A team of scholars says their new research is rewriting when and where the Viking age began. The official date for the start of Viking voyages was a 793 AD raid in England. But researchers say people from Norway sailed to Ribe, Denmark, on peaceful missions much earlier—around 725 AD.
Archaeologists from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and the University of York in the United Kingdom found the useful commodity of Norwegian reindeer antlers buried in the earliest archaeological layer of Ribe’s old market. Ribe was the first commercial city in Denmark.
This caribou with its magnificent rack in Alaska is the same species called reindeer in Scandinavia. (Photo by Dean Biggins/Wikimedia Commons)
The sailing trips from Norway to Denmark helped the sailors establish the technology and skills necessary to do the later military raids and long-distance voyaging the Vikings did, they say.
“Ultimately, the researchers agree that the discussion of when the Viking era began is also one of semantics,” says an article in ScienceNordic. “It all depends on what you mean by Vikings. Morten Søvsø from Southwest Jutland Museums suggests that we should be careful with the labels we give to people who lived in the past. ‘They didn’t go around knowing they were Vikings. If you want to argue that the Viking age in fact started when they had contact with the wider world, then this study supports this view—but it will always be a rationalisation,’ says Søvsø.”
Another researcher, James Barrett of Cambridge University in England, told ScienceNordic he’s not convinced the people who sailed to Ribe in the early eighth century were Vikings, though he says it’s valuable research.
“Where we do not necessarily agree entirely is in the perception of whether towns and trade also helped to start the Viking age," says Barrett, a specialist in medieval archaeology.
Ribe is Denmark’s oldest commercial center. It looks much different in this photo than it did when Norwegians came around 725 AD to trade reindeer antlers. (Photo by Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons)
There is a related debate among Nordic archaeologists—whether Ribe was central to Viking society early in Viking history. The article in ScienceNordic says it seemed an early link between the oldest commercial center in Denmark and the Vikings would be obvious, but archaeologists had no physical evidence to confirm it.
"This is the first time we have proof that seafaring culture, which was the basis for the Viking era, has a history in Ribe. It's fascinating," said Søren Sindbæk, one of the authors of the new study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.
The trips across the Skaggerak Strait or down the North Sea to trade antlers in Denmark may have prepared the Vikings for longer voyages.
‘Ingolf tager Island i besiddelse’ by P. Raadsig, 1850, depicting Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (Wikimedia Commons)
"The Viking Age becomes a phenomenon in Western Europe because the Vikings learned to use maritime mobility to their advantage,” Sindbæk said. “They learned to master sailing to such an extent that they get to the coast of England where the locals don't expect anything. They come quickly, plunder the unprepared victims, and leave again—a sort of hit and run."
Model of a Viking age trade ship in the Ribe Viking Museum (Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons)
The Vikings went on to do raids and set up colonies elsewhere in Europe and as far east as Russia. They went on voyages of thousands of kilometers to Iceland, Greenland and Canada.
"We can now show that the famous Scandinavian sea voyages, which eventually led to the discovery of Iceland and Greenland, have a history of some commercial travel, not just raids. Previously we were inclined to say that yes, once you can sail across open water, you can also sail to the commercial towns -- now we can turn the equation around and say that trading towns may have been an important part of the drive behind developing new technologies, "says Sindbæk said. “The peaceful exchanges—trading—will take up more of the story, and the military voyages, which are also important, must now share the space.”
Deer antlers were important to Danes because they were used in making combs, needles and other tools. A householder was likely able to find enough for home use, but a comb maker may not have been able to. So some Norwegians decided to gather what was for them a waste product and take them to Denmark, where they were a valuable commodity, Sindbæk said.
Featured image: The Vikings were known as great seafarers. They were able to reach lands such as Britain through their mastery of the seas. Image source.
By Mark Miller
Viking women accompanied men on voyages to colonize far-flung lands
The reputation of the Scandinavian Vikings presents the men as brutal warriors that went off marauding and pillaging from the 800s to 1100s AD along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and up inland rivers, while the women and children stayed home, tending to village life. But new genetic research has shown that Vikings took their families with them on voyages to set up new colonies in far-away lands.
"It overthrows this 19th century idea that the Vikings were just raiders and pillagers. They established settlements and grew crops, and trade was very, very important," Erika Hagelberg told LiveScience.com. Hagelberg is a co-author of a new genetic study of ancient Norwegians’ remains. She is evolutionary biologist at Norway’s University of Oslo.
Leif Ericson on the shore of newly discovered Vinland (New Foundland). Note: There is no evidence that Vikings ever wore horned helmets. (Wikimedia Commons)
Hagelberg and her team took teeth and bone scrapings from skeletons of 80 Norse people who lived between 796 and 1066 AD. These remains, which had been unearthed around Norway, are in a collection at the University of Oslo. The team examined mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on by women and can reveal female ancestry. They compared this DNA to more than 5,000 other Europeans to learn more about how the Vikings colonized.
The study found that Vikings are closely related to Swedes, English and Scottish people. But their closest modern relatives are people from the Orkney and Shetland islands off the northern coast of Scotland in the North Sea.
Hagelberg told The Independent, “It seems to support the view that a significant number of women were involved in the settlement of the smaller isles, which overrules the idea that it just involved raping and pillaging by males going out on a rampage.”
Romanticized depiction of a Viking woman, 1905, by Andreas Bloch (Wikimedia Commons)
Vikings ranged as far west as Greenland and maybe even Newfoundland and present-day United States and as far east as Russia. Scientists and historians previously thought they set up colonies in Iceland, the British Isles and the New World first with men, and then brought women and children with them later. But Hagelberg and her team found otherwise.
If Viking men brought their women and perhaps even children with them on trips in their longboats, they could more quickly set up communities on the coastlines of the Northern seas, Hagelberg told Britain’s MailOnline.
The range of Viking voyages and territories was enormous, as seen in this map from Wikipedia:
Territories and voyages of the Vikings (Wikipedia). Research shows the Vikings also voyaged far beyond these territories.
Jan Bill, an archaeologist with the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History, told LiveScience, "It looks like women were a more significant part of the colonization process compared to what was believed earlier." Bill was not a part of Hagelberg’s study.
"This picture that we have of Viking raiding — a band of long ships plundering — there obviously would not be families on that kind of ship. But when these raiding activities started to become a more permanent thing, then at some point you may actually see families are traveling along and staying in the camps,” Bill said.
While Viking men did intermingle with local women went they went ranging off to far-flung places, Hagelberg said, the new study shows they also brought along their own women.
“It is true that the Vikings are thought to have taken local women [from the places they landed], but the DNA evidence in this study and the Icelandic study does indicate that Norse women were involved in the colonisation process,” she told The Independent. “This somewhat contradicts one of the views about Viking raids, namely that they were driven by a shortage of women at home.”
Viking women helped establish communities in new places, grew crops there and were involved in trade, which was important to the Viking economy. Previous discoveries of weapons and armor in female graves also suggest that women sometimes fought alongside the men.
Hagelberg published her findings December 7 in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
Featured image: ‘Ingolf tager Island i besiddelse’ by P. Raadsig, 1850, depicting Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller