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Do CanadianCarvings Depict Vikings? Removing Mammal Fat May Tell

This interesting article from Live Science features information on the continuing quest to answer the many questions arising from what archaeological findings in the Canadian Arctic really mean and when they were produced. (Ed.)


By Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor | October 16, 2018 07:38am ET

Credit: Shutterstock

Carvings uncovered in the Canadian Arctic may be the earliest portraits of the Vikings created in the Americas. But archaeologists have been puzzling over whether the artwork really shows the infamous seafarers.

Now, scientists think a simple, flammable liquid called acetone could help solve this mystery by removing sea-mammal oil and fat from these artifacts and other artifacts found near them. Until now, those contaminants have prevented scientists from getting an accurate radiocarbon date, according to a paper published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Oily problem
The Vikings, along with other peoples who lived in arctic or subarctic environments, used oils and fat from sea mammals for a variety of purposes, including preparing food and cooking. The substances interfere with radiocarbon dating, because rather than getting the date of the artifact, you may get the date for the oil and fat covering the object, study authors Michele Hayeur Smith, Kevin Smith and Gørill Nilsen wrote in the new paper.

Hayeur Smith is a research associate at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University in Rhode Island, where Smith is chief curator. Nilsen is an archaeology professor at the Arctic University of Norway. [In Photos: Viking Settlement Discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows]

Credit: Owen Jarus
The carvings were created by the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic. The new method may help date them. This particular carving is from Axel Heiberg Island. 

Arctic environments often have little soil accumulation, making it easier for oil and fat to get on artifacts lying in the ground. "Across the Arctic, where most sites are shallow, reoccupation episodes thousands of years apart may be separated from one another by mere centimeters of soil development," the scientists wrote. This means that artifacts can intermix with oil and fat from a variety of time periods making it hard to tell when artifacts date to.

Acetone to the rescue
To solve this radiocarbon-dating problem, Nilsen developed a few methods to remove sea-mammal oil and fat from artifacts. To test the methods, Nilsen used samples of wood dated, via radiocarbon methods, to around 42,000 years ago. She drenched those samples in modern-day sea-mammal oil.

Her first method used a mix of acids and alkalis, but it failed, resulting in dates of 16,000 years ago. That suggested the process hadn't stripped off all of the oil and fats, Nilsen said. She then tried two acetone-based methods, and both were successful.

Solving mysteries
The ability to remove sea-mammal oils and fats from artifacts is a "major breakthrough" for archaeologists studying the Vikings and other Arctic peoples, the three researchers said. 

Credit: Michele Hayeur-Smith, Canadian Museum of History collection number KdDq-9 4268
A sample of spun yarn found in the Canadian Arctic. A new method of removing sea mammal oil from artifacts helped prove that the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic already knew how to spin yarn when the Vikings arrived in the area.

The new method has already helped solve one mystery, the scientists said. They used it to radiocarbon-date samples of spun yarn found by archaeologists at various sites in the Canadian Arctic.

A long-running debate disputes whether the Vikings taught indigenous peoples in the Canadian Arctic how to spin yarn when the invaders arrived in the region around 1,000 years ago. The team found that some of the spun yarn dates back at least 2,000 years, long before the Vikings arrived in the area. This shows that the indigenous peoples in the Canadian Arctic developed yarn-spinning technologies without any help from the Vikings, the scientists said.

Wooden carvings
Now it may be possible to solve the mystery of the wooden carvings from the Canadian Arctic. These carvings, which were created by the region's indigenous peoples, have features that some scholars believe identify the objects as Viking.

Researchers haven't radiocarbon-dated any of the wooden carvings so far, Hayeur Smith told Live Science, adding that the initial round of radiocarbon dating focused on textiles.

One of the carvings was excavated in the 1970s at the Okivilialuk site on southern Baffin Island.Two textiles found near the Okivilialuk carving date back to the 16th century, suggesting that the carving may also date back to that time, the scientists said. This carving may not show a Viking, but it could show someone from one of Sir Martin Frobisher's expeditions to the Canadian Arctic in the 1570s, the researchers said.

Researcher Patricia Sutherland urged caution on these findings, saying that excavation records indicate that the Okivilialukcarving was found at a lower level (meaning it was created earlier) than the textiles. Sutherland is a research associate at Carleton University in Canada who has excavated extensively in the Canadian Arctic but is not involved in the new research. That finding, Sutherland said, suggests that the carving may date back to earlier than the 16th century meaning it could show Vikings.  

Originally published on Live Science.


Rare Thor’s Hammer Amulet Found in Iceland Casts New Light on Viking Life

 Ancient Origins comes through again with this excellent article on recent archaeological finds on Iceland in an area of the island where settlement existed during the Viking Age that nobody knew about. (Ed.)


The Thor’s hammer amulet. ( Fornleifastofnun Íslands )
19 OCTOBER, 2018 - 19:01 ED WHELAN
In archaeology, anything from the past can be of great importance, including artifacts that may seem rather small and unremarkable at first glance. For example, archaeologists have just announced the discovery of a small Viking era item in Iceland that is a first of its kind – it  has real historical significance.  During some routine work, the archaeologists uncovered a stone amulet that represents the hammer of the Norse God Thor. This small artifact is going to help experts to better understand Viking society at a critical stage in its development.

A Lucky Find
The find was made by chance and it is one of many fortuitous finds in Iceland in recent years. Another item discovered by accident was a warrior’s sword discovered in 2016. The site where the amulet was found is in the south of Iceland in the breath-taking Þjórsárdalur valley. A team of experts was registering sites in the valley when they made the discovery. A local man directed the team to an area where he claimed to have found some Viking artifacts.

The experts went to the location and as they were recording the previously unknown site, they uncovered a number of artifacts, that were, according to the Iceland Magazine ‘lying on the surface of the soil’’. There were several small artifacts also recovered with the amulet. Bergur Thor Bjornsson,  who made the discovery, is the descendant of an archaeologist who located many important Viking sites in Iceland in the early twentieth century.

The Thor’s hammer amulet. ( Fornleifastofnun Íslands )
A Unique Thor’s Hammer Amulet
The most important item discovered while exploring the site this time was the amulet of Thor. Inside Edition website has declared the Thor’s hammer amulet ‘the first of its kind found’.  It is so special because it is the first Thor’s hammer amulet to be found that is made from stone. All the other examples of this ornament have been fashioned from metal or bone.  

After a preliminary investigation, the style of the amulet is unusual and it appears to offer evidence that the Norse cults had come under the influence of Christianity. It is now being studied and analyzed to determine its origin and age.

Who was Thor?
Thor is a well-known figure in the movies and comics and is very well-known in modern popular culture. To the Vikings, he was the God of Thunder and second only to Odin in the Norse Pantheon. His hammer Mjollnir had magical properties and made him near-invincible and with it, he, slew his enemies and many monsters. Thor appeared very often in Norse myth and he is often portrayed as a somewhat comical figure, nevertheless, he was much-loved by the common Norse people. 

An 1872 representation by Mårten Eskil Winge of Thor wielding his famous hammer, Mjölnir, against the giants. ( Public Domain )
 It is only in recent years that experts have been able to definitively identify a large number of amulets as representing the hammer of the God of Thunder ; after finding one with an inscription, bearing the name ‘Thor’ in Denmark. These amulets were buried with people such as warriors . For example, one amulet was found in a mass grave of two Vikings who were part of the Great Heathen Army that invaded England in the 9th century AD.

A Major Discovery
The discovery of the amulet has also led to the identification of a new Viking site. It seems that early Norse settlers lived in the area until a volcanic eruption in 1014 AD forced them to leave. But the amulet was not the only important artifact found in the valley;  a portable whetstone, which is extremely rare, was also discovered. This stone was used to sharpen tools and implements and according to the Inside Edition website , it is ‘’now named Bergsstadir after the local that discovered it’’.

The whetstone. Whetstones are among the most common finds at Viking era archaeological sites. ( Fornleifastofnun Íslands )
This chance find is significant because it is helping experts to understand the importance of the Thor cult in Norse society. The design of the Thor’s hammer amulet is also suggestive of Christian influence and this may force researchers to rethink how the Vikings became converts to Christianity. Moreover, the find has helped to provide an insight into early Icelandic settler society and its relationship to the wider Norse world.

The Stenkvista runestone in Södermanland, Sweden, shows Thor's hammer instead of a cross. (Berig/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Top image: The small Thor’s hammer amulet was carved out of sandstone. 
Source: Fornleifastofnun Íslands

Ancient Viking Ship Found Buried Next to Busy Norwegian Freeway

Virtually everything we have built in modern times sits atop or near something else built by other people from another age.

This interesting article about a Viking ship burial site recently discovered beside a Norwegian freeway confirms that supposition. (Ed.)



Ancient Viking Ship Found Buried Next to Busy Norwegian Freeway

George Dvorsky

10/16/18 9:40am

Filed to: VIKINGS

The buried ship as seen by ground-penetrating radar.Image: NIKU

 Using ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists in Norway have discovered an ancient Viking ship buried just 20 inches beneath the surface of a farmer’s field. The 66-foot-long ship, deliberately buried during a funeral ritual, appears surprisingly intact—and it could contain the skeletal remains of a high-ranking Viking warrior.

It’s called the Jellstad Ship, and it was discovered on farmland in Østfold county in southeast Norway. The site, known as Viksletta, is near the the large and fully intact Jelle burial mound, which can be seen from the busy Norwegian Rv41 118 freeway.

Archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), with the help of radar specialists from Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro), detected the vessel using mobile ground-penetrating radar. The discovery is significant in that it’s only the fourth Viking ship burial ever discovered, according to Knut Paasche, head of the Department of Digital Archaeology at NIKU.

The Viksletta site: red circles show locations of the burial mounds, orange rectangles the longhouses, and the green eye-shaped object the ancient boat.
“There are only a small number of ship burials known from Scandinavia so far and only three of them (Gokstad, Oseberg and Tune ships) are actually well preserved,” Erich Nau, an archaeologist with NIKU, told Gizmodo. “The last one of these—Oseberg—was found and excavated in 1904, when archaeological methods were far less advanced than they are today. This new finding offers the possibility for modern, state-of-the-art research. Both further non-invasive methods and modern excavation and documentation methodology can now be applied and will probably lead to a much deeper understanding of the phenomenon of ship-burials.”

In addition to the ship, the scans revealed eight previously undiscovered burial mounds and several longhouses. All eight of the mounds had been plowed over by farmers, but enough evidence remained beneath the surface for the researchers to identify them as such.

In a statement, Morten Hanisch, the county conservator in Østfold, said the archaeologists “are certain that there is a ship there, but how much is preserved is hard to say before further investigation.”

The researchers haven’t dug into the topsoil yet, as they’re hoping to perform as much non-invasive work as possible using “all modern means of archaeology,” said Paasche. Indeed, the ship’s timbers, once exposed to the elements, will start to degrade immediately. What’s more, radar scans show the ship in its undisturbed condition. The researchers are planning to perform more scans of the area, but they haven’t ruled out an excavation of the ship at some point in the future.

The ship is resting just 20 inches (50 centimeters) below the topsoil, and it’s around 66 feet (20 meters) long. Preliminary scans suggest the ship’s keel and floor timbers are still intact. While the researchers have not yet dated this site, similar sites in Norway date to around 800 AD.

Artist’s depiction of the ship prior to its burial.Illustration: NIKU

The researchers say the ship was deliberately buried in a burial mound, which is not as extraordinary as it might sound. Boats and ships were an indelible aspect of Viking culture, used for transportation, trade, and conquest in northern Europe until about 1,000 years ago. Ships were precious and considered symbols of wealth and status. Archaeologists have found buried ships before, some even containing bodies. In 2011, for example, archaeologists in Scotland discovered a 15-foot-long (5-meter) boat with a warrior inside, along with his shield, sword, spear, and other grave goods.

“Ship burials are a tradition that only exist in Scandinavia and adjoining areas during the Late Iron Age in Scandinavia—from the 6th to the 11th century—and the majority of the already excavated examples can be dated to the 9th and 10th century which is also called the Viking Age,” said Nau. “Therefore we can assume that the new one is also from this period and thus between 1,000 and 1,200 years old. However, we cannot date the new findings with certainty yet—this will probably be possible only within the framework of an excavation.”

This newly discovered ship may have been part of a cemetery, which was “clearly designed to display power and influence,” archaeologist and project leader Lars Gustavsen said in a statement. There’s a very real possibility that the Jellstad Ship contains the remains of a high-ranking Viking, but that still needs to be proven.

It’s not immediately clear if ground-penetrating radar could pick up traces of a body, or bodies; for that, ground excavations may be necessary.

Five longhouses, or halls, were also discovered by the researchers, some of which were quite large. The scientists said the site is reminiscent of another Viking site: the Borre site in Vestfold County, on the opposite side of the Oslofjord.

These findings are all very preliminary, and the researchers are preparing for the next stage of the project, which will involve more thorough scans of the Viksletta site using additional non-invasive geophysical methods. The discovery of this ancient ship is very exciting, but the best may be yet to come.

This post was updated to include comments from Erich Nau.

[Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research]

Viking Warrior Women?

This interesting article comes to us from Medievalists. Click on the title link to watch the video from the author of the study, Dr. Leszek Garderla, Bonn University, Germany.

The subject of women warriors comes to us from movies which generally bear little to no resemblance to reality during the Viking Age, including several illusions to Viking female warriors.

Not a shed of evidence exists  for Viking female warriors, and Dr Leszek makes that point as he combs through manuscripts and museums for definitive proof of what has become contemporary fantasy. As has been stated previously, grave goods that include weapons is not proof that the erstwhile occupant of the grave was a warrior.


Published on Oct 30, 2018

Medieval texts tell of Viking warrior women taking part in battles, but are these stories describing reality or pure fiction? What can archaeology tell us about women in the Viking Age? 

The search for answers is being done by ‘Amazons of the North: Armed Females in Viking Archaeology and Old Norse Literature,’ a research project led by Dr Leszek Gardeła (Bonn University, Germany) and funded by the DAAD German Academic Exchange Service.

You can follow the project on Facebook and Instagram:

Script and production: Leszek Gardeła and Mira Fricke

Music: “TYR” written by Einar Selvik. Copyright BMG Platinum Songs US. Used by kind permission of BMG Management GMBH. “Hagal” written by Einar Selvik. Copyright BMG Platinum Songs US. Used by kind permission of BMG Management GMBH.


The Ancient Swedish Village That Predates the Vikings

Another interesting article from Ancient Origins that details a reconstructed village from the Vendel Period complete with some of the artifacts dug from the site of the original village that dates to 1500-years ago. (Ed.)

Reconstructed longhouse at Gene Fornby


Located just outside Örnsköldsvik in northern Sweden, Gene Fornby is a reconstructed archaeological open-air museum based on the finds of an ancient settlement. It became a popular tourist attraction when it opened to the public in 1991 and demonstrates how the village would have appeared during the period of occupation more than 1500 years ago.

The family that lived there lived well, and they had been doing so for generations. Food was plentiful as they farmed the land, and the sea gave them fish and seals. During occupation the water would have reached the edge of the village, although currently the site sits 65 feet (20 meters) above sea level due to environmental changes in the area. The family lived there when iron, bronze and pearls were considered precious goods. They traded with nearby settlements and provided items they made in the smithy. The surrounding forests provided them with timber from which they built their homes, their boats, and made crafts.

Reconstructed long house at Gene Fornby under snow. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Gene Fornby is operated by the Örnsköldsvik Museum & Art Gallery and is open during summer with interpreters and historians dressed in period costume. While education and entertainment are deemed important, both the university and the local museum are still involved in ongoing research.

The area was excavated primarily from 1977 to 1988 by archaeologists from the University of Umeå who found traces of human activity in the area dating back to the Nordic Bronze Age (1700–500 BC), but the settlement itself dates back to the Roman Iron Age and the Migration Period, from around the years 400-600 AD.

The Smithy Was Large Enough To Contain Four Forges
The forge is believed to have been one of the largest in prehistoric Scandinavia. Traces of iron production and processing were uncovered as well as bronze casting refuse, and even a textile workshop. The bronze casting molds for embossed buckles are an unusual type that have only been found at about ten locations throughout the Nordic region, and Genes Fornby is the only known manufacturing site. The archaeological evidence show that an iron industry had been an important part of the settlement.

Iron objects made in the forge (Örnsköldsvik Municipality)

A cemetery with nine low burial mounds was found in the main excavation area, while four more burial mounds were found not far away. The thirteen burial mounds, thought to be chieftain graves from the years 100 to 600 AD, are of great significance. Contrary to the previous archaeological assumption that there was probably no resident population in the northern parts of Sweden before the Viking Age (792 to 1066 AD), the graves prove Gene Fornby was one of the earliest settlements in this part of Sweden.

Among the artifacts found at the site are knives, arrowheads, bone combs, pottery, clothing buckles and buttons, as well as beads of bronze, glass, bone and clay.  Waste from handicraft production indicates that a great number of objects were made on site.

Gene Fornby spans over two periods - during the first phase there was a longhouse, a barn which held corn, as well as a workshop. Then the second phase started when they demolished the old buildings and built a new longhouse, a barn and also the large smithy.

In total, fourteen houses were found in the excavation area. Thirteen of the buildings belong to the Iron Age settlement, and one house dates to the 1200s.

A ‘grophus’ or house at Gene Fornby ( CC BY SA-3.0 )

Found just northwest of the settlement were, among other things, several charred logs, nail like objects, flint flakes and an iron key. Samples of the charred wood have been dated to the Migration Period, which is consistent with the dating of the key.

The Fight For Preservation Lasted Over Ten Years
The site, however, was not without controversy. For many years, the politicians of the City Council of Örnsköldsvik argued over the ‘use’ of Gene Fornby and the site was at risk even though it was marked by The Swedish National Heritage Board as an archaeological location. 

