leather clothing, with elaborate braided hairstyles, often with bare, well-trained upper bodies, and they are (still) untamed by the chains of the (Christian) civilisation. The many tattoos of the actors in Vikings are particularly striking – runes, ornaments, and mythological symbols. These tattoos correspond impressively with the current image of the Vikings in pop culture that they are uncritically accepted as historical fact.

 

Tattoos in the Viking Age?

But what can the current state of research tell about tattoos in the Viking Age? The only reference to date is a short passage in the travelogue known as Risāla, written by the Arab diplomat Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān. He had travelled to the Volga Bulgars as an envoy in 921/922 AD and met men of the Rūs – Eastern Vikings in the broadest sense of the word – In the city of Bolgar in present-day Russia. Ibn Faḍlān describes these people – clearly impressed – as tall “like palm trees”, with perfect bodies and “from the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth”. This short passage is considered by many to be proof that the Vikings were tattooed. However, this passage can be translated ambiguously. It is not clear from the Arabic original whether these patterns are tattooed or merely painted on, as the same Arabic word is also used for wall paintings. However, Ibn Faḍlān considered this body decoration to be ‘un-Islamic’, which in turn would fit in with real tattoos, as these were forbidden in Islam. Although the early medieval church regarded those tattoos as praiseworthy, with which the early Christians were branded during the time of Christian persecution, tattoos of pagans were explicitly condemned at the Council of Northumberland in 786/787 AD.

Thus, it is surprising that there is no mention of tattoos anywhere in the Frankish or Anglo-Saxon reports about the Vikings. The Christian monks in the churches and monasteries were keen to stylise the Vikings as a plague, which came over Christian Europe like a force of nature. The reason for this was not only the sheer fear and helplessness of the monks and their disgust at the fact that the Vikings did not even spare holy sites, but also the internal political situation in the Frankish Empire. After the death of Emperor Charlemagne, his son Louis the Pious struggled with his three sons for the throne. By emphasising the pagan character of the Vikings, the monks created an enemy against whom the whole of Christendom – including the feuding Frankish ruling family – had to stand together. If tattoos had been common in the Scandinavian Viking Age, one might actually expect the monks and chroniclers to have mentioned this visible sign of the Nordic paganism. The silence of the sources, however, points in the opposite direction.

Archaeology itself cannot contribute much to clarifying this question either. Surviving tattoos, such as those found on Scythian ice mummies or high medieval mummies from Greenland, are not known from the Scandinavian Viking Age. A comb-like iron object from a Viking Age grave in the burial ground of Vendel in Sweden has sometimes been interpreted as a tattoo needle. However, it is more likely that it is a tool for marking leather or wood.

The state of research currently seems to speak against the existence of tattoos in the Scandinavian Viking Age, even if they would fit perfectly with the modern image of the Vikings. Based on the rather sparse information available, tattoos cannot be ruled out with certainty, but it seems more plausible that ibn Faḍlān saw temporary body paintings on the Rūs. Evidence that runes were painted on the body as magic symbols can also be found in Old Norse literature.

 

The Viking’s “grim grin”

Instead, a rather unusual form of permanent body modification from the Scandinavian Viking Age is known since the early 1990s. More than 130 individuals – many of them from the island of Gotland – had horizontal grooves filed into their incisors (and occasionally also the canines) in the upper and sometimes also the lower jaw. Tooth filing is a common form of initiation rite in many cultures, for example in Africa or South-East Asia, but the filings from the Viking Age differ significantly from the forms of tooth modification known from other archaeological or ethnological contexts.

Picture detailed further down

The earliest cases of Scandinavian tooth filings come from Uppland and date back to the early Viking Age, while the vast majority of cases date to the 10th and 11th centuries. More than 130 individuals with filed teeth are currently known from the Scandinavian Viking Age, almost all of them men. Around half of all cases come from the island of Gotland, many from the cemetery of Kopparsvik, south of present-day Visby. The cemetery at Kopparsvik, with over 300 burials the largest Viking Age cemetery on the island, was certainly part of an important harbour and trading centre, as a predecessor to later medieval Visby.

Several men with filed teeth are known from smaller burial grounds on Gotland and Öland as well as on the Swedish mainland, especially in the southern Swedish region of Scania and in the region of Uppland north of Stockholm, for example at the important trading centre of Birka in Lake Mälaren and in Sigtuna. Almost three dozen cases have so far come from Denmark, e.g. from the cemetery at the ring fortress of Trelleborg on Zealand, which was built around 980 AD by Harald Bluetooth and his son Sven Gabelbart as part of the establishment of the Danish empire.

