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Modern descendants of Viking sheep?

Dr. Elena Nikulina

The Soay breed of sheep, originally only found on the island of Soay in the St Kilda archipelago, located to the NW of Scotland, is believed to be very close to the original native breed due to its close resemblance to wild sheep. These animals are also considered to be particularly hardy and robust in the face of harsh climatic conditions. The nature of the hair in their fleece reveals modifications attributable to millennia of human husbandry; modifications also known from remains of Bronze Age textiles. Although no genetic investigations have, as yet, been carried out into the relationships, Soay sheep are considered to direct descendants of, at least, Viking Age animals. Our project aims to clarify whether this really is the case.

Soay sheep

Have sheep survived on the island of Soay, genetically unmodified, from the Viking Age until the present? In a joint project between the ZBSA and Arche Warder e.V., which has specialised in the conservation of old and threatened domestic animal breeds, the degree of kinship between modern Soay sheep and Viking sheep will now be investigated. Bones and teeth from Haithabu will be examined as reference material for Viking sheep, as the assemblage recovered from this locality is particularly extensive. These early historical finds are stored in the collections of the Archäologisches Landesmuseum in Schleswig. The recent comparative material will be taken from the Soay sheep population at Arche Warder, in the form of saliva samples.

In addition to Soay sheep, other sheep breeds considered to be original – Pomeranian coarse wool, Redhead, Jacob, Walachen and Skudde – will also be examined, as will a modern high-performance breed.

The basis of the study comprises analysis of the mitochondrial control region, a particular part of the genetic makeup well-suited to archaeogenetic investigations. For each modern sheep breed, three animals from different breeding lines will be sampled in each case, and a corresponding and representative number of archaeogenetic analyses will be performed on sheep bones from Haithabu.

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