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

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

01 January 2017

Ælla and the Descendants of Ivar: Politics and Legend in the Viking Age

My thanks again go to Medievalists.net for this excerpt from Northern history.
Readers familiar with the TV series, The Vikings, may also be familiar with this story of Ragnar Lothbrok and his death after capture by the forces of King Aella. Is it fact or fiction? Who knows, but I do not buy the snake pit, preferring instead another version of Ragnar's death popularized in the 1958 movie, The Vikings, wherein he was torn apart by a pit of ravenous wolves.
Ask yourself, would snakes or wolves be more available for a pit of death in merry old England? Yeah, I opt for wolves, too. 
In any case I encourage the interested reader to read the full story by clicking the link at the bottom of this post or just click the title link to go to Academia.edu. (Ed.)



Ælla and the Descendants of Ivar: Politics and Legend in the Viking Age
By Neil McGuigan
Northern History, Vol.52:1 (2015)

Ragnar Lodbrok cast into a snakepit by Ælla – 19th century image
Introduction: In March 867 the Northumbrian king Ælla died at York during a battle against the Scandinavian ‘Great Army’. Two years later, further south, the same force dealt a similar end to the ruler of East Anglia.  King Edmund subsequently became the object of significant religious devotion. His death produced one of the most important royal martyr cults of medieval Europe, giving rise to an eponymous city and territorial honour as well as the dedicated shrine at their centre. The new cult had received significant patronage within a generation. The successors of his killers, the conquering Scandinavians who had settled in East Anglia and adjacent regions of Mercia, oversaw its rise. Like Henry II after the Becket affair, the East Anglian Norse came to honour their victim. A series of coins dedicated to Edmund as saint and king were in circulation in the region within thirty years, seemingly coming to an end only when Edward the Elder established West Saxon overlordship of Norse East Anglia in 918. Yet the West Saxon monarchs were to embrace the cult too, and at the other end of the tenth century it became one of the formally patronised cults of the ‘unified’ kingdom of England, with Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi standardising early legends in the form expected for such a martyr.

Although both Christian kings died in similar circumstances, Ælla was to have a remarkably different afterlife. For Dorothy Whitelock, ‘to die fighting the heathen was an adequate claim to sanctity’. For Ælla, it was not quite adequate enough. Northumbria’s own Historia de Sancto Cuthberto made him one of Cuthbert’s historical persecutors. God sent Ubba’s Frisians and the Scaldingi against the Northumbrian people only because of their king’s unjust behaviour.

Ælla’s death and that of ‘nearly all the English’ (omnes prope Anglos) could thus be blamed on the king. In the twelfth century, the anonymous Narratio de Uxore Aernulfi made Ælla the worst of lords, who brought about his own downfall by raping the women of his followers. In these accounts, there could be no question of Ælla’s sainthood. His death was retribution for moral transgression; the fast road to heaven was not an appropriate reward. Although God was involved in the death of both kings, the motivation differed.

26 December 2016

Viking Faroes: Settlement, Paleoeconomy, andChronology

Here is an interesting excerpt from Medievalists.net on a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Archaeology at Academia.edu/. 

As always I encourage the interested reader to go to the source for the whole story by clicking the title link or the link at the end of this excerpt. (Ed.)

Viking Faroes: Settlement, Paleoeconomy, andChronology

Viking Faroes: Settlement, Paleoeconomy, and Chronology
By Símun V. Arge
Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 7 (2014)

Faroe Islands – photo by Mariusz Kluzniak / Flickr
Abstract: The paper presents a synopsis of the current evidence for the settlement chronology and Viking Age to Early Medieval paleoeconomy of the Faroe Islands. Special emphasis is placed on the recent interdisciplinary research carried out in the village of Sandur, on the island of Sandoy, as part of the Heart of the Atlantic project. A particularly important outcome of this recent work has been the wide application of scientific dating methods to the early settlement remains. Recent AMS radiocarbon dates push the earliest settlement of the islands further back in time than traditionally thought, results that are of great importance because the Faroes were the first stepping-stone for the Viking diaspora west across the North Atlantic.

