18 February 2017

Dressed up with bling stolen in Viking raids

This Medievalists post that I pass on to you tells of an interesting trail left by a broach that a Viking woman buried 1200-years ago wore on her dress. (Ed.)

***

JANUARY 22, 2017 BY MEDIEVALISTS.NET

When a female Norwegian Viking died some time during the ninth century, she was buried wearing a status symbol: a beautiful piece of bronze jewellery worn on her traditional Norse dress.

In 2016, this piece of jewellery was found in the soil at Agdenes farm, situated at the outermost part of the Trondheim Fjord in Mid-Norway. Photo: Åge Hojem/NTNU University Museum

She explains that fittings like this were popular among the Norwegian Vikings who took part in the first raids to the British Isles, at the very beginning of the Viking age. The fittings were originally attached to horse harnesses, like in this case, or to religious items such as books, crosiers or altar decorations.

“A housewife in Mid-Norway probably received the fitting as a gift from a family member who took part in one or more Viking raids to Ireland or Great Britain. When she died, the jewellery was given to her as a burial gift. It has stayed underground until it was found by chance this summer,” Heen Pettersen says.

She adds that almost all of the similar finds from this era that have been discovered in Norway have been found in women’s graves that date from the first half of the 9th century, when the Vikings began to plunder the British Isles.
 
The decorations suggest that the jewellery was made in a Celtic workshop, most likely in Ireland, in the 8th or 9th century. It was originally used as a fitting for a horse’s harness, but holes at the bottom and traces of rust from a needle on the back show that it had probably been turned into a brooch at a later stage.

But how did a fitting from an Irish horse’s harness end up as a brooch for a Norwegian Viking woman?

Took the jewellery to her grave
Aina Margrethe Heen Pettersen is a doctoral student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Historical Studies and works with finds brought to Norway during the Viking age. She will now study the bronze brooch more closely, which is has been curated and preserved by the NTNU University Museum.

Doctoral student Aina Margrethe Heen Pettersen at the Department of Historical Studies at NTNU will conduct more research on the bronze brooch, which is preserved and maintained by the NTNU University Museum. Photo: Åge Hojem/NTNU University Museum
 She explains that fittings like this were popular among the Norwegian Vikings who took part in the first raids to the British Isles, at the very beginning of the Viking age. The fittings were originally attached to horse harnesses, like in this case, or to religious items such as books, crosiers or altar decorations.

“A housewife in Mid-Norway probably received the fitting as a gift from a family member who took part in one or more Viking raids to Ireland or Great Britain. When she died, the jewellery was given to her as a burial gift. It has stayed underground until it was found by chance this summer,” Heen Pettersen says.

She adds that almost all of the similar finds from this era that have been discovered in Norway have been found in women’s graves that date from the first half of the 9th century, when the Vikings began to plunder the British Isles.

Visual status symbols
Being part of the early Viking raids brought status and prestige to the individuals who participated, but also to their families. The men who returned alive from the dangerous journeys gave the objects they had stolen as gifts to female family members who waited for them at home. The fittings were then turned into jewellery, and were worn on traditional Norse clothing as brooches, pendants or belt fittings.

“As a result, it became clear to everyone that those women had family members who had taken part in successful expeditions far away. There are traces of gold on the surface of the jewellery, so it was originally covered in gold. It therefore appeared to be more valuable than it actually was. In addition, each piece of jewelry was unique, so the owner did not risk having the housewife next door turn up with the same piece of jewellery,” Heen Pettersen says.

Jewellery of this kind has typically been found in women’s graves with relatively few other burial gifts. This suggests that many of the Vikings who took part in raids far away did not represent the top layer of the social hierarchy. Instead, they were “nouveau riche” farmers and fishermen who got the opportunity to climb the social ladder by taking part in Viking raids.

Strategic location
Agdenes is strategically located at the south end of the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord, where it meets the Trondheimsleia Strait. The place is mentioned several times in the Norse sagas as a gathering place where ships with warriors met before their journey continued.

Traces of King Øystein’s Harbour, which was established for military and defense reasons early in the 12th century, are found just next to Agdenes farm, where the bronze brooch was discovered. The harbour validates the strategic location of the place. It is possible that the area served as a natural gathering or stopping place for ships sailing from the Trondheim Fjord to the British Isles.

From Mid-Norway, ships probably followed the coastline southwards before they crossed the open ocean across the North Sea. If the weather was nice and the wind came from the right direction, they could sail from the southwest of Norway to the east coast of England or Scotland in just a couple of days. If they were surprised by bad weather, the journey could be fatal.

The grave has been disturbed
According to Heen Pettersen, the bronze brooch was found by a private individual with a metal detector, so it is not a find from an archaeological site. The jewellery was not found in the original grave, which indicates that the grave at some point had been disturbed – for example during ploughing or other farming activities.

