The eight large dogs that were found in the Gokstad burial mound may have looked like this Irish Wolfhound. (Photo: hunden.no)
In Viking Age ship graves there have been found large amounts of animal bones: In the Gokstad burial mound dating back to about 900 AD, in addition to bones from two peacocks, several hawks and fourteen horses, it was found eight large sighthounds (Old Norse: mjór) buried on both sides outside the ship. Archaeologists also found a small lapdog buried inside the ship.
– Sighthounds are large dogs, which may resemble Irish Wolfhounds. They had a very high value. I have found that even small dogs had a high value by studying the Frostathing law. If somebody killed such a dog they had to pay a fine equivalent to the price of a thrall (slave), Assistant Professor Anne Karin Huftammer from the Natural History Collections at Bergen Museum told NRK in connection with the investigations of the various animal bones back in 2010.
Also in the Osberg ship dated to 834 AD there were found animal bones from fourteen or fifteen horses, a cat, a Eurasian woodcock, a red-breasted merganser, a bull, a cow – and four dogs. It is also found bronze fittings which presumably have belonged to a dog harness.
The Vikings brought the dog with them when they in the 9th century colonized Iceland. Today, the breed is known as Icelandic Sheepdog which is one of the oldest in the world.
The Icelandic Sheepdog almost disappeared in the 1950’s, but was rediscovered by Englishman Mark Watson who started systematic breeding.
The dog is strong and robust with a dense, waterproof coat which was protecting against temperature fluctuations, which is necessary for it to survive in the harsh Nordic climate. The Norwegian Elkhound and Buhund are close relatives.
On Brattalid (Old Norse: Brattahlíð), Eric the Red’s Farm in Greenland, there are found bones after a big long-legged dog, while there on other farms in the area have been found bones from a smaller dog breed that can be the Icelandic Sheepdog.
Followed His Master in Afterlife
In the Orkneyinga saga we can read about a lapdog the owner took on travels overseas. On their last journey they were attempted burned to death, but the owner managed to escape and took the dog with him. He was pursued and hid under cover of darkness, but the dog barked and they were discovered and killed. The story illustrates the close relationship between the Vikings and their dogs.
All findings and the sagas show that the dog had high status and value in the Viking Age and that it was used for a variety of tasks: For guarding, hunting, fighting, herding – and as sled dog and companion.
Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews