Monday, 29 December 2014

Vikings: Violent Raiders or Extraordinary Explorers?

The Norsemen's Fury 
Anglo Saxon England shuddered on 8th June 793 AD when a raid by heathen men from across the sea brought plunder and slaughter on the island monastery at Lindisfarne. The raid off the coast of northern England signalled the beginning of the Viking Age, a period of major change across Europe in which the Norsemen are primarily remembered as vicious marauders.

In 843 a Viking raiding party sacked the city of Nantes on the Loire River while the people of the town were observing the festival of Saint John. The Norsemen entered the city unopposed and slaughtered the inhabitants. The Chronique de Nantes records the slaughter:

“After they had disembarked some of them climbed the walls of the city using ladders, others penetrated the cloisters. No one could prevent their entry. The entered the city on the holy festival of St. John the Baptist. The Bishop of the City was Gohardus, a simple, handsome and God-fearing man, with whom all the clergy and monks of the monastery were gathered… 

….The Vikings slew the entire multitude they found there without regard to age or sex. They cruelly killed the priest and bishop Gohardus who died saying ‘Sursum corda’. All the other monks, whether they were in the church, outside it, or at the altar were put to the sword and disembowelled…”

Much of the Viking's exceptional achievement's are over-shadowed by their bloodthirsty reputation, indeed the very word “viking” has become synonymous with a violent raider. However, a growing number of scholars believe the Vikings were no more bloody-minded than other warriors of the period.

In his new book The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, August 2014) Yale historian Anders Winroth argues that the Vikings acted not much differently from other European warriors of the period, citing the mass execution of  4,500 Saxon captives on a single day in 782 by Charlemagne who is now “heralded as the original unifier of Europe.”

Winroth maintains the image of the Norsemen is too often distorted by medieval and modern myth, suffering from bad public relation, in part because they attacked a society more literate than their own, and therefore most accounts of them come from their victims. Moreover, because the Vikings were pagan and often attacked religious houses they played into a Christian story line that cast them as an evil, demonic force. In his book Winroth carries out a sweeping new survey to show such exaggeration was often a feature of European writings about the Vikings.

The extraordinary Viking expansion from their Scandinavian homelands created a cultural network stretching across four continents from the Arctic Circle and the lands of the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea.

In answering the question "Vikings: Violent Raiders or Extraordinary Explorers?" we should consider the evidence provided by the distant travels of these remarkable seaborne voyagers which continues to be discovered and 2014 has not disappointed.

Vikings: Life and Legend Exhibition
In March the Vikings: Life and Legend Exhibition opened at the British Museum in London. The first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years featuring many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection. The main attraction at the exhibition was the longest Viking ship ever discovered. The 37-metre-long warship, known as Roskilde 6, was powered by 40 pairs of oars and dated to  around 1025, was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1997.

Harald Bluetooth’s fortress found?
A team from Aarhus University announced in September the discovery of a new Viking fortress for the first time in 60 years. The fortress is constructed as a ringfort in a field belonging to Vallø Manor on the east coast of Sealand in Denmark, is with some certainty, the fifth of it’s type, a so-called “trelleborg” from Viking times. The trelleborg fortresses are unique for Denmark. Carbon-14 dating has confirmed the fortress was built in the period between the year 900 and the beginning of the 11th century, leading to speculation that the site was one of Harald Bluetooth’s fortresses.

Viking Hoard found in Dumfries and Galloway 
In October the Herald Scotland announced the discovery of more than 100 objects of Viking treasure on church land at an undisclosed location in Dumfries and Galloway in one of the most significant finds of its kind ever made in Scotland. The hoard unearthed by metal-detecting enthusiast Derek McLennan included artefacts of gold and silver from a wide geographic area that includes Ireland, Scandinavia, and central Europe and possibly the largest silver Carolingian pot ever discovered.

Feasting Hall discovered in Denmark
The December issue of the journal Archaeological Prospection published news of the identification of a major Viking  feasting Hall near Vadstena in Sweden. The hall measuring almost 50 metres in length was located by Archaeologists from Stockholm University and Umeå University. The location where the hall was found has long seen as a burial mound, the Aska barrow, but mapping with ground penetrating radar revealed that it is a foundation platform for a large building most likely dating from the Viking Period. The hall was probably the home of a royal family whose rich graves have previously been excavated nearby.

Viking Women raiders
A study of Norse DNA suggests that Viking men took significant numbers of women with them in their longboats when they sailed to places such as the Scottish mainland, Shetland, Orkney and Iceland. Researchers analysed maternally inherited genetic material, known as mitochondrial DNA, extracted from 80 Viking skeletons unearthed in Norway. The result suggest that Norse women played a central role in the Viking settlements established in Britain and other parts of the North Atlantic contradicting the stereotype of male-only raiding parties with an unhealthy appetite for rape and pillage.

Evidence of Viking Metalworking in Canada
The belief that Viking seafarers travelled from Greenland to parts of Arctic Canada has been confirmed by the discovery of Norse artefacts in mainland Canada and the Arctic islands over the past several decades. The discovery of metalworking artefacts could be the earliest evidence of high-temperature non-ferrous metalworking north of Mesoamerica. Analysis of a broken stone vessel discovered on Baffin Island has shown it to be a crucible with traces of a bronze on the inside used for metalworking. It is thought the crucible may have been brought to Canada by Norse seafarers travelling from Greenland or Iceland.

Spanish Vikings
Generally there is only a vague knowledge that the Vikings went to Spain. There are written accounts of the Vikings raiding in northern Spain from around 840 until the 11th century, but, archaeologically, absolutely nothing has been done. In March 2014 a number of Viking anchors were washed ashore in a storm at Galicia in Northern Spain. On the beach where the anchors were found there was a big mound which locals thought might have been a motte-and-bailey construction, which was used by the later Vikings in France. But it is suspected this mound was a longphort – a Viking construction only found in Ireland during the early Viking age, and very similar to English Viking camps, where they would winter, after taking over the harbour.

First Vikings to make the trip to the British Isles
In an article published by the journal Internet Archaeology, Heen Pettersen writes that foreign objects found in burial sites in mid- and western Norway coincide with the first known Viking raids in Lindisfarne, England in 793. (Science Nordic December 2014)

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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  1. Jonathan Plowman2 January 2015 at 23:52

    The answer to your question is they were both.