Boat grave warriors laid to rest on down bedding

The warriors in two Iron Age boat graves in Valsgärde, outside Uppsala in central Sweden, were laid softly to their eternal rest on down bedding. The boat graves date to the 7th century, and their featherbeds are the oldest down bedding known in Scandinavia.

Feathers were widely traded in the Middle Ages, and there are extensive records of the trade going back to the 15th century. Eiderdown from the St. Cuthbert’s duck (aka, the common eider) was the most popular feather commodity, harvested from purpose-built nesting boxes on the northern coast of Norway and sold over trade routes throughout Scandinavia and Europe. The earliest written reference comes Ohthere of Hålogaland, the Viking explorer who relayed an account of his travels to King Alfred of Wessex in the late 9th century. He said the Sami people payed their taxes to him in buckets full of feathers.

Feathers are infrequent survivors on the archaeological record, so the bedding in the Valsgärde burials provides a rare opportunity to investigate what was a highly-prized and valuable commodity. Researchers studied the feathers to determine their origins and assess whether they may have been traded over long distances, like the eiderdown from north Norway.

Excavated starting in the 1930s, burials Valsgärde 7 and 8 were two of 15 richly-furnished warrior boat burials from the Late Iron Age found at the site. The two boats are 30 feet long and have no masts. They were row boats, long enough to accommodate four or five pairs of oars. The men were inhumed with highly decorated helmets, shields, swords and daggers as well as use items like hunting gear and cooking tools. The remains of feather-stuffed pillows and bolsters were found under the warriors, the shields the helmet.

In a new study, scientists took samples of feathers from several places in the boat graves and examined them microscopically to identify what species they came from. The results were short on eider duck feathers, although there were some. The feathers were sourced from a surprising variety of birds including geese, ducks, grouse, crows, sparrows, waders and eagle owls. There is no indication that they were traded from far-away northern climes; they were harvested locally, or from the nearby Baltic coast.

The great variety of species gave the researchers unique insight into the bird fauna in the immediate area in prehistoric times, along with people’s relationship to it.

“The feathers provide a source for gaining new perspectives on the relationship between humans and birds in the past. Archaeological excavations rarely find traces of birds other than those that were used for food,” [researcher Birgitta Berglund] says.

“We also think the choice of feathers in the bedding may hold a deeper, symbolic meaning. It’s exciting.”

Berglund explains that according to Nordic folklore, the type of feathers contained in the bedding of the dying person was important.

“For example, people believed that using feathers from domestic chickens, owls and other birds of prey, pigeons, crows and squirrels would prolong the death struggle. In some Scandinavian areas, goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body. […] The examples show that that feathers in the bedding from Valsgärde most likely also had a deeper meaning than just serving as a filler. “

The study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read here.