Viking Age began earlier than previously thought

Photo: Ross Doherty, courtesy of University of York This antler comb found near Ribe, Denmark, could only have made it to the area by means of trade with Vikings from the north.

Photo: Ross Doherty, courtesy of University of York
This antler comb found near Ribe, Denmark, could only have made it to the area by means of trade with Vikings from the north.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

An entry in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle for the year 793 reported:
In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

The “heathen people” were Viking raiders. Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. The date of the raid was subsequently corrected to June 8, as recorded in the Annals of Lindisfarne. So for centuries, the raid of June 8, 793 has been believed to mark the beginning of the Viking Age, the period in European history following the Germanic Iron Age.

It was a period in which Norsemen traveled on their longships throughout Europe by seas and waterways, for trading, raiding, and colonization. The longship design was the key to their prowess, a breakthrough in ship technology that put them at the forefront of medieval European affairs. Without it, there most likely would have been no Viking Age. So graceful is the Viking ship that countries have used drawings of it on commemorative stamps, the U.S. Post Office in 1925 in celebration of the centennial of the first Norwegian emigration to the U.S., and most recently the Faroe Islands Post Office in a sheet of three stamps in 2002.

Aside from Viking ships and artifacts now in museums and accounts of archeological finds, much of what is known about the Viking Age is taken from writings about them by their enemies, as in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle account of the sacking of the Lindisfarne abbey. So throughout history, the Vikings have often been described as fierce raiders. That view may soon change.

In early 2015, Prof. Stephen Ashby of the Department of Archaeology of the University of York in North Yorkshire, England, worked with colleagues Aarhus University (Denmark) to excavate the old marketplace in Ribe, Denmark, established in 710 AD and now the oldest extant town in Denmark as well as in Scandinavia. Among their finds was a comb made from reindeer antlers around the year 725. There are no reindeer in Denmark. So the researchers studied trade of the time and found that Norwegian Vikings had access to large quantities of reindeer antlers that they sold to craftsmen in southern Scandinavia. In turn that finding substantiated the archeological evidence suggesting that Ribe had been a node in a network of Viking trading posts; Norwegian Vikings had come to Ribe in their longships and traded about 70 years before the sacking of the Lindisfarne abbey. It was trading, not raiding, that triggered the Viking Age.

The Norse Sagas have some accounts suggesting that the Viking Age may be regarded to have started earlier still. Hrothgar, a legendary Danish king of the early sixth century, is mentioned both in the Norse Sagas and in an epic heroic poem set in Scandinavia and now known as Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, in what now is southern Sweden. In the Sagas, there’s no direct classification of King Hrothgar of the sixth century as a Viking. But his murder by a relative or the King of Sweden is avenged by his younger brother Halga, who is said to have been killed on a Viking expedition.

The symbolic end of the Viking Age also might be questioned. Apparently by consensus among historians, the Viking Age is said to have ended on September 25, 1066, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. But there were major Viking campaigns in Britain in the following decades, such as those by King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 and 1102-1103.

Might future historians agree on a longer Viking Age, with an earlier beginning and a later end?

Further reading:
“Urban Networks and Arctic Outlands: Craft Specialists and Reindeer Antler in Viking Towns,” by Stephen P. Ashby et.al., European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 18, issue 4 (November 2015), pp. 678-704, DOI: 10.1179/1461957115Y.0000000003, accessible on the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) website at www.doi.org.

“The Viking Age began in Denmark,” by Charlotte Price Persson, Science Nordic, April 23, 2015, on website at: sciencenordic.com/viking-age-began-denmark.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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