Stable isotopes as indicators of change in the food procurement and food preference of Viking Age and Early Christian populations on Gotland (Sweden)

Stable isotopes as indicators of change in the food procurement and food preference of Viking Age and Early Christian populations on Gotland (Sweden)

Stable isotopes as indicators of change in the food procurement and food preference of Viking Age and Early Christian populations on Gotland (Sweden)

By Steven B. Kosiba, Robert H. Tykot and Dan Carlsson

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol. 26 (2007)

Abstract: Archaeological samples of human and faunal remains dating from the Viking (9–11th century AD) and Early Christian (11–12th century AD) periods of Gotland, Sweden were assayed through stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis in order to investigate whether changes in subsistence occurred between these periods, particularly regarding the importance of seafood. The study was concerned with how the dietary regime of the Baltic trading port and farming settlement at Ridanas, Gotland was affected by the widespread environmental and sociocultural transformations that characterized the end of the Viking Age. More generally, the research considers how changes in both food procurement and preference may account for observed differences in the dietary regimes of individuals from the Viking Age and the Early Christian period.

Introduction: Toward the end of the Viking Age (10–11th century AD), three interconnected environmental, socioeconomic, and ideological changes severely altered the everyday activities of people living within the Baltic region. Interpretations vary regarding the timing and relative effect of these changes in northern Europe. However, it is generally accepted that the latter part of the Viking Age was a unique and pivotal era in European history that witnessed the development of the centralized monarchal state, a shift from pagan to Christian religious ideology the emergence of a trading network that influenced the development of an interregional market economy, and the onset of massive rural to urban migration.

At the archaeological site of Ridanas, a coastal 6–12th century AD settlement located on the island of Gotland (Sweden), excavation data indicate that the latter part of the Viking Age coincided with the gradual acceptance of Christian ideological tenets and religious practices. Intensive archaeological excavations at Ridanas have demonstrated that, during the Viking Age, this settlement participated in an extensive socioeconomic exchange network, bringing finished products and raw materials from the Baltics, the Black Sea area, the Arabian peninsula, and southern Europe. The Christian conversion of the settlement is marked by the building of a new church at the nearby location of Frojel, as well as a shift of settlement from the Viking Age port at Ridanas to a new, more inland site located next to the church. In addition, a gradual geophysical process of post-glacial land uplift affected the settlement by significantly lowering the sea level of the harbor to the extent that its docks could no longer effectively be used. Consequently, Ridanas lost its function as a center of interregional exchange, becoming a more isolated and self-sufficient Christian community as it was detached from a previously robust Viking Age network of socio-economic exchange and cultural interconnection.

The overall goal of this research was to document potential changes in the subsistence economy of Ridanas in light of these dramatic local and regional socioeconomic transformations that occurred in the 10th and 11th centuries AD. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of ancient human and faunal remains was employed in order to gauge whether and how the food procurement strategies and food preferences of the population at Ridanas were altered in response or relation to these changes. Since the end of the Viking Age at Ridanas coincided with the closing of the harbor and an inland shift of settlement, we expected to find that the subsistence economy of this settlement shifted away from the procurement of marine resources and toward the more intensified production of agricultural and animal foods. Our research focuses upon the combined impact of these regional macro-processes and local events on everyday life at Ridanas, instead of seeking to isolate or identify any one feature as a principal determinant or cause of dietary change. Comparable studies have recently demonstrated that people within local settings often adapt to, accept, or reject broad social and political transformations by altering everyday practices of food procurement, food preference, food production and consumption.

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