30 April 2015

Discovery of Reindeer Antlers in Denmark may Rewrite Start of Viking Age

You might glean something from this fanciful article, but when finished with it I think you will agree that for the most part the findings herein are more voices crying to be heard from the wilderness by yet another group of archaeologists, with more ideas of what occurred 1300+- years ago, seeking their way in a crowded discipline.

Nobody on earth knows precisely when the Viking Age began, and nobody ever will. Studies in Ireland right now, Dublin actually, indicate that it began for the Celts and other medieval peoples of what is now Ireland much earlier than the 725AD stated in this article, perhaps as early as sometime in the 7th century.

The author also states that the Vikings went “as far east as Russia.” They went a lot further than Russia. Swedish Varangian Guards guarded the imperial palace in Constantinople, leaving their runes on the floor of that edifice for us to see today.

Again, nobody knows exactly where they went or when they went there. Why? Because the people we have romanticized with the moniker ‘Vikings’ were illiterate savages at the time. Scandinavians didn't even have written languages for the masses until the 12 or 13 centuries. They were inveterate traders with a definite artistic bent certainly, but savages nonetheless. 

Except for a few runic tablets of dubious origin and authenticity, most of which have been found to be gibberish, the Vikings wrote nothing down. Being illiterate they couldn’t write anything down. Everything written about them was written hundreds of years after the fact. And yes, I include the sagas in that statement, especially the sagas. (Ed.)


Discovery of Reindeer Antlers in Denmark 

may Rewrite Start of Viking Age

4 APRIL, 2015 - 22:24 MARK MILLER

A team of scholars says their new research is rewriting when and where the Viking age began. The official date for the start of Viking voyages was a 793 AD raid in England. But researchers say people from Norway sailed to Ribe, Denmark, on peaceful missions much earlier—around 725 AD.
Archaeologists from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and the University of York in the United Kingdom found the useful commodity of Norwegian reindeer antlers buried in the earliest archaeological layer of Ribe’s old market. Ribe was the first commercial city in Denmark.

  This caribou with its magnificent rack in Alaska is the same species called reindeer in Scandinavia. (Photo by Dean Biggins/Wikimedia Commons)

The sailing trips from Norway to Denmark helped the sailors establish the technology and skills necessary to do the later military raids and long-distance voyaging the Vikings did, they say.
“Ultimately, the researchers agree that the discussion of when the Viking era began is also one of semantics,” says an article in ScienceNordic. “It all depends on what you mean by Vikings. Morten Søvsø from Southwest Jutland Museums suggests that we should be careful with the labels we give to people who lived in the past. ‘They didn’t go around knowing they were Vikings. If you want to argue that the Viking age in fact started when they had contact with the wider world, then this study supports this view—but it will always be a rationalisation,’ says Søvsø.”
Another researcher, James Barrett of Cambridge University in England, told ScienceNordic he’s not convinced the people who sailed to Ribe in the early eighth century were Vikings, though he says it’s valuable research.
“Where we do not necessarily agree entirely is in the perception of whether towns and trade also helped to start the Viking age," says Barrett, a specialist in medieval archaeology.
Ribe is Denmark’s oldest commercial center. It looks much different in this photo than it did when Norwegians came around 725 AD to trade reindeer antlers. (Photo by Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons)

There is a related debate among Nordic archaeologists—whether Ribe was central to Viking society early in Viking history. The article in ScienceNordic says it seemed an early link between the oldest commercial center in Denmark and the Vikings would be obvious, but archaeologists had no physical evidence to confirm it.
"This is the first time we have proof that seafaring culture, which was the basis for the Viking era, has a history in Ribe. It's fascinating," said Søren Sindbæk, one of the authors of the new study published in the European Journal of Archaeology.The trips across the Skaggerak Strait or down the North Sea to trade antlers in Denmark may have prepared the Vikings for longer voyages.

‘Ingolf tager Island i besiddelse’ by P. Raadsig, 1850, depicting Ingólfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, newly arrived in Reykjavík. (Wikimedia Commons)

"The Viking Age becomes a phenomenon in Western Europe because the Vikings learned to use maritime mobility to their advantage,” Sindbæk said. “They learned to master sailing to such an extent that they get to the coast of England where the locals don't expect anything. They come quickly, plunder the unprepared victims, and leave again—a sort of hit and run."

