History Stories

There are a lot of mysteries surrounding Viking graves, and a recent discovery has raised a new one: Why did Icelandic Vikings kill male horses in their prime and bury them with middle-aged men? And why, it seems, were these Vikings more inclined to eat female horses?

Archaeologists studied more than 350 Viking graves in Iceland and found that about 150 contained horse teeth or bones. The remains are over 1,000 years old, so not all of them were well-preserved enough for archaeologists to determine the horse’s sex. Still, they were able to test 19 horses’ DNA, and found that only one was a female horse, or mare. The other 18 were all male horses, or stallions (unless any were castrated, then they’d be “geldings”).

This skewed gender ratio mirrors another curiosity about Icelandic Viking graves—most of the people in them are male, too.

“It is striking that we find almost exclusively middle-aged men in the graves on Iceland,” said Albína Hulda Pálsdottir, a PhD student at the University of Oslo in Norway who co-authored a recent paper about the horses in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences, according to a university statement.

“There are almost no infants or children, and very few women,” she continued. “We don't know how the rest of the population was buried. Perhaps they were laid in swamps or lakes, or sunk in the sea.”

A small piece of canine from a horse found in a Viking grave in Sturluflat, Iceland with enough DNA to determine the horse's gender.

A small piece of canine from a horse found in a Viking grave in Sturluflat, Iceland with enough DNA to determine the horse's gender.

The archaeologists did find three other mares outside of the ceremonial graves, and concluded from their bone fragments that Vikings likely butchered them for food. In contrast, the remains of the horses found in the graves bear signs of ceremonial killing.

“If a horse skull has a fracture on the forehead, it is very clear that it was slaughtered with a hit on the forehead,” Pálsdottir said. “There are also a few cases where the horse has been beheaded, meaning the head has been separated from the rest of the body.”

The archaeologists note that none of the horses in the graves died of natural causes. Rather, Vikings killed them in the prime of their lives in order to bury them with older, dead men. This could be a way of conveying an important man’s status, or perhaps preparing him for the afterlife.

“Today, we think of death and a funeral as an ending, and then it may seem wasteful to slaughter a great stallion just to bury it,” said Sanne Boessenkool, a professor at the University of Oslo who also co-authored the horse paper, in the university’s statement. “But if the people at the time believed in a life after death, they maybe thought that the horse had a function.”

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.