Researchers Recently Uncovered Evidence Of Two Previously Unknown Body Modification Practices Used As A “Rite Of Initiation” In Scandinavia During The Viking Age

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It has long been assumed that tattoos were the only permanent form of body modification practiced in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.

However, researchers have recently encountered evidence that two other types of body modification were performed in that period of time as a “rite of initiation.”

Most of the examples they found originated from Gotland, a Swedish island located in the Baltic Sea. In the latest study, the researchers speculated over why the body modifications were performed and what social implications they had in the Viking community on Gotland.

“A modern example would be the use of tattoos to signal how someone wants to be perceived: should my tattoos show everyone that I’m a tough guy you don’t want to mess with? Or is there some hidden meaning in my tattoos that only the initiated should understand, such as prison tattoos?” said Matthias Toplak and Lukas Kerk, researchers with the Viking Museum Haithabu and the University of Münster in Germany.

The first newly identified form of body modification was the filing of horizontal grooves into teeth. The second practice involved artificially deformed skulls.

In northern Europe, the earliest known cases of filed teeth can be traced back to the last decades before the Viking Age. In fact, the custom seemed to have died out by the late Viking Age.

The researchers discovered more than 130 male skeletons with modified teeth. In contrast, archaeological examples of head deformation were much rarer, with only three specimens uncovered from the Viking Age. The remains date back sometime around the late Viking Age.

It is believed that the tooth filings may have functioned as a rite of initiation, in addition to serving as a discreet sign of identification for an exclusive group of merchantmen. The way these Viking groups operated is not entirely clear, but the researchers have a plausible explanation.

“Their members could identify themselves through their teeth filings and may thus have received commercial advantages, protection, or other privileges. This theory also implies that larger, organized communities of merchants existed already in the Viking Age before the existence of formalized guilds,” Toplak and Kerk said.

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