By Arne Emil Christensen
In the period from 800 to 1050 A.D., the Nordic peoples made their dramatic entrance in the European arena. They stormed forth, terrorizing well-established societies which were accustomed to war, but not to the startling tactics of the Vikings. However, contact between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe was nothing new. Archaeological findings show that trade and cultural influence can be traced back several millennia B.C. Nevertheless, the Nordic area was a distant outpost with little political and economic value for the rest of Europe.
This picture changed shortly before the year 800. In 793, the Lindisfarne Monastery on England's east coast was pillaged by foreign seafarers, and at the same time we find the first recorded reports of raids elsewhere in Europe. The chronicles and tales of the next 200 years are studded with alarming accounts of the Vikings. Ships, sailing in large as well as smaller groups, attacked all the coasts of Europe. The Vikings sailed up the rivers of France and Spain, conquered most of Ireland and large sections of England, and took control of areas skirting rivers in Russia and the Baltic coast. There are narratives of raids in the Mediterranean, and as far east as the Caspian Sea. Norsemen starting out from Kiev, were even foolhardy enough to attempt an attack on Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Eventually, the plundering raids were replaced by colonization. Place names reveal a large Viking population in the North of England, centred around York. Farther south in Britain, a large area was called The Danelaw. The islands north of Scotland developed a mixed Celtic-Norse population, and thriving societies were established on Iceland and Greenland.
The furthest westward drive ended with the unsuccessful attempt at founding a settlement in North America. Around 1000 A.D., people from Iceland or Greenland discovered land to the west, and the sagas tell of several journeys including attempts to plant roots in the new land. Conflicts arose between these colonists and the indigenous Indians or the Eskimos, and the newcomers gave up.
Attempts at pinpointing the location of the Norsemen's settlement have led to such varied results as Labrador and Manhattan, in accordance with different interpretations of the Icelandic sagas. In the 1960s, Anne-Stine and Helge Ingstad found the site of early homesteads on the north coast of Newfoundland. Excavation showed these to be the same sort of buildings found on Greenland and Iceland. In addition, Nordic artifacts were excavated at the site and dated at circa 1000 A.D. Whether these are traces of the settlements mentioned in the sagas, or from other journeys which we have no record of, is impossible to say. However, the finds prove that Nordic seafarers really sailed to the North American Continent around the year 1000, as narrated in the Icelandic sagas.
What are the reasons for this violent expansion within a few generations? Stable states such as France or the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England appear to have fallen easily to the swords of the attackers. As might be expected, the picture handed down to us in written accounts is tainted by this the Vikings are portrayed as terrible robbers and bandits. And indeed they were. But they must have had other traits as well. Some of their leaders were certainly extremely skilful organizers. An effective military tactic could win a battle, but the Vikings founded kingdoms in conquered territories. Some did not survive the Viking period, such as the kingdoms based in Dublin and York. But Iceland is still a thriving nation. The Viking kingdom in Kiev formed the basis of the Russian empire, and traces of the organizational talent of the Viking chieftains are clearly visible today on the Isle of Man and in Normandy.
The remains of fortresses which could be used as a meeting place for large armies--dated to the end of the Viking period--have been found in Denmark. The fortresses are circular and divided into quadrants, with square buildings in each of the four sections. These castles were placed with a precision testifying to the rulers'advanced sense of order and system. There must have been a knowledge of surveying techniques and geometry in the court of the Danish King.
In addition to the West-European narratives, we have written sources from other Viking contemporaries--from travelling Arabs and from Byzantium. Short inscriptions have been left us in the homeland of the Vikings as well--the runes carved in wood and stone. The saga tales of the 12th and 13th centuries also have much to tell us about the Viking age, even though they are written several generations after the period which they depict.
The Vikings came from what is now Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Theirs was a self-sustaining agricultural society, where farming and cattle breeding were supplemented by hunting, fishing, the extraction of iron and the quarrying of rock to make whetstones and cooking utensils. Even though the farmers were generally self-reliant, some goods were traded--for instance salt--a necessity for man and cattle alike. Salt is an everyday item which would not have been imported from a greater distance than necessary, whereas luxury items came from further south in Europe. Iron, whetstones, and steatite (soapstone) cooking pots were important export products and were an essential contribution to a trade growth in the Viking age. Even in periods when Viking raids abounded trade was conducted between West Europe and the homeland of the Vikings. One of the few reports we have about conditions in Norway in Viking times was orated by the North Norwegian chieftain, Ottar. He visited King Alfred of Wessex as a peaceful trader, at the same time as Alfred was waging war with other Viking chieftains.
It has been suggested that the expansion of the Viking age was spurred by a population growth outstepping the capacities of domestic resources. Archaeological evidence shows that new farms were cleared in sparsely populated forest areas at the time of the foreign expansion--so the pressure of population growth is surely a contributing factor. Iron extraction is another. An abundance of iron to forge weapons and arm everyone setting off on raids helped give the Vikings the upper hand.
Shipbuilding in Scandinavia also contributed to the tactical superiority of the Vikings. A well-known Swedish archaeologist has written that the Viking ships are the only seaworthy amphibious landing vessels ever to be used by invasion forces. Even though this is an exaggeration, it explains much of the secret of the Vikings' military superiority. Many of the accounts of Viking attacks appear to support this theory. The element of surprise was essential. A swift onslaught from the sea with light ships, which were independent of harbours--and could thus approach a coast where they were least expected--and beating a quick retreat before a counter-offensive could be launched; this was the tactic.
Spheres of interest developed between Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Vikings--even though groups from all three nations often participated together when the most renowned chieftains set sail. The Swedes sailed mainly to the east, and they controlled the eastern trade routes via the waterways leading into Russia. Large amounts of Arabian silver coins in Swedish archaeological diggings testify to intensive trading. The Danes sailed to the south, to Friesland, France and Southern England, while the Norwegians headed to the west and northwest, to Northern England, Scotland, Ireland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faroes.
The ships were not only necessary for raids and trade, but also a prerequisite for successful colonization, when entire families with all their possessions and livestock sailed away to new lands. The perilous voyages across the North Atlantic to the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes, Iceland and Greenland testify that the shipbuilders of the Viking age not only could build ships which were swift-sailing and capable of attacks in the North Sea area, but extremely seaworthy vessels as well. Colonization followed when seafarers discovered new land, or men returned from trading or raids and spread news of bountiful conditions abroad.
In certain areas, the Vikings appear to have displaced the original inhabitants. In others, such as Northern England, it seems that the Norsemen's main enterprise was cattle breeding and they utilized land of little use to the indigenous grain-cultivating farmers.
Those who journeyed to Iceland and Greenland found virgin soil. With the possible exception of a few Irish monks on Iceland--who soon "left because they did not want to have heathens as neighbours"--Iceland and the parts of Greenland colonized by the Vikings appear to have been uninhabited when the Norsemen arrived.
The contemporary references we have about the Vikings stem predominantly from sources in Western Europe who had bitter experiences with the invaders, and we are undeniably presented with the worst side of the Vikings. Archaeological excavations both in the homelands of the Vikings and in their new settlements give more nuance to this picture. We have finds from homesteads, farms, and market places where lost or discarded articles tell of a common everyday life. Traces have been found testifying to iron extraction in mountain areas, where iron ore in bogs combined with ample firewood from forests to form the basis of a flourishing industry. Quarries where soapstone was gathered for pots and exceptionally fine whetstones have also been found and analyzed. In some fortunate circumstances we have found ancient agricultural fields in areas later left to nature. In such places we can find the piles of stones once painstakingly cleared away from fields, and with enough care, we even uncover the furrows left by Viking ploughs.
As the Viking period progressed, society changed. Leading chieftain families accumulated land and power, forming the basis for kingdoms, and the first towns were founded. From Staraya Ladoga and Kiev in Russia, to York and Dublin in the British Isles, we can piece together the daily life of the townspeople. Market places and towns were based on craftsmanship and trade. Even though the town-dwelling Vikings probably kept cattle, farmed and fished to meet their household needs, the towns certainly depended on agriculture supplies from outlying districts. In South Norway was the marketplace Kaupang, near Larvik, mentioned in Ottar's narrative to King Alfred. Kaupang never became more than a marketplace, while Birka near Malaren in Sweden and Hedeby at the German-Danish border could be called towns. Both were abandoned at the end of the Viking period, but Ribe in Denmark's Vest Jylland thrives today as of course do York and Dublin. In these towns we find well regulated areas with clearly defined plots of land, roads and surrounding fortifications. Some of the towns have obviously been planned. Many are well established in accordance with the orders of the kings who personally--or by means of trusted aids--had their say in town planning and the distribution of plots. We can see that renovation and garbage disposal was given less attention than town planning--waste can be found in thick layers. In contemporary times, the stench must have been most uncomfortable. Today we find clues to everyday conditions, from the rubbish of various craftsmen to fleas and lice--and we can piece together the way life was. We find objects which must have come from afar, such as Arab silver coins and Byzantine silk, heaped together with the products of local blacksmiths, cobblers and comb-makers.
