Viking Age Trade Routes in North-West Europe

Viking Age Trade Routes in North-West Europe

Overview of Viking Trading and Exchange Networks

The Viking trade network included trading relationships into Europe, Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, into Asia, and the Islamic Abbasid empire. This is evidenced by the identification of items such as coins from North Africa recovered from a site in central Sweden and Scandinavian brooches from sites east of the Ural Mountains. Trade was a vital feature of the Norse Atlantic communities throughout their history and a way for the colonies to support their use of landnam, a sometimes unreliable farming technique for environments the Norse didn't quite understand.

Documentary evidence indicates that there were several groups of specific people who traveled between the Viking trading centers and other centers throughout Europe, as envoys, merchants, or missionaries. Some travelers, such as the Carolingian missionary bishop Anskar (801-865) left extensive reports of their travels, giving us great insight to traders and their clients.

Viking Trade and Commerce

One of the most striking features of the Viking Age was the vast trade network that the Norse maintained, which stretched from Greenland in the west to Baghdad and central Asia in the east, and encompassed virtually all of the peoples who lived in between. [1][2]

During the Viking Age, as in all ages that preceded it, the Scandinavian economy was primarily a subsistence economy. Just about everyone lived on rural farmsteads. Each household produced most of what its members needed to sustain themselves, and the average person possessed few luxury items. Even before the Viking Age, however, a limited degree of domestic trade existed as well, primarily in the form of seasonal rural markets. [3]

Around the beginning of the Viking Age in the eighth century, however, Scandinavia’s first urban centers started to appear around the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. Although only about 1-2% of the population lived in these “trade towns,” as they’re often called today, their effect on the Scandinavian economy was far bigger than that figure might suggest. That’s because the trade towns, as the term implies, brought Scandinavia into the wider Eurasian trade networks that existed during this period. [4]

Most Scandinavian farmsteads produced the craft goods their members needed – clothes, tools, etc. – on their own. But with the rise of the trade towns, many more people were able to become specialists in one or another of these crafts. Blacksmiths, jewelers, bead-makers, antler-workers, and other such full-time craftspeople flocked to the trade towns to produce their goods for export to foreign markets rather than just for subsistence or the limited trade that occurred domestically. [5]

Archaeological excavations at Hedeby, one of the most important Scandinavian trade towns, indicate the scope and content of Viking Age trade:

Archaeologists have found much evidence for long-distance trade of a remarkable variety of goods: small ceramic bottles with mercury, amber, bars of iron, lead, silver, brass, foreign jewelry including carnelian and rock crystal, glass, foreign pottery, silk, a set of counterfeit Arab dirhams, and wine barrels from the Rhineland, which were reused to line well shafts. Among northern products found in Hedeby are walrus bones, reindeer antlers, Norwegian soapstone, and whetstones. We know from other evidence that fur and most textiles were also traded at Hedeby, but they did not leave much trace in the archaeological material, since most organic matter perishes over a millennium. An iron lock from a set of slave fetters, found in the town’s harbor, reminds us of Hedeby’s slave trade. [6]

Furs from Scandinavia were particularly prized abroad, since the cold climate lent itself to the local mammals having thick, luxuriant pelts. [7]

Furs were one of the two largest pillars of Viking trade. The other was slaves. All of Eurasia participated in the slave trade during this period, and the Vikings were no exception. The primary buyer of slaves sold by the Vikings was the Arab Caliphate, with the transactions occurring largely in Eastern Europe and in Mediterranean ports such as Venice and Marseilles. [8]

The slaves the Vikings sold were typically men and women they captured in raids. [9] Since the Vikings raided each others’ settlements, this means that they not infrequently sold each other into slavery. They seem to have made little to no distinction in this regard between Scandinavians and non-Scandinavians, pagans and Christians, etc. – market value was all they cared about. [10] Trade towns themselves were subject to Viking raids, and we can imagine that with all of the valuable goods being produced and exchanged there, the trade towns would have made particularly attractive targets. [11]

The Vikings’ goals in engaging in the international trade of the period primarily had to do with their rulers’ appetite for foreign luxury goods. [12] Such imported items were impressive status symbols, and it should therefore come as no surprise that the founders and governors of Viking trade towns were often Viking chieftains themselves. [13]

Since the richest chieftains could afford to be the most generous toward the warriors who fought for them, the size of a chieftain’s fighting force was often proportional to his wealth. The bigger his army was, in turn, the more successful a chieftain stood to be when it came to raiding – thereby further enhancing his wealth and the number of men fighting under his command. [14]

However, simple Viking farmers sometimes owned weights for silver, which implies that they had at least a little silver to purchase things from the outside world for their farm. This shows that even if trade primarily served to provide chieftains with luxury goods, that was far from its sole purpose. [15] The inhabitants of the rural areas surrounding trade towns often traded whatever they might have had a surplus of – typically food – for other goods that passed through the trade towns. [16]

Bulk trade of commodities had been present to some degree all along, but by the year 1000, it became a much more prominent element, and was even to a large extent replacing the earlier, luxury-driven form of trade. Many of the big trade towns of the luxury era vanished, and visitors to their former sites reported only ruins and wilderness. [17] What had happened to bring about this enormous change?

The answer lies in the transition the Scandinavians were undergoing from one political model to another. The earlier model of chieftains ruling over a small group of people was being replaced with one characterized by kings who ruled over a large area of land. By enabling a few chieftains to become so wealthy that they had the power to become kings, the trade towns ironically facilitated their own demise. The trade towns gave way to larger urban areas, which became the administrative centers for the new kings. [18]

Want to learn more about Viking trade and commerce, and the Vikings in general? My list of The 10 Best Books on the Vikings will surely prove helpful to you.

[1] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 103-104.

[3] Skre, Dagfinn. 2012. The Development of Urbanism in Scandinavia. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 87.

[5] Graham-Campbell, James. 2013. The Viking World.

[6] Winroth, Anders. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. p. 107-108.

[16] Skre, Dagfinn. 2012. The Development of Urbanism in Scandinavia. In The Viking World. Edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. p. 83-84.

Vikings in the Middle Ages

Middle Ages Vikings usually meant Norse explorers, merchants, warriors or pirates. Vikings were known to trade, explore, raid and settle across Europe, Asia and islands in the North Atlantic from the late 900s AD to the mid-1200s AD. Vikings are often misrepresented or misremembered as larger than life figures, or killing machines that terrorized their opponents. Many myths about Vikings in the Middle Ages also exist.

The Viking Age

In Scandinavian history, the period from the late eighth century until the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is known as the Viking Age. Vikings in the Middle Ages used the Baltic and Norwegian Seas for sea routes to the south. In terms of geography, the Viking Age was not only assigned to Scandinavia, but to North Germanic lands as well.

Vikings settled new lands in the north, south, and east. This resulted in the founding of independent settlements in places such as Shetland, Iceland, and Greenland. They also formed a short-lived settlement in Newfoundland circa 1000AD. The Vikings were the first to discover these lands and been able to make settlements. All previous explorers had been blown off course in pursuit of these areas or only seen them at a distance.

Eventually, Vikings abandoned the settlement at Greenland. This was most likely due to climate change. Important trading posts for Vikings in the Middle Ages included Jorvik, Staraya, Novgorod, Kiev, and Birka.

Vikings in the Middle Ages are also said to have explored the Middle East. Evidence suggests that Vikings specifically explored Baghdad, which was the center of the Islamic empire. However, the Vikings were not as successful with settling or establishing any sort of power in the Middle East. This was due to the more centralized power of the Islamic empire.

Many Norwegian Vikings expanded and settled through Eastern Europe. This is most likely because these territories were similar in language to what the Norwegians were used to. It was not until after the Viking Age that separate nation states began to form distinctive identities with separate kingdoms. This is most likely because of the Christianization of Europe that occurred after the Viking Age.

The Viking Expansion

During the Viking expansion, Vikings sailed throughout the North Atlantic Ocean. They said south to North Africa and then they sailed east to Russia, Constantinople and the Middle East. The Vikings existed as plunderers, colonists, barterers, and mercenaries. Some Vikings in the Middle Ages, most notably those under Leif Eriksson, were able to reach North America and settled in Canada for a short time.

Some scholars say that the reasoning behind the Viking expansion was that Vikings wanted to avenge the forced Christianity over pagans. Many believe that it is not coincidental that the Viking expansion occurred during the reign of Charlemagne, who used any force necessary to Christianize Europe during his reign.

Others believe that the Viking expansion occurred as a result of Norse and Scandinavian population overgrowth or the need for expansion agriculturally. It was seemingly sensible for a coastal population with a superior navy to expand abroad. It probably seemed easier to the Vikings to conduct overseas raids that to attempt to create new farm land from the forests that surrounded them, as the soil found within would not be useful. However, the theory of population rise or the need for agricultural expansion cannot be proven definitively.

Another possible explanation for the Viking expansion is that the Vikings took advantage of a moment of weakness in the territories surrounding them. One example of this is that in the 830s the Danish Vikings decided to take advantage of some known internal divisions within Charlemagne’s empire.

These divisions had resulted in a schism in the Empire. England was one of the most susceptible to attacks as it had suffered from internal divisions and many of its towns were in close proximity to the ocean or other bodies of water. Also, there was a lack of counter-attack Western European lands which allowed the Viking ships to strike their opponents with ease.

One last possible reason for the Viking Expansion was that the profitability of trade routes was declining during the time. Trade on the Mediterranean Sea was at its lowest level historically during the Viking Expansion. Middle Ages Vikings opened new trade routes in Frankish and Arabic lands, thus profiting from international trade by expanding beyond their traditional boundaries.

The end of the Viking Age

Middle Ages Viking travelled all over the world, from Europe to North America to the Middle East. The Viking age affected the Scandinavian homelands of the Vikings as well. Scandinavia underwent many cultural changes during the Viking Age and afterwards.

In the late 1000s AD, the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish kingdoms had formed. Towns had now begun to take shape as separate economical markets and ecclesiastical centers. These markets were based on the models of German and English towns.

Scandinavian kingdoms began to be assimilated into the rest of Christian Europe, which influenced the ideals of the Scandinavian rulers. It also changed the relations with Scandinavians to their neighbors, and altered the ways of Scandinavians who were able to travel overseas. One example of this is the outlawing of slaves.

One of Vikings’ in the Middle Ages primary profit sources was the taking of slaves. The medieval Church was against Christians owning other Christians as slaves, and, as such, slave ownership decreased throughout Northern Europe. People continued to take slaves into the 11th century, however. Slavery was eventually outlawed, and serfdom was put in its place.

Norwegian Kings continued to raid and assert themselves over Ireland and northern Britain into the 1100s AD. However, Scandinavian military actions were now redirected towards new targets. In 1107, Sigurd I of Norway said with an abundance of Norwegian crusaders towards the eastern Mediterranean Sea. They sailed to fight for the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Danes and Swedes had a heavy presence in the Baltic Crusades.

Hidden Viking trade route emerges from melting ice in Norway

In 2011, hikers in the snowy mountains of central Norway came across a 1700-year-old wool tunic, likely belonging to a Roman-era hypothermia victim. As ice in the region has continued to melt, researchers have made hundreds of additional finds. Now, archaeologists have made their biggest discovery yet: a lost Viking trade route that may have been used for hundreds of years to ferry everything from butter to reindeer antlers to far-flung European markets.

“The Viking age is one of small-scale globalization: They’re sourcing raw materials from all over,” says Søren Michael Sindbæk, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was not involved with the work. “This is the first site where we have good chronology and the finds to illustrate that.”

In the new study, Lars Piloe, an archaeologist at the Innlandet County Council Department of Cultural Heritage in Lillehammer, Norway, and colleagues radiocarbon dated dozens of artifacts from the Jotunheimen mountains. They focused on an ice patch known as Lendbreen, which has melted rapidly over the past 9 years, collecting the relics between 2011 and 2015. The objects date back to the Bronze Age, between 1750 B.C.E. and 300 C.E., the team found. The oldest are mostly arrows and other hunting equipment, likely used to kill reindeer.

Toward the top of the ice patch, however, the artifacts were different and more densely concentrated. The freshly exposed ground was littered with iron horseshoes and nails, walking sticks, shattered sleds, woolen mittens, leather shoes, the bones of dead horses, and piles of horse dung.

The team identified dozens of piled stone cairns marking a path up from the valley below, and the foundations of a shelter just below the ridgeline. “It dawned on us that this was a mountain pass,” from a river valley nearby to high mountain pastures, Piloe says. “It’s the first time we have a site like this in northern Europe.”

A wooden bit found at Lendbreen may have prevented lambs from suckling their mother.

The radiocarbon dates show that the pass came into regular use around 300 C.E. Locals used year-round snow cover to navigate the ridge’s jagged rocks, the researchers argue today in Antiquity . From the nearby Otta River, trading outposts would have been just a few days downstream.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but high mountains sometimes did serve as major communications routes, instead of major barriers,” says study co-author James Barrett, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. “It’s easy to travel at high elevations, once you get up there and there’s snow on the ground.”

Goods were moved seasonally, with cattle herded to mountain meadows in the spring, and reindeer antlers and hides, butter, and animal fodder transported back down in the fall.

Lendbreen’s days as a transportation route peaked in the Viking Age, around 1000 C.E., the team estimates. The dates suggest the population pressure pushing Viking-era Scandinavians onto ships bound for the far corners of Europe and North America also prompted them to explore ever-more-remote corners of their homeland, like the high mountains.

A horseshoe found at Lendbreen

“It’s a society operating close to the carrying capacity of the landscape,” Sindbæk says. “If there wasn’t such a large population, they wouldn’t need to exploit these niches.”

The pass was a vital link connecting what seems at first glance like a remote, inhospitable corner of Norway to a wider Viking age world of trade and commerce. Combs made from reindeer antler show up in Viking graves far to the south, for example, and historical records suggest butter was a major export from Norway to England.

The number of finds declines sharply around 1400 C.E. coinciding with the Black Death in Norway, which killed an estimated half of the country’s medieval population. Together with the so-called Little Ice Age, a centurieslong cold spell that began around 1300 C.E., the plague crushed the area’s economy. The pass was forgotten for more than 500 years—until archaeologists rediscovered it.

After another extreme summer melt in 2018, Piloe says, all Lendbreen’s Viking-era ice, along with the artifacts it once concealed, is probably gone.


It appears that since the early eighth century and well into the twelfth, there was a steady supply of whetstones from Mostadmarka to markets and urban sites in southern Scandinavia. The precise volume is hard to determine, but a rough estimate suggests that in Ribe an annual average of approx. 170–200 fragments of Mostadmarka and Eidsborg whetstones were deposited. Footnote 11 In some cases, multiple fragments may have come from the same whetstone however, many of those who acquired whetstones in Ribe, particularly during the site’s seasonal-marketplace phase, will have used them elsewhere and discarded the remains there. Hence, as an absolute minimum, an average annual supply to Ribe of several hundred Mostadmarka and Eidsborg whetstones—until c. 820 nearly all of them from Mostadmarka—seems likely, sufficient to cover more than half of the demand among craftsmen, traders, and other buyers there.

The likely shipping site for the Mostadmarka whetstones is Lade, 20–25 km north-west of the two Mostadmarka quarries (Figs. 1 and 3). From the late ninth to the early eleventh centuries the prominent manor Lade (Old Norse Hlaðir, ‘storing place’ or ‘loading place’) was the residence of five generations of Lade Earls, high-level political agents in Scandinavia. The first of these, who apparently already resided at Lade (Schreiner 1928:9–10), became King Harald Fairhair’s earl, while the last ruled Norway as the earl of the Danish kings Harald Bluetooth and Sven Forkbeard. The manor is situated in the second richest agricultural region on the western coast (after Jæren in Rogaland, Fig. 2), on a small promontory with several natural harbours on the southern shore near the mouth of the Trondheim Fjord.

According to the skaldic poem Háleygjatal (‘Enumeration of the Háleygir’, composed c. 985), the Lade Earls originated in Hålogaland, which comprises the approx. 650 km of coastland from northern Trøndelag to the Malangen/Lyngen area (Fig. 2). Further north and east lay Finnmark, the land of the Finnas (Sámi). From these northern regions came highly desirable goods that the Háleygir obtained from the Finnas. Describing his commodities during his visit to King Alfred’s court c. 890, Ohthere from Hålogaland listed walrus tusk (ivory), rope from walrus and seal hide, down and feathers, and fur from marten, bear, otter, and reindeer (Bately 2007:46).

This trade had a long history prior to Ohthere’s time. Jordanes, in his mid-sixth-century History of the Goths (ch. 19, Mierow 1915:56), writes of the Adogit (alogii) people in Scandinavia, who live where summer has 40 days without nights and the winter 40 days without sun. The description fits Hålogaland, and the Adogit are commonly identified as Háleygir (Sitzmann and Grünzweig 2008:21–22 Svennung 1967:32–41). Jordanes also mentions the neighbouring Scrithifinni, apparently the Finnas, which he identifies as hunters and gatherers. From these northern regions come exquisite furs enjoyed by the Romans, Jordanes reports (ch. 21, Mierow 1915:56).

Evidence collected in Hålogaland demonstrates increasingly larger and more seaworthy ships and a rise in seafaring from the seventh century onwards (Storli 2006:22), in tandem with an aristocratic stratum with access to long-distance goods. A number of prominent manors have been identified along the coast (Fig. 8 Berglund 1995 Hansen and Olsen 2004 Holberg 2015), but only one of these, in Borg, Lofoten, has been thoroughly excavated: In the remains of the hall section of a 67-meter longhouse, rebuilt to 83 meters, shards from 15–16 glass vessels were found as well as 36 glass beads, rather evenly spread out over the longhouse’s existence (seventh to tenth centuries). Six vessels can be provenanced respectively as Anglo-Saxon (one from the seventh century, two from the eighth), Rhinish (one, eighth century), and Continental (two, ninth to tenth centuries). The beads are less securely provenanced they were probably imported to Scandinavia and are common occurrences in southern Scandinavia and the Baltic (Holand 2003 Näsman 2003).

Datable Insular loot deposited in Scandinavia (based on Wamers 1985). The three sea-king zones along the west-Scandinavian coast are indicated (based on Hansen and Olsen 2004:59 Skre 2018b:790). Illustration: Ingvild T. Bøckman

Although the Borg finds demonstrate that glass vessels were available to seventh to tenth century west-Scandinavian aristocrats, the latter, unlike their peers in southern and south-eastern Scandinavia, did not include them in grave furnishings (Holand 2001:164–165). Fortunate depositional and post-depositional circumstances and the sieving strategy applied in the particularly find-rich north-western corner of the hall section appear to be the main reason for the uniqueness of the artefact assemblage in Borg. Footnote 12 However, the frequent occurrence of glass beads and copper-alloy brooches in graves in Hålogaland (Eldorhagen 2001 Vinsrygg 1979 tables II–IV) and elsewhere in western Scandinavia (Røstad 2016:52–92, 273–97) corroborates the eighth-century phenomenon evidenced by the Ribe whetstones: Regular long-distance trade from the Arctic to the southern North Sea zone was indeed undertaken from aristocratic manors, including other than Borg, in the seventh–eighth centuries.

In written evidence, the trade in commodities acquired from the Finnas through tax, tribute, trade, and plunder is a recurring theme in royal politics from the time of the first king of Norway, Harald Fairhair (reign c. 872–932), until the twelfth century. Harald secured the transport of these and other commodities along the coastal sailing route, the Norðvegr (Fig. 2), by naming local chieftains earls of the main regions along the route its southern end in Hordaland and Rogaland was his own heartland (Skre 2018b). In Møre he appointed Rognvald and in Trøndelag/Hålogaland appointed Håkon, the first Lade Earl (Fig. 2).

Prior to that, a prime driver behind political integration processes along the route seems to have been the securing of seaward traffic in general, but in particular probably the transport of Arctic commodities to sites and markets along the west-Scandinavian coast and in the southern North Sea zone. Integration of Hålogaland and Trøndelag appears to have developed well before Harald’s time (Bratrein and Niemi 1994 Holberg 2015 Koht 1919:16 Schreiner 1928:9–10). Lade, positioned at the southern end of this long stretch of land, is a likely place where a variety of Arctic commodities from Finnmark, Hålogaland, and Trøndelag were stored—the latter region would contribute whetstones and possibly iron (Stenvik 1997) and furs (Holm 2015 Lindholm and Ljungkvist 2016) from the neighbouring woodlands—to be loaded onto ships headed for southern markets. The common occurrence since the late-sixth century in several east-Scandinavian regions of gaming pieces made from North-Atlantic whalebone (Hennius et al. 2018) suggests that the Hålogaland/Trøndelag trade network also extended overland eastward to the Baltic.

The steady supply of Mostadmarka whetstones to southern Scandinavia through the eighth to eleventh centuries and the quarry’s proximity to Lade suggests that these stones were a common commodity in the ship-bulk of long-distance traders from Trøndelag and Hålogaland. All the commodities mentioned by Ohthere were high-value items for a narrow group of buyers: either luxuries (down, ivory, fur) or sought-after utilities (ship-ropes from hide). These high-quality products from Arctic Scandinavia were in high demand in the aristocratic segment in the Continent and the British Isles. At the same time, Ohthere’s list should not be taken as exhaustive the commodities recorded would have been of interest to his audience of royal scribes and officials, whereas commodities for craftsmen and the general population, such as reindeer antler (Ashby et al. 2015), oil from marine mammal blubber (Nilsen 2016), gaming pieces from whale bone (Hennius et al. 2018), and whetstones, might not have been deemed worthy of mentioning in the royal quarters.

All materials in Ohthere’s list are perishable and are only preserved in exceptional cases. Footnote 13 The identification of the Mostadmarka origin of a substantial portion of whetstones in sites such as Ribe, Hedeby, Kaupang, and Oslo adds a non-perishable commodity to the list. Their continuous occurrence in high volumes at these sites allows their cautious use as a proxy for the trade in commodities from the Arctic transported on the Norðvegr along the western coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula in the seventh to tenth centuries.

Taking Up Raiding in The West (c. 789–850)

Essential constraints and opportunities of Viking-ship commanders of the 780s–850s are discussed in the following, suggesting how they may have influenced their decisions on where to raid in various periods. The discussion is framed by the substantial trade in Arctic commodities along the west-Scandinavian coast evidenced by the Ribe whetstones. The interests of various groups in this trade produced both conflicts and coalitions.

The most prominent concern of Viking-ship commanders is the coalition between one of their primary targets, long-distance traders on the Norðvegr, and kings along the route. While this coalition appears to have had existed since the Roman Period, strengthening of royal authority in the late eighth century posed an obstacle for Viking-ship commanders, who now faced a stronger adversary.

Their second concern, emerging through the 820s–30s, was that they were victim to their own success: the profitability of overseas raiding attracted increasingly greater numbers of ships and men to that enterprise, with the resulting competition reducing their spoils. However, this situation also produced a new opportunity: raiders could join forces in Viking fleets that had the necessary strength to conduct successful raids on prosperous and well-defended sites. By overwintering overseas, Vikings could reduce the danger of retaliation from kings and traders based in the homelands for raiding lands and waters where the latter wanted to maintain peace.

Thus, we suggest that Viking raiding overseas began as Vikings became the weaker party in a longstanding conflict in the homelands. That such ‘push’ factors were the key trigger is supported by the character of the earliest raiding. During the first 15–20 years of overseas raiding Vikings struck at widely dispersed sites (see below), suggesting that they were not ‘pulled’ to certain lands so much as they were ‘pushed’ into searching for prey in new waters. As their activities gained volume and momentum through the 820s–30s, the homeland conflict with traders and kings maintained significant influence on where Vikings raided. However, ‘pull’ factors (e.g. the weakening of the Frankish Emperor’s power in the 830s) attained more significance as Vikings overseas gained numbers and strength.

Traders, Kings, and Vikings (Seventh–Ninth Centuries)

Regarding his northward voyage to the Beormas, Ohthere reports that he did not enter their land for unfriðe, often translated as ‘because of hostility’ (e.g. Bately 2007:45, 56–7). However, Christine Fell (1982–3) convincingly argues that the term has a more specific meaning, namely that Ohthere did not have the personal frið status among the Beormas that would have allowed him to travel safely into their land.

There is no mention of such hindrances on Ohthere’s southwards journey along the Norðvegr and into Skagerrak and Kattegat to Hedeby, or indeed across the southern North Sea to King Alfred’s court in Wessex. The latter is a case in point for Fell’s conclusion (1982–3:96) that frið was a personally held privilege and not necessarily affected by hostilities between people from the very same polities or regions. King Alfred’s realm had suffered substantial Viking incursions throughout his lifetime. Apparently, the King still granted frið to this man from Arctic Scandinavia, presumably because he identified himself and was accepted as a trader. Ohthere must have received the same privilege by others to be permitted to travel across the various political and cultural zones on his long route.

Thousands of windblown and mostly barren islands and skerries protected Ohthere’s voyage along the west-Scandinavian coast from the rough winds and waves in the Atlantic Ocean. But intermittently along the Norðvegr occur pockets of relatively fertile land. In the best of these were situated manors rich in monuments and lavishly furnished graves spanning the early Bronze Age to the Viking Age. While rich finds also occur in the much more fertile and densely settled districts in valleys and along fjords further inland, the archaeological record of the outer-coast manors is unsurpassed. Among them, in Rogaland and Hordaland, are the five manors that according to the Icelandic saga tradition belonged to Harald Fairhair. Further north are two additional coastal-manor zones, one in Møre and the other in Hålogaland (Fig. 8). Between the three zones the islands and headlands along the sailing route are too barren to support large or numerous settlements.

Avaldsnes, the most prominent of these coastal manors, is situated at a bottleneck on the sailing route’s southern end (Figs. 1 and 2). Based on excavations here, Skre (2018b) argues that from the third to the eleventh centuries these manors served as supply bases for the sea kings who exerted authority over the sailing route. By fighting Vikings who lurked in the innumerable islands and bays along the route, the sea kings could provide safe sailing for traders and other travellers. Snorri recounts in Harald’s Saga (ch. 22) that every summer Harald and his army searched the islands and outlying skerries, pursued the Vikings that camped there, and drove them over the sea to the west ‒ all the way to the Irish Sea. In the same saga (ch. 24) Snorri writes that Harald outlawed Rolf, the son of his close ally Rognvald, because he had harried in Viken (Fig. 2) the king had strictly forbidden robbery in the realm. Of course, there is ample reason for scepticism about the historicity of Snorri’s accounts, committed to parchment some 300 years after the events. Nevertheless, outlawry is precisely the penalty stipulated in the west-Norwegian Gulaþing law code (ch. 314) for those who renounce the frið and ravage the homelands. Scourging one’s home district was even worse it was considered an honourless deed and perpetrators were declared níðingr, irredeemable outlaws.

Frið arrangements with kings and earls who controlled various stretches of the Norðvegr, surely involving payment of shares to the latter, would have been vital for long-distance traders as well as for other travellers. Although aristocrats would have had their own ships and men to defend their lives and cargo, it would have lain entirely within their interest to support royal peacekeepers along the route. While the power balance between Vikings on the one hand and traders and kings on the other varied through the centuries, the constellations and roles would have remained relatively constant during the periods when manors along the route show evidence of sea-kings’ presence. At Avaldsnes such evidence (i.e. monuments, remains of halls and other prominent buildings, and extensive food processing) is found from the mid-third to the eleventh centuries (Skre 2018a).

The same person could of course be a trader, Viking, and royal warrior in different waters or at different times—after all, the same skills were needed by all three: seamanship, negotiating abilities, and martial proficiency. While some sea kings mentioned in sagas and skaldic verse were evidently Vikings, Harald appears to have been a warrior who rose to power in a peacekeeping sea-king milieu along the sailing route in Rogaland and Hordaland, subsequently extending his realm from the sea route to the inland (Skre 2018b). Other rulers (e.g. Olav Tryggvason, reign 955‒1000) appear to have spent time in service to kings in other lands and participated in Viking raids before they became kings in their own right.

From the late ninth century, Harald Fairhair and his earls controlled practically the entirety of the Norðvegr sailing route. Already by the late eighth century, kingship appears to have developed at the southern end of the route, in Rogaland and southern Hordaland. Based on new datings from three assembly sites in Rogaland—so-called courtyard sites—Iversen (2018) provides empirical support for Myhre’s (1992) suggestion that in the eighth century trans-regional royal power emerged there. Independently of Iversen and based on other types of evidence, Stylegar and Bonde (2016) date this rise of kingship by the southern end of the Norðvegr to the late eighth century. They maintain that kingship there was modelled after the Anglo-Saxon version, and that the burial rites of the two first Scandinavian ship graves near Avaldsnes—the ships were built c. 770 and 780 and entombed in 779 and the early 790s respectively—were modelled on the Sutton Hoo ship burial in East Anglia (Stylegar and Bonde 2016:10–13).

The increase in the 780s and peak in the 790s in the total number of whetstones deposited in Ribe each year—annual average in ASR 9 of 3.3 and 14.3 (N = 33 and N = 143 respectively, see Table 6) in the two decades respectively—reflects increased activity there. The reason for the increase is probably that this period saw the heyday of trade in the Channel and the southern North Sea zone (Coupland 2002 Verhulst 2002:92). However, the percentage of Mostadmarka whetstones also rises in these two decades to a peak of 75% (ASR 9), probably reflecting a vast increase in trade in Arctic commodities, both in relative and absolute volume. Likely, the main reason for this is the existence of a polity in Rogaland and southern Hordaland that was sufficiently strong to guarantee safe sailing in adjacent waters, and thus, with whom Arctic traders could make frið arrangements. Contemporary developments of royal authority over Viken (Fig. 2) and southern Scandinavia under Sigfred and his son Godfred, kings of the Danes, may be the reason why Frisian and Slavic traders sought the town Kaupang from its very founding c. 800 (Skre 2011a).

The beginning of Viking Raiding Overseas

It appears that the earliest Viking raiders in the west emerged from the western coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula, suggesting a connection to the contemporary peak in the transport of Arctic commodities along the very same coast and the building up of royal authority there. Following a brief summary of the whens and wheres of the early raiding, these suggested connections are explored below.

Beginning in 789, the earliest reported Viking raids in the west were a series of disparate attacks on coastal settlements from the Bay of Biscay in the south to the Atlantic Scottish Isles in the north (Fig. 1). While, surely, many attacks are unreported, the overall chronology in England, Francia, and Ireland is rather well testified. Northern Scotland is the least reported (Barrett 2008), but was probably targeted early. Based on reported raids, beginning in Portland in Dorset in 789, the English Channel coast from Kent and westwards seems to have been hit first (Downham 2017). Thereafter, raids are reported in Lindisfarne in 793 and Monkwearmouth (both in Northumbria) in 794, Ireland and Scotland in 795 (Ó Corráin 1998), Isle of Man in 798, and Aquitaine and the southern Channel coast in 799 and 800 (Walther 2004:168–170).

From c. 806 raiding centred on Scotland and Ireland, and for the following 30 years nearly all raids were conducted there, escalating sharply through the 820s and 30s (Etchingham 1996:Fig. 2). Footnote 14 Ó Corráin (1998:27–28) suggests that from 814–20 (the only period after 806 when chroniclers do not report attacks), Vikings were busy in Scotland, while Colmán Etchingham (1996), based on more recent evidence, has disputed the notion that the lack of chroniclers’ reports necessarily reflects a hiatus in raiding in Ireland for those years. From the mid-830s, Viking activities entered a third phase: larger armies attacked Ireland, England, and Francia, penetrated inland, and in some cases began overwintering.

There is little Insular or Continental evidence as to where in Scandinavia the ship crews of the pre-mid-830s raids originated the information in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the ships in Portland 789 came from Hordaland is an addition to the chronicle a century after the event (Downham 2017) and thus less reliable. The origin of the culprits in the early raiding in northern Great Britain and Ireland, however, is indicated by Scandinavian evidence. Except for a single piece in eastern Agder, the buried Insular loot from around 800 or slightly earlier has been retrieved solely in the five neighbouring regions of northern Hordaland, Sogn, Nordfjord, Møre, and Trøndelag (Fig. 8 Wamers 1985:49–56). Admittedly, such items may already have been old when taken, and burial customs in southern Scandinavia provide a meagre basis for quantitative comparison with those of the western Scandinavian Peninsula. Still, the distinct concentration of the earliest loot within a rather narrow area instils confidence in the conclusion that most raiding into Scottish and Irish waters in the pre-806 phase, possibly also somewhat later, emanated from these few regions on the west-Scandinavian coast (Ó Corráin 1998:1–2 Wamers 1985:85 Williams 2008:193). From Heen-Pettersen’s (2014) analysis of the Trøndelag finds it appears that the earliest raids were organised from prominent and well-established aristocratic manors.

No such find patterns can guide the search for the origin of the early raiders in England and Francia, but western and southern Scandinavia is a safe bet. The royal power that emerged in southern and western Scandinavia in the late eighth century will have had two effects, both of which produced redundant military capacity. Firstly, royal power would have subdued rivalry between smaller polities and among royal pretenders, and leaders previously engaged in such unrest will have been ready to direct their troops elsewhere. Secondly, royal power provided safe sailing for traders, thus reducing spoils and increasing risks for Vikings who previously had parasitized on traders. Some of this excess military capacity may have joined a king’s retinue or taken up long-distance trade. However, the latter enterprise was available only for those who produced or had access to commodities that were in demand overseas. For those who lacked access to such goods or were not involved in the protection of the sailing route, there were few alternatives to taking up plunder in new waters if they hoped to partake of the benefits enjoyed by their peers among traders and in the king’s service.

