Tuesday, July 19, 2011

History: Viking Smiles

In popular imagination, Vikings are an unstoppable force that descended from the dark, cold North of Europe and cut a swath around the world. From Asia to North America they raided, plundered and settled; it has been proven through genetic testing that every modern individual of European descent with red hair has some Viking ancestry. That’s pretty impressive.

Perhaps this idea about our Norse ancestors makes the new information from an archaeological dig at Weymouth in Dorset, England a little hard to swallow. Here, along the rugged coast, a burial pit was discovered in 2009. It contained the mutilated skeletons of what were originally thought to be local Britons. The bodies were decapitated and chopped up, with different body parts buried in heaps together. No weapons, armor or clothing was found in the pit so the speculation is that the men (there were no female bodies found) were executed by Roman conquerors.

According to this article at Guardian.co.uk, that speculation was entirely incorrect. Carbon dating has shown that the massacre took place in the late 10th or early 11th century and genetic testing shows that the young, fit men who died were not British Islanders, but Scandinavian Vikings. In this case it appears that the native population rose up, took charge and brutally turned back the raiders from the sea.

Another fascinating mystery has been revealed by the 51 skulls found in the burial pit. Most had all their teeth in tact and in good health. Also, most had intricate patterns of horizontal lines filed into their front teeth. This is not a new discover when dealing with the skulls of Viking warriors, but it does add to mounting evidence that the practice was common if not ubiquitous among them.

As noted in this related article, Caroline Arcini, an osteologist at the Swedish National Heritage Board, has been studying Viking teeth filing for some years. Though no one seems to know exactly why the warriors had there teeth filed, it appears that many of them underwent the painful process and that colorings such as charcoal may have been rubbed into the resulting striations. Arcini, who the article notes has “… scores more such teeth in her desk,” has written a children’s book about the practice: The Viking’s Grim Grin.

Evidently the etchings on the tooth enamel are so even and precise that it is speculated a trained artisan would have done the work. As noted by David Score of Oxford Archaeology in the first article:

It’s difficult to say how painful the process of filing teeth may have been, but it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience.

Score goes on to stress that why the men had their teeth filed is as yet unknown, but he speculates that “… it may have been to frighten opponents in battle or to show their status as a great fighter.”

Like the image of the 18th century pirate with a shiny gold tooth, maybe having filed teeth was simply a way to show status and bonding in a very exclusive boys’ club. Only time and research will eventually tell.

Header: Viking warriors via irisharchaeology.ie


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! So, a Viking dentist was more like a modern tattoo artist... interesting, but kind of scary.

Undine said...

I have to say, I found this to be the most striking line in your post:

"...has written a children’s book about the practice: The Viking’s Grim Grin."

Reading material for the youngsters has come a long way since "Charlotte's Web" and "Little Women," eh?

Pauline said...

Timmy: that's exactly what I thought too. I wonder how many - if any - Vikings suffered from tooth problems due to the practice.

Undine: Seriously; it's not "Go Dog, Go" by any stretch of the imagination. That said, kids love sea raiders and in this era anything that interests them in real books is a good thing.

Undine said...

Good point. I can't help it, though. Perhaps it's just my increasingly warped and unintelligible brand of humor, but there's something about the juxtaposition of the phrases "children's book" and "tattooed Viking teeth" that has me on the floor.

Can't wait to see the illustrations.

Pauline said...

Now you've got me thinking. Maybe "The Viking's Grim Grin" will show up in December's recommendations for piratical gift giving...

Undine said...



It doesn't look like the book's available in the US, which is a pity, as it actually looks kinda cool.

Heaven knows, if I had kids, I'd rather they spent time with toothy Vikings than Lady Gaga.