The Viking women who owned this kind of jewellery were typically buried with grave gifts such as tortoise-shaped brooches, pearls, a knife and a spinning wheel, in addition to jewelry made from stolen fittings.

“The new find from Agdenes farm shows that the area was populated in the first part of the Viking Age. Even though it is a random find, it is a nice reminder that Mid-Norway was involved in the early contact with the British Isles,” says Heen Pettersen.


11 February 2017

Major Viking Age manor discovered in Sweden

The following excerpt comes to us from Medievalists.net, and is taken from a comprehensive paper on the ongoing archaeological investigations of the ancient trading town of Birka, Sweden.

I have been there, and there are burial mounds in ever direction. Evidence abounds of a large concentration of ancient activity throughout the area of Birka itself and the surrounding countryside. It has long been known that the island saw a great deal of trading activity from the Vendel Period through the Viking Age.

A link at the bottom of this excerpt will take you to the paper that details this project from a scientific viewpoint. It is excellent and comprehensive, and I highly recommend it to interested parties. (Ed.)

***

JANUARY 22, 2017 BY MEDIEVALISTS.NET

Birka, Sweden’s oldest town, has long been a major source of our knowledge about the Viking Age. New geophysical research has now uncovered the ninth-century manor of a royal bailiff at this site.

Reconstruction Viking age manor – reconstruction by Jacques Vincent – photo courtesy Stockholm University
During spring of 2016 a number of large presumed house terraces were identified by the researchers at Korshamn, which lies outside the town rampart of Birka, which itself is situated on an island in Lake Mälaren, near Stockholm. As a consequence high resolution geophysical surveys using ground-penetrating radar were carried out in September 2016, which revealed a major Viking period hall on the site, with a length of around 40 meters. Based on the land upheaval the area of the Viking hall can be dated to sometime after 810 AD. The hall is connected to a large fenced area that stretches towards the harbour basin.

“This kind of Viking period high status manors has previously only been identified at a few places in southern Scandinavia, for instance at Tissø and Lejre in Denmark. It is known that the fenced area at such manors was linked to religious activities” says Johan Runer, archaeologist at the Stockholm county museum.

During the survey a predecessor for the Viking Age manor was also identified at the site: a high status manor that existed during the Vendel period, prior to the establishment of the Viking Age town of Birka. Both the identified buildings and their continued use from the Vendel period to the Viking Age correlate well with the “ancestral property” of Birka’s royal bailiff Herigar as mentioned in Rimbert’s Vita Anskarii. Herigar was Christianized by Ansgar, archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, during his first mission c. 830 AD, and he built the first church on his land.

“The consequences of our discoveries cannot be overestimated: in terms of the emergence of the Viking town of Birka, its royal administration and the earliest Christian mission to Scandinavia”, says Sven Kalmring, researcher at the Zentrum für Baltische und Skandinavische Archäologie, Schleswig.

 “The results highlight the benefits of using non-intrusive geophysical surveys for the detection of archaeological features and, once again, prove to be an invaluable tool for documenting Iron Age building remains in Scandinavia”, says Andreas Viberg, researcher at the Archaeological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University.

The results has been published in the journal Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt – click here to read the article: At Home with Herigar: a Magnate’s Residence from the Vendel- to Viking Period at Korshamn, Birka (Uppland / S)


03 February 2017

Silver hoard in Gotland

More on the Gotland treasure hoard: One of the most famous trading centers of the Viking Age was Visby, on the island of Gotland, off the southeast coast of Sweden in the southern Baltic. Over the years it has yielded an incredible amount of buried treasure dating to that period, and people continue to look, so there is bound to be more. (Ed.)

***



NEWS ABOUT THE MIDDLE AGES
11. APRIL 2012

During Easter a spectacular silver hoard was uncovered

Gotland is famous for its silver hoards. All in all more than 700 have been archaeologically registered. To this should be added any number of illegal finds, like for instance the 2000 silver coins dated from around 1000, which were recovered from looters in 2009. The five men – one of whom was a licensed coin dealer from Stockholm – were later sentenced up to one year in prison for their illegal digging.

The new hoard consists of an intact copper barrel filled with a leather purse, which probably contains more than 6000 silver coins. One of them has already been cleaned and is a coin from Köln dated 1043. Currently the treasure, which was lying deep in a field near Stale, is being x-rayed, while archaeologists are trying to discover whether the fortune was originally hidden under a floor of a building or dug directly into the field. Later the cleaning and registration will take place, before the new treasure will be shown to the public some time this summer. The new find is especially interesting because it complements an old hoard, which was found around 1838 in the same field. This consisted of 5922 coins. Such collections give a snapshot of trading routes and networks, which can be precisely dated. As such they present the archaeologists and historians with very valuable information. All in all more than 170.000 coins have been found either in hoards or as loose finds in Gotland.

Silver Hoard from Spillinge

Nobody really knows why the Vikings in the Early Middle Ages hid such huge fortunes at Gotland and never recovered them. However, some patterns seem to be discernible. The treasures or hoards can be dated from around 800 – 1140, a period covering app. 10 generations. With 1500 farms on the island, this means that at least 4 -5% of all generationally defined households “forgot” the whereabouts of a hoard.

About 64 of them contained gold. The rest consisted only of silver or copper. The silver has either been found in the form of bracelets, jewellery or broken silver or as collections of coins, which for most of the period in question must have been used as payment in kind; that is weighted and valued before used as part of a payment. While Viking minting was taking place in e.g. York around 890, it took until 1140 before the people in Gotland started their own mint; until then coins were simply imported and reused as silver.

Further, analysing the origin of the coins, it appears that most of them were either of Arabic, German or English origin. Nearly 90% of the coins from Stale, which were found in 1838, were of German origin (the youngest from 1084 AD). Because of the low percentage of English (or Frankish) coins it is generally believed that the hoarded wealth represents the surplus of trade as opposed to income from raids. This fits with the fact that the Vikings in Gotland were key partners in the trade between the Viking Emporiums along the Northern coast of Germany and the Russian trading stations in Novgorod and further South to the Caliphate along the so-called Silver-Fur Road.

The largest hoard of them all – the Spillings Hoard – is currently exhibited at the Museum in Visby. It weighed 67 kilograms or 335 mark silver and has been dated to 870 – 71. The weight can be compared to the fact that the 1500 farms of Gotland according to Gutasagan at some point were obliged to pay the king of Sweden around 60 mark silver each year, the equivalent of 7,5 pennies or 0.04 % of a mark silver each in order to be able to trade freely at the Swedish markets.

However, in what way the famous hoards will be exhibited in Gotland in the future is as yet not known. Come June a new permanent medieval exhibition will be unveiled. According to the pre-notice the exhibition will be dedicated to catering primarily for families and tell the story of how Gotland was central to the Baltic area in terms of trade, politics and culture. Whether the treasures will be weaved into this exhibition or as now, shown apart, is as yet not known.

The new exhibition will open on the 6th of June.
Read more about the Silver Hoards in:
Gotland. Vikingaön. Gotländskt Arkiv 2004. Ed: Gun Westholm.


28 January 2017

The extent of Viking settlement in Britain

Genetic studies resulting from continual DNA samplings of Viking age archaeological finds will no doubt continue to increase our knowledge base of this period while turning many long-held assumptions on their ears. Such is the case with the article abstract that I feature in this week's post.

The complete article may be read on Cambridge Core's, Antiquity, a publication of the Cambridge University Press by clicking on the link embedded in the fourth paragraph of the article.

Perhaps, one day such studies will add credence to my contention that a genetic connection exists between the medieval Viking settlers from Greenland and the pre-historical Indians of eastern Canada. (Ed.)

***

1 December 2016


Research involving the Institute's Jane Kershaw draws into question the findings of a recent study regarding the extent of Viking settlement in Britain.

Last year, the People of the British Isles (PoBI) project claimed to reveal the extent of first millennium  AD human migrations into Britain. Combining large-scale, local DNA sampling with innovative data analysis, the project generated a survey of the genetic structure of Britain in unprecedented detail.

One of the most popularly-cited results was the striking claim that the Danish Vikings, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxons, made only a modest demographic impact on modern British genetic diversity. This key finding appeared to settle one of the longest-standing questions in early medieval archaeology: the extent of Viking settlement in Britain.

In a debate paper, published in the current issue of Antiquity (December 2016), Jane and co-author Ellen C. Royrvik highlight issues with two aspects of the study which seriously undermine its key findings: the failure to recognise that the Danes and Anglo-Saxons originated from the same geographic area, and are thus impossible to distinguish genetically, and the fact that the study’s estimated date of Anglo-Saxon ‘admixture’ (interbreeding with the native population) post-dates the Anglo-Saxon migrations by 400 years, and sits squarely within the period of Viking activity in Britain.

The authors offer alternative interpretations, to suggest that the genetic legacy of Danish Vikings in Britain might well be substantial. Drawing on new artefactual and linguistic evidence they argue for a significant Danish Viking presence in England, comprising not just warriors, but entire family groups.

They have also employed a new quantitative approach to illustrate absolute numbers of migrants using two different starting points (population proportion and Viking metalwork items). This is, to their knowledge, the first time that total numbers of Viking settlers in England have been scientifically estimated.

Ellen C. Royrvik is a geneticist while Jane Kershaw is a Viking-Age archaeologist and are thus in a unique position to comment on the method employed in the POBI study.

