Welcome to Bronze Age Scandinavia

In this first installment, we start at the top with a look at the lives of pre-Viking chieftains

Bronze Age burial mounds

Chiefly Bronze Age burial mounds at Samsø-Raevebakkerne, Denmark.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Chieftains were the political movers and shakers of Bronze Age Scandinavia. Though the Nordic Bronze Age officially lasted from 1700 BCE to 500 BCE, this article focuses on what was going on between 1500 BCE and 1100 BCE; this period represents the very height of the Bronze Age in Scandinavia. This time span corresponds to the emergence of the New Kingdom in Egypt, the advent of the powerful Hittite Empire in Turkey, and the rise of Minoan and Mycenaean Greece (the period made famous by Homer’s Iliad).

Contrary to what you might expect, Scandinavia at this time boasted one of the most wealthy and vibrant societies in northwest Europe. In the middle Bronze Age it was one of the centers, not one of the frontier outliers of the European world. During this span of years, political and economic power was wielded by powerful chieftains who were the dominant political leaders of the many small chiefdoms that dotted Bronze Age Scandinavia’s long and indented coastlines.

Imagine for a moment that you were a chieftain between roughly 1500 BCE and 1100 BCE. What would your life be like? Pretty good for the most part. You occupy the top rung of society. Your house is the largest in the chiefdom, perhaps 30 to 50 meters (98 to 164 feet) in length and 10 meters (33 feet) in width. It is a large wooden hall held up with aisled rows of sturdy posts and walled with huge planks. Your farm would be the biggest in your community and contain the most fertile land and support large herds of cattle and sheep and numerous fat pigs.

Your little realm would be approximately 20 to 30 square kilometers (7.72 to 11.6 square miles). Let us imagine, for example, that your chiefdom consists of the little island of Mosterøy in Rogaland, in southwest Norway. You would have 23 square kilometers (8.8 square miles) and about 300 people under your immediate control. But as a chieftain you would not enjoy absolute power. You would rule by being generous to your people, especially the free farmers who work their own farms on your island chiefdom. In order to hold your position as leader, as “first among equals,” you would need to share your wealth with others. You would do this by providing feasts with lots of meat from your herds and giving gifts, especially weapons of bronze and ornaments of gold and silver to your most loyal supporters. And then there is alcohol. Beer and mead would have been essential to any of your feasts, liters of it. But if you were a particularly rich chieftain you might have served your most high-born guests imported wine from a bronze cauldron in beautifully decorated gold cups.

Your successful rule would also have depended on your fierceness and capability as a leader of warriors. These fighting men would have been largely drawn from the younger sons of the free farmers in your small chiefdom and number about 30 to 50 men. And you would have needed to feed them and house them during their service to you and recognize their loyalty with frequent gifts, either bronze weapons or other items of wealth such as metal razors, tweezers, and arm rings. Most of your young warriors would have enjoyed nightly accommodation on the broad, low benches that flanked the sides of your large hall.

This cadre of dedicated young warriors would have provided your coercive power when generosity did not get you what you wanted or needed. They were also your defense against other aggressive chieftains along Scandinavia’s coast who might want something of yours. In addition, they would also be your protection and offensive force when you ventured out on trading or raiding missions to obtain more wealth to solidify your position of power.

For raiding and trading, you would have sponsored the building of a number of long sea-going, canoe-like boats. Your boats did not have sails, but with paddling crews from six to 60, they were sleek and fast; perfect for raiding your distant or near neighbors. When you needed more warriors than in your own professional “band of brothers” you could call upon all your free men to bear arms in defense or offense. Each would at least possess a bronze war axe and most would also own a sword or two. If the island of Mosterøy constituted your chiefdom, you would have been most happy with the harbor that bordered your farm and grand hall. It had two narrow, protected entrances and exits, not just one; perfect for a quick escape in your boats should an enemy approach through one of the two openings (Because of its unique harbor and strategic position in the vast waters of Ryfilke Fjord, Mosterøy became a favorite royal seat in the Viking Age).

But you could not survive long in the Bronze Age on your own. All men and women traced their kinship equally through both their fathers and mothers. All people, including you the chieftain, cultivated the support and loyalty of as many relatives as they could. In particular, you would look for allies among other chieftains to whom you were related. These you would win over with particularly great feasts and fancy gifts from far away. You, like most chieftains, needed to be part of a confederacy of chiefs with common interests in case you were attacked by other regional alliances of chieftains and their warriors.

What did you seek on raids, in trading? In raiding, you sought slaves and the metal wealth of other chiefs and their people. Slaves were a small part of the overall population, but they were valuable on big farms in freeing up free men to serve as full-time warriors. Slaves were also good trade items and sold well both locally and in distant lands in Europe. Other popular trade items from Scandinavia in the Nordic Bronze Age included amber, furs, hides, timber, and most likely dried fish. In the time of the Bronze Age, Scandinavia enjoyed an important place in the pan-European global market. It had stuff that people in other lands wanted in exchange for items of bronze, cloth, weapons, gold, and silver. Also, there were active regional trade networks among the chieftains of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Raiding and trading were two sides of the same coin.

Were women ever chieftains during the Bronze Age? If the Bronze Age society was anything like the Viking Age, then women as chieftains were probably an occasional reality as they were in the Viking Age. High-born women of the time, whether they were chieftains or not, certainly enjoyed great wealth and status. Many were buried in great grave mounds with all kinds of jewelry and ornaments of silver, bronze, and gold.

And these prominent grave mounds underscored your right to rule. In the largest mounds, the most visible on the ridge tops in your chiefdom, were your illustrious ancestors, the chieftains of old who advertised in death your right to your chieftaincy.

This article was based on several sources, but in particular, on the seminal recent work on the Nordic Bronze Age entitled “Maritime Mode of Production: Raiding and Trading in Seafaring Chiefdoms” written by Johan Ling, Timothy Earle, and Kristian Kristiansen and published in the journal Current Anthropology in 2018.

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as 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.

This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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