23 February 2019

Viking city: excavation reveals urban pioneers not violent raiders

Here’s a new approach to who the medieval Vikings may have really been, even though their reputation has already been historically established.
This article isn’t really a new approach though, because we already know they were great traders. Now it seems they may also have been great musicians. (Ed.)
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The discoveries at Ribe defy the popular image of Vikings as mainly raiders. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Viking city: excavation reveals urban pioneers not violent raiders
Excavations in Ribe, Denmark show that Viking culture was based on sophisticated production and trade. Is their brutal reputation unfair?

David Crouch in Ribe

Tue 20 Nov 2018 06.00 EST Last modified on Tue 20 Nov 2018 06.27 EST

In an extraordinary moment captured on film this summer, the tuning pegs and neck of a lyre, a harplike stringed instrument, were carefully prised out of the soil of Ribe, a picturesque town on Denmark’s south-west coast. Dated to around AD720, the find was the earliest evidence not just of Viking music, but of a culture that supported instrument-makers and musicians.

The same excavation also found the remains of wooden homes; moulds for fashioning ornaments from gold, silver and brass; intricate combs made from reindeer antlers (the Viking equivalent of ivory); and amber jewellery dating to the early 700s.

Even more extraordinary, however, was the discovery that these artefacts were not for home consumption by farmers, let alone itinerant raiders. Instead, the Vikings who made them lived in a settled, urban community of craftsmen, seafarers, tradesmen and, it seems, musicians.

“Ribe confounds history,” says Richard Hodges, a British archaeologist and the president of the American University of Rome. “What we have here defies the opinion that all the Vikings did was to raid and to rape.”

The discoveries at Ribe suggest mass production, high levels of specialisation and a division of labour – all characteristics of a settled urban society rather than a nomadic one based on pillaging.

Archaeologists uncover a Viking musical instrument from Ribe, the site of an early Viking city.

“We can see in Ribe that Viking society was based on sophisticated production and trade,” Hodges says. “It is a paradox: they made these beautiful things, they had gorgeous cloth, wonderful artefacts, but at the same time they are known to history for their brutality.”

European history has been written from the perspective of Christian chroniclers who wanted to tell us that Vikings were barbarians, Hodges notes.


Mould carved from soapstone for making ingots and and an axe amulet, both discovered at Ribe. Photograph: Museum of Southwestern Jutland

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