21 January 2017

Hoards of the Vikings

The island of Gotland has yielded a great deal of Viking treasure and archaeological data over the years. This particular find on Gotland may be the largest Viking treasure trove ever discovered anywhere. (Ed.)
***

Evidence of trade, diplomacy, and vast wealth on an unassuming island in the Baltic Sea

By DANIEL WEISS
Tuesday, January 17, 2017

This array of silver coins, bracelets, and other forms of Viking wealth typifies the hoards found deposited at numerous sites across the island of Gotland.

 The accepted image of the Vikings as fearsome marauders who struck terror in the hearts of their innocent victims has endured for more than 1,000 years. Historians’ accounts of the first major Viking attack, in 793, on a monastery on Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England, have informed the Viking story. “The church of St. Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God,” wrote the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York, “stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans....Who is not afraid at this?” The Vikings are known to have gone on to launch a series of daring raids elsewhere in England, Ireland, and Scotland. They made inroads into France, Spain, and Portugal. They colonized Iceland and Greenland, and even crossed the Atlantic, establishing a settlement in the northern reaches of Newfoundland.

But these were primarily the exploits of Vikings from Norway and Denmark. Less well known are the Vikings of Sweden. Now, the archaeological site of Fröjel on Gotland, a large island in the Baltic Sea around 50 miles east of the Swedish mainland, is helping advance a more nuanced understanding of their activities. While they, too, embarked on ambitious journeys, they came into contact with a very different set of cultures—largely those of Eastern Europe and the Arab world. In addition, these Vikings combined a knack for trading, business, and diplomacy with a willingness to use their own brand of violence to amass great wealth and protect their autonomy.

At Fröjel, a Viking Age site on the west coast of Gotland, archaeologists search for evidence of a workshop that included a silver-smelting operation.Gotland today is part of Sweden, but during the Viking Age, roughly 800 to 1150, it was independently ruled. 

The accumulation of riches on the island from that time is exceptional. More than 700 silver hoards have been found there, and they include around 180,000 coins. By comparison, only 80,000 coins have been found in hoards on all of mainland Sweden, which is more than 100 times as large and had 10 times the population at the time. Just how an island that seemed largely given over to farming and had little in the way of natural resources, aside from sheep and limestone, built up such wealth has been puzzling. Excavations led by archaeologist Dan Carlsson, who runs an annual field school on the island through his cultural heritage management company, Arendus, are beginning to provide some answers.

Traces of around 60 Viking Age coastal settlements have been found on Gotland, says Carlsson. Most were small fishing hamlets with jetties apportioned among nearby farms. Fröjel, which was active from around 600 to 1150, was one of about 10 settlements that grew into small towns, and Carlsson believes that it became a key player in a far-reaching trade network. “Gotlanders were middlemen,” he says, “and they benefited greatly from the exchange of goods from the West to the East, and the other way around.”

Brooches found in a graveyard in Visby, Gotland’s largest town, were used by Viking women to hold their clothing in place.
Situated between the Swedish mainland and the Baltic states, Gotland was a natural stopping-off point for trading voyages, and Carlsson’s excavations at Fröjel have turned up an abundance of materials that came from afar: antler from mainland Sweden, glass from Italy, amber from Poland or Lithuania, rock crystal from the Caucasus, carnelian from the East, and even a clay egg from the Kiev area thought to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And then, of course, there are the coins. Tens of thousands of the silver coins found in hoards on the island came from the Arab world.

Many Gotlanders themselves plied these trade routes. They would sail east to the shores of Eastern Europe and make their way down the great rivers of western Russia, trading and raiding along the way at least as far south as Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, via the Black Sea. Some reports suggest that they also crossed the Caspian Sea and traveled all the way to Baghdad, then the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Entire Viking families are believed to have made their way east. “In the beginning, we thought it was just for trading,” says Carlsson, “but now we see there was a kind of settlement. You find Viking cemeteries far away from the main rivers, in the uplands.” Other evidence of Scandinavian presence in the region is plentiful. As early as the seventh century, there was a Gotlandic settlement at Grobina in Latvia, just inland from the point on the coast closest to Gotland. Large numbers of Scandinavian artifacts have been excavated in northwest Russia, including coin hoards, brooches, and other women’s bronze jewelry. The Rus, the people that gave Russia its name, were made up in part of these Viking transplants. The term’s origins are unclear, but it may have been derived from the Old Norse for “a crew of oarsmen” or a Greek word for “blondes.”

Combs such as this one, excavated at Fröjel, were made locally of antler imported from mainland Sweden.

