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Reading skulls to learn about the founders of Iceland

Women from the British Isles were part of the Viking colonisation of Iceland in the late 9th century, according to new EU research conducted by the IPACE project which used 3D shape analyses of archaeological human skulls.

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Women from the British Isles were the main settlers of Iceland in the 9th century along with Viking men from Scandinavia, according to a new EU study. The IPACE analysis of hundreds of skulls from museum collections in Iceland, Denmark and the UK suggests women settlers came from Britain, rather than Scandinavia, as some previous studies suggested. “The analysis of cranial shape, so far, has told us that females from the founding populations of Iceland looked more British than Scandinavian, and that Icelandic males look more like Scandinavians,” says Kimberly Plomp who conducted her research with support from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. Plomp was supervised by Keith Dobney, Professor of Human Palaeoecology, and Head of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, Mark Collard, Professor in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Canada and Neil Price, Professor in Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, Sweden. “The preliminary results indicate the founding population was probably composed of Viking males who stopped in the British Isles and took British-Irish females with them to Iceland,” says Plomp. To determine whether the women joined the Vikings voluntarily or were taken to Iceland as slaves requires more research.

The relationship between DNA evidence and osteological data

The IPACE team’s research could help settle a contradiction between DNA evidence and osteological data. Genetics revealed a large number of Iceland’s founding female population were likely of Gaelic descent whereas the osteology indicated both male and female founders were likely from Scandinavia. The IPACE researchers believe their work provides evidence to support the genetic studies. They also believe their methods show cranial shape analysis is a viable alternative to DNA analysis, which is relatively expensive per sample and can involve the invasive sampling of important specimens. Plomp used a method called photogrammetry, taking about 150 photographs of each cranium from different viewpoints to create high-quality 3D models of the cranium for shape analysis. Comparing the different populations’ cranial shapes – using statistical tests – helped researchers draw their conclusions. IPACE also created a database of the crania used in the study, which will allow future researchers free and remote access to the skulls. “This will reduce handling of fragile crania since researchers will be able to use the scans instead of the actual bones,” says Plomp. She was able to access crania from Iceland’s Skagafjörður Heritage Museum in Sauðárkrókur and the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík. The Scandinavian individuals used are housed at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Oslo. British crania came from Queen’s University, Belfast, the Natural History Museum and Royal College of Surgeons in London, National Museums Scotland and the Manx Museum on the Isle of Man. “Having the support of the EU helped gain permissions to access these valuable archaeological collections,” says Plomp. She has discussed her research at talks and during a Women in Archaeology podcast.“People have been fascinated by the methods and by how much information we can gather by analysing human skeletal remains,” says Plomp.

Keywords

IPACE, human, crania, Iceland, Viking men, cranial shape analysis, Gaelic women

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