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Viking teeth offer insight into cultural status

Among the weaponry, jewellery and other artefacts displayed in the new British Museum exhibition Vikings: life and legend, rests a jawbone with filed teeth: an example of dental modification in a culture that flourished over 1,000 years ago.

Credit: ©The Trustees of the British Museum

There has been great speculation as to the reasons behind this Viking dental oddity since 2005, with the first discovery of deliberate dental modification in archaeological human skeletal material from Europe.1 The man-made horizontally filed furrows on the upper part of the crowns found in 24 men dating between 800–1050 AD were evidently made by a skilled hand, but whether for decoration or identification of a certain group remains unclear.

The Viking burial pit discovered at the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset in 2009 provided further evidence of tooth filing, but this time within Britain rather than Scandinavia. The burial pit contained around 50 beheaded individuals with bodies thrown into a mass grave and heads placed carefully in a collection at one edge.2 One individual displayed deliberately-filed teeth, which may have been a symbol of his status. The Vikings, known for their fearsome image, may have filed their teeth to appear more menacing. Gareth Williams, curator of the British Museum exhibition that will feature the burial, noted: '[it is] one of the most dramatic Viking finds of recent years.'4 The filed teeth are on display at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.

References

  1. 1

    Arcini C . The Vikings bare their filed teeth. Am J Phys Anthropol 2005; 128: 727–733.

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  2. 2

    Loe L, Boyle A, Webb H, Score D . 'Given to the ground': a Viking age mass grave on Ridgeway Hill, Weymouth. Oxford: Oxford Archaeology, 2014.

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    Oxford Archaeology. Dorset Viking age mass burial publication. Past Horizons 2014.

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Pacey, L. Viking teeth offer insight into cultural status. Br Dent J 216, 445 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bdj.2014.323

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