Forgotten Stockholm whalebone pieces reveal hidden information about Viking whaling

Large-scale whaling may have taken place in Scandinavia many centuries earlier than previously thought, according to new findings from archaeologists in Sweden and York.

Forgotten Stockholm whalebone pieces reveal hidden information about Viking whaling
The board game piece made of whalebone. Photo: Bengt Backlund/Rudolf Gustavsson

Studies of whalebone board game pieces dating back to the Iron Age suggest that intensive whaling began around the middle of the sixth century CE, according to the study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

The objects had been kept in museum archives in Stockholm, but no-one had fully analyzed what the raw materials were.

“We discovered that these game pieces were made with whalebone from the mix-sixth century,” Andreas Hennius, a doctoral student at Uppsala University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, told The Local. 

Some of the pieces also underwent species analysis, and all of these were found to come from the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) — a large marine creature which weighs anything from 50 to 80 tonnes. The name ‘right whale’ comes from the fact that hunters found it easy prey: it swam closely to shore and slowly, and contained enough blubber to float after death, making it the right choice for whalers.

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“This was really interesting for us, because these are huge animals, and there are a lot of smaller whales,” said Hennius. “This made us think about how the hunt could have been performed; it dates to a time before we have any evidence of large-scale maritime exploitation.”

Before this research, it was unclear when whaling on a large scale began, with many studies claiming it probably began during the late Viking Age.

“A few researchers were talking about it starting in the ninth or tenth century, but no-one really knew,” Hennius explained. “There are written references, including in sagas about Ottar, a Norwegian merchant who talks about how many whales he was catching, but people thought it couldn't be true — the whales he was talking about were too big and there were too many.”

The new findings challenge this; the fact that the game pieces were made in large volumes suggests manufacturers had a regular supply of whalebone. What's more, the pieces were apparently made in northern Norway and later transported south and to Sweden to be used in burials, giving researchers an insight into how trading networks functioned even before the formation of Viking towns.

Hennius said the next step for the research team was to carry out further species analysis to see if any other species were used. The findings could be meaningful not only for research on the history of whaling, maritime exploitation and trade, but also for deepening our knowledge of the marine ecology system.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered large whales, with only around 300 individuals in existence, so the knowledge that intensive whaling began earlier than though affects calculations on the population development.

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