Beaver fur was a symbol of wealth and an important trade item in 10th-century Denmark, according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Written sources indicate that fur was a key commodity during the Viking Age, between 800-1050 CE, but fur doesn’t often survive well in the archaeological record, so little direct evidence is available. Previous reports have used the microscopic anatomy of ancient fur to identify species of origin, but this method is often inexact. Until now, not much was known about the kinds of furs the Vikings preferred.
In this study, led by Luise Ørsted Brandt of the University of Copenhagen, the research team analyzed animal remains from six high-status graves from 10th-century Denmark. While no ancient DNA was recovered from the samples, perhaps due to treatment processes performed on furs and skins and probably due to preservation conditions, identifiable proteins were recovered by two different analytical techniques. Grave furnishings and accessories included skins from domestic animals, while clothing exhibited furs from wild animals, specifically a marten, a squirrel, and beavers.
These findings support the idea that beaver fur was a symbol of wealth during the Viking Age. Beaver fur was more valued than other furs because of its look as well as being very warm and water resistant. Since the beaver had already gone extinct in Denmark by the early bronze age, their fur had to be imported. Some of these may have come from northern Scandinavia through trade with the Lapps, while another source could have been Eastern Europe.
The lucrative fur trade coming out of Eastern Europe was even noted by the Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal who wrote in 965:
The honey, wax, and furs exported from their country come from the territories of the Rūs and the Bulghār. This is also the case with the beaver pelts, exported throughout the world, for they are only found on the northern rivers of the territory of the Rūs, the Bulghār and Kyiv.
Some clothing items included fur from multiple species, demonstrating a knowledge of the varying functions of different animal hides, and may have indicated a desire to show off exclusive furs. The authors explain:
Fur was a limited, expensive, and in some cases an imported resource, which was only accessible to the few. Therefore it makes sense that it has only been found in clothing where its visual properties could be displayed. The material was also too precious to dehair and turn into leather where its beautiful appearance and exclusiveness could not be admired. In clothing, fur would have acted as an example of conspicuous consumption i.e. as a recognisable luxury product and visible evidence of the high status, which would differentiate the wearer socially and economically. For leather, domesticated animals were common and local and made up an easily accessible resource. The skins of cattle, sheep and goat were moreover well suited for leather objects based on their properties and easier to replace when worn out… Fur therefore seems to have been mainly used in cases where it could be displayed, while leather was used for more everyday objects.
The authors note the biggest limiting factor in this sort of study is the incompleteness of comparative protein databases; as these databases expand, more specific identifications of ancient animal skins and furs will be possible.
“In the Viking Age,” the authors conclude, “wearing exotic fur was almost certainly an obvious visual statement of affluence and social status, similar to high-end fashion in today’s world. This study uses ancient proteins preserved in elite Danish Viking burials to provide direct evidence of beaver fur trade and use.”
The article, “Palaeoproteomics identifies beaver fur in Danish high-status Viking Age burials – direct evidence of fur trade,” by Luise Ørsted Brandt , Alberto J. Taurozzi, Meaghan Mackie, Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding, Filipe Garrett Vieira, Anne Lisbeth Schmidt, Charlotte Rimstad, Matthew J. Collins and Ulla Mannering, appears in PLOS ONE. Click here to read it.