Palaeoproteomics identifies beaver fur in Danish high-status Viking Age burials - direct evidence of fur trade

PLoS One. 2022 Jul 27;17(7):e0270040. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0270040. eCollection 2022.


Fur is known from contemporary written sources to have been a key commodity in the Viking Age. Nevertheless, the fur trade has been notoriously difficult to study archaeologically as fur rarely survives in the archaeological record. In Denmark, fur finds are rare and fur in clothing has been limited to a few reports and not recorded systematically. We were therefore given access to fur from six Danish high status graves dated to the Viking Age. The fur was analysed by aDNA and palaeoproteomics methods to identify the species of origin in order to explore the Viking Age fur trade. Endogenous aDNA was not recovered, but fur proteins (keratins) were analysed by MALDI-TOF-MS and LC-MS/MS. We show that Viking Age skin clothing were often composites of several species, showing highly developed manufacturing and material knowledge. For example, fur was produced from wild animals while leather was made of domesticates. Several examples of beaver fur were identified, a species which is not native to Denmark, and therefore indicative of trade. We argue that beaver fur was a luxury commodity, limited to the elite and worn as an easily recognisable indicator of social status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Burial
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Denmark
  • Rodentia*
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry*

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the Carlsberg Foundation under Grant CF15-0573 (Fur and skin trade in Viking and medieval Denmark – A biomolecular investigation of archaeological fur, skin, and leather from Denmark and its contribution to the understanding of the Viking and medieval fur and skin trade), the Danish National Research Foundation under the Grant DNRF119 (Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions) and Grant DNRF128 (PROTEIOS), and the Fashioning the Viking Age project funded by the VELUX FOUNDATION’s Museum Programme. Prof. Jesper Velgaard Olsen at the Novo Nordisk Center for Protein Research is thanked for providing access and resources, which was also funded in part by a donation from the Novo Nordisk Foundation (grant no. NNF14CC0001).