Albína Hulda Pálsdóttir

The origins of Viking sheep

In the project “The Sheep and Horses of the Vikings: Archaeogenomics of Domesticates in the North Atlantic” we are sampling sheep bones from archaeological excavations around the North Atlantic and Scandinavia for ancient DNA analysis.I spent three rather cold but fruitful days at the York Archaeological Trust Resource Centre looking through boxes in the search of sheep bones from the Hungate excavations in York.With the assistance of Reilly Lembo,a MA student in zooarchaeology at York University, I looked through hundreds of bags of bones to find the right ones to sample. The bones we were looking for were the sheep petrous bones, a very dense bone found in the skull,which has great DNA preservation.Once we found the right bones, we took measurements and photographs to fully document them before they are drilled to take samples for ancient DNA analysis.

The settlement period of the North Atlantic started in the late 8thcentury and lasted until around the end of the 10th century, and is thus amongst the last places on earth to have been inhabited by humans. The settlers of the North Atlantic region did not originate from a single location, but represent a mixture of people from Scandinavia and the British Isles. They were vitally dependent on their livestock animals and one might expect that they would have brought their animals from Scandinavia and the British Isles, however, current evidence suggests that the livestock breeds from Iceland, the Faroes and Greenland all originate in Scandinavia. This is a curious mismatch and the sheep bones from York will enable us to explore further into this matter.We currently have samples from Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norse Greenland, Norway and Orkney, and the material from York will add to the geographical range of our sampling.

This project will deepen our understanding of where the sheep and horses in the North Atlantic came from and shed light on how the rapid settlement by humans and livestock was made possible. It will also help us understand the human selection of traits, such as colour, presence or absence of horns and gait, in sheep and horses of the Viking settlers. The genetic diversity of sheep and horses has not only been affected by human selection and we will look into how the animals have been shaped since the settlement by the rough surroundings of the Northern regions. This has equipped the livestock with valuable adaptive traits that might be irreversibly lost in the future, as local breeds face increasing competition from modern, high-producing commercial breeds.We hope our work will aid in the protection of native livestock breeds.

About me:

Albína Pálsdóttir is a trained zooarchaeologist from Iceland. She is a PhD student at the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo and a specialist at the Agricultural University of Iceland. She is working on the project “The Sheep and Horses of the Vikings: Archaeogenomics of Domesticates in the North Atlantic”. Her advisers are Dr Sanne Boessenkool and Dr Nils Chr. Stenseth, University of Oslo, Dr Jón Hallsteinn Hallsson, Agricultural University of Iceland and Dr Juha Kantanen, Natural Resources Institute Finland.