More than 1,000 years ago, Vikings sailed west toward England with their pets onboard their ships, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One. And when they died, the Vikings built a massive funeral pyre, cremated the animals alongside their human companions, and interred the remains in the same burial mounds.

Together in Life and Death

Researchers examined Heath Wood, a cremation cemetery in central England, and uncovered animal and human remains dating back to the ninth century A.D. The Vikings put the human remains into a giant funeral pyre and set it on fire before raking the remains and removing pieces of bone, lead author Tessi Löffelmann told Live Science. “I find this intriguing because that means there was no clear separation between animals and humans any longer — everything kind of became part of the same thing, something new,” she noted.

What made these cremations particularly interesting was that during that era in England, most people were burying their dead. This would have made the Viking funeral pyres quite a spectacle. They were gigantic, ablaze for several hours, and visible for miles.

Löffelmann noted, “I imagine that this whole event would have lasted well into the night, and the light would likely have been seen from nearby Repton.”

Bountiful Burial Mounds

The Vikings invaded England’s southeastern coast in 865, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the 1940s and 1950s, archaeologists discovered nearly 60 burial mounds in Heath Wood near the village of Repton. They analyzed 20 of the mounds and uncovered swords, shields, and human remains. Researchers also found evidence of sharp force trauma. In one burial mound, they found the remains of an adult and a younger person alongside bones from a dog, horse, and what appeared to be a pig.

The chemical analysis of the bones is notable because it revealed that the animals and one of the adults were not native to England but rather Scandinavia. These findings indicate that the Vikings brought their animals with them to the west. It’s evidence that during the late ninth century people and animals migrated from Scandinavia to England. The animals could have been used for transportation, food, and companionship. There may have also been other types of animals in the burial mounds, but it can be challenging to identify them in cremation graves.

Digging a Little Deeper

Löffelmann explained, “I think that the horse and the dog certainly were companions but am less sure about the rest of the animals,” she said. “We know that animals were intricately woven into the mythology of Scandinavia at the time.”

It’s possible that the remains belonged to members of the Viking Great Army; however, Viking archaeologist Cat Jarman, who was not part of the study, told Live Science that Heath Wood radiocarbon dating points to a time period up to the 10th century, which is after the army’s raids, suggesting “an ongoing migration well beyond the historically recorded Great Army movements.”

By Noelle Talmon, contributor for


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