Organic material from Viking settlements shows that the famous Old Norse seafarers and warriors produced bread from sieved flours of flax (Linum usitatissimum) and gold of pleasure (Camelina sativa).

“The majority of surviving Swedish prehistoric bread can be dated to the later part of the Early Medieval Period (which in Sweden incorporates the Migration Period (400 -550 AD), the Vendel Period (550 -800 AD) and the Viking Age (800 -1050 AD),” said archeologist Anne-Marie Hansson (link below).

It is believed camelina was used for lighting, cooking oil, and food and recent evidence points to camelina being grown as a distinct field crop in Scandinavia in this era.

Archeologists analyzed organic material from the Migration-Viking period at Helgö and from the prototown of Birka, in Sweden.

Camelina was found in cremation graves dated from 750-975 C.E. Around 1000 graves were excavated near Birka and of these, about 500 proved to hold cremation burials, and around 10% of the cremation graves contained bread loaves, along with other belongings of the deceased.

In other burial sites further organic materials resembling bread were found. At the ringfort on Öland, one of Sweden’s larger islands in the Baltic Sea, whole seeds of gold-of-pleasure (Camelina sativa) and flax (Linum usitatissimum) were clearly evident. “The seeds of these species have a high fat content, which here resulted in the seeds sticking together into a ‘cake’ when accidentally heated. This organic material was probably never baked.”

In a paper Cultivation and processing of Linum usitatissimum and Camelina sativa in southern Scandinavia during the Roman Iron Age archeologist Mikael Larsson notes that “a large number of bread loaves have been recorded from graves at the Viking Age sites of Birka and Helgö, near Stockholm.”

Larsson, in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Lund University, suggests there may be good agronomic reasons why Linum and camelina were cultivated separately despite their common use for oil or food. “One may be that they resulted in different end-products, for instance oil with different character, quality, taste, etc. Another may be the difference in ripening time. Flax needs a longer growing season than camelina and would have been harvested later. A third reason may be due to the somewhat different nutrient demands of the two. Even though both may thrive on soils with fairly low nutrient values, [camelina] is somewhat hardier than flax and may be cultivated even on poor sandy soils.”

Ann-Marie Hansson, of the Archeological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University: Pre- and protohistoric bread in Sweden

Bread in Birka and Bjorko: Ann-Marie Hansson

Mikael Larsson: Cultivation and processing of Linum usitatissimum and Camelina sativa in southern Scandinavia during the Roman Iron Age

Photo: Vikings transportant leur bateau. Etching by Olaus Magnus, 1555, (Public Domain)

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