After several years of struggle, those who fought for the preservation of the site generated more and more followers and were eventually victorious in 2012. The site was transferred to the Örnsköldsvik Municipality for preservation in 2013.

Top image: Reconstructed longhouse at Gene Fornby    Source: CC BY-SA 3.0


Eight-year-old pulls a 1,000-year-old pre-Viking era SWORD from the bottom of a lake in Sweden

An interesting article from the Daily Mail tells a story of a young girl's accidental find of a sword that may pre-date the Viking age.

If the experts, who haven't dated the sword yet, are correct, and the sword is over 1000-years old it might possibly be a weapon from the Vendel Period of ancient Sweden - 500-700 AD. The Gotar tribe inhabited the modern area of Smaland, where the sword was found, so if the sword is that old it might be a weapon of the Gotar tribe. Now that would really be something. (Ed.)


The ancient sword was discovered by 8-year-old Saga Vanecek in Vidöstern lake
The child at first thought she'd pulled out a stick, before realizing it was a sword
Experts estimate it's at least 1,000 years old, likely dating to pre-Viking era 
They're now working to preserve it before putting it on display at a museum  

PUBLISHED: 16:19 EDT, 4 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:45 EDT, 5 October 2018
An 8-year-old girl skipping rocks at a lake in Sweden earlier this summer made a remarkable discovery that now has many locals joking she should be crowned the new queen, in a nod to tales of King Arthur.

While wading in Vidöstern lake in Tånnö, Småland, Saga Vanecek stumbled upon what she thought was 'some kind of stick' – but, it turned out to be a sword dating back more than 1,000 years to the pre-Viking era.

Experts are now working to preserve the delicate relic before it's eventually put on display at the Jönköpings Läns Museum.

While wading in Vidöstern lake in Tånnö, Småland, Saga Vanecek stumbled upon what she thought was 'some kind of stick'

It turned out to be a sword dating back more than 1,000 years to the pre-Viking era.

Though Vanecek found the sword months ago, the news was kept under wraps until this week to give researchers time to scour the area for any other artefacts that could be nearby, according to The LocalAnd in doing this, they found an ancient brooch from the same time period, as well as an 18th century coin.


Archaeologists Have Discovered A Treasure Trove Of Ancient Artifacts In Scandinavia’s First Viking City

Danish archaeologists from Aarhus University and representatives of the Southwest Jutland Museum, have discovered numerous Viking artifacts beneath the streets of Ribe, Denmark, according to this article in Inquisitr.

There is a virtual certainty that more will be discovered as the dig progresses; however, a lack of sufficient operating funds may call a halt before the work is completed.

Almost all ancient cities have modern ones setting atop the original site, making digging expensive or impossible, as is the case in Ribe.

Click the title link to read the original article on Inquisitr. (Ed.)


Archaeologists Have Discovered A Treasure Trove Of Ancient Artifacts In Scandinavia’s First Viking City

Archaeologists in the west Denmark town of Ribe have excavated 330 feet of the first Viking city in Scandinavia, and have discovered artifacts from beads to lyres, which still have their tuning pegs intact.

September 15, 2018

Archaeologists have been busy excavating beneath the streets of Ribe, the first Viking city ever established in Scandinavia, and have discovered a treasure trove of ancient artifacts. Ribe, which can be found in west Denmark, is the subject of important new research that is known as the Northern Emporium Project, which is currently being conducted by archaeologists from Aarhus University and the Southwest Jutland Museum.

After digging just 10 feet beneath this ancient Viking city, archaeologists discovered thousands of artifacts such as coins, amulets, beads, bones and even combs. Lyres (ancient string instruments) have also been found, with some still having their tuning pegs attached to them, Science Nordic reports.

However, besides the numerous artifacts that have been excavated, archaeologists were also keen to learn more about how the city of Ribe would have originally been created. After all, none of the people who originally inhabited this site had ever lived in a city before, and the population would have consisted of lyrists, craftsmen, seafarers, innkeepers, and tradesmen.

While archaeologists have known about Ribe for quite some time, excavating this site was another matter entirely. Due to high costs and the amount of time required, up until recently, only small sections of this city were investigated.However, now that the Carlsberg Foundation has joined in, the funding for the project has been taken care of, and archaeologists are using 3D laser surveying techniques in combination with the study of soil chemistry and DNA analysis to learn much more about the first Viking city in Scandinavia.

Archaeologists discovered that not long after the creation of Ribe, houses had been built on the site which shows that this city quickly developed its residents, and would have been a largely urban community.

When it comes to ancient cities that existed in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, cities were packed tightly together, yet here in Ribe, the closest city would have easily been hundreds of miles away. However, archaeologists believe that despite such great distances, the earliest settlers of this Viking city would still have traversed great distances in order to network with others.

It was also determined that as 800 AD is when the Viking era is asserted to have truly started, Ribe would have been part of what is known as the sailing revolution. With this new era, archaeologists noted many changes in the artifacts that were found. For instance, craftsmen who made beads originally had quite small workshops that may have only been used for a matter of weeks.

During the height of the Viking age, the production of these beads appears to have slowed down immensely, and archaeologists spotted evidence of other imported Middle Eastern beads that would have taken their place. It was also discovered that gemstones weren’t that important to residents of Ribe. Gold, on the other hand, certainly was, and it is believed that much of the gold in use during the early days of this city would have been stolen from Roman graves.

With around 330 feet of the first Viking city excavated, archaeologists are progressing steadily with their study of Ribe, and will continue to publicize their finds in the upcoming years.


How Human Error Led the Vikings to Canada

An article from Live Science features work done on the theory that Norse ship crews may have used sun stones to sail to their desired destinations across the North Atlantic.

Seems reasonable since the Greenland Norse sailed back and forth across the North Atlantic for 400-years taking their trade goods to markets in their Scandinavian homelands. They certainly used something to navigate. 

And, according to the Norse Sagas, Bjarni Herjulfsson did miss Greenland in the late decades of the 9th century during a storm and sighted what must have been North America, but he did not land. He told Leif Eiriksson about his sighting and Lucky Leif later went to see what his friend had sighted. Leif landed on Newfoundland and the rest is history. But you all know that, right?

