ARCHAEOLOGISTS examining a pair of graves from Valsgarde in Sweden were surprised to discover the remains of a beheaded owl next to a highly-decorated Iron Age warrior. According to the experts, the beheading may have prevented the hapless bird from rising from the dead.
The necropolis at Valsgarde has been called Scandinavia’s answer to Britain’s famous Sutton Hoo cemetery. The archaeological site sits near Sweden’s southeast coast, just north of Uppsala and about 50 miles northwest of Stockholm. Valsgarde is known for housing more than 90 graves dated to Scandinavian Iron Age (500 to 800 AD).
In particular, the site is home to a number of spectacular boat graves predating the Viking Age.
Historically, this was the Merovingian period (fifth to seventh century AD) or about the same time many of Sutton Hoo’s discoveries date from.
Birgitta Berglund, professor emeritus of archaeology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s NTNU University Museum, said: «On a light note, we could say that Valsgarde is Scandinavia ‘answer to Sutton Hoo as portrayed in the film The Dig on Netflix.»
It is unclear who was buried at the site — theories range from the Swedish Yngling people to warriors conscripted through the leidang system.
What is clear, however, is many of the people buried at Valsgarde were well-off and with that came a certain degree of comfort, even in death.
Archaeologists first excavated the site in the 1920s, but the most recent discoveries are some of the most fascinating ones yet.
Researchers from the NTNU have focused their attention on two of the grave boats found at Valsgarde, or rather, what was found inside of them.
The two boats measured about 32ft (10m) in length and symbolically carried the dead into the afterlife.
The dead themselves were likely high-ranking warriors, fitted with ornate helmets, swords and shields.
Their boats were fitted with a manner of supplies and tools, while animals and horses were arranged near to the boats.
Professor Berglund said: «The buried warriors appear to have been equipped to row to the underworld, but also to be able to get ashore with the help of the horses.»
One of the warriors was laid to rest alongside a beheaded eagle owl, also known as the Bubo bubo.
According to Professor Berglund, the beheading «had a ritual significance in connection with the burial».
The beheading may have been part of a custom meant to stop the bird from returning from the great beyond.
Professor Berglund said: «It’s conceivable that the owl’s head was cut off to prevent it from coming back.
«Maybe the owl feather in the bedding also had a similar function?
«In Salme in Estonia, boat graves from the same period have recently been found that are similar to those in Valsgärde.
«Two birds of prey with a severed head were found there.»
The Vikings, for instance, would sometimes bury their dead with bent swords should they ever rise from the dead.
The Valsgarde warriors were also laid to rest atop of many layers of down bedding, which the experts believe is the oldest-known bedding in the whole of Scandinavia.
Professor Berglund has been studying down harvesting along the Helgeland coast — the southernmost part of Northern Norway — where communities bred eider ducks for their feathers.
The expert, consequently, expected to see these feathers exported all the way down south and in the Valsgarde duvets — but this was not the case.
She said: «It turned out that a lot of kinds of feathers had been used in the bedding at Valsgärde.
«Only a few feathers from eider ducks were identified, so we have little reason to believe that they were a commodity from Helgeland or other northern areas.»
According to Nordic traditions, the type of feathers used in the bedding of a dying person was critical.
Professor Berglund said: «For example, people believed that using feathers from domestic chickens, owls and other birds of prey, pigeons, crows and squirrels would prolong the death struggle.
«In some Scandinavian areas, goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body.»
And the Valsgarde feathers have been preserved surprisingly well, despite being in the ground for more than 1,000 years.
The researchers found the beddings were stuffed with geese, grouse, duck, crow, sparrow and eagle owl feathers.