27 November 2017

Viking boatyard - Isle of Skye

Fortunately for those of us with an interest, the effort to preserve and document data and artifacts from the Viking Age continues, as evidenced by this ongoing project on the beautiful Island Of Skye, Scotland. (Ed.)

The presence of the Viking canal shows that the site was a significant anchorage GETTY IMAGES
Viking boatyard to be historic monument on Loch na h-Àirde on the Rubh’ an Dùnain peninsula
Gurpreet Narwan
24 November 2017, 1201, The Times

A shipyard on a remote peninsula on the island of Skye where Vikings may have built and maintained their longships is to become an official historic monument.

Archaeologists believe that Loch na h-Àirde on the Rubh’ an Dùnain peninsula was a hub of maritime activity during the years of Norse power and was used to service the vital waterways of the Highlands and islands.
A canal was cut to link the loch to the headland, and there is also a stone quay, an entrance canal and a blockage system designed to keep a constant water level in the loch.
Archaeologists from St Andrews University, who were among the first to investigate the site after timbers from an 800-year-old vessel were discovered, found the 12th-century Norse shipyard.

The timbers were dated to about 1100AD and were from a workshop for producing or repairing galleys at a time when Vikings were becoming more settlers than warriors.

A spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: “The complex is particularly notable for its impressive survival of field remains, the possible relationship to an Iron Age dun, the rock-cut channel and the potential for further Norse and medieval boat remains to survive in the loch.

“The scale of the docks and the presence of the canal and loch quays demonstrates that the site was a significant anchorage for the western seaboard.

“Given its sheltered and important strategic location, it is possible that the loch was used to shelter and overwinter boats, or that the site was a staging location. It may also have been used to repair or even to construct boats.”

HES has listed the 115-metre (380ft) canal, two boat docks, former boat shelters and other structures. It has also preserved the bed of Loch na h-Àirde, the lochan on the peninsula used as a harbour. The shipyard is believed to have been active until the 19th century.

The peninsula is the hereditary homeland of the MacAskill clan. Gordon Mack, editor of the website for the MacAskills of Rubh’ an Dùnain Society, said that official recognition for the boatyard would “add to our campaign to repopulate the area with a virtual online community”.

12 November 2017

How and Why did the Viking Age Begin?

This excellent article from Medievalists on a study by Professor Neil Price of Uppsala University, Sweden, and colleagues from Tallinn and Tartu Universities, Estonia, is slated to shake up the world of medieval archaeology.

When the 10-year study is complete, we may finally have definitive answers, which we do not have presently, as to when and where the Viking Age began.

Be sure and click on the three video links in the article, they are most engaging. (Ed.)


How and Why did the Viking Age Begin?

By Minjie Su

The question of how the Viking Age started has been much debated by historians. One of the leading scholars in the field, Neil Price, is looking to address this fundamental question with his latest project – The Viking Phenomenon.

Photo by Martin Jacquet /Flickr
Professor Price, currently chair of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University, spoke earlier this month at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology about his latest project, which began in 2015. It is a collaborative effort between Uppsala University and Tallinn and Tartu Universities in Estonia. Acknowledging the breadth and width of the recent research into the Viking Age (circa AD 750-1050), this ten-year project means to travel even further back in understanding how and why the Viking Age began.

Five principal points are singled out as requiring special (re)consideration. First, the very concept of the Viking Age. Is it merely a Victorian invention? Or is it just a part of what was happening in Europe at large? Professor Price is not content with either. The Viking diaspora is marked by interaction with a huge variety of cultural groups. It simply cannot be something that ‘just happened’; it is an issue of complexity that needs to be examined in its own right.

Second, Professor Price believes that stereotypes should not be dismissed. Instead, they must be ‘honestly confronted, challenged, and elucidated, not least where it may contain some truth’.

