Diet and Dental Health in the Viking Age circa 900 CE
Vikings: Raiding and Farming with Bad Breath
The Canadian Museum of History is hosting an exhibit on Vikings, with the collaboration of Gunnar Anderson, Senior Curator at The Swedish History Museum, in Stockholm. With over 500 artifacts on display, ranging from jewels, beads, combs, amulets and weapons to stone carvings, the exhibit is a Viking enthusiast must stop.
While visiting the exhibit, I was shocked by the short life expectancy of folks living at the turn of the millennia, with death often striking around the mid-thirties in adults, and children frequently dying before reaching their teens.
The lands inhabited by the ever-migrating Scandinavians of the Viking Age were harsh, for the most part.
Driven abroad by chieftain feuds, men of the region sought better lives in foreign lands, often times by ways recorded as raids. Vikings did raid and plunder—and lived up to their fear-spreading reputations—but, as they gained control over the regions they invaded, they settled into farming, establishing longhouses and cultivating the lands.
The daily source of nourishment in the Viking Age diet would have been grains, sown and grown on their lands, and later ground and baked into loafs. The main crop was barley, but other grains such as spelt or rye could be added to bread and porridge. Interestingly, the bark of conifers could be grated and added in the food preparation, thus incorporating a daily intake of vitamin C. This echoes the old Native American practices of boiling birch bark to produce a tonic to keep scurvy at bay, during the long months of winter.
But how do we know so much about the composition of Viking bread, you may wonder. Bread was often times placed with the deceased on his or her journey to the afterworld. If the body was cremated, the loafs became carbonized little lumps which can be analyzed for their composition. One cheer for molecular archeology!
Grain also yielded beer often mixed with berries and honey for taste. It was the women’s task to brew the beverages, along with cooking and baking for the whole family.
As for the consumption of fresh produce, apples, berries and hazelnuts were gathered in the summer months and onions and cabbage were the prevalent vegetables.
Surrounded by water as they were, Vikings could rely on the sea for food. Fish, seaweed, seal, polar bear and whale meat contributed to their diet, depending on the settlers’ geographical location.
Viking Age farmers raised animals, mainly for the milk, wool and labor force they provided. Livestock would seldom be killed for nourishment, unless all other food sources were depleted. Horses ploughed the land and hauled carriages; without their strengths, the burden of chores and labor could only worsen. Sheep and cattle provided milk for the production of diaries, and sheep wool was weaved into garments.
Depending on their geographical locations, Viking Age Scandinavians could rely on hunting deer, elk, boar, bear, geese and bison for meat supplies. Only the wealthier could afford a taste of chicken or beef, staples of our modern day diets.
Despite a wholesome diet that we, today, strive at embracing (organically grown, local produce), disease hit, often with death in tow.
The Canadian Museum of History Viking exhibit has bone remains on display, one of which was of particular interest to me; it is the skull of a man in his mid-thrities, let’s call him “Guthrum”, in the prime of his adult life, yet, his teeth would rather befit a present day 80 year-old (granted the octogenarian does not wear dentures, of course).
What is striking in Guthrum is the excessive wear present on all of his teeth, with most of the tooth structure ground down into the underlying dentine. In fact, it’s a wonder that the pulp was not exposed in the process of grinding, especially as seen in the lower front teeth. Such excessive wear in teeth can easily be attributed to two things: parafunction (the habit of clenching or grinding) and diet. Again, similar wear can be noted even in modern day Canadian Natives, living the remote north. In terms of diet, the Natives are known to suck or chew on pieces of frozen fat, hardened to the texture of pebbles in the subfreezing temperatures. In terms of wear patterns, the use of teeth as working tools can also explain the extent of the damage sustained to the dentition.
Can parallels be drawn with the northern Europeans of the Viking Age?
Another striking feature presented by Guthrum is the severe bone loss sustained throughout both jaws. Periodontal disease is a condition that affects the bone and the surrounding tissues of teeth, with a physiopathology well documented in modern day dentistry and medicine. The bone loss can be attributed to various factors, such as: a genetic predisposition for the disease (by way of the immune system’s response to the presence of bacteria in the oral cavity), the presence of local irritants like tartar and the presence of excessive forces being applied on the dentition (in this case, grinding which can also explain the bone dehiscence present on the facial aspect of the roots in the upper front teeth).
This makes me wonder how a 30-something guy ended up with such bad teeth.
The stressors of daily living (or rather, surviving) and the absence of dental hygiene, noted by the tartar build up (interestingly, he presents no cavities) could serve as hypotheses for his damaged dental condition. Note-Europe will have to wait until the late 18th century, with the advances made by surgeon Pierre Fauchard, to gain a better understanding of oral health and its pathologies.
New documentation is emerging, in medicine, concerning the impact of poor oral hygiene on health as a whole. As of now, it is recognized that gum disease is a comorbidity of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and low premature birth weights, only to mention a few.
The exhibit mentioned that Viking Age Scandinavians were often prone to chronic bouts of diarrhea and anemia. Piling on the possibilities of chronic inflammatory diseases and the injuries brought about by strenuous physical labor and warfare, life in the Viking Age was difficult and short. Valhalla, anyone?
Given the rudimentary and harsh living conditions, often violent social settings, and the short life expectancy of Viking Age Scandinavians, one can easily picture a culture wrought with an urgency to live, pushed by a desire to redefine boundaries, both geographical and political, and set sail beyond the crest of the horizon.
The Viking exhibit at The Canadian Museum of History runs until April 17, 2016.
Check out Reese Speaks‘ blog about the exhibit
For your enjoyment, you can consult the splendid work of the authors referenced below.
Shannon Raye Wood’s thesis on Tooth Wear and Division of labour.
The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth
Dental Health in Viking Age Icelanders by Richter et Eliasson