There exists a peculiar perception among the general public that the Vikings stood taller than other Europeans of the Viking Age. Books, shows, and even some notable museum displays paint a portrait of tall and powerful men with keen skill at killing others. Luckily, the Vikings buried many of their dead in a way that preserved their bones and, through diligent osteoarcheology, we can say with some degree of confidence how tall Viking Age Scandinavians were. How tall were the Vikings? Read on to find out.
How to answer the question: How tall were the Vikings?
As with everything to do with the Viking Age, nothing is certain, nor is it likely written in stone (both figuratively and literally). The evidence for how tall or short the Vikings may have been can only be deduced from those pieces of evidence we can find. Written sources on the subject are unreliable for two reasons: first, they were written by the victims of Viking raids (clerics) who often embellished certain details; second, the most detailed of the written sources were composed long after the fact, and thus have little chance of being accurate. Thus, archaeology stands as the only sound method for determining the average height of a Viking Age Scandinavian.
Luckily for us, this questions has been explored by historians and archaeologists alike since the beginning of Viking studies. As with every issue I attempt to tackle in my blog, the answer is not straightforward. We must first take into account that the Viking Age is a broadly defined period that spans more than 300 years. Also important to note in such an investigation is the fact that geographic distinctions, variations in weather and harvest, as well as plagues, warfare, and any number of other factors can affect a population’s height in a particular location at a specific time.
With this in mind, the following is some of the research that has been done on the subject.
How tall were the Vikings in Iceland?
In 1958, Jon Steffanson composed an essay titled “Stature as a Criterion of the Nutritional Level of Viking Age Icelanders” in which he compiled known data about the heights of men and women found in Icelandic cemeteries that date to the Viking Age. Iceland is a fantastic place to do such research since the people who settled the island broadly qualify as Vikings. As luck would have it, my friends at medievalists.net have published the essay for all to read for free (click the title of the article above to read it).
To summarise his findings, Steffanson looked at the bones of 86 individuals who lived and died in Iceland in the 10th century (except for a select few skeletons that predate the others). He found that the average man of the time stood between 171 and 175 cm tall, and the average woman stood between 157 and 161 cm tall. Interestingly, when Steffanson compared these figures to 20th century Icelanders, he found that the average height of both men and women had remained relatively consistent. Icelanders only began to grow taller, on average, starting in the 1950’s, which is precisely what we tend to find in other European nations.
How tall were the Vikings in Sweden and Denmark?
Viking Age Scandinavians in Sweden and Denmark do not appear to have been any taller or shorter on average than their Icelandic counterparts. In his new book, The Age of the Vikings, Anders Winroth explores the subject of heights not to answer the question of how tall the Vikings were, but how their heights fluctuated as a criterion for how healthy and well fed these populations were (similar to what Jon Steffensen had done for Icelanders in 1958). In regards to the Fjälkinge grave site in Sweden, he writes of the Viking Age skeletons:
Concerning the averages, these heights are on par with those of the Icelanders of the same period. What’s more interesting is that the Fjälkinge contains graves of generations who were buried before and after the Viking Age. These graves show a slight dip in the average heights of men and women in the Viking Age. From this grave site (and this site alone), it appears that Scandinavians were shorter during the Viking Age than before and afterward. What these findings mean I will leave to another blog for another day.
In Denmark, similar research has been done to find the average heights of men and women during the Viking Age. This research, as summarised by Mr. Winroth, found the following: “The average height of Viking Age skeletons in Denmark is 171 for men and 158 centimetres for women.” (pg. 163)
How did the Vikings compare with other Europeans?
Conveniently, someone did the research to answer this question as well and summarised his findings in an easy-to-read-chart found at the end of his essay, Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe. Looking at data from archaeological findings, Richard Steckel of Ohio State University, an economist by training, found that Vikings Age Scandinavians were no taller than people in other places at that time, including the British Isles and Mainland Europe.
Things to keep in mind about the Vikings
Remember that Viking Age Scandinavia was a stratified society. Historian Neil Price recently proposed in an article for National Geographic that Viking Age Scandinavian society was set up more like the plantation system in the Southern U.S. states before the American Civil War than anything else.
“This was a slave economy,” Price explains. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”
Due to the inequalities of Viking Age Scandinavian societies, the more prosperous and healthier members of the community would have grown taller than their servants and slaves. Also to note is the fact that the Vikings had to import slaves to meet the demands of their farming system, so there was a lot of intermixing of populations going on that could have affected heights.
Another point to note that may interest some of you is defining what the word Viking means, what the word describes, and how that might affect how we interpret the findings. If we use the word Viking to describe all Scandinavians of the Viking Age, then the sources and evidence discussed above make sense and satisfactorily answer our question. However, if we restrict our meaning of the word Viking to only those who left and roved foreign lands, we will find the above discussion lacking in every respect.
We only have the evidence we have. Many factors can influence a population’s height, and considering the geographical dispersal of their population and the time span separating the first Vikings to the last, it’s hard to say definitively what their average height was. What we can say through archaeological evidence is that Vikings were not taller or shorter than their southern neighbors. We can also say that, similar to other European countries, the men and women of Viking Age Scandinavia were shorter than the people who live there today.