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Vikings acquitted in 100-year-old murder mystery

OSLO (Reuters) - Tests of the bones of two Viking women found in a buried longboat have dispelled 100-year-old suspicions that one was a maid sacrificed to accompany her queen into the afterlife, experts said on Friday.

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The bones indicated that a broken collarbone on the younger woman had been healing for several weeks -- meaning the break was not part of a ritual execution as suspected since the 22-metre (72 ft) long Oseberg ship was found in 1904.

“We have no reason to think violence was the cause of death,” Per Holck, professor of anatomy at Oslo University, told Reuters after studying the two women who died in 834 aged about 80 and 50.

“The fracture could have been caused by stumbling or whatever. She could have been seriously hurt, got brain damage. But this fracture alone is no sign of killing,” he said.

The discovery of the ornate Oseberg oak longboat in south Norway, with a curling prow and the bodies of two women, was one of the archaeological sensations of the early 20th century.

Historians believe the Vikings sometimes practiced ritual killings. Arab 10th century traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan wrote a detailed description of a Viking burial in Russia where a servant girl was stabbed to death and buried.

The bones of the older Oseberg woman showed she had cancer, Holck said of studies since the skeletons were exhumed last year to see if modern technology could discover more about them than when they were re-buried in 1948.

“It is a terminal cancer so I’m pretty sure that was the reason for her death,” Holck said. It was the earliest documented cancer in Norway.

The studies also indicated both women were of high rank -- their diets were largely of meat when most Vikings lived off fish. The teeth of the younger woman showed she used a metal toothpick, a rare 9th century luxury.

Historians have long suspected that one of the two was Queen Aasa, mother of Halfdan the Black, father of the first king of all Norway, Harald Fairhair.

The old woman suffered from Morgagni’s syndrome, a hormonal disturbance that gave her a man-like appearance with a beard and a thick-set body.

For the two women, there was not enough DNA to tell if they were related, for instance a queen and her daughter. “There are still more questions than answers,” said Egil Mikkelsen, director of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History.

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Editing by Jon Boyle