What did Vikings look like? – by Rob Shackleford
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|Who Were the Vikings?|
Think of the traditional view of Vikings. They were tall, blonde, wearing winged or horned helmets and sailed the seas in longboats to rape and pillage.
Despite ancient sagas that celebrate seafaring adventurers with complex lineages, there remains a persistent, and pernicious, modern myth that Vikings were a distinctive ethnic or regional group of people with a “pure” genetic bloodline.
That is but one of so many inaccurate tales and legends attached to Vikings.
For example, the iconic “Viking” helmet, is a fiction that arose in the simmering nationalist movements of late 19th-century Europe. Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, included horned helmets in his gorgeous costume designs for the 1876 performance of Wagner’s classic Norse saga, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The gorgeous designs were so popular they quickly became iconic. The opera was so influential that Vikings with horned helmets became a new standard — despite the fact that they were mythical.
Unfortunately the Viking myth remains, celebrated among various white supremacist groups that use the supposed superiority of the Vikings as a way to justify hate.
Yet recent DNA analysis of hundreds of skeletons found in ancient Viking settlements reveals Vikings were a diverse bunch, with ancestry from peoples around the world. They weren’t really all barrel-chested, blond-haired, bearded men that all looked the same, though others saw the Vikings as different from the general peoples of the time.
The Arabic author Ibn Fadlan once described the Vikings: “I have never seen people with a more perfect body build. They are like date palms and their skin is reddish”.
Yet if you encountered a Viking today, you would probably consider them quite short. The average Viking male was around 172 cm tall (5.6 ft), and the average female 158 cm (5.1 feet).
However, at the time they still probably towered over many of their contemporaries. Britons living in around AD 1,000 would have been a good 5 cm shorter than the Vikings. This is largely down to the Norse Men’s comparatively good diet for the time.
So genetic studies confirm that it is not true that all Vikings were blonde. There was a mix of blondes, redheads and dark-haired Vikings. However, blonde hair was considered particularly attractive and many darker haired Vikings bleached their hair blonde using lye soap.
Even more surprising is how ongoing genetic research has shown that the Vikings in West Scandinavia, and therefore in Denmark, might have been mostly red-haired. However, in North Scandinavia, in the area around Stockholm, blonde hair seemed dominant.
Viking bodies was influenced by the hard work they had to put in every day as peasants. They would have been more muscular than we tend to be today. On the down-side, archaeological evidence indicates that osteoarthritis was, together with dental problems, a common complaint.
While Vikings did access a variety of foods from around the world because they had travelled far and wide as tradesmen and as warriors, their nutrition was generally poorer than today. The children experienced slower growth and didn’t grow to be as tall as children do today.
Another fact brought up in research is there were not as many differences between the faces of men and women as we are accustomed to see among Scandinavians today. Women had more pronounced brow ridges, more like their men folk, and men had softer jaw bones and brow ridges, more like their women folk. The result of this is that it is often difficult to distinguish between the skeletal remains of Viking men and women based on the skull alone, and archaeologists must look at height and pelvis to determine gender. [Women’s pelvises differ from men’s in order to allow for child birth].
Yet despite the differences 1000 years can bring, to see a Viking today, look to modern Scandinavians faces. They, more than anyone, resemble what ancient Viking faces looked.
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About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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