What triggered the Viking Age?
Credit: © Lars Johansson / Fotolia
Viking ship. The researchers say that long voyages were underway
early in the 8th century AD, with the establishment of a marketplace
in Ribe. What were to become history's Viking expeditions can be
directly linked to the development of Ribe as a town and commercial centre.
Polite trading with early Vikings?
Scandinavian trade 'triggered' the Viking Age
Archaeologists suggest that the dawn of the Viking Age may have been much earlier -- and less violent -- than previously believed. The new study shows that the early Vikings from Norway had access to large quantities of reindeer antlers and sold them to craftworkers in Southern Scandinavia.
The study by Dr Steve Ashby, of the Department of Archaeology at York, working with colleagues from York and Aarhus University, identified the first signs of the Viking Age around 70 years before the first raid on England.
Previously, the start of the Viking Age has been dated to a June 793 raid by Norwegian Vikings on Lindisfarne. But the new research published in the European Journal of Archaeology shows that Vikings were travelling from Norway to the vital trading centre in Ribe on Denmark's west coast as early as 725.
The researchers say that long voyages were underway early in the 8th century AD, with the establishment of a marketplace in Ribe. What were to become history's Viking expeditions can be directly linked to the development of Ribe as a town and commercial centre.
Using a biomolecular technique developed at York's BioArCh laboratory, the research team studied bone/antler objects and fragments of manufacturing waste from the archaeological remains of Ribe's old marketplace. A number of samples -including some from very early levels -- turned out to be reindeer antler, which is not local to Denmark, and was probably brought in from Norway. The researchers say that the antlers are proof that Vikings visited Ribe, the oldest town in Scandinavia, well before their infamous pillaging. Those trips gave the Vikings the seafaring skills that would be used some 70 years later to strike England.
Deer antlers were central to one of the key industries of the Viking Age: the manufacture of hair combs. Access to antler was fundamental to this specialist craft, and it may have been difficult for a professional combmaker to find sufficient quantities locally, so some form of organised supply network is likely.
The new study shows that the early Vikings from Norway had access to large quantities of reindeer antlers and sold them to craftworkers in Southern Scandinavia.
Dr Ashby said: "This shows us that merchants and other travellers from the north were visiting Ribe long before the start of the Viking Age as we know it. Even in its early stages, the town was attracting visitors from afar. We have long wondered whether Ribe, and places like it, kickstarted the Viking expansion in trade, travel and warfare, but it has been difficult to prove. Now for the first time, we can confidently say that people in the more remote parts of Scandinavia were visiting places like Ribe, presumably for commercial gain, from a very early stage. It's a vital contribution to the question of what caused the Viking Age: it looks as though towns and maritime trade may have been the engine driving all this change."
The study drew on a biomolecular technique called ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry), pioneered by Professor Matthew Collins at York's BioArCh laboratory. This rapid, reliable, and minimally destructive technique characterises the proteins in the collagen component of organic material, allowing identification of animal species. Previously, a team led by Dr Ashby identified the absence of reindeer antler in pre-Viking combs from Scotland, thus discounting suggestions of contact between the British Isles and Scandinavia before AD 793. The application of the technique to Danish material by Ashley Coutu at York, demonstrates that though there is no evidence of voyages across the North Sea at this early date, Norwegians do seem to have undertaken long-distance maritime journeys.
Co-author Professor Søren Sindbæk, of Aarhus University, added: "The Viking Age becomes a phenomenon in Western Europe because the Vikings learned to use maritime mobility to their advantage. 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."
According to the researchers, the new-found proof of the commercial journeys to Ribe changes the popular narrative of Vikings as violent aggressors.
Professor 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."
* * * * *
Expansion of the Viking invasion
New research on the causes of the Viking Age
The Viking hit-and-run raids on monastic communities such as Lindisfarne and Iona were the most infamous result of burgeoning Scandinavian maritime prowess in the closing years of the Eighth Century.
These skirmishes led to more expansive military campaigns, settlement, and ultimately conquest of large swathes of the British Isles. But Dr Steve Ashby, of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, wanted to explore the social justifications for this spike in aggressive activity.
Previous research has considered environmental, demographic, technological and political drivers, as well as the palpable lure of silver and slave and why these forms of wealth became important at this stage.