Introduction: The Faroe Islands are a group of some 18 islands located in the North Atlantic almost midway between Norway, Iceland, and Scotland. The islands, separated by narrow fjords and sounds, together have an area of ~1400 km2 . When the first Viking settlers arrived, they encountered a landscape characterized by grasses, sedges, and ericaceous shrubs. Woodlands—small groups of juniper and birch—seem to have been of minor importance. In other words, the landscape was rather similar to what we see today. The rugged topography of the islands restricted the settlements mainly to the coastal strips along the sounds and the fjords.

Whether these settlers came directly from the east—from a Norwegian homeland—or from the south—via northern Scotland and Ireland, as indicated by archaeological and recent genetic evidence—they brought with them a Norse or Hiberno-Norse culture, which was subsequently adapted to local conditions in the North Atlantic.

18 December 2016

Historical Oddity: The Birth of a Commonwealth in Medieval Iceland

From Medievalists.net, this excellent article by John Engle, on the ancient government of the Icelandic Althing, the oldest, continually operating form of democracy on earth. (Ed.)


By John Engle

A 19th-century depiction of the Alþingi of the Commonwealth in session at Þingvellir. (Wikipedia)
Iceland is an odd place with an odd history. Despite being ranked among the wealthiest nations today, for much of its history it was left out of the growth and development of culture and technology throughout the Medieval period. It has never been a particularly hospitable environment for human habitation. Wind-blasted, cold, and rocky, it was an island left unsettled by humans long after it was discovered.

Yet humans have always found ways to inhabit and thrive in even the most unpromising of lands, and a significant number of Norwegians set out to demonstrate that in Iceland in the closing decades of the Ninth Century CE. The impetus for these bold pioneers to abandon their ancestral homelands for this terra nullius was twofold. Firstly, the lack of arable land in Norway made even the rough Icelandic plains attractive to those who lacked property but still desired to build farms and to raise families.

Secondly, the unification of Norway and the centralization of its power structure under Harald Fairhair and his heirs led many independent spirits to chafe at the yoke of royal power. Iceland was a refuge for these early political refugees.

These early pioneers found a fairly barren, inhospitable land, but they swiftly went about making a home for themselves. In many ways the settlers succeeded in replicating life as it was on the Scandinavian mainland, with family and clan groups forming the primary centers of social life. Architectural and farming practices were successfully transplanted wholesale, if in somewhat more rustic form.

Yet the settlers failed to bring along one thing: a government. The traditional nexuses of power in the Medieval world, royal families and noble elites, staked no claim to the Icelanders. This state of affairs proved somewhat unstable, as no set rule of law resulted in feuds that cost many lives. Eventually the most respected and powerful clan leaders met to resolve these problems. As pragmatic as they were warlike, the Icelanders agreed to establish a permanent government to uphold a binding rule of law and to arbitrate disputes between individuals and families.

In 930CE this government took shape as the Althing, or assembly. It would be a sort of proto-parliament, with seats apportioned to the major families and regions. The Althing was to be a deliberative and legislative body, as well as central judiciary. No one was denied access to it by merit of birth. Vitally, this governing structure allowed the rule of law to take hold while still maintaining a decentralized social structure.

It was settled that the permanent meeting place would be in a valley within easy riding distance of the major population centers. As a quirk of history, or maybe as an auspicious sign, the particular valley chosen happens to fall directly on the dividing line of two tectonic plates. On one side is the plate carrying most of Europe. The other, to the west, holds the eastern North American continent. The Icelandic pioneers could not know that, of course, but looking back on it through history, it does have a certain synchronicity. Here, in this rugged frontier, men with little or no education had settled on a break with the only way of governing they had ever known, a break as palpable as the split in the earth dividing the Old World and the New over which they met.

While far from as representative as what modern citizens would expect from a legislative body, the Althing was a remarkable first step in the direction of parliamentary governance. The body was large enough to include many landowners, not simply the mightiest in the land. It enacted a binding law that was recognized and respected by the citizenry with a remarkable zeal. The respect for the rule of law was inculcated in Icelanders in a time when much of the rest of the world was ruled by the fiat of kings or warlords.