Original Live Science article may be seen by clicking the title link. (Ed.)

How Human Error Led the Vikings to Canada
By Tom Metcalfe, Live Science Contributor | April 12, 2018 06:54am ET

Credit: Shutterstock
Viking navigators guided by mysterious crystal "sunstones" may have accidentally sailed on to the mainland of North America while looking for Greenland, according to new research.
The new study shows that so-called sunstones — crystals of translucent minerals like Iceland spar, which split the polarization of light passing through them — would have been "surprisingly successful" as navigation devices, by revealing the position of the sun on cloudy days, a common occurrence in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Vikings had no knowledge of the use of magnetic compasses for navigation at sea.
But observations with these crystal sunstones might have helped Viking ships steer a course due west from Norway to Greenland, the site of several Viking settlements after the 10th century, said Dénes Száz, an optical physicist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.Száz is the lead author of the new study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science this month. [7 Secrets of Viking Seamen]

Computer simulations showed that Viking navigators who made observations of the position of the sun at least once every 3 hours had a very high chance of sailing due west and reaching the coast of Greenland, Száz told Live Science in an email.
" may have accidentally sailed on to the mainland of North America while looking for Greenland

But Vikings who made observations of the sun less frequently ran the risk of drifting south and missing Greenland altogether — and, if they didn't all die at sea first, of eventually reaching the coast of Canada.
"Through archaeological findings, we know for sure that the Vikings were present in North America centuries before Columbus," Száz said. "But we do not know whether they got there through such a misnavigation, or started discovery expeditions from previous colonies on Greenland."

Viking sunstone mystery
For the new study, Száz and co-author Gábor Horváth, also of Eötvös Loránd University, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking-ship voyages across the North Atlantic, to determine the expected success of navigations guided by sunstones.

Their research builds on earlier studies that measured the human error involved in navigating with sunstones of Icelandic spar and other translucent crystals that create a double or bright single image, depending on the polarization of the light passing through them.
Száz explained that, while there is little archaeological evidence for the use of such crystals by Viking navigators, the 13th-century Icelandic saga of St. Olaf described mysterious sunstones — sólarsteinn, in Old Icelandic — that were used in cloudy or foggy weather to find the position of the sun.

Viking navigators are thought to have used a nonmagnetic sun compass to measure the angle of the sun at midday, which would have enabled them to steer along a constant line of latitude — due west from Norway to Greenland, for example. 

But because the North Atlantic is plagued by cloudy weather and fog for much of the year, the sun often can't be seen for days or weeks at a time.
In a hypothesis proposed in 1967 by Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou, Száz said, Viking navigators could find the sun on cloudy days by rotating sunstones in front of the sky and observing where the images in the crystals aligned or brightened.

Simulated sea voyages
The computer simulations of Viking voyages revealed that sunstones used to find the position of the sun on cloudy days would have been "surprisingly successful" as navigation aids, especially when the observations were made at least every 3 hours and taken evenly around midday. [Images: Viking Twilight Compass Helps Navigate North Atlantic]

The simulations showed that Vikings from Norway who kept to this regular schedule of observations could sail close enough to due west to reach the coast of Greenland in three to four weeks, Száz said. "We showed that if the navigation periodicity was 1, 2 or 3 hours, the navigation success was very high, between 80 and 100 percent," Száz said.

But the research also showed that Vikings who made sun observations only every 6 hours or more, or none at all, tended to stray south on their voyages, with a very high chance that they might have sailed right past Greenland entirely.

If that happened — and if the Vikings on board did not perish from thirst, hunger or storms at sea — some of those Viking voyages might have sailed all the way to the coasts of what are now Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada, Száz said.

The computer simulations used in the current research took into account weather changes, the different mineral types of sunstone that might have been used, and the times of year when the voyages between Norway and Greenland were undertaken.

Future research would add factors to the simulations, including the effects of storms, water currents and varying winds, he said.
Original article on Live Science.


Thousands of objects discovered in Scandinavia’s first Viking city

Archaeologists in Scandinavia have excavated underneath the main street of Ribe, Denmark. This interesting article from Science Nordic details what they found. (Ed.)

As always, the title link takes the reader to the original article.


September 13, 2018 - 06:25
Danish archaeologists have excavated the streets beneath Ribe to discover how the first city of the Viking age was established.
The bead-makers of 8th century Ribe used pieces of glass gathered from old Roman mosaics as their raw material. They didn’t have access to newly manufactured glass. This is one of the many details that tells us about the city’s network. (Photo: Museum of Southwest Jutland)
If you want to know anything about the Viking Age, Ribe, in west Denmark, is the place to go.
Archaeologists from Aarhus University and Southwest Jutland Museums (Denmark) have been excavating the Viking city as part of the Northern Emporium Project in minute detail.
We have dug down to three metres, where we find traces of the first cities of the Nordic region.

Thousands of items discovered beneath the streets of Ribe
Deep beneath street level are thousands of Viking finds. We have discovered everything from beads, amulets, coins, and lost combs, to dog excrement and gnawed bones.
We have also been surprised on several occasions, such as when we discovered a piece of a lyre (a harp-like stringed instrument), complete with tuning pegs. This discovery alone gives the Viking trading city of Ribe a whole new soundtrack.

Another extraordinary find is the discovery of runic inscriptions.

