Beer and Beef: Why the Vikings' Elaborate Feasts Died Out

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 By Kelly Dickerson
December 13, 2014  

Vikings have a reputation for their ruthless marauding ways, but new
evidence from an ongoing archaeological dig shows that the Vikings who
settled in Iceland spent more time brewing beer and basting beef than
pillaging and plundering. These meals of beef and booze were served
during elaborate feasts that were likely held as a strategy to gain
some political footing in their new home, research suggests.

The Icelandic Vikings probably wanted the same "tough guy" status they
had in their homeland of Scandinavia, where tribe leaders often held
elaborate feasts in huge halls, according to Davide Zori, the
archaeological field director for the Mosfell Archaeological Project,
in Iceland. The showy feasts of beef and beer were likely held to
demonstrate power and political status, and helped the Vikings lock in
good relationships with their neighbors.

Zori and his team are excavating a farmstead called Hrísbrúin Mosfell
Valley, in southwestern Iceland. The site includes a Viking chief's
100-foot-long (30 meters) house that also features a great hall that
probably hosted some of these extravagant Viking feasts. [Fierce
Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Seamen]

Carbon dating showed the house was built between the late 9th century
and early 10th century, and was abandoned by the 11th century. The
researchers are combining archaeological evidence from the dig site
with ancient Viking historical texts to study the group's culture.

"These texts read almost like novels," Zori said in a statement. "They
talk about daily life. Yes, the Vikings may have put axes to one
another's heads, but these accounts also describe milking cows."

Not long after the Viking group settled in Iceland, temperatures
dropped, and the North Atlantic experienced a small ice age. This cold
snap meant nine months of winter and only three months that were only
a little warmer than winter, according to Zori.  

Cattle, the source of the Vikings' elaborate feasts, had to be kept
indoors to protect them from the frigid temperatures. Since the cattle
were housed inside, they couldn't graze and feed themselves. The
Vikings had to ensure food for both the cattle and people would last
through the intense winters, and eventually keeping enough cows for
elaborate feasts became impractical.

Beer also suffered from the cold climate, as Vikings could no longer
produce enough grain to support brewing during the shortened growing
season. After beer production dropped off in Viking households,
chieftains vanished from the Viking sagas that Zori has been studying.

"You wonder what came first for the chieftains at Hrísbrú," Zori said.
"Were they no longer powerful and didn’t need barley and beef? Or
could they just not keep it up and so they lost power? I favor the
second explanation."

Archaeological records tell only part of the story, Zori said. The
Viking texts provide more context and seem to support the idea that
the Vikings did not voluntarily give up their beef and booze, and the
political clout that the products brought, until the weather forced
them to.  

"Maybe we don't need the Vikings to prove this, but it shows you that
politics can become more important than creating a productive
society," Zori said.

Eventually, the Vikings had to give up raising cattle and growing
grains in favor of sheep herding. Zori and the team hope the dig will
yield more insights into the politics and everyday life of the
Icelandic Vikings.  

Follow Kelly Dickerson on Twitter. Follow us @livescience, Facebook &
Google+. Original article on Live Science.

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