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With their fearsome appearance and even fiercer reputations, it’s easy to see why the Vikings have intrigued the British public and academic world over the years. In recent years, the popularity of series such as Michael Hirst’s TV drama Vikings has propelled these sea-faring Scandinavians even further to the forefront of our collective imagination – enticing both old and young alike. Their distinctive garb is a continuous favourite of cosplayers and fancy-dress fanatics (although a true historical reenactor worth their salt will know that adding horns to a Viking costume is woefully historically inaccurate!)
It’s clear that Vikings hold a special place in our hearts. But what do we know about how they really lived their lives? These five remarkable Viking discoveries in Britain offer some insight…
The 1976–81 Coppergate excavation, York
Where evidence suggests the Vikings may have converted to Christianity much earlier than previously thought
The discovery of a ‘lost Viking city’ beneath the streets of York made headlines around the world in the 1970s. Archaeological finds from the Viking age had previously been discovered here largely by chance – but this all changed when the city council proposed redevelopment in Coppergate, one of the city’s medieval streets. A small dig led by York Archaeological Trust had already highlighted that the area had remarkable archaeological potential – and they weren’t wrong. Within a few days of the Coppergate redevelopment work, rare traces of Viking buildings were being uncovered.
A large-scale excavation site was soon set up. Between 1976 and 1981, a team of 12 professional excavators and dozens of amateur archaeologists unearthed a mammoth 40,000 artefacts from the site. Among the discoveries were five tons of animal bones, thousands of Roman and medieval roof tiles, and a quarter of a million pieces of pottery.
Within a few days of the Coppergate redevelopment work, rare traces of Viking buildings were being uncovered. (Image courtesy of Jorvik Viking Centre)
So what did the finds tell us about Viking life in early York?
One fascinating find suggests that the Vikings converted to Christianity relatively early on in their settlement of Britain. We know that the first Vikings to arrive in Britain worshipped pagan Norse gods, however the remnants of a medieval Viking-era church in Coppergate suggest that they may have adopted Christianity fairly early on.
Other notable finds from the Coppergate excavations highlight the truly global influence of the Vikings, with objects found during the excavation coming from Norway, the Rhineland, the Baltic, Uzbekistan, and the Red Sea.
Despite their popular image, the Viking age wasn’t just about invading and pillaging. As this 2019 article for HistoryExtra by historian Levi Roach notes, trading links between England, the continental mainland and Scandinavia were apparent very early on in the Viking story; “Vikings were traveling from Norway to a marketplace in the Danish port at Ribe as early as 725 – well before their ‘infamous pillaging’ years,” Roach notes.
Although the Coppergate dig has long since concluded, its artefacts are available to view in a heritage experience that aims to replicate what the original Viking settlement – Jorvik – looked like.
Viking re-enactors representing the rival armies of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons skirmish near Clifford’s Tower during the Jorvik Viking Festival in 2019 in York, England. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Cuerdale Hoard, Lancashire
A hoard of treasure that hints at the Vikings’ global activities
The Cuerdale Hoard, a trove of silver discovered more than 150 years ago, is considered the largest Viking treasure ever found in England. It was discovered in 1840, when workmen in Lancashire stumbled across a lead chest while working to repair the embankment of the River Ribble at Cuerdale, near Preston.
Containing more than 30kg of bullion and an impressive c7,000 coins, the hoard is notable for highlighting the international scale of Viking activity. It is thought to have been deposited around AD 905, with its contents being traceable to places including Ireland, the Middle East and the Frankish kingdom (modern-day France).
Coins from the Cuerdale Hoard, mostly English with some from the continent. Found near Rebbes, Lancashire in 1840. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Silver was common currency in the Viking world – and the Cuerdale Hoard represents astonishing wealth (even by modern standards). There are a variety of theories about its purpose; a notable one suggests that it was a war chest collected by Vikings who had been expelled from Dublin. The Ribble Valley was a main route between Viking York and the Irish Sea, and some experts think that the treasure might have been part of a plot to reoccupy Dublin from a base on the estuary.
Why did the Vikings hoard treasure?
There have been numerous hoards unearthed in Britain that date from the Viking Age – but why did people at this time engage in this behaviour? Here are the main theories…
- Religious reasons – One line of thinking suggests that people believed they might take any treasure they were buried with into the afterlife, rather like how the Egyptian pharaohs took items of value (and people!) into their sarcophagi and tombs.
- Display of power – Stockpiling treasure may have been the equivalent of saving money in a bank account. It would be handy to draw on this wealth at a later date, perhaps to dish out as handouts to keep questionable ‘friends’ on side – or to mitigate a threat from an enemy
- Pirate-like hoarding – Sometimes it might have been necessary for a Viking to hide their wealth for various reasons, with the intention that it would be collected later when it was safe to do so. Conversely, threats of Viking raids may have provoked others into hiding their treasures, too.
