In a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists from the University of Copenhagen have suggested that beaver fur was a symbol of wealth and an important trade item in 10th Century Denmark.
Written sources indicate that fur was a key commodity during the Viking Age between AD 800-1050, but fur doesn’t generally survive well in the archaeological record.
In the study, the researchers analysed animal remains from six high-status graves dating from the 10th Century Denmark. While no ancient DNA was recovered from the samples, 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 weasel, a squirrel, and beavers.
These findings support the idea that fur was a symbol of wealth during the Viking Age. The fact that beavers are not native to Denmark suggests this fur was a luxury item acquired through trade.
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 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.
The authors add: “In the Viking Age, 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.”
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