Did Viking men paint their teeth a 'pretty red'?

TERRIFYING Viking raids in medieval times gave Norsemen a reputation as bloodthirsty marauders, but new archaeological finds show they may also have been vain - caring as much for the "pretty" decoration of their teeth as for the bite of their swords.

In what could be further evidence that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach North America, in the 11th century, a study of skeletal remains from 1,000-year-old burial sites in southern Sweden suggests some Norsemen used iron files to carve grooves into their teeth, which they likely coloured red or black.

Dr Caroline Arcini, an anthropologist, said she believes the grooves, which she found in the teeth of 10 per cent of men, but none of the women, were either pure decoration or meant to show affiliation to a social class or trade group.

Tooth-filing was widespread among native tribes in the Americas at the time, but Dr Arcini's discovery is the first indication that it was also used among medieval Europeans.

Dr Arcini, who works for the Swedish National Heritage Board, found 24 men out of 557 skeletal remains of men and women from four grave sites had horizontal grooves across the upper front teeth, often in pairs or triplets - too carefully made to be the result of chance.

She said it was unclear what colours were used to fill the grooves, but that it was likely black or red.

"I think it was rather pretty," Dr Arcini said.

She observed that they would have had "to laugh pretty hard" for the teeth to be visible, because the grooves were quite high up.

Dr Arcini hopes further studies will reveal where the practice arose and how it spread.

She stressed that her discoveries did not necessarily mean that North American aborigines and Vikings had exchanged ideas on dentistry.

"It is probably just a coincidence," Dr Arcini said. "Things pop up in different places in the world without there necessarily having been any contact."

The Vikings enter history in the late eighth century, when they set out in longships, raiding the coasts of northern Europe.

Starting out as minor expeditions by adventurous chieftains, the raids escalated into full-scale invasions into the British Isles and northern France, led by Norwegian and Danish kings and earls. Swedish Vikings went east, reaching Constantinople.