Axe of Iron series

stacks_image_507 stacks_image_443 Assimilation

The Viking Great Army

You will enjoy this excellent article from Archaeology Magazine, on the Viking dig at Torksey, Yorkshire County, UK, what it all means, and some of what has been uncovered. (Ed.)

A tale of conflict and adaptation played out in northern England

Monday, February 12, 2018

(Bymuseum, Oslo, Norway/Index/Bridgeman Images)
Tens of thousands of Vikings flowed into northern England beginning in the late 9th century, first as an invading army and then as a wave of migrants. A 10th-century illustration depicts a Viking force disembarking in England.
At first glance, the historic county of Yorkshire in northern England seems as English as can be. It gives its name to Yorkshire pudding, a staple of English cuisine dating back to the eighteenth century. Earlier still, it was home to the royal House of York, whose line included King Richard III. But a closer look reveals a more complicated history. Take Ormesby: Today a suburb of Middlesbrough, its name derives from the Old Norse for “Ormr’s farm.” Or the many streets in the city of York that end in “gate,” from the Old Norse gata, meaning “road” or “way.” Even the city’s name comes from the Old Norse Jorvik.
The source of these Scandinavian-influenced place names and the many more that can be found to this day in northern England dates back more than a thousand years. Starting in the late ninth century, tens of thousands of Vikings arrived in Anglo-Saxon England, first as part of an invading force known as the Viking Great Army, and later as part of a massive wave of settlers. Examining the landscape, history, and archaeology of the region tells us much about what happens when cultures clash but ultimately come to coexist. And it helps explain Anglo-Saxon and Viking interactions.

The Viking Great Army’s arrival in 865 was recounted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “A great heathen force came into English land, and they took winter-quarters in East Anglia; there they were horsed, and they made peace.” According to the Chronicle, the Vikings spent years campaigning through the territory of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms—East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wessex. They proved to be masters at keeping the Anglo-Saxons off balance, making peace with a kingdom one year, only to strike a mortal blow the next. By 880, all the kingdoms had fallen to the Vikings except Wessex, with which they made peace. “The Vikings were very quick and they got quite far inland on their boats,” says Jane Kershaw of the University of Oxford. “They had an element of surprise that the Anglo-Saxons weren’t quite able to anticipate and respond to.”

Viking raiders had been targeting wealthy enclaves on England’s coasts with summertime hit-and-run raids since at least 793, when they launched the infamous, terrifying attack on a monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast of northeast England. Attacks on other monasteries and settlements on England’s east and west coasts followed. Beginning in 850, Viking forces at times spent the winter at coastal sites, allowing them to start their raids earlier in the year. With the arrival of the Viking Great Army, at last, they were able to penetrate deep into England, making their way along rivers and ancient Roman roads, setting up overwintering camps, and wreaking havoc on the Anglo-Saxons. “It seems that the Vikings are after something a little bit different at this stage,” says Kershaw. “They’re still after portable wealth, but they start to have an eye toward acquiring land as well. They start to see England as somewhere they might be able to settle and reestablish themselves as lords with their own families.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the Viking Great Army’s exploits in outsized terms. In a single day’s battle against Wessex, for example, it reports a death toll in the thousands. “The implication is that it’s larger than any previous army seen in England,” says Dawn Hadley of the University of Sheffield. But until recently, there had been little archaeological evidence of its presence. Only one overwintering camp mentioned in the Chronicle had ever been discovered, at Repton, the capital of Mercia, in present-day Derbyshire, where the army spent the winter of 873–874. Excavations conducted there between 1974 and 1993 by Martin Biddle and his late wife, Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, had revealed a small, heavily defended enclosure covering just an acre or two. Although it was unclear whether the camp extended beyond this fortified area, some experts took these findings to suggest that the Great Army was not actually so great after all, numbering at most in the hundreds—and that the Chronicle’s authors had exaggerated its size to make it appear more fearsome.

Now, however, an archaeological project at another location, Torksey, in Lincolnshire, where the army camped from 872 to 873, has established that it was indeed very large—it was in fact far more than a mere army. According to Hadley, codirector of the Torksey research project along with Julian Richards of the University of York, “We are getting the sense that the force that was at Torksey and that is referred to as an army in the Chronicle actually comprised not just warriors, but people engaged in trade and manufacture, and women and children as well.”

(© The Viking Torksey Research Project)
The site near Torksey where the Viking Great Army spent the winter of 872–873 is surveyed by a member of the archaeological team. The camp covered parts of six present-day agricultural fields.
Evidence of the camp at Torksey has been unearthed, for the most part, by avocational metal detectorists. Long active in the United Kingdom, they are strongly encouraged to notify scholars of their finds. When Hadley and Richards learned that a group of detectorists in the Torksey area had discovered ingots, weights, and a concentration of ninth-century coins, including a number of Arabic silver dirhams, all of which appeared to be associated with the Viking Great Army camp, they set out to carefully document the evidence. “We got the detectorists to record their finds more systematically,” says Richards. “We gave them portable global positioning devices to log the coordinates of each discovery so we could plot maps of where everything was coming from.”

The dimensions of the camp that emerged from mapping these finds covered a vast expanse—some 136 acres stretching over six present-day agricultural fields near the east bank of the River Trent north of the modern village of Torksey. “The scale of activity over all those fields suggests a large force, measuring at least in the thousands, with quite a degree of organization,” says Richards. The site is generally dry today as a result of nineteenth-century drainage projects, but the researchers determined that in the ninth century it was a natural island bordered by the River Trent on the west and marshland on the other three sides, which helps explain why the Vikings camped there.

By the time the Viking Great Army overwintered at Torksey, it had been in England for seven years and had already conquered both East Anglia and Northumbria. Archaeologists knew that it could be expected to have accumulated a great deal of treasure, and, in fact, more than 120 Arabic silver dirhams have been unearthed. As is characteristic of the Vikings, the coins had been cut up into pieces to be traded for the value of their metal. These coins are a strong sign of the presence of Vikings, who are known to have traded slaves for them in Eastern Europe. They are only rarely found in typical Anglo-Saxon contexts. “Torksey has the largest concentration of dirhams from any site in Britain or Ireland,” says Hadley. “So that jumps out.” In addition, at least 60 pieces of hacksilver, which was chopped up for use in trade, along with a dozen pieces of rare hackgold, have been found. “If they lost that much material,” asks Richards, “how much silver and gold must there have been in circulation?”

(© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
Metal gaming pieces such as this one (top, far right) suggest how Viking army members spent leisure time at Torksey.
Evidence of tremendous wealth has also been uncovered at the site, including (clockwise from above right) pieces of
hackgold, hacksilver, a gold Carolingian coin, and a silver Arabic dirham.
The Vikings at the camp, according to Hadley and Richards, may well have engaged in trade of a sort with local Anglo-Saxons. Scandinavians at the time generally used raw metal for trade rather than coins. Several hundred weights of the kind they are known to have used to facilitate exchange have been found. However, although the Vikings had negotiated a peace with the Mercians before setting up camp, it is unclear, according to Kershaw, how cordial relations would have been with those living nearby. “I don’t see what Viking camps would have had to offer locals,” she says. “I see them as being quite parasitic on the local landscape. They would have had to acquire a lot of provisions to sustain a large army, but I don’t think they would have done that peacefully. There might have been forced, coercive trade, but I don’t think these are places where you would walk up and buy a couple of pots. The trade that was going on was probably more among the army members themselves.”

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)Several hundred weights found at the Torksey site would have been used by the Viking army during the course of trade, either among themselves or with those living nearby.
The camp at Torksey would have been self-sustaining in some respects. “It’s almost like a town on the move,” says Hadley. Life within its confines is becoming clearer for researchers. Members of the army appear to have had leisure time on their hands, as shown by the number of lead gaming pieces that have been found at the site. The presence of metalworkers is indicated by collections of scrap copper and iron, apparently gathered to be melted down. Women seem to have been part of the camp as well, as suggested by the discovery of spindle whorls and other tools used to work textiles. It is unclear, though, whether these were Scandinavian women who had come along with the army as part of families, or captives taken as spoils of war. Added to all this are hints of an aspiring kingdom attempting to establish itself. Three iron plowshares discovered together may have been headed for the scrap heap. But, according to Richards, “The more interesting possibility is that they were already thinking about seizing agricultural estates and acquired the plowshares with that aim in mind.”

The peace the Vikings had made with the Mercians in Torksey was soon broken. The next year, 873, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings charged into the kingdom’s capital, Repton, some 60 miles southwest along the Trent. There, they sacked a monastery, sent the king, Burghred, fleeing to Paris, and replaced him with a figurehead named Ceolwulf. This sort of bait and switch was typical of how the Vikings managed to get the better of the Anglo-Saxons. “The Anglo-Saxons did their standard thing of making an oath, exchanging hostages, and paying the Vikings some money, and then they expected the Vikings to go away,” says Kershaw. “But the Vikings don’t play by the same rules. They take the money, but they come back the next year. They swear an oath, but they don’t keep it. The Anglo-Saxons don’t quite know how to negotiate with someone who doesn’t respect their laws of peacemaking.”

The early Biddle excavations at the Repton overwintering camp of 873–874 were able to illustrate how the Vikings behaved in victory. After defeating the Mercians, the Vikings ran roughshod over some of their most sacred territory. They built a heavily fortified D-shaped enclosure with St. Wystan’s church to the south serving as a gatehouse and possibly an eating hall. A large defensive ditch was constructed, cutting through Mercian cemeteries to the east and west before turning north to meet the River Trent. Archaeologists also discovered what are believed to have been at least 10 carved Anglo-Saxon stone crosses smashed into small pieces. Says Biddle, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Oxford, “They broke the place up.”

(Courtesy Martin Biddle)
A Viking warrior unearthed at the site in Repton where the Great Army camped over the winter of 873–874 was found to have received severe injuries to the head and left thigh.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers no insights into the nature of the battle for Repton, but evidence shows it was likely a bloody one. Next to a crypt where members of the Mercian royal family were buried, the excavation unearthed a Viking warrior who had suffered grievous injuries and had been laid to rest alongside an iron sword, with a silver Thor’s hammer around his neck. “He died a very violent death indeed,” says Biddle, reflecting back on the discovery. “He looks as though someone stabbed him more or less in the eyes. But the real great wound, which we found immediately upon excavation, was a huge cut into the inner side of his left femur. It could only have been made by someone standing above him, perhaps with a heavy sword or an ax.” A boar’s tusk had been placed between the warrior’s thighs, possibly to replace genitalia damaged or severed in his final battle.

Many more Vikings appear to have been buried in a charnel mound outside the fortified enclosure, in what was once an Anglo-Saxon mausoleum. There, Biddle discovered the disarticulated remains of at least 264 people. The remains belonged overwhelmingly to adult males. Found among them were an iron ax, two fighting knives, and five silver pennies dating to 872–874. As part of a new archaeological examination of the site, radiocarbon dating and analysis of the bones have demonstrated that they date to the time when the army overwintered at Repton and that they had been subjected to extensive violence and trauma. Cat Jarman of the University of Bristol, codirector of the current project at Repton, suggests that many of those whose bones were found in the deposit were Viking warriors killed in battle elsewhere and then buried during the winter. “We don’t actually know what happened to the thousands of people who died in battles that we read about in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” she says. “But there are a lot of examples from across the Viking world of people moving bones, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Viking Great Army took bones from battle sites and put them in this context.”

(Courtesy Mark Horton)
In this aerial view of Repton, one can see St. Wystan’s church (above right), which the Vikings put to use as a gatehouse at the edge of a fortified enclosure, and part of a recent excavation (center) that established the Viking camp was larger than had been thought.

It also appears that the overwintering camp at Repton extended beyond the heavily fortified enclosure. Excavations near the charnel mound have turned up Viking weapons—an arrowhead, a fragment of an ax—as well as lead gaming pieces and evidence of metalworking. Several clinker nails typically used in ship construction have also been found. “We know that they moved up and down the rivers, and their ships would have needed frequent repairs,” says Jarman. “They were probably getting ready for the next season’s attack.”

(Courtesy Anne Leaver (top), Courtesy Cat Jarman (above))
The recent discovery of an arrowhead (top) and ship nail (above) provides further evidence of the Viking army’s presence in Repton.

(Courtesy Mark Horton)
In this aerial view of Repton, one can see St. Wystan’s church (above right), which the Vikings put to use as a gatehouse at the edge of a fortified enclosure, and part of a recent excavation (center) that established the Viking camp was larger than had been thought.

After overwintering at Repton from 873 to 874, the Viking Great Army split in two. One part, under the leadership of Guthrum, headed south and was ultimately defeated in 878 by Wessex and its king, Alfred the Great. To make peace, Guthrum was baptized along with 30 of his warriors, and ended up reigning as an Anglo-Saxon-style king over a swath of territory allocated to him by Alfred. The other part of the army headed north and went on to “share out the land,” as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it, in Northumbria in 876, Mercia in 877, and East Anglia in 880. This seems to suggest that the Vikings took over vast stretches of England, but how did it work exactly? “We don’t really know,” says Kershaw. “The consensus is that they do take over the Anglo-Saxon estates, but I think you probably have Anglo-Saxon communities left in place alongside the new Scandinavian ones.”