Model of a Viking age trade ship in the Ribe Viking Museum (Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons)

The Vikings went on to do raids and set up colonies elsewhere in Europe and as far east as Russia. They went on voyages of thousands of kilometers to Iceland, Greenland and Canada.
"We can now show that the famous Scandinavian sea voyages, which eventually led to the discovery of Iceland and Greenland, have a history of some commercial travel, not just raids. Previously we were inclined to say that yes, once you can sail across open water, you can also sail to the commercial towns -- now we can turn the equation around and say that trading towns may have been an important part of the drive behind developing new technologies, "says Sindbæk said. “The peaceful exchanges—trading—will take up more of the story, and the military voyages, which are also important, must now share the space.”
"Deer antlers were important to Danes because they were used in making combs, needles and other tools. A householder was likely able to find enough for home use, but a comb maker may not have been able to. So some Norwegians decided to gather what was for them a waste product and take them to Denmark, where they were a valuable commodity," Sindbæk said.

21 April 2015

The Viking women who disappeared

I agree with the author, Cathinka Dahl Hambro, that Viking women are seldom mentioned historically, yet the part they played in Norse society was huge - my words, not hers.
Viking women receive their due in my Axe of Iron  series of historical fiction novels on the Greenland Norse assimilation with various pre-historical Indian tribes of northern North America. Without my women characters there would be no story to tell. (Ed.)


The Viking women who disappeared

By Cathinka Dahl Hambro
Women played an important part in Viking Age society, and their role far exceeded that of mother and the “housewife”. Why, then, are they barely mentioned in the history books?
Ingeborg - Norse mythology - painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892)
“The standard specialist literature within the field is pervaded with Viking expeditions, kings, weapons, and battles,” says Viking researcher Nanna Løkka.
“If women are mentioned at all they are placed within an everyday context, with children, handicraft and domestic life. Thus, when the characteristics of the Viking Age are described, women are either left out completely, or they are given their own little paragraph, as they appear neither very exciting nor spectacular.”
In the recently published anthology Kvinner i vikingtid (“Viking Age Women”), sixteen women and one man challenge this standard saga inspired account of the early Norwegian Middle Ages, which is characterized by raiding kings and chieftains. Løkka has edited the book in collaboration with Nancy Coleman.
Kvinner i vikingtid examines the various roles of women in a society where not only men possessed political power and influence. The book shows that the role of women was not always a domestic one. On the contrary, they actively participated within various aspects of public life such as trade, textile production, medicine, and religious practice.

Kvinner i vikingtidNone mentioned, all forgotten

Both the sagas and the schoolbooks tell us show many benches the master builder Torberg Skavhogg built for the rowers when he equipped the hull of King Olav Tryggvasson’s legendary longship Ormen Lange (“The Long Serpent”). The women who were responsible for weaving the sail, however, are not mentioned by name.
“The Vikings wouldn’t have reached England unless someone had equipped the ships with sails. It is a well-known fact that the Vikings were far ahead of their European neighbours in terms of maritime techniques. In an episode of the TV series Vikings, they make a big fuss about the ship’s anchor, but the sail is not mentioned with a single word,” says Løkka.
The textile production was probably organised hierarchically, where women supervised other women in extensive collaborative work. Løkka adds, “The larger Viking ships used 100 square meter sized sails. In order to produce that, the women needed 200 kilos of wool from approximately 2000 sheep, and it required hundreds of working hours. We are talking about more than just a small-scale family business.”

High school textbooks are the worst

According to the researcher, the models applied to understand the Viking Age ignore the women’s impact and contribution. This is particularly visible in the high school history books. Løkka found that only one among the six most popular history books from the 1990s and 2000s provides its own paragraph on women.
“If women appear at all in the general literature on the field, they are usually depicted as the stereotypical “housewife” who is tied to the farm and the home, not as someone who participates in important social processes,” says Løkka.
In the standard accounts of the Viking Age, the farm is regarded as the smallest, yet most significant unit. Other important institutions in the Viking society are the family, the chiefdom, and the Thing.
The woman is usually associated with the farm and the private sphere, whereas the man is connected to public life. Hence, the gender roles are often described in terms of “inside” and “outside” in order to distinguish between men and women’s responsibilities.
“I’m not saying that the stereotypical representation isn’t feasible at all, but it contributes to a description of the Viking Age based solely on male activities. Most probably the Viking society consisted of other dividing lines and hierarchies where women to a larger degree ranked on top,” Løkka adds.

Nanna Løkka - photo courtesy University of Oslo
Nanna Løkka – photo courtesy University of Oslo

The “housewife” as business manager

For example, recent research shows that being a “housewife” might involve major responsibility and hard work, particularly if the farm was of some considerable size. The chieftain’s home at Borg in Lofoten, which is the largest known chieftain’s farm, was more than eighty metres long. That is only twenty metres shorter than the Nidaros Cathedral. A typical chieftain’s farm may have had a longhouse of approximately fifty metres. A banquet on such a large farm could easily involve 150 people, all of them expecting to be served food and drinks.
“Running a farm like that is like managing a medium size business. Thus, these women should rather be regarded as business managers than mere housewives,” says Løkka.
With this in mind, one may therefore ask whether this type of feast actually belonged to the so-called private sphere. At these banquets, contracts and deals were made, politics was developed, and alliances were formed.
If the food or drink was unsatisfactory it could cause diplomatic crisis or disgrace. Therefore, the women who cooked and served the meals held an important public function. According to Løkka, categories like inside/outside and private/public have probably become antiquated due to recent research.

