study: 1,000-year-old skeletons: Decorative groove technique likely learned in America
Randy Boswell, CanWest News Service
Published: Friday, January 13, 2006
A scientist who found deep grooves chiselled into the teeth of dozens of 1,000-year-old Viking skeletons unearthed in Sweden believes the strange custom might have been learned from aboriginal tribes during ancient Norse voyages to North America -- a finding that would represent an unprecedented case of transatlantic, cross-cultural exchange during the age of Leif Ericsson.
The marks are believed to be decorations meant to enhance a man's appearance, or badges of honour for a group of great warriors or successful tradesmen. They are the first historical examples of ceremonial dental modification ever found in Europe, and although similar customs were practised in Asia and Africa over the centuries, the Swedish anthropologist who studied the Viking teeth is exploring the possibility that trips to Newfoundland and other parts of the New World a millennium ago introduced the Norsemen to tooth-carving styles being carried out at that time in the Americas.
"The cases from the North American continent are from the time period," Caroline Arcini, a researcher with the National Heritage Board in Lund, Sweden, told CanWest News Service. "So it is within the same timespace as the Swedish ones that are dated from 800-1050 A.D."
In a paper published by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Ms. Arcini details the horizontal etchings across the front teeth of about 25 young men whose remains were found at several Viking Age burial sites in Sweden and Denmark. The "furrows" -- some teeth have several parallel grooves -- "are so well made that it is most likely they were filed by a person of great skill," Ms. Arcini writes.
But "the reason for, and importance of, the furrows are obscure. The affected individuals may have belonged to a certain occupational group, or the furrows could have been pure decoration."
Examples of tooth modification have been found at archeological sites around the world -- with the exception, until now, of Europe.
The study notes a similarity in style between the Scandinavian specimens and dental markings common about 1,000 years ago in parts of North America, including Mexico and the present-day United States as far north as Illinois.
Tales of Viking visits to North America held a largely mythical status among scholars until the 1960s, when archeologists discovered and excavated the remains of a 1,000-year-old Norse encampment at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Today, the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage Site commemorating voyages by Norse explorers from Greenland and Iceland some 500 years before Christopher Columbus reached the New World.
Led by Ericsson, the Newfoundland colonizers are believed to have made several southern voyages -- it's not known exactly how far -- before repeated clashes with natives, whom the Vikings called "skraelings," forced the newcomers to abandon their settlement.
But researchers at the Canadian Museum of Civilization have also found artifacts that suggest a centuries-long trading relationship between Norse seafarers and native people in the Arctic until about the 14th century.
Patricia Sutherland, a CMC archeologist whose findings at ancient Baffin Island native settlements point to a prolonged period of contact with Norse traders, says she's skeptical that Viking travellers ever reached more southerly tribes that practiced the kind of dental modification found in the Swedish skeletons.