An unusual article recently appeared in the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and American Statistical Association.

It featured web-like diagrams of lines connecting nodes, a hallmark of research that analyzes networks. But each node, rather than being a plain dot, was the head of a burly, red-bearded Viking sporting a horned hat, his tresses blowing in the wind.

This whimsical-seeming piece of scholarship went on to describe the social network of more than 1,500 characters in the Icelandic Sagas, epic tales about the colonization of Iceland around a thousand years ago that were first written down a few hundred years after that. It was the work of a pair of statistical physicists, Ralph Kenna of University of Coventry in the UK and his graduate student Pádraig Mac Carron, now at Oxford, who are applying the tools of their trade to works of epic literature, legend, and myth.

For this particular analysis, they painstakingly recorded the relationship of every settler in 18 sagas. The resulting web of interactions helped shed light on theories humanities scholars have been discussing for years, and even picked up on some previously unnoticed patterns. Their work is part of a movement that promises a new way to approach old questions in literature, history, and archaeology, with fanciful diagrams as just the appetizer.