To investigate the links between the Gotland Vikings and the East, Carlsson turned his attention to museum collections and archaeological sites in northwest Russia. “It is fascinating how many artifacts you find in every small museum,” he says. “If they have a museum, they probably have Scandinavian artifacts.” For example, at the museum in Staraya Ladoga, east of St. Petersburg, Carlsson found a large number of Scandinavian items, oval brooches from mainland Sweden, combs, beads, pendants, and objects with runic inscriptions, and even three brooches in the Gotlandic style dating to the seventh and eighth centuries. Scandinavians were initially drawn to the area to obtain furs from local Finns, particularly miniver, the highly desirable white winter coat of the stoat, which they would then trade in Western Europe. As time went on, Staraya Ladoga served as a launching point for Viking forays to the Black and Caspian Seas.

These journeys entailed a good deal of risk. The route south from Kiev toward Constantinople along the Dnieper River was particularly hazardous. A mid-tenth-century document by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus tells of Vikings traveling this stretch each year after the spring thaw, which required portaging around a series of dangerous rapids and fending off attacks by local bandits known as the Pechenegs. The name of one of these rapids—Aifur, meaning “ever-noisy” or “impassable”—appears on a runestone on Gotland dedicated to the memory of a man named Hrafn who died there.

Silver arm rings with a zigzag pattern, believed to have been manufactured on Gotland, are part of an enormous hoard unearthed on the island.
People from the East may have traveled back to Gotland with the Vikings as well. At Fröjel, Carlsson has uncovered two Viking Age cemeteries, one dating from roughly 600 to 900, and the other from 900 to 1000. In all, Carlsson has excavated around 60 burials there, and isotopic analysis has shown that some 15 percent of the people whose graves have been excavated—all buried in the earlier cemetery—came from elsewhere, possibly the East.
In their voyages, the Vikings of Gotland are thought to have traded a broad range of goods such as furs, beeswax, honey, cloth, salt, and iron, which they obtained through a combination of trade and violent theft. This activity, though, doesn’t entirely account for the wealth that archaeologists have uncovered. In recent years, Carlsson and other experts have begun to suspect that a significant portion of their trade may have consisted of a commodity that has left little trace in the archaeological record: slaves. “We still have some problems in explaining what made this island so rich,” says Carlsson. “We know from written Arabic sources that the Rus—the Scandinavians in Russia—were transporting slaves. We just don’t know how big their trading in slaves was.”

According to an early tenth-century account by Ibn Rusta, a Persian geographer, the Rus were nomadic raiders who would set upon Slavic people in their boats and take them captive. They would then transport them to Khazaria or Bulgar, a Silk Road trading hub on the Volga River, where they were offered for sale along with furs. “They sell them for silver coins, which they set in belts and wear around their waists,” writes Ibn Rusta. Another source, Ibn Fadlan, a representative of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad who traveled to Bulgar in 921, reports seeing the Rus disembark from their boats with slave girls and sable skins for sale. The Rus warriors, according to his account, would pray to their gods: “I would like you to do me the favor of sending me a merchant who has large quantities of dinars and dirhams [Arab coins] and who will buy everything that I want and not argue with me over my price.” Whenever one of these warriors accumulated 10,000 coins, Ibn Fadlan says, he would melt them down into a neck ring for his wife.

It is unclear whether the Vikings transported Slavic slaves back to Gotland, but the practice of slavery appears to have been well established there. The Guta Lag, a compendium of Gotlandic law thought to have been written down in 1220 includes rules regarding purchasing slaves, or thralls. “The law says that if you buy a man, try him for six days, and if you are not satisfied, bring him back,” says Carlsson. “It sounds like buying an ox or a cow.” Burials belonging to people who came from places other than Gotland are generally situated on the periphery of the graveyards with fewer grave goods, suggesting that they may have occupied a secondary tier of society—perhaps as slaves.

A silver coin from the early 10th century (obverse, far left; reverse, left) is one of tens of thousands excavated on Gotland that had originated in the Arab world.
For the Gotland Vikings, accumulation of wealth in the form of silver coins was clearly a priority, but they weren’t interested in just any coins. They were unusually sensitive to the quality of imported silver and appear to have taken steps to gauge its purity. Until the mid-tenth century, almost all the coins found on Gotland came from the Arab world and were around 95 percent pure. According to Stockholm University numismatist Kenneth Jonsson, beginning around 955, these Arab coins were increasingly cut with copper, probably due to reduced silver production. Gotlanders stopped importing them. Near the end of the tenth century, when silver mining in Germany took off, Gotlanders began to trade and import high-quality German coins. Around 1055, coins from Frisia in northern Germany became debased, and Gotlanders halted imports of all German coins. At this juncture, ingots from the East became the island’s primary source of silver.

