29 August 2015

VISUAL-MATERIAL EVIDENCE OF VIKING PRESENCE IN THE BALKANS_2nd excerpt

The following is the continuation and summation of the paper that I posted last week by the same author, Dr. Konstantin Kolev, Jr. In it you will read of the many notable medieval Viking artifact discoveries that have been made in eastern Bulgaria. (Ed.)

***


Konstantin Kolev Jr.
* Ph.D. Student at New Bulgarian University, Sofia, konstantin_kolev@abv.bg
1 Jansson, 1994, 34-35.

Since no Bulgarian medieval written evidences for the
arrival of Vikings at the Bulgarian and Balkan lands are available,
the Bulgarian historiography frequently refers to Byzantine
annalists such as John Skylitzes (1040-1101)5 and Constantine
VII Porphyrogenitus (913-959)6 as well as chronicles from the
remote lands of Kiev Russia such as the Russian Primary
Chronicle (Povest Vremyannikh Let)7. These text sources
denominated the newcomers “Varangians” or “Rus-people”8 since
they originated from the Eastern parts of Scandinavia (Sweden)
and the first large Russian state (Kievan Rus’) where Slavic and
2 Kirpichnikov 1966; Hedenstierna-Jonson, 2009, 63.
3 Gyuzelev, 2001, 57-58.
4 Yotov, 2004, 34.
5 Skylitzes; Wortley, 2010, 319.
6 Moravcsik; Jenkins, Constantine Porphyrogenet, 1967, 57.
7 Cross; Wetzor, 1953, 42.
8 Ibid.
55

Scandinavian communities intermingled9. Russian and Swedish
scholars also consider that the Scandinavians in the Balkans were
Vikings from Sweden, more specifically from the Viking trade
center of Birka located at the lake of Melaren and the Island of
Gotland in the Baltic Sea10. The Swedish provenance of the
Scandinavians who came from Scandinavia, European Russia and
today’s Ukraine; settled in the Balkans and served as mercenaries
and personal bodyguards of the Byzantine emperor, has been
confirmed in travel notes written by Arab travelers such as Ibh
Fadlan11 in his work Risala, where he describes the journeys
through the Volga Bulgaria12.

Therefore, Swedish Vikings comprised the Viking group
who moved southeast to the Balkans via the large water routes of
Volga, Don, down through Dnepr, and Danube where they
reached the costs of the Black sea and Byzantium. This is the socalled
„Put iz varyag v greki” (trade route from the Varangians to
the Greeks)13. This immense waterway proved to be the threshold
to the Byzantine European periphery coinciding with the Balkans,
where the Varangians left their material-visual legacy of their
military and commercial travels and presence at the Balkans.

Hence, the Bulgarian archaeology and art history has
further contributed to the analysis of this evidence for
Scandinavian presence in the Balkans (including the Bulgarian
territory). It would be sufficient to mention in this regard scholars
such as the archaeologist Valeri Yotov14 from the Varna historical
museum and the art-historian Oksana Minaeva15 who was a
member of the Bulgarian Art History Institute at the Bulgarian
Academy of Sciences. They are among the few scholars who
worked on the area of the Scandinavian presence in the Balkans
and Bulgaria.

According to the above-mentioned scholar, there are a lot
of common similar stylistic features in the external aspect and the
decoration of the Scandinavian objects found in the Bulgarian
9 Duczko, 2004, 156-158.
10 Holmqvist, 1993, 65-66; Melnikova, 2011, 187-188.
11 Бораджиева; Наумов, 1992: IV, 22, 23.
12 Wikander, 1978, 89.
13 Melnikova, 2000, 76.
14 Yotov, 2004, 35.
15 Minaeva, 2012, 75-76.
56
territory with those excavated next to the Swedish Viking center
of Birka situated not far from Stockholm16. This statement has
been supported by Swedish scientists as well such as Lena
Holmqvist17. This discovery also confirms the presence of
Scandinavians in the Balkans and particularly in Bulgaria. So,
these Vikings, denominated Rus by the Arabs and Varangians by
the Byzantines, used to assault the Byzantine capital and
periphery along with Slavs and Pechenegs; served as Byzantine
mercenaries and personal bodyguards of the emperor; and helped
Basil II (976-1025) defeat the Bulgarians and subdue the First
Bulgarian kingdom18.