“High-definition”-archaeology reveals new information
Interesting as this is, we have been looking for something completely different. What makes Ribe special is that this is where a city emerged. The people who lived here weren’t primarily farmers for household purposes but were craftsmen, seafarers, tradesmen, innkeepers, and maybe even lyrists.
We have known about the existence of the early period of Ribe for many years but excavating the deep layers to study this early period is expensive and time-consuming. Earlier excavations have therefore focused on smaller areas. However, two years ago the Carlsberg Foundation joined the excavation with the funding that made it possible to start a new and bigger excavation.
Meanwhile new methods of archaeology, including 3D laser surveying, DNA research, and soil chemistry, allow us to tease out new information from the site.
These ‘high-definition’ methods were developed by the Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) funded by the Danish National Research Foundation.
How is a city established?
3D scans are used to document and analyse the many layers of flooring (yellow) and layers of soil (blue) from the Viking age houses. In the cut out area loom weights and other larger object can be seen in situ on the floors. (Graphic: Sarah Croix)
The early period of Ribe is a riddle: How was the city established in a part of the world where no one had ever lived in a city before? That is the question our excavation tried to answer.
Clues from earlier excavations were difficult to interpret, and scientists discussed whether Ribe was simply a seasonal market town for generations before people started to settle there more permanently.
One of the most important discoveries was that solid houses existed in Ribe only a few years after the earliest activities in the area, no later than the 720’s CE.  This suggests a more or less resident population - that is a population of trade and craftsmanship in the area, an urban community of sorts.

The development of Ribe layer by layer
In the Ancient Middle East and Ancient Mediterranean the cities were placed near each other each with their own temples, palaces, markets and city walls. Each city was at the centre of the surrounding area. Yet early period Ribe and the next closest city were hundreds of kilometres apart.
On the other hand it’s evident that people visited the city from far away. It was a city that lived by its networks.
Networks of trade and information are crucial to city life throughout history. But it is a lot harder to observe networks in archaeological excavations than it is to dig up city walls and monuments. In this regard Ribe has an ace up its sleeve: the oldest layers of the city are untouched and this makes it possible to uncover the city’s history decade by decade. In doing so, we can see how the city’s networks developed.

Ribe contributed to the creation of the Viking Age
Ribe was an ideal departure point for sailing ships and it’s development depended on them., Around 700 CE, when Ribe was beginning to develop, maritime traffic at the North Sea was in its infancy. But by 800 CE, when the Viking Age is traditionally said to have begun, the sailing ship had its breakthrough in the North.
Commercial cities like Ribe with their extensive networks, were crucial in the sailing revolution, as the ships were used to trade the cities’ goods with the rest of Scandinavia. And in that regard, Ribe helped create the Viking Age as we know it.
In Ribe we see this change in the remains of workshops. These finds are the real scoop of the excavation. Time after time we get a close-up look at the earliest city-dwellers in the North and the crafts that made them special.

Wood and other organic materials are preserved in deep underneath the Danish city of Ribe. For example, this piece of lyre with six tuning pegs, was found in a layer from the first half of the 8th century CE. (Photo: Museum of Southwest Jutland)

Networks of the craftsmen and the first globalisation
The craftsmen of Ribe depended on the city’s network both for access to raw materials and to sell their wares. We have found evidence of many trades: ironsmiths, amber workers, leather workers, comb makers, and jewellers, who worked with pewter, lead, copper alloys, silver and gold.
Initially, comb makers, who made intricately decorated combs and other tools from antlers, used local supplies such as antlers from stags. This changes around the beginning of the Viking Age, when they start using antlers from reindeer, which must have been imported from Norway.
The network of the bead makers changes just as drastically. In the oldest layers we find evidence of several smaller workshops, each only in use for days or maybe weeks. The raw material – colored fragments of glass – must have originated far from Ribe and it’s clear that each craftsman brought a slightly different range of colours.
The bead production continues for a couple of generations with the style of the bead changing according to the fashions of the day. However, the production stops around the emergence of the Viking Age. Instead, mass produced beads from the Middle East start arriving in bulk. The bead makers of Ribe are the first craftsmen in Denmark to be ousted by globalisation.

Scandinavia’s first city developed before global trade appeared
Ribe developed an impressive network in the Viking Age, but it was not yet global. This is indicated by several findings.
Analysis of the glass used by the bead makers shows that the glass originated in Palestine and Egypt. However, it was already several centuries old when it arrived in Ribe and so it must have been taken from old Roman mosaics, probably in Roman cities such as Cologne or Trier.
We also found a roman carnelian gemstone decorated with the picture of Venus, which had been forcibly removed from the gold ring it must have decorated. 
Apparently, the gemstone was of no interest in Ribe. But the gold was. The raw material of the first goldsmiths in Ribe was very likely comprised of objects like these looted from Roman graves.
Other findings point in the same direction. A fragment of the ornately decorated Roman ceramic, terra sigillata, must have been picked up at a Roman ruin or grave and brought to Ribe as an amulet or souvenir. Even though these things originate far away they may have been brought from relatively nearby.
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Findings show that the first city of the North appeared before trade with the Mediterranean and Middle East was established. It was another network that kick started the development of Ribe. The results of our excavation will no doubt tell us more about these origins in the coming years.

An epic expedition to the Viking Age
Wrapping up a big excavation like this is not the end. We have come home with bags full of samples, data, and discoveries that we have not yet had time to unpack and study properly. Many of the most important results are probably yet to come.
Now, we need to hit the laboratory, where we’ll spend hours and hours analysing samples to trace the activity in the city’s earliest houses. Terabytes of survey notes need processing and analyzing. And the network of the craftsmen needs to be mapped after analysing the materials and isotope studies.
The Northern Emporium-expedition to Viking age Ribe has gathered materials that will be used by scientists for many decades to come to answer age-old questions and hopefuly some new ones.