Two individuals with tooth filings are currently known from outside Scandinavia; a man from a cemetery at Gnezdovo near Smolensk in Russia and a man from the famous mass grave at Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth in Dorset, England. The current distribution of tooth filings in Scandinavia probably reflects the current state of research (and perhaps also the research interests of individual archaeologists) rather than the actual distribution of this custom in the Viking Age. There are no cases known from Norway, for example, but this is probably mainly due to the poor preservation of bones in the Norwegian soil. In contrast, there is a clear concentration on Gotland. The results of strontium analyses on some men with filed teeth from Gotland also show that most of the individuals also came from the island. This could indicate that Gotland was both the centre and the starting point of this custom, even though the earliest known cases come from the Swedish mainland.

The lack of older evidence for tooth filings on Gotland might be due to the cremation custom prevalent there in the early Viking Age. It is also possible that the early tooth filings from Uppland were the inspiration for certain social groups on Gotland to adopt this form of body modification. However, it is also possible that it is not a uniform phenomenon at all, but that the tooth filings on Gotland developed independently of the tooth filings in Uppland. This might be indicated by the striking differences in the form and characteristics of the tooth filings in the various distribution areas. For example, most of the filings on the teeth of the men from Gotland and Scania (including the one from England) show striking similarities despite some individual variations, which indicates that the filings were performed by one and the same person or at least by a very small group of people. However, the tooth filings from Uppland differ significantly from the Gotland material. The grooves on the teeth of many individuals from Denmark also differ significantly from the filings from the other distribution areas. Some of them are so shallow that even their intentional character is doubtful.

 

Of warriors and slaves

Since the phenomenon of tooth filings in the Scandinavian Viking Age was first observed, various interpretations have been put forward. Initially, the filings were interpreted as accidental deformations caused by specific manual activities in which the teeth were used as tools. However, the use of teeth as tools, for example for processing animal sinews, leaves other traces, as examples from Greenland show. This, as well as the great variance in the shape and number of individual filings – sometimes there is only a single groove on a tooth, sometimes several grooves run across several teeth – indicates that the filings were made deliberately, presumably with a fine iron file, as modern experiments suggest.

A later and much more spectacular interpretation suggested that the filings were the mark of a warrior elite who wanted to prove their bravery and resistance to pain as well as to appear more fearsome to their enemies. The basis for this interpretation were the filings on the teeth of a decapitated man from the well-known mass grave at Ridgeway Hill in England, which was interpreted in early essays and newspaper articles as a mass grave of Scandinavian warriors or raiders. However, this interpretation reflects much more our modern ideas of the Vikings as fierce and fearsome warriors than the actual archaeological finds.

The new results of the investigation of Ridgeway Hill contradict the theory that these men in the mass grave were captured Scandinavian warriors or raiders. It is more likely that the men were victims of the famous St Brice’s Day massacre in 1002 AD, in which all Danes living in England were to be killed on the orders of the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred. Also, only very few – nine in total - of the currently known men with filed teeth were buried with weapons. In Birka, for example, two men with filed teeth were buried in richly furnished chamber graves with swords and shields, and a sword was found in the grave of a man with filed teeth in the Gotlandic cemetery of Ire. Axes, spears and weapon knives were also found in some graves, e.g. in Kopparsvik and Gnezdovo.

Although the presence of weapons in graves can only be interpreted with extreme caution as an indication of or the absence of weapons as reliable evidence against an actual identity as a warrior or an actual involvement in violent conflicts, a significantly higher number of weapons would have been expected for an archaeologically verifiable relationship between tooth filings and a warrior identity.

Furthermore, only very few men showed traces of (healed or leathal) weapon-related trauma on the skeletal remains, indicating participation in armed conflict. Among them were only two men who had also been buried with weapons; the deceased from Gnezdovo, who had been buried with an axe, had a healed fracture on his left femur, which could possibly have been caused by a weapon, and one of the men from the Gotlandic cemetery of Slite, who had been buried with a slashing knife, had a healed fracture on his skull.

Finally, the visibility of the tooth filings also challenges this interpretation as a deliberately intimidating “grim grin” of a warrior elite. Even assuming that the filings were coloured with black paste, perhaps made of soot, they are barely visible under the upper lip and a possible beard. The teeth must have been deliberately bared in order for the filings to be recognisable, which rather suggests that it was a deliberately clandestine identification feature for insiders.

