Swedish Warriors Went Gentle Into the Good Night, Entombed on Feather Beds

Pre-Viking fighters of Valsgarde, Sweden, were buried in boats with their weapons and armor, cooking gear, animals - and down bedding, just like in Sutton Hoo. But what was a headless owl doing there?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Together with curator Leena Aulikki Airola, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Birgitta Berglund was able to select and borrow feathers from Gustavianum, the Uppsala University Museum in Sweden.
What 1,000-year-old down feathers look likeCredit: NTNU University Museum
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

About 1,400 years ago, two great warriors were laid to rest in two boats in the pagan cemetery of Valsgärde, which isn’t even by the sea. It is however near the Fyris River and the city of Uppsala.

The two boat burials, reported this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science, are contemporary with other boat burials found in Sweden – for instance, at Vendel Church – and also with the newly famous Sutton Hoo boat burial in Britain (as featured in the recent Netflix movie “The Dig”). And the tombs for the two Swedish seafaring heroes of yore were just as astonishing in the richness of grave goods the archaeologists unearthed.

In all these cases, the boats were seemingly equipped with everything the great warriors could need for the afterlife, at least until grave robbers arrived. The graves at Vendel had been looted in antiquity, so it’s hard to know what’s missing other than the human bones, which seem to have been systematically removed, other archaeologists have deduced.

But at Valsgärde, the boat graves still contained the gear apparently considered necessary for the afterlife, including elaborately decorated weapons and shields, cooking gear, foodstuffs, some animals, including horses – and feather bedding, which is discussed below.

The paper focuses on just two of the roughly 90 Iron Age burials found in Valsgärde, alternatively spelled Vallsgärde. While the pre-Viking cemetery at Valsgärde was in use from about the year 550 to the 11th century, the two boat burials in question date to the seventh and eighth centuries, a time known as the pre-Viking Merovingian period.

A helmet found in Valsgärde, Sweden.Credit: Sven Rosborn

“The boat burials from the 600s and 700s at Valsgärde remind very much of Sutton Hoo, and this is indeed very exciting,” lead author Birgitta Berglund, professor emeritus of archaeology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s NTNU University Museum, tells Haaretz. “I think the elite of central Sweden and of England had much in common, including in the centuries before the Viking age. I think they terrorized the people living around them and grabbed the resources.”

Moreover, both these sets of warriors used symbols as birds of prey to strike terror into other people, and used feathers in their bedding, she adds. “It’s well known that Ottar from Northern Norway went to England in 890. I think the elite of central Sweden and England met each other hundreds of years before and inspired each other.”

She also clarifies that out of the roughly 90 graves they found in the cemetery, 15 were “boat burials” and the rest were burials bereft of boat.

Asked if the boat “coffins” had contained one individual or possibly more – crew perhaps, or even families – she explains that it’s hard to know.

“Normally, very little of the skeleton was preserved, but it is most probable that only one individual was buried in each boat,” Berglund says. “All boat burials were inhumation burials. In many of the other burials, the skeletons were burnt.”

The archaeologists did find women in non-boat graves, but no children have been identified to date as far as she knows, she adds.

Sailing in comfort to the next world

The two boats bearing the two dead men to the afterlife, presumably, were about 10 meters (nearly 33 feet) long, with space for four to five oarsmen, according to the authors. Both were outfitted for high-ranking warriors, with richly decorated helmets, shields and weapons, and feather beds and pillows. The Sutton Hoo burial in Suffolk, England, also featured the remains of a feather pillow.

One of the Valsgärde graves contained the body of a decapitated Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo). The archaeologists also found remains of horses and other animals arranged near the boats.

“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,” Berglund posits.

Row? She qualifies that when the boats were excavated, the archaeologists thought they were rowboats without sails. That opinion could change as investigation of the boats progresses, she adds.

Asked if the boats had been used to sail the briny or were built explicitly for the purpose of burying respected dead people, she responds that there is “no reason to think that the boats have not been used.”

Valsgärde by the Fyris RiverCredit: Jan Norrman / Riksantikvariemb

Presumably not as beds, but their beauty sleep was also taken care of in death. In fact, a key focus of the new paper is the feathers in the bedding: were they from local birds? Imported? Which birds? Did the identity of the down donors have meaning and, if so, what might it have been? What was a headless owl doing in one of the graves anyway?

Lying in state of feathers

Feathers seem to have been a thing from the earliest history of humankind, though the reasoning behind cherishing bird plumage in prehistoric times can only be speculated. Over 420,000 years ago, an archaic species of human, pre-sapiens, apparently “harvested” feathers from a swan wing, Tel Aviv archaeologists deduced. And why would they have done so? Feather-based ritual, they suspect. Prehistoric cave art has sometimes shown depictions of what looks like people with feather headdresses.

According to Nordic folklore, the type of feathers contained in the bedding of the dying person was important, Berglund says.

Let us qualify that feather bedding as grave goods was surely a perquisite of the elite, and its existence in the boats further attests to the dead men’s status. Wealthy Greeks and Romans used down bedding centuries earlier, but down probably wasn’t used widely by the wealthy of Europe until the Middle Ages, she adds.

Berglund explains that she has been studying down harvesting in northern Swedish coastal communities where people commercialized fine-feather production early on by building houses for eider ducks. Wondering whether this practice had migrated to the south of Sweden, Berglund checked whether the Valsgärde bedding contained eiderdown.

An eagle owl, which frankly looks better with its head onCredit: Dick Daniels
Zooming in on individual areas of a feather help researchers determine which birds the feathers came from.Credit: NTNU University Museum

Lo, not really; it turned out to contain the feathers of many bird species, among which were a few eider feathers, she says. So eiderdown production doesn’t seem to have migrated in pre-Viking Scandinavia – but on the upside, the researchers believe they have gained insight to the bird populations of prehistoric Scandinavia. The bedding included feathers from geese, ducks, grouse, crows, sparrows, wading birds and eagle owls.

“Archaeological excavations rarely find traces of birds other than those that were used for food,” Berglund says. “We also think the choice of feathers in the bedding may hold a deeper, symbolic meaning.”

Such as? She notes that in 18th-century Scandinavia, people thought that using feathers from domestic chickens, pigeons or owls and other birds of prey in bedding could prolong the death struggle, and goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body.

True, that’s long centuries after the boat burials, but these beliefs in the powers of avian skin coverings plausibly have prehistoric roots.

Just for one example of prehistoric feather-related belief, a millennia-old Icelandic saga involving the explorer and warrior Erik the Red (950-1003), famed settler of Greenland, tells of a pillow stuffed with chicken feathers on a throne in Greenland on which a visiting female shaman was to sit, Berglund says.

By the way, research in 2019 showed that feather color can be key to chicken bellicosity: white lady chickens were more aggressive than their red counterparts, but it was a small study. Anyway, birds arguably have personality and the upshot is that the feather bedding in the boat burials may have been created thoughtfull, not just used as stuffing instead of, say, hay.

But what about that headless owl? First of all, Berglund points out that two boat graves from the same period exactly, found in Estonia, also contained decapitated birds of prey.

She wonders if it might have been a sort of spell to prevent the dead from returning. Swords found in tombs from later Viking times were sometimes bent, she says – which may have been deliberately done to prevent the deceased from using the weapon if they returned. Or maybe the weapons were rendered unusable to deter grave robbers, who knows?

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