Pagan-Christian trade supplied horses for sacrifices overseas

A painting of a white horse curled up with soil around it like it is in a grave.
Reconstruction of a sacrificial horse deposit at Paprotki Kolonia, modern Poland. Credit: Mirosław Kuzma

Horses crossed the Baltic Sea in ships during the Late Viking Age and were sacrificed for funeral rituals, according to a study led by Cardiff University and Washington State University researchers.

Published in the journal Science Advances, the study on the remains of horses found at ancient burial sites in Russia and Lithuania show that they were brought overseas from Scandinavia utilizing expansive trade networks connecting the Viking world with the Byzantine and Arab Empires.

Up to now, researchers had believed sacrificial horses were always locally sourced stallions. But these results reveal horses from what is now modern Sweden or Finland travelled up to 1,500 km (932 miles) across the Baltic Sea. The findings also show that the horse’s sex was not necessarily a factor in the choice for sacrifice as genetic analysis showed one in three were mares.

“This research dismantles previous theories that locally-procured stallions were exclusively selected for sacrifice,” said lead author Katherine French, formerly of Cardiff University now based at WSU. “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.”

A woman wearing blue gloves looks closely at a bone jaw of a horse.
Katherine French investigates a horse mandible to select a dental sample.

A scientific technique called strontium isotope analysis was used on horse teeth from 74 animals to identify where they had originated. Soil, water, and plants have a chemical make-up reflecting their underlying geology. The chemical signature is absorbed by animals on consumption and remains locked in the hard enamel of their teeth, allowing archaeologists to trace their life journeys hundreds of years later.

“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,” said French. “The presence of a trader’s weight in one horse grave points to the key role of horses in these vibrant trade networks.”

Horse sacrifices were highly visible and symbolic public rites across pagan prehistoric Europe, persisting the latest 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, but there are numerous examples of horses with overlain human cremations.

“Pagan Baltic tribes were clearly sourcing horses overseas from their Christian neighbors while simultaneously resisting converting to their religion,” said co-author Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University.  “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.

Posted on WSU Insider, adapted from a press release from Cardiff University.