Once rising royal power put the damper on raiding close to home, warriors and ship commanders in southern and western Scandinavia would have looked overseas for alternative hunting grounds. Through several generations’ recurring trade ventures in the southern North Sea zone, Scandinavians would have collected knowledge from traders and sailors of lands and waters in all the areas affected by the earliest raids—details would have been extracted from captives taken en route.

Why, then, was raiding c. 806–35 concentrated in Ireland and Scotland? Hypothetically, resistance was weaker there. Elsewhere, Vikings may have been put off by defensive measures, for instance by Offa’s upholding in 792 of the obligation of churches and monasteries in Kent to contribute to the defence ‘against seaborne pagans with migrating fleets’ (Downham 2017:5), by the alleged slaughter of 105 of the Paganae vero naves that attacked Aquitaine in 799, and by Charlemagne’s building of a fleet and establishment of watch posts in 800 to defend against pirates that troubled the sea outside Gaul (Walther 2004:168–169). However, on several occasions in Ireland, efficient and successful resistance was indeed mustered (Ó Corráin 1998) a more complex background for the concentration of Viking activities to Ireland and Scotland must be sought.

Another contributing factor to the three decades’ confinement of Viking raiding to Ireland and Scotland is that raiding there did not interfere with the prosperous trade in the southern North Sea zone and the English Channel. Royal peacekeepers and traders along the Norðvegr and in southern Scandinavia would have had an interest in preventing raids in the lands and waters where they traded that Vikings in this period returned to the homelands each year kept them within reach of royal power and aristocratic traders.

In an abrupt shift in the mid-830s, extensive Viking raiding commenced in England and in the Empire. Unprecedented in magnitude, this wave of raiding has been considered to have dealt a blow to craft production and trade in those countries. Dorestad was sacked in 834 and annually again for three consecutive years. The internal disputes between Louis the Pious and his rebellious sons in the early 830s and among his sons following his death 840 left the Empire vulnerable. For several decades, coasts and riverbanks from Frisia to Bordeaux were heavily and repeatedly sacked (Nelson 1997 Walther 2004:171–177). In England a large army landed in 835 on Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary, heralding several decades of intense raiding in England, targeting towns (Southampton in 840 and 842, London in 851), culminating in the invasion in 865 of the Great Heathen Army that ravaged eastern and northern England for more than a decade.

How did the interests of Vikings come to eclipse those of Scandinavian traders in the mid-830s? This is a complex issue and we will restrict the discussion to suggesting some factors that may have contributed to these developments. As a prelude, the question of precisely how harmful Viking raids were to trade needs to be weighed. Hodges (2006:157–162) has downplayed the significance of raids, arguing that in the 830s, trade in the southern North Sea zone was already dwindling, while Dorestad, London, and Southampton were in recession thus, Viking attacks were not the main reason for the slump in trade and the abandonment of towns around 850. However, the archaeological evidence he refers to is not dated with sufficient precision to determine whether the recession began before, during, or after the 830s. The trade in Arctic commodities in Ribe appears to have remained on a consistently high level even in the town’s final phase in 820–50 there is no indication of Hodges’ suggested pre-830s recession. When production and trade in Ribe dwindled, this was probably due to the breaking of trade connections to the south and west, particularly to Dorestad. Clearly, Hodges is right that the recession in Carolingian economy in the mid-800s has a complex background, but his reasons for minimizing the impact of Viking attacks on this development do not seem convincing.

Trade in the Baltic prospered in these years as the eastern riverine routes towards the Finns, Slavs, Kahzars, Bulgars, Arabs, and others opened, and urban sites in the Baltic flourished (Callmer 2007). Kaupang’s trade links to the southern North Sea zone were broken off c. 850, probably because trade in Ribe and Dorestad tailed off. Contemporaneously, brooch types from the west-Scandinavian coast, which did not occur at Kaupang in the early ninth century, began to predominate in cemeteries there. Evidently, trade routes along the western coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula shifted from the North Sea zone to Skagerrak, Kattegat (Skre 2011b), and the Baltic (Skre 2018c:15)—the very route followed by Ohthere.

In view of the above, it seems likely that the Viking raids in England and the Empire from the mid-830s were detrimental to trade in the southern North Sea zone, and were thus contrary to the interests of kings and traders in western and southern Scandinavia. Why, then, were they not stopped?

Firstly, the Danish King Horik’s message to the Emperor that he had captured and killed those who had raided Frisia in 836 (Nelson 1997:24) indicates that royal attempts to quell overseas raiding were in fact being undertaken. The battle against returning Vikings that led to Horik’s death in 854 may have resulted from such controversies. Secondly, the motivation on the part of Scandinavian kings and traders to stop Viking raids in the North Sea may have been undercut by the viable alternative in the Baltic trade. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, Vikings gained much greater independence from kings and traders when they began overwintering overseas in the mid-830s they were less dependent on frið in the homelands and were out of reach for kings and traders based there, hence more difficult to subdue.

In parallel, there is potentially a ‘pull’ factor behind overwintering overseas. While the first fleets that ravaged Ireland were small, the two fleets that entered the Liffy and the Boyne in 837 were each composed of 60 ships and carried a total of some 3000 men (Ó Corráin 2008:429). Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svensen (2003) hold that because successful raiding attracts other pirates over time, the success of roving raiders produces a ‘common pool resource problem’, reducing the share of spoils for all raiders. When proceeds decrease below an acceptable level, one solution would be to establish a settlement in the vicinity of the potential loot so as to exclude others from raiding in the surrounding territory. While Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svensen see this as the logic behind state formation and taxation, it may equally well contribute to explaining the two shifts in Viking behaviour in the mid-830s: the start of overwintering and the taking up of raiding in England and the Empire. The motif of establishing well-defended longphuirt in Ireland (Sheehan 2008) may not have been to protect only against the Irish but also against other Vikings who sought to obtain spoils from the region. Thus, defended Viking bases in Ireland and Scotland may have compelled latecoming Viking-ship commanders to look elsewhere for prey. As the numbers of Vikings increased, attacks on prosperous towns and regions in southern England and Francia became realistic ventures. Large fleets that could undertake such operations were formed through agreements between ship commanders, possibly up to 50, each in command of only a few ships (Price 2016:164). Drawing on parallels to seventeenth to eighteenth century piracy, Price (2014 2016) uses the term hydrarchy to characterise this distinctive Viking strategy of joining and splitting up forces depending on the target’s strength. It ensured that satisfactory proceeds for all raiders could be obtained from a large force’s attack on a well-defended town as well as from a small unit’s pillaging of a less rich and less protected monastery or settlement.

The earliest record of overwintering refers to Ireland in 836, the first in the Empire at Noirmoutier Island off Aquitaine in 843, and in England on Thanet Island in Kent in 850. However, all these instances may have been preceded by overwintering in Scotland. Permanent Viking camps in Scotland, possibly also in Ireland, appear to have been the bases from which many of the subsequent raids set out for England and the Empire, not to mention for occasional raids against the west-Scandinavian coast. The paucity on the western coast of the Scandinavia Peninsula of Frankish and south-Anglo-Saxon buried loot as compared to Northumbrian, Scottish, and Irish loot suggests that few of those who pillaged in the south returned to the western coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and conversely that some of those who pillaged in the north did return to the homelands.

Irish annals mention no kings among the Vikings until 848, after which their deeds were mentioned on several occasions. Their main mission, it seems, was not primarily to raid the Irish, but to assert control over the Vikings who were already based there (Ó Corráin 1998). There has been a lengthy debate as to where these kings ruled—their land is called Laithlinn—in Scotland (Ó Corráin 1998) or in what later became Norway (Etchingham 2014). That question is connected to the debate on the origin and nature of two groups of foreigners identified in the annals in these years, the Finngall (‘fair’) and the Dubgall (‘dark’) the latter arrived to attack former (Downham 2011). While this discussion involves intricate philological and historical problems that will not be addressed here, we suggest that the conflicting interests of overwintering Vikings on the one hand and west-Scandinavian traders and royal peacekeepers on the other may be of relevance for these debates.

The Viking Island

Patricia Cleveland-Peck visits Gotland, the Baltic island where the Viking and medieval pasts are to be found round every corner.