At the end of the Viking age, Christianity was generally accepted in the Nordic countries. It replaced a heathen religion, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses who each had power over their own domains. Odin, old and wise, was the chieftain of them all. Thor was the god ofthe warriors, while the goddess Froy was responsible for the fertility of the soil and livestock. Loki was a trickster and a sorcerer, unreliable and distrusted by the other gods. The gods had dangerous adversaries--the jotuns--representing the darker side of life.
The heathen gods are best known from descriptions written down in early Christian times, and perhaps coloured by the new faith. Farm names such as Torshov, Frøyshov and Onsaker have kept their original heathen god names. Present day Norwegian place names with the last syllable "hov" indicate that there once was a heathen temple at the site.
The gods had human traits, and like their Greek counterparts on Olympus they lived a raucous life. The gods fight, eat and drink. Mortals who fell in battle, went straight to the table to feast with the gods, and burial techniques clearly tell us of a need for the same paraphernalia in the life after death as here on earth. In the Viking age, the dead could be buried or cremated, but burial gifts were necessary in either case. The amount of equipment the dead took with them reflects their status in life as well as different burial traditions. In Norway, the burial traditions were especially rich. As a result, graves are a prolific source of knowledge about the everyday life of the Vikings. Everything provided for use in the afterlife provides us with a window into the world of the Vikings--even though time has taken its toll and often only remnants are left of the buried objects.
The grave remnants supplement our material from excavated living sites. In these sites--both in towns and on farms--we find misplaced or damaged articles, remains of houses, waste from food making and craftsmanship, and in the graves we uncover some of the finest personal effects of the deceased.
An indication of the violent nature of society is the fact that nearly all the graves of males include weapons. A well-equipped warrior had to have a sword, a wooden shield with an iron boss at its centre to protect the hand, a spear, an axe, and a bow with up to 24 arrows. The helmets and coats of mail with which most Vikings are commonly portrayed in modern pictures, are extremely rare in archaeological material. Helmets with horns, ubiquitous in present-day depictions, have never been found amongst relics from the Viking period. Even in the graves with the most impressive array of weapons, we find signs of more peaceful activities: sickles, scythes, and hoes lie along side of weapons. The blacksmith was buried with his hammer, anvil, tongs, and file. The coastal farmer has kept his fishing equipment and is often buried in a boat. In women's graves we often find personal jewelry, kitchen articles and artifacts used in textile production. Women too, are often buried in boats. Wooden articles, leather goods, and textiles generally do not survive the soil, so there are many gaps in our knowledge.
In a smattering of graves, the soil-type has been more conducive to preservation. In many areas along the Oslofjord, we find blue clay directly underneath the turf, dense and nearly impermeable by water and air. A few graves are well preserved after a thousand years, and we have retained a whole spectrum of articles placed in the pit. The treasures from the enormous Viking ship graves from Oseberg, Tune, and Gokstad--which can be seen at the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy in Oslo--are prime examples of what gifts can be preserved for future generations, given the right soil conditions. We do not know who the dead were, but they obviously belonged to the upper echelon of their society. Perhaps they belonged to a royal family which, a few generations later, unified Norway as one nation.
The Oseberg grave is generally dated to 850 A.D. The Tune and Gokstad graves are a generation or two younger. A large ship has been used as a "coffin". Only the hull of the Tune ship has been preserved, and the grave was robbed earlier of nearly all its items, but enough remained for us to see that the ship was originally of the same fine quality as the two others. The Tune ship was about 20 metres in length. The Oseberg ship's length is about 22 metres and the Gokstad ship is 24 metres long.
At the time of burial, the ship was drawn up on land and placed in a pit. A burial chamber was constructed behind the mast, where the deceased was placed to rest in a bed, dressed in finery. Copious provisions were placed in the ship, dogs and horses were sacrificed, and a large burial mound was piled on top of the vessel.
An Arab travelling in Russia at the end of the 9th Century happened upon a group of Vikings who were in the process of burying a chieftain in this manner. Ibn Fadlan made note of his observations, and his journal has survived. The deceased chieftain's ship was pulled ashore, and valuables were placed aboard. The corpse was dressed in fine clothing and placed on board in a bed. A slave woman, who had chosen to follow her master in death was sacrificed along with a horse and a hunting dog. The ship with its contents was burned, and a burial mound was constructed over the ashes. We have finds of cremated ships graves in the Nordic countries and in Western European Viking sites, but the large graves along the Oslofjord were not put to the torch. In the Gokstad ship a man was found, and the Tune ship probably carried a man a well. However, two women were buried with the Oseberg ship. The skeletons are of a 50-60 year old and a 20-30 year old. We can only speculate as to which was the companion and which was the noblewoman.