The difference in mindset between the Icelandic people and the Scandinavian society they left behind is perhaps best reflected in the extant legends and sagas of the two groups. Scandinavia is famous for its bloody epics detailing the exploits of mighty heroes who are celebrated for their slaying of obscene numbers of enemies and monsters. In Iceland, the sagas still have some of that blood and thunder, but the centerpieces of the stories tend to revolve more around intricate legal disputes and oratorical, rather than martial, brilliance. Njála, perhaps the most famous Icelandic saga, is replete with these legal fights as much as the traditional stories of bloodshed.

Over the centuries, despite successive foreign invaders, occupiers, and overlords seeking to quash it, the Althing and the ideals of the rule of law it represented to the early Icelanders has persisted, showing much the same resilience as the bold people who devised it. It remains the chief governing body of Iceland, though it now fits squarely in the mold of modern parliamentary democracies. In fact, it can claim to be the oldest extant parliament in the world. It is a living reminder of humans’ desire to rule themselves and to be free of arbitrary government.

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

10 December 2016

Was it for walrus? Viking Age settlement and medieval walrus ivory trade in Iceland and Greenland

This post is an excerpt of an article published in the World Archaeology Journal about the importance of walrus ivory to the medieval Norse of Greenland and Iceland. 

I encourage interested readers to click the links provided to read the entire fascinating article from the source. (Ed.)


Published online: 20 Apr 2015

In this article

Walrus-tusk ivory and walrus-hide rope were highly desired goods in Viking Age north-west Europe. New finds of walrus bone and ivory in early Viking Age contexts in Iceland are concentrated in the south-west, and suggest extensive exploitation of nearby walrus for meat, hide and ivory during the first century of settlement. In Greenland, archaeofauna suggest a very different specialized long-distance hunting of the much larger walrus populations in the Disko Bay area that brought mainly ivory to the settlement areas and eventually to European markets. New lead isotopic analysis of archaeological walrus ivory and bone from Greenland and Iceland offers a tool for identifying possible source regions of walrus ivory during the early Middle Ages. This opens possibilities for assessing the development and relative importance of hunting grounds from the point of view of exported products.

Introduction: was it for walrus?

