by Michael G. Lamoureux, March/April 2009
While the common consensus is that the impact of the Vikings during the Viking Age, which lasted from about 800 AD to 1100 AD, was not very enduring as the Vikings were skilled at assimilating into the local population, the Viking culture has had a lasting impact on the art, technology, society, and trade of every population they encountered. Not only does the concept of the Vikings have a firm hold in the Danish consciousness to this day, but Scandinavian traces are still apparent in the dialects of Scotland and Northern England today. The truth is that while they may have been viewed as barbarian raiders by popular culture until recent times, they were primarily skilled traders and explorers who opened up a host of new trade routes and discovered a number of new lands during their brief, but significant, reign as a prominent empire of early Europe.
Although the Vikings were, for the most part, traders and explorers, they were initially perceived as vicious raiders and feared as the first contact with the Vikings took the form with raids, that started in 793 with a seaborne assault by Norwegian marauders on a Christian monastery on Lindisfarne Island (off of the northeast shoulder of England) that was captured looted, and eventually destroyed. (This raid is the earliest known reference to the Vikings in historical documents.) Some Viking bands also consisted of "berserker" warriors during the 800s and 900s that clothed themselves in bear and wolf skins that were notorious for violence and causing fear in all who set eyes upon them.
After the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, the Viking raids continued in regularity and intensity and within 50 years the Vikings controlled the Atlantic Ocean and could move across the waterway of their choice without fear of opposition. In the 800s, Danes ravaged the coast of England and the Norse took over much of Scotland & Ireland. Only Alfred the Great, king of Wessex in the south, was able to successfully resist them. In the 800s and 900s, the Vikings effectively controlled most of what would become the United Kingdom a millennia later.
In 834, Danish warriors raided Dorested in the Carolingian Empire for the first time. By 850, they controlled the city, which was abandoned within 15 years. The fall of Dorested weakened the Carolingan Empire -- which consisted of Hamburg, Dorested, Rouen, Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux -- and within 60 years, in 911, the Vikings brought about its fall.
In the 850s and 860s, they made their way into Russia where they would found city-states that included Kiev & Novgorod. It wouldn't be long before they were to become members of the retinue, known as the druzhina in Russian, which was an organization that provided the main part of the framework for the original structure of the Rurikid state. As members of the druzhina, they were a cadre of select troops in personal service of a chieftain, who would act as his personal bodyguards and the core of his military campaigns.
In 860, the Vikings attacked the Byzantine Empire and laid siege to Constantinople. The attack, which is recorded as sudden and brutal, resulted in the outskirts of the town being plundered and burned and the local populace being slaughtered. The raids on Constantinople, and other cities in the empire, continued for almost two hundred years and were repeated in such a way as to give one the impression that each generation of Viking rulers felt that they would not be taken seriously without the expedition. These raids were so successful that, eventually, in 988 Basel II, the Byzantine Emperor, requested assistance of Vladmir of Kiev, the grand prince of Kiev of Norse descent, to help defend the throne. Vladimir agreed and sent 6,000 Vikings to Basil who formed the famous elite Varangian guard of the Byzantine Empire in 989, who began their career with the defeat of the rebel general Bardas Phocas.
In 1066 they would reassert their control on the English when they helped Normandy conquer England and between 1060-1090 they would help Normandy take control of Sicily. In the 11th century, just before they faded into history, under the leadership of King Canate, they would establish a new Scandinavian Empire in the North Sea that would subjugate the whole of Northern England and most of Scotland. By this time, they had controlled, in their short history, parts of Russia, Italy, Spain, Britain, and Ireland in addition to their native Scandinavia.
The Vikings had a strong religious attachment to the Norse god Odin, the "Father of Victories" who was the Norse patron god of war, poetry, and the futhark, and believed that warriors who fell in battle could expect to be ushered into Valhalla, Odin's palatial hall in Asgard, by Valkyries. In Valhalla, they would feast and train for the ultimate battle, Ragnaok, where the entirety of the cosmos would be destroyed and pave the way for the generation of a new universe.
The Viking religion was very prominent in their burial customs. The funeral was an event that required of a significant amount of preparation to transfer the dead from the community of the living to the community of the deceased. Before a chieftain was cremated on a funeral pyre, he was placed in a grave with a roof for ten days while they prepared for his burial. Like the ancient Egyptian kings, a chieftain was buried in the finest attire with a significant portion of his possessions, food, animals, and his wife. Once the chieftain and all of his possessions were ceremoniously placed on the ship, it was set ablaze.
Their beliefs and rituals were so strong that they would not be eclipsed by the later embrace of Christianity, which started when Harold II Bluetooth, the ruler of Denmark, converted to Christianity in 960. It would live on in the development of syncretistic traditions in religion and art. For example, the Christmas tree is a cultural reflex of the Norse yggdrasil, an immense ash tree that is considered to be holy, and much of its ancient lore and rituals have been reclaimed by pagans who have used them as the foundations for few neopagan spiritualities.