Both the Oseberg and Gokstad graves were plundered by grave robbers, so the jewelry and luxurious weapons, which surely have been there, were not excavated. But articles of wood, leather and textiles--of no interest to the thieves--have survived. There are remnants of similar graves in other locations and it appears to have been standard practice to include sacrificed dogs and horses, fine weapons, some nautical equipment such as oars and a gangplank, balers, cooking pots for shipmates, a tent and often fine imported bronze vessels. Without a doubt, these once contained food and drink for the deceased.
The Oseberg grave contained no trace of weapons, reasonably enough for a female grave, but all the other standard equipment followed. In addition, the central figure had been given articles which testify to her dignity as an administrator and a wife on a wealthy farm. We have to assume that women have had the main responsibility for carrying out farm work when the men were off on Viking journeys. The woman from Oseberg was, like many contemporary women, an authoritative and highly respected lady, whether she sat with other women at a spinning wheel or loom, or watched over work in the fields, or supervised milking and the making of cheese and butter. In addition to the ship, she has brought along a wagon and three sleighs. Both on land and water, she was prepared to go in style. Enough horses were sacrificed to draw the wagon as well as the sleighs.
A tent and cooking utensils, tools for textile production, chests and small boxes for valuables, a breadboard, milk buckets and ladles, a cutting knife and frying pan, shovels and rakes, a saddle, a dog collar and much more was found in the grave. Her provisions included two slain oxen. A dough of rye flour was placed to leaven on the large wooden breadboard, and in a finely decorated bucket, apples were included for dessert.
Many of the wooden articles were ornamentally carved. It appears as if a number of artists were at work on the farm. Even such utilitarian things as the sleigh poles are ornately carved. Aside from the Oseberg find, our main knowledge of Viking art comes from metal jewelry, where the format is modest. The choice of motif is the same for woodcarving. The artists have been preoccupied with animal figures. These are imaginary animals, twisted and braided together in a tight asymmetric arabesque. These carvings are superb examples of advanced craftsmanship, so the Oseberg wood carvers must have been as handy with chisels and sheath knives as with swords and battle axes.
The man buried in the Gokstad ship has also had the service of a gifted woodcarver, even though the find is not so rich in ornamentation as the Oseberg grave. The Oseberg ship has a low freeboard and was best suited for good weather. With 30 men at the oars or a good wind it must have provided a fast means of travel. The Gokstad ship is probably a wealthy man's private boat, not a real longship meant to transport a number of warriors. It is seaworthy enough, more so than the Oseberg ship. This has been demonstrated by replicas which have crossed the Atlantic in modern times. The hull design makes the ship fast--either under sail or when 32 men pulled on the oars. Even with a full crew, the Gokstad ship drew no more than 1 metre of water, so it could easily have been used for assaults on foreign shores. It is possible that the Vikings' experiences through frequent sea voyages in the early 9th Century led to a rapid evolution in hull design. If this is a correct assumption, then the differences between the Oseberg ship and the Gokstad ship might be a result of two generations of experience in the North Sea and hours of discussion between shipbuilders seeking improvements.
The Viking ships were clinch-built. The ships used for travelling to distant shores were a result of a thousand years of experience in the Nordic area. Shipbuilders strove to construct light-weight and flexible vessels, pliant to the forces of sea and wind--working with the elements instead of against them. The hull of the Viking ships is built on a solid keel, which together with a finely curved bow, forms the backbone of the vessel. Strafe after strafe was fitted to keel and stemand these were bolted to each other with iron rivets. This hull shell provided strength and flexibility. After the shipbuilder had given the shell its desired shape, ribs made from naturally-curved trees were fitted and these gave additional strength. To increase flexibility, strafes and ribs were bound together. Cross supports at the waterline supplied lateral support, and extra solid logs braced the mast.
The ships sailed were square-rigged on a midship mast. In a calm, or against a strong headwind, the crew could man the oars.
As the Viking period progressed, different types of ships were developed. There were ships intended for battle which were built for speed and a large crew. There were also ships built for commercial trade, where speed was less important. These had a greater girth to permit more cargo. Trade ships did not have a large crew, and they were better suited for sailing than for rowing.
The Viking raids tapered off around the year 1000. The Vikings had become Christians, and the conversion had a restrictive effect on their urge to plunder. Denmark, Sweden and Norway had become separate kingdoms generally united under single monarchs. Life was not always peaceful, even in Christian kingdoms, but wars were steered by the shifting alliances of the kings. Countries could enter wars, but the age of private battles was gone as was that of colonization. The trade relations established in the Viking period continued, and the Nordic countries emerged as a part of a Christian Europe.
The author of this article, Arne Emil Christensen is Chief Curator, Dr Phil. at the University Museum of National Antiquities in Oslo. He specializes on shipbuilding history and craftsmanship in the Iron Age.