The Norse expansion into the North Atlantic is remarkable testimony to the maritime transformation of the early medieval world. Sailing technology and skills developed in the ninth and tenth centuries ce in Scandinavia allowed the settlement of diaspora communities in Iceland and Greenland, with further foraging into the North American continent which had impacts upon both human communities and island ecosystems that persist to the present day (Vésteinsson, McGovern and Keller 2002Vésteinsson, O., T. H. McGovern, and C. Keller. 2002. “Enduring Impacts: Social and Environmental Aspects of Viking Age Settlement in Iceland and Greenland.” Archaeologica Islandica 2: 98–136.). This diaspora is a legacy of the ‘florescence of piracy, trade, migration, conquest and exploration across much of Europe’ which defines the Viking Age (Barrett et al. 2010Barrett, J., R. Beukens, I. Simpson, P. Ashmore, S. Poaps, and J. Huntley. 2010. “What Was the Viking Age and When did it Happen? A View from Orkney.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 33 (1): 33–44., 289). The rising impact of long-range seafaring by the Norse settlers, traders and raiders can be seen as part of a global pattern of the late first millennium ce. Aspects of the maritime expansion that is associated with the Viking Age in the northern seas of Europe are paralleled by developments in other maritime regions of the world in the same period, e.g. in eastern Africa (Sinclair 2007Sinclair, P. 2007. “What Is the Archaeological Evidence for External Trading Contacts on the East African Coast in the First Millennium AD?” In Natural Resources and Cultural Connections of the Red Sea, edited by J. Starkey, P. Starkey, and T. Wilkinson (British Archaeological Reports international series 1661), Oxford: Archaeopress.; Sinclair, Ekblom and Wood 2012Sinclair, P. J. J., A. Ekblom, and M. Wood. 2012. “Trade and Society on the South-East Africa Coast in the Later First Millennium AD; the Case of Chibuene.” Antiquity 86: 723–37.[CrossRef][Web of Science ®]) and in insular Southeast Asia (Heng 2009Heng, D. 2009. Sino-Malay Trade and Diplomacy from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Research in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series No. 121 Ohio University Press.; Krahl et al. 2010Krahl, R., J. Guy, J. K. Wilson, and J. Raby 2010. Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Singapore: National Heritage Board, Singapore Tourism Board.; Miksic 2013Miksic, J. N. 2013. Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea. Singapore: National University of Singapore.). Seafaring catalysed the creation of new areas of settlement and diaspora communities, and created sustained networks of interaction that introduced new regions and products into existing exchange cycles. As a consequence, the world of the early Middle Ages came to be integrated by flows of material culture that reached almost a global scale, as illustrated for example by the spread of ninth-century Abbasid (Islamic) coins from eastern China (Guy 2010Guy, J. 2010. “Rare and Strange Goods: International Trade in Ninth-Century Asia.” In Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, edited by R. Krahl, 19–29. Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.) to Iceland (Blackburn 2005Blackburn, M. 2005. “Coinage and Contacts in the North Atlantic during the Seventh to Mid-Tenth Centuries.” In Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic: Selected Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, July 19–30, 2001, edited by A. Mortensen and S. V. Arge, 141–51. Tórshavn: Foroya Fródskaparfelag(The Faroese Academy of Sciences) in collaboration with Foroya Fornminnissavn (Historical Museum of the Faroe Islands).).

The Norse involvement in such networks is evident in the continued relations between the much dispersed North Atlantic settlers and their parent societies after the ninth century ad. Urban centres in Scandinavia and in the British Isles were indispensable to the life-style of the Iceland and Greenland settlers as suppliers of culturally important manufactured products and commodities, including iron. In return, the settlers had access to a range of Arctic products that were prized further south: hides, furs, eider down and, perhaps most notably, tusk ivory from walrus (Odobenus rosmarus L.). From the beginning of settlement in Iceland and Greenland, exploitation of natural resources from the Arctic hinterland included walrus hunting (Arneborg 1998Arneborg, J. 1998. “The High Arctic ‘Utmark’ of the Norse Greenlanders.” In Outland Use in Preindustrial Europe, edited by H. Andersson, L. Ersgard, and E. Svensson, 156–126. Lund: Institute of Archaeology, Lund University.; Lucas 2008Lucas, G. 2008. “Pálstóftir: A Viking Age Shieling in Iceland.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 41 (1): 85–100. doi:10.1080/00293650802069193.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®]). Several authors (Vésteinsson et al. 2006Orri, V., H. Þórláksson, and A. Einarsson, eds. 2006. Reykjavik 871+/-2: The Settlement Exhibition. Reykjavík: Reykjavik City Museum.; Keller 2010Keller, C. 2010. “Furs, Fish, and Ivory: Medieval Norsemen at the Arctic Fringe.” Journal of the North Atlantic 3: 1–23. doi:10.3721/037.003.0105.[CrossRef]; Einarsson Bjarni 2011Einarsson Bjarni, F. 2011. “Róum við í selinn, rostungs út á melinn. Um rostunga við Íslandsstrendur.” In Fjöruskeljar. Afmælisrit til heiðurs Jónínu Hafsteinsdóttur sjötugri 29. Mars 2011, edited by G. Kvaran, H. J.Ámundason, and S. Sigmundsson, 31–52. Reykjavík: Mal og Menning.) have suggested that the first exploration and settlement of both Iceland (c. 850–75 ce) and Greenland (c. 980–90 ce) had an initial stimulus from exploiting the walrus, then native to both islands. This is supported by the observation that the use of walrus ivory can be traced archaeologically in finds from Scandinavia, the British Isles and continental Europe, particularly in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, corresponding to the heyday of Norse settlement in Greenland (Roesdahl 2003Roesdahl, E. 2003. “Walrus Ivory and Other Northern Luxuries: Their Importance for Norse Voyages and Settlements in Greenland and America.” In Vínland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millenium. Selected Papers from the Viking Millennium International Symposium, edited by S. Lewis-Simpson, 15–24 September 2000, 145–52. Newfoundland: Newfoundland and Labrador. St. Johns.). Walrus ivory is recorded as workshop debris in major trading towns such as Dublin, Trondheim, Bergen, Sigtuna, Lund and Schleswig, and in art objects and ornaments (Roesdahl 2005Roesdahl, E. 2005. “Walrus Ivory – Demand, Supply, Workshops, and Greenland.” In Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, July 19–30, 2001, edited by A. Mortensen and S. V. Arge, 182–91.), the most famous in the British Isles being the Lewis chessmen, a group of ninety-three twelfth-century chess pieces discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland (Robinson 2004Robinson, J. 2004. The Lewis Chessmen. London: British Museum Press.).