THE SCANDINAVIAN ARTIFACTS

The discovery of Scandinavian finds in the lands southeast
of Scandinavia, including the Balkans, confirm the standpoint that
Scandinavians were actively present at these territories rather as
conquerors than as peaceful settlers and wanderers traveling to
new places. These artifacts have acquired a more specific nature
in the Balkans (and Bulgaria). The objects originated from
Scandinavia have been found mostly in the northeastern and the
northwestern parts of Bulgaria, on the border with Romania as
well as in the Istanbul cathedral of Hagia Sophia. The majority of
the objects have been manufactured of metal (iron, bronze)19.
Generally, among them predominate those associated with
weaponry and the outfit of the medieval Scandinavia. Viking
finds on the Bulgarian and the Balkan territory can be
provisionally split into several groups: weapons and equipment;
monuments related to the cult of their ancestors or divinities from
the Scandinavian pantheon (Odin, Thor, Freyr); and objects of
everyday use such as straps and harness.

Weaponry Axes
The first group of finds are weapons and military
equipment. They constitute the most numerous and consequently
16 Minaeva, 2012, 54.
17 Holmqvist, 1993, 132.
18 Gyuzelev, 2012, 67.
19 Yotov, 2004, 36-37.
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the most obvious component of the visual-material evidence for
Scandinavian presence in the Balkans and Bulgaria. They entail
elements of the so-called offensive weapons (axes, swords) as
well as devices attached to parts of the clothing such as tips for
sword sheaths, for instance. It can be suggested that the objects
related to weaponry and military equipment occupy almost the
entire arsenal or Viking artifacts in Bulgaria. We can start with
the investigation on the axes, since axe was the most popular and
affordable weapon for each warrior of Scandinavia20. Despite
being in terms of a construction the most simplified kind of a
weapon (a long shaft + edge), the Viking battle-axe is not to
underestimate. This weapon is one of the basic visual components
of the Scandinavian warrior equipment. That is why a lot of
people could afford it. In the same way as the elite Viking
warrior, the Scandinavian farmer (bond) used an axe both, as an
agrarian tool and as a weapon to fight against wild beasts and
people. In other words, their simplicity does not decrease their
efficiency as weapons. Especially the long and heavier two-hand
axes (Danish axes) were stable weapons, which could function as
defensive weapons. Their shaft was approximately between 130
and 180 cm. whereas the entire weapon was very heavy; it could
reach 3-5 kg.21. Let us imagine, an ordinary sword weights on
average between 1 and 2 kg, being the heaviest the two-hand
types of swords. The axe edge itself was light, which gave the
possibility to swing with one hand like a spear over the head22.
The most frequently utilized battle-axes were the so-called
Danish axes, which were so sharp that a single swing could cut
through a knight along with his horse. In this regard, a skillful
warrior wearing one long axe was capable of opposing a shieldand-
sword armed knight. Two axes have been found in
northwestern and northeastern Bulgaria: in the Vrachansko
region, close to the Barzina village and in the Shumenski region,
at the stronghold near to the Stana village, not so far away from
the Novi Pazar city. For the manufacturing of the
axes incrustation with silver and copper thread was used23.
Artistic motifs and subjects were included in its decoration. These
20 Pedersen, 2008, 181.
21 Yotov, 2004, 37.
22 Bennett, 2005, 94.
23 Yotov, 2004, 39.
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art motifs were directly associated with the North Germanic
animal style of the so-called “four-legged beast” and with the
animal menacing pose24. In the case of the axe from the
Vrachansko region, the illustration includes two snakes and a
four-legged animal, while the axe from Shumenski region – two
birds. The edge of both axes is relatively narrow but arched.
These axes are lightened (300 grams and length of 25 sm.25. This
logically leads to the suggestion that these were one-hand (short)
axes and could be combined with a wooden shield with a central
umbo in the other hand when battling. Both axes date from the
period between the end of the 10-th century and the beginning of
the 11-th century.