Interestingly, when a silver source from the Arab or German world slipped in quality, Jonsson points out, and the Gotlanders rapidly cut off the debased supplies, their contemporaries on mainland Sweden and in areas of Eastern Europe did not. “Word must have spread around the island, saying, ‘Don’t use these German coins anymore!’” says Jonsson. To test imported silver, Gotlanders would shave a bit of the metal with a knife so its contents could be assessed based on color and consistency, says Ny Björn Gustafsson of the Swedish National Heritage Board. He notes that many imported silver items found on Gotland were “pecked” in this way, and that Gotlanders may also have tested imported coins by bending them. By contrast, silver items thought to have been made on Gotland—including heavy arm rings with a zigzag pattern pressed into them—were not generally pecked or otherwise tested. “My interpretation,” Gustafsson says, “is that this jewelry acted as a traditional form of currency and was assumed to contain pure silver.”

These arm rings are among the most commonly found items in Gotland’s hoards, along with coins, and experts had long assumed they were made on the island, but no evidence of their manufacture had been found until Carlsson’s team uncovered a workshop area at Fröjel.

“We found the artifacts exactly where they had been dropped,” says Carlsson. There are precious stones: amber, carnelian, garnet. There are half-finished beads, cracked during drilling and discarded. There is elk antler for crafting combs. There is also a large lump of iron, as well as rivets for use in boats, coffins, and storage chests. And, providing evidence of a smelting operation, there are drops of silver.

Researchers found that the metalworkers of Fröjel used an apparatus called a cupellation hearth to transform a suspect source of imported silver, such as coins or ingots, into jewelry or decorated weapons with precisely calibrated silver content. They would melt the silver source with lead and blow air over the molten mélange with a bellows, causing the lead and other impurities to oxidize, separate from the silver, and attach to the hearth lining. The resulting pure silver would then be combined with other metals to produce a desired alloy. The cupellation technique is known from classical times, says Gustafsson, but so far this is the first and only time such a hearth has been found on Gotland. Only one other intact example from the Viking Age has been found in Sweden, at the mainland settlement of Sigtuna.

This imported silver piece found on Gotland shows signs of “pecking,” where a bit of metal was gouged out to test its purity.
Traces of lead and other impurities were found embedded in pieces of the cupellation hearth among the material excavated from the workshop area at Fröjel. The hearth has been radiocarbon dated to around 1100. Also unearthed from the workshop area were fragments of molds imprinted with the zigzag patterns found on Gotlandic silver arm rings, establishing that they were, in fact, made on the island—and that the workshop was the site of the full chain of production, from metal refinement to casting. “We have these silver arm rings in many hoards all over Gotland,” says Carlsson. “But we never before saw exactly where they were making them.”

During the Viking Age, Gotland seems to have been a more egalitarian society than mainland Sweden, which had a structure of nobles led by a king dating from at least the late tenth century. On Gotland, by contrast, farmers and merchants appear to have formed the upper class and, while some were more prosperous than others, they shared in governance through a series of local assemblies called things, which were overseen by a central authority called the Althing. According to the Guta Saga, the saga of the Gotlanders, which was written down around 1220, an emissary from Gotland forged a peace treaty with the Swedish king, ending a period of strife with the mainland Swedes. The treaty, believed to have been established in the eleventh century, required Gotland to pay an annual tax in exchange for continued independence, protection, and freedom to travel and trade.

Stratification did increase on the island as time passed, though. Archaeologists have found that, throughout the ninth and tenth centuries, silver hoards were distributed throughout Gotland, suggesting that wealth was more or less uniformly shared among the island’s farmers. But around 1050, this pattern shifted. “In the late eleventh century, you start to have fewer hoards overall, but, instead, there are some really massive hoards, usually found along the coast, containing many, many thousands of coins,” says Jonsson. This suggests that trading was increasingly controlled by a small number of coastal merchants.

This stratification accelerated near the end of the Viking Age, around 1140, when Gotland began to mint its own coins, becoming the first authority in the eastern Baltic region to do so. “Gotlandic coins were used on mainland Sweden and in the Baltic countries,” says Majvor Östergren, an archaeologist who has studied the island’s silver hoards. Whereas Gotlanders had valued foreign coins based on their weight alone, these coins, though hastily hammered out into an irregular shape, had a generally accepted value. More than eight million of these early Gotlandic coins are estimated to have been minted between 1140 and 1220, and more than 22,000 have been found, including 11,000 on Gotland alone.