 Figure 1 provides a location map for place names mentioned in this article.

The extent to which long-distance flows of moveable wealth (such as walrus ivory) had a sufficient scale and intensity in the early Middle Ages to be a potential causal dynamic for major social change (such as the Norse North Atlantic settlement) remains a subject of debate. Critics have downplayed the impact of Viking Age and early medieval long-distance trade and exchange (Wickham 2005Wickham, C. 2005. Framing the Early Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[CrossRef], 818ff.; Hodges 2012Hodges, R. 2012. Dark Age Economics: A New Audit. London: Bristol Classical Press., 121). In compliance with this view, a traditional assessment (endorsed by medieval saga writers) ascribes the incentive for settlement in Iceland and, by extension, Greenland, to a quest for landnám – the search for suitable farmland for a growing population. The issue of Norse trade in walrus ivory brings these matters to a head. On the one hand, the marginal farming potential offered by subarctic Iceland and low arctic Greenland stretches the ‘farming hypothesis’ to its limit. On the other hand, the ‘trade hypothesis’ involves the no less remarkable assumption that societies at the far ecological and cultural margin of Europe were essentially conditioned by exchange cycles involving sea journeys of more than 3,000km – equivalent to the distance from Barcelona to Moscow. Christian Keller recently summed up the puzzle as to why the Norse colonized Greenland and pushed into high arctic Norway in the late tenth century ce: ‘Was it a desperate search for farmland at the margins of the known world, or was it a market-driven economic strategy applied to sub-arctic territory?’ (Keller 2010Keller, C. 2010. “Furs, Fish, and Ivory: Medieval Norsemen at the Arctic Fringe.” Journal of the North Atlantic 3: 1–23. doi:10.3721/037.003.0105.[CrossRef], 1).

This article presents new evidence and offers a framing interpretation, which outlines a route map for resolving this question. New finds of walrus bone and ivory in early Viking Age contexts in Iceland suggest exploitation of nearby walrus for meat, hide and ivory that appears to have driven local Icelandic walrus populations to extinction. New Greenlandic archaeofauna from both the Eastern and Western Settlements continue to suggest a very different specialized long-distance hunt of the much larger walrus populations in the Disko Bay area that mainly brought ivory and hide rather than meat to the settlement areas and eventually to European markets. New lead isotopic analysis of archaeological walrus ivory and bone from Greenland and Iceland shows distinct and consistent variation in the lead isotope signatures in samples with a different geographical origin, and so offers a tool for identifying different regional sources of walrus ivory during the early Middle Ages. This opens possibilities for assessing the development and relative importance of different hunting grounds from the point of view of exported products. This article thus presents an overview of existing archaeological evidence for Norse North Atlantic walrus hunting and the initial results of lead isotope analyses aimed at sourcing walrus ivory to geographically specific past walrus populations. Collaborative interdisciplinary work is ongoing, so this presentation is necessarily a report of work in progress rather than a final statement.

Click link for the full paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2015.1025912