Ancient skulls show that Vikings shipped walrus ivory from Greenland to Kyiv

Ancient Mystery

When archaeologist Natalia Khamaiko first started digging in a vacant lot at 35 Spaska Street in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2007, her expectations were low.

Previous archaeological surveys had yielded little, despite the site’s location along what had once been a thriving medieval waterfront, where Norse merchants from Scandinavia traded furs for silver minted in the Islamic world. Khamaiko and her colleagues had better luck. They unearthed layer after layer of new finds, preserved by periodic flooding from the Dniepr River. A layer dating to the 1100s C.E. yielded gold wire, glass fragments, bits of carved ivory, an iron sword from Germany, and thousands of animal bones, including nine massive fragments that turned out to be walrus snouts.

Those snouts and carvings, ancient DNA reveals, came from a genetic group of walruses found only in the western Atlantic Ocean. They suggest a thriving 4000-kilometer trade route stretched from Greenland and Canada to the muddy banks of the Dniepr.

The find “adds something very important and unexpected” to researchers’ understanding of trade in the Viking age and early medieval period, says Søren Sindbæk, an archaeologist at Aarhus University who was not involved in the research.

Walrus rostra from medieval Kyiv.

Walrus ivory was one of the most prized commodities in medieval times, valued across Europe and the Islamic world for its use in sword hilts, gaming pieces, and sacramental objects. Walrus tusks were transported still attached to the animal’s snout, then broken off once they were ready to be carved. Scholars previously thought the medieval ivory trade was regional, with artisans in Scandinavia using tusks from Greenland and those in modern-day Russia and Ukraine sourcing ivory from the Russian Arctic. “Eastern European finds were from Eastern European walruses,” says James Barrett, an archaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

But the walrus skulls in Kyiv showed something else. When Khamaiko, Barrett, and other colleagues analyzed DNA preserved in the dense bone, they found the animals were from a group known to live only in Greenland and eastern Canada. “We were very surprised. We have never known before that there are finds like these in Kyiv,” Khamaiko, now an archaeologist at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, wrote in an email.

Chemical traces in the walrus bone also matched walrus samples from Greenland and Iceland, but not samples from the Barents Sea north of Kyiv. And cut marks on the skull fragments, perhaps made as decoration or to help snap out the tusks, resembled similar marks on Scandinavian finds. Finally, near the walrus snouts, Khamaiko’s team recovered a handful of gaming pieces from a hnefatafl set, a chesslike board game common in northern Europe at the time; one was made from walrus ivory. “They look exactly like similar pieces that were found in the Scandinavian countries,” Khamaiko wrote.

Together, the evidence suggests the Kyiv walrus bones originated in Greenland or even the islands of the Canadian Arctic, rather than northern Russia, the researchers write this month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. “It’s a convincing result, and a surprising one,” Sindbæk says. In an earlier study, some of the same authors showed that Greenlandic walrus skulls in Europe got progressively smaller between 1000 C.E. and 1400 C.E., suggesting Norse hunters were resorting to females and smaller animals as walrus populations declined.

The new results help explain why Greenland walruses may have been overhunted, Barrett says. “The poor walruses in Greenland … are not just supplying Western Europe. It was Eastern Europe, too, and also Byzantium via Kyiv, and possibly demand in the Islamic world.” The walrus population’s decline could help explain the abandonment of Norse colonies in Greenland in the 1300s and 1400s, as hunters were forced into dangerous voyages to chase ever-dwindling—and ever-more-distant—walrus populations. “It’s an extraordinary example of human exploitation,” Sindbæk says. “We’ve known walrus ivory was an important commodity, but it was difficult to see what scale we were talking about.”

The finds also support historical records of Viking-era trade networks. Norse walrus hunters shipped ivory from Greenland to cities on the western fringe of Europe, including Trondheim and Dublin. From there, the ivory would have been shipped across the Baltic Sea and down the Volga and Dniepr rivers to the Black Sea. Strategically located on the Dniepr, “Kyiv … was a hub for trade between Europe and the east,” Barrett says, and the heart of the Kyivan Rus’ state that arose in the ninth century.

Fedir Androschuk, an archaeologist and head of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine who was not involved in the research, says the new finds are richer than typical trade goods. He argues that 35 Spaska Street was owned by the Rurik dynasty that ruled Kyivan Rus’, whose royal residences were just up the hill. “There is written evidence about contacts between the Danish royal court and Kyiv princes in the 12th century,” Androschuk writes. “I think the walrus ivory is … a gift indicating connections between Danish and Rus’ elites.”

Excavations at 35 Spaska Street ended a decade ago. But analyses of its finds continue to tell a powerful tale of a well-connected early medieval metropolis. “Kyiv was an extremely large trade center,” Khamaiko says. “The owners of these houses had contact with the wide world.”

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