Weaponry Swords
Unlike the axes, there have been found more swords in
number – 4 being one of them not preserved. Swords 
were not so widely distributed the same as axes, since few
Vikings could afford to buy this expensive article, which was
manufactured and forged in the expensive workshops of the
Frankish empire, from where they were exported to Scandinavia.
Unlike axes, swords were usually perceived as a representative
weapon owned by the rich and the noble (jarls) of Scandinavia
who were the only ones who could afford it. The manufacturing
was a complicated task that used to take a lot of time and means.
Therefore, the production of swords was ordered in advance,
whereas the axes could be manufactured more quickly. The first
of the three entire Viking swords in Bulgaria was found in the
region of the medieval fortress near to the Opaka village, not far
from Popovo city. Its dating has been determined around the 9-th
century, when a set of military campaigns against Byzantium
were organized. Hence, it could be associated with the campaigns
of the Kievan prince Svyatoslav. A second sword was found in
the region of the Gradeshnitsa village, Vrachansko region. It dates
from a later period, the second half of the 10-th century26. The
approximate one-century difference in the dating corresponds to
the dissimilarities in its structure if we compare it to the previous
24 Näsman, 1991, 67.
25 Yotov, 2004, 40.
26 Ibid.
59
sword. Whereas the sword from the Opaka village has its guard
upright, the two arms of the guard of the one from the
Gradeshnitsa village are symmetrically twisted from both sides.
The third sword is from the Govezda village in the Montansko
region and is determined as one of the most preserved swords in
medieval Bulgaria. It has a long ending (tip) and a straight guard,
which places it closer to the form of the later medieval swords of
Europe from the period between 12-th and 14-th century27. Like
the one from Gradeshnitsa, the third sword is probably related to
the campaigns of the Magyars into the Balkans. But this does not
decrease the Scandinavian influence. Apart from the three more
preserved swords, a part of another sword has been found in
Northeastern Bulgaria (the exact location is unknown)28. The edge
has a similar form and it dates from the second half of the 10-th
century.

Weaponry - Tips for sword sheaths
Besides the offensive weapons (swords and axes), another
component of the military equipment are the tips for sword
sheaths. In Bulgaria, several tips for sword sheaths have been
found. These have a different decoration, which according to the
Bulgarian art historian Oksana Minaeva draws them closer to
those excavated in the Swedish Viking city of Birka (Minaeva
2012). According to the Bulgarian archaeologist Valeri Yotov the
tips for sword sheaths in Bulgaria are probably 15.
They constituted small tracery and thick cases with rounded
asymmetric shape and were manufactured of bronze by means of
casting. The tips (endings) were attached to the wooden sword
sheath29.
One of these tips for sword sheaths has been discovered in
northeastern Bulgaria, but the exact location still remains unclear.
Its decoration resembles other tips for sword sheaths found in the
Viking center of Birka (today a Swedish archaeological complex)
as well as in Russian Viking settlement centers such as Gnezdovo,
Ladoga, in Ukrainian archaeological reserves such as in Pskov
and Kiev. The ornament reminds the old-Scandinavian style
27 Kirpichnikov, 1966, 49.
28 Yotov, 2004, 40.
29 Ibid.
60
Borre, which constitutes interlacing of geometrical and curved
lines. What can be noticed on one side is the image of a bird with
open wings, whereas on the other side there are intertwined
snakes clutching each other’s bodies and preparing for scrimmage
or battle. This is frequently a popular theme in old-Scandinavian
art. It is the so-called the Jellinge style, which is typical especially
in Denmark30. The dating can probably be attributed to the end of
the 10-th century and the beginning of the next century.
Another tip for sword sheath is found in the Razgradsko
region, close to the stronghold of the Miladinovtsi village. The
pictorial composition on the surface of both sides also supports
the attribution of Scandinavian origin to the object. The
interweaved serpentine geometrical shapes allude to the
“Germanic four-legged beast” style, which constitutes the
representation of animal images mutually grabbing each other.
This can be interpreted as a battle scene in that case. The dating is
probably the 10-th century.