Findings still need analysis
All in all, the project “Northern Emporium” has excavated about 100 square meters of cultural layers in the heart of the oldest Ribe.
It will set a new standard for archaeological research of cities through the development of field methods that include geochemical element analysis, micromorphology, and dynamic, electronic methods for documenting the excavation.
The project is sponsored by the Carlsberg Foundation. It is completed in close collaboration with the Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) funded by the Danish National Research Foundation and the Museum of Southwest Jutland, which is responsible for the archaeology of Ribe.
The project will be continuing the analysis and publish the thousands of finds and observations in the coming years.
Country Denmark
Translated by
Astrid Leed Strauss
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The cities of the Vikings and the Pirenne thesis
Scientists and archaeologists often talk about the Pirenne thesis in the research of the oldest cities and trade networks of Northern Europe.
In the beginning of the 20th century the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne discovered that the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe might have happened differently than former historians had thought.
If you  crutinized the sparse source material it became clear that cities, craftsmanship, and trade with silk, wine and other luxury wares from the Mediterranean, continued to a smaller extent after the ‘barbarians,’ as the Romans called the Germanic people, had assumed control.
Therefore Pirenne theorised that the real distinction in European history was the blocking of the most important trade routes of the continent caused by the Arabian conquests in the Mediterranean in the 7th century instead of the fall of the Roman Empire.
According to Pirenne, Western Europe had grown isolated from the rest of the world since that point.
Critics of Pirenne questioned this isolation and maintained that Northern Europe still had trade and contact with the Mediterranean towards the beginning of the Viking Age, around 800 CE. Since then, the discussion has gone back and forth.
At first glance, the many traces of trade and craftsmanship from 8th century Ribe looks to argue against the Pirenne thesis. However, the discovery that the city’s oldest trade networks were limited to Germany and the area of the North Sea speaks for the thesis instead.


Danish Viking fortresses were designed to fend off other Vikings

A very interesting article from ScienceNordic on archaeologists from Aarhus University, Denmark, and their continuing work on the country's Viking Ring Fortresses, constructed at the direction of King Harald Bluetooth during his reign in the 10th century. (Ed. )


August 21, 2018 - 06:25
After four years, the excavation of the famous Viking fortress, Borgring, is coming to a close and archaeologists can now describe the fortress in a broader perspective: An anti-Viking defence that allowed the Danish King to forge a new, mobile army.

Trelleborg is one of the five Viking fortresses in Denmark, built by Harold Bluetooth at the end of the 900s CE. (Photo: National Museum of Denmark)
Four years ago, my colleague Nanna Holm from the Museum Southeast Denmark and I, announced our new discovery: A Viking fortress, known as Borgring, in Lellinge, not far from the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
The news travelled around the world, and since then our excavations have continued to cast new light on the Viking Age.
Thousands of visitors have flocked to the site, which has been open each summer as a living museum. But if you want to visit then you will need to be quick, as this summer will probably be the last year of excavations at Borgring.
Here are some of the most important and surprising discoveries made during the excavations. These finds not only tell us about the history of the fortress, but also about the purpose of these unique, ring fortresses.
A “new” ring fortress?
Borgring is one of five, large ring fortresses from the Viking Age in Denmark. Each of the large fortresses were constructed in a perfect circle and are some of the best known monuments left by the Vikings.
The other fortresses include Trelleborg, Fyrkat, Nonnebakken, and Aggersborg, as well as Borgeby in Southern Sweden. All were built by King Harold Bluetooth who reigned between circa 958 and 987 CE and is best known in Denmark for erecting the Jelling Stone—a large stone with the first written reference to the name “Denmark,” often referred to as Denmark’s birth certificate.
It had been 60 years since archaeologists had discovered such a ring fortress in Denmark when we finally found Borgring. Many doubted that it was indeed a Viking fortress, while others claimed that the fortress had been known about for some time.
Locals remember an officer from the Danish Air force spotting the outline of the fortress in 1970, in aerial photos. He contacted the National Museum of Denmark who investigated the site and concluded that there were no Viking remains. People thus knew about the old earthworks in a field north of Lellinge, but archaeologists did not connect it to Harold Bluetooth’s fortresses.
Discoveries started to turn up
But the critics came around, as the results of the excavations started coming in.
Among the most important results, which ScienceNordic has previously written about, are.
Carbon-14 dating, which placed the fortress in the early 900s.
Later discoveries of a Viking toolboxbuildingsceramics, and beads and jewellery, indicating activities in the fortress.
In May 2018, Aarhus University together with the Danish Agency for Culture and Palaces, held a conference on the Danish Viking Age ring fortresses, which are to be nominated as UNESCO world heritage sites. It was clear that even the researchers who had been sceptical, were no longer in any doubt that Borgring was one of Harold Bluetooth’s fortresses.
A network of fortresses
Since 2016, scientists from Museum Southeast Denmark, the National Museum of Denmark, and Aarhus University, Denmark, have excavated the site, with funding from the A.P. Møller Foundation and Køge Municipality.
We’ve learnt a lot about the fortress’s history, but also about the Viking fortresses in general.
The fortresses are impressive enough on their own. But the most unique aspect is that they were constructed as a coordinated project—a network of fortresses across the country.

Ring fortresses (dark blue circles) and other focal points of Harold Bluetooth’s kingdom. The shading indicates proximity to medieval churches (red = dense), which gives an indication of the population density shortly after the Viking Age. Roads (white lines) represent the old network, many of which have existed since the Viking Age. (Graphic: Søren M. Sindbæk/Aarhus University)
 Many have tried to explain what purpose the network of fortifications served. Here, it’s important to ask the right questions, as the challenge is to find an explanation that best accounts for everything that we know about these fortresses.
Big fortifications, short lifespan
The ring fortresses only existed for a short part of the Viking Age.
Two of the best dated fortresses, Fyrkat and Trelleborg, look to have been established between 974 and 981, and finds from the other fortresses suggest a similar date.
No other large fortifications existed in Denmark in the rest of the Viking Age, from the end of the 700s up to 1000s, except for city walls in Hedeby (in modern day Germany), Ribe, and Aarhus.
Chieftains and kings built large halls and farms, but not fortresses.
Four hypotheses for the Viking fortresses
Why did Harold Bluetooth build five fortresses in the 970s?
This is the central question that has bothered Viking researchers since the fortresses were first discovered. So far, four main hypotheses have been floated:
Training camps for the Viking army that conquered England around the time of Sweyn Forkbeard. This hypothesis was shelved in the 80s, when tree-ring dating revealed that Trelleborg and Fyrkat fortresses were built and used decades before the large attack on England.
Fortified centres of royal control built by Harold Bluetooth to subdue the population in the newly united Denmark: This was the dominant hypothesis for many years, but the dates again did not fit. Why would Bluetooth build the fortresses in the later part of his reign, long after he became king around 958 CE, and long after he declared Denmark a Christian country in 963 CE?
Military bases during the fight between Bluetooth and his son, Sweyn Forkbeard: Bluetooth’s son rebelled against his father, but if the fortresses were built around 975, this rebellion must have lasted more than a decade across the entire country. Again, it didn’t fit.
A result of an extraordinary foreign policy situation: Early in Bluetooth’s reign, a new power was growing from central Europe under King Otto I, who was crowned emperor in 962. Otto’s growing power was probably a crucial factor in Harold Bluetooth’s conversion to Christianity, to avoid becoming Otto’s next target. Many researchers have come to the conclusion, that it was the unique set of challenges posed by this situation that led Harold Bluetooth to construct the fortresses. Let me explain why.
A network to defend against Viking attacks
Otto I died in 973 and was succeeded by his son, Otto II who attacked Danevirke (in what is modern day Germany), upping the threat to Harold Bluetooth’s Denmark, which remained a target for war until Otto II’s death in 983.
These events coincide precisely with activity at the fortresses, and can explain the need for such unusual fortifications.
But a mystery remains: If the threat was from Germany, why were they built so far from the Danish-German border, on the island of Fyn and Zealand, and Skåne in southern Sweden?
In 2014 I put forward another version of this “invasion theory,” together with my colleague Else Roesdahl. We suggested that the acute danger probably came from Otto II, which explained the timing of the fortress construction.
But another factor can explain the distribution of fortresses around the country: The threat from the south left Harold Bluetooth exposed to other threats from elsewhere, specifically from Norway and Sweden, who might try to exploit the king’s weak position.
And so fortresses were established right across the kingdom. They was a coastal defence: Rather than being Viking fortresses, they were actually “anti-Viking” fortresses.
A new theory