(Courtesy Jane Kershaw) 
Scandinavian-style jewelry discovered in East Anglia, such as a disc brooch (top) and a gilt silver pendant (above), both shown front and back, suggest Viking women migrated to England in the late 9th to early 10th centuries.
The area of northern and eastern England inhabited by the Vikings ultimately came to be known as the Danelaw, after the Anglo-Saxons’ belief that most of the invaders had come from Denmark. New evidence suggests that once the army members settled there, large numbers of Viking women came over to join them. Kershaw has analyzed metal-detected finds from rural parts of the Danelaw and identified 125 women’s brooches of types that have turned up nowhere else in England, but have been found in Scandinavia, particularly in Denmark, and date to the Viking Age. “It’s clear that these items are coming in on the clothing of women arriving from southern Scandinavia to settle in rural England,” she says. “So I think there is a second wave of migration following the settlement of the Danelaw that includes women and children.” The discovery of brooches that mix Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian elements indicates that the two communities intermingled to a great degree. “These styles are seen as somehow fashionable by the locals,” says Kershaw. “There is a desire to emulate these styles, which suggests that Scandinavians are either in political control or they’re seen as exotic.”

The Anglo-Saxons, united under the House of Wessex, regained rule of the Danelaw by the mid-tenth century, but the Scandinavian influence endured. In a 1086 survey of England called the Domesday Book, nearly half the place names in Yorkshire are Scandinavian. “It’s not just towns and villages that have these names,” says Kershaw. “It’s really small features of the rural landscape, such as rivers, hedgerows, and little parks.” More than a thousand years after the Vikings first arrived, and despite their eventual defeat, their influence remains etched into the fabric of England to this day.

Daniel Weiss is senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.


Norwegian Glacial Melt Reveals Artifact Trove

Thank God, that halfwit, Al Gore, the opportunist extraordinaire, is causing the ice to melt worldwide, otherwise we wouldn't know about all this great stuff. (Ed.)


A Bronze Age shoe, radiocarbon-dated to about 1200 B.C. (Vegard Vike, Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo

(CN) – A team of glacial archaeologists has recovered more than 2,000 artifacts exposed by climate change in the mountains of Norway.

Reporting Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the team describes the haul which includes ancient wood, hide, textile and other organic materials that are rarely preserved.

The finds date as far back as 4,000 B.C. and include arrows, skis and the remains of pack horses and clothing items from the Iron and Bronze ages.

Unfortunately, the climate change-driven melting that reveals the artifacts – so well preserved by the glaciers – also destroys them through exposure.

The team conducted a systematic survey at the edges of contracting ice along Norway’s Jotunheimen and the surrounding mountain areas of Oppland, which include the nation’s tallest peak.

Statistical analysis of the incredibly rare finds’ radiocarbon dates revealed patterns that showed the items do not evenly represent different time periods, which could be attributed to variations in human activity, past climate change or a combination of the two.

“One such pattern which really surprised us was the possible increase in activity in the period known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age (c. 536 to 660 A.D.),” said senior author James Barrett, an environmental archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England.

This era was marked by cooling, which may have caused harvests to fail and population to decline, according to Barrett. However, the team’s finds may have originated throughout this period, possibly signaling that the importance of mountain hunting – primarily of reindeer – grew to supplement failing agricultural harvests in periods of low temperatures.

Any decline in high-elevation activity during the Late Antique Little Ice Age may also have been so short that it cannot be observed from the available evidence, according to Barrett.
Ski from 700 A.D. with a preserved binding – only the second ski with preserved binding globally. (Aud Hole, /Oppland County Council)

“We then see particularly high numbers of finds dating to the 8th to 10th centuries A.D., probably reflecting increased population, mobility (including the use of mountain passes) and trade – just before and during the Viking age when outward expansion was also characteristic of Scandinavia,” Barrett said.

This increase could have resulted in part from the expanding ecological frontier of towns emerging throughout Europe at this time.

“Town dwellers needed mountain products such as antlers for artifact manufacture and probably also furs,” said Barrett. “Other drivers were the changing needs and aspirations of the mountain hunters themselves.”

The team found fewer artifacts from the latter half of the Middle Ages.

“There is a sharp decline in finds dating from the 11th century onwards,” said lead author Lars Pilo, co-director of the Glacier Archaeology Program at Oppland County Council in Norway. 

“At this time, bow-and-arrow hunting for reindeer was replaced with mass-harvesting techniques including funnel-shaped and pitfall trapping systems. This type of intensive hunting probably reduced the number of wild reindeer.”

Climate variations and the plague could also have led to reduced activity at the time and the reason why the team found fewer items from this period, according to co-author Brit Solli, who led the examination of the recovered artifacts.

“Once the plague arrived in the mid-14th century, trade and markets in the north also suffered,” said Solli, a professor of medieval archaeology at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. “With fewer markets and fewer reindeer, the activity in the high mountains decreased substantially.

“This downturn could also have been influenced by declining climatic conditions during the Little Ice Age.”
A complete tunic, radiocarbon-dated to about 300 A.D. (Mårten Teigen, Museum of Cultural History/University of Oslo)


Vikings research ongoing from Grey-Bruce

This is an interesting article for what might occur in Canadian archaeology insofar as the Vikings are concerned, rather than what has occurred, which is precious little considering the 400-year Norse presence in Canada.
The author and the Sun Times editor apparently do not have access to a spell/grammar check program, but hey, I’ve seen lots of people who write the English language that do not appear to have learned how to write. This author is one of those, but the subject article is still worth a look.

By Rob Gowan, Sun Times, Owen Sound
Sunday, January 14, 2018 3:18:01 EST PM

Robert Burcher and Alison Leonard at a discussion about vikings at Meaford Hall on Saturday. (Rob Gowan The Sun Times)

The Grey-Bruce area has become a bit of a Canadian hotbed for research into the Viking Age.

Rockford native Alison Leonard, who is currently involved in the Long Viking Age project at the University of York in England was joined by Clarksburg amateur archeologist Robert Burcher on Saturday at Meaford Hall where they talked about the different research they are undertaking into the long-ago society.

Leonard, who is again living in the area, said it is a bit of a “happy coincidence” that as she went down the path of her research, she ended up settling on the study of vikings, which do have a Canadian connection.
“My intention wasn't necessarily to look at them because of that Canadian connection, but now that I am home I do wish there was a lot more going on in terms of what we know about vikings in North America more generally,” said Leonard. “There are lots of really exciting theories and I think there is a huge amount of potential.”

There is at least some definitive evidence that the vikings made it to North America, as proven at the L'Anse aux Meadows.

“I have no doubt they travelled far and wide and along at least the coast (of North America). It would be amazing if we had firm evidence that showed them making inroads further inland,” said Leonard, who added it is going to be much more difficult finding that evidence in North America because the society's footprint here is so small.
“Everything is just very ephemeral and they were travelling very lightly,” said Leonard. “I do hold out hope for the future.”