An example of one of the earliest silver coins minted on Gotland (obverse, top left; reverse, bottom left) dates from around 1140.
 Gotland is thought to have begun its coinage operation to take advantage of new trading opportunities made possible by strife among feuding groups on mainland Sweden and in western Russia. This allowed Gotland to make direct trading agreements with the Novgorod area of Russia and with powers to the island’s southwest, including Denmark, Frisia, and northern Germany. Gotland’s new coins helped facilitate trade between its Eastern and Western trading partners, and brought added profits to the island’s elite through tolls, fees, and taxes levied on visiting traders. In order to maintain control over trade on the island, it was limited to a single harbor, Visby, which remains the island’s largest town. As a result, the rest of Gotland’s trading harbors, including Fröjel, declined in importance around 1150.
Gotland remained a wealthy island in the medieval period that followed the Viking Age, but, says Carlsson, “Gotlanders stopped putting their silver in the ground. Instead, they built more than 90 stone churches during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” Although many archaeologists believe that the Gotland Vikings stashed their wealth in hoards for safekeeping, Carlsson thinks that, just as did the churches that were built later, they served a devotional purpose. In many cases, he argues, hoards do not appear to have been buried in houses but rather atop graves, roads, or borderlands. Indeed, some were barely buried at all because, he argues, others in the community knew not to touch them. “These hoards were not meant to be taken up,” he says, “because they were meant as a sort of sacrifice to the gods, to ensure a good harvest, good fortune, or a safer life.” In light of the scale, sophistication, and success of the Gotland Vikings’ activities, these ritual depositions may have seemed to them a small price to pay.

Daniel Weiss is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.


15 January 2017

Articles about the Vikings from the BBC Ancient History site

In this post I decided to feature a series of short articles of Viking Dig Reports from the BBC. If you have seen them before then they will be dated for you - old news. On the other hand if you haven't stumbled across this site before, the articles will be timely.

In both cases you will find them to be most interesting, provided you have an interest in the medieval Vikings, and I guess you do, or wouldn't be reading this - enjoy. (Ed.)


***

The wounds on this warrior's skull suggest he died a violent death  ©


Viking Dig Reports
Click the link below:
Articles about the Vikings from the BBC Ancient History site

07 January 2017

New evidence of Viking life in America?

This excellent BBC article about Dr. Sarah Parcak's discovery of another Viking settlement on Newfoundland contains more information than the first announcement of the archaeological discovery, so I include the article in its entirety rather than post an excerpt.

This is truly exciting stuff, and I hope you enjoy reading all about it. (Ed.)


***

New evidence of Viking life in America?

BBC Magazine

1 April 2016


Image copyrightALAMY
A new discovery has revealed that the Vikings may have travelled hundreds of miles further into North America than previously thought. It's well known that they reached the tip of the continent more than 1,000 years ago, but the full extent of their exploration has remained a mystery, writes historian Dan Snow.

After a long hike across boggy ground and through thick pine forests, clutching pepper spray to protect against bear attacks, Sarah Parcak and her small team of archaeologists stood on an exposed, wind-blasted headland in North America.

Exhausted but happy, they had been led to Point Rosee in Newfoundland by the most high-tech weaponry in the modern archaeological arsenal - satellite data captured 383 miles (600km) above the Earth. But once here they were back to using trowels and brushes. I joined them to see how this powerful combination of new and old allowed them to make what could be a seismic discovery.

We were here on the trail of one of the greatest maritime cultures of all time. We were here inspired by ancient chronicles which many have written off as fairy stories. We were here looking for Vikings.

Newfoundland, Canada
In about 800AD Britain felt the fury of these men from the north. Portmahomack was one of Scotland's most prosperous and important communities. On a protected bay in Easter Ross, on the edge of the Highlands, it was well placed as a waypoint for merchants, travellers and pilgrims moving along the east coast.

Recent excavations have given us a picture of a wealthy monastery at its heart. Scriptures were copied on to carefully prepared animal skin parchment by monks, skilled craftsmen created beautiful, jewel-encrusted religious ornaments, sculptors carved intricate Celtic crosses. Trade was the source of these riches, the sea brought wealth, but the sea also brought destruction.

Archaeologists have revealed that Portmahomack was suddenly and utterly destroyed. They found smashed fragments of sculptures mingled with the ashes of torched buildings. The settlement was wiped out. It is impossible to be certain but historians now think the most likely explanation is that it was attacked and looted. When I visited, a couple of months before the trip to Point Rosee, I held a piece of skull in my hand, presumably from a monk.


Image copyrightDAN SNOW
It had been shattered by a mighty blow, the sword's blade left a deep gouge that makes the cause of death clear. Who were these men who slaughtered God's servants and annihilated one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain? Almost certainly they were men who cared nothing for the Christian God, men who came in ships from the north and west, men who sought gold: Vikings.

The attack on Portmahomack is the only Viking raid in Britain for which we have archaeological evidence. Others, such as the attack on Lindisfarne at about the same time, echo only through the reports recorded in chronicles. Together these two violent raids mark the start of an era of attacks from across the North Sea. The Vikings or Norse exploded out of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, using hugely sophisticated navigational skills and shipbuilding technology as they pushed ever further into the wider world.

Vikings conquered Normandy in France - the land of the Northmen - even parts of Italy and the Levant. They also founded Dublin, made deep inroads into England and island-hopped across the North Atlantic. Orkney, Shetland, Fair Isle and Iceland.

