On the Trail of Viking Women

On the Trail of Viking Women

By Jane Kershaw

British Archaeology, Issue 115, (2010)

Introduction: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives only a brief account of England’s Viking settlement: after coastal raids in the late eighth century, Viking armies returned in the mid-ninth to conquer and settle in a region later known as the Danelaw. Here, famously, they “shared out the land… and proceeded to plough and to support themselves”.

The Danelaw was defined in a late ninth-century treaty – preserved only in a later, 12th century source – between Alfred the Great and the defeated Viking leader Guthrum. It was an area governed by Danish, rather than English rule, north and east of a line stretching from the Thames, via Bedford, to Watling Street, thus excluding Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria (settled by Norwegian Vikings rather than Danes). This “boundary”, separating the Vikings and English, is likely to have shifted over the years in the face of continuing political and military conflicts.

Linguistic, archaeological and historical sources for this time are diverse and often contradictory, and opinions are split on the impact of the Scandinavian settlers and their contribution to English society. On current evidence, many questions seem unanswerable. Which areas of England saw the greatest Scandinavian settlement? How many settlers were there? How Scandinavian were new “colonial” communities? Were all the settlers men?

Archaeological evidence for Viking settlement has traditionally been thin. There are few Scandinavian burials and rural settlements, for instance. So-called “Viking” burials, identified principally by grave goods, have been found at fewer than 30 sites in England, despite excavation of increasing numbers of ninth to 11th century cemeteries. Moreover their study, like that of Scandinavian-style stone sculpture, is beset by problems of interpretation. What, if anything, makes a burial rite or settlement type “diagnostically Scandinavian”? How are we to understand stone carving with both pagan Scandinavian and Christian motifs?

Over the last 20–25 years this picture has changed dramatically. Metal detectorists have fostered an explosion of new finds of Viking age metalwork from the Danelaw. Items of female jewellery – brooches and pendants in Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian styles – are particularly prominent. Logged by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and county Historic Environment Records (HERs), these objects add an entirely new dimension to the limited evidence for Scandinavian activity in Britain.

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