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From Loki to lipids: Using modern biology to discover Viking culture

Copyright: IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Thinkstock

“Very often the answers to big, important, long-debated questions seemed to lie in this material that was right under our noses”, says Dr Steve Ashby, “we just need to find the right techniques to extract it.”

Left to right: Professor Ol Craig (Co-I), Dr Steve Ashby (PI), Dr Gareth Perry (steering group member), Dr Anita Radini (PDRA) and Dr Kris Poole (invited speaker the project’s workshop at International Medieval Conference, Leeds 2016). Copyright: Melting Pot.

For Biology Week, we teamed-up with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to find out more about how modern biology is used in ancient history.

As a medieval archaeologist trained in geology and zooarchaeology, Dr Ashby regularly employs specialist bioscience techniques in his research.

“While I was doing my MSc in Zooarchaeology I became particularly interested in artefacts made of bone - most particularly Viking-Age hair combs. It was while working with combs that I became aware of the potential of applying novel scientific methods to very familiar and often-overlooked material.”

Results from tests at the University of York’s BioArch lab showed that Vikings carried combs as often as weapons, and that they were typically made from deer antler. But there has been some debate amongst archaeologists as to what species of deer the antler belonged to, where they came from, and when the Vikings first stepped on British soil.

“What really interests me is the nexus of archaeological science, social theory, and material culture.”

As part of a team of bioarchaeologists - most notably Matthew Collins, Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Copenhagen and University of York - Dr Ashby used forensic methodologies to devise an innovative technique to differentiate reindeer from red deer antler. Identifying the species of deer the antler belonged to would in turn show where the combs originated from. This indicates when the Vikings first paid a visit to Britain.

Viking braids dating back to C.1000AD, on display at the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen. Copyright: Natasha Stanton.

“The artefacts never speak to you, but you can read them,” says Dr Ashby, “you just need to find the right technique to do so.”

Now Steve is the principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project Melting Pot, which explores Viking-Age cuisine and society also using cutting-edge archaeological science techniques.

“Food and the ways in which it is prepared and consumed are extremely variable in time and space”, explains Dr Ashby, “and it’s influenced by a wide range of social, cultural, economic and environmental factors.”

With such severe Scandinavian winters, Viking agriculture was fragile. An especially cold winter or particularly heavy rain could decimate crops and kill livestock. Storms could destroy boats used for fishing and trading, and conflict and disease could injure, kill, and displace farmers and their communities. Any one of these factors - or a combination of them - could drastically impact the diet of a Viking - much like the food security issues many parts of the world face today.

Preparing residue samples from pottery excavated at Hungate, York. Copyright: Melting Pot

“Many of the pots preserve evidence for the cooking of meat from domestic mammals - chiefly cattle or sheep - but preserved food crusts also give us a glimpse of the complex mixtures of plant products and cereals that were also included in cooking.”

“The concentrations of lipids we are finding in the pots are extraordinary”, says Dr Ashby, “and there’s a lot of potential for analysis.”

By analysing large numbers of pots, the team at York can compare patterning between different forms of vessels and their usage, and see how this varies over time, place, and social context. Was, for example, food culture in the ‘Scandinavian’ north of England different to that of the ‘Saxon’ south? And what can this tell us about Viking culture and identity more broadly?

“Viking-Age scholars have studied identity from a range of perspectives”, explains Dr Ashby, but food has rarely played a significant role in these discussions.”

This is partly because of the complex and interdisciplinary nature of using biological evidence.

“Faunal remains can tell us about what was being eaten, but only to a limited extent about how it was prepared”, explains Dr Ashby.

The remains of a Viking sickle blade on display at the Museum of Cultural History, Oslo. Copyright: Natasha Stanton

“My idea was that we might be able to see this cultural and social patterning in food if we looked not so much at what was eaten, but at how it was prepared.”

“We are taking sherds of pottery, looking at their shapes and properties, comparing the patterns of wear and sooting on them, identifying the botanical contents of burnt-on food crusts, and extracting fat and wax residues from deep within the ceramics themselves, to see whether they contained meat, fish, or plants.”

Biology is indeed everywhere - and perhaps on your next visit to a cultural or historical site, things of old might shed new light on how you see the living, breathing, wonder that is biology.

To find out more about events and activities happening near you for Biology Week 2017, visit: Royal Society of Biology: What's on in Biology Week 2017.

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Find out more about Dr Ashby’s project Melting Pot.


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Tags: fundamental bioscience biology research feature