While some Vikings were raiders and warriors, the majority were explores and traders. The Vikings undertook extensive trade and built a trade network that eventually covered all of modern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Northern India, and even China. They were the first to pioneer trade routes down the Volga and the Dnepr; they opened the routes to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire; they traded with the Franks and the Baltic; and they even opened up the routes to the far east.
Modern excavations on the island of Bjork, called Birka in 9th century written sources, which were begun in 1872 by Hjalmar Stolpe who systematically excavated 1100 burial mounds over 20 years, demonstrated the richness of Viking Age archaeology and the breadth of trade the Vikings engaged in, including trade with the Franks, Baltic, and the Byzantine empire. Coin hoards of ninth century dirhams in Scandinavia demonstrate the extent of Viking trade with the Middle East along the Volga.
During the Viking period, the economy of northern Europe was transformed from a prestige goods exchange system into a mercantile market economy. While initial Viking conquests of England consisted of raids on the south for metal wealth that was reworked into decorative objects of status, the Vikings eventually began to develop market towns and mint wealth into currencies. This led to the creation of international markets and trading across the "known world" of the time.
Trade and handcrafts were the main focus of many Viking settlements, including Staraja Ladoga. The trade with the Orient left the earliest finds of silver coins in Ladoga, and its surrounding neighborhood. One artifact in particular from Ladoga tells the story of a wide contact not only with Scandinavia but also with Central Europe. The special artifact is a casting mould, found in a layer of horizon made of chalkstone, that has concavities on each side showing design of two different pendants: one of pelta type and one with a triangle with cross-like ends.
The Vikings made great achievements in technology on a wide variety of fronts. They mastered the construction and sailing of the longship, a durable vessel that could reach a speed of 18.5 kilometers per hour and traverse 200 km in a day. Surviving examples include a clinker-built, ninth-century ship found at Gokstad that became the first of a number of Viking ships recovered from royal burials in Norway, where the clay soil preserved wood and iron remarkably well, and the Viking Oseberg ship discovered in a burial mound at the Oseberg farm in Norway in 1904, which may have been the site of a burial of a Viking queen. A replica of the Gokstad ship crossed the Atlantic in 1893. Not only did this provide us with one of the earliest examples of experimental archaeology, but it proved that the Vikings were capable of reaching North America, which was verified by the 1961 by the Norwegian explorer Helge who discovered the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
They were also masters of the art of weapon forging and weapon embellishment who were able to create swords, spears, javelins, battle-axes, knives, bows, arrows, shields, and body armor with intricate designs. The extent of their metalworking skills is clearly demonstrated in the excavation of Lagoda where the remains of a forge yielded tools for many different purposes. The implements of the smithy included drills for wood-working, hammering devices, a spike maker, shears for cutting sheet metal, chisels, anvil, tongs and a draw-plate.
They were also technologically advanced in construction techniques for their time. The excavations of the Viking city of Jorvik, which was rebuilt on the ruins of York by the tenth century after the Vikings conquered it in 866, yielded the remains of wooden and thatched and daubed houses, workshops, warehouses, and shops. Before the Vikings built Jorvik, buildings in York were constructed using post and plank construction, as compared to the houses of upright posts and timbers with wattle in between that were constructed after the Vikings took over. Their craftsman were highly skilled and capable of producing pine blades, sometimes pattern-welded, that were designed for long use.
They were careful settlers and dedicated farmers who brought energetic and innovative farming techniques to the regions they conquered and colonized. Vikings farmed rye, barley and emmer wheat that they supplemented with nuts, fish, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and eggs.
They were very skilled craftsman capable of creating a wide range of high quality material goods. When it came to clothing, numerous archaeological sites indicate that they were very skilled in leather-work, textile dying and weaving, and sewing. Artifacts from Viking Dublin include wooden spindles, a wide variety of bone needles, hundreds of examples of cloth and wool and spools of thread, and a huge variety of leather goods, including boots and shoes. Excavations at Jorvik, which demonstrate that the city greatly expanded in population and wealth under Viking rule, produced an equally rich assortment of pins, needles, spindles, cloth, leather, and other artifacts that indicate their prowess at creating clothing and garments from leather and cloth.
The Vikings were well known for their art which included metalworking, wood crafts and carvings, horn and bone crafts, pottery, glass, and literature. Numerous examples of handicrafts have been found in the excavations of Staraja Lagoda, Jorvik, and Zemljanoe Gorodishche. At Zemljanoe Gorodishche, we find numerous examples of male and female ornaments and jewelry and garments, combs, gaming sets, cultic and religious items, horse bridles, weapons, and items with ruins, which include the mythical dragonhead, a small figure of a woman, and two amulets with runic inscriptions. Similar finds were made at Jorvik which yielded cooking utensils, bowls, gaming pieces, jewelry (of gold, silver, copper, amber, and jet), and antler combs. Excavations of Viking Dublin include wooden churns, shovels and spades, ropes and tethers of tree roots and withies, hurdles of coppiced wattles, bone whorls, weavers swords of wood, weaving tablets of antler, horn and bone, and even mosses collected as lavatory paper and demonstrate the degree to which their technology and art influenced the local cultures they invaded.