But there are more theories out there, many of which have been explored by Burcher, who has made trips to Newfoundland studying ancient rock inscriptions and other potential archeological sites and has been attempting to get governments onboard with researching and potentially preserving the sites.

Burcher is a professional photographer who has long had a fascination with rock inscriptions and archeology. He has ruffled some feathers among archaeologists and historians with his theories, including in the late 1990s when he garnered media attention with his ideay that a mound of earth near Thornbury was built by ancient Celts, who visited the Great Lakes 2,500 years ago in search of copper. In late 1999 an excavation of the mound revealed it was just a pile of earth, probably distributed by retreating glaciers.

On Saturday, the approximately 40 people in attendance learned all about the very different paths both Leonard and Burcher have taken in studying a people from the same era.

Through her studies, Leonard is attempting to paint a picture of a people who she says were much more than just bloodthirsty warriors.

“In no way do I want to minimize the fact that they were violent, horrible, rough people, but I think it is important to remember that oftentimes they were acting seasonally, so the rest of the year they might be farmers and they might be merchants,” said Leonard. “A lot of the time they would combine the role of a trader with a raider.
“They might be travelling to England in the first place to actually trade at a local port, and then they see these undefended monasteries and realize they could triple their money if they just got their men together and took them down.”

Leonard said for her, it is about treating the whole pre-Viking and Viking period (AD 700-1100) holistically, so society is not leaving any part out.

“The more we understand their world as a whole, then the better we can understand the emergence of Vikings in the first place,” said Leonard. “We still don't have a very good idea of why people actually started going viking, so these are still big questions we hope to be able to answer eventually.

“I think it is looking at the finer details and the other side that will actually help build a big enough picture that we can do that.”
For a long time now, people have had a particular fascination with the vikings, as they have become hugely popular in today's society, with their depiction in movies, television, video games and books, and events such as viking festivals held around the world.

Leonard thinks it is the adventurous spirit of the vikings that makes people so interested in them.

“We don't glorify vikings because of all their negative attributes. It is not what has the most appeal,” Leonard said. “I think more than that, it is the fact that they travelled so far and risked their lives exploring new places.
“They also encompass ideas of loyalty as well. The sort of band of brothers travelling together on the same boat.”

Leonard grew up just outside Owen Sound in Rockford, attending school in the city, before going to McGill University for her undergraduate degree in history and anthropology, where she was introduced to archaeology.

In her third year at McGill she did an exchange to Glasgow, Scotland, which is when she became hooked on European archaeology in particular. After teaching in South Korea for a couple of years, she returned to the United Kingdom to complete her masters in Medieval Archeology at York, which is where she also completed her Ph D.

After finishing her Ph D she worked at the University of Cambridge for a couple years before moving back to the Owen Sound area to be closer to family and friends, but she is still associated with projects at York and is still working on the Long Viking Age Project.

The project uses crowdsourcing methods by tabulating all the Viking Age finds people who are using metal detectors are reporting to various institutions, whether in Denmark, Flanders, England and Wales, or the Netherlands.

The researchers use the data on an international scale to map out where they see similarities in items like net sinkers and spindle whorls that were produced in one area but found in another. They are also looking at where artistic inspiration in the items, such as brooches, is similar in different regions.

“We want to sort of try to pinpoint directions of movement of these artifacts, but also the ideas and trace the people who were influencing those things,” Leonard said.

Burcher said Saturday that he has enjoyed coming together with Leonard to talk about the vikings, a subject they are both very passionate about. He said he recognizes Leonard's skillset as a university-trained researcher on the matter, while Leonard recognizes his skillset as someone who has taken the time to go and talk to people and gather information that way.

“It is a really good blend and I think we will do some work together in the future,” said Burcher, who is hopeful that all his work will soon pay off, with the Irish government wanting to commit some funds into the work he has done, through connections with a local museum near one of the inscriptions in Newfoundland.
“What I want to do at this point is sort of let the Newfoundlanders take it from here,” said Burcher. “I have done all the beating of the bushes.”


The Viking Treasure that Marked the Foundation of England

From Medievalists comes this article about a Viking treasure hoard purported to be the most important ever found in the UK. It was discovered in Oxfordshire in 2015, and is still being examined by experts to date. The final tally of coinage will not be available for some time; however, the importance of the find is what it reveals of the Anglo-Saxon period. (Ed.)


Watlington Hoard in the Ashmolean Museum – photo by Minjie Su


By Minjie Su

Having you ever visited and been dazzled by Anglo-Saxon collection at the Ashmolean Museum, a priceless treasure hoard that the Museum has fought hard to keep earlier this year? Well, this is none other than the famed ‘Watlington Hoard’, a small yet pivotal collection of Viking silver (and gold) discovered and excavated in Oxfordshire in 2015.

On the 27th of November, Dr John Naylor and Dr Jane Kershaw, two chief researchers on the Watlington Hoard project, gave a seminar on the Hoard’s significance at Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology; together, they provided the audience with a basic idea of how the Hoard is like, and explained why and how it is so important in shedding lights on Alfred the Great’s England.

The seminar was divided into two halves. In the first part, Dr Naylor, being an expert in early medieval and later coinage, gave a detailed introduction to the coins in the Hoard. Although many of the Watlington coins are fragmented and the final count is not yet ready, Dr Naylor estimates that there are around 210 coins in total, all dated to mid-9th to late-9th century, in the reigns of Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceowulf II of Mercia.

The coins are categorised into two types based on their design. Thirteen coins belong to the rare ‘Two Emperors’ type, with Alfred and Ceowulf siting face to face below a winged figure, possibly an angel of victory. This design has its roots in 4th-century Roman solidus (pl. solidi), a type of golden coin issued in the Late Roman Empire. These coins suggest the alliance between Wessex and Mercia in face of the Viking invasion, and cast doubt over the conventional portrayal of Ceowulf as a puppet king of the Vikings. The second type, the ‘cross-and-lozenge’ type, form the bulk of the collection. About fifty to fifty-five of these are issued by Ceowulf, two by Æthelred, archbishop of Canterbury, and the rest by King Alfred. Generally based on Roman models, these coins can be further divided into four subtypes: Canterbury, Winchester, London, and unassigned ‘other’ style, with Winchester almost entirely Alfred’s and the ‘other’ Mercian. Quite some of these coins are barely used; they have almost never gone into broad circulation, which may help to understand why the Hoard was buried.

In addition, there are a few coins that call for special attention. One such, though fragmented, may be the earliest example of an Anglo-Saxon half penny, which seems to have a cross design on one side. There are also two Carolingian deniers, which are dated to about 860-870. The latest issue from the Hoard is a single example of what is termed the ‘two-line’ type coins, which were not produced until after the Battle of Edington (maybe 878, after which Alfred famously burned the cakes). This coin not only helps to narrow down the burial date of the Hoard to about 879-880, but also gives us a glimpse into under what turbulent circumstance the Hoard was deposed.

