Ancient skulls reveal Vikings traded ivory from walrus tusks and shipped them to Kyiv

Skull fragments found in Kyiv tell a story about how the Vikings may have traded with eastern Europe

Lamiat Sabin
Tuesday 26 April 2022 00:46
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<p>Archaeologists found these walrus skull fragments in Kyiv</p>

Archaeologists found these walrus skull fragments in Kyiv

Large fragments of walrus skulls unearthed in Kyiv suggest that Vikings had traded ivory with Ukraine, according to archaeologists.

Nine huge pieces of bones from the snouts of walruses were found in a vacant lot at 35 Spaska Street in Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Excavations there ended a decade ago, but analyses of previous finds have sparked new theories about how the street used to be a thriving waterfront of the Dnipro river in the medieval times.

As well as the skull fragments, a layer of earth dating back to the 1100s also had embedded in it carved pieces of ivory from walrus tusks, gold wire, glass fragments, an iron sword from Germany, and thousands of animal bones.

DNA taken from the carved ivory shows that the tusks came from a genetic group of walruses only found in the north-western Atlantic Ocean, near eastern Canada and Greenland, scientists led by Natalia Khamaiko discovered.

The fragments suggest that a 4,000-kilometer trade route extended from Canada and Greenland to the muddy banks of the Dnipro river in northern Ukraine.

On the left, the empty lot at 35 Spaska Street in Kyiv

“We were very surprised. We have never known before that there are finds like these in Kyiv,” Ms Khamaiko, now an archaeologist at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, had said – as reported in the Scientist.

Walrus ivory was highly prized in medieval times. Carved fragments were used as gaming pieces and sacramental objects across Europe and the Middle East.

The find “adds something very important and unexpected” to what is known about the Vikings’ trading routes – said Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist at Aarhus University who was not involved in the research.

This is because academics had previously thought that the ivory trade in the medieval era was contained within specific regions.

The cutting marks on the snout bone fragments – possibly done to get the ivory out of the skull – resembled similar marks found on bone fragments found in Scandinavia, according to Ms Khamaiko’s team.

Also, the scientists found several walrus ivory pieces from a hnefatafl set, a chesslike board game that had been popular in northern Europe. She said that they “look exactly like similar pieces that were found in the Scandinavian countries”.

The report ‘Walruses on the Dnieper: new evidence for the intercontinental trade of Greenlandic ivory in the Middle Ages’ has been published by the Royal Society.

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