The Baltic isle of Gotland, forty-five kilometres from Stockholm, is indeed almost another little country. It is an unspoiled island with pine and spruce forests, hay meadows full of wildflowers, wide deserted beaches, old farmsteads, a profusion of country churches and a capital city, Visby, with charming medieval houses and one of the best preserved ring walls in Europe.

What makes it special, however, is that it offers an unparalleled way to experience a sense of history while still benefiting from the twenty-first century’s conveniences and comforts. Here on Gotland, for example, the same beer is brewed as was drunk all over Europe in the Middle Ages while at the same time you can find locally produced art and craft items of modern, cutting-edge design.

A brief overview of the island’s history explains why you can feel as though you have stepped back in time. That it is a very ancient land as is evidenced by discovery of fossils, some over 400 million years old. There are traces of the Tjelvar, or Palaeolithic, people who arrived 7,000 years ago. From the Bronze Age there are almost 400 cairns and 350 stone ship-settings (boulders set out in the shape of a ship symbolizing death as a voyage to the unknown) together with large numbers of prehistoric grave fields, house foundations, hill forts and rune stones – an incredible total of 3,100 registered sites make this the richest archaeological region in Sweden.

The island was powerful during the early Viking age. Archaeological research revealed that not only Visby but around forty other harbours and trading centres existed at this time. The island was effectively an independent republic of seafaring farmers and its situation at the meeting point of east and west made it one of the centres of world trade. In the eighth and ninth centuries the Mediterranean had come under Muslim domination and a new trade route through the Baltic linking northern Europe with the Orient via rivers became an alternative to the Mediterranean route.

The early Hanseatic League developed around the Baltic Sea and the Gotlanders, who had already explored along the Russian rivers and established a trading station at Novgorod, bought furs, wax, tar and timber, some of which they sold to the English kings. Wealth continued to accumulate: huge hoards of silver have been and are still being found all over the island.

With the advent of Christianity came a spate of church building – the presence of ninety-two magnificent parish churches in such a small island (120 km long and 56 km wide) are further evidence of its wealth. Gradually however, power had moved from the seafaring farmers to the burghers of Visby. The Germans, mainly from Lübeck, arrived in the 1150s and built their own church, St Mary’s, which was used both for religious and commercial purposes. It was here that the chest containing the Hanseatic trading agreements was kept, the annual opening of which marked the start of the trading year. In the thirteenth century the small wooden houses of the city were rebuilt as the beautiful large stone buildings we see today. Some thirteen new churches were erected and the streets were paved with limestone. Visby was then the most modern town in northern Europe and it remains one of the most perfect examples of Hanseatic architecture.

St Mary’s Church is still in use (it is now the cathedral) and picturesque ivy-covered ruins of eleven other medieval churches remain – some used in summer for open-air concerts and plays. There are over 200 medieval houses in the city: on Strandgatan, previously occupied by the wealthiest merchants, there are some wonderful old stone warehouses, including the Galma Apotek with its hoist beams tucked under corbie-stepped gables through which the merchandize was hauled up to different storeys. The city wall built around 1280, is 3.5 km long and 11m high it has a parapet walk, three gates and over fifty towers, all in good condition.

During the last years of the thirteenth century however, Gotland lost its importance. In 1259 the Germans had established their own Hanseatic Kontor in Novgorod and so no longer needed the Gotlanders. Meanwhile Denmark, which had also seen a diminution of strength at the hands of the Germans, was seeking, under its newly crowned king Valdemar Atterdag, to increase its power. In 1361 Valdemar invaded and conquered Gotland.

This marked the end of Gotland’s glory days. What had been the foundation of the island’s prosperity, the sea, became a drawback. Having been sacked and occupied first by pirates, then by The Order of Teutonic Knights, Visby gradually became a backwater and by the sixteenth century all the churches except St Mary’s were abandoned and the settlement was in decay.

In 1645 Gotland became Swedish but its isolation meant that industrialization came late to the island – but its poverty did ensure that the old medieval buildings were not torn down and replaced with newer more fashionable edifices. This, however, together with the fact that it retained its agricultural, building and craft traditions – and even its distinctive folk-speech – make it the unique place we can enjoy today. Visby became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Museums outside Visby include a limeworks museum at Bläse, and an open-air ­museum at Bunge with farm buildings from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

There are also unusual out-of-museum experiences for the history-lover. In Visby you can stay in a medieval house, the Medieval Hotel, furnished and decorated with an interior inspired by the fourteenth century swim between medieval columns in the pool below the Wisby Hotel or attend the Medieval Week which takes place every August. Strangatan is crowded with market stalls and you encounter costumed smiths, cobblers, barbers and traders selling newly plucked hens, eggs, herbs and spices. Musicians play flutes and fiddles, jesters play the fool and merchants stroll around decked in their finery. Carts, ­horses, sheep and hens jostle the crowds. Three camps attended by people from all over the world prepare for the tournaments by fashioning swords and armour. During the week hundreds of events take place: mystery plays, masses, tournaments, concerts, displays, archery competitions as well as lectures and guided walks. The culmination occurs when, after dark, a re-enactment of the invasion of Valdemar Atterdag, is staged. The King rides into town to plunder the wealth of the townspeople. The ­maiden who betrayed the town is then led in procession to be walled into the tower by the sea. Gotlanders see no irony in thus celebrating a defeat/

Gotland’s Medieval Week however, is no tasteless mish-mash: the past is researched in a scholarly fashion, and in winter the local people attend evening classes given by historians to learn about every aspect of fourteenth-century life and then set about making their costumes in, as nearly as possible, the old way. There is even a class for making medieval shoes.

At other times of year at the Chapter House in Visby, you can still see herbs and vegetables growing as they used to and try your hand at medieval handicrafts. You can play the ancient Gotlandish game club kayles, fire a catapult machine known as a trebuchet or sample food prepared according to old manuscripts.

Historical activities are not confined to Visby, there are numerous ancient sites to visit throughout the island. There are old or reconstructed farms in Burgsvik, Gothem and Sjonhem, Fjäle. There is a reconstructed Viking Village at Tofta which evokes farming life in the ninth century. You can see rune stones still standing on their original site (most have been removed to museums) at Ange in Butte. Then there is the Bulkverket, a strange and unique wooden platform-like construction sunk in the middle of Lake Tingstäde, the purpose of which is not yet fully understood. Those interested in field archaeology will want to know about the Viking Discovery Programme, whose first phase, the excavation of the west-coast port at Frojel, was completed in 2005. In the summer of 2007 the second phase, scheduled to last three years, will begin, excavating a number of Viking-age farms. The project will consists of two or three-week courses with lectures and fieldwork and is open to students and volunteers.

History aside, modern Gotland has much to offer good hotels, a chain of gourmet restaurants, an­tique shops, modern trendy designer boutiques and little cafes in which you can sit and reflect on the passing of the centuries while enjoying a coffee and the local delicacy safranspannaka served with cream and Gotland’s own salmberry jam.

Viking Age Trade Routes in North-West Europe - History

by Michael G. Lamoureux, March/April 2009

While the common consensus is that the impact of the Vikings during the Viking Age, which lasted from about 800 AD to 1100 AD, was not very enduring as the Vikings were skilled at assimilating into the local population, the Viking culture has had a lasting impact on the art, technology, society, and trade of every population they encountered. Not only does the concept of the Vikings have a firm hold in the Danish consciousness to this day, but Scandinavian traces are still apparent in the dialects of Scotland and Northern England today. The truth is that while they may have been viewed as barbarian raiders by popular culture until recent times, they were primarily skilled traders and explorers who opened up a host of new trade routes and discovered a number of new lands during their brief, but significant, reign as a prominent empire of early Europe.

Although the Vikings were, for the most part, traders and explorers, they were initially perceived as vicious raiders and feared as the first contact with the Vikings took the form with raids, that started in 793 with a seaborne assault by Norwegian marauders on a Christian monastery on Lindisfarne Island (off of the northeast shoulder of England) that was captured looted, and eventually destroyed. (This raid is the earliest known reference to the Vikings in historical documents.) Some Viking bands also consisted of "berserker" warriors during the 800s and 900s that clothed themselves in bear and wolf skins that were notorious for violence and causing fear in all who set eyes upon them.

After the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, the Viking raids continued in regularity and intensity and within 50 years the Vikings controlled the Atlantic Ocean and could move across the waterway of their choice without fear of opposition. In the 800s, Danes ravaged the coast of England and the Norse took over much of Scotland & Ireland. Only Alfred the Great, king of Wessex in the south, was able to successfully resist them. In the 800s and 900s, the Vikings effectively controlled most of what would become the United Kingdom a millennia later.