Dr Ashby said: "I wanted to try to discover what would make a young chieftain invest in the time and resources for such a risky venture. And what were the motives of his crew?"
In research published in Archaeological Dialogues, Dr Ashby argues that focusing on the spoils of raiding is to ignore half the picture as the rewards of such voyages consisted of much more than portable wealth.
Dr Ashby says: "The lure of the exotic, of the world beyond the horizon, was an important factor. Classic anthropology has shown that the mystique of the exotic is a powerful force, and something that leaders and people of influence often use to prop up their power base. It is not difficult to see how this would have worked in the Viking Age."
The acquisition not just of silver but of distinctive forms of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, and Celtic metalwork were tangible reminders of successful sorties, symbols of status and power, as well as calls-to-arms for future raids. Many of the large quantity of Christian artefacts found in Scandinavian contexts (particularly Norwegian pagan burials) escaped melting and recycling, not because of some form of artistic appreciation, but because they were foundation stones for power, and touchstones in any argument for undertaking military activity.
Dr Ashby says there was also a clear motive for joining raiding parties rather than blindly following their leaders. Raiding activity provided not only an opportunity for violence and the accumulation of wealth, but an arena in which individuals could be noticed by their peers and superiors. It was an opportunity to build reputations for skill, reliability, cunning, or courage. Just as leaders of raiding parties stood to gain more than portable wealth, so too their followers could seek intangible social capital from participation.
"The lure of the raid was thus more than booty; it was about winning and preserving power through the enchantment of travel and the doing of deeds. This provides an important correction to models that focus on the need for portable wealth; the act of acquiring silver was as important as the silver itself," Dr Ashby adds.
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Persian patterns. Silk textiles from the Persian region
were found in the Oseberg ship. Among the motifs, we
can see parts of special birds associated with Persian
mythology, combined with clover-leaf axes, a
Zoroastrian symbol taken from the Zodiac. The
textiles have been cut into thin strips and used
for adornment on clothing. Similar strips have
also been found in other Viking Age burial sites.
Norwegian Vikings purchased silk from Persia
The Norwegian Vikings were more oriented towards the East than we have previously assumed, says Marianne Vedeler, Associate Professor at the Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo in Norway. After four years of in-depth investigation of the silk trade of the Viking Age, she may change our perceptions of the history of the Norwegian Vikings. The silk trade was far more comprehensive than we have hitherto assumed.
The Norwegian Vikings maintained trade connections with Persia and the Byzantine Empire. A network of traders from a variety of places and cultures brought the silk to the Nordic countries. Her details are presented in the book "Silk for the Vikings," to be published by Oxbow publishers this winter, but in this article you can glimpse some of her key findings.
In the Oseberg ship, which was excavated nearly a hundred years ago, more than one hundred small silk fragments were found. This is the oldest find of Viking Age silk in Norway.
At the time when the Oseberg silk was discovered, nobody conceived that it could have been imported from Persia. It was generally believed that most of it had been looted from churches and monasteries in England and Ireland.
Lots of Viking silk
Since the Oseberg excavation, silk from the Viking Age has been found in several locations in the Nordic countries. The last finding was made two years ago at Ness in Hamarøy municipality, Nordland county. Other Norwegian findings of silk from the Viking Age include Gokstad in Vestfold county, Sandanger in the Sunnmøre district and Nedre Haugen in Østfold county.
The highest number of burial sites containing silk from the Viking Age have been found at Birka in the Uppland region, a few miles west of Stockholm.
"Even though Birka has the highest number of burial sites containing silk, there are no other places where so much and such varied silk has been found in a single burial site as in Oseberg," says Marianne Vedeler to the research magazine Apollon.
In Oseberg alone, silk from fifteen different textiles, as well as embroideries and tablet-woven silk and wool bands were discovered. Many of the silk pieces had been cut into thin strips and used for articles of clothing. The textiles had been imported, while the tablet-woven bands most likely were made locally from imported silk thread.
Marianne Vedeler has collected information on silk and its trade in the Nordic countries. She has also studied manuscripts on silk production and trade along the Russian rivers as well as in Byzantium and Persia.
"When seeing it all in its totality, it's more logical to assume that most of the silk was purchased in the East, rather than being looted from the British Isles."
