Recent discoveries such as the Dorset Ridgeway mass grave and the Vale of York Viking Hoard remind us that we still have much to learn about the Vikings and their place in our island story.
Traditionally, Vikings have been portrayed as heathen raiders picking on the easy prey of monasteries around the coastlines of Britain and Ireland, carrying off hostages and mountains of treasure, leaving blood and mayhem in their wake. Archaeologists love to challenge such settled convictions, and modern Viking studies stress another side to them: as a cultured people with developed metalworking traditions, a love of storytelling and navigational skills sophisticated enough to take them as far as Canada, deep into Russia and south to Istanbul.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is in part responsible for the traditional image of Vikings as pirates, extortionists and warlords. One version of the Chronicle (which survives as several different fragments and variants) records the attack that took place on 8 June AD 793, when ‘the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and with slaughter’. This raid is traditionally taken to mark the start of the Viking Age. Two years later, Vikings raided the monastery on Iona, and before long there were few monasteries along the coasts and rivers of northern Europe that had not received a visitation from the rapacious men from the north. One of the most poignant testimonies to the atmosphere at the time was the marginal note penned by a monk writing in an isolated monastery in south-west Ireland, giving thanks to God for a stormy night, for ‘on such nights the Vikings do not set out for sea’.
This characterisation of the Vikings as murderous villains is now recognised as being one-sided, based on a selective interpretation of the nearly 300 years during which the Vikings played a prominent role in northern European history. Were the activities of Vikings so different to everyone else’s at the time? Today’s Viking historians emphasise that Viking raids formed only a small part of the general violence and banditry that characterised the 8th century, as kings, princes and chieftains, local lords and rulers fought each other for supremacy. The Irish Annals, for example, record 113 attacks on monasteries during the period from AD 795 to 820; of these, just 26 were carried out by Vikings, with 87 raids recorded as having been carried out by Irish kings or monks from rival monasteries.
The Vikings have had bad press in part because they were heathens. Written sources present Viking expeditions as a punishment visited by God upon the sinful, or as motivated by barbarism and cruelty, for which conversion to Christianity is the prescribed cure. In his re-appraisal of Irish-Norse relationships, A T Lucas wrote there was nothing ‘new, unusual or unique’ in the Viking predilection for pillage and slaughter in an Ireland where violence and raiding had been part of the culture for 1,000 years or more. What was new, striking and disturbing about the Vikings was their lack of scruple in attacking even the holiest of relics. Scandinavian literature, by contrast, tells us that the Vikings were motivated by a warrior ideology and the desire for honour and prestige as fighting men. They saw themselves as heroic – even if others saw them as opportunists, picking on the sacred, the weak and the defenceless.
To the battery of traditional archaeological and place-name evidence for Viking settlement, we can now add the new science of genetic analysis. Researchers – including Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester and Steve Harding of the University of Nottingham – reported in a paper in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution in 2007 that 50 per cent of men with family roots in Liverpool, the Wirral and West Lancashire have gene signatures similar to those of men in modern Orkney and Norway. These conclusions were based on samples of DNA donated by people chosen because they had surnames distinctive to the region or derived from local place-names. This filtered out new arrivals in a region that saw a huge population influx at the Industrial Revolution. For more information see Steve Harding’s website.
The Vale of York Hoard will form the focus of a new display in the Yorkshire Museum when it reopens on 1 August 2010 after major refurbishment.
For the full unabridged version of the article, see Issue 245 (August 2010) of Current Archaeology.