Dr Jane Kershaw, having taken over the second half of the seminar, talked about the rest of items in the Hoard, which consists of 15 silver ingots, 6 silver arm rings, 2 neck ring fragments, and 1 tiny yet valuable piece of hack gold, all most likely having a Danish origin. Unlike the coins many of which have never circulated, these silvers are heavily ‘nicked’, meaning that they have been tested for its fineness. Three of the arm rings are also deliberately cut – not broken, but cut up to be weighed. This attests to these metals’ circulation on the bullion exchange market, which was not at all uncommon in major Scandinavian trading towns such as Birke and had been introduced to England by the time the Hoard was buried.

The presence of the hack gold, however tiny, makes the Hoard even more interesting, for gold was rarely used as currency and tended to be traded separately from silver. The inclusion of gold in the Watlington Hoard gives evidence to the rise of a multi-metallic bullion exchange economy. Dr Kershaw thinks these metals and the two Carolingian coins come in one parcel, while the Anglo-Saxon coins belong to another.

How and why, then, was the Watlington Hoard buried? These treasure, as Dr Kershaw suggested, was likely associated with the ‘Great Army’ in the late 9th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention Alfred’s peace-making with the Vikings but offer no further detail – was he in fact paying them to leave, and the Hoard came as part of that payment? It is not an unprecedented move on a ruler’s part: the Royal Frankish Annals tell of Charles the Bald paying the Vikings and the Vikings weighing the silver.

When the Hoard was buried, the Viking army was on their way to East Anglia, as agreed under the Treaty of Wedmore after the Battle of Edington. They most likely took the old Roman road through Cirencester, where they stayed for about one year, then went onto the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, thus passing Watlington. Sitting on the border between Wessex and Mercia and as an important Mercian fort, Cirencester is an interesting stop for the Vikings – just what made them choose that route? We know that Ceowulf II disappeared the year the Vikings took over Cirencester. Around the same time, Alfred melted down the ‘Two Emperors’ type of coins and started to mint the ‘Two-line’ type. This is all only speculative, but could it be that Alfred paid the Vikings to get rid of Ceowulf for him? Then, in that case, the Watlington Hoard would be a witness to the agreement between Alfred and the Viking army.


Threading through Cork’s Viking past

Archaeology continues to produce spectacular Viking artifacts from Dublin, Ireland. Digs in the city continue and more Viking period items will surely be unearthed. (Ed.)


November 24, 2017

Twelfth-century wooden instruments in situ during the excavations on the site of the former Beamish and Crawford Brewery in Cork City. (Images: Maurice F. Hurley)
In the course of excavations on the site of the former Beamish and Crawford Brewery in Cork City, Ireland, earlier this year, a perfectly preserved Viking weaver’s sword was discovered.

It was a striking find, as it cements the idea that medieval Cork had a Viking presence. As Dr Maurice Hurley, a consultant archaeology, said, ‘For a long time there was a belief that the strongest Viking influence was on Dublin and Waterford, but the full spectrum of evidence shows that Cork was in the same cultural sphere and that its development was very similar.’

The sword, dating roughly to the 11th century, is made entirely of yew and measures just over 30cm in length. It is so well-preserved that the human head on the pommel of the sword and the Ringerike-style Viking art embellished on the grip are all clearly visible. While similar weaver’s swords have been found in Ireland – most notably in Wood Quay, Dublin (see CA 328) – this find is unique in its quality and preservation.
The immaculately preserved weaver’s sword recovered from the Cork excavations.
‘The sword was used probably by women to hammer threads into place on a loom; the pointed end is for picking up the threads for pattern-making. It is highly decorated – the Vikings decorated every utilitarian object,’ said Maurice.

The excavation also unearthed the foundations of 19 Viking houses, including hearths and bedding material. In addition to the weaver’s sword, a wooden thread-winder carved with two horses’ heads was also discovered on the site. Numerous other artefacts represent evidence for a wide spectrum of trades and cultural activities.

The excavations took place between November 2016 and July 2017, and the finds are currently undergoing post-excavation analysis and conservation. A few of the more spectacular items – including the weaver’s sword – were unveiled during an informal visit to the Cork Public Museum by the Norwegian ambassador to Ireland, Else Berit Eikeland.

This article was published in CA 334.


Historic finds unearthed in Medieval cemetery

This Viking site was recently uncovered in Norway, near Trondheim. It is an interesting article about a minor site in the whole scheme of things.

It is unfortunate that certain of today's archaeologists feel they can justify their existence by changing the way time dates are noted. The entire world uses BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domine), or literally After Christ.

But, not these people. Apparently, they think it fashionable - in a socialist, politically correct sort of way - to change the nomenclature by which time dates have been kept since somebody started recording them about 2000 years ago. They think CE (Current Epoch) and BCE (Before Current Epoch) will catch hold. They won't, you socialist twits.


December 14, 2017
Archaeologists thought they were going to find a layer of beer brewing stones from the Viking age, but instead they found a "Viking import" from Ireland. Credit: NTNU University Museum
What was supposed to be a simple excavation to allow for the expansion of a church cemetery turned into a treasure trove of historic artefacts, including a decorative fitting from a book "imported" by Vikings from Ireland.

Byneset Cemetery, adjacent to the medieval Steine Church in Trondheim in mid-Norway, is expanding, and Norwegian cultural heritage laws require and archaeological review of the affected area beforehand.

The expansion plans brought archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) University Museum to survey the site earlier this year.

Jo Sindre Pålsson Eidshaug and Øyunn Wathne Sæther, research assistants at the NTNU University Museum, came across a surprising find during their excavations.
"This is a decorative fitting," Eidshaug said of his discovery. "It almost looks like it's gilded here. It's a kind of decorative fitting, I would guess."

Tove Eivindsen, head of communications for the museum, just happened to be there and captured the moment when the discovery was unearthed.

The find is probably a gold-plated, silver fitting from a book. It appears to be Celtic in origin, and might have come from a religious book brought here during the Viking Age that disappeared several centuries ago, and that hasn't been seen by anyone since then – but for now everything is speculation.

A fitting, probably from a book. The style is typical of Celtic and Irish areas and dates from the 800s. Traces of gilding can be seen in the recesses. Credit: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum
"Someone very politely called this an Irish import, but that's just a nice way of saying that someone was in Ireland and picked up an interesting item," said museum director Reidar Andersen, who was also at the site.

Raymond Sauvage from NTNU's Department of Archaeology and Cultural History, and the project manager for these excavations, concurs.
"Yes, that's right. We know that the Vikings went out on raids. They went to Ireland and brought things back. But how peacefully it all transpired, I won't venture to say," he said.

