There exists a peculiar perception among the general public that the Vikings stood taller than other Europeans of the Viking Age. Books, TV shows, and even some notable museum displays paint a portrait of tall and powerful men with above average strength and skill at killing others. Are such portrayals accurate? Luckily for historians, the Vikings buried many of their dead in a way that preserved their bones and, through various osteoarcheological studies, we can say with some degree of confidence how tall Viking Age Scandinavians may have been.
How to Answer the Question, How Tall Were the Vikings?
As with everything to do with the Viking Age, nothing is guaranteed, 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 penned by the victims of Viking raids (clerics) who often embellished specific details; second, the most detailed of the written sources were composed long after the fact, and thus have little chance of being accurate. Therefore, archaeology stands as the only sound method for determining the average height of Viking Age Scandinavians.
The question of height has been explored by historians and archaeologists alike since the beginning of Viking studies. Part of the interest in the subject stemmed from testimony in the historical sources. One account from the annals of Fulda describes a failed raid near Aachen after which the Carolingian fighters admired how large the bodies of the slain Northmen were. Anskar’s mission to Birka also fleetingly alluded to the Vikings’ size, as does the testimony of Ibn Fadlan who observed the Rus. 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 all these in mind, the following is some of the research that has been done on the subject.
The Vikings in Iceland Offer Us Some Clues.
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.
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 1950s, which is precisely what we tend to find in other European nations.
Burials in Denmark and Sweden Offer us a few more Clues.
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). To investigate the issue, he looked at the Fjälkinge grave site in Sweden, and he writes of the Viking Age skeletons:
“In the Fjälkinge grave field, adult males were 160-185 centimeters tall while women measured 151-171 centimeters.” (pg. 163)
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 indicate is that Viking Age Scandinavians may have experienced a period of hunger that stunted the growth of several generations. If the theory that climate change during that time caused food shortages that pushed the Vikings to raid in the first place, the results make perfect sense.
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 centimeters for women.” (pg. 163)
How Did the Vikings Compare to Other Europeans of the Day?
Looking at data from archaeological findings, Richard Steckel of Ohio State University, in his essay Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe, found that Vikings Age Scandinavians were no taller on average than people in other places at that time, including the British Isles and Mainland Europe. The data reveal a slight height advantage for Viking Age Scandinavians compared with the Anglo-Saxons, but the disparity between their average heights can be explained by the sample sizes used, where the Anglo-Saxon sample was much larger than the Scandinavian one.
Things to Keep in Mind About the Vikings.
It is important to note 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 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 Viking Age Scandinavia’s people and the period 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 probably 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 on average than the people who live there today.