The Vikings’ forgotten children
Exhibit shines light on the “Yatvings,” Baltic-area warriors who were likely descended from Viking explorers
Trude Brænne Larssen
Fiercely pagan until the latter Dark Ages, the nearly forgotten Yatving people dwelled close to the Baltic Sea and were likely the descendants of Nordic Vikings. A new show at the Viking museum, Midgard Historical Center, in Borre, Norway, tells their story.
“Yatvings—The Forgotten Warriors,” on through November 27, 2016, features both a detailed narrative and fascinating artifacts, including a warrior’s inscribed sword, a tasseled helmet, and post-mortem neck ring.
The exhibition is made possible through cooperation with the State Archaeological Museum in Warsaw, which excavated a large Yatving settlement in the hilly/swampy Masurian Lake District of northeastern Poland. The region is the source of the Dnieper River, which became a major route for Viking exploration and plunder clear to the Black Sea.
“The Yatvings (also called Sudovians) were a Prussian tribe that thrived from the 800s until the late 1200s,” says Dr. Marcin Engels, head of research at the Polish museum.
“Written accounts describe the Yatvings as fearless warriors who fought on horseback and consistently raided Christian settlements. Polish nobles eventually begged the Teutonic Order in Germany to come and save them.”
Christian Teutonic knights arrived in the 1200s and effectively crushed the Yatvings by the end of the century.
Yatving is first mentioned in accounts in 944 when Igor I of Kiev sent envoys to the Byzantine court to sign a peace treaty.
“Several of the emissaries had Nordic names, including Jatviag Gunariev, which is the Slavic pronunciation of Játvigr Gunnarson,” explains Engels.
The Játvigr moniker evolved into depicting all Yatving people, of which there were reportedly some 40,000 in the 13th century.
“We believe the Yatvings descended from the Vikings who migrated south and eastwards from Scandinavia,” says Jardar Nygård, director of marketing at Midgard museum. These Vikings became known as the Rus and gave their name to both Russia and Belarus. The Rus made their way down the Dnieper River and eventually captured and assimilated Kiev. Over time they reached Constantinople (Istanbul) where they eventually became an elite imperial force called the Varangian Guard. Runic inscriptions made by Vikings can be seen today on the marble balustrades at the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul.
Life and death
One thing that archaeologists use to connect the Yatvings to the Rus is how they handled their dead.
“Burial practices and artifacts from Yatving grave finds closely resemble those of the Norsemen. Burial mounds, for example, are typically placed in close proximity to living communities,” says Engel.
Vikings revered their dead and fervently believed in the afterlife. Many pagan cultures feared their dead and subsequently buried them away from living settlements.
Swords and spiral
Artifacts on display at the Yatving exhibit include two swords, one with a clear inscription on the blade.
“Its most likely the swordsmith’s signature,” says Engels. Seeing the weapon imparts an almost eerie human connection to our primitive past.
Another piece on display is a snakelike metal spiral. “It’s a neck ring,” he says.
But it looks like it would choke its wearer. “The ring was used after death. Powerful men were buried sitting up and we believe the spirals were used to keep their heads from slumping down onto their chests,” says Midgard guide Anna Arnestad, who originally comes from Poland.
The ancient southeastward migration of the Nordic Vikings starkly contrasts today’s demography. Hundreds of thousands of Poles and other Baltic nationalities have migrated north to Scandinavia since the advent of the Schengen agreement, which allows free flow across the borders of European Union and European Economic Area countries that are signatories to the treaty.
“Poles are the largest immigrant group in our part of Norway and we hope a lot of them come and see the exhibition,” says Midgard Historical Center director and archaeologist Anne Doksrød, who facilitated cooperation with the State Archaeology Museum in Warsaw.
The Midgard museum is located at Borre National Park, some 70 miles southwest of Oslo, along Oslo Fjord. An important center of power in the Viking Age, the park is now known for its many large Viking burial mounds and the life-sized replica of a Viking ceremonial hall. Borre Park is nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Learn more about the Yatvings at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Prussians. See more about Midgard Historical Center and Borre National Park at www.midgardsenteret.no/en.
This article originally appeared in the June 17, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.