The archaeologists call a find like this one an "imported object."

Digging in the cultural layer. Pictured are: Eivind Krag, Karen Oftedal, Raymond Sauvage, Jo Sindre Eidshaug, Øyunn Sætre and Marte Mokkelbost. Credit: Trond Sverre Skevik, NTNU University Museum
"We started the project with slightly lower hopes for what we might find than what's recently emerged," said Andersen, who calls the discovery "fantastic" and thinks this is an exciting area.
Sauvage says you don't make discoveries like this everywhere. There are only a few areas where people had the resources to go out on such voyages.

The church and the excavation site used to be connected to a large, old farm estate that probably existed here from at least the Viking age. Excavation sites like this often date back to the Nordic Iron Age and the Middle Ages and can provide valuable insight into the position and status of the Steine farm during this period, as described on the project's Norwegian website Norark, Norsk arkeologi.
Archaeologists also came across a belt buckle, a key and a knife blade.

Frode Iversen digs in the cultural layer. Pictured in the background are: Karen Oftedal and Øyunn Watne Sætre. Credit: Åge Hojem, NTNU University Museum
"Steine Church was built in the 1140s," says Sauvage, explaining that the archaeologists also found a link to Nidaros Cathedral.

Archaeologists uncovered a church mason's mark that corresponds to one found on Nidaros Cathedral. These marks were personal to every individual stonemason, which means that the same stonemason worked on both buildings.

The archaeologists were actually planning to do a sampling of layers containing brewing stones, but the area has proved to have considerably more conserved cultural layers than archaeologists were aware of before the work began, said Sauvage.

The dig was therefore expanded, and now objects dating as far back as 700 CE have been found. That means they belong to what is called the late Germanic Iron (or Merovingian) Age.

The archaeological excavations, paid for by Trondheim municipality, ran for five weeks this summer. The cemetery expansion started on 16 October.


Millennium-old Viking burial boat

From ZME Science, we receive notification of this archaeological dig in Norway. The site yielded a few Viking age artifacts, but soil chemistry played a large part in what remains for us to look at. (Ed.)
Millenium-old Viking burial boat unearthed under a market square in Norway


The boat, which measured at least 4 meters (13ft) long, was buried on a north-south direction under what is today the city’s trading center.
The Oseberg ship, Kulturhistorisk museum (Viking Ship Museum), Oslo, Norway. Credits: Daderot.
Just as archaeologists working in the historical city of Trondheim were preparing to end their dig under the central market square, they came across something intriguing. It didn’t take long for the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) researchers to realize what they had on their hands. Although the wood had long rotted away, the distinctive shape and other preserved structural elements helped identify the structure: a long Viking funeral boat.

“Careful excavation revealed that no wood remained intact, but lumps of rust and some poorly-preserved nails indicated that it was a boat that was buried here,” archaeologist Ian Reed of NIKU said in a statement.
The boast is damaged several places by pits and post holes. Cautious excavation has revealed that there is no wood left but clumps of rust and some poorly preserved nails that show that this is probably a boat grave. Credits: NIKU.
The feature, which was dug into the natural deposits, had been disturbed in several places by later pits and postholes, but it was quite clearly boat-shaped. It also contained two long bones, potentially indicating that a person had been buried there — though the bones could have also come from animals.

“This suggests that there was a human skeleton contained within the boat. Because of the poor state of preservation we will have to carry out DNA tests to be 100% certain that the bones are human, says Reed.”

The dig also revealed a small piece of sheet bronze, located up against one of the bones, as well as what appears to be personal items from the grave.

NIKU’s Knut Paasche, a specialist in early boats, says that the boat had been dug up into the ground and likely covered up by a burial mount which has since eroded with the development of the city. As legend has it, Trondheim was founded by the Viking King Olav Tryggvason in the year 997, but archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited for thousands of years.

Boat graves are not unusual in Norway. Here is a boat grave with a boat/ ship from Myklebostad in Nordfjord. Photo: Knut Paasche, NIKU.
As for the boat, it’s unclear exactly when it was built and placed there. The objects that survived the burial seem to indicate that it’s at least one thousand years old, potentially 1,200 years old. The boat itself is relatively flat in the bottom midship. This type of vessel was likely intended to go into shallow waters on the river Nidelven.

“In a posthole dug through the middle of the boat we found a piece of a spoon and part of a key for a chest. If this is from the grave then it can probably be dated from the 7th to the 10th century, says Reed.”

Sketcth of an Åfjord boat. The boat in the grave is likely similar to this boat. Source: Nordlandsbåten og Åfjordsbåten av G. Eldjarn og J. Godal, 1988.
Burial boats are quite common in Scandinavia, though this is the first time one was found in Trondheim. It’s another indication that life flourished in today’s Trondheim way before Medieval times, Paasche says. Other Viking settlements such as Birka, Gokstad or Kaupang, all have graves in close proximity to the trading centre.

The practice of burial ships is ancient in Scandinavia, dating from at least the Nordic Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE. The Hjortspring boat (400-300 BC) or the Nydam boats (200-450 AD) are some of the oldest evidence, but the practice was significant through the centuries. Man and sea were intertwined for the Vikings, during life — and even after it.

How Weather Ruled the Vikings

From the author, Danielle Turner, and taken from Medievalists, comes this study of how weather might have affected Norse daily life and long term development. (Ed.)

How Weather Ruled the Vikings


By Danielle Turner

When the weather determines most happenings in a person’s life, what kind of cultural changes emerge as a direct result of their particular climate?

Here we see a rider with a sword who tries to escape from the strong gale blowing from the west – from Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples
The world of the Northmen in the Middle Ages rapidly expanded with trading, raiding, and emigration. It is generally accepted that the Viking Age started in 793 AD with the raid on Lindisfarne Monastery in England and ended in 1066 AD with both the Norman conquest of England and Norwegian King Harald Hardrada’s loss at Stamford Bridge. The scope of this work extends beyond the end of the Viking Age to 1600 AD in order to accommodate the later movements of people and sources written after but dealing with the Viking Age.

The extension of the end of the Viking Age in this research also allows for a broader look into the effects of the Medieval Warming Period, one of the Little Ice Ages in the late medieval period, and changes in culture that these brought for the medieval Scandinavians. Geographically, this work encompasses a rather large area of the world. It includes not only the current boundaries of the homelands of the Northmen: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, but extends to Iceland, Greenland, and continental Europe.

The people considered in this study are the Norse, Scandinavians, Icelanders, and non-Inuit Greenlanders. Mainly considered in this writing are Scandinavians and the areas in which they lived and emigrated to in the medieval period. Medieval Scandinavians often found themselves at the mercy of nature, weather, and climate changes. The sometimes extreme weather and long winters in Northern Europe greatly impacted the cultural development of the medieval Norse, especially shaped their livelihood, entertainment, and faith.