In 834, Danish warriors raided Dorested in the Carolingian Empire for the first time. By 850, they controlled the city, which was abandoned within 15 years. The fall of Dorested weakened the Carolingan Empire -- which consisted of Hamburg, Dorested, Rouen, Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux -- and within 60 years, in 911, the Vikings brought about its fall.

In the 850s and 860s, they made their way into Russia where they would found city-states that included Kiev & Novgorod. It wouldn't be long before they were to become members of the retinue, known as the druzhina in Russian, which was an organization that provided the main part of the framework for the original structure of the Rurikid state. As members of the druzhina, they were a cadre of select troops in personal service of a chieftain, who would act as his personal bodyguards and the core of his military campaigns.

In 860, the Vikings attacked the Byzantine Empire and laid siege to Constantinople. The attack, which is recorded as sudden and brutal, resulted in the outskirts of the town being plundered and burned and the local populace being slaughtered. The raids on Constantinople, and other cities in the empire, continued for almost two hundred years and were repeated in such a way as to give one the impression that each generation of Viking rulers felt that they would not be taken seriously without the expedition. These raids were so successful that, eventually, in 988 Basel II, the Byzantine Emperor, requested assistance of Vladmir of Kiev, the grand prince of Kiev of Norse descent, to help defend the throne. Vladimir agreed and sent 6,000 Vikings to Basil who formed the famous elite Varangian guard of the Byzantine Empire in 989, who began their career with the defeat of the rebel general Bardas Phocas.

In 1066 they would reassert their control on the English when they helped Normandy conquer England and between 1060-1090 they would help Normandy take control of Sicily. In the 11th century, just before they faded into history, under the leadership of King Canate, they would establish a new Scandinavian Empire in the North Sea that would subjugate the whole of Northern England and most of Scotland. By this time, they had controlled, in their short history, parts of Russia, Italy, Spain, Britain, and Ireland in addition to their native Scandinavia.

The Vikings had a strong religious attachment to the Norse god Odin, the "Father of Victories" who was the Norse patron god of war, poetry, and the futhark, and believed that warriors who fell in battle could expect to be ushered into Valhalla, Odin's palatial hall in Asgard, by Valkyries. In Valhalla, they would feast and train for the ultimate battle, Ragnaok, where the entirety of the cosmos would be destroyed and pave the way for the generation of a new universe.

The Viking religion was very prominent in their burial customs. The funeral was an event that required of a significant amount of preparation to transfer the dead from the community of the living to the community of the deceased. Before a chieftain was cremated on a funeral pyre, he was placed in a grave with a roof for ten days while they prepared for his burial. Like the ancient Egyptian kings, a chieftain was buried in the finest attire with a significant portion of his possessions, food, animals, and his wife. Once the chieftain and all of his possessions were ceremoniously placed on the ship, it was set ablaze.

Their beliefs and rituals were so strong that they would not be eclipsed by the later embrace of Christianity, which started when Harold II Bluetooth, the ruler of Denmark, converted to Christianity in 960. It would live on in the development of syncretistic traditions in religion and art. For example, the Christmas tree is a cultural reflex of the Norse yggdrasil, an immense ash tree that is considered to be holy, and much of its ancient lore and rituals have been reclaimed by pagans who have used them as the foundations for few neopagan spiritualities.

While some Vikings were raiders and warriors, the majority were explores and traders. The Vikings undertook extensive trade and built a trade network that eventually covered all of modern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Northern India, and even China. They were the first to pioneer trade routes down the Volga and the Dnepr they opened the routes to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire they traded with the Franks and the Baltic and they even opened up the routes to the far east.

Modern excavations on the island of Bjork, called Birka in 9th century written sources, which were begun in 1872 by Hjalmar Stolpe who systematically excavated 1100 burial mounds over 20 years, demonstrated the richness of Viking Age archaeology and the breadth of trade the Vikings engaged in, including trade with the Franks, Baltic, and the Byzantine empire. Coin hoards of ninth century dirhams in Scandinavia demonstrate the extent of Viking trade with the Middle East along the Volga.

During the Viking period, the economy of northern Europe was transformed from a prestige goods exchange system into a mercantile market economy. While initial Viking conquests of England consisted of raids on the south for metal wealth that was reworked into decorative objects of status, the Vikings eventually began to develop market towns and mint wealth into currencies. This led to the creation of international markets and trading across the "known world" of the time.

Trade and handcrafts were the main focus of many Viking settlements, including Staraja Ladoga. The trade with the Orient left the earliest finds of silver coins in Ladoga, and its surrounding neighborhood. One artifact in particular from Ladoga tells the story of a wide contact not only with Scandinavia but also with Central Europe. The special artifact is a casting mould, found in a layer of horizon made of chalkstone, that has concavities on each side showing design of two different pendants: one of pelta type and one with a triangle with cross-like ends.

The Vikings made great achievements in technology on a wide variety of fronts. They mastered the construction and sailing of the longship, a durable vessel that could reach a speed of 18.5 kilometers per hour and traverse 200 km in a day. Surviving examples include a clinker-built, ninth-century ship found at Gokstad that became the first of a number of Viking ships recovered from royal burials in Norway, where the clay soil preserved wood and iron remarkably well, and the Viking Oseberg ship discovered in a burial mound at the Oseberg farm in Norway in 1904, which may have been the site of a burial of a Viking queen. A replica of the Gokstad ship crossed the Atlantic in 1893. Not only did this provide us with one of the earliest examples of experimental archaeology, but it proved that the Vikings were capable of reaching North America, which was verified by the 1961 by the Norwegian explorer Helge who discovered the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

They were also masters of the art of weapon forging and weapon embellishment who were able to create swords, spears, javelins, battle-axes, knives, bows, arrows, shields, and body armor with intricate designs. The extent of their metalworking skills is clearly demonstrated in the excavation of Lagoda where the remains of a forge yielded tools for many different purposes. The implements of the smithy included drills for wood-working, hammering devices, a spike maker, shears for cutting sheet metal, chisels, anvil, tongs and a draw-plate.

They were also technologically advanced in construction techniques for their time. The excavations of the Viking city of Jorvik, which was rebuilt on the ruins of York by the tenth century after the Vikings conquered it in 866, yielded the remains of wooden and thatched and daubed houses, workshops, warehouses, and shops. Before the Vikings built Jorvik, buildings in York were constructed using post and plank construction, as compared to the houses of upright posts and timbers with wattle in between that were constructed after the Vikings took over. Their craftsman were highly skilled and capable of producing pine blades, sometimes pattern-welded, that were designed for long use.

They were careful settlers and dedicated farmers who brought energetic and innovative farming techniques to the regions they conquered and colonized. Vikings farmed rye, barley and emmer wheat that they supplemented with nuts, fish, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, and eggs.

They were very skilled craftsman capable of creating a wide range of high quality material goods. When it came to clothing, numerous archaeological sites indicate that they were very skilled in leather-work, textile dying and weaving, and sewing. Artifacts from Viking Dublin include wooden spindles, a wide variety of bone needles, hundreds of examples of cloth and wool and spools of thread, and a huge variety of leather goods, including boots and shoes. Excavations at Jorvik, which demonstrate that the city greatly expanded in population and wealth under Viking rule, produced an equally rich assortment of pins, needles, spindles, cloth, leather, and other artifacts that indicate their prowess at creating clothing and garments from leather and cloth.

The Vikings were well known for their art which included metalworking, wood crafts and carvings, horn and bone crafts, pottery, glass, and literature. Numerous examples of handicrafts have been found in the excavations of Staraja Lagoda, Jorvik, and Zemljanoe Gorodishche. At Zemljanoe Gorodishche, we find numerous examples of male and female ornaments and jewelry and garments, combs, gaming sets, cultic and religious items, horse bridles, weapons, and items with ruins, which include the mythical dragonhead, a small figure of a woman, and two amulets with runic inscriptions. Similar finds were made at Jorvik which yielded cooking utensils, bowls, gaming pieces, jewelry (of gold, silver, copper, amber, and jet), and antler combs. Excavations of Viking Dublin include wooden churns, shovels and spades, ropes and tethers of tree roots and withies, hurdles of coppiced wattles, bone whorls, weavers swords of wood, weaving tablets of antler, horn and bone, and even mosses collected as lavatory paper and demonstrate the degree to which their technology and art influenced the local cultures they invaded.

