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Friends of the Vikings

Vikings were fierce warriors—but they also loved animals.

A dog in Viking cape, wig, and helmet sits next to a seated Viking in helmet.

© Justinas, DragoNika/; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Vikings were fierce warriors—but a new study suggests they also loved animals. Scientists found evidence that when the Vikings invaded England, they brought companion animals with them.

A Norwegian elkhound stands on a lawn.

Sally Anne Thompson/Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Norwegian elkhounds, like the one seen here, were among the dog breeds the Vikings would have had.

The Vikings, or Norsemen, were Scandinavian warriors who raided and colonized parts of Europe between the 9th and 11th centuries. During this period, they invaded England several times. In the 1990s, researchers found the remains of two humans, along with a horse, a dog, and a pig, in a Viking cemetery in Derbyshire, England. Using a technique called radiocarbon dating, they determined that all five had died between the 8th and 10th centuries. Later, researchers found a written record stating that Vikings had been in the area in the year 873—which means the remains dated from that year. 

Researchers wanted to piece together the story of the horse, the dog, and the pig. They knew Vikings had stolen some horses from people in England. Did they steal these particular animals? 

Researchers found the answer by studying strontium. Strontium is an element found in soil and water. It finds its way into plants—and, eventually, into the bones of animals and humans that eat those plants. By analyzing the strontium in the bones of the Derbyshire animals, the researchers learned that the animals had spent most of their lives in Scandinavia. They must have traveled with the Vikings across the North Sea to England.

The researchers concluded that the animals were companions for two reasons. One, the Vikings traveled on longboats, which were fairly small. The Vikings wouldn’t have taken their animals with them on this weeks-long journey unless they didn’t want to be separated from them. And two, the Vikings were buried with the animals, which suggests a closeness.

Did You Know?

© Fine Art Images/age fotostock

This 1892 painting shows Leif Erikkson nearing the coast of North America.

Around the year 1000, a Viking named Leif Eriksson and a group of about 35 men arrived in North America—probably in what is now Canada. Eriksson may have been the first European to land in North America.

Women Were Warriors

Hjalmar Stolpe

This sketch shows the contents of a grave of a Viking warrior later determined to have been a woman.

Around the year 1200, people started collecting and writing down myths from Scandinavia. These stories tell the history of the Norse people, including great warriors. And some of these mythological warriors are women. But even though Norse mythology includes women warriors, historians used to assume that all real-life Viking warriors were male. That is, until DNA told a different story. 

In 2017, scientists did DNA testing on a 10th-century skeleton that was thought to have been that of a warrior. The DNA test revealed that this person had no Y chromosome, leading researchers to conclude that the skeleton was a woman’s. 

How do experts know the person was a warrior? The body had been buried with several weapons, along with a game board and a set of gaming pieces that suggest the person was an expert on strategy—probably a military leader.

Viking Tales

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Vikings left their mark all over Europe and even ventured to North America. There’s a lot more to their story.

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