Vikings under the microscope: what can science tell us about Viking life?

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Advances in science have transformed our understanding of the Viking Age. Cat Jarman reveals how techniques such as high-resolution imaging, DNA studies and isotope analysis have given us new insights into six areas of Viking life – from the genetic make-up of their armies to the secrets of their vast wealth.

The chemical signatures of bones and teeth suggest that Viking settlements were a melting pot of ethnicities

We have always known that travel and exploration was a key feature of the Viking Age, with the Vikings reaching as far as North America in the west, Morocco in the south, and Baghdad in the east. However, it is often thought that the movement was almost exclusively out of Scandinavia, with many returning home again afterwards. Now, new evidence is painting a different picture.

In a recent, large-scale ancient DNA study, a team from Copenhagen analysed burials from across the Viking world in a bid to find out more about population movement. As well as discovering evidence for migration out of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, the team also found evidence of many moving into Scandinavia – and from some unexpected locations, such as southern Europe. This should probably not come as a complete surprise; after all, the Vikings had extensive contact with Byzantium and even the Middle East through the river networks of eastern Europe.

The team also found that island locations in the Baltic Sea, like Gotland, showed high levels of genetic diversity. Again, this makes sense, as these places were hotspots for international trade.

What is difficult to know is exactly how and when these genetic interactions took place. DNA only gives you an idea of ancestry, not personal travel histories.

But another scientific technique – isotope analysis – can shed a little light on the lives of first-generation migrants. Because we quite literally are what we eat, traces of the underlying geology from the soils our food was grown in, and the areas where our drinking water fell as rain, are preserved as chemical signatures in our teeth and bones.

Evidence from likely Viking raiding parties in England – and from what was probably the army of Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, king of Norway and Denmark, in Trelleborg on the southern tip of Sweden – show that the groups were made up of individuals from a large range of geographical origins. A mass grave in Weymouth, for instance, included individuals who may have grown up in the Arctic and maybe even Poland. Similarly, in the cemeteries of the Viking town of Birka (in Sweden), researchers found a number of migrants, suggesting it was a multi-ethnic settlement fitting its status as an important trading centre.

DNA analysis of Viking burials has revealed that raiding truly was a family business

The Icelandic sagas are filled with tales of relatives fighting together abroad, like the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons, who, so the story goes, wreaked havoc on ninth-century England. But up until now, we haven’t had a great deal of evidence for how much of this was really true. Although we still can’t corroborate the exploits of Ragnar, recent advances in ancient DNA have confirmed one thing: Viking raids really were family affairs.

In the 1970s, in the Derbyshire village of Repton, archaeologists excavated what is possibly England’s best-known Viking burial. Here, a ninth-century grave next to St Wystan’s Church – once the most sacred burial place of the Mercian royal family – contained the bodies of two men, side by side. The eldest of the two, dubbed the Repton warrior, was buried with a Thor’s hammer pendant around his neck, and a sword by his side.

Catastrophic injuries showed that the Repton warrior met a particularly violent end, including a cut to his femur that likely severed his penis. He was buried with a boar’s tusk in its place, presumably to replace what he had lost for the afterlife. Next to him lay the body of a younger man, also with traumatic injuries, but with few grave goods. Their graves were covered with broken and desecrated stone from what was once a beautifully carved Christian cross.

For a while, it was thought the younger man was the warrior’s weapon bearer, perhaps killed to serve his master in the afterlife. Now, a new ancient DNA study has revealed that the two were, in fact, first-degree relatives – most likely father and son. It is possible that the two were leaders of the notorious Great Army that terrorised England in the 860s and 870s.

Even more spectacular proof for relatives raiding together is provided by a ship grave from Salme in Estonia, dating to 750 – right at the cusp of the Viking Age. During road works, two ships were discovered and found to contain 41 bodies interred within the hulls, which had been dragged ashore and buried. Most of the individuals – all men – had been stacked in layers in the larger ship, surrounded by lavish grave goods: decorated weapons, gaming pieces and sacrificed animals.

Traumatic injuries and arrow heads still lodged in the ship’s timbers suggested that this was the result of an unsuccessful mission or raid. Both the artefact types and isotope analysis of the dead men’s teeth indicated that they grew up in central Sweden. And, when a team from Copenhagen analysed their DNA, it was revealed that four of the men, who were buried side by side, were brothers.

Elite Vikings went to great lengths to stake their claim to territory, as high-resolution laser imaging has proved

Political power has, for much of history, been inextricably linked to the acquisition of land – and the Viking Age was no different. Across Scandinavia, the land was manipulated with fortifications, to keep enemies out and resources in. Meanwhile, burial mounds were used to assert landownership and proclaim links with a powerful ancestor.

In 2014, a ringfort was discovered on the Danish island of Zealand, south of Copenhagen. The fortress, named Borgring, came to light thanks to a method called Lidar: high-resolution laser imaging through aerial photography, which gives us an exceptionally detailed view of the landscape and its topography.

When archaeologists Søren Sindbæk and Nanna Holm investigated Lidar imagery of the region, they spotted a circle with a diameter of 144 metres. (On the ground, the shape could barely be made out, with only a slight difference in height.) What they had found turned out to date to the 970s or 980s, and belonged to a network of fortifications built by Harald Bluetooth. The discovery at Borgring suggests that Viking Age military networks were better organised and more effective than previously thought, and that Harald exerted even stronger control over the local landscape.