One of the finest surviving examples of Viking art is the ornate carving on the prow of the Oseberg burial ship which was elaborately decorated in the characteristic "gripping beast" style. Their skill in metalworking allowed them to produce fine hacksilver and jewelry, including brooches and lockets, in addition to beautifully decorated and embellished weapons and armor.

Their fortresses were known for their symmetry and precision as well as their advanced construction techniques that we have already discussed. Consider recent excavations of Fyrkat, a Viking-Age circular fortress of the Trelleborg-type close to Hobro, North Jutland, Denmark. Fyrkat consists of a circular rampart with an internal diameter of 120 meters and a width of almost 12 meters. It was built as an earth-filled timber structure with inner and outer faces and with four gates at the four points of the compass. Concentric with the rampart are two smaller parts of a dry ditch with a V-shaped section at a depth of about 2 meters. The interior of the fortress was divided into four sections by two linear streets connecting the four gates. In each section, there were four timber-built long houses, lying close to one another around a courtyard. Inside the courtyard was a rectangular house measuring about 5 meters by 10 meters. The long houses had slightly bowed walls with almost straight gables. Their length was just over 28 meters, with a width at the centre of just over 7 meters, falling to 5 meters at the gables.

The Sagas in Iceland, which told of family, feuds, and the great kings and their voyages, was the height of medieval literature of the time.


In addition to being great traders who were the first to pioneer trade routes down the Volga and the Dnepr to open the routes to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, the Franks, and the Baltic and to find the routes to the far east, in what is now parts of Northern India and China the Vikings were also great developers and explorers.

When they invaded Russia, they founded city states such as Kiev and Novgorod and in other parts became members of the druzhina which provided the framework for the initial Rurikid state. In Ireland, they founded the first trading towns and in England and Scotland they were the first to colonize Shetland, the Orkneys, and the Hebrides in the early 800s. The modern city of Oslo was founded by Harold III Haardrande in 1050.

They were also the pre-eminent explorers of their time, being the first to discover the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, North America, and Spitzbergen, the farthest point North that had ever been reached by explorers in 1194. Ingolfur Arnarson first landed in Iceland in 874, "Eric the Red" Thorvaldsson discovered Greenland in 982, and his son, Leif Ericsson reached "Vinland", which we now know to be Newfoundland from the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, in 1000. Discovered in 1961 by the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, an international team of archaeologists excavating the site at L'Anse aux Meadows unearthed the remains of eight Viking "long houses" as well as a blacksmith's shop complete with anvil, iron fragments and slag.

A strong cultural history that traces back to the Vikings is still evident in Iceland today and includes the local language, place names, and the style of open government, which includes the jury system.

While the common consensus may still be that the impact of the Vikings during the Viking Age, which lasted from about 800 to 1100 AD, was not very enduring, the Viking culture had a lasting impact on the art, technology, and trade of every population they encountered across Europe and Scandinavia, in addition to the societies they founded in Iceland and Greenland. While they may have initially made their presence known through a sequence of raids on Great Britain, Ireland, the Carolingian Empire, and the Byzantine Empire, it was their mercantile acumen, technology, art, and even religious beliefs that made a lasting impression.

Their religion, which centered on the Norse god Odin, the "Father of Victories", would have a lasting impact on a number of societies and their presence significantly weakened the religious beliefs in England and Russia and more-or-less brought about the end of Celtic Christianity in Ireland. Even though they eventually converted to Christianity in the eleventh century, starting with the conversion of Harold II Bluetooth in 960, their beliefs would live on in syncretistic traditions, including the Christmas tree, which is a cultural reflex of the Norse yggdrasil.

Their mastery of marine technology would enable them to build an extensive trade network that eventually covered all of modern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Northern India, and even China. They were the first to pioneer trade routes down the Volga and the Dnepr they opened the routes to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire and they were the first to reach the far East. It would also enable them to discover the Faeroes, Iceland in 874, Greenland in 982, Vinland (modern day Newfoundland) in 1000, and Spitzbergen, the farthest point North to be reached by explorers in 1194.

They were masters of metal working, weapon forging, and embellishment who created some of the finest swords, spears, javelins, battle-axes, knives, bows, arrows, shields, and body armor of the day. Their craftsmanship also extended to clothing, leather working, jewelry, and carvings and the art they produced was some of the finest of the day. In addition, the sagas of Iceland are considered the finest literary work of their time.

No society that encountered the Vikings was left untouched. To this day, Scandinavian traces are still apparent in the dialects of Scotland and Northern England and the concept of the Vikings still has a strong hold in the Danish Consciousness.

Viking Age Trade Routes in North-West Europe - History

Just as Christian Europe had settled down after the barbarian invasions, followed by the onslaught of Islamic armies, a new wave of barbarian invaders came from the north in the form of the Vikings. These raiders came from the countries we now call Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. The Norsemen (North Men) were skilled craftsmen, navigators and sailors. Viking longships were capable of sailing seas and oceans, as well as maneuvering in very shallow rivers and streams. No place seemed safe from these raiders. The Norsemen believed in many gods and goddesses. Odin was their chief of the gods. Since the Vikings were not Christian, monasteries were favorite targets of these raiders for the loot that could be found within their walls.

The Vikings launched an early attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne on a small island off the East coast of England. The monastery was plundered and burned, while monks were either killed or enslaved. Within ten years, the Vikings began attacks along the North coast of France. Charlemagne, king of the Franks, set up a series of defenses along the coast to ward off these Viking raids. In the late 700s, the Vikings invaded the British Isles, including areas of Ireland and Scotland. They established a settlement in Ireland, known as Dublin.

In 865 AD, a large army of Danish Vikings invaded England. Alfred the Great, King of England, defeated this Danish army in 878 and restricted the Danish Vikings to the eastern part of England, known as the Danelaw. Here people were subject to Danish law, rather than English law.

In 911 AD, then King of France, Charles the Simple, allowed the Vikings to settle in an area of northern France. The Viking leader was named Rollo. As the story went, Charles allowed Rollo and the Vikings this land as long as they recognized Charles as their overlord. To seal the deal, Charles demanded that Rollo kiss his boot as an act of homage. As Rollo knelt down, he grabbed underneath the king's boot with both hands and flipped him to the ground. The Vikings apparently bowed to no one, including the king of France.

The Vikings successfully sailed into the land we now call Russia. Vikings took slaves from this land. People in Eastern Europe are called Slavs --where we get the word slaves -- to this day. Sailing through Eastern European rivers, the Vikings made their way to the Mediterranean Sea. In 988 AD, Byzantine Emperor, Basil II, formed the Varangian Guard, an army of Vikings to serve as his personal bodyguards. Being emperor of the Byzantine Roman Empire was not easy, assassinations were common, many times by the very soldiers whose job it was to protect the emperor. There were no clear lines of succession from one emperor to the next. This problem in Byzantium was known as the "Malady of the Purple," since emperors wore purple clothing. These common assassinations were the reason Basil preferred mercenary Viking guards over Byzantine guards.

The Viking settlers in Northern France, who came with Rollo, eventually converted to Christianity and spoke French. These Vikings were called the Normans (derived from the word Norsemen). These Normans lived in an area of France called Normandy. The Normans, along with their leader William, the Duke of Normandy, would change history forever in the year 1066.

Vikings in Kiev and Constantinople

(Here is the melody to the song "Personal Jesus," by Depeche Mode, the lyrics describe the Vikings. Amy Burvall, and Herb Mahelona are two teachers from Hawaii who create short videos to help their students remember highlights of history topics.

Pillaging - robbing, looting, plundering

Mead - an alcoholic drink made from honey, very important to Norse people

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, Latin meaning, "From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord."

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8. The Tin Route

An abandoned tin mine in Cornwall, England. Edmund Shaw, Geograph // CC BY-SA 2.0

From the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Tin Route was a major artery that provided early settlements with access to a vital ingredient for metal-making: tin. Copper must be alloyed with tin to make bronze, an advance that occurred in the Near East around 2800 BCE and created a stronger, better metal than the type used previously. This new technology created a demand for tin, and as it is not found in many places, the resource became an important item for trade.

One such tin route flourished in the 1st millennium BCE. It stretched from the tin mines in Cornwall in the far southwest of Britain, over the sea to France, and then down to Greece and beyond. Evidence for this route is provided by the many hillforts that sprung up along the way as trading posts. Historians believe trade passed both ways up and down this route, as the hillforts provide evidence of exotic artifacts, including coral and gold. No written accounts survive from this period, but the archaeological record shows technology and art traveled the route between northern Europe and the Mediterranean alongside tin—thus providing a vital link across Europe.

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