The First Vikings
Two remarkable ships may show that the Viking storm was brewing long before their assault on England and the continent
By ANDREW CURRY
(Courtesy Liina Maldre, University of Tallinn)
The carefully stacked remains of 33 men were buried in the ship that brought them from Scandinavia to an Estonian island more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail across such distances.
According to historians, the Viking Age began on June 8, A.D. 793, at an island monastery off the coast of northern England. A contemporary chronicle recorded the moment with a brief entry: “The ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.” The “heathen men” were Vikings, fierce warriors who sailed from Scandinavia and bore down on their prey in Europe and beyond in sleek, fast-sailing ships. In the centuries that followed, the Vikings’ vessels carried them deep into Russia and as far south as Constantinople, Sicily, and possibly even North Africa. They organized flotillas capable of carrying warriors across vast distances, and terrorized the English, Irish, and French coasts with lightning-fast raids. Exploratory voyages to the west took them all the way to North America.
The Vikings’ explosion across Europe and Asia and into the Americas was the result of the right combination of tools, technology, adventurousness, and ferocity. They came to be known as an unstoppable force capable of raiding and trading on four continents, yet our understanding of what led up to that June day on Lindisfarne is surprisingly shaky. A recent discovery on a remote Baltic island is beginning to change that. Two ships filled with slain warriors uncovered on the Estonian island of Saaremaa may help archaeologists and historians understand how the Vikings’ warships evolved from short-range, rowed craft to sailing ships; where the first warriors came from; and how their battle tactics developed. “We all agree these burials are Scandinavian in origin,” says Marge Konsa, an archaeologist at the University of Tartu. “This is our first taste of the Viking era.”
Between them, the two boats contain the remains of dozens of men. Seven lay haphazardly in the smaller of the two boats, which was found first. Nearby, in the larger vessel, 33 men were buried in a neat pile, stacked like wood, together with their weapons and animals. The site seems to be a hastily arranged mass grave, the final resting place for Scandinavian warriors killed in an ill-fated raid on Saaremaa, or perhaps waylaid on a remote beach by rivals. The archaeologists believe the men died in a battle some time between 700 and 750, perhaps almost as much as a century before the Viking Age officially began. This was an era scholars call the Vendel period, a transitional time not previously known for far-reaching voyages—or even for sails. The two boats themselves bear witness to the tremendous technological transformations in the eighth-century Baltic.
In 2008, workers digging trenches for electrical cables in the tiny island town of Salme uncovered human bones and a variety of odd objects that they unceremoniously piled next to their trench. Local authorities at first assumed the remains belonged to a luckless WWII soldier, until Konsa arrived and recognized a spearhead and carved-bone gaming pieces among the artifacts, clear signs the remains belonged to someone from a much earlier conflict. Together with a small team, Konsa dug a little deeper and soon found traces of a boat’s hull. Nearly all of the craft’s timber had rotted away, leaving behind only discolorations in the soil. But 275 of the iron rivets holding the boat together remained in place, allowing the researchers to reconstruct the outlines of the 38-foot-long craft.
Soon Konsa realized she had found something unique for this place and period. “This isn’t a fishing boat, it’s a war boat,” Konsa says. “It’s quite fast and narrow, and also quite light.” Based on radiocarbon dating of tiny fragments of boat timbers, Konsa estimates the vessel was built between 650 and 700, and perhaps repaired and patched for decades before making its final voyage. It had no sail, and would have been rowed for short stretches along the Baltic coast, or between islands to make the journey from Scandinavia to the seafarers’ hunting grounds farther east. From bones found inside the boat, Konsa pieced together the remains of the seven men, all between the ages of 18 and 45. She also found knives, whetstones, and a bone comb among the remains. The craft was a remarkable find—the first such boat ever recovered in Estonia, complete with the bodies of its slain crew.