Another example of how political power was expressed through the possession of territory was provided by a find announced in Norway in 2018. Geophysicists working at Gjellestad in the south-eastern part of the country discovered a completely unknown Viking ship burial that could be seen with striking clarity. The images produced by their ground-penetrating radar (GPR) showed the remains of a circular mound with the perfect outline of a ship’s hull in its centre.

Other, older burial mounds were known from the area, but the one covering the ship had been removed by ploughing. The GPR survey also identified several smaller mounds nearby, as well as longhouses, including at least one large hall. A few hundred metres away, metal detector searches revealed evidence for a trading site. It’s thought the complex formed part of a so-called central place, which may have had sacred and political functions.

Previously, little was known about this part of Norway in the Viking Age, and it was thought that all the political power was focused on the western part of the Oslofjord, where the famous Oseberg and Gokstad ships were found. As the site begins to be properly investigated, this now needs to be seriously reassessed.

Science has exploded the notion that wives, mothers and daughters were bystanders in the great Viking migrations

Tales of the Vikings have traditionally revolved around the men who embarked on daring journeys – and carried out atrocities – abroad. Viking women, on the other hand, are often thought of as mere onlookers, waiting patiently at home in charge of the family farm until their husbands and fathers returned bearing the spoils of war. The frequent foreign and exotic artefacts found in women’s graves have almost exclusively been interpreted as gifts. But new evidence is beginning to challenge this.

Isotope analysis now shows that women travelled, too, both within Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. At Adwick-le-Street in South Yorkshire, isotope evidence revealed that a woman buried with Scandinavian-style brooches likely grew up in western Norway.

At the 873 Great Army winter camp at Repton, a mass burial thought to contain war dead also contained several women. These were originally believed to have been the local wives or even slaves of the Scandinavian men. But here, too, the isotope evidence revealed that several of them may well have grown up in Scandinavia.

It is now clear that women played a significant part in the population dynamics of the Viking Age. However, we still don’t know exactly what their roles were. While many of those women buried abroad may have been peaceful migrants, one particular burial from Sweden has suggested that this may not have been the case for all of them.

In 2017, a team of researchers announced the results of a new ancient DNA study of one of the most spectacular warrior graves from the Viking town of Birka near Stockholm. The chamber grave (number Bj 581) contained a single body with an extensive set of weapons and the remains of two horses – one of them fully equipped, as if ready to ride into battle. But what made the DNA study especially surprising was the fact that it revealed that this individual – usually thought to be the archetypal, Viking warrior – was genetically female.

The findings created quite a stir because fighting women are often thought to be confined to mythology. Some still doubt the interpretation of Bj 581, noting that, although genetically female, the warrior may have considered themselves male (ie, they were transgender). Others have pointed out that, although she was buried with weapons, that is not enough in itself to confirm she was a warrior. Still, someone went to a lot of trouble to present her as one in death. This, combined with the knowledge that women also took part in movements in and out of Scandinavia, suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the contents of Bj 581 after all.

Silver sourced from trade networks stretching far into the east was a cornerstone of Viking prosperity

International trading networks were a highly important part of the Vikings’ success. Objects such as beads and silk from as far afield as Byzantium and the Middle East found their way to Scandinavia, while Islamic silver coins were imported in vast quantities. In fact, a hunger for this precious metal fuelled much of the Viking Age trade.

Now, researchers at the University of Oxford have begun to investigate the source of silver ingots – metal bars made from melted down coins and objects – to find out just how extensive this trade really was. Jane Kershaw, the archaeologist who leads the project, investigated chemical signatures and trace elements specific to metal ores from different geographical regions in ingots from Viking hoards found in Britain. Her team discovered that the main source of silver was eastern territories and, specifically, melted-down dirhams. This means that we could have seriously underestimated the amount of silver that came directly from eastern spheres.

Increased globalisation may have supercharged the spread of lethal viruses in the Viking Age

In 2020, a team of geneticists revealed that they had discovered the earliest ever evidence of smallpox in ancient skeletons. The geneticists analysed the DNA of 1,800 individuals – some born comparatively recently; some as far back as 31,000 years ago – and found that 13 people had died with the variola virus, which causes smallpox, in their bodies.

Amazingly, apart from two that date to the 19th century, all the skeletons were from burials at sites associated with the Vikings in Scandinavia, England and Russia – including one from a possible execution grave at St John’s College, Oxford. The findings suggest that the widespread mobility of the Viking Age could have been an important factor in explaining the spread of the virus.

This discovery isn’t the first time a deadly pathogen has been linked to Viking migrations. A few years earlier, researchers found that a particular strain of leprosy had travelled to Ireland and England from Scandinavia, putting the blame, again, on the Vikings. The researchers proposed that the disease spread because of the trade in squirrel fur – an important commodity that was shipped over long distances.

It is possible that the smallpox virus spread for similar reasons. The transmission of such diseases may have been one of the more unexpected, and less desirable, effects of the increased globalisation and extensive travel carried out by the Vikings.

This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine

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