One of the finest surviving examples of Viking art is the ornate carving on the prow of the Oseberg burial ship which was elaborately decorated in the characteristic "gripping beast" style. Their skill in metalworking allowed them to produce fine hacksilver and jewelry, including brooches and lockets, in addition to beautifully decorated and embellished weapons and armor.
Their fortresses were known for their symmetry and precision as well as their advanced construction techniques that we have already discussed. Consider recent excavations of Fyrkat, a Viking-Age circular fortress of the Trelleborg-type close to Hobro, North Jutland, Denmark. Fyrkat consists of a circular rampart with an internal diameter of 120 meters and a width of almost 12 meters. It was built as an earth-filled timber structure with inner and outer faces and with four gates at the four points of the compass. Concentric with the rampart are two smaller parts of a dry ditch with a V-shaped section at a depth of about 2 meters. The interior of the fortress was divided into four sections by two linear streets connecting the four gates. In each section, there were four timber-built long houses, lying close to one another around a courtyard. Inside the courtyard was a rectangular house measuring about 5 meters by 10 meters. The long houses had slightly bowed walls with almost straight gables. Their length was just over 28 meters, with a width at the centre of just over 7 meters, falling to 5 meters at the gables.
The Sagas in Iceland, which told of family, feuds, and the great kings and their voyages, was the height of medieval literature of the time.
In addition to being great traders who were the first to pioneer trade routes down the Volga and the Dnepr; to open the routes to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, the Franks, and the Baltic; and to find the routes to the far east, in what is now parts of Northern India and China; the Vikings were also great developers and explorers.
When they invaded Russia, they founded city states such as Kiev and Novgorod and in other parts became members of the druzhina which provided the framework for the initial Rurikid state. In Ireland, they founded the first trading towns and in England and Scotland they were the first to colonize Shetland, the Orkneys, and the Hebrides in the early 800s. The modern city of Oslo was founded by Harold III Haardrande in 1050.
They were also the pre-eminent explorers of their time, being the first to discover the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, North America, and Spitzbergen, the farthest point North that had ever been reached by explorers in 1194. Ingolfur Arnarson first landed in Iceland in 874, "Eric the Red" Thorvaldsson discovered Greenland in 982, and his son, Leif Ericsson reached "Vinland", which we now know to be Newfoundland from the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, in 1000. Discovered in 1961 by the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, an international team of archaeologists excavating the site at L'Anse aux Meadows unearthed the remains of eight Viking "long houses" as well as a blacksmith's shop complete with anvil, iron fragments and slag.
A strong cultural history that traces back to the Vikings is still evident in Iceland today and includes the local language, place names, and the style of open government, which includes the jury system.
While the common consensus may still be that the impact of the Vikings during the Viking Age, which lasted from about 800 to 1100 AD, was not very enduring, the Viking culture had a lasting impact on the art, technology, and trade of every population they encountered across Europe and Scandinavia, in addition to the societies they founded in Iceland and Greenland. While they may have initially made their presence known through a sequence of raids on Great Britain, Ireland, the Carolingian Empire, and the Byzantine Empire, it was their mercantile acumen, technology, art, and even religious beliefs that made a lasting impression.
Their religion, which centered on the Norse god Odin, the "Father of Victories", would have a lasting impact on a number of societies and their presence significantly weakened the religious beliefs in England and Russia and more-or-less brought about the end of Celtic Christianity in Ireland. Even though they eventually converted to Christianity in the eleventh century, starting with the conversion of Harold II Bluetooth in 960, their beliefs would live on in syncretistic traditions, including the Christmas tree, which is a cultural reflex of the Norse yggdrasil.
Their mastery of marine technology would enable them to build an extensive trade network that eventually covered all of modern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Northern India, and even China. They were the first to pioneer trade routes down the Volga and the Dnepr; they opened the routes to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire; and they were the first to reach the far East. It would also enable them to discover the Faeroes, Iceland in 874, Greenland in 982, Vinland (modern day Newfoundland) in 1000, and Spitzbergen, the farthest point North to be reached by explorers in 1194.
They were masters of metal working, weapon forging, and embellishment who created some of the finest swords, spears, javelins, battle-axes, knives, bows, arrows, shields, and body armor of the day. Their craftsmanship also extended to clothing, leather working, jewelry, and carvings and the art they produced was some of the finest of the day. In addition, the sagas of Iceland are considered the finest literary work of their time.
No society that encountered the Vikings was left untouched. To this day, Scandinavian traces are still apparent in the dialects of Scotland and Northern England and the concept of the Vikings still has a strong hold in the Danish Consciousness.