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Ritual Horse Sacrifice in Baltic Region in the Middle Ages

Filed under: Education,Health & Training |     

Artists impression. Credit: Miroslav Kuzma, courtesy Equine Science Update

From Equine Science Update:

Research from Cardiff University indicates that during the Late Viking Age, horses were transported across the Baltic Sea in ships and sacrificed in funeral rituals. Published in the journal Science Advances, studies on horse remains found at ancient burial sites in Russia and Lithuania show that these animals were brought from Scandinavia via extensive trade networks connecting the Viking world with the Byzantine and Arab Empires.

Horse sacrifice was practiced in various parts of Europe during ancient and medieval times for religious, ceremonial, and symbolic purposes. While the practice varied across different regions and periods, it remained a significant aspect of ancient spiritual and cultural life.

Up to now, researchers had believed sacrificial horses were always locally-sourced stallions. But these results reveal some horses had travelled up to 1,500 km across the Baltic Sea from modern-day Sweden or Finland. The findings also show that the sex of the horse was not necessarily a factor in them being chosen for sacrifice, with genetic analysis showing one in three of these horses were mares.

The research team used a scientific technique called strontium isotope analysis on 74 horse teeth from ritual burial sites to identify their origins.

Strontium, a naturally occurring element in rocks, soil, and water, has different isotope ratios in various geological formations. As plants absorb strontium and animals consume these plants, the strontium gets incorporated into their bones and teeth. The ratio of 87Sr to 86Sr in a sample reflects the geological signature of the area where the animal lived or fed.

Teeth are particularly valuable for this analysis because they form at specific periods in an animal’s life and do not remodel after formation, preserving the strontium isotopic signature of the environment at the time of their formation. This allows archaeologists to trace the life journeys of animals hundreds of years later.

Horse sacrifices were highly visible and symbolic public rites across pagan prehistoric Europe, persisting the longest among the Baltic tribes, up to the 14th century AD. Offering pits might include multiple horses, single complete horses, or partial animals. In many Baltic cemeteries, horses were buried separately from humans, though there are numerous examples of horses buried with overlain human cremations.

In a press release, lead author Dr Katherine French, formerly of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, now based at Washington State University, said: “This research dismantles previous theories that locally procured stallions were exclusively selected for sacrifice. Given the unexpected prevalence of mares, we believe the prestige of the animal, coming from afar, was a more important factor in why they were chosen for this rite.

“Viking Age trade routes stretched from modern Iceland, Britain, and Ireland in the West all the way to the Byzantine and Arab Empires in the East. The presence of a trader’s weight in one horse grave points to the key role of horses in these vibrant trade networks.”

Co-author Dr Richard Madgwick, also based at Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: “Pagan Baltic tribes were clearly sourcing horses overseas from their Christian neighbours while simultaneously resisting converting to their religion. This revised understanding of horse sacrifice highlights the dynamic, complex relationship between Pagan and Christian communities at that time.”

This project received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 scheme, Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education, National Geographic Society, Society for Medieval Archaeology, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and Cardiff University.

For more details, see:

French, K. M., Musiał, A. D., Karczewski, M., Daugnora, L., Shiroukhov, R., Ropka-Molik, K., Baranowski, T., Bertašius, M., Skvortsov, K., Szymański, P., Mellin-Wyczółkowska, I., Gręzak, A., Wyczółkowski, D., Pluskowski, A., Andersen, M., Millet, M. A., Inglis, E., & Madgwick, R. (2024).

Biomolecular evidence reveals mares and long-distance imported horses sacrificed by the last pagans in temperate Europe.

Science advances, 10(20), eado3529.


press release:  https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/2814957-pagan-christian-trade-networks-supplied-horses-from-overseas-for-the-last-horse-sacrifices-in-europe

video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbMbvXKv_AA

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