Third, it may be time to critically dismantle some boundaries such as those between the Vendel Period (circa AD 550-790) and Viking Age. Fourth, the project will make conscious effort to remove the ‘ghettoization’ of gender. Instead of eye-catching notions such as ‘Women of the Viking Age’, Professor Price emphasizes on ‘People of the Viking Age’, which includes also the unfree, the enslaved population.

Last but not the least, having worked with History Channel’s Vikings, Professor Price points out the importance of engaging contemporary culture and mass media. It would be impossible to effectively study the Viking Age without understanding how and why the Viking imagery is represented and/or misrepresented in modern popular culture. Besides, it will be a useful tool for scholars to reach a wider audience, and their research to achieve greater influence.

Despite its breadth in scope, the project is composed of two main branches – the boat grave culture and Viking economics. At the core of the first branch lies the archaeological sites of Valsgärde (Sweden) and Salme (Estonia). Located near the famed Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde is one of Sweden’s greatest archaeological treasures and certainly the biggest cemetery of boat burials. The site was already excavated between the 1920s and the 1950s. Fifteen (presumably) male boat graves are found, together with over sixty cremations and burial chambers, mostly of women. The site is dated to from the 6th century to the 11th century AD, with the boats buried once per year. Therefore, it provides a valuable and rare opportunity not only to look at the transition between the Vendel and the Viking Age, but also the activities of a small area over a long period of time.


Located on the coastal area in Estonia, the site of Salme, dated to ca. AD 750 (thus the very beginning of the Viking Age), was excavated between 2008 and 2012. Two boat graves are found, aligned parallel with the shore, respectively containing seven and thirty-four bodies. Apparently, complex rituals have been performed here: a mound of shields has been found, with swords standing vertically on the shields; birds, fish, and dogs have been killed and buried along. Archaeologists also discovered gaming pieces, deliberately arranged in certain patterns around the corpses. One of them – buried in the centre – was perhaps a king, for a single gaming piece – the king – is found in his mouth. He must have died a gruesome death: his body has been cut into pieces and reassembled for burial; a sword was put in his hand.

Isotope analyses show that the Salme men were from Mälar Valley; this would put them in close affinity with the Valsgärde people – in fact, some war gears prove to have been cast in the same mould. They may even be the same people. Together, Valsgärde and Salme indicate early maritime contact. They provide the lens to see the beginning of the raiding activities and, above all, the society that produced them.


The second branch of the project develops around Viking economics – economics, not the economic system, Professor Price emphasizes. As the term indicates, this branch focuses on the network that gave rises to the early raiding activities. This is also where the unfree, enslaved population come in, for raiding, slaving, and trading form a triangle that should not be considered and discussed in separate terms; within the socio-political context that generated and supported raiding, everyone is implicated.

It will not be hard to imagine, that the project will lead to a double number of conferences, lectures, workshops, and publications in the foreseeable future. They will be mostly devoted to five sub-projects: Viking ideologies, Viking dynamics, Viking slavery, Viking infrastructure, Viking economics. Keen on its public engagement, publications – including excavation reports of the archaeological sites – born from this project are to be made accessible online. A geolocated digital reconstruction app is in the making, meant to be used on the sites of Gamla Uppsala, Valsgärde, and Salme. The communities that used to live there will be brought back to life once again and, as a visitor, you shall also be a part.

05 November 2017

DNA Samples Reveal Viking Age Fish Trade

It seems that my favorite food fish, the Atlantic Cod, may have been exported to distant customers by the Vikings. Cod has been an important food fish for thousands of years, and the protection of nearby stocks have even precipitated an armed standoff between the Icelanders and British in contemporary times.

This study at the university of Oslo is defining the origin of cod bones. Researchers have found a direct link between cod bones found in the Baltic region of what is now northern Germany, and the Lofoten cod of Northern Norway. (Ed.)

DNA Samples Reveal Viking Age Fish Trade


It has been assumed that the Vikings were trading in cod, but so far solid evidence has been lacking. With new methods, it is possible to extract ancient DNA from fish bone remnants and this can provide some exciting new information!