A third tip for sword sheath has been discovered in the
Pavlikeni region31. It has two openings that have probably played
decoration functional role. There also were indented nicks
shaping the image of a fish (more precisely a fishbone), one of the
most interesting animal symbols in medieval art as a whole
featuring the mythical and ritual systems of many marine
civilizations s well. On some of the borders of the tip there is
gilding, which suggests that the bearer of the respective sword
sheath could afford a more expensive and more exquisite
workmanship. According to the Swedish scholar Charlotte
Hedenstierna there were tips for sword sheaths with gilding in
Scandinavian (Norway and Denmark) as well, and these gave
evidence to the eminent provenance and political power of the
one wearing it32.

Another metal plate of a sword sheath has been discovered
close to the Stana stronghold, not so far from Novi Pazar city. Its
decoration is compound of interweaved lines (or ribbons),
accompanied by an image of a protruding face in the middle.
Similar stylistic compositions combining the abovementioned
motif of “a Germanic four-legged beast” with
30 Bertelsen, 2002, 145.
31 Yotov, 2004, 41.
32 Hedenstierna, 2002, 68.
61
interweaved geometrically curved or parallel lines can be
observed in other sword sheaths tips (for instance, those found in
Madara, from Chirpan city (Starozagorsko region), the region of
the Preslav stronghold). The last sword sheath tip found in the
Preslav region contain is decorated with vegetation elements such
as palmette, heart-shaped leaf, clear-cut ribbon, and massive bud.
However, the exact location of a great number of sword sheath
tips is still not established. Instead, what is known is that they
have been discovered in northeastern Bulgaria. Apart from sword
sheath tips, there have been found tips of sword handles in the
northeastern Bulgarian settlements of Preslav city and
Manastirishte village.

Pagan cult objects
Besides weapons and the elements connected with the
Viking warrior outfit, there have been discovered, although few in
number, artefacts illustrating the cult of the pagan divinities from
the Scandinavian pantheon (Odin, Thor, Freyr). More specifically,
these are four small amulets discovered in Drustur city, Veliki
Preslav city, and not far from Shumen city, as well as on the
aforementioned Danube island (today a part of the Romanian
territory33. The last amulet, which was found in Romania,
probably resembles a miniature axe and was published by Petre
Diaconu and Dumitru Vilceanu34. Georgi Atanasov also considers
that these small amulets are related to Viking pagan beliefs and
were used in the complex sacrificial rituals of the Varangians
arriving at Danube35. Analogically, the Polish archaeologist
Wladimir Duczko, among other East-European and Russian
researchers, writes about the availability of a great variety of
small amulets in the shape of a hammer (Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir)
(and axe) along with other significant objects linked to the way of
life and the environment in the Viking settlements of the
European Russia, the Baltic region and Ukraine (Kiev)36.
Returning to Bulgaria, other amulets, this time in the shape of
small axes, have been excavated in the Bulgarian territory. Their
33 Yotov, 2004, 41.
34 Diaconu; Vilceanu, 1972, 140.
35 Atanassov, 76-80.
36 Duczko, 2004, 265.
62
exact number is unknown, maybe because many of these figures
are considered not Scandinavian or influenced by non-
Scandinavian art (Magyar or Pechenegian)37.