Archaeologist Nanna Holm excavates burnt posts at Borgring’s east gate. The charred wooden posts give a clear indication of the fortress construction. (Photo: Søren M. Sindbæk/Aarhus University)
It was this hypothesis that led us to discover Borgring.
It suggested that Harold Bluetooth must also have had a fortress to protect the east coast of the country, which turned out to be the case.
What we couldn’t explain was, how exactly the fortresses were used as a defence. And this is where the discoveries made at Borgring can shed some new light.
With this in mind, we can propose a new explanation for the fortresses, and a more direct connection between Harold Bluetooth’s fight on the southern borders and his need for coastal defences in the rest of the country.
Built in a hurry
The excavations at Borgring have revealed a fortress built to the same design as Trelleborg and the other ring fortresses. We also see that the fortifications were well planned and completed swiftly.
The landscape was levelled, and the walls were built in a precise circle, with gently sloping sides inside the fortress. The interior is divided into even sections, with four wooden gates placed at exactly 90 degrees to each other.
But then… nothing.
There’s no sign of repairs or extensions to the walls, there are only feeble traces of wooden constructions, which could have supported a high wall, and unlike Trelleborg, Fyrkat, and Aggersborg, there are no signs of construction in the interior of the fortress.
But there are traces of a damaging fire in numerous places around the fortress, and deep wheel tracks that suggest long-term use by traffic coming in and out.
A fortress for refugees
How can we explain these features? It is possible that the construction was interrupted prematurely, but in this case we might have expected to see more clear traces of the building process, and we wouldn’t expect to see any later activity.
The wheel tracks suggest that Borgring was sufficiently ready for use, even without the construction of actual buildings or dwellings inside.
Looking at the excavation drawings from Trelleborg made in the 1930s, we see that the fortress walls were built up numerous times, with the oldest phase most similar to the walls at Borgring.
And Borgring is not alone: One of the other fortresses, Nonnebakken, does not appear to have any interior buildings either. This suggests, that the primary function of the fortresses was not to house a permanent settlement, but to allow people to flee there for short periods of time.
This function as a place for refugees to seek shelter, points to a new and stronger connection between the fortresses and Harold Bluetooth’s was against Otto II.
Fortresses sent warriors to the southern border

Fire experts from the Danish police fire department assist Søren Sindbæk (right) during the excavation of the burnt gates. (Photo: Søren M. Sindbæk/Aarhus University)

The war with the south meant that Harold needed to call up reinforcements from all of the supporting chieftains to gather warriors along the southern border.
Such an operation was described in the Skaldic poem Vellakla, written as a praise poem to the Norwegian Earl Hakon, a contemporary of Harald Bluetooth. According to the poem, Hakon was summoned to assist Harald’s fighting at the Danevirke.
This left over parts of the country without the warriors who would usually defend them and entirely unprotected. In order to win the war with the south, Bluetooth had to offer some other form of protection to these areas, hence the fortresses.
Placed on top of a fortified wall, it was possible for a poorly armed and untrained person, man or woman, to fight off a well-trained warrior.
If enough people sought refuge in the fortress, then the attackers were unlikely to take it. They could initiate a siege, but time would be against them.
A successful strategy
The fortresses offered protection to locals, in the absence of the warriors who had be called up to protect the south. This allowed locals to withstand Viking attacks, and provided Harold Bluetooth with a mobile army that he could deploy to the German border.
The fortresses were intended to deter potential attackers, by allowing the local population to seek shelter and defend themselves.
Seen this way, the fortresses are no longer a mystery. In fact, they successfully fulfilled their mission.
Harold Bluetooth strengthened his power base
Constructing the ring fortresses, allowed Harold to consolidate his power throughout the kingdom in a way that no other king of Denmark had done before.
The large buildings of Trelleborg suggest that some of the fortresses came in due time to take on a more active role as settlements or perhaps winter camps for warriors. But first and foremost, this network of fortresses allowed the king to exploit his chief military assets, warriors, more effectively.
These warriors did not man the fortresses, which were, on the contrary, a means of protecting the portion of the population who were not warriors.  This was a decisive countermeasure that allowed Harold to defend and win the war in another part of the kingdom.
Excavations at Borgring have revealed new pieces of the puzzle to understand all of Harold Bluetooth’s fortresses. 
You can still catch a glimpse of the excavations of the walls and west gate, before this little piece of Viking Age Denmark will be covered by soil and grass once more.
Country Denmark
Translated by
Catherine Jex