Iron Age warriors were buried lying on feather-stuffed cushions, near a headless owl

Feathers excavated from one of the Iron Age boat burials, Valsgärde 7, were very well preserved, though still brittle and entangled.
Feathers excavated from one of the Iron Age boat burials, Valsgärde 7, were very well preserved, though still brittle and entangled. (Image credit: Photo by Jørgen Rosvold)

In an Iron Age cemetery in what is now Sweden, two warriors who died during the seventh century A.D. were lavishly buried in boats with an unexpectedly luxurious touch: soft bedding stuffed with feathers, to gently cradle the deceased on their journey into the realm of the dead.

The burial site at Valsgärde, a farm in Uppsala, Sweden, near the country's southeastern coast, holds 15 boat burials dating from the third century B.C. — perhaps even earlier — to the 12th century A.D. 

Researchers recently investigated the unusual feathery content in two of the graves, known as Valsgärde 7 and Valsgärde 8. Both burials contained "richly equipped boats" that were positioned with their sterns pointing toward the Fyrisån river, as though poised for the occupants' journey to the afterlife. Pillows from the boats, dated to around 1,400 years ago, are the oldest bedding-related artifacts in Scandinavia, according to a new study.

Related: In photos: Boneyard of Iron Age warriors

Delicate feathers degrade quickly and, therefore, are rarely documented in the archaeological record. However, the exceptional preservation of the Valsgärde bedding allowed the researchers to extract and examine feathers from multiple locations inside the boats. The team's analysis enabled them to identify which bird groups, and even which species, the feathers came from, the  researchers reported in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.   

Helmets, swords and knives lay next to the bodies, and several shields covered the remains in each boat. The graves also held cooking and hunting tools for the afterlife. Mourners had placed the warriors on top of pillows so that "beauty sleep was also taken care of in death," lead study author Birgitta Berglund, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University Museum at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU Museum) in Trondheim, Norway, said in a statement.

Horses and birds in the graves further hinted at the warriors' high-ranking status, though one of the animals — a Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) — was missing its head. Its decapitation may have had ritual significance for the burial, and the feathers filling the cushions also may have been selected for their symbolic meaning, the scientists said.

Microscopic images of various downy feather barbs and barbules from Valsgärde 7 (a and c) compared with examples of similar reference material from bird groups: b) Galliformes (black grouse [Tetrao tetrix]) and d) Passeriformes (Eurasian jay [Garrulus glandarius]).  (Image credit: Photo by Jørgen Rosvold)

"A deeper meaning"

To identify the feathers, the researchers collected eight feather samples from Valsgärde 7 and three samples from Valsgärde 8, and then carefully teased the brittle, intertwined bits apart, looking for feathers that retained as much as possible of their original structures. They separated the samples into two categories: contour feathers, which are used for flight, and "true down," which grows closest to the birds' skin and provides insulation. 

When all the teasing and sorting were done, the scientists created slides of feather samples and peered at them through a microscope that magnified the samples up to 400 times. Then, the team compared the feathers to reference samples of northern European bird feathers in the scientific literature and in the NTNU Museum library.

"This is, as far as we know, the oldest bird feathers from human burials examined in this way," the study authors reported.

In samples from four bedding locations in Valsgärde 7, feathers from ducks and geese were the most common; in the single location sampled from Valsgärde 8, all of the feathers resembled those of geese. But other types of bird feathers were also present in Valsgärde 7; there were feathers from land fowl, such as chickens, as well as songbirds, wading birds and even an eagle owl. 

According to Nordic folklore, feathers held special significance for rites surrounding death and funerary rites, Berglund said. Most records of these traditions date to the 18th century or later, but the rituals likely originated much earlier, she added. For example, feathers from owls and other predatory birds were associated with prolonging the struggle against death. And in some parts of Scandinavia, "goose feathers were considered best to enable the soul to be released from the body," Berglund said.

"The bedding from Valsgärde most likely also had a deeper meaning than just serving as a filler," she said in the statement.

The scientists' findings demonstrate that it's possible to identify some bird groups from very tiny ancient feather fragments — smaller than 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) long. Scientists typically overlook bits of feathers on archaeological sites, and seeking them out could provide valuable clues about Iron Age life and how people interacted with nature, "not least the relation between man and birds," the study authors wrote.

Originally published on Live Science

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.