Objects of everyday life
So far, we have indicated those objects related to the
bellicose existence and the cult attributed to the Scandinavians in
the Balkan territory (principally in Bulgaria). Despite the small
quantity, among the Viking artifacts are also such objects related
to the everyday living such as straps and horse-trapping, antique
hasps (fibulas). More specifically, a leather strap tip
has been found in Bulgaria, although the exact location is unclear.
In reality, according to the Bulgarian archaeologist Valeri Yotov,
whom we referred to a couple of times, this tip constitutes a small
case with the shape of a cylinder. Two interweaved curved
lamellas are also included in the structure, whereas the decoration
reminds of the motif of intertwining, interweaving lines or
ribbons, serpentine ribbons, as we have already seen in the
decoration image on the surface of the axe blades and the sword
sheath tips. This is a clear proof for propinquity with the medieval
Scandinavian art styles.

According to the Romanian archaeologists Gheorghe
Stefan and Ion Barnia, who confirm the presence of a similar
leather strap found in Romania, in the ancient Danube settlement
of Dinogecia, this similarity consolidates the viewpoint that
before crossing Danube (cultural and transitional border) and
reaching the Balkans, the Vikings (more precisely the
Varangians) have passed by Eastern Romanian regions38. This
happened when the Prince Igor’s (Svyatoslav) warriors crossed
the Dnieper river, reached the Black Sea mouth and the Danube
coastal regions, where they prepared to cross Danube39. The
analogy of the Romanian researcher confirms that this strap is a
Viking (Varangian) find. Furthermore, a hollow (curved) fibula
has also been found, but it is unclear where exactly. It is a silvercast
hemisphere with images of human face on the front side.
37 Yotov, 2004, 42.
38 Stefan; Barnea; Comsa, 1967, 295, fig. 173/26.
39 Pavlov, 2005, 61.
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Interesting to notice are other everyday objects discovered
close to the Byzantine fortress Nufaru such as bracelet glass
fragments, dated to the 11-th century and objects made of wood
such as wooden horses as toys40. The glass bracelets exist rather
in fragmentary form and have different shapes (circular, semicircular,
ellipsoidal or square). Most of these glass adornments are
coloured in different hues of blue, but green, black, violet, yellow
or colourless bracelet fragments were also found41. Similar
bracelets were also discovered in other nearby Byzantine
settlements located on the Danube arms, in archaeological sites
such as Pucuiul lui Soare, Dinogetia-Garvăn and Isaccea-
Noviodunum-Vicina42. The presence of bracelets which were
typical women’s decoration objects and wooden objects different
than weapons indicate the presence of peaceful Viking
settlements in Romania close to the Danube delta.

Runic inscriptions
Despite not resembling exactly a historical find, since it is
not a specific artifact of object, a significant evidence for the
presence of Vikings on the Balkans is provided by a runic
inscription on the monumental cathedral of Hagia Sophia in
today’s Istanbul. The inscription is probably carved
by the future Norse (Norwegian) konung (king) Harald Hardrade
(the Severe) (1047-1066), who supported the Byzantium emperor
Basil II the Slayer of Bulgarians to bring the end of the First
Bulgarian kingdom acting as a leader of a 500 Viking warriors
vanguard and a mercenary in the Varangian Guard protecting the
same emperor. Another runic inscription is carved in an antique
statue from Piraeus in Greece, where a Runic (probably old-
Scandinavian) inscription from the XI-th century has been
attested.

CONCLUSION
Summarizing, among the Varangian finds in the Balkans
including Bulgaria, those related to weaponry and bellicose outfit
prevail. They demonstrate clearly that Scandinavians arrived and
40 Damian; Vasile, 2011, 275-290.
41 Bugoi, Poll, Adameseanu, Calligaro: Pichon, 2012, 165.
42 Diaconu, 1965, 140; Diaconu, 2001, 11-16.
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even settled in the Bulgarian and the Balkan territory because of
the Variangian-Russ military and trading campaigns to
Constantinople in the period between IX and XI century and the
recruitment of Varangian warriors as personal bodyguards of the
Byzantine emperor and particularly Basil II. They also attest that
the contacts between Scandinavians and Balkan people (including
Bulgarians) had predominantly military nature. It might be
concluded that the settlers from the Scandinavian North have
contributed to the downfall of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, their
role for the cultural and historical development and ethnical
diversity of the Balkans is indubitable.


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