Malevolent Viking women

It doesn’t make things better that the women who did position themselves at the top of the male warrior hierarchy were often severely condemned by the later saga writers. This was the case with Queen Gunnhild, who according to tradition received training from Sami magicians. Allegedly, she took over the leadership of her sons’ army when her husband Eirik Blodøks (Eric Bloodaxe) was driven into exile and subsequently killed.
Alfiva, the de facto Norwegian ruler in the beginning of the eleventh century, received an equally bad reputation, becoming highly unpopular after introducing new legislation and a new tax system.

Viking reverie as nation building

Nanna Løkka emphasizes that in many ways the term Viking Age is a nineteenth century construction, which was formed along the lines of the era’s prevailing national romantic ideals.
For instance, historian Jørgen Haavardsholm has noted that the term Viking Age can be connected to a political process in which the goal was to create a nation with a proud and common past where the Vikings served as masculine and unyielding heroes and adventurers.
“An entire period and society has been connected to the Viking raids. In reality, however, only a small number of the men actually went on Viking raids. It has nevertheless added masculine value to the era, and consequently the female half of the population has been neglected,” says Løkka.

Farewell to the Viking Age?

The national romantic heritage is one of the reasons why a new generation of historians preferred to use the more neutral and European term Early Middle Ages in the four-volume history work Norvegrfrom 2011. Archaeologists, on the other hand, have mainly preferred the term Late Iron Age.
Lokka explains, “I ended up using the term Viking Age primarily because I want people to understand what I am working with. Moreover, the Viking Age sells and attracts attention. But there is definitely an ambivalence there.”

17 April 2015

The Vikings in Ireland

Here’s an excerpt from another informative article about the Vikings in medieval Ireland. To enjoy the full article and the many pictures that accompany it, click on the title link or the Read more link at the end of this excerpt. (Ed.)

Knowledge about the Vikings manoeuvres in Ireland is drawn from many sources. Apart from the Icelandic Sagas, written down in the 13th Century, there exists a rich array of old Irish annals and chronicles, of which the most widely known are: Annals of Ulster, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann), Annals of Clonmacnoise, and “The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill” (Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh). There also exists an Arabic source (Ibn Ghazal)! All these sources however have in common that they were written down at least two centuries after the events took place, and they are all coloured by the authors’ biased view of the Vikings. Recent archaeological and linguistic knowledge have however managed to render more objectiveness into the evaluation of this important period in the history of Ireland.

Érie – the green island in the west – was fortunate to escape both Roman and Anglo-Saxon occupation and colonisation, opposed to Britain in the east. However there existed plans for the invasion of Ireland by the Romans. The Romans in Britain had for a long time been exposed to raiding bands of Irish “Vikings” (Scots) all along the west coast, but their invasion plans were postponed again and again, until the Romans were forced to withdraw from Britain in 407 AD. The raiding continued after the Roman withdrawal, and eventually the Scots managed to establish a firm stronghold on the west coast of Pictland (Dalriada).

Ireland was – like many other European countries at the time – dominated by rivalling clan- and family-based petty kingdoms, which alternated in having the overlordship over the others. Foremost among these were Connaught and Ulster in the north, Leinster and Munster in the south. As time went on, two dynasties distinguished themselves, the Ui Neill dynasty in the north, and the Eóganach dynasty (Munster) in the south. At this time there were no cities or major trading centres in the country. People made a living based on crop farming and cattle breeding, and lived in small villages surrounded by defensive walls and dykes. These settlements were either situated on hilltops (hillforts), or houses clustered together on artificial islands in the lakes (crannogs).

The petty kings or chieftains were both secular and religious leaders. The largest and most important centre of all was Tara in Meath, north of today’s Dublin. Tara had for centuries been a sacred place, and served as a ceremonial arena for the inauguration of the High kings of Ireland – the Árd Rí. The ancient coronation stone – Lia Fáil – was placed here. Archaeological excavations have proved that this place had been of central importance in people’s religious beliefs and ritual practices long before the Celtic migrations took place in the 5th Century BC. From this hilltop (100 metres above sea level) it’s possible to view large areas of the Irish countryside.

14 April 2015

Vikings on the Isle of Man

The following information on the Isle of Man is excerpted from work published on the web by Ivar Gault of Norway. He has some great information about the Isle of Man, specifically as it pertains to our shared interest, the medieval Vikings. The Viking Age burst upon the Isle of Man sometime in the 8th century. Nobody is certain exactly when, but much work continues on Man and on Ireland trying to answer this question. Suffice to say it happened much earlier than archaeology thinks it did. I encourage you to click the link for the article, where you can view the many photos that are a part of the article.  I hope you will enjoy this article. (Ed.)