Image copyrightBBC/FREDDIE CLARE
They even crossed to Greenland, where I visited stunning Viking sites on the coast, dodging icebergs to get ashore. But perhaps their greatest achievement is the one shrouded in the most mystery. Did they get to North America? If so, was it a fleeting visit or did they colonise that distant coast too, centuries before Christopher Columbus?

The descendants of the Vikings left sagas - beautiful works of literature in which fact and fiction are often poetically intermixed. They clearly state that the intrepid Leif Erikson led an expedition to the east coast of North America. They describe good harbours, and an abundance of natural resources. One of the most fascinating mysteries in history is whether these can be believed.


Image copyrightBBC/FREDDIE CLARE
In 1960, a site on the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland in Canada, L'Anse aux Meadows, was investigated and archaeologists were convinced that it was a Viking settlement. The world woke up to the fact that the Vikings had reached North America before any other Europeans. But no other site has been identified, the search for Viking America stalled. Until now.

Sarah Parcak uses satellite imagery to look for irregularities in the soil, potentially caused by man-made structures which lie beneath. She has used this technique to find ancient sites in Egypt and a few years ago she scoured the Roman Empire where she identified the site of the great lighthouse at Portus near Rome and several other buildings, from a fort in Tunisia to ramparts in Romania. Last year, she decided to search for the Vikings.

It wasn't easy. They travelled light and left nothing behind. No massive stone theatres for them. They voyaged in longships with a strong oak keel, and thin overlapping planks fanning out to form the iconic, graceful hull - the gaps between the planks stuffed with animal hair and tar. The rudder was fixed on with a twisted birch sapling. Sails spun from wool. Food was pickled herring, lamb smoked using reindeer droppings, fermented salmon. Almost everything on a Viking ship would get recycled or rot away. But they did leave a trace, and Parcak's team were determined to pick it up, however faint.

Image copyrightIMAGE © 2016 DIGITALGLOBE INC
They scanned satellite pictures from across the east coast of America. Several sites appeared worth following up, but they had to decide on one for a dig. In the end they opted for a headland, almost the very western tip of Newfoundland, 400 miles further south and west than the only known Viking site in North America.

It overlooked two bays, offering protection for ships from any wind direction. Parcak saw oddities in the soil that stood out - patterns and discolourations that suggested artificial, man-made structures, possibly even Viking longhouses, once stood there.

Image copyrightIMAGE © 2016 DIGITALGLOBE INC

It was time to leave the lab, and head out into the field. For a couple of weeks Parcak led the team as they carefully probed the ground that she had first spotted thanks to a satellite hundreds of miles away in space.

Newfoundland's climate is as brutal as ours in the British Isles with hail, gales, sweltering sun and driving rain. Exploratory trenches were flooded, equipment blew away, but they toughed it out and found something tantalising.

Months before, in her lab, Sarah had shown me an image that she thought might be the site of burning or metalwork. Sure enough, when she started to dig on the exact spot, she found something. Something that might prove to be a breakthrough. Carefully peeling back the layers of earth, she found what seemed to be a hearth.

Image copyrightDAN SNOW
A blackened rock testified to intense temperatures. Beneath it were piles of charcoal mixed with cooked bog iron - an iron deposit that needs to be baked to drive off impurities and allow the iron to be extracted for smelting. Surrounding the hearth appeared to be a turf wall of the kind built by Viking settlers across the North Atlantic.

Image copyrightGREG MUMFORD
"I am absolutely thrilled," says Parcak. "Typically in archaeology, you only ever get to write a footnote in the history books, but what we seem to have at Point Rosee may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter.

"This new site could unravel more secrets about the Vikings, whether they were the first Europeans to 'occupy' briefly in North America, and reveal that the Vikings dared to explore much further into the New World than we ever thought."

She immediately checked that there could be no other explanation for these deposits. Newfoundland historian Olaf Janzen was certain, no other groups of settlers roasted bog iron in Newfoundland. Nothing has been proven yet, but it looks like Parcak might have found evidence for Viking exploration in North America that goes much further than just that one site discovered in the 60s.

This find "has the potential to change history" says Douglas Bolender, an expert on Viking settlement who has spent 15 years tracking the Vikings across the north Atlantic. "Right now the simplest answer is that it looks like a small activity area, maybe connected to a larger farm that is Norse." He is excited and can't wait to see what further excavation reveals. He's hoping that seeds or other organic matter that can be carbon dated will be unearthed.

If Parcak has found evidence of another Viking site, it will ignite a new search for Viking settlements across eastern Canada and New England, perhaps as far south as New York and even beyond. Technology has unlocked long forgotten stories from our past, and that technology is getting ever more sophisticated. For those of us who are fascinated by the travels of the intrepid Norsemen, the next few years will provide ever more inspiration.

The Vikings Uncovered is on BBC One on Monday 4 April at 20:30