A mysterious cache of dozens of humans skulls discovered earlier this year in Dorset, England belonged to Viking raiders. Anthropologists figured this out when they examined the teeth, and found that elaborate patterns had been filed into them.
That's right — the Vikings filed their teeth, and probably put pigment into the designs to make them look even more badass. No other European groups were known to file their teeth at the time these Vikings were beheaded about a millennium ago, though it was a common practice in Africa and Paleoamerica. Were the filed teeth these Norsemen's attempt to make themselves look like more intimidating warriors, or an extension of the Vikings' obsession with fashion, grooming, and jewelry?
The teeth found in Dorset were part of a gory mass grave of Vikings who were probably slaughtered by Britons fighting back against a raiding party. For hundreds of years during the middle ages, Viking parties robbed and brutalized the British tribes, and it was rare for them to meet with defeat. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxons eventually started bribing Vikings into not attacking, after the Vikings beat them decisively at the Battle of Maldon in 991.
Still, it is likely that these beheaded Vikings were killed around the time of the Battle of Maldon, roughly 1,000 years ago. Writes Maev Kennedy in the Guardian:
Many of the skeletons showed brutal slash marks, with one bearing six cut marks on the back of the neck, and other bones of hands and arms sliced through. Skulls, leg bones and rib cages had been piled up separately in the burial pit. There was no trace of clothing or possessions, suggesting the men were naked when they died, and the missing heads are interpreted as evidence of gruesome souvenirs kept by their killers.
Anthropologists retrieved several teeth from the 51 skulls they found, and each of them had carefully-crafted horizontal cuts in the front teeth. The job was so carefully done that it seemed they'd been filed by somebody who treated it as an art.
National Geographic's Stefan Lovgren reported on a previous discovery of Viking tooth fashion, in Sweden, back in 2006:
The marks were cut deep into the enamel and occurred often in pairs or triplets. [Anthropologist Caroline] Arcini adds that the marks appear to be ornamental rather than functional.
"I can conclude that the filed furrows in the front teeth of 24 Viking men are deliberately made and not the result of using the teeth as a tool," Arcini said.
She also noted that the marks are so well made that a person of great skill most likely filed them.
Why the Viking men had their teeth modified remains a mystery, but it's likely that the marks represented some kind of achievement.
"I think the Vikings' filed furrows should be seen as a social identification," Arcini [said]. "Maybe they were brave warriors who got a furrow each time they won a battle or tradesmen who traveled together."
[William] Fitzhugh, of the Smithsonian, says the reasons may have been partly aesthetic.
"We do know that the Vikings took pride in their appearance, combed their hair, and ironed their clothes with hot rocks," Fitzhugh said. "[They] now seem to have taken pain to decorate their teeth."
"When in-filled with pigment, these grooves would have made Viking warriors look even more terrifying to Christian monks and villagers," he added.
Arcini analyzed hundreds of Viking skeletons in Sweden to discover the 24 men with filed teeth, so the fashion may have only appealed to a minority, or may have been a passing fad. Fitzhugh suggested that these men might have learned to decorate their teeth from other cultures. Apparently, the filing pattern resembles what anthropologists have seen among some Paleoamerican groups in the Great Lakes region of what is now North America. Vikings may have had contact with these peoples a millennium ago, as they traveled to America in the 1000s.
Or they may have come upon the idea to file their teeth simply because it was the next logical step after hair care and ironing. Far from being barbaric chavs, Vikings may have been Europe's first metrosexuals.
Photos: Still from Outlander; skulls via Dorset city council; black and white teeth via Caroline Alcini.