This island, situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, about the same distance from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, was part of the Norse kingdom in the Western Isles. It was at the time formally reckoned together with the Hebrides, or Suderøyene(Southern Isles). Still today the bishop of Man bears the joint title of “Bishop of Sodor and Man." The northern part of the island is lowland, where farming and sheep breeding are the prime means of income, while the southern part is highland (Snaefjell, 620 metres). The old Celtic language was manx. The language is now extinct, but was related to the Gaelic (Q-Celtic) languages of Ireland and Scotland. As late as in the 1950’s there were some old people in Man who still spoke the language. Norwegian was spoken on the islands until late in the 14th Century. By then Norwegians had ruled the islands for almost 500 years!
The name of the island – Man – was, according to an old Celtic legend, the Sea God Mananan’s throne. Mananan was son of the Sea God Lir. The Roman’s name on the island was Monapia, although they never really succeeded in getting a firm stronghold there. The abbott Nennius refers to the island under the name Eubonia (858 AD), and in the Welsh Annals the island is called Manaw. The present inhabitants refer to their island as Ellan Vannin. Christianity was introduced on the island in the 6th Century with Irish missionaries. They settled down on the island, building small chapels (keills) often close to holy fountains (chibbyr). Remnants of 35 of these chapels have been discovered all over Man, but many of them are hidden underneath medieval churches. The Isle of Man is officially not part of the UK, although it is subordinated to the British Monarchy. The island is governed by a Governor appointed by the UK, who answers to a locally elected council.

In the south-western part of the island lies Tynwald Hill – the ancient Norse open-air Law Court – þingvóllur. Similar Norse open-air Law Courts are to be found in Scotland – Dingwall (northwest of Inverness), and in Shetland – Tingwall. Every year on Midsummer Day the 5th of July the Court of Tynwald still are assembled here, and the Manx people can therefore boast of having the oldest continuous legislative court assembly in the world! In 1979 Man celebrated its 1000 years anniversary as a parliamentary state. The Queen was present, and the replica Viking ship “Odin’s Raven” sailed all the way from Trondheim to honour the occasion in a real Viking manner. Some of the traditions still preserved are however much older than the Viking Age. Along the parade street leading up to the Court people toss straw or hay before the arrival of the prominent guests –strawing the rushes – a custom dating back to Celtic Iron Age.
Northmen settled down in Man probably as early as the end of the 8th Century, and rapidly gained control of the island – incorporating it into their Realm of the Western Seas. During the rule of King Magnus Lagabøter (Lawmaker) 1252 – 1266, Norway was forced to abandon Man in favour of the Scottish king Alexander III.

Researchers disagree to what extent the Viking presence on Man affected the indigenous people. The linguist Margaret Gellinghas interpreted the absence of Celtic place names in the island as evidence for the extermination of the Celtic speaking inhabitants by the Vikings, and claims the Celtic language (Manx) was reintroduced in the island after the Vikings left. The archaeologist Marshall Cubbon contradicts this view, as the archaeological evidence rather shows that the Vikings lived peacefully together with the local Celts, although they were the dominating social group.

More than 25 remnants of Viking settlements and cemeteries have been unearthed in Man. The archaeological material suggests that the Vikings usually married Celtic women, gave Celtic names to their children and grandchildren (like Fiacc), and raised them in the Christian faith. In the southern part of the island, in Balladoole near Arbory, archaeologists have discovered a stone ship-setting. This was probably the burial site of a chieftain. He is buried together with many of his personal belongings – even the harness of his horse, but no weapons! Lying next to him was the corpse of a woman – probably sacrificed. In the 1940’ies a German archaeologist unearthed a Viking grave. He had been interned on Man during the 2nd World War. In this burial mound, in a farm in Ballateare near Jurby, he found a wooden coffin containing the remains of a man, surrounded with a great many weapons. Several of the swords and spears had been broken in half before they were laid in the coffin. This was a common ritual in Viking burials. The grave was dated to the end of the 9th Century. Lying on top of the coffin was the skeleton of a woman in her twenties. She was positioned with her face downward and her arms raised above her head. The top of her skull was chopped off with a sword or an axe. This was unmistakable evidence of her victimization. She was probably a concubine or a slave girl, and had accompanied her master on his journey to the Afterworld.

For the Vikings of the Western Seas, the Isle of Man - with its central position in the Irish Sea - was probably of great strategic importance both for warriors and tradesmen all through the Viking Age. The Icelandic author Snorre Sturluson mentions Man in his Saga of the Norwegian kings about King Harald Fairhair’s punitive expedition to the Western Sea.