The Watlington Hoard, Oxfordshire
Where a rare coin highlights the alliance of two rulers as equals
A more recent discovery that has added to our understanding of Viking culture is the Watlington hoard. The astonishing collection of Viking silver was unearthed by amateur metal detectorist James Mather in a farmer’s field in Watlington, Oxfordshire in 2015. it contains 186 coins (not all of which are intact), 15 ingots and seven pieces of jewellery, and is thought to date to sometime after the battle of Edington (May 878), a decisive victory over the Vikings for Alfred the Great (of Wessex).
Items from the Watlington Hoard discovered by metal detector enthusiast James Mather. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Perhaps the most remarkable find among the hoard is the ‘Two Emperors’ penny, of which there are 13 examples. The coins depict two emperors (thought to be Alfred the Great and the lesser-known Ceolwulf, the last king of Mercia) ruling side-by-side. The coins contradict the traditional narrative that Ceolwulf was a ‘puppet of the Vikings’, offering a potential new understanding of this key timeframe in the Viking story.
“The coins indicate that Alfred and Ceolwulf’s pennies were probably struck in large numbers, too, so this was no fleeting alliance,” explains John Naylor, national finds advisor at Ashmoleon Museum, where the Watlington Hoard is now displayed. “The chances are it was buried by a member of the Viking Great Army as it made that journey to East Anglia. In fact, the hoard may have been part of the peace deal struck between Alfred’s Wessex and Guthrum’s Vikings following the great clash at Edington.”4
The Lewis Chessmen, Scotland
A medieval chess set that reveals how the Viking berserkers achieved their otherworldly abilities
Those familiar with the Harry Potter franchise will recognise the Lewis Chessmen from the denouement of the first film, when the three main characters – Harry, Ron and Hermione – battle against a violent life-size chess set that is an enlarged replica of the Lewis Chessmen.
Discovered in the sand-dunes of the Isle of Lewis, part of the Outer Hebrides, in 1831, this hoard of Norwegian chess-pieces is considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland. There are 93 pieces in the Lewis Chessmen collection, thought to be from at least four different chess sets plus some additional games. It is thought that they were made in late 12th or early 13th-century Norway, but no one knows for definite who they belonged to. One theory suggests that the pieces – made of intricate walrus ivory and whale tooth – were carved in Skálholt, Iceland by Margret the Adroit, a priest’s wife who was considered “the most skilled carver” in the country.
Discovered in the sand-dunes of the Isle of Lewis, part of the Outer Hebrides, in 1831, this hoard of Norwegian chess-pieces is considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made in Scotland. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Unlike the other discoveries in this list, the Lewis chessmen do not date from the Viking period specifically. However the chessmen are worth noting for how they pay homage to Viking culture, with the rook taking the shape of a Viking berserker, a legendary type of Viking warrior who was associated with the god Odin and said to have fought in a trance-like fury.
Tales of berserkers and their epic exploits frequent sagas and skaldic poems composed at the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking and Middle Ages. But did such warriors really exist? Yes – according to historian Kim Hjardar:
“The description of ‘berserkers’ and ‘wolfskins’ in the sources is on the boundary between fantasy and reality, and it is difficult for us today to imagine that such people can have ever existed, possessed of incontrollable destructive power. But they did. The berserkers and the wolfskins (also known as ‘heathen wolves’) were a special group of very skilled and dangerous warriors associated with the god Odin,” he wrote in a 2016 article for HistoryExtra.
Possible explanations for their unearthly abilities range from eating psychedelic mushrooms to psychological dissociation, which allowed the individual to lose control of their actions. The Lewis Chessmen warrior is particularly fascinating because he is shown biting down on his shield – which some believe to be part of a pre-battle Berserker ritual that enabled them to achieve a trance-like state.
The Repton warrior, Derbyshire
A Viking burial that suggests raiding was a family business
Not a great deal is known about the ‘Repton warrior’, but what is certain is that he met a grisly end; the Viking man was found in the 1980s with a cut to his leg that is thought to have severed his penis. Dubbed “England’s best-known Viking burial” by historian Cat Jarman in a recent issue of BBC History Magazine, the body of the ninth-century warrior was found side-by-side with another, younger man in the Derbyshire village of Repton in the 1980s.
Possible theories about the identity of the two men have varied over the years; initially it was thought that the younger of the two was the Repton warrior’s weapon bearer (killed, perhaps, to assist his master in the afterlife). More recently, however, DNA analysis has revealed that the pair were first-degree relatives, giving credence to a theory that they were leaders of the Great Army that terrorised England in the 860s and 870s. As Cat Jarman surmises: Viking raiding could be “a family business”.
This article was originally published in History Extra.