Iron Age warriors were laid to rest on fluffy down pillows

Close-up photos of two feathers (top) and microscopic images of their structure (bottom)

Enlarge / Rosvland used modern down feathers like these for comparison when he identified the species that contributed to the ancient pillow stuffing. (credit: Berglund and Rosvald 2021)

Archaeologists have found the remains of downy pillows in the graves of two high-ranking Iron Age warriors in Sweden, dating to the 600s and 700s CE. Both warriors were buried in large boats, along with weapons, food, and horses. Down from the pillows suggests locally sourced stuffing that may have had a symbolic meaning to the people preparing the burial.

The softer side of the Iron Age

When you think of Iron Age warriors, you think of—well, you think of iron, both literal and metaphorical. And the high-ranking warriors buried in two separate boat graves at Valsgärde probably had plenty of both. Inside each 10-meter-long oarship, the deceased lay surrounded by tools for hunting and weapons for battle. Each man once wore an elaborately decorated helmet. Three shields had been laid out to cover one corpse, and the other had two shields laid across his legs.

But even the ancestors of the Vikings had a softer side. Archaeologists found brittle, tangled clumps of down beneath the shields that once covered the two warriors’ remains, and tattered bits of fabric lay above and below the feathers. The fragments were all that remained of pillows and bolsters (long cushions that lay under the pillows to prop them up) stuffed with down—the fluffy, soft, fine inner layer of feathers that helps keep birds warm.

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