Ways in which medieval Scandinavians provided for themselves and their families greatly depended on the variable climate in northern Europe. People mainly relied on farming as the main source of sustenance, but if they experienced a poor harvest season or bad weather, many starved during the harsh and long winters. For many Norsemen, fishing was widely practiced and local marine life often supplemented dietary needs not found in grains.

Fishing from Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples
The climate also affected the Scandinavians seafaring and raiding. Summer storms stopped the movement of the Vikings to new lands and winter sea-ice is one of the causes of the first overwintering for raiding of the Norse on mainland Europe. Weather and seasonal cycles in the world of the Northmen determined their survivability since it effected (Sic) their farming, fishing, seafaring, and raiding.


With long winters and lots of time spent in close quarters it was important for medieval Northmen to develop pastimes to combat seasonal depression and fight the bitter cold. Similar to other games played by the Vikings, winter sports focused on both skill and amusement. Ice skating combined the ancient form of winter travel with competition and it became a popular sport both for those playing and others cheering on the participants. Prizes were awarded to the winner of the races to encourage competition and rivalry.

For children in the winter, building snow forts became not only popular, but also taught them about warfare. After securing their forts, they would engage in snow ball fights where the brave were rewarded and the weak or shy were left behind. This helped them cultivate war tactics and team building that would be useful later in their lives. In a cold climate with long winters, it was necessary to develop different forms of entertainment like ice skating and snow ball fights to help pass the time.

On this woodcut Olaus Magnus shows a Snow Castle with defenders to the left. 
It is attacked by other boys who tries to intrude trough tunnels and who are bombarding them with snowballs. Behind a snow-wall in the middle of the picture, some faces are seen. It is boys which brings forward “battering rams” under protection of storming screen.

The ethnographical work of Olaus Magnus, archbishop of Uppsala in the sixteenth century, titled History of the Northern Peoples provides wonderful commentary dealing with winter entertainment. He describes the spectator sport of ice skating which involved men “who attach to the soles of their feet a piece of flat, polished iron, a foot long, or the flat bones of deer or oxen, the shin bones that is” and with these they race across a lake for a prize. The skill of ice skating was necessary for winter survival and travel. With many of the lakes and water frozen in the areas of the Northmen, it was popular for people to ice skate, and it became a spectator sport, a way to have fun in the cold.

In 2012, Leszek Gardeła explored archeological finds to answer the question of how the Vikings passed the time in Northern Europe. He concluded that there is no doubt that there was ice skating and that the bone skates found resemble those described by Olaus Magnus. The Norse even had a god named Ullr who was associated with skiing, suggesting the prominence and use of skating in their lives. Olaus also describes the building of castles from snow and snowball fights encouraged competition among children and celebrated the players who showed bravery. He includes the various rules and prizes awarded in these snow fort games.


By employing faith in their surroundings, the Norse attempted to conceptualize the weather and climate around them. It is notable that certain pagan gods were associated with climate and seafaring, especially Njord. This indicates that the ocean played a large role in their lives. In the sagas, men often call out to him and Odin during travel and environmental hardship in hopes to appeal to them to provide more favorable weather. People payed attention to patterns in the sky and some seasoned farmers practiced telling what kind of weather might come from their observations. People looked to the gods for both good weather and a way to explain what was happening around them. By placing faith in the power of Njord and Odin and paying attention to occurrences around them, the Northmen felt as if they had a bit more control over nature instead of having their lives simply at the will of weather.

Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda work details faith and ideology around Njord and Odin. Folks attempted to appease Njord for safe passage over the sea and bountiful fishing. They did not have the broad understanding of scientific knowledge to explain what was happening around them so they attributed storms on the sea to Njord to help comprehend natural happenings. The work of Snorri is instrumental to modern understanding of how the Northmen perceived and explained happenings in life and death. Seafaring was used for trading, raiding, travel, exploration, expansion, and was an integral part of Norse society. It is possible that having a god to pray to in hopes of safe passage made them feel that they had some control over the weather. 

The witch to the right develops a terrible storm by emptying her pot with magic potion into the sea. A ship is wrecked in the storm. A man is holding her magic pole with a horse head on top. The moon is darkened by her magic force. 
John Lindow, scholar on Norse mythology, explains that since Njord is in charge of the wind and calmness of the sea, he should be looked to when a person is seafaring or fishing. Odin, the main Old Norse god, was seen as in control of the weather and movements of the sky. Snorri also attests to Odin’s power overlapping a bit of Njord’s in the area of the ocean but also weather in general that would greatly affect their food sources and travel. Olaus reports vivid explanations of how people tried to predict the weather in the sixteenth century by noting sky patterns. Between Gods and observations, the importance of weather in the lives of the Vikings is evident in how they perceived the world around them.


The variable element of weather in the world of the Northmen helped create a culture and society particular to Scandinavia. With so much of their lives dependent on their climate and weather, it was important to adapt to their surroundings. If their grass and hay could not dry for the winter because of a wet season or bad harvest, they were able to use fish to supplement necessary nutrition. Seafaring was also left to the mercy of the weather. Many ships were lost in storms and travel in the winter was impossible because of the sea ice surrounding the northern lands. This led to the first Viking overwintering on the European continent.

The medieval Scandinavians also created ways to cope with the harsh winter that resulted in competitive games like ice skating and snow ball fights for the children. These forms of entertainment encouraged competition and taught children war skills that they would need as they got older. The Norse also prayed and sacrificed to the god Njord for safe seafaring and to Odin for general weather. Through this and from paying close attention to sky patterns, people felt as if they had a bit more control over the variable weather. With all of this in consideration, the vast impacts of weather and climate on the Norse become more visible.

Further Reading

Gardeła, Leszek. “What the Vikings Did for Fun? Sports and Pastimes in Medieval Northern Europe.” World Archaeology 44, no. 2 (2012): 234-47.

Magnus, Olaus. Description of The Northern Peoples, Rome 1555. Edited by Peter Foote. Translated by Peter Fisher and Humphery Higgens. Vol. I, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1996.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Translated with an introduction and notes by Jesse L. Byock. London: Penguin Books, 2005.
The author, Danielle Turner
Danielle Turner is a historian who focuses on Viking culture, warfare, and movements. She is currently finishing her M.A. in history from California State University, Fullerton. Turner is internationally published and served as a special features presenter and historical consultant for VIKINGS on the History Channel. Follow her on Instagram at Viking Danielle.


Viking boatyard - Isle of Skye

Fortunately for those of us with an interest, the effort to preserve and document data and artifacts from the Viking Age continues, as evidenced by this ongoing project on the beautiful Island Of Skye, Scotland. (Ed.)

