What role did exotic animals like peacocks, white storks, cats, rats and aurochses play in the Viking and Medieval Baltic region, AD 800-1300? New research offers a fascinating story
What about Exotic Species? Significance of Remains of Strange and Alien Animals in the Baltic Sea Region, Focusing on the Period from the Viking Age to High Medieval Times (800–1300 CE)
By Ulrich Schmölcke
In Heritage (2022) Vol 5, pp 386-3880
Occasionally, during the Viking and Medieval Baltic Sea region, the remains of alien animal species are found. These species, which were previously widely distributed in other regions, were considered “exotic” by the local people. New research explores the manifold ways, such animals were handled.
Conversely, “exotic” was also used to describe the last local specimens of those indigenous species that had become very rare over time. However, other categories of exotic animals were the first specimens of domesticated animals seen in a region or mythical species whose existence was generally, though erroneously, assumed.
In the present paper, the evidence of selected exotic species in the Baltic Sea area is analysed concerning their cultural–historical and ecological significance. Many exotic specimens were used for social and hierarchical display, illustrating the individual’s sophistication and broad knowledge of the world, wealth, and supra-regional influence. As a result, before Christianization, these species became part of burial rites. At the same time, some of these species became or were already integral parts of the fauna of the Baltic Sea region. Thus, people welcomed some newly immigrated species while others were considered pests.
“New”, initially exotic, species formed the basis for the purely anthropogenic urban ecosystems that emerged during this period. Meanwhile, other formerly common species had become “exotic” because of their increasing rarity; when these species became extinct, they left significant gaps in the local ecosystems.
The Zooarchaeological data used for this study may be found in a collection of data: The Holocene History of the European Vertebrate Fauna”. This database was gathered in the 90s in cooperation between Munich, Kiel and Berlin universities. The collection comprises data on 10.144 million animal bones. This material has been supplemented by newer finds and evidence from written texts. The animals identified in the study are either categorised as new in the area (migratory), on the brink of extinction, as exotic imports, gifts or merchandise, or imaginary.
Early invasive species
Mentioned in the study is the white (Ciconia Ciconia), which needed the extensive forest-clearings between AD 1000-1200 to create suitable habitats. Arriving from the southwest, it ended up south of the Baltic and later became the national bird of Lithuania and a symbol of Belarus and Poland. As pest controllers, they were soon regarded as useful birds and became highly valued animals surrounded by folklore. As opposed to this, the rat (rattus rattus), which migrated to the region in the 9th century, became less venerated due to its lack of respect for grain set aside for human consumption. When the plague arrived after 1348, the rat was ubiquitous in Scandinavia. One consequence was that people began to keep domestic cats (Felis silvestris f. catus) and take them onboard ships. Earlier, such cats were considered exotic and linked to the goddess Freya, whose wagon was drawn by cats. However, from the 9th century, cats were the second most prevalent animal sacrificed and found in cremation graves. Unfortunately, in the 13th century, cats became derailed by the Pope as “evil animals”. This may have contributed to the spread of the Black death, disrupting the new urban ecosystem carefully designed to counter the predatory incursion of rats.
Nearly extinct species
Another species touched upon is the aurochs. Already hunted to extinction in the Roman period, the aurochs (Bos primigenius) had disappeared from Scandinavia in the Early Iron Age. However, south of the Baltic, occasional animals roamed regularly while gradually becoming rarer. This turned the aurochs into exclusive animals. Finally, around AD 1400, the last couple of hundred animals were placed under the protection of the Polish king, and in letters from the 15th century, they were described as “the greatest attraction in Poland”. Protected from hunting, they nevertheless became extinct in 1627. The last horn was turned into a hunting horn, which became a war trophy during the wars in the 17th century. Today, it may be seen in the Royal Swedish Armory in Stockholm.
Gifts or merchandise
Other animals entered the Baltic Area as rare and exotic gifts. Thus, two blue peacocks from ca. 900 found in the Gokstad Ship witness to the elite status of that burial. Unique in a Viking context, the remains of other peacocks were found slaughtered at Castle Hitzacker, where we may presume they were served dressed in their spectacular plumage. Slightly less exotic were the Eurasian spoonbills, of which bones from meals have been found in elite Viking settlements. These birds did not enter the Danish Fauna before the 14th century.
More important, though, as elite symbols were the more exotic kinds of birds of prey, the gyrfalcons, which were exclusively traded in elite networks as prestigious gifts. Among these, the white gyrfalcons from Greenland and Iceland were avidly sought after. Occasionally, we find them in cremated graves, such as at Vendel.
By contrast, a monkey’s skull at Ruriko Gorodische is witness to the Eastern trading route from Novgorod to Byzantium and Bagdad and – perhaps – the 12th-century fashion of creating menageries.
Finally, the Unicorn is mentioned for the delightful and endless fantasies involved in its flittering in and out of the imagination of our forebears. Fueled by the very real narwhale and its horn, this highly prized animal continued to roam the Scandinavian forests surrounding the Baltic until Enlightenment struck home in the 18th century.
The article’s conclusion touches upon the fact that rare and exotic animals – whether birds, beasts or fish – were part of the elite paraphernalia used to express distinction. As such, they were sacrificed as parts of burials or found near elite compounds indicating that they had served as exotic and highly prized parts of the diet. Also, they tended to become symbols of the Gods – as the cats, drawing the wagon of Freya did, or the Unicorn, which ultimately became the epitome of Christ. Finally, after AD 1300, the construction of menageries turned these animals into pure objects intended to be gazed upon, the harbinger of the modern Zoo.
However, this exciting contribution also wishes to draw attention to the role of people in some early disruptions to our natural ecosystems caused by the introduction of alien species in the Iron Age and, parallel to this, the extinction of more homegrown animals such as the large bovids. Currently, these bovids are being reintroduced into the Baltic as part of European rewilding projects, the modern counterpart to the Iron Age Parnassus of gods and the later medieval menagerie.
What role these grand animals will play in the 21st-century social system of distinction remains to be seen. Some indication, though, is offered by the querulous controversies played out between, on the one hand, the trained academics or well-educated people and, on the other hand, the increasingly disenfranchised and less educated “populistic” people living in the periphery of the abandoned countryside.