The jaw bone of a cod used for DNA extraction – photo courtesy University of Oslo
Towards the end of the 8th century the Viking chieftain Ottar (Ohthere), from Hålogaland in northern Norway, was visiting Haithabu in today's Germany. He brought furs and walrus ivory, that he delivered as gifts to King Alfred the Great of Wessex. The meeting between Ottar and King Alfred is written in ”Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum”, and this is also the text where Norway is mentioned for the first time in history.

Ottar tells King Alfred about his travels and his visit to Haithabu on the way to Wessex. Such historical accounts have provided tantalising ideas about possible early movement of goods from Northern Norway to central Europe, but scientific evidence was inconclusive. Now scientists have been able to use DNA preserved in old fish bones to solve this question.

Researches from the universities of Cambridge and Oslo, and the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig, used ancient DNA extracted from the remnants of Viking-age fish suppers. The study analysed five cod bones dating from between 800 and 1066 AD found in the mud of the former wharves of Haithabu, which was an early medieval trading port on the Baltic.

The DNA from these cod bones contained genetic signatures seen in the Arctic stock that swims off the coast of Lofoten: the northern archipelago still a centre for Norway’s fishing industry.

Researchers say the findings show that supplies of ‘stockfish’ – an ancient dried cod dish popular to this day – were transported over a thousand miles from northern Norway to the Baltic Sea during the Viking era.

Prior to the latest study, there was no archaeological or historical proof of a European stockfish trade before the 12th century.

Norway’s first export?

“It has long been speculated that the trade of Norwegian stockfish might have begun in the Viking Age (i.e. 800-1066),” says Dr. James Barrett of the University of Cambridge, “but this interpretation has been controversial because the earliest definite historical evidence dates from the 12th century and previously the most secure archaeological evidence had been from the 13th century. Past research at Cambridge using stable isotopes strongly suggested that the Haithabu cod were not from local waters, but we could not say for certain where they had been caught.

“With the new ancient DNA evidence we now know, with a high degree of confidence that they were from Arctic Norwegian cod. If the bones are from 1066 (their latest possible date) we have only changed existing knowledge a little, but it is equally likely that they are from the 9th or 10th century, in which case our understanding of Viking Age trade might need to be rewritten.

“This trade may have been as much about staple commodities as about luxury goods, such as walrus ivory or furs. Having opened this possibility, we aim to investigate more precisely dated cod bones in the future, at Haithabu itself or other sites in the region, and that more bones can be analysed in order to evaluate the scale of this activity. Do the bones only represent travelling provisions, or are we witnessing urban provisioning over vast distances?”

The sequencing of the ancient cod genomes was done at the University of Oslo, where researchers are studying the genetic makeup of Atlantic cod in an effort to unpick the anthropogenic impacts on these long-exploited fish populations.

“Fishing, particularly of cod, has been of central importance for the settlement of Norway for thousands of years. By combining fishing in winter with farming in summer, whole areas of northern Norway could be settled in a more reliable manner,” says the University of Oslo’s Bastiaan Star, another author of the new study.
Sanne Boessenkool and Bastaan Star are working on ancient DNA samples – photo courtesy University of Oslo
In order to be certain of where the fish were from, Bastiaan Star and Sanne Boessenkool, who work at the work at the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), compared the genetic profiles from the old bones to those from modern cod populations from the same areas. Although it is too early to identify specific mutations and changes in the DNA that may have happened over time, these profiles were detailed enough to pinpoint the most likely source population back in time. Such comparisons can tell us a lot about human and animal development over time and give us a better understanding of evolution.

Even if we do not know if the cod in Haithabu represent travellers provisions or that they were goods for trade, it is quite certain that the cod did not end up there by itself. With these advanced methods we can learn more about Ottar from Hålogaland and how he lived.