The presence of the Viking canal shows that the site was a significant anchorage GETTY IMAGES
Viking boatyard to be historic monument on Loch na h-Àirde on the Rubh’ an Dùnain peninsula
Gurpreet Narwan
24 November 2017, 1201, The Times

A shipyard on a remote peninsula on the island of Skye where Vikings may have built and maintained their longships is to become an official historic monument.

Archaeologists believe that Loch na h-Àirde on the Rubh’ an Dùnain peninsula was a hub of maritime activity during the years of Norse power and was used to service the vital waterways of the Highlands and islands.
A canal was cut to link the loch to the headland, and there is also a stone quay, an entrance canal and a blockage system designed to keep a constant water level in the loch.
Archaeologists from St Andrews University, who were among the first to investigate the site after timbers from an 800-year-old vessel were discovered, found the 12th-century Norse shipyard.

The timbers were dated to about 1100AD and were from a workshop for producing or repairing galleys at a time when Vikings were becoming more settlers than warriors.

A spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: “The complex is particularly notable for its impressive survival of field remains, the possible relationship to an Iron Age dun, the rock-cut channel and the potential for further Norse and medieval boat remains to survive in the loch.

“The scale of the docks and the presence of the canal and loch quays demonstrates that the site was a significant anchorage for the western seaboard.

“Given its sheltered and important strategic location, it is possible that the loch was used to shelter and overwinter boats, or that the site was a staging location. It may also have been used to repair or even to construct boats.”

HES has listed the 115-metre (380ft) canal, two boat docks, former boat shelters and other structures. It has also preserved the bed of Loch na h-Àirde, the lochan on the peninsula used as a harbour. The shipyard is believed to have been active until the 19th century.

The peninsula is the hereditary homeland of the MacAskill clan. Gordon Mack, editor of the website for the MacAskills of Rubh’ an Dùnain Society, said that official recognition for the boatyard would “add to our campaign to repopulate the area with a virtual online community”.

How and Why did the Viking Age Begin?

This excellent article from Medievalists on a study by Professor Neil Price of Uppsala University, Sweden, and colleagues from Tallinn and Tartu Universities, Estonia, is slated to shake up the world of medieval archaeology.

When the 10-year study is complete, we may finally have definitive answers, which we do not have presently, as to when and where the Viking Age began.

Be sure and click on the three video links in the article, they are most engaging. (Ed.)


How and Why did the Viking Age Begin?

By Minjie Su

The question of how the Viking Age started has been much debated by historians. One of the leading scholars in the field, Neil Price, is looking to address this fundamental question with his latest project – The Viking Phenomenon.

Photo by Martin Jacquet /Flickr
Professor Price, currently chair of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, spoke earlier this month at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology about his latest project, which began in 2015. It is a collaborative effort between Uppsala University and Tallinn and Tartu Universities in Estonia. Acknowledging the breadth and width of the recent research into the Viking Age (circa AD 750-1050), this ten-year project means to travel even further back in understanding how and why the Viking Age began.

Five principal points are singled out as requiring special (re)consideration. First, the very concept of the Viking Age. Is it merely a Victorian invention? Or is it just a part of what was happening in Europe at large? Professor Price is not content with either. The Viking diaspora is marked by interaction with a huge variety of cultural groups. It simply cannot be something that ‘just happened’; it is an issue of complexity that needs to be examined in its own right.

Second, Professor Price believes that stereotypes should not be dismissed. Instead, they must be ‘honestly confronted, challenged, and elucidated, not least where it may contain some truth’.

Third, it may be time to critically dismantle some boundaries such as those between the Vendel Period (circa AD 550-790) and Viking Age. Fourth, the project will make conscious effort to remove the ‘ghettoization’ of gender. Instead of eye-catching notions such as ‘Women of the Viking Age’, Professor Price emphasizes on ‘People of the Viking Age’, which includes also the unfree, the enslaved population.

Last but not the least, having worked with History Channel’s Vikings, Professor Price points out the importance of engaging contemporary culture and mass media. It would be impossible to effectively study the Viking Age without understanding how and why the Viking imagery is represented and/or misrepresented in modern popular culture. Besides, it will be a useful tool for scholars to reach a wider audience, and their research to achieve greater influence.

Despite its breadth in scope, the project is composed of two main branches – the boat grave culture and Viking economics. At the core of the first branch lies the archaeological sites of Valsgärde (Sweden) and Salme (Estonia). Located near the famed Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde is one of Sweden’s greatest archaeological treasures and certainly the biggest cemetery of boat burials. The site was already excavated between the 1920s and the 1950s. Fifteen (presumably) male boat graves are found, together with over sixty cremations and burial chambers, mostly of women. The site is dated to from the 6th century to the 11th century AD, with the boats buried once per year. Therefore, it provides a valuable and rare opportunity not only to look at the transition between the Vendel and the Viking Age, but also the activities of a small area over a long period of time.

Located on the coastal area in Estonia, the site of Salme, dated to ca. AD 750 (thus the very beginning of the Viking Age), was excavated between 2008 and 2012. Two boat graves are found, aligned parallel with the shore, respectively containing seven and thirty-four bodies. Apparently, complex rituals have been performed here: a mound of shields has been found, with swords standing vertically on the shields; birds, fish, and dogs have been killed and buried along. Archaeologists also discovered gaming pieces, deliberately arranged in certain patterns around the corpses. One of them – buried in the centre – was perhaps a king, for a single gaming piece – the king – is found in his mouth. He must have died a gruesome death: his body has been cut into pieces and reassembled for burial; a sword was put in his hand.

Isotope analyses show that the Salme men were from Mälar Valley; this would put them in close affinity with the Valsgärde people – in fact, some war gears prove to have been cast in the same mould. They may even be the same people. Together, Valsgärde and Salme indicate early maritime contact. They provide the lens to see the beginning of the raiding activities and, above all, the society that produced them.

The second branch of the project develops around Viking economics – economics, not the economic system, Professor Price emphasizes. As the term indicates, this branch focuses on the network that gave rises to the early raiding activities. This is also where the unfree, enslaved population come in, for raiding, slaving, and trading form a triangle that should not be considered and discussed in separate terms; within the socio-political context that generated and supported raiding, everyone is implicated.

It will not be hard to imagine, that the project will lead to a double number of conferences, lectures, workshops, and publications in the foreseeable future. They will be mostly devoted to five sub-projects: Viking ideologies, Viking dynamics, Viking slavery, Viking infrastructure, Viking economics. Keen on its public engagement, publications – including excavation reports of the archaeological sites – born from this project are to be made accessible online. A geolocated digital reconstruction app is in the making, meant to be used on the sites of Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde, and Salme. The communities that used to live there will be brought back to life once again and, as a visitor, you shall also be a part.