Glimpses into an alternative Viking past

Nordic Spirit Symposium sheds new light on ancient history

Aerial view of the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden, as envisioned by artist Mats Vänehem.

Illustration courtesy of Mats Vänehem, ©, Mats Vãnehem
Aerial view of the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden, as envisioned by artist Mats Vänehem.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Viking revelations: setting the scene

I am in a large modernist church with high ceilings, the beautiful Samuelson Chapel on the tree-scaped campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. And from the speakers who come and go behind the lectern on the raised sanctuary floor, a rapt audience hears new revelation after new revelation.

Despite the church setting, these revelations are not of a religious nature; rather they are fresh revelations about a much misunderstood era of the Scandinavian past—the captivating era of the Vikings. These new and exciting revelations about a long-lost Scandinavian past are made possible by a new generation of Scandinavian scientists who have recently deployed an array of innovative technologies to uncover the ancient secrets locked away in both the earth and in our genetic ancestry.

The audience, which consists of a mixed bag of some 150 scholars and members of the general public are sitting in the blond wooden pews of the Samuelson Chapel to hear the latest “good news” about Viking discoveries in Northern Europe.

The rest of the story

alternative Viking past speakers

Photo: Terje Birkedal
Four of the speakers (left to right: Professor Søren Sindbæk, Aarhus University, Denmark; Dr.Sigriður (Sunna) Ebensersdóttir, deCode Genetics, Iceland; Dr. Christian Løchsen Rødsrud, Norwegian Museum of Cultural History; and Professor Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Uppsala University, Sweden.

The Nordic Spirit Symposium: “New Technologies—New Discoveries” was held Feb. 9–10, 2024. It was the 25th anniversary symposium of the annual Nordic Spirit Symposium, one of many that have been devoted to new insights into the Scandinavian past. Sponsored by the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation in cooperation with California Lutheran University and funded by the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation and the Norway House Foundation, this forum on recent Viking findings, like all the Nordic Spirit symposia, was designed with the intent to inform both scholars and the interested general public.

Symposium Chair Howard Rockstad and his able planning team had assembled the cream of the crop of Europe’s Viking experts to tell the story currently being revealed by both ancient skeletons and archaeological sites from Iceland to Belgium.

Today, as never before, it is now possible to interrogate the Viking past with the aid of historical genetics, non-invasive remote sensing, and the exacting excavation techniques known by the term “high-definition archaeology.”

The first of the five speakers, Professor Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University, Denmark, used airborne and satellite remote sensing in combination with electromagnetic induction surveying and 3-D landscape reconstruction to discover the fifth of five 10th century ring-forts built by King Harald Bluetooth to discourage the invasion of Denmark by the powerful German king and Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II. These strategically placed and carefully planned fortresses revealed that the kingdom of Denmark in the later Viking Age was a realm of great organizational and political sophistication—hardly our popular current image of Viking political organization.

All five of these architecturally similar and complex forts were built at roughly the same time to successfully thwart Denmark’s greedy and dangerous German enemy. They did their job well; no serious attack ever came, and after the threat passed, the forts were purposely taken down as fast as they had been built; again, another sign of a powerful Viking state with a strong government.

Sindbæk also gave a talk on Denmark’s equally sophisticated first town and trading center that had been discovered under the streets and houses of modern-day Ribe. His colleague, Professor Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University, Sweden, also spoke on her work at Sweden’s earliest Viking urban center, Birka.

Both used “high definition archaeology” (i.e., soil micromorphology, geochemical element analysis, 3-D stratigraphic recording, etc.) to uncover the secrets of Scandinavia’s first towns and trading centers.

Like the other Viking towns that were founded in the Viking Age, Ribe and Birka were not modeled after earlier European towns; they were unique Viking urban places that were invented “from scratch” to facilitate both high-quality craft production and fair trade among far-traveled strangers.

From the very beginning, towns like Ribe and Birka were characterized by pre-planned streets, house plots, shops, and ship yards. Early medieval Ribe and Birka and their many similar trading emporia (for example, Hedeby, Dublin, York, and Staraya Ladoga) showcased the organizational and mercantile talents of the Vikings. The founders of these sophisticated urban trading centers were nothing like the cartoon Viking “Hagar the Horrible” and his crazed, chaotic warrior friends.

Both Sinbæk and Hedenstierna-Jonson stressed the role of Vikings as sophisticated merchants and builders of towns, not just destroyers of towns. The Vikings opened up Dark Age Europe to a range of goods as well as ideas. Not only did they engage in trade with England, Ireland, and France, they also established regular trade connections with such far-flung cities as Kiev, Constantinople, Bagdad, and even Cairo.

In Viking Age Ribe and Birka you could find the finest silks from Byzantium and China, colorful glass beads from the Middle East, and perhaps even exotic spices from India. Many of the daily transactions were made in Arabian silver dirhams, literally tens of thousands of such coins have come to light in Scandinavia.

Another featured speaker, Dr. Nelleke Ijssenagger-van de Pluijm of the Fryske Academy of the Netherlands, showed how the coastal zones of Belgium, the Netherlands, and northwestern Germany (i.e. Frisia) were part of the Viking sphere of influence and trade networks.

The Vikings came to the Frisian trading towns of Dorestad and Antwerp both to do business and to raid depending on their inclination. Numerous items of Scandinavian origin have been found in the earth of early medieval Frisia, particularly jewelry and antler combs.

Interestingly, the trading fortunes of Frisia’s trading centers faded with the rise of the Scandinavian trading towns. There is growing archeological and historical evidence that the Vikings often purposely destroyed the trading centers of their commercial rivals to gain the advantage for their own trading emporia.

The far-flung trade of the Viking towns was only made possible by the parallel invention of the classic Viking ship and sail-navigation in the seventh century. Dr. Christian Løchsen Rødsrud of the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History spoke on his excavation of the most recent Viking ship finds at Gjellestad, Norway.

Here, at a seat of former royal power, he meticulously documented the lower half of a magnificent ship that had once had been buried under a huge mound as a testament to the great wealth and authority of the man who had been laid to his final rest in the ship. It was the material riches and political power of such men that helped fund and protect the wide-ranging and successful trading networks of the Vikings.

Dr. Sigriður (Sunna) Ebenesersdóttir of deCode Genetics, Iceland, presented a fascinating talk on her and her colleagues’ work as historical genetic sleuths of Scandinavia’s past and present populations.

Among their most interesting findings is that the Scandinavians of the Viking Age were more genetically diverse than the present populations of the Scandinavian countries. For instance, over one third of Viking Trondheim’s citizens had genetic roots in the British Isles; whereas, after the Black Death in the 14th century this percentage of British/Gaelic ancestry had dropped to only 5 percent.

Of the original Viking settlers of Iceland, many had already become genetically mixed with residents of the British Isles before they left for Iceland and a majority of the female migrants to the island were of British/Gaelic ancestry. Among the most startling of their discoveries was that up to 3 percent of modern Icelanders carry genes that most likely derived from Native American sources.

Future Nordic Spirit symposiums promise similar intriguing revelations about Scandinavia’s unfolding past.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.