Vedeler believes that in the Viking Age, silk was imported from two main areas. One was Byzantium, meaning in and around Constantinople, or Miklagard, which was the Vikings' name for present-day Istanbul. The other large core area was Persia.
The silk may have been brought northwards along different routes.
One possibility is from the South through Central Europe and onwards to Norway, but I believe that most of the silk came by way of the Russian rivers Dnepr and Volga.
The Dnepr was the main route to Constantinople, while the Volga leads to the Caspian Sea. The river trade routes were extremely dangerous and difficult. One of the sources describes the laborious journey along the Dnepr to Constantinople:
"A band of traders joined up in Kiev. Along the river they were attacked by dangerous tribesmen. They needed to pass through rapids and cataracts. Then, slaves had to carry their boat."
On the basis of the silk that has been found, there are indications that more silk came to Norway from Persia than from Constantinople.
Large amounts of the Oseberg silk have patterns from the Persian Empire. This silk is woven using a technique called samitum, a sophisticated Oriental weaving method. Many of the silk motifs can be linked to religious motifs from Central Asia.
Another pattern depicts a shahrokh, a bird that has a very specific meaning in Persian mythology; it represents a royal blessing. In the Persian myth, the shahrokh bird is the messenger that brings the blessing to a selected prince. In a dream, the bird visits the prince holding a tiara, a tall head adornment, in its beak. The prince then wakes up and knows that he is the chosen one. The image of the imperial bird was popular not only in silk weaving, but also in other art forms in Persia. The motif gained widespread popularity in Persian art.
It's an amusing paradox that silk textiles with such religious and mythological images were highly prized and used in heathen burial sites in the Nordic countries as well as in European churches.
In the Orient, silk was essential for symbolizing power and strength. There was an entire hierarchy of different silk qualities and patterns reserved for civil servants and royalty.
Even though silk was a prominent status symbol for the Vikings, they failed to get their hands on the best silk.
Most likely, the bulk of the silk imported to Scandinavia was of medium or below-medium quality.
In Byzantium, major restrictions were imposed on the sale of silk to foreign lands. The punishment for illegal sale of silk was draconian. The Persian lands also imposed strict restrictions on the sale and production of silk.
In Byzantium, it was illegal to buy more silk than what could be bought for the price of a horse. A foreign trader was allowed to buy silk for ten numismata, while the price of a horse was twelve numismata.
"However, several trade agreements that have been preserved show that traders from the North nevertheless had special trade privileges in Byzantium."
Silk was not only a trade commodity. Certain types of silk were reserved for diplomatic gifts to foreign countries, as described in Byzantine as well as Persian sources. In Europe, silk became especially popular for wrapping sacred relics in churches.
Some of the silk found in Norway may be gifts or spoils of war, but archaeological as well as written sources indicate that silk was traded in the Nordic countries.
"We may safely assume that the Vikings engaged in trade, plunder, exchange of gifts and diplomatic relations in equal measure."
A possible example of loot found in the Oseberg ship is a piece of silk with an image of a cross.
This was long before the introduction of Christianity. The silk piece may have been sewn locally, but it is also highly likely that it was purloined from an Irish church.
At Gokstad, thin strips of hammered gold wrapped around silk threads were among the findings.
"These threads are highly exclusive. We do not know their origin, but we suspect that they may have come from even further east, in the direction of China," says Vedeler, who will now travel to China to find out more.
As yet, Vedeler must draw conclusions regarding the origin of the silk by investigating weaving technologies and patterns. With time, she wishes to make use of a new method which is being developed at the University of Copenhagen and which will be able to reveal the geographic origin of artefacts.
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- Materials provided by University of York. Note: Steven P. Ashby, Ashley N. Coutu, Søren M. Sindbæk. Urban Networks and Arctic Outlands: Craft Specialists and Reindeer Antler in Viking Towns. European Journal of Archaeology, 2015.
- Materials provided by University of York. Note: Steven P. Ashby. What really caused the Viking Age? The social content of raiding and exploration. Archaeological Dialogues, 2015
- Materials provided by University of Oslo, original written by Yngve Vogt. "Norwegian Vikings purchased silk from Persia." ScienceDaily, 1 November 2013