This limited visibility of the tooth filings fits with a second interpretation, according to which the tooth filings could have functioned as markers for slaves. This theory was initially based on two of the early graves from Uppland, which contained decapitated men with filed teeth who had either been executed or sacrificed. In addition, the cemetery of Kopparsvik on Gotland plays a major role in this thesis; it is the place with the largest number of men with filed teeth to date, and many deceased, 48 individuals in total, were buried in a prone position. Prone burials are often interpreted as disrespectful, post-mortem humiliation and marginalisation of the dead, as an apotropaic act against supernatural threads such as potential revenants or simply as careless “disposal” of the dead. The fact that eleven of the 46 men with tooth filings in the cemetery were also buried in a prone position was seen as confirmation of the “slave theory”. However, the prone burials in Kopparsvik only differ from the other burials in the position of the bodies, so that another explanation for the prone position seems more likely. According to both archaeological and historical sources, a prone burial could indicate a certain Christian gesture of humility before God. Evidence for an early Christian community around Kopparsvik in the late 10th or early 11th century can be found both in several graves, e.g. by a cross pendant in a female burial, and historical sources. In addition, the grave goods of many men with tooth filings also contradict an interpretation as slaves.

In Kopparsvik, most of them were buried with belts, ring fibulas, knives, or padlock keys, and a few were also buried with weapons. Furthermore, the lavishly furnished chamber graves from Birka disprove this theory. It seems highly unlikely that slaves were buried with weapons, elaborate dress accessories, horses, and riding equipment, as in some of these graves. Therefore, the interpretation of the tooth filings as markings of slaves is not tenable as a general explanation at the current state of research.

 

Sign of identification for a trading organisation?

The only distinct pattern is the restriction of tooth filings to adult men aged 20 and more with the exception of three cases from Denmark, in which both the gender of the deceased and the actual intentionality of the tooth filings are unclear. There are no clear indications that the tooth filings were intended to demonstrate a certain warrior identity of these men. Weapons are clearly underrepresented and clear indications of active participation in violent conflicts are almost lacking. Few graves are lavishly furnished, some burials exhibit a possible Christian influence and in few graves the deceased appear to have actually been executed or sacrificed, but most burials correspond to the usual burial customs. Overall, there is no evidence of a consistently low social status of the deceased or of a deliberate social marginalisation or exclusion of the dead through the type of burial, which might indicate that the tooth filings were used to mark slaves.

It can be assumed that the filing of the teeth marked the entry into a particular social organisation as an initiation rite and henceforth functioned as a sign of identification. Despite the permanence of this body modification, the tooth filings could be shown when necessary, but could also remain hidden. They were therefore probably primarily used for internal communication within a closed social group. It can only be speculated about the background of this social group, but the distribution of the tooth modifications reveals a possible pattern.

Many cases come from early trading centres such as Kopparsvik and Slite on Gotland as well as Birka and Sigtuna, and all individuals with filed teeth appear to have been adult males. The phenomenon of tooth filing could therefore be linked to the trading activities of larger groups. According to this theory, tooth filings could have functioned as an initiation rite and identification marker for one (or several) closed group of merchants, which can be interpreted as a kind of predecessors of the later trading guilds. The existence of trading communities or early guilds in Viking Age Scandinavia is documented by four rune stones in Sigtuna and Östergötland which explicitly mention “Frisian guilds” or “guild brothers”. According to this theory, the members of this closed group of merchants could have identified themselves as members of such a trading organisation through the tooth filings and thus received trading advantages, protection or other privileges that were relevant to the development of the concept of trading guilds in the High Middle Ages.

The variations in form and characteristics of the tooth filings in different regions could result from different trading organisations, represented by different tooth filings, e.g. of Gotlandic or Upplandic merchants. The fact that a few men with filed teeth were buried in a way that suggests that they were executed or ritually killed during the burial ceremony does not contradict this interpretation. It only indicates that the social identity of an individual, which is expressed in clothing and jewellery or even in body modifications such as tooth filing, did not necessarily remain stable throughout life. It is quite conceivable that a member of such a trading organisation as represented by the tooth filings became a slave due to unfavourable circumstances and was buried as a slave or was even executed or sacrificed.

 

A mystery awaits its solution

The existence of tattoos in Viking Age Scandinavia, omnipresent in the media presentation of the Vikings and perfectly in line with popular aesthetics, can neither be proven nor definitively refuted according to the current state of research; this question presumably remains unresolved. A rather unusual form of body modification in the Viking Age, however, is increasingly coming to the attention of both researchers and the wider public. A certain group of men signalled their identity and group affiliation through horizontal filings on their incisors. It is not yet possible to say for certain what activities these group(s) pursued; a well-founded theory is that they may have been guild-like trading organisations. But these men may also have been members of ship communities, members of the retinue of a certain leader or king or actual warriors. In contrast to the controversial question of Viking Age tattoos, there is a good chance that future excavations and investigations will provide more information about this question.

 

About the images:

IMAGE 1: a) Skull of a male individual from Gnezdovo, Russia (grave C-140), with horizontal furrows or deep, crescent-shaped grooves on all four upper incisors.(Valerie Elena Palmowski 2020: taken from Toplak, M., Palmowski, V., Pushkina, T. 2021: Two Male Individuals with Modified Teeth from Gnezdovo, Russia. Fornvännen 116, p. 323) b) Incisors with horizontal furrows or deep, crescent-shaped grooves from male individuals from the cemetery of Havor on Gotland (left) and Hammar in Skania (right). (SHM/Johnny Karlsson (CC BY 2.5 SE))

IMAGE 2: Map over the currently known cases of tooth filings from Scandinavia (Matthias Toplak 2023)

IMAGE 3: Drawing of grave Bj 886 from Birka, burial of a male individual with filed teeth, equipped with sword, shield and gaming board. (Holger Arbman, taken from: Arbman, H. 1943: Birka I. Die Gräber. Text, Stockholm, p. 345)

IMAGE 4: Prone burial of a male individual with filed teeth on the cemetery of Kopparsvik (RAÄ/Matthias Toplak 2016 (a)/Lena Thunmark-Nylén (b), taken from: Thunmark-Nylén, L. 1995: Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands. I – Abbildung der Grabfunde, Stockholm, p. 355.

 

The Viking Museum Haithabu

Matthias Toplak is head of the Viking Museum Haithabu. The Viking Museum Haithabu (Hedeby) is one of the most important archaeological museums in Germany. Within sight of the historical site of Hedeby, a modern exhibition covering more than 1.000 m² presents the rich and spectacular archaeological finds from over 100 years of research in Hedeby and provides information about the Viking Age and life in Hedeby 1.000 years ago. An open-air museum with seven reconstructed Viking houses and a jetty with several boats in the middle of Hedeby’s historical site allows visitors to experience the Viking Age with all their senses and offers plenty of space for living history and re-enactment. During the season from Easter to October, there is an extensive programme of events with guided tours, children’s activities, craft workshops, re-enactment markets and lectures at the Viking houses in Hedeby’s open-air grounds.

The UNESCO has nominated the Viking Age trading place of Hedeby and the Danevirke fortification system as world cultural heritage in 2018.

For more information see: https://haithabu.de/en/homepage

Viking Museum Haithabu
Postal address: Schlossinsel 1, 24837 Schleswig, Germany
Visiting address: Haddebyer Chaussee B76, 24866 Busdorf, Germany
Mail to: service@landesmuseen.sh

 

 

 

 


9 comments


  • Joan Burden

    Thank you for this. I’ve always been interested in history. I’m of English and French descent but in studying early England I veered off to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Then I watched the Vikings and got hooked. I live on a small island off Massachusetts, US and our library is small. I prefer reading books rather than reading online but it’s hard to find good books on Vikings here. Then I came across this in an email and I’m so glad I read it. It’s very interesting. I’m looking forward to more of these interesting articles.


  • patrick mcelligott

    Thank you for the wonderful post on this subject, and thanks to GrimFrost for bringing it more attention. I had not yet heard the possibility that the mass English grave, could have been the result of the St Brice’s Day massacre. I do envy the position of Matthias Toplak, being there at Haithabu, such sn important site, and a wonderful reconstruction. Further thanks to him for his dissertation upon tattoos and tooth filing. I also agree with his comments on the hyping of Ragnar and his sons as some sort of rock heroes. I would add that they are also ahown as fairly dirty, unkempt and unwashed. Many of these people grew up with hot springs. I do not know how old the custom of sauna, and cold dip is, but it is very possibly extant much earlier than the Viking age. It is funny that Anglo-Saxon graffiti was found in the old harbor at York (Jorvik), complaining that the Viking guys had better luck with women, because they bathed and washed their clothes. Many thanks to you all, and to all those involved in the preservation of the ancient history of Scandinavian peoples. I love reading the sagas, the Heimskringla, the Landnamabok, history with life. Also, many thanks to the Icelanders for their arts, and their democratic ways, which were far more democratic than Athens, especially for women. I also recommend watching the construction and voyages of the modern dragonship, Harald Harfagre, (Harald Fairhair) on Youtube


  • Radley

    This is a really good article with all the evidence in one place, well written.


  • Charles Knox

    Thank you for the interesting and informative post. It is interesting what a modern media presentation can do to public preception of the past. A document like this with primary sources (or pictures of them) coupled with the secondary interpretations and translations gives a